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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book Nineteen

We had a good old-fashioned small town garage sale this weekend, featuring 10,000 books, during which we read our nineteenth book this year, the Praise of Folly, by Erasmus.

Moriae Encomium was written with Thomas More as the intended audience. Folly, a woman, addresses a crowded assembly with a eulogy in praise of herself. The first half of the book celebrates in a bantering tone drunkeness, ignorance, self-love, flattery, forgetfulness, idleness, pleasure, madness, sensuality, revelry, and sound sleep. Folly says
I am the one--and indeed, the only one--whose divine powers can gladden the hearts of gods and men.
Erasmus then turns to satire in Folly's criticism of the politics of the time:
Picture the prince, such as some of them are today: a man ignorant of the law, well nigh an enemy to his people's advantage while intent on his personal convenience, a dedicated voluptuary, a hater of learning, freedom, and truth, without a thought for the interests of his country, and measuring everything in terms of his own profit and desires. Then give him a gold chain, symbol of the concord between all the virtues, a crown studded with precious stones to remind him that he must exceed all others in every heroic quality. Add a sceptre to symbolize justice and a wholly uncorrupted heart, and finally, the purple as an emblem of his overwhelming devotion to his people. If the prince were to compare these insignia with his way of life, I'm sure he would blush to be thus adorned, and fear that some satirist would turn all these trappings into a subject for mockery and derision.
Most of the remainder of the second half of the book is devoted to a fierce critique of organized religion. Folly's attack reaches monks, popes, and commoners, and she reveals what she believes to be the genuine message and mission of Jesus, offering proofs of Jesus' own folly. Her most pointed admonishments are aimed at religious officials, and she frequently reminds us that ecclesiastical titles denote a function in the church, not power or status.

Perhaps the guise of Folly served as a shield behind which Erasmus could hide from authorities while he launched his attacks. Though the first part of the book is (certainly from Folly's point of view) just as serious as the rest, the light-hearted tone makes one question the sincerity of all the praises. It is in the satire and criticism that Erasmus makes arguments most convincing, and most threatening to those in power. There Folly proves to be unexpectedly earnest. Indeed, at the end she notes
I've long been forgetting who I am, and I've 'overshot the mark'.
But then isn't that one of the best aspects of Folly?


  1. Oh, this sounds like a fun read. You had 10,000 books at your garage sale? If you lived closer to me I would have been there pawing through them :)

  2. Stefanie, if there are any specific titles you need feel free to let me know, if I have them I can get them out to you.