In Praise of Folly – Erasmus

20200602 In Praise of Folly

Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote this, probably now his most famous work, in 1509 in Latin and the Folio Society edition that I have uses the Latin title as its cover design Moriae Encomium. By intention this title can also be read as In Praise of More because he dedicated it to his friend Sir Thomas More whom he was staying with in London at the time.

The book is split into sixty seven sections in this edition, although looking at other translations it is not always the case that these are numbered. The text I have was originally produced  for the Penguin Books edition translated by Betty Radice, used by permission by Folio. For a while this use of Penguin texts was relatively common at Folio so presumably they had a formal arrangement to do this. I liked the numbered sections in this text as it gives an easy way of referring to parts but as this is apparently not a standard I will use the opening line of a section if I need to specifically mention it along with the number. This translation also has short footnotes, when Erasmus wrote the book anyone likely to read it would have known the classical examples he refers to but nowadays this is far less likely so a quick guide as to where the quotation has come from and the relevance to the text is extremely useful.

Erasmus decided to make Folly the equivalent of a Greco-Roman goddess addressing the reader as though in a forum or theatre. She introduces herself and her faithful companions

And as for such my companions and followers as you perceive about me, if you have a mind to know who they are, you are not like to be the wiser for me, unless it be in Greek: this here, which you observe with that proud cast of her eye, is Philautia, Self-love; she with the smiling countenance, that is ever and anon clapping her hands, is Kolakia, Flattery; she that looks as if she were half asleep is Lethe, Oblivion; she that sits leaning on both elbows with her hands clutched together is Misoponia, Laziness; she with the garland on her head, and that smells so strong of perfumes, is Hedone, Pleasure; she with those staring eyes, moving here and there, is Anoia, Madness; she with the smooth skin and full pampered body is Tryphe, Wantonness; and, as to the two gods that you see with them, the one is Komos, Intemperance, the other Negretos hypnos, Dead Sleep. These, I say, are my household servants, and by their faithful counsels I have subjected all things to my dominion and erected an empire over emperors themselves.

What follows is, at least at the start, a gentle satire of the foolishness of mankind pointing out how Folly and her companions lead people astray but at the same time saying that the only truly happy people are babes, aged citizens in their dotage and others not fully in control of their mind because only they are not worn down by the cares and realities of life. There are many examples of how her or her companions have affected people for good or ill depending on how you interpret the results, and if the book remained in this vein it would still be well worth reading for the way it pokes fun at pomposity and self-indulgence, greed and wilful ignorance is as relevant today as it was back then. However by section 53, which in this translation begins ‘Then there are the theologians’ you can sense the tone changes. Erasmus is on tricky ground especially in 1509, Martin Luther was still eight years away from writing his Ninety-Five Theses and setting in train the Reformation with his attack on the Pope and other members of the Catholic hierarchy  for the selling of indulgences amongst other things that he regarding as debasing the Christian faith for profit, but Erasmus got in ahead of him.

This was in a time when the office of Pope could certainly be bought, and it cost a lot of money and contacts to work your way up the greasy pole, however the rewards were huge for those that got there. The selling of indulgences was a massive money spinner for the church and ultimately for the Pope himself and this was spreading discontent. What was surprising was that Erasmus felt safe to attack this at the time and not only turned out to be safe in the clever way that he presented his arguments but that his work was the equivalent of a best seller. Erasmus was not an early protestant but he recognised the excesses of the Catholic church and through this book was highlighting the problems that it faced. That he built up to this slowly is of no surprise bearing in mind the recriminations that he could have faced and the power of the church in enforcing discipline in the early sixteenth century.

What starts out as a harmless satire of mankind’s foibles turns into a denunciation of the money grabbing nature of the church at the time, but it is worth noting that Erasmus, and his friend Sir Thomas More, did not support the Protestant breakaway from the Catholic church, and in a roundabout way this would cost More his life as he did not attend King Henry VIII’s wedding to Anne Boleyn which marked the break of England from the Papacy. Erasmus however would be safe back in The Netherlands and would die of natural causes in 1536 having lived though the schism in the church the reasons for which he highlighted in this book but which he couldn’t have foretold.