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Erasmus on the “Folly” of upsetting conventional opinion by pointing out the sins of kings and princes (1511)

In his sly and underhand way the Dutch theologian and critic Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) pokes fun at the pretensions of kings and princes and those who believe in their superiority to other people in his work In Praise of Folly (1511):

Now if there should arise any starched, formal don, that would point at the several actors, and tell how this, that seems a petty god, is in truth worse than a brute, being made captive to the tyranny of passion; that the other, who bears the character of a king, is indeed the most slavish of serving-men, in being subject to the mastership of lust and sensuality; that a third, who vaunts so much of his pedigree, is no better than a bastard for degenerating from virtue, which ought to be of greatest consideration in heraldry, and so shall go on in exposing all the rest; would not any one think such a person quite frantic, and ripe for bedlam? For as nothing is more silly than preposterous wisdom, so is there nothing more indiscreet than an unreasonable reproof. And therefore he is to be hooted out of all society that will not be pliable, conformable, and willing to suit his humour with other men’s, remembering the law of clubs and meetings, that he who will not do as the rest must get him out of the company.

First, then, it is certain that all things, like so many Janus’s, carry a double face, or rather bear a false aspect, most things being really in themselves far different from what they are in appearance to others: so as that which at first blush proves alive, is in truth dead; and that again which appears as dead, at a nearer view proves to be alive: beautiful seems ugly, wealthy poor, scandalous is thought creditable, prosperous passes for unlucky, friendly for what is most opposite, and innocent for what is hurtful and pernicious. In short, if we change the tables, all things are found placed in a quite different posture from what just before they appeared to stand in.

If this seem too darkly and unintelligibly expressed, I will explain it by the familiar instance of some great king or prince, whom every one shall suppose to swim in a luxury of wealth, and to be a powerful lord and master; when, alas, on the one hand he has poverty of spirit enough to make him a mere beggar, and on the other side he is worse than a galley-slave to his own lusts and passions.

If I had a mind farther to expatiate, I could enlarge upon several instances of like nature, but this one may at present suffice.

Well, but what is the meaning (will some say) of all this? Why, observe the application. If any one in a play-house be so impertinent and rude as to rifle the actors of their borrowed clothes, make them lay down the character assumed, and force them to return to their naked selves, would not such a one wholly discompose and spoil the entertainment? And would he not deserve to be hissed and thrown stones at till the pragmatical fool could learn better manners? For by such a disturbance the whole scene will be altered: such as acted the men will perhaps appear to be women: he that was dressed up for a young brisk lover, will be found a rough old fellow; and he that represented a king, will remain but a mean ordinary servingman. The laying things thus open is marring all the sport, which consists only in counterfeit and disguise. Now the world is nothing else but such another comedy, where every one in the tire-room is first habited suitably to the part he is to act; and as it is successively their turn, out they come on the stage, where he that now personates a prince, shall in another part of the same play alter his dress, and become a beggar, all things being in a mask and particular disguise, or otherwise the play could never be presented. Now if there should arise any starched, formal don, that would point at the several actors, and tell how this, that seems a petty god, is in truth worse than a brute, being made captive to the tyranny of passion; that the other, who bears the character of a king, is indeed the most slavish of serving-men, in being subject to the mastership of lust and sensuality; that a third, who vaunts so much of his pedigree, is no better than a bastard for degenerating from virtue, which ought to be of greatest consideration in heraldry, and so shall go on in exposing all the rest; would not any one think such a person quite frantic, and ripe for bedlam? For as nothing is more silly than preposterous wisdom, so is there nothing more indiscreet than an unreasonable reproof. And therefore he is to be hooted out of all society that will not be pliable, conformable, and willing to suit his humour with other men’s, remembering the law of clubs and meetings, that he who will not do as the rest must get him out of the company. And it is certainly one great degree of wisdom for every one to consider that he is but a man, and therefore he should not pitch his soaring thoughts beyond the level of mortality, but imp the wings of his towering ambition, and obligingly submit and condescend to the weakness of others, it being many times a piece of complaisance to go out of the road for company’s sake. No (say you), this is a grand piece of Folly: true, but yet all our living is no more than such kind of fooling: which though it may seem harsh to assert, yet it is not so strange as true.

About this Quotation:

It is not surprising that Erasmus' witty book In Praise of Folly (1511) was once banned by the Catholic Church for the way in which it poked fun at monarchs and members of the Church, among many other people. In this amusing sketch he imagines, like Shakespeare did, “that all the world’s a stage” where a “starched, formal don” (just like Erasmus) dares to point out to the audience that what appears to be a god is in fact “worse than a brute”, and that what appears to be a king is in fact “the most slavish of serving-men, in being subject to the mastership of lust and sensuality”. Doing this is sarcastically called the height of “folly” by Erasmus because we know that it is foolish to go against the conventional wisdom which says that gods are not brutes and that kings are not slaves to baser instincts. To believe otherwise is to show that one is mad and “ripe for bedlam”. Hans Christian Andersen returned to this idea in his fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in 1837. Hans Holbeiin supplied the comic illustrations to Erasmus' book.

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