It’s interesting how our attitude towards a work shapes our understanding of it. Last month, I picked up In Praise of Folly (Erasmus, 1509) in a desultory way, read it quickly and took no pleasure from it. But after hearing a classmate sing its praises on the weekend, I read it through again in a more studied fashion – and found much to enjoy in this crucial Renaissance work. The sharp wit of Erasmus and the targets to which he directs it only serve to support an underlying question about the nature of reason and folly in society. Are we really creatures of wisdom and reason? Do we even like wise people? Or is the Goddess of Folly continually present – in our most basic coupling instincts (marriage, bearing children), in our politics, academics, and (most importantly in the last third of the critique) our religious institutions?
It is difficult by today’s standards (in North America) to imagine the control the church had on intellectual discourse during the time of Erasmus, and reading this work one wonders that the author was not branded a heretic and burned for his particular words directed against the offices of the cardinals and popes. But perhaps Erasmus was only reflecting what was a much greater tide of change as his world galloped from the medieval superstitions into an intellectual humanism beginning to flourish across Europe – no work derives entirely on its own after all. Some have suggested that because Erasmus took a satirical tone, and posited the essay in the voice of the Goddess Folly, he was able to take greater liberties than if he had been writing as himself. It’s hard to imagine why this distinction would matter to the rulers of his day, since the public presentation of ideas is the greatest threat. It could also be that because Leo X (soon afterward elected Pope) regarded the work as simply humorous rather than scathing critique, that Erasmus was spared. (This of course would underscore the point being made in the essay – that of the sheer stupidity of many learned people).
In any case, Erasmus ascribes most of our natural human impulses to Folly, as well as much of our religious, academic and national belief. He encourages the reader to look beyond appearances and to understand that each person lives a double life – “And what is all this life but a kind of comedy, wherein men walk up and down in one another’s disguises and act their respective parts….. Thus all things are represented by counterfeit, and yet without this there was no living.” That is, we need to get beyond what we hold as evident and rational to see that all of society is subterfuge designed to get each of us through the day. Even if we could be the wise Stoic, or learned philosopher – we are asked whether this is a worthwhile aspiration:
And much good to them with this wise man of theirs; let them enjoy him to themselves….. for who would not shun and startle at such a man, as at some unnatural accident or spirit? A man dead to all sense of nature and common affectations, and no more moved with love or pity than if he were a flint or rock; whose censure nothing escapes; that commits no errors himself, but has a lynx’s eyes upon others; measures everything by an exact line, and forgives nothing; pleases himself with himself only; the only rich, the only wise, the only free man, and only king; in brief, the only man this is everything, but in his own single judgement only; that cares not for the friendship of any man, being himself a friend to no man; makes no doubt to make the gods stoop to him, and condemns and laughts at the whole actions of our life? And yet such a beast is this their perfect wise man. But tell me pray, if the thing were to be carried by most voices, what city would choose him for its governor, or what army desire him for their general? What woman would have such a husband, what goodfellow such a guest, or what servant would either wish or endure such a master?
All of which is to ask the question (as he does later very explicitly) is life even worth living without Folly (the passions). And are the so-called wise men really what they present themselves to be? A lengthy set-up for the last third of the essay which lays into the Catholic Church and its offices (not religion itself) for the hypocrisy with which they govern and pontificate:
And for popes, that supply the place of Christ, if they should endeavor to imitate His life, to wit His poverty, labor, doctrine, cross, and contempt of life, or should they consider what the name pope, that is father, or holiness, imports, who would live more disconsolate than themselves? or who would purchase that chair with all his substance? or defend it, so purchased, with swords, poisons, and all force imaginable? so great a profit would the access of wisdom deprive him of — wisdom did I say? nay, the least corn of that salt which Christ speaks of: so much wealth, so much honor, so much riches, so many victories, so many offices, so many dispensations, so much tribute, so many pardons; such horses, such mules, such guards, and so much pleasure would it lose them You see how much I have comprehended in a little instead of which it would bring in watchings, fastings, tears, prayers, sermons, good endeavors, sights, and a thousand the like troublesome exercises. Nor is this least considerable: so many scribes, so many copying clerks, so many notaries, so many advocates, so many promoters, so many secretaries, so many muleteers, so many grooms, so many banks: in short that vast multitude of men that overcharge the Roman See — I mistook, I meant honor — might beg their bread.
This is not the dignity of the apostles, says Erasmus, nor is it the acknowledged folly of life that he argues is contained in the teachings of Christ (who rides a mule rather than a lion). This is also not the amiable flattery that gets us through the day, or the folly of the arts that draws men to one another. This is a much darker “inhuman” aspect of folly – the double-face used against humanity, pernicious in the same way that flattery can be on the tongues of “treacherous persons”.
As I was doing research on the Protestant Reformation – I noticed that today is the anniversary of the 95 Theses nailed to the door of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther in 1517 (Happy Birthday Calvinism!). Only six years after the formal publication of In Praise of Folly church reform became *the* dominant movement – questioning the church’s right to interpret the Bible and hide its true words from the people (through the use of Latin), the ability of the church to sell absolution in the form of indulgences, and the authority of the Catholic Church in general. To be clear, Luther and Erasmus had philosophical differences, but much of what Erasmus critiques the church for is taken up in the 95 Theses. And as I said before, no work comes from a vacuum, each of these philosophers being informed by the rumblings of those around them.
Upshot of all this? I’m back on my “why ideas matter” schtick – which is evident in an influential work like this. Not only was this work important in allowing a venue for critique of the hierarchically closed and superstitious society , but the development of the printing press allowed for its wider distribution, hence it got everyone talking. A likely direct result of that is the 95 Theses by which European thinkers start their slow creep away from an unassailable church and towards informed critique, science, and reform of social institutions. As we shall see in Kant’s essay next week, we don’t get the Age of Enlightenment (1700s) without breaking from the rigidity of the Catholic Church first – and on it goes.