At the end of the 15th century a new world of civilizations opened up to western explorers when in 1492 the Spanish arrived on the American continent. This feat brought together again the two parts of the world that had been separated by the tectonic shift of the planet that brought the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Eurasia and the American continent. With the new discoveries, and after the inspiration of the Italian Renaissance, a period of cultural instability opened characterized by eagerness for reform and an interest in the vernacular. Many famous authors, though, such as Erasmus, More and Loyola preferred to continue with the lingua franca of Europe, Latin. The Protestant Reformation with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the invention of the printing press around 1440 would encourage literacy and the distribution of works in the native language.
Nordic religious humanism was another characteristic of the time and responded to social change and the inability of the established religion to respond to the needs of literate believers who had increasingly more confidence in themselves. They attacked scholastic theology as an unnecessary complication of a simple faith and criticized empty ecclesiastical rites and the selling of indulgences.
The main spokesperson for this message was Erasmus of Rotterdam (c.1466-1536). He used the philological methods of the Italian humanists for historical criticism especially in studies of the New Testament in the original Greek and of the church fathers. He helped replace the scholastic curriculum with studies based on the classics, similar to the Italians. His balanced criticisms were directed both against the abuses of power of the Popes and against the dogma of predestination of the Protestant reformers. In this way Erasmus was rejected by both sides.
The Preface to Praise of Folly is a letter from Erasmus to his friend Thomas More dedicating the work to him. The idea for the composition was suggested to him by More's name similar to moria the Greek for folly. The author justifies his subject by referring to similar works by Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca and others. He also believes that even scholars should have some leisure activity and claims that his frivolity might bring more enlightenment than many another learned treatise.
His aim is to write satirically and amusingly but not to hurt. He intends to do this by giving advice in general and avoiding references to particular people. His intention is to “ridicule absurdities, not to catalogue sins.”
Praise of Folly (1509) is a satire written in Latin and presented as a monologue delivered by Folly. This character is used to make fun of human nature and contemporary institutions, ecclesiastical and secular. The author shows Folly to be a strong force in human affairs. The ending is more positive presenting Christianity as a redemption of folly in its spirituality enabling humans to rise above worldly worries. The satirical work is credited with focusing attention on abuses in the Church and leading to the Reformation.
Folly is a woman dressed as a fool who introduces herself declaring that she is responsible for mankind's happiness. Some attendants accompany her : Philautia (Self-Love), Kolakia (Flattery), Lethe (Forgetfulness), and Anoia (Imbecility), among others.
She describes the history of her family claiming that marriage and birth are her creations and that she makes old age easier. She adds that the elderly and children have foolishness in common, "for what is the difference between them, apart from the fact that the elders have more wrinkles and more birthdays?"
Folly says that women are foolish because they strive to please men through beauty and men are ridiculous because they are trapped by women's beauty into acting nonsensically. Folly says that she is necessary for public spectacles because she amuses. People prefer foolishness to wisdom and it's true that the fool entertains and is inoffensive. After all, a foolish fantasy is better than a harsh truth. Friendships rely on folly since people believe that their friends' eccentricities are their virtues. All human relationships need folly and flattery to remain harmonious. Folly praises self-confidence as the key to doing anything of worth. Nature has put envy into the human heart and self-esteem banishes this. Without the folly of self-worth speakers could not discourse in public, painters would not appreciate their own work, actors would be booed for lack of commitment. The author even claims that wars begin from folly in spite of the heroism of some.
The second half of Praise of Folly turns to social criticism. Many social classes and professions are mentioned as showing the height of folly through their pretensions and triviality. Philosophers are supposed to be wise but look at Socrates whose wisdom led him to drink hemlock. He spent life philosophising but did not learn about common life. When philosophers govern the State is gloomy as is seen in the examples of Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and the two Catos. Folly's bread and butter is everyday life and philosophers introduce undesirable topics at unsuitable times. As regards other professions “theologians starve, natural scientists are cold-shouldered, astrologers are ridiculed, and dialecticians neglected.” People respect doctors and lawyers but they display arrogance. It is clear that these most blessed arts contain within them a high degree of stupidity.
Theologians are a special target since they are proud of their arcane discussions and their twisting of scripture to suit their prejudices, all the while ignoring the message of Christ. They are sure of their erudition and say they can plumb mysteries but they spend their time quibbling over footnotes and dealing with absurd questions. However, they still do not have a scientific definition of sin. Erasmus suggests that instead of attacking the Saracens with armies Christians should send loud-mouthed theologians to wear them down. Theologians spend too much time on describing hell in detail and imagining other worlds and they are intolerant of others' ideas.
Erasmus complains that monasteries have forgotten the gospel while the Church hierarchies live in luxury. Monks pretend to live poorly and spiritually but they are obsessed with esoteric rules such as the number of knots in a shoelace. At the second coming when Christ welcomes seamen and coachmen monks will be shocked, but until that time they will be happy with their holy grandiloquence. Folly laughs at the monks' sermons and says that neither Cicero, Demosthenes nor a swineherd would tax their listeners in such a way. Instead of preaching about the gospel they prefer to talk about “conclusions, corollaries, ridiculous hypotheses and hair-splitting distinctions."
Princes ignore their subjects and pander to their own caprices. They embrace folly by doing what they please and calling it precedent. Many clerics of the Church hierarchy also spend their time in follies. They carry around symbols of their evangelical work but their behaviour is different. They are more interested in looking after their treasures than their flocks. The Pope does not live a Christlike life, either. Were he to accept that style of life “off they would go, all those riches, honours, powers, triumphs, appointments, dispensations, special levies and indulgences; away with the troops of horses, mules, flunkies, and all the pleasures that go with them!” The Popes accept war with an eagerness which is unchristian. They preach 'love your neighbour' but kill in the name of their dogmas. Instead of treating others with charity they terrify them to extract more contributions. Of course, Folly adds, wise men don't make money because they are limited by their conscience.
In the final part of the book Folly refers to other authors who made her famous. Homer and Epicurus praise childishness and absurdity. Scotus, Ecclesiastes and Jeremiah are also among those who appeared foolish. Ecclesiastes said “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.” The scriptures describe the wise man as one who imagines himself superior while the fool has an open and generous heart.
The last subject is the Christian fool. Folly explains that Christ was the greatest fool because he took on sin to redeem sinners. For her this means that Christianity is more foolish than wise. Christians are also fools because they seek divine transformation to become godlike. Folly observes that religious people are simpletons and the apostles were simple, not learned men. In fact those who accept Christian piety should be thought of as insane for they accept insults and tricks, disdain their friends, fast, look forward to death and are insensitive to human feelings. Christians resemble Plato's cave dwellers who only knew shadows. The man who saw the light pitied his fellow cavemen and they saw him as crazy. As pious believers they only care for their souls and reject the senses which become atrophied. They subordinate the visible to the invisible. However, when humans distance themselves from their bodies they come closer to madness.
Folly ends her speech reminding her listeners to enjoy life since they are her eminent followers. “Clap your hands, live well, and drink deep, most illustrious disciples of Folly.”
Folly among theologians
"They are fortified with an army of scholastic definition, conclusions, corollaries, and propositions both explicit and implicit…. They quibble about concepts, relations, instants, formalities, quiddities and ecceities, which a man could not possibly perceive unless like Lynceus he could see through blackest darkness things which don’t exist…. You’d extricate yourself faster from a labyrinth than from the tortuous obscurities of realists, nominalists, Thomists, Albertists, Ockhamists, and Scotists…. Such is the erudition and complexity they all display that I fancy the apostles themselves would need the help of another Holy Spirit if they were obliged to join issue on these topics with our new breed of theologians."
Folly claims that theologians are those who least accept her services. They barricade themselves behind academic arguments and arrogance. They rework the scriptures to suit their theses and try to dazzle their listeners with minutiae and needless speeches. Christ's message is lost to those ecclesiastics who love luxury. The tone of Erasmus' criticism loses its light touch here and becomes more cutting.
Folly in human relationships
Folly is needed especially in married couple and friends. There would be more divorces without jokes, flattery, compromise, mutual misunderstandings and dissimulation. Couple are enabled to overlook each other's flaws through the folly of thinking of their partners as ideal. It would also be difficult to have children without folly. Friends rely on folly to convince themselves that character flaws are irrelevant. In fact that people can find pleasure in each other's company despite human failings is due to folly. Folly thus claims to be central to human rapport.
"Briefly, no society, no association of people in this world can be happy or last long without my help; no people would put up with their prince, no master endure his servant, no maid her mistress, no teacher his pupil, no friend his friend, no wife her husband, no landlord his tenant, no soldier his drinking-buddy, no lodger his fellow-lodger -unless they were mistaken, both at the same time or turn and turn about, in each other."
Christianity and Folly
Erasmus wrote that "the entire Christian religion seems to bear a certain natural affinity to folly, and relate far less clearly to wisdom" . The Bible has many examples of the need for folly in religion even from the apostles in the beginning who were ignorant and carried Christ's message of avoiding wisdom and embracing folly. Genesis has the story of God denying knowledge to Adam and Eve by the prohibition to eat from the tree of knowledge. Happiness in Christianity is akin to madness.
"Or what should I say of them that hug themselves with their counterfeit pardons [i.e., indulgences]; that have measured purgatory by an hourglass, and can without the least mistake demonstrate its ages, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, as it were in a mathematical table? Or what of those who, having confidence in certain magical charms and short prayers invented by some pious imposter, either for his soul’s health or profit’s sake, promise to themselves everything: wealth, honour, pleasure, plenty, good health, long life, lively old age, and the next place to Christ in the other world, which yet they desire may not happen too soon, that is to say before the pleasures of this life have left them?"
Self-love and flattery
Both of these traits are usually negative but Folly insists that they are social benefits. People must admire themselves before they can be esteemed by others because this is self-love which "lifts dejected spirits, raises people out of the dumps, enlivens the languishing, animates the dull, heartens the sick, placates the angry, brings lovers together, and keeps them together." Folly advises that honesty and truth are dangerous to self-esteem and that flattery is thus a virtue. Adulation and self-worth help humanity to forget its problems and live their lives.
"Tell me, by all the gods, is anyone happier than that class of men whom we commonly call fools, idiots, morons, and simpletons -names, in my opinion, of exquisite beauty?"
The uselessness of philosophy
In Praise of Folly philosophy is not a useful enterprise. Philosophers make grand claims to comprehend nature, essence, existence and God but their ideas are useless in ruling states as historical evidence shows us. Philosophers are also obnoxious in company since they bring neither laughter nor pleasure. It is more profitable to live your life than contemplate it like a philosopher.
Folly; "But I make such good use of human ignorance and imbecility, playing sometimes on forgetfulness of evils and other times on hope of good, sprinkling in a bit of pleasure here and there, that I bring mankind some relief from their accumulated woes."
Folly is ubiquitous
All sorts of classes and professionals use folly. In the end fools are foolish through behaviour and they are foolish because they do not accept folly. This is so because wisdom does not make for happiness but folly does. When Folly talks people listen; when wisdom discourses people don't.
Folly's speech makes comments on oratory itself. She claims not to use rhetorical tricks but does. She uses figures of speech to criticise figures of speech which underlines her argument that her own discourse is a folly.