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

Desiderius Erasmus

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.

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.