Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly (1509)

Folly's Friend Erasmus

But here I meet with a great noise of some that endeavor to peck out the crows' eyes; that is, to blind the doctors of our times and smoke out their eyes with new annotations; among whom my friend Erasmus, whom for honor's sake I often mention, deserves if not the first place yet certainly the second. O most foolish instance, they cry, and well becoming Folly herself! The apostle's meaning was wide enough from what you dream; for he spoke it not in this sense, that he would have them believe him a greater fool than the rest, but; when he had said, "They are ministers of Christ, the same am I," and by way of boasting herein had equaled himself with to others, he added this by way of correction or checking himself, "I am more," as meaning that he was not only equal to the rest of the apostles in the work of the Gospel, but somewhat superior. And therefore, while he would have this received as a truth, lest nevertheless it might not relish their ears as being spoken with too much arrogance, he foreshortened his argument with the vizard of folly, "I speak like a fool," because he knew it was the prerogative of fools to speak what they like, and that too without offense.

Whatever he thought when he wrote this, I leave it to them to discuss; for my own part, I follow those fat, fleshy, and vulgarly approved doctors, with whom, by Jupiter! a great part of the learned had rather err than follow them that understand the tongues, though they are never so much in the right. Not any of them make greater account of those smatterers at Greek than if they were daws. Especially when a no small professor, whose name I wittingly conceal lest those choughs should chatter at me that Greek proverb I have so often mentioned, "an ass at a harp," discoursing magisterially and theologically on this text, "I speak as a fool, I am more," drew a new thesis; and, which without the height of logic he could never have done, made this new subdivision- for I'll give you his own words, not only in form but matter also- "I speak like a fool," that is, if you look upon me as a fool for comparing myself with those false apostles, I shall seem yet a greater fool by esteeming myself before them; though the same person a little after, as forgetting himself, runs off to another matter.

But why do I thus staggeringly defend myself with one single instance? As if it were not the common privilege of divines to stretch heaven, that is Holy Writ, like a cheverel; and when there are many things in St. Paul that thwart themselves, which yet in their proper place do well enough if there by any credit to be given to St. Jerome that was master of five tongues. Such was that of his at Athens when having casually espied the inscription of that altar, he wrested it into an argument to prove the Christian faith, and leaving out all the other words because they made against him, took notice only of the two last, viz., "To the unknown God"; and those too not without some alteration, for the whole inscription was thus: "To the Gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa; To the unknown and strange Gods." According to his example do the sons of the prophets, who, forcing out here and there four or five expressions and if need be corrupting the sense, wrest it to their own purpose; though what goes before and follows after make nothing to the matter in hand, nay, be quite against it. Which yet they do with so happy an impudence that oftentimes the civilians envy them that faculty.

For what is it in a manner they may not hope for success in, when this great doctor (I had almost bolted out his name, but that I once again stand in fear of the Greek proverb) has made a construction on an expression of Luke, so agreeable to the mind of Christ as are fire and water to one another. For when the last point of danger was at hand, at which time retainers and dependents are wont in a more special manner to attend their protectors, to examine what strength they have, and prepare for the encounter, Christ, intending to take out of his disciples' minds all trust and confidence in such like defense, demands of them whether they wanted anything when he sent them forth so unprovided for a journey that they had neither shoes to defend their feet from the injuries of stones and briars nor the provision of a scrip to preserve them from hunger. And when they had denied that they wanted anything, he adds, "But now, he that hath a bag, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath none, let him sell his coat and buy a sword."

And now when the sum of all that Christ taught pressed only meekness, suffering, and contempt of life, who does not clearly perceive what he means in this place? to wit, that he might the more disarm his ministers, that neglecting not only shoes and scrip but throwing away their very coat, they might, being in a manner naked, the more readily and with less hindrance take in hand the work of the Gospel, and provide themselves of nothing but a sword, not such as thieves and murderers go up and down with, but the sword of the spirit that pierces the most inward parts, and so cuts off as it were at one blow all earthly affections, that they mind nothing but their duty to God.

But see, I pray, whither this famous theologian wrests it. By the sword he interprets defense against persecution, and by the bag sufficient provision to carry it on. As if Christ having altered his mind, in that he sent out his disciples not so royally attended as he should have done, repented himself of his former instructions: or as forgetting that he had said, "Blessed are ye when ye are evil spoken of, despised, and persecuted, etc," and forbade them to resist evil; for that the meek in spirit, not the proud, are blessed: or, lest remembering, I say, that he had compared them to sparrows and lilies, thereby minding them what small care they should take for the things of this life, was so far now from having them go forth without a sword that he commanded them to get one, though with the sale of their coat, and had rather they should go naked than want a brawling-iron by their sides. And to this, as under the word "sword" he conceives to be comprehended whatever appertains to the repelling of injuries, so under that of "scrip" he takes in whatever is necessary to the support of life.

And so does this deep interpreter of the divine meaning bring forth the apostles to preach the doctrine of a crucified Christ, but furnished at all points with lances, slings, quarterstaffs, and bombards; lading them also with bag and baggage, lest perhaps it might not be lawful for them to leave their inn unless they were empty and fasting. Nor does he take the least notice of this, that he so willed the sword to be bought, reprehends it a little after and commands it to be sheathed; and that it was never heard that the apostles ever used or swords or bucklers against the Gentiles, though 'tis likely they had done it, if Christ had ever intended, as this doctor interprets.

back Contents next page
Raven's Bookshelf at