|Left: Portrait of Thomas More by Hans Holbien the Younger (1527).|
Right: Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam by Hans Holbein the Younger (1523).
Praise of Folly, The Praise of Folly, or In Praise of Folly (Lof der Zotheid) is a long essay by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam first published in 1511, and said to be written in just a week in 1508. It's addressed to his friend Sir Thomas More, a councillor to Henry VIII and Lord High Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532, and the author of Utopia (1516). It was written in Latin under the title Moriae Encomium - literally 'The Praise of Folly'.
More and Erasmus had spent that week together and, as Erasmus explains in the preface, that week had largely inspired the essay. He goes on,
"... I decided to amuse myself with praise of folly. What sort of goddess Athene put that notion into your head, you may well ask. In the first place, it was your own family name of More, which is as near to the Greek work for folly, moria, as you are far from it in fact, and everyone agrees that you couldn't be father removed. Then I had an idea that no one would think so well of this jeu d'espirit of mine as you, because you always take such delight in jokes of this kind, that is, if I don't flatter myself, those which aren't lacking in learning and wit. In fact you like to play the part of a Democritus in the mortal life we all share. Your intelligence is too penetrating and original for you not to hold opinions very different from those of the ordinary man, but your manners are so friendly and pleasant that you have the rare gift of getting on well with all men at any time, and enjoying it."
Erasmus then goes on to adopt the persona of Folly who, quite simply, addresses to a crowd her numerous virtues. She is said to be a goddess, the daughter of Plutus, the god of wealth and a nymph, Freshness. Her nurses were Inebriation and Ignorance, her friends Philautia (self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (oblivion), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (madness), Tryphé (wantonness), Komos (intemperance) and Negretos hypnos (deep sleep). Her virtues, she tells us, are many, and primarily, she brings the happiness that is much needed by all, especially the afflicted. She brings amusement, contentment, hilarity, and entertainment that effectively keeps the world turning, without which basic functions, even marriage and childbirth, could not be met.
She then goes on to criticise those who would dismiss her, for example churchmen and academics, lawyers, and doctors. They, she argues, are hypocritical, denying her whilst embodying a higher kind of folly that brings not happiness but harm. She then turns her attention to Christianity, saying it is in fact the worst kind of folly that separated its believers from God.
It is an entertaining and thought-provoking read, and, given the time period, a brave piece of writing. Though it reads in a rather light and airy way, it is dense, attacking many of the norms and values of its day; theology and, critically, the conduct of theologians, mainstream Christianity, and even philosophy and the loftiness of philosophers. It also pokes fun at the seriousness of society, the self-importance of it, a society that takes itself far too seriously to enjoy life in short. It does raise questions on the nature and importance of happiness, and how essential it is not only to the individual but wider society.