Review of Praise of Folly

Image result for praise of folly penguinWhat was it about?

At the start of the 16th century, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam writes an encomium on folly from the perspective of Folly herself. Inspired by the satires of Lucian whom Erasmus translated with his friend Thomas More, Praise of Folly is a critique of late medieval society and religion. School theologians concern themselves with nonsensical questions and parish priests are barely literate. Popes and princes go to war. Mendicants are known for their wealth, arrogance, and greed. The satire begins with the genealogy of Folly before moving to a description of her role in the ancient world. Folly argues that humanity is indebted to her. Although philosophers generally condemn folly, life would be unbearable without some foolishness. In fact, folly holds a special place in the Christian tradition. Praise of Folly (trans. Betty Radice) is both a social satire and a commentary on true wisdom.

What did I think of it?

I read Praise of Folly at the right time. Last semester I took a course on medieval philosophy, and I am currently reading Don Quixote. Therefore, late medieval theology and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics are all I think of these days. There’s nothing like reading Praise of Folly after a semester-long course on the scholastics! Reading this book  was therefore quite rewarding.

The narrative voice changes throughout the work. The first part is clearly from Folly’s perspective. She is not beyond ridiculing 16th century humanists for their learning. But the voice changes mid-way through the work. Folly’s criticism of the Church is clearly Erasmus’. It no longer reads as a satire but as a diatribe. I wish Erasmus’ had maintained Folly’s perspective throughout the work. I wonder what she would have said. The final part is on the place of folly in Christianity. Here, Erasmus shares his philosophical and social views with the reader.

My Penguin edition came with a good introduction and thorough footnotes. Because Praise of Folly is a highly intellectual satire, the footnotes are indispensable. Thanks to the editor, it is quite accessible to the non-specialist. Erasmus’ Colloquies are (in my opinion) superior to Praise of Folly, but Praise of Folly was more influential. It voiced the criticisms of countless intellectuals on the eve of the Reformation. Erasmus never wrote for the lay person, but his writings inspired educational and religious reforms in 16th century Europe. I am glad I read it when I did.

Once I finish and review Don Quixote, I hope to make at least one post comparing it to Praise of Folly.

Favorite Quote (!)

“Nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense. A man’s conduct is misplaced if he doesn’t adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance, won’t even remember that convivial maxim ‘Drink and depart’, and asks for the play to stop being a play. On the other hand, it’s a true sign of prudence not to want wisdom which extends beyond your share as an ordinary mortal, to be willing to overlook things along with the rest of the world and wear your illusions with a good grace. People say that this is really a sign of folly, and I’m not setting out to deny it – so long as they’ll admit on their side that this is the way to play the comedy of life.”

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