Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly (1509)

Great Authors Have made Folly Famous

What shall I say? There is no measure or end of my praises, and yet 'tis fit my oration have an end. And therefore I'll even break off; and yet, before I do it, 'twill not be amiss if I briefly show you that there has not been wanting even great authors that have made me famous, both by their writings and actions, lest perhaps otherwise I may seem to have foolishly pleased myself only, or that the lawyers charge me that I have proved nothing. After their example, therefore, will I allege my proofs, that is to say, nothing to the point.

And first, every man allows his proverb, "That where a man wants matter, he may best frame some." And to this purpose is that verse which we teach children, "'Tis the greatest wisdom to know when and where to counterfeit the fool." And now judge yourselves what an excellent thing this folly is, whose very counterfeit and semblance only has got such praise from the learned. But more candidly does that fat plump "Epicurean bacon-hog," Horace, for so he calls himself, bid us "mingle our purposes with folly"; and whereas he adds the word brevem, short, perhaps to help out the verse, he might as well have let it alone; and again, "'Tis a pleasant thing to play the fool in the right season"; and in another place, he had rather "be accounted a dotterel and sot than to be wise and made mouths at." And Telemachus in Homer, whom the poet praises so much, is now and then called nepios, fool: and by the same name, as if there were some good fortune in it, are the tragedians wont to call boys and striplings. And what does that sacred book of Iliads contain but a kind of counter-scuffle between foolish kings and foolish people? Besides, how absolute is that praise that Cicero gives of it! "All things are full of fools." For who does not know that every good, the more diffusive it is, by so much the better it is?

But perhaps their authority may be of small credit among Christians. We'll therefore, if you please, support our praises with some testimonies of Holy Writ also, in the first place, nevertheless, having forespoke our theologians that they'll give us leave to do it without offense. And in the next, forasmuch as we attempt a matter of some difficulty and it may be perhaps a little too saucy to call back again the Muses from Helicon to so great a journey, especially in a matter they are wholly strangers to, it will be more suitable, perhaps, while I play the divine and make my way through such prickly quiddities, that I entreat the soul of Scotus, a thing more bristly than either porcupine or hedgehog, to leave his scorebone awhile and come into my breast, and then let him go whither he pleases, or to the dogs.

I could wish also that I might change my countenance, or that I had on the square cap and the cassock, for fear some or other should impeach me of theft as if I had privily rifled our masters' desks in that I have got so much divinity. But it ought not to seem so strange if after so long and intimate an acquaintance and converse with them I have picked up somewhat; when as that fig-tree-god Priapus hearing his owner read certain Greek words took so much notice of them that he got them by heart, and that cock in Lucian by having lived long among men became at last a master of their language.

But to the point under a fortunate direction. Ecclesiastes says in his first chapter, "The number of fools is infinite"; and when he calls it infinite, does he not seem to comprehend all men, unless it be some few whom yet 'tis a question whether any man ever saw? But more ingeniously does Jeremiah in his tenth chapter confess it, saying, "Every man is made a fool through his own wisdom"; attributing wisdom to God alone and leaving folly to all men else, and again, "Let not man glory in his wisdom." And why, good Jeremiah, would you not have a man glory in his wisdom? Because, he'll say, he has none at all.

But to return to Ecclesiastes, who, when he cries out, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" what other thoughts had he, do you believe, than that, as I said before, the life of man is nothing else but an interlude of folly? In which he has added one voice more to that justly received praise of Cicero's which I quoted before, viz., "All things are full of fools." Again, that wise preacher that said, "A fool changes as the moon, but a wise man is permanent as the sun," what else did he hint at in it but that all mankind are fools and the name of wise only proper to God? For by the moon interpreters understand human nature, and by the sun, God, the only fountain of light; with which agrees that which Christ himself in the Gospel denies, that anyone is to be called good but one, and that is God. And then if he is a fool that is not wise, and every good man according to the Stoics is a wise man, it is no wonder if all mankind be concluded under folly.

Again Solomon, Chapter 15. "Foolishness," says he, "is joy to the fool," thereby plainly confessing that without folly there is no pleasure in life. To which is pertinent that other, "He that increases knowledge, increases grief; and in much understanding there is much indignation." And does he not plainly confess as much, Chapter 7, "The heart of the wise is where sadness is, but the heart of fools follows mirth"? by which you see, he thought it not enough to have learned wisdom without he had added the knowledge of me also.

And if you will not believe me, take his own words, Chapter I, "I gave my heart to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly." Where, by the way, 'tis worth your remark that he intended me somewhat extraordinary that he named me last. A preacher wrote it, and this you know is the order among churchmen, that he that is first in dignity comes last in place, as mindful, no doubt, whatever they do in other things, herein at least to observe the evangelical precept.

Besides, that folly is more excellent than wisdom the son of Sirach, whoever he was, clearly witnesses, Chapter 44, whose words, so help me, Hercules! I shall not once utter before you meet my induction with a suitable answer, according to the manner of those in Plato that dispute with Socrates. What things are more proper to be laid up with care, such as are rare and precious, or such as are common and of no account? Why do you give me no answer? Well, though you should dissemble, the Greek proverb will answer for you, "Foul water is thrown out of doors"; which, if any man shall be so ungracious as to condemn, let him know 'tis Aristotle's, the god of our masters. Is there any of you so very a fool as to leave jewels and gold in the street? In truth, I think not; in the most secret part of your house; nor is that enough; if there be any drawer in your iron chests more private than other, there you lay them; but dirt you throw out of doors. And therefore, if you so carefully lay up such things as you value and throw away what's vile and of no worth; is it not plain that wisdom, which he forbids a man to hide, is of less account than folly, which he commands him to cover? Take his own words, "Better is the man that hideth his folly than he that hideth his wisdom."

Or what is that, when he attributes an upright mind without craft or malice to a fool, when a wise man the while thinks no man like himself? For so I understand that in his tenth chapter, "A fool walking by the way, being a fool himself, supposes all men to be fools like him." And is it not a sign of great integrity to esteem every man as good as himself, and when there is no one that leans not too much to other way, to be so frank yet as to divide his praises with another? Nor was this great king ashamed of the name when he says of himself that he is more foolish than any man. Nor did Paul, that great doctor of the Gentiles, writing to the Corinthians, unwillingly acknowledge it; "I speak," says he, "like a fool. I am more." As if it could be any dishonor to excel in folly.

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