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The Praise of Folly
By Desiderius Erasmus, Hoyt Hopewell Hudson
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 1969 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
HOWEVER MORTAL FOLK MAY COMMONLY SPEAK of me (for I am not ignorant how ill the name of Folly sounds, even to the greatest fools), I am she—the only she, I may say —whose divine influence makes gods and men rejoice. One great and sufficient proof of this is that the instant I stepped up to speak to this crowded assembly, all faces at once brightened with a fresh and unwonted cheerfulness, all of you suddenly unbent your brows, and with frolic and affectionate smiles you applauded; so that as I look upon all present about me, you seem flushed with nectar, like gods in Homer, not without some nepenthe, also; whereas a moment ago you were sitting moody and depressed, as if you had come out of the cave of Trophonius. Just as it commonly happens, when the sun first shows his splendid golden face to the earth or when, after a bitter winter, young spring breathes mild west winds, that a new face comes over everything, new color and a sort of youthfulness appear; so at the mere sight of me, you straightway take on another aspect. And thus what great orators elsewhere can hardly bring about in a long, carefully planned speech, I have done in a moment, with nothing but my looks.
As to why I appear today in this unaccustomed garb, you shall now hear, if only you will not begrudge lending your ears to my discourse—not those ears, to be sure, which you carry to sermons, but those which you are accustomed to prick up for mountebanks in the marketplace, for clowns and jesters, the ears which, in the old days, our friend Midas inclined to the god Pan. It is my pleasure for a little while to play the rhetorician before you, yet not one of the tribe of those who nowadays cram certain pedantic trifles into the heads of schoolboys, and teach a more than womanish obstinacy in disputing; no, I emulate those ancients who, to avoid the unpopular name of philosophers, preferred to be called Sophists. Their study was to celebrate in eulogies the virtues of gods and of heroic men. Such a eulogy, therefore, you shall hear, but not of Hercules or Solon; rather of my own self—to wit, Folly.
 Nor do I have any use for those wiseacres who preach that it is most foolish and insolent for a person to praise himself. Yet let it be as foolish as they would have it, if only they will grant that it is proper: and what is more suitable than that Folly herself should be the trumpeter of her praises? "She is her own flute-player." Who, indeed, could portray me better than can I myself? Unless it could so happen that I am better known to some one else than I am to myself. On the whole, however, I deem that what I am doing is much more decent than what a host of our best people, and scholars even, do continually. With a certain perverse modesty they are wont to convey instructions to some sycophantic speaker or prattling poet whom they have engaged at a fee; and then they hear back from him their praises, that is to say, some pure fiction. The blushing listener, meanwhile, spreads his plumes like a peacock, and bridles, while the brazen adulator searches among the gods to find a parallel for this good-for-nothing, and proposes him as the complete exemplar of all virtues—from which the man himself knows that he is farther away than twice infinity. Thus the flatterer adorns a crow with other birds' feathers, washes the Ethiopian white, and, in sum, makes an elephant out of a gnat. Lastly, I follow the familiar proverb of the folk, to the effect that he rightly praises himself who never meets anyone else who will praise him. Here, by the way, I wonder at the ingratitude, or perhaps the negligence, of men: although all of them studiously cherish me and freely acknowledge my benefits, not a one has emerged so far in all the ages to celebrate the praises of Folly in a grateful oration. In the meantime, there has been no lack of those who at great expense of lamp-oil and of sleep have extolled, in elegant eulogies, Busiruses, Phalarises, quartan fevers, flies, baldness, and pests of that sort.
And now you shall hear from me an extemporaneous speech, unlabored, but so much the truer for all that. I should not want you to think it is made to show off my wit, as is done by the common run of orators. They, as you know so well, when they bring out a speech they have been working on for thirty whole years, and sometimes not their own at all, will swear it was written in three days, for pastime, or even that they merely dictated it. For my part, it has always been most satisfactory to speak "whatever pops into my head."
 And let no one expect that, after the manner of these ordinary orators, I shall expound myself by definition, much less divide myself. For it is equally unlucky to circumscribe with a limit her whose nature extends so universally or to dissect her in whose worship every order of being is at one. Anyway, what end would be served in setting forth by definition a sketch and, as it were, a shadow of me, when you, present here, with your own eyes perceive me in your presence? I am as you see me, that true disposer of good things whom the Latins call Stultitia and the Greeks [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].
Still, what need was there to tell you this, as if in my very face and front, so to speak, I do not sufficiently announce who I am? As if anyone who was claiming that I am Minerva or the Spirit of Wisdom could not immediately be refuted by one good look, even if I were not speaking—though speech is the least deceptive mirror of the mind. I have no use for cosmetics. I do not feign one thing in my face while I hold something else in my heart. I am in all points so like myself that even those who specially arrogate to themselves the part and name of wise men cannot conceal me, though they walk about "like apes in scarlet or asses in lion-skins." Let them carry it as cunningly as you could ask, the protruding ears will somewhere betray the Midas. An ungrateful class of men that, so help me! Although they are wholly of my party, in public they are so ashamed of my name that they toss it up at others as a great reproach! Wherefore, since in fact they are [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "most foolish," and yet are eager to seem wise men and veritable Thaleses, shall we not with entire justice dub them [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "foolosophers"? It has seemed well, you note, to imitate the rhetoricians of our time, who believe themselves absolutely to be gods if they can show themselves bilingual (like a horse-leech), and account it a famous feat if they can weave a few Greekish words, like inlay work, ever and anon into their Latin orations, even if at the moment there is no place for them. Then if they want exotic touches, they dig four or five obsolete words out of decaying manuscripts, by which they spread darkness over the reader; with the idea, I warrant you, that those who understand will be vastly pleased with themselves, and those who do not understand will admire the more—and all the more the less they understand. The fact is that there is a rather elegant species of enjoyment among our sect, to fall into special love with what is specially imported. Some who are a little more ambitious laugh and applaud, and, by example of the ass, shake their ears, so that in the eyes of the rest they will seem to comprehend: "Quite so, quite so." Now I go back to my outline.
 You have my name, gentlemen ... gentlemen ... what shall I add by way of an epithet? What but "most foolish"? For by what more honorable style could the Goddess of Folly address her devotees? But since it is not known to very many from what stock I have sprung, I shall now attempt, with the Muses' kind help, to set this forth. Not Chaos, or Orcus, or Saturn, or Iapetus, or any other of that old-fashioned and musty set of gods, was my father at all. It was Plutus, who only, in spite of Hesiod, Homer, and Jove himself to boot, is "the father of gods and men." At a single nod of Plutus, as of old so nowadays, all things sacred and profane are turned topsy-turvy. At his pleasure, all war, peace, empires, plans, judgments, assemblies, marriages, treaties, pacts, laws, arts, sports, weighty matters (my breath is giving out)—in short, all public and private affairs of mortal men, are governed. Without his help all that population of deities of the poets' making—nay, I speak very boldly, even those top gods—either would not exist at all or would be "diners at home," keeping house very meagrely. To the person who rouses Plutus's anger Pallas herself cannot bring help enough; on the other hand, whoever possesses his favor can bid great Jove and his thunder go hang themselves. "I glory to have such a father." And he did not procreate me out of his head, as Jupiter did that austere and homely Pallas; but rather out of Youth, the loveliest nymph of all, and the jolliest as well. Nor did he do this confined in the irksome marriage-bond—the way that blacksmith was born lame!—but indeed he did it in a much pleasanter manner, "mingled in love," as our father Homer puts it. Yet, make no mistake, it was not the Plutus of Aristophanes, already decrepit and weak in the eyes, that engendered me, but the same god healthy and as yet heated by his youth; nor by youth only, but also by nectar, which he had chanced to drink rather copiously and rather straight at a banquet of the gods.
If you are also wanting to know the place of my nativity (seeing that in these days it is accounted a prime point of nobility, in what place you uttered your first cries), I was not brought forth in floating Delos, or on the foaming sea, or "in hollow caverns," but right in the Fortunate Isles, where all things grow "without ploughing or planting." In those islands is no drudgery or old age, nor is there any sickness. In the fields one never sees a daffodil, mallow, leek, bean, or any of such kind of trash; but one's eyes and nose are enchanted at the same time by moly, panacea, nepenthes, sweet marjoram, ambrosia, lotus, rose, violet, hyacinth, and the gardens of Adonis. And being born among these delights, I did not enter upon life with weeping, but right off I laughed sweetly at my mother. Nor indeed do I envy great Jupiter his nurse, a she-goat, since two charming nymphs nourished me at their breasts—Drunkenness, offspring of Bacchus, and Ignorance, Pan's daughter.
These two you see here in the company of my other attendants and followers. If you wish to know all their names, you will not hear them from me, so help me, except in Greek. This one whom you observe here, with the eyebrows haughtily raised, is Philautia. She with the smiling eyes, so to speak, whom you see clapping her hands, is named Kolakia. The one who is half asleep, and like a drowsy person, is called Lethe. She that leans on her elbows, with her hands folded, is Misoponia. Hedone is the one wearing the rosy WFeath and smelling of perfumes. The lady with the uncertain eyes rolling here and there is called Anoia; and she with the glistening skin and body in good point is Tryphe. You see also two male gods among the girls, one of whom they call Comus, the other Negretos Hypnos. These, I say, are my household servants, with whose faithful help I bring every sort of thing under my rule, maintaining my empire even over emperors.
 You have learned of my family, upbringing, and companions. Now, that it may not look as if I have usurped the name of goddess for myself without good grounds, please give closest attention while I tell how many advantages I bestow on both gods and men, and how broadly my power is displayed. For if, as some one has judiciously observed, this only is to be a god, to help men, and if deservedly they have been admitted to the rank of gods who have shown to mortals the use of wine, or grain, or any other such commodity, why am not I of right named and venerated as the ITLαITL of all gods, who single-handed bestow all things on all men?
In the first place, what can be dearer or more precious than life? And the beginning and first principle of life is owed to whom else but me? Not the spear of "potent-fathered" Pallas, not the shield of "cloud-compelling" Jove, procreates the children of men or multiplies their race. Even he, the father of gods and king of men, who shakes all heaven by a nod, is obliged to lay aside his three-pronged thunder and that Titanic aspect by which, when he pleases, he scares all the gods, and assume another character in the slavish manner of an actor, if he wishes to do what he never refrains from doing, that is to say, to beget children. Now the Stoics believe that they are next-door neighbors to gods. But give me a triple Stoic, or a quadruple one, or, if you will, a Stoic multiplied by six hundred; if for this purpose he will not put off his beard, the ensign of wisdom (though displayed also by goats), yet he will certainly lay by his gravity, smooth his brow, renounce his rock-bound principles, and for a few minutes toy and talk nonsense. In fine, the wise man must send for me, I repeat, if he ever wishes to become a father. And why not speak to you still more frankly, as is my fashion? I beg to inquire whether the head, whether the face, the breast, the hand, or the ear—all of them accounted honorable members—generates gods and men? I judge not; nay, rather that foolish, even silly, part which cannot be named without laughter, is the propagator of the human race. This is at last that sacred spring from which all things derive existence, more truly than from the elemental tetrad of Pythagoras.
Now tell me, what man, by heaven, could wish to stick his head into the halter of marriage if, as your wiseacres have the habit of doing, he first weighed with himself the inconveniences of wedded life? Or what woman would ever admit her husband to her person, if she had heard or thought about the dangerous pains of childbirth and the irksomeness of bringing up a child? But since you owe your existence to the marriage-bed, and marriage is owing to Anoia, a servant of mine, you can see how vastly indebted you are to me! Then, too, would a woman who has gone through all this, wish to make a second venture, if the power and influence of my Lethe did not attend her? And in spite of what Lucretius claims, Venus herself would not deny that without the addition of my presence her strength would be enfeebled and ineffectual. So it is that from this brisk and silly little game of mine come forth the haughty philosophers (to whose places those who are vulgarly called monks have now succeeded), and kings in their scarlet, pious priests, and triply most holy popes; also, finally; that assembly of the gods of the poets, so numerous that Olympus, spacious as it is, can hardly accommodate the crowd.
 But let it be accounted a little thing that the seed-plot and source of existence are mine, if I do not show that whatever is profitable in any life is also of my giving. For what about it? Can life be called life at all if you take away pleasure? ... You applaud! I knew that none of you is so wise—or rather so foolish—no, I prefer to say so wise—as to err on that point. Even the famous Stoics do not really scorn pleasure, but they studiously dissemble and attack it in public with a thousand reproaches, only to the end that, with other people scared off, they may enjoy it more liberally. But let them tell me, by Jove, what part of life is not sad, unpleasant, graceless, fiat, and burdensome, unless you have pleasure added to it, that is, a seasoning of folly? As proof of this, there is extant that lovely tribute to me by Sophocles, who can never be sufficiently praised, "To know nothing affords the happiest life"; and he would be authority enough, but come, I will open the whole matter, step by step.
First of all, who does not know that the earliest period of a man's life is by far the happiest for him and by far the most pleasant for all about him? What is it in children, that we should kiss them the way we do, and cuddle them, and fondle them—so that even an enemy would give aid to one of that age—except this enchantment of folly, which prudent nature carefully bestows on the newly born; so that by this pleasure, as a sort of prepayment, they win the favor of their nurses and parents and make these forget the pains of bringing them up. After this comes adolescence. How welcome it is in every home! How well everyone wishes it! How studiously does everyone promote it, how officiously they lend it the helping hand! But, I ask, whence comes this grace of youth? Whence but from me, by whose favor the young know so little—and how lightly worn is that little! And presently when lads grown larger begin, through experience and discipline, to have some smack of manhood, I am a liar if by the same token the brightness of their beauty does not fade, their quickness diminish, their wit lose its edge, their vigor slacken. The farther one gets from me, then, the less and less he lives, until molesta senectus (that is, irksome old age) arrives, hateful to others, to be sure, but also and more so to itself.
Excerpted from The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, Hoyt Hopewell Hudson. Copyright © 1969 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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