The Reading Room

The Praise of Folly

“If someone should attempt to take off the masks and costumes of the actors in a play and show to the audience their real appearances, would he not ruin the whole play?… For what else is the life of man but a kind of play in which men in various costumes perform until the director motions them off the stage.” (The Praise of Folly, Dolan translation)
Published in 1511, The Praise of Folly is the best known book written by Erasmus, a priest from Rotterdam. Saying it is his most famous book is no small praise; he was one of the best-selling authors of his day. No stranger to controversy, he could not escape the ferment caused by the Protestant Reformation. In a letter, Erasmus expressed his concerns: “I was sorry that Luther’s books were published, and when some or other of his writings first came into view, I made every effort to prevent their publication, chiefly because I feared a disturbance might result from them.” His fears were well-founded.
A well-known Catholic priest who engaged in the Reformation battles on the side of Rome, Erasmus sure seems like the sort of person whose books would be loved at the Vatican. Yet, The Praise of Folly was put on the index of forbidden books by the Church in 1559. Why?
The book starts out charmingly enough as Folly, personified as a goddess, heaps praise upon herself. “I have no use for those so-called wise persons who say that it is absolutely stupid and insolent for a person to praise himself. Let them say it is foolish if they wish, but let them admit that it is proper; for what is more suitable than that Folly should be the trumpeter of her own praises.” Folly has a merry time pointing out how much happier people are when they are very young or old, these being the times when people are most foolish. A party isn’t really a party without some folly thrown in; friends are valuable because they laugh with you at foolish things; marriage thrives when Folly abounds.
Folly doesn’t only lead to good, obviously. “The mind of man is so constructed that it is far more susceptible to accepting falsehoods than realities. If anyone wants to make a convincing and easy test of this, let him go to church and listen to the sermons. If something worthwhile is being said, everyone sleeps, or yawns, or is ill at ease. But if the bawler—I made an error, I meant to say prater—as often happens, begins some old wives’ tale, then everyone awakens, straightens up, and listens attentively.”
Before long, however, the tone of the work changes as Folly explores the foolishness of those who think themselves wise. Take authors, for example. Those who “blacken their pages with sheer triviality” are obviously foolish. But no more so than the serious authors who incur the “great expense of long hours, no sleep, so much sweat, and so many vexations. Add also the loss of health, the deterioration of their physical appearance, the possibility of blindness or partial loss of their sight, poverty, malice, premature old age, and early death, and if you can think of more, add them to this list. The scholar feels that he has been compensated for such ills when he wins the sanction of one or two other weak-eyed scholars… The most touching event is when they compliment each other and turn around in an exchange of letters, verses, and superfluities. They are fools praising fools and dunces praising dunces.”
So far, so amusing, until Folly begins to approach dangerous ground. “Perhaps it would be better to pass silently over the theologians. Dealing with them, since they are hot-tempered, is like crossing Lake Camarina or eating poisonous beans. They may attack me with six hundred arguments and force me to retract what I hold; for if I refuse, they will immediately declare me a heretic.” 
Obviously, Folly tosses caution to the winds, ruthlessly mocking the theological minutiae beloved of the Scholastics. Compared to the mighty work of the modern theologian, of what value were all those first-century apostles? “They went everywhere baptizing people, and yet they never taught what the formal, material, efficient, and final causes of baptism were, nor did they mention that it has both a delible and indelible character.”
It isn’t just theologians. “Those who are closest to these in happiness are generally called ‘the religious’ or ‘monks,’ both of which are deceiving names, since for the most part they stay as far away from religion as possible and frequent every sort of place….Though most people detest these men so much that accidentally meeting one is considered to be bad luck, the monks themselves believe that they are magnificent creatures.”
That is the mild set of criticisms. After a discussion of the foolishness of kings and nobles, Folly turns her attention to Rome. “Our popes, cardinals, and bishops have, for a long while now, diligently followed the example of the state and the practices of the princes and have come near to beating these noblemen at their own game.” These religious leaders have completely forgotten that there is a spiritual reason for the existence of their offices. “If they would but contemplate these and other virtues, I am sure that it would be safe to say that they would not lead such troubled and shameful lives.” But, doing good things in the world is no longer the role of church leaders. “Under the present system, what work needs to be done is handed over to Peter or Paul to do at their leisure, while pomp and pleasure are personally taken care of by the popes.”
It is not hard to imagine how such things were received in Rome. Except, what you imagined is wrong. The Pope and other church authorities thought The Praise of Folly was marvelous fun. When Erasmus died in 1536, his books were still available for purchase throughout Europe.
Twenty-three years after Erasmus’ death, The Praise of Folly was deemed by the Church to be unsuitable reading. What changed? The Protestant Reformation went from being a squabble between some Germans and Rome into a crisis destroying both religious and political stability in Europe. Suddenly, a satirical work mocking the Church looked suspiciously Protestant, and Erasmus, who tried to stop the Reformation from tearing apart the Church, was lumped in with the rebellious crowd.
There is an irony in the fate of Erasmus’ book. If, instead of just laughing along with Folly at the foolishness of what was going on in the Church, the church leaders had addressed the problems, then they would have removed the very practices that so angered Luther. Satire wielded by a friend is a much gentler goad than anger from an enemy. Sadly, in times of polarization, friends wielding satire are ignored and treated like enemies, making the battlefield a lot bloodier.