The Praise of Folly
The Praise of Folly (Latin: Stultitiae Laus) is an essay written in Latin in 1509 by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam and first printed in 1511. The essay is narrated in the voice of a personified Folly, who extols her virtues and explains how she is unjustly decried by her critics.
- How slightly soever I am esteemed in the common vogue of the world, (for I well know how disingenuously Folly is decried, even by those who are themselves the greatest fools,) yet it is from my influence alone that the whole universe receives her ferment of mirth and jollity: of which this may be urged as a convincing argument, in that as soon as I appeared to speak before this numerous assembly all their countenances were gilded over with a lively sparkling pleasantness: you soon welcomed me with so encouraging a look, you spurred me on with so cheerful a hum, that truly in all appearance, you seem now flushed with a good dose of reviving nectar, when as just before you sate drowsy and melancholy, as if you were lately come out of some hermit’s cell. But as it is usual, that as soon as the sun peeps from her eastern bed, and draws back the curtains of the darksome night; or as when, after a hard winter, the restorative spring breathes a more enlivening air, nature forthwith changes her apparel, and all things seem to renew their age; so at the first sight of me you all unmask, and appear in more lively colours. That therefore which expert orators can scarce effect by all their little artifice of eloquence, to wit, a raising the attentions of their auditors to a composedness of thought, this a bare look from me has commanded.
- Encomium igitur audietis non Herculis, neque Solonis, sed meum ipsius, hoc est, Stultitiae. Iam vero non huius facio sapientes istos, qui stultissimum & insolentissimum esse praedicant, si quis ipse laudibus se ferat. Sit sane quàm volent stultum, modo decorum esse fateantur. Quid enim magis quadrat, quàm ut ipsa Moria suarum laudum sit buccinatrix, & aute heauten aule? Quis enim me melius exprimat quam ipsa me? Nisi si cui forte notior sim, quam egomet sum mihi.
- Prepare therefore to be entertained with a panegyric, yet not upon Hercules, Solon, or any other grandee, but on myself, that is, upon Folly. And here I value not their censure that pretend it is foppish and affected for any person to praise himself: yet let it be as silly as they please, if they will but allow it needful: and indeed what is more befitting than that Folly should be the trumpet of her own praise, and dance after her own pipe? for who can set me forth better than myself? or who can pretend to be so well acquainted with my condition?
- I verify the old observation, that allows him a right of praising himself, who has nobody else to do it for him: for really, I cannot but admire at that ingratitude, shall I term it, or blockishness of mankind, who when they all willingly pay to me their utmost devoir, and freely acknowledge their respective obligations; that notwithstanding this, there should have been none so grateful or complaisant as to have bestowed on me a commendatory oration
- I shall entertain you with a hasty and unpremeditated, but so much the more natural discourse.
- The reason of my not being provided beforehand is only because it was always my humour constantly to speak that which lies uppermost.
- Let no one be so fond as to imagine, that I should so far stint my invention to the method of other pleaders, as first to define, and then divide my subject, i.e., myself. For it is equally hazardous to attempt the crowding her within the narrow limits of a definition, whose nature is of so diffusive an extent, or to mangle and disjoin that, to the adoration whereof all nations unitedly concur. Beside, to what purpose is it to lay down a definition for a faint resemblance, and mere shadow of me, while appearing here personally, you may view me at a more certain light?
- Wherefore since they are so eager to be accounted wise, when in truth they are extremely silly, what, if to give them their due, I dub them with the title of wise fools: and herein they copy after the example of some modern orators, who swell to that proportion of conceitedness, as to vaunt themselves for so many giants of eloquence, if with a double-tongued fluency they can plead indifferently for either side, and deem it a very doughty exploit if they can but interlard a Latin sentence with some Greek word, which for seeming garnish they crowd in at a venture; and rather than be at a stand for some cramp words, they will furnish up a long scroll of old obsolete terms out of some musty author, and foist them in, to amuse the reader with, that those who understand them may be tickled with the happiness of being acquainted with them: and those who understand them not, the less they know the more they may admire; whereas it has been always a custom to those of our side to contemn and undervalue whatever is strange and unusual, while those that are better conceited of themselves will nod and smile, and prick up their ears, that they may be thought easily to apprehend that, of which perhaps they do not understand one word.
- Mihi vero neque Chaos, neque Orcus, neque Saturnus, neque Iapetus, aut alius id genus obsoletorum, ac putrium Deorum quispiam pater fuit. Sed ploutos ipse unus, vel invitis Hesiodo & Homero, atque ipso adeo Iove, pater andrôn te theôn te. Cuius unius* nutu, ut olim, ita nunc quoque sacra profanaque omnia sursum ac deorsum miscentur. Cuius arbitrio bella, paces, imperia, consilia, iudicia, comitia, connubia, pacta, foedera, leges, artes, ludicra, seria, (iam spiritus me deficit) breviter, publica privataque omnia mortalium negocia administrantur. Citra cuius opem, totus ille poëticorum numinum populus, dicam audacius, ipsi quoque dii selecti, aut omnino non essent, aut certe oikositoi sanè quam frigidè victitarent. Quem quisquis iratum habuerit, huic ne Pallas quidem satis auxilii tulerit. Contra, quisquis propitium, is vel summo Iovi, cum suo fulmine mandare laqueum possit.
- My father was neither the chaos, nor hell, nor Saturn, nor Jupiter, nor any of those old, worn out, grandsire gods, but Plutus, the very same that, maugre Homer, Hesiod, nay, in spite of Jove himself, was the primary father of the universe; at whose alone beck, for all ages, religion and civil policy, have been successively undermined and re-established; by whose powerful influence war, peace, empire, debates, justice, magistracy, marriage, leagues, compacts, laws, arts, (I have almost run myself out of breath, but) in a word, all affairs of church and state, and business of private concern, are severally ordered and administered; without whose assistance all the Poets’ gang of deities, nay, I may be so bold as to say the very majordomos of heaven, would either dwindle into nothing, or at least be confined to their respective homes without any ceremonies of devotional address: whoever he combats with as an enemy, nothing can be armour-proof against his assaults; and whosoever he sides with as a friend, may grapple at even hand with Jove, and all his bolts.
- I did not, like other infants, come crying into the world, but perked up, and laughed immediately in my mother’s face.
- There is no reason I should envy Jove for having a she-goat to his nurse, since I was more creditably suckled by two jolly nymphs; the name of the first drunkenness, one of Bacchus’s offspring, the other ignorance, the daughter of Pan; both which you may here behold among several others of my train and attendants, whose particular names, if you would fain know, I will give you in short. This, who goes with a mincing gait, and holds up her head so high, is Self-Love. She that looks so spruce, and makes such a noise and bustle, is Flattery. That other, which sits hum-drum, as if she were half asleep, is called Forgetfulness. She that leans on her elbow, and sometimes yawningly stretches out her arms, is Laziness. This, that wears a plighted garland of flowers, and smells so perfumed, is Pleasure. The other, which appears in so smooth a skin, and pampered-up flesh, is Sensuality. She that stares so wildly, and rolls about her eyes, is Madness. As to those two gods whom you see playing among the lasses the name of the one is Intemperance, the other Sound Sleep. By the help and service of this retinue I bring all things under the verge of my power, lording it over the greatest kings and potentates.
- If, as one has ingenuously noted, to be a god is no other than to be a benefactor to mankind; and if they have been thought deservedly deified who have invented the use of wine, corn, or any other convenience for the well-being of mortals, why may not I justly bear the van among the whole troop of gods, who in all, and toward all, exert an unparalleled bounty and beneficence?
- Wisdom makes men weak and apprehensive, and consequently you'll generality find the wise associated with poverty, hunger, and the reek of smoke, living neglected, inglorious, and disliked. Fools, on the other hand, are rolling in money and are put in charge of affairs of state; they flourish, in short, in every way.
- If you're after pleasure, then women (who play the biggest part of the comedy) are wholeheartedly for the fools, and flee in horror from a wise man as from a scorpion.
Quotes about The Praise of Folly
- Erasmus dramatizes a well-established political position: that of the fool who claims license to criticize all and sundry without reprisal, since his madness defines him as not fully a person and therefore not a political being with political desires and ambitions. The Praise of Folly, therefore sketches the possibility of a position for the critic of the scene of political rivalry, a position not simply impartial between the rivals but also, by self-definition, off the stage of rivalry altogether.
- J. M. Coetzee, “Erasmus’s Praise of Folly: Rivalry and Madness,” Neophilologus 76 (1992), p. 1