In Praise of "The Praise of Folly"


I have covered a gamut of subjects on this website including science, politics, and current events of various kinds. I have yet to touch on classic literature. Well, that is until now.

I will be the first to admit that I am not one that has perused the classic masterpieces and literature is not my forte. That is not to say I cannot appreciate the classics or admire the skill that it required to craft them. More pertinent is the fact that, as with science and other topics, I enjoy subjects that produce wonderment. Any subject that makes us question the world in which we live or understand the circumstances around us differently is a hot topic for me and this forum.

If you have ever uttered the phrase “ignorance is bliss” you have touched on the subject matter of “The Praise of Folly” by Desiderius Erasmus(1466?-1536). The word “folly” means simply foolishness or stupidity. As the title implies, this work extols the virtues of ignorance but also provides interesting perspectives on how ignorance is viewed and tolerated.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was probably the most famous and influential humanist of the Northern Renaissance. In a society and age that revered good Latin, he was among the finest Latin stylists, and had a much more rare mastery of Greek. Erasmus was a phenomenally prolific writer; the most complete edition of his collected works fills ten volumes. He was the first European intellectual to utilize the power of the printed word, making the center of his career not a university or a court but the utmost publishing houses of the Netherlands, Paris, Venice, and Basel. Erasmus was the editor of the first published edition of the Greek New Testament and was an influential author in many genres. Erasmus wrote the satire “The Praise of Folly” in London while staying at the home of his closest English friend, Thomas More.

In the essay, “folly” is presented as one of the gods. Folly's composition is a mix of many ingredients such as ignorance, flattery, laziness, and pleasure. As it is with all works of its kind, “The Praise of Folly” is best taken in while being read in full as the author intended. I will, for the sake of illustrating my affection for this work, quote some passages and comment on them for you.

Erasmus refers to those under the influence of folly as “fools” or “innocents”. One of the points of “The Praise of Folly” that struck me the first time I went through it was how fools are often protected by the world and are even valued in some cases.

“In a world where men are mostly at odds, all are as one in their attitude toward these innocents. They are sought out and sheltered; everyone permits them to do and say what they wish with impunity.”

How many times have you heard someone make some over the line statement only to have it excused by other people because the person saying it is just a fool or just doesn’t know any better?

“Even the wild beasts perceive their harmlessness and do not attack them…Kings cannot eat or travel or spend an hour without their fools, in whom they take the greatest delight. In fact they rather prefer them to their crabbed counselors…Counselors, confident in their wisdom and forced to speak the unpleasant truth, bring only problems to princes; but fools bring what rulers are always looking for – jokes and laughter.”

One of the real virtues of ignorance itself is illustrated in reference to how the subject of truth is handled by fools.

“Whatever a fool has in his heart is all over his face and in his speech. Now wise men have two tongues…one for speaking the truth and the other for saying whatever is expedient at the moment.” 

Who is more likeable than a person you know you can trust? Also, it is not just the matter of speaking the truth, but the manner of how it is presented.

“You may say that kings hate to hear the truth and avoid wise counselors for fear that one more daring than the others will speak what is true rather than what is pleasant. …kings will take the truth, and a sharp truth too, from my fools. A statement which would cost a wise man his head is received from a fool with the greatest delight. Truth that is free from offensiveness does give genuine pleasure, and only fools have the power to speak it.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have carefully laid out a critique of something only to have everyone involved in the conversation get defensive on the issue at hand. At the same time some fool will make a comment just as critical, albeit not in so many words, and everyone will laugh and let it go.

Have you ever wondered why beautiful women often end up with fools?

“It is for these reasons, too, that fools are taken up by women, who are naturally inclined to pleasure and frivolity. Moreover, they can explain away whatever games they indulge in with fools…for the sex is ingenious, especially at covering up its own lapses.”

It is true that fools have a way of enjoying life that I cannot seem to understand. I really wish I could be more blissful at times. Fools know how to enjoy life.

“After a life of jollity, and with no fear of death, or sense of it, they go straight to the Elysian fields…Compare the life of a wise man with that of a fool. Put up against a fool some model of wisdom, one who has lost his boyhood and youth in the classroom, who dissipated the best part of his life in continual worry and study, and who has never tasted a particle of pleasure thereafter. He is always abstemious, poor, unhappy, and crabbed; he is harsh and unjust to himself, grim and mean to others; he is pale, emaciated, sickly, sore-eyed, prematurely old and white- haired, dying before his time. Of course it really makes little difference when such a man dies. He has never lived. Well, there is your wise man for you.”

“The Praise of Folly” touches on the subject of madness in relation to folly, as madness can be described as a wandering of the wits. It goes on later to explore the notion of what the source of happiness is and if it ever comes from the absolute understanding of reality.

“The notion that happiness comes from a knowledge of things as they truly are is wrong. Happiness resides in opinion.”

This is illustrated, for example, in those sad times when people say that they didn’t know how poor they really were when talking about the conditions of their youth.

I consider the analysis how ignorance is viewed and treated by religion as extremely profound in “The Praise of Folly."

“…the Creator commanded men not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, just as if knowledge were the destroyer of happiness.”

“Even among animals, those pleased Christ best which had the least slyness. He preferred to ride upon a donkey…The Holy Spirit descended in the likeness of a dove, not of an eagle or hawk...Those who are chosen for eternal life are called “sheep”…No animal is more foolish…”

Even the act of forgiveness by religion is partial to ignorance.

 “…folly is so pleasing to the heavenly powers that forgiveness of its errors is certain; whereas nothing is forgiven to wisdom.”

Several examples of this are noted but the most exceptional is that of Jesus Christ.

“…when He prayed on the Cross for His enemies, “Father, forgive them,” pleaded no other excuse than ignorance, saying, “for they know not what they do”…”

Humorous anecdotes blend amazingly well along with astute observations of how we view and treat ignorance in “The Praise of Folly”. This is also often true of the best comedians who can provide laughter yet perspective. The essay is not a particularly cumbersome read as one expects classic literature to be. Rather, it is an entertaining work that provides some valuable perspectives into how we regard a lack of knowledge. I strongly recommend finding time to give it a careful read.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus also referred to as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam – “The Praise of Folly”