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The Praise of Folly

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The second illegitimate son of a priest and of a doctor's daughter, Erasmus was born in Rotterdam around 1467. His parents died while he was young, and he had little choice but to join a monastery, where ultimately his literary talent was revealed. His first trip to England was momentous: he met several leading scholars and churchmen, notably the theologians John Colet and Thomas More, who became his life-long friends and who ...
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Overview

About the Author:
The second illegitimate son of a priest and of a doctor's daughter, Erasmus was born in Rotterdam around 1467. His parents died while he was young, and he had little choice but to join a monastery, where ultimately his literary talent was revealed. His first trip to England was momentous: he met several leading scholars and churchmen, notably the theologians John Colet and Thomas More, who became his life-long friends and who influenced his work.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In Praise of Folly, still a masterpiece of slyly subversive wit, was in a sense the first bestseller, read covertly under desks and sniggered over by countless trainee monks and priests." —Guardian

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781853267925
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Editions, Limited
  • Publication date: 1/1/2001
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.74 (h) x 0.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Betty Radice read classics at Oxford, then married and, in the intervals of bringing up a family, tutored in classics, philosophy and English. She became joint editor of the Penguin Classics in 1964. As well as editing the translation of Livy’s The War with Hannibal she translated Livy’s Rome and Italy, Pliny’s Letters, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and also wrote the introduction to Horace’s Complete Odes and Epodes, all for the Penguin Classics. She also edited Edward Gibbon’s Memoirs of My Life for the Penguin English Library, and edited and annotated her translation of the younger Pliny’s works for the Loeb Library of Classics and translated from Renaissance Latin, Greek and Italian for the Officina Bodoni of Verona. She collaborated as a translator in the Collected Works of Erasmus, and was the author of the Penguin Reference Book Who’s Who in the Ancient World. Betty Radice was an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a vice-president of the Classical Association. Betty Radice died in 1985.

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix
Bibliography and Abbreviations xxvii
A Note on the Text, the Footnotes, and Erasmus' Revisions xxxiii
Erasmus' Prefatory Letter to Thomas More 1
The Praise of Folly 7
Erasmus' Letter to Martin Dorp (1514) 139
An Afterword to the Praise of Folly 175
Index 189
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Introduction

The Praise of Folly, written in 1509 and revised for publication in 1511, is the most enduring and popular work of one of the greatest Renaissance humanists, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Immensely popular in its own day, the work is a witty and often biting satire that offers an ironic appreciation of human vice and frivolity. The Praise of Folly, however, is not only an entertaining indictment of social mores, but also a moving declaration of Erasmus' Christian idealism, the philosophy of Christ. Although it is a product of the sixteenth century, The Praise of Folly remains to this day an insightful and relevant work of moral philosophy and social criticism.

Erasmus was born in an age of profound transformation and was a key figure in that period. His life spanned the Renaissance and Reformation, and his numerous writings provide important commentary on both movements. The greatest humanist of his day, Erasmus edited works of classical and Christian writers and prepared an important Greek edition of the New Testament. His literary works not only reflected the contemporary emphasis on elegant style but also indicted the church and its ministers. For this reason Erasmus was thought to have laid the egg that hatched Martin Luther. Many of the Protestant Reformers had first been followers of Erasmus, but he remained loyal to the church and rejected the ideas of Luther. Criticized by contemporary Catholics and Lutherans and some modern commentators for his actions during the Reformation, Erasmus nonetheless offered an alternative to the sectarian tumult that rocked his age and remains one of its most important representatives.

The secondillegitimate son of a priest and of a doctor's daughter, Erasmus was born in Rotterdam around 1467. His parents died while Erasmus was young, and he and his brother were placed under the guardianship of their schoolmaster. His early years were spent at Deventer, a school associated with the devotio moderna, a religious movement best known through The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis. After the death of his parents Erasmus had little choice but to join a monastery, where he began to reveal his literary talent. He also was given the opportunity to attend university; and although he found the lectures less than stimulating he advanced far enough to take on students of his own.

One of his students invited him to England, a momentous event in Erasmus' life. His first trip to England introduced him to several leading scholars and churchmen, notably the theologian John Colet and novelist Thomas More, who became his life-long friends. Erasmus' experience in England reinforced his own inclinations toward learning, inspired by Colet's exposition of Scripture. This would bear fruit when he returned to the Continent. Settling in the university town of Louvain, Erasmus published the Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier). This work provides a prelude to the core values of The Praise of Folly and Erasmus' Christian philosophy, which encouraged a moral piety that rejected the excesses that had crept into contemporary religious practices. In the previous year he had published the first edition of the Adages, a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs that signaled his deep interest in ancient letters and helped establish his reputation as a humanist scholar.

His fame growing, Erasmus rarely settled in one place, and his travels brought him into contact with many of the leading figures of his age. By the second decade of the sixteenth century, Erasmus' circle included leaders of church and state, and he himself was made a councilor of the emperor. He was offered an important position in the church by the pope, but he preferred not to hold any one position. Instead he sought the liberty to pursue the study of humane letters. A master of elegant Latin style and a student of the Greek language, Erasmus edited works of leading Latin and Greek authors, including Seneca, Lucian, and others. As his Novum Testamentum, his translation of the New Testament into Greek with accompanying Latin translation and commentary, indicates, his pursuit of letters was intended to improve and reform Christian belief and practice. Erasmus's studies introduced him to a wide range of authors and literary styles that laid the foundation for his most famous work.

In 1509, returning to England from a stay in Rome, Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly or Moriae encomium, in honor of his friend Thomas More. The title is a play on the Greek word for praise, moriae, and the name of his friend More, who, Erasmus informs us, is far from a representative of folly. In fact, the book was dedicated to More, out of friendship and in recognition of the translations of Lucian he did with Erasmus. The work itself, Erasmus tells us, was written in only a week's time, and in 1522 Erasmus added a good bit of material to the original version. The original draft of the Folly was done while its author waited for the arrival of his books from Rome; he informs us though that even had they arrived he would have not been able to use them because a kidney illness prevented him from any serious study. The encomium was written merely to pass the time, its author tells us, but once begun Erasmus was encouraged by his friends to complete the work.

The book was an immense and immediate success despite Erasmus's comment that it was a mere trifle that he had not intended to publish. Among those who praised it were Pope Leo X and the humanists Jakob Wimpheling and Ulrich von Hutten, and its influence on European literature can be seen in the works of Rabelais, among others. The first edition of the book, written in Latin, was printed in Paris in June 1511. It was printed in Strasbourg in August of that year and again in 1512. There were further printings of the work in Paris and Antwerp in 1512. In 1515, a learned commentary was added to the edition printed in Basel, and the artist Hans Holbein the younger added illustrations that have appeared in numerous versions. There were some forty editions of the work published before Erasmus' death in 1536. The Praise of Folly was translated into French and German in 1520, into Italian in 1539, and into English in 1549. The work continued to be published after Erasmus' death and was well received by Enlightenment writers and by many in our own time, but despite its widespread popularity the work was not without its critics. Indeed, the conservative theologians at Louvain condemned it, and the critique of Martin Dorp prompted Erasmus to write a defense of his work. During the Reformation, the work was condemned by several popes and was placed on the index of forbidden books. Luther and a number of his followers also denounced the work for its alleged impiety.

Both widely popular and rather controversial in its day, The Praise of Folly was in many ways representative of its age. It was not the only critique of contemporary religion and society, preceded as it was by Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, and Erasmus' contemporaries clearly appreciated satire as the popularity of the anonymous Julius Excluded from Heaven, long attributed to Erasmus, and the work of von Hutton demonstrate. More than that, The Praise of Folly shares many of the basic values of the Renaissance. Erasmus undertook the intensive study of Greek and Latin so that he could master the rhetorical and stylistic elegance expected of literary works of the day. Wisdom, it was thought, could best be conveyed through elegant literary style and language. And so The Praise of Folly, in ironic fashion, sought to speak wisely, and in the process it revealed the broad range of Erasmus' knowledge of classical literature. Like his contemporaries, Erasmus spread references to the writings of ancient Greek and Roman authors liberally throughout his encomium, and the book is shaped by the Neoplatonism so fashionable among circles of Renaissance humanists in Florence and elsewhere. There are direct references to or echoes of the works of such authors as Homer, Plato, Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca, among many others in The Praise of Folly, providing it with the wisdom of the ages and the authority of the ancients so important to contemporaries. The most important of the ancient authors for the writing of The Praise of Folly was the playwright Lucian, whose works, now mostly lost, provided the inspiration and model for Erasmus. But Erasmus, like Boccaccio perhaps, also drew from the vernacular and included a small number of Dutch proverbs in the eulogy given by the main character, the goddess Folly.

As the narrator, Folly offers a paradoxical and ironic encomium of herself and her followers, which, Erasmus notes in his prefatory letter, is much in the tradition of ancient letters. In her introductory remarks, Folly asserts that all creatures, mortal and immortal, are beholden to her and that without her life would lack joy and even a beginning. She boasts that she is the daughter of Plutus, the god of riches, who fathered her while he was young and hot-blooded, and that her nursemaids were the daughters of Bacchus, Drunkenness, and Pan, Ignorance. The oration that follows Folly's introduction of herself and her purpose, in which the paradoxical and satiric tone of the work is set, is divided into three sections in which she indulges first in the lighthearted praise of many human weaknesses and then proceeds along more biting lines. The second section, in which the voice of Erasmus appears at times most clearly, is a much harsher satire that condemns the more serious problems of the day. The social critiques of the middle part of the work thus prepared the way for the final section in which the narrator praises the folly of Jesus. The Praise of Folly, like the other works of Erasmus, was intended to promote a reformed Christian life.

The first major section of The Praise of Folly, which is the lightest and most humorous section of the work, lays the foundation for the ultimate conclusion, which is the praise of the folly of Christ. In passages that are timeless in their relevance, Folly extols the petty faults and the vanity of humankind. She praises elderly men and women who continue to act young, applying hair dyes and cosmetics in order to entice the attentions of the opposite sex. Not only elderly but all women are the followers of Folly because without the goddess what woman would endure the suffering of childbirth? Gamblers and fools belong to her, and, in a clear parody of himself, Erasmus has Folly claim scholars and wise men as her followers. Although the satire in this section is delivered in an almost comic fashion, its ironic praise of folly is clearly intended to honor wisdom and draw attention to the higher truths to follow.

The Praise of Folly then takes on a darker and bitterer tone, and Folly "praises" some of the most serious problems of the age. In this section, Folly, in a voice that is nearly that of Erasmus, turns her attention to the theologians, priests, and monks, who have so corrupted the church and brought it to the point of crisis. Folly "praises" the superstitious practices of many Christians, who indulge in the excesses of the saints' cults and other ritualized practices. She attacks indulgences and related abuses and emphasizes the importance of an internalized faith that is the cornerstone of his philosophy of Christ. She attacks the theologians in a long section in which she compares them with Paul and Peter and the other apostles. Unlike the theologians, the apostles were unlearned and were unskilled in the methods of dialectic and reason. The apostles lived a life of faith rooted in the teachings of Christ, whereas the theologians pay little attention to the Bible or the teachings of grace in favor of scholastic argument and the teachings of Aristotle and other theologians. And, in perhaps the harshest tones of the work, Folly denounces the violence and bloodshed caused by contemporary bishops and, especially, Pope Julius II, the "warrior pope." How, she wonders, can any Christian priest or layperson follow the true faith when the church's leaders live like courtiers and princes and indulge in ceremony and warfare?

Folly, aware of her harsh tone, makes light of her commentary on contemporary vice and once again assumes an ironic voice in the final section of the encomium. It is in this section, whose way was prepared by the first two, that the message of The Praise of Folly is revealed. She now praises the folly of the apostle Paul and, most important, that of Jesus. Citing passages from the Scriptures, the narrator points out the folly of Jesus, a fool who assumed the flesh to save the folly of humankind. The teachings of Christ, so distorted by the theologians and repudiated by the actions of the church hierarchy, are so clearly out of fashion with the practices of society and the customs praised earlier in Folly's oration. But, as the paradox established by Erasmus throughout the work implies, folly here is true wisdom. The simple life of faith advocated by Jesus and the apostles' ignorance and lack of guile praised as folly is the true path to salvation. The ways of Christ and the apostles that Folly mocks are, in the ironic tone of the work, what Erasmus is truly praising. The purpose of the Moriae encomium is both the praise of the simple Christian life, which is based on the Gospels and devoid of the superstitious practices that had crept in over the centuries, and the praise of learning in support of the Christian faith.

It is this simple message, reinforced in Folly's farewell to conclude the encomium, that retains its force to this day. A witty and elegant satire, The Praise of Folly calls on its readers to live the moral life in the face of the foolishness of everyday life. Behind its humorous façade, The Praise of Folly extols the simple moral life compiled in the Christian scriptures. Its message was lost in the generation following its publication when Europe was immersed in the turmoil of the Reformation and the wars of religion, but this message stands at the core of all of Erasmus' works. The Praise of Folly was possibly Erasmus' greatest contribution to his contemporaries, and Folly's ironic praise of the true path to wisdom remains an important lesson for us today.

Michael Frassetto is the religion editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Delaware, and he has taught at several colleges and written extensively on European religious and cultural history.
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