IN PRAISE OF FOLLY
An Oration…Spoken by Folly
At what rate soever the world talks of me (for I am not ignorant what an ill report Folly has got, even among the most foolish), yet that I am that she, that only she, whose deity recreates both gods and men, even this is a sufficient argument, that I no sooner stepped up to speak to this full assembly than all your faces put on a kind of new and unwonted pleasantness. So suddenly have you cleared your brows, and with so frolic and hearty a laughter given me your applause, that in truth as many of you as I behold on every side of me seem to me no less than Homer’s gods drunk with nectar and nepenthe; whereas before, you sat as lumpish and pensive as if you had come from consulting an oracle. And as it usually happens when the sun begins to show his beams, or when after a sharp winter the spring breathes afresh on the earth, all things immediately get a new face, new color, and recover as it were a certain kind of youth again: in like manner by but beholding me you have in an instant gotten another kind of countenance; and so what the otherwise great rhetoricians with their tedious and long-studied orations can hardly effect, to wit, to remove the trouble of the mind, I have done it at once with my single look. . . .
My dinner party of timeless wits would include Voltaire, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Desiderius Erasmus. I would also throw in Dorothy Parker as a ringer. Each explored folly from a different (and occasionally profane) angle, yet their common target was the smug, self-appointed illuminati.
In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds said the following:
In Praise of Folly must be understood as the product of Erasmus’s Bible-saturated mind. His was a mind too broad for fundamentalism, which rejects reason, and too honest for intellectualism, which rejects revelation.
The fundamentalist burns with anti-intellectual zeal, and in reaction sophists are often swollen up with intellectualism. The fundamentalist and the sophist justify their excesses by the sin of their opposite. Fundamentalism and sophistry give piety and philosophy bad reputations with society.
Desiderius Erasmus said ” In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” What did he mean?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly
Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands. As a well-educated man (he studied in Belgium, France, Italy, and England), Erasmus became one of the leading lights of the European Renaissance and was a frequent critic of the late medieval Catholic Church, though, once more, he remained in the Church until his death and did not become a Protestant. He is often thought of as the intellectual father of the Protestant Reformation.
Beginning in 1505, Erasmus set out to translate the New Testament into Latin. This endeavor helped him realize the unreliability of the existing edition of the Greek New Testament, so he set out to edit a new Greek edition. This was published in 1516 and has come to be known as the Textus Receptus (“Received Text”); it was the edition used by the translators of the King James Version. His best-known literary work, though, is In Praise of Folly, a critique of Church abuses and the world, published in 1511.
This is an oration in which Folly, personified as a woman, claims that what appears to be Folly outwardly, actually, is wise inwardly. Folly rails against that which she judges to be foolish in the areas of politics and society.
Erasmus’s biting satire is also used to level criticisms against the Church, including theologians, monks, and clergymen. He makes vitriolic comments about contemporary political leaders and members of the learned professions. The work is highly rhetorical as well, so that Erasmus may express his opinions (through Folly) on a wide range of topics without having to offer grounded support.
For the Christian, it’s the latter sections of this work that are most interesting. Here Erasmus turns his attention to a simpler biblical Christianity, over against the highly philosophical and scholastic theology of the later Middle Ages. For Erasmus, Jesus Christ was foolish for taking on human nature and dying on the cross; as well, he commended the foolish lifestyle to his disciples. That is, rejecting all worldly notions of the “good life” in order to chase after holiness and that which is spiritual: “this happiness of Christians, which they pursue with so much toil, is nothing else but a kind of madness and folly.”
In fact, for Erasmus, “all Christian religion seems to have a kind of alliance with folly and in no respect to have any accord with wisdom.” This being the case, the folly must be praised and must be sought after, since it is the very essence of the Christian religion. In Erasmus’s estimation, “folly is more excellent than wisdom.”
In Praise of Folly is a brilliant play on the Pauline interplay of wisdom and foolishness:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. . . . But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:20, 25, 27)
Erasmus’s work elaborates on this theme by showing that the truly wise are utterly foolish; those who think they are wise are the true fools.
Given that we continue to live in a post-Christian culture that highly prizes so-called “learning” and the primacy of reason, Erasmus’s text is a reminder that there is more to the life of the mind than simply learning for learning’s sake. Though Christians must always be diligent to pursue truth and receive the wisdom offered by God, we must bear in mind that our knowledge is a kind of folly. That is to say, not only is it considered folly by the “world’s” standards but, further, in the Erasmian and Pauline sense, we are fools, by extension, for Jesus: “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:10). Reading the entire In Praise of Folly drives this point home—persuasively.
Desiderius Erasmus was a prolific author, so much so that his collected works, translated into English, fill approximately ninety volumes (published by the University of Toronto Press). Though a humanist in his learning and a Roman Catholic in ecclesial confession, Erasmus’s work also contains spiritual and pastoral treatises, including On Praying to God, An Explanation of the Apostles Creed, and Preparing for Death.
Though In Praise of Folly is an excellent introduction to Erasmus and his central concerns, the reader who delves further into his literary corpus will not be disappointed. Erasmus is not only a voice of his time or a representative of the Roman Catholic Church; he also is a believer whose works deserve more attention from Christians of all churches and denominations.
Greg Peters, PhD, is an associate professor of Medieval Theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).