Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly (1509)

How much Satisfaction Self-Love Begets Everywhere

And though I am in haste, yet I cannot yet pass by them who, though they differ nothing from the meanest cobbler, yet 'tis scarcely credible how they flatter themselves with the empty title of nobility. One derives his pedigree from Aeneas, another from Brutus, a third from the star by the tail of Ursa Major. They show you on every side the statues and pictures of their ancestors; run over their great-grandfathers and the great-great-grandfathers of both lines, and the ancient matches of their families, when themselves yet are but once removed from a statue, if not worse than those trifles they boast of. And yet by means of this pleasant self-love they live a happy life. Nor are they less fools who admire these beasts as if they were gods.

But what do I speak of any one or the other particular kind of men, as if this self-love had not the same effect everywhere and rendered most men superabundantly happy? As when a fellow, more deformed than a baboon, shall believe himself handsomer than Homer's Nereus. Another, as soon as he can draw two or three lines with a compass, presently thinks himself a Euclid. A third, that understands music no more than my horse, and for his voice as hoarse as a dunghill cock, shall yet conceive himself another Hermogenes. But of all madness that's the most pleasant when a man, seeing another any way excellent in what he pretends to himself, makes his boasts of it as confidently as if it were his own. And such was that rich fellow in Seneca, who whenever he told a story had his servants at his elbow to prompt him the names; and to that height had they flattered him that he did not question but he might venture a rubber at cuffs, a man otherwise so weak he could scarce stand, only presuming on this, that he had a company of sturdy servants about him.

Or to what purpose is it I should mind you of our professors of arts? Forasmuch as this self-love is so natural to them all that they had rather part with their father's land than their foolish opinions; but chiefly players, fiddlers, orators, and poets, of which the more ignorant each of them is, the more insolently he pleases himself, that is to say vaunts and spreads out his plumes. And like lips find like lettuce; nay, the more foolish anything is, the more 'tis admired, the greater number being ever tickled at the worst things, because, as I said before, most men are so subject to folly. And therefore if the more foolish a man is, the more he pleases himself and is admired by others, to what purpose should he beat his brains about true knowledge, which first will cost him dear, and next render him the more troublesome and less confident, and lastly, please only a few?

And now I consider it, Nature has planted, not only in particular men but even in every nation, and scarce any city is there without it, a kind of common self-love. And hence is it that the English, besides other things, particularly challenge to themselves beauty, music, and feasting. The Scots are proud of their nobility, alliance to the crown, and logical subtleties. The French think themselves the only well-bred men. The Parisians, excluding all others, arrogate to themselves the only knowledge of divinity. The Italians affirm they are the only masters of good letters and eloquence, and flatter themselves on this account, that of all others they only are not barbarous. In which kind of happiness those of Rome claim the first place, still dreaming to themselves of somewhat, I know not what, of old Rome. The Venetians fancy themselves happy in the opinion of their nobility, The Greeks, as if they were the only authors of sciences, swell themselves with the titles of the ancient heroes. The Turk, and all that sink of the truly barbarous, challenge to themselves the only glory of religion and laugh at Christians as superstitious. And much more pleasantly the Jews expect to this day the coming of the Messiah, and so obstinately contend for their Law of Moses. The Spaniards give place to none in the reputation of soldiery. The Germans pride themselves in their tallness of stature and skill in magic.

And, not to instance in every particular, you see, I conceive, how much satisfaction this Self-love, who has a sister also not unlike herself called Flattery, begets everywhere; for self-love is no more than the soothing of a man's self, which, done to another, is flattery. And though perhaps at this day it may be thought infamous, yet it is so only with them that are more taken with words than things. They think truth is inconsistent with flattery, but that it is much otherwise we may learn from the examples of true beasts. What more fawning than a dog? And yet what more trusty? What has more of those little tricks than a squirrel? And yet what more loving to man? Unless, perhaps you'll say, men had better converse with fierce lions, merciless tigers, and furious leopards. For that flattery is the most pernicious of all things, by means of which some treacherous persons and mockers have run the credulous into such mischief.

But this of mine proceeds from a certain gentleness and uprightness of mind and comes nearer to virtue than its opposite, austerity, or a morose and troublesome peevishness, as Horace calls it. This supports the dejected, relieves the distressed, encourages the fainting, awakens the stupid, refreshes the sick, supplies the untractable, joins loves together, and keeps them so joined. It entices children to take their learning, makes old men frolic, and, under the color of praise, does without offense both tell princes their faults and show them the way to amend them. In short, it makes every man the more jocund and acceptable to himself, which is the chiefest point of felicity. Again, what is more friendly than when two horses scrub one another? And to say nothing of it, that it's a main part of physic, and the only thing in poetry; 'tis the delight and relish of all human society.

But 'tis a sad thing, they say, to be mistaken. Nay rather, he is most miserable that is not so. For they are quite beside the mark that place the happiness of men in things themselves, since it only depends upon opinion. For so great is the obscurity and variety of human affairs that nothing can be clearly known, as it is truly said by our academics, the least insolent of all the philosophers; or if it could, it would but obstruct the pleasure of life. Lastly, the mind of man is so framed that it is rather taken with the false colors than truth; of which if anyone has a mind to make the experiment, let him go to church and hear sermons, in which if there be anything serious delivered, the audience is either asleep, yawning, or weary of it; but if the preacher- pardon my mistake, I would have said declaimer- as too often it happens, fall but into an old wives' story, they're presently awake, prick up their ears and gape after it. In like manner, if there be any poetical saint, or one of whom there goes more stories than ordinary, as for example, a George, a Christopher, or a Barbara, you shall see him more religiously worshiped than Peter, Paul, or even Christ himself. But these things are not for this place.

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