Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly (1509)

Folly Attends a Theological Dispute

There is another, too, whose name out of respect I pass by, a man of no small repute, who from those tents which a Habakkuk mentions, "The tents of the land of Midian shall tremble," drew this exposition, that it was prophesied of the skin of Saint Bartholomew who was flayed alive. And why, forsooth, but because those tents were covered with skins?

I was lately myself at a theological dispute, for I am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity spoke him at least a doctor, answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed it, who said, "Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition." And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, and most men wondered what ailed the man, at last he explained it thus, making two words of one: "A heretic must be put to death. Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological; which, when some, though those very few, opposed, they cut off the dispute, as we say, with a hatchet, and the credit of so uncontrollable an author. "Pray conceive me," said he, "it is written, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore, etc."

And now, as many as were present admired the man's wit, and consequently submitted to his decision of the question. Nor came it into any of their heads that that law concerned only fortunetellers, enchanters, and magicians, whom the Hebrews call in their tongue "Mecaschephim," witches or sorcerers: for otherwise, perhaps, by the same reason it might as well have extended to fornication and drunkenness.

But I foolishly run on in these matters, though yet there are so many of them that neither Chrysippus' nor Didymus' volumes are large enough to contain them. I would only desire you to consider this, that if so great doctors may be allowed this liberty, you may the more reasonably pardon even me also, a raw, effeminate divine, if I quote not everything so exactly as I should. And so at last I return to Paul. "Ye willingly," says he, "suffer my foolishness," and again, "Take me as a fool," and further, "I speak it not after the Lord, but as it were foolishly," and in another place, "We are fools for Christ's sake."

back Contents next chapter

Raven's Bookshelf at