On Living Life in Erasmus’
The Praise of Folly
Folly’s appearance to her audience is the definitive showcase of what are many contradictory, ambiguous dualities. Commanding the attention of both spectator and reader, she, from the very outset of Erasmus’ most recognized text, becomes a symbol of opposing concepts. It is soon learned that this amalgam of contradictions is termed Folly, and so it would seem in honour of her role in this primary scene. In this instance, Folly is both actress—in the play of life she is to describe and decree—and rhetorician, both, Erasmus will wittily argue are purveyors of soothing falsity. It is this main juxtaposition which lays the foundation for what is essentially a book of seemingly endless others. Folly’s audience, that is, her spectators, are also her class of pupils; her readers simultaneously her religious initiates, et cetera. It is in this initial presentation that the reader, the spectator, the initiate, may become acquainted with what is at once an amusing description and pedagogical manifesto of one’s own performance of one’s life, which is ultimately a play. What Folly reveals about the play of life is that it is rooted in duality.
Erasmus in his Praise of Folly can be observed to present a threefold supportive body to his main revelation of duality. Folly, serving doubly as Erasmus’ own voice and as the personality of his ideal, goes on to extol the lessons and performances of the truth of opposites. In this capacity, she demonstrates through linguistic cunning, how amalgams of conceptual polar opposites can solidify one new reality. Folly also teaches and acts the virtues of the sense of carnival in which Erasmus wrote the work and which serves as the epitome of the play of life. By ambiguously blurring the boundary between perversion of the play of life and its daily application, Folly shows that carnival is not a mere seasonal sentiment, but the highest way of life. Finally, the Praise of Folly will unveil itself as being a theatrical instruction manual—a script—of sorts to serve as the blueprint for the lives of the truly pious. These three main themes permeate the entirety of Folly’s encomium, and are supported by that text’s commentators Donald Gwynn Watson and Cornelis Augustijn.
Examining the primary text, there seems apparent an underlying truth in the numerous opposites presented by Folly when she continually resorts to speaking in dualities. Simultaneously, this paraxodical inversion of language serves as the ironic word-play which creates the humour that defines and drives her Praise; what Watson aptly calls “Folly’s mirror” (Donald Gwynn Watson, Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and the Spirit of Carnival, Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn, 1979, pp. 340-341). “The deception, this disguise, is the very thing that holds the attention of the spectators[,]” writes Erasmus, speaks Folly, is why “ . . . the whole life of mortal men . . . is but a sort of play” (Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, pp. 43-44). Though not directly an opposite, as Watson points out, “ . . . Erasmus [mocks those] unable to see themselves in the mirrors of Folly’s speech”, and it is Folly’s speech in its ambiguity which relegates her readers and spectators to her world. A reality is created from the implausible pairings Erasmus voices through Folly. In this sense, two negatives seem to become a positive philosophically in the primary text.
“ . . . Christ is most pleased with those who are farthest removed from the slyness of the fox. Hence he preferred to ride on an ass . . . [and n]o other animal is more stupid”, says Folly (Erasmus, 129). Pointing out that Christ, a symbol of intellect and spiritual wisdom literally joins with a symbol of stupidity and simplicity despite his regal stature as the son of God are the two opposing ideas which, in this example, create the realism of humility and humble complacency. At the same time, this poses and amusing scene and further demonstrates Erasmus’ skill in engaging the reader humorously and intellectually. In regards to the performance of one’s play of life, Folly in this example shows that an attraction to the opposite is ideal, at the very least in presenting satisfaction. It is that this satisfaction with one’s situation is possible that constitutes one of the three major directions given by the Praise. “And surely it is perverse not to adapt yourself to the prevailing circumstances . . . to insist that the play should not be a play” (Erasmus, 44). According to Watson, this inversion of the “rhetoric of humanism” is the emergence in Western culture of the “ . . . knowledge [of] the rationality of human conduct”, which Erasmus first saw in the carnival culture of his life time (Watson, 342).
Watson goes on to interpret the Praise of Folly, though, as being not merely inspired by the inversions demanded by contemporary carnival tradition in the time of Erasmus, but as the point entirely (Watson, 341-346). Importantly, carnival was the annual opportunity afforded the masses—the Fools—of Europe to in a mild sense, protest the abuses of the offices of Christianity and the community all while in the name of Christianity (Watson, 343). Watson’s view would paint Praise not so much as a body of directions for acting one’s play of life, but as an expression of what was in the context of the world of Erasmus an escape from cultural anxiety (Watson, 344). In this vein, Watson must be viewing carnival as the single performance once a year of life’s play, while Erasmus begs dramatically through the voice of Folly to differ. Carnival is but a perversion of life’s play, one mere episode in its lengthy series, its chronology. Folly, using the example of a corrupt king, tells her audience that in situations such as criticism of ones government and cultural oppression and perversion—such as what carnival seeks to remedy through farce and debauchery—the unmasking of the actors in life’s play and particularly a play which lasts but one instance a year, is horrendous. “Everything would suddenly look different: . . . the actor . . . would be revealed as a wretched human being[;] . . . to destroy the illusions in this fashion would spoil the whole play” (Erasmus, 43). While the sense of carnival is undeniable in the Praise of Folly, it is that text’s constant exploitation of the same values as those of carnival which teach the reader—the spectator of Folly’s performance—that their own performance should be a constant one, not an occasional nor even scheduled one, and never should the pleasant veil of outlet granted by carnival be lifted.
The third merit of Folly’s speech is that it is itself instructive. Basically a manual, Augustijn painstakingly demonstrates it as being one which was in Erasmus’ day constantly revised and reissued (Augustijn, 69). “ . . . [G]ood judgment,” Folly points out, “ . . . is very important in warfare. I grant you, it is, at least for the general, but even that judgment must be of a military sort, not philosophical” (Erasmus, 36). In this passage, Folly is stating using her clever metaphors, that it is action which takes precedence over though; acting which takes precedence over mere observation. Warfare can be seen to mean life, and we are each the general in command of the battles which are our lives. Augustijn goes so far as to take Praise beyond the scope of being a pedagogical treatise, and makes the text itself an end, a game, an action to be performed (Augustijn, 58). These views make for the revelation of another duality present in the Praise of Folly, the juxtaposition of the opposites of script and performance; the intent and the created, very much the soul of drama and certainly a cue to the performance of one’s role in one’s play of life.
When Folly said “Nor do I ever refuse any mortal a share of my gifts”, she aimed to invite all those who chance upon her into her mysteries and to use the knowledge thereby gained—or more appropriately, lost or abandoned—to perform their play (Erasmus, 73). Essentially, the play of one’s life requires very little effort, and like carnival, it is in this sense an utter perversion—like much of the primary text—of convention. The benefits of Folly on one’s life through its performance come “ . . . all with no effort from you” she promises, showing that her nature is found in men to begin with (Erasmus, 73).
The wise man retreats to the books of the ancients, and there learns mere verbal trifles. The fool plunges into the thick of things, staring danger in the face, and in this way (unless I am badly mistaken) he acquires true prudence (Erasmus, 42).
As Folly here boasts of the true value of the lesson she is preaching, her praise is festooned with the preference of experience and action over observation, as noted previously. “Plung[ing] into the thick of things”, the fool gains not mere hands-on experience, but is learning by acting; this is comparable to the notion previously that reaction to one’s situation is more crucial than being prepared for a situation. In such a manner, the Praise of Folly becomes an experience on many levels, and as this quote reveals, it is a work of dually passive observation and active amusement, lesson and play, experience and performance—all on the part of its reader, its spectator.
What direction the Praise of Folly reveals to us to be taken in the performance of the play which is for each of us our life, is less demanding than it is obvious. Folly seeks to make known, through her barbed wit and inversion of norms that which is in each of us, but too often neglected. A blissful ignorance seems ultimately to pervade the charitable works of Folly as she goes about remedying the flaws of our existence by blessing us with but more prominent personal flaws. The two secondary arguments presented here in relation to this and argued by Watson and Augustijn, respectively, signal separate themes in Folly’s encomium. Watson focuses almost exclusively on the socio-political importance and what he argues as motive of Erasmus’ primary text. Carnival is that predominant theme and seems plausible to some extent, though when examining the Praise of Folly in an educational vein, viewing it as a guide by which one may perfect the flawed living of their dramatic life, one finds Watson missing the point. The spirit of carnival in its humanist escapism is definitely resounding Folly’s words, but not limiting. Augustijn focuses more accurately on the game presented by the text. Augustijn notices the underlying dualism which, when studied as a whole drawn from the entire Praise, reveals a straightforward plan of performance for the reader who is also a spectator observing Folly’s very performance simultaneously. It is a complex work and one whose ambiguities serve to stir their examiner to foolish initiation and appreciation.
In acting doubly as a guide on how to perform the play of life, the Praise of Folly has a threefold main plan. In her truth of opposites, Folly manages to exploit ambiguity to a possible pedagogical advantage by inverting opposites of conventional wisdom and proverbs to create from these positives and negatives a new reality, a new convention. These realities form the basis of Folly’s advice. This advice is borne of an underlying, though altered sense of carnival inspired by that in which Erasmus was given to direct exposure in his lifetime. Though in Praise, carnival is the inspiration and not the framework from which life’s play may be modeled. Foolishness is already in each person, but Folly seeks to initiate through her dualities, men into this mysterious revelation. In these feats, Folly achieves her greatest simultaneous effect by enlisting her encomium as both amusing satire of then-current affairs as well as a distinct and implicit manual of instruction. In duality, Folly demonstrates just how always to perform in this, life’s play of two—wise or simple—choices: foolishly.
Augustijn, Cornelis. “The Praise of Folly,” Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence, chapter 6. Trans. J. C. Grayson. University of Toronto Press, 1991: 57-70 and 204-7.
Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Trans. Clarence H. Miller. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Watson, David Gwynn. “Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and the Spirit of Carnival,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3 (May 1974): 333-53.