IN THE summer of 1509, as he lay sick in bed, Desiderius Erasmus decided to pass the time by producing a literary gift for his friend and fellow Christian humanist, Thomas More. Within a week, he completed the Encomium Moriae, which can be read as either the “praise of More” or the “praise of folly” (moria means folly).
A bestseller in its own time, The Praise of Folly is little read today. Written before the rise of the novel, it lacks the sort of picaresque narrative structure that makes a book like Candide accessible tao contemporary readers. The Folly is written in an obscure form beloved in the Renaissance: an oration—we’d call it a lecture—delivered in front of an audience by the personified Folly herself.
Not exactly a scintillating format for modern sensibilities. But if you change the analogy and think of the Folly as an extended stand-up comedy routine—closer to a George Carlin special on cable TV than a novel—it is possible to find a way into it. And there are few books with a more urgent and immediate bearing on our current circumstances than this hastily penned satire. Concealed within its comic riffs lies a vision of faith that speaks truth to an ideological age like our own.
Folly’s declamation is ostensibly a prolonged exercise in irony, since whatever Folly praises is foolish and whatever she condemns is wise. Or so one might think. But in fact what Erasmus gives us is a protean work that contains numerous changes in tone, subject, and approach, so that the reader is never absolutely sure of her footing. The satire can veer abruptly from a light, bantering pricking of vanities to a profound celebration of spiritual vision. As James McConica has aptly put it, there are “stretches [in the Folly] that invite the reader into a kind of intellectual vertigo.”
In his dedication to More, Erasmus anticipates criticism for his sarcasm. He believes that reasonable men allow for an element of sarcasm, so long as it stays within the bounds of decency, but what really bothers him is the “sensitivity of present-day ears which can bear to hear practically nothing but honorific titles. Moreover, you can find a good many people whose religious sense is so distorted that they find the most serious blasphemies against Christ more bearable than the slightest joke on pope or prince….”
Folly introduces herself to the crowd as the benevolent figure without whom the world would come to an end. Her words are credible, she argues, because “I am myself wherever I am”—being Folly, she has none of the pretensions of those who consider themselves wise. Folly goes on to prove that just about everyone can be counted as one of her followers. The young, the old, women, the gods, married couples, soldiers, artists, scholars, kings, and courtiers—all are proven to be in thrall to folly.
After disposing of kings and courtiers, possessed as they are by obsessions with hunting, gambling, and waging war, Folly moves on to those who have given in to religious superstition. She takes to task those who are taken in by fictitious marvels and miracles, instant cures that happen when one takes care to look at a particular painting or carving, those who seek imaginary pardons, magic signs and verses, and even the cult of the saints. The list of nostrums reads like a catalogue of modern therapeutic, fundamentalist, or New Age spiritual quick fixes.
Folly’s take on philosophers—half-blinded by their obsession with esoteric “quiddities”—and theologians—“a remarkably supercilious and touchy lot”—could be a Dennis Miller rant about our intellectual elites, immersed as they are in self-aggrandizing theories. “Could God have taken on the form of a woman, a devil, a donkey, a gourd, or a flintstone? If so, how could a gourd have preached sermons, performed miracles, and been nailed to the cross?”[CUT THIS LAST SENTENCE? OTHERWISE IT NEEDS A LITTLE MORE MOORING. I TAKE IT THAT THIS IS AN EXAMPLE OF THE KIND OF THINGS THEOLOGIANS LIKE TO TALK ABOUT, BUT IT TOOK ME A SECOND.] Christ’s apostles, Folly declares, would need another Holy Spirit, in addition to the first one, in order to teach them all the labyrinthine ideas of these scholars. Anything that descends from the clouds of abstraction—anything, that is, that touches on concrete human experience—is in danger of being censored by these theologians as heretical. “This proposition is scandalous,” they say, “this is irreverent; this smells of heresy; this doesn’t ring true.”
Folly concludes her routine by celebrating the biblical passages that pay tribute to folly. Here Erasmus truly causes readers to feel a sense of vertigo. So long as Folly seemed to be praising what we “in real life” would condemn, the nature of the allegory was straightforward. But in citing the many passages in the Bible that ask believers to become like children and fools, the allegory gains a new twist. “God’s foolishness is wiser than men,” Folly reminds her audience. “The doctrine of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”
In tracing the differing reactions to the Folly, it is not difficult to see why the more literal-minded of his day—and ours—might find Erasmus’s criticisms intemperate. He even includes a caricature of himself in the book, leading some scholars to believe that he had even despaired over [OF?] the ability of Christian humanism to bring about reform. To be sure, the ending of the book appears to celebrate unlearned foolishness, and in a very real sense it does hold up the faith of the fishermen, artisans, and tax collectors who first followed Jesus. But the final irony of the Folly is that its celebration of simplicity is made in the most learned and sophisticated manner imaginable. Erasmus drew on the tradition of “learned ignorance,” found in the work of the mystic Nicholas of Cusa and also in Dante’s Divine Comedy: that our goal in life must be to pass from youthful ignorance through the follies of maturity and worldly involvement only to practice the imaginative and spiritual disciplines capable of restoring us to a higher form of innocence—as Dante, purged of his errors and sins, is able to glimpse, if only for a moment, the beatific vision in heaven.
The Praise of Folly employs irony and indirection for many reasons, but its literary artifice is ultimately used to hint at something we cannot approach directly: the mystery of God’s grace. In this book Erasmus catches out the literal-minded fundamentalist on the one hand and the paganized humanist, who thinks that secular learning is sufficient, on the other. It is a sophisticated book that praises simplicity. In its love of paradox, ambiguity, and indirection, it affirms the role of art as an indispensable medium through which the transcendent can be known.