Erasmus

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            Contents  

Introduction

Friends in Books

When to Escape

Old Learning

The Life of Letters

Panegyrics

Lost Literature

War

Conduct in Life

In Praise of Folly

Folly Speaks

Sources

 

Introduction

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the illegitimate son of a priest,  was born in either Rotterdam or Gouda in Holland. He himself was ordained a priest in 1492 but left the monastic life two years later to become secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. He went to Paris to study theology in 1495, and to England in 1499, where he became a close friend of the humanists John Colet and Thomas More. Under their encouragement  he studied both the classics and religious literature. He published the Enchiridion Milities Christiani in 1501, an appeal for a return to the spirit of early Christianity, with its emphasis on mutual love, sharing, and rejection of the pursuit of material riches. In 1504 he was in Belgium, producing an edition of Lorenzo Valla’s work. He returned to England to study the Greek texts there, later going to Basel to produce in 1516 a new edition of the New Testament, based on Greek sources.

Erasmus traveled widely and was a prolific letter writer.  In his letters he discussed the folly of war, the value of books, and the need to act from judgment rather than impulse. Some extracts from these letters are given here. He also wrote Praise of Folly, which in one of his letters he describes as written in 1509 to amuse Thomas More. In other letters he urged that it should not be judged as too sharply censorious. “I wanted to advise, not to rebuke, to do good, not injury, to work for, not against, the interests of men.” The extracts from the book given here deal primarily with secular follies that Erasmus mocked, rather than the religious follies that occupy the last third of the book and brought a storm about his head.

 

Friends in Books

1    You want to know what I am doing. I devote myself to my friends, with whom I enjoy the most delightful intercourse. With them I shut myself in some corner, where I avoid the gaping crowd, and either speak to them in sweet whispers or listen to their gentle voices, talking with them as with myself. Can anything be more convenient than this? They never hide their own secrets, while they keep sacred whatever is entrusted to them. They speak when bidden, and when not bidden they hold their tongue. They talk of what you wish, as much as you wish and as long as you wish; do not flatter, feign nothing, keep back nothing, freely tell you of your faults, and take no man's character away. What they say is either amusing or wholesome. In  prosperity they moderate, in affliction they console, do not vary with fortune, follow you in all dangers, and last out to the very grave. Nothing can be more candid than their relations with one another. I visit them from time to time, now choosing one companion and now another with perfect impartiality. With these humble friends I bury myself in seclusion. What wealth or what scepters would I take in exchange for this tranquil life?

      If there is any obscurity in our metaphor, all that I have said about friends is to be understood of books, whose familiarity makes me a happy man, unlucky only in this, that I do not enjoy this felicity in you.

                      From a Letter to an Unnamed Correspondent

 

When to Escape

2    My boy brought me a message from you that I was a coward, because I had shifted my quarters on account of some fear of plague. An insufferable reproach, if addressed to a Swiss warrior, but hurled at a poet, fond of ease and retirement, it misses its aim. Indeed in cases of this kind, I hold that absence of fear is not so much a sign of courage as of stupidity. When you have to do with an enemy that may be driven back, resisted and conquered by fighting, in that case he who wishes may play the hero for me. What are you to do against an evil which can neither be seen nor conquered? There are things which may be escaped, but cannot be overcome.

                      From a Letter to Faustus, the King’s Poet

 

Old Learning

3    It may be asked why I am so pleased with the example of Cato the Censor, as to be learning Greek at my age. I answer, reverend father, that if I had had this mind when a boy, or rather if the times had been more favorable to me, I should have been the happiest man in the world. As it is, I am determined that it is better to learn late than to be without the knowledge which it is of the utmost importance to possess. We had a taste of this learning a long time ago, but it was only with the tip of the tongue, as they say; and having lately dipped deeper into it, we see, what we have often read in the most weighty authors, that Latin erudition, however ample, is crippled and imperfect without Greek. We have in Latin at best some small streams and turbid pools, while they have the clearest springs and rivers flowing with gold.

               From a Letter  to Antony, Abbot of St. Berlin

 

The Life of Letters

4    We are living a happy and agreeable life, both because we enjoy the society of Batt, and because we are heart and soul in letters; a life of the gods, if we had only a few more books! Owing this condition of mind to literature, should you not, my dear Antony, think me most ungrateful, if I were out of humor with my studies for not having brought me any profit? Let others be loaded with gold and carried to the height of glory, while my Muses bring me nothing but vigils and envy, still I shall never turn my back upon them, as long as this mind endures and retains its contempt for fickle fortune. I am not unaware that I have pursued a kind of study which some think strange, others endless, others unprofitable, others even impious; so they seem to the crowd of those who are professors of learning. But I am all the more encouraged, as I am sure of two facts, that the best things have never found favor with the crowd, and that this kind of study is most approved by the smallest number, but the most learned.

                      From a Letter to Antony Lutzenburg

 

Panegyrics

5    Those persons who think Panegyrics are nothing but flattery, appear not to know with what design this kind of writing was invented by men of great sagacity, whose object it was, that by having the image of virtue put before them, bad princes might be made better, the good encouraged, the ignorant instructed, the mistaken set right, the wavering quickened, and even the abandoned brought to some sense of shame. Is it to be supposed that such a philosopher as Callisthenes, when he spoke in praise of Alexander, or that Lysias and Isocrates, or Pliny and innumerable others, when they were engaged in this kind of composition, had any other aim but that of exhorting to virtue under pretext of praise?

                      From a Letter to Joannes Paludanus, Orator of the University of Louvain

 

Lost Literature

6    When I, a Hollander, was publishing in Italy my work on Proverbs, all the learned who were within reach, came forward to supply me with the authors, not yet printed, that they thought likely to be of use to me. Aldus had nothing in his treasures which he did not place at my service. The like was done by John Lascaris, by Baptista Egnatius, by Marcus Musurus, by Brother Urbano. I was assisted by some whom I knew neither personally nor by name. . .

    There are old manuscripts hidden in the colleges and monasteries of Germany, France and England, which, with few exceptions, their possessors are so far from volunteering to communicate, that, when asked, they either hide them, or refuse, or sell the use of them at an extravagant charge, ten times the value of priced copies. The result is that, after being so finely kept, they are either eaten away by moths or mould, or stolen by thieves. The nobility too are so far from aiding literature by their liberality that they think no money more completely thrown away than what is spent for such a purpose, and nothing quite satisfies them which does not produce some return.

                                    From The Adages

 

War

7    I often wonder what thing it is that drives men to such a degree of madness as to rush with so much pains, so much cost, so much risk, to the destruction of one another. For what are we doing all our lives but making war? The brute beasts do not all engage in war, but only some wild kinds; and those do not fight among themselves, but with animals of a different species. They fight too with their natural arms, and not like us with machines, upon which we expend an ingenuity worthy of devils.

8    Consider too how many crimes are committed under pretext of war, when as they say, in the midst of arms, laws are silent; how many thefts, how many acts of sacrilege, how many rapes, how many other abuses which one is ashamed even to name; and this moral contagion cannot but last for many years, even when the war is over. And if you count the cost, you will see how, even if you conquer, you lose much more than you gain. What kingdom can you set against the lives and blood of so many thousand men? And yet the greatest amount of the mischief affects those who have no part in the fighting. The advantages of peace reach everybody; while in war for the most part even the conqueror weeps; and it is followed by such a train of calamities, that there is good reason, in the fiction of poets, that war comes to us from hell and is sent by the furies. I say nothing of the revolutions of states, which cannot take place without the most disastrous results.

9    If the desire of glory tempts us to war—that is no true glory which is mainly sought by wrongful acts. It is much more glorious to found, than to overthrow, states; but in these days it is the people that builds and maintains cities, and the folly of princes that destroys them. If gain is our object, no war has ended so happily as not to have brought more evil than good to those engaged in it; and no sovereign damages his enemy in war without first doing a great deal of mischief to his own subjects. And finally, when we see human affairs always changing and continued, like the ebb and flow of Euripus, what is the use of such great efforts to raise an empire, which must presently by some revolution pass to others? With how much blood was the Roman empire raised, and how soon did it begin to fall!

10  But you will say, that the rights of those in power must be maintained. It is not for me to speak unadvisedly about the acts of princes. I only know this, that summum jus—extreme right—is often summa injuria—extreme wrong; there are those in power who first decide what they want, and then look out for a justification with which to cloak their proceedings. And in such great changes of human affairs, among so many treaties that have been made and abandoned, who, I ask you, need lack a justification?

11  But suppose there is a real dispute, to whom some sovereignty belongs, where is the need of bloodshed? It is not a question concerning a nation's welfare, but only whether it is bound to call this or that personage its sovereign. . . if you are only a wise man, pray calculate what the vindication of your right will cost you. If the cost is excessive—and it will surely be so, when you assert it by arms—do not then insist upon your title, perhaps unfounded after all, at the cost of so much misery to mankind, of so many killed, so many orphans, so many tears.

12  But if you look a little closely, you will find that it is generally the private interests of those in power that give occasion to war. And I would ask you, do you think it consistent with humanity that the world should be at any moment disturbed by war when this or that sovereign has some cause of complaint against another, or perhaps pretends to have one.

                      From a Letter to Antony of Bergen, Abbot of St. Berlin

 

Conduct in Life

13  Above all things I beg and entreat you to accustom yourself in the conduct of life to be guided by judgment, and not by impulse. If you have made any mistake, consider at once whether you can set it right in any way, or diminish the evil; that you will do better if you do it quietly than in an excited state. If there is any remedy, apply it; if not, what good can come of anger or sorrow, except that you double the evil by your own fault.

14  I beseech you by our friendship to let nothing be more important to you than life and health. If you can keep your fortune without loss of health, do so by all means; if not, you lose more than you gain, when you save your fortune by risking your health or quiet.

15  Live with your good wife in such a way, that she may love you not only as a bedfellow, and not only love but respect you. And so confide in her, as to make her a partner with yourself, in all the things that relate either to household affairs or to the enjoyment of life. Maintain your authority over your household, but in such a fashion, that domestic familiarity may be flavored with courtesy.

                             From a Letter to Peter Gillis

 

In Praise of Folly

16  In my late travels from Italy into England, that I might not trifle away my time in the rehearsal of old wives' fables, I thought it more pertinent to employ my thoughts in reflecting upon some past studies, or calling to remembrance several of those highly learned, as well as smartly ingenious friends, I had left behind, among whom you, dear sir, were represented as the chief. And whose memory, while absent at this distance, I enjoy with no less a contentment than I experienced while present and enjoying your personal conversation. Which last afforded me the greatest satisfaction I could possibly hope for.

 17     Having therefore resolved to be productive, and deeming the time improper for any serious concerns, I thought it best to amuse myself with drawing up a panegyric upon Folly. How! What maggot, says you, put this in your head?. Why, the first hint, Sir, was your own surname of More, which in Greek comes as near the literal sound of the word folly as you yourself are distant from the signification of it—and that in all men's judgments is a vast separation. 

18    In the next place, I supposed that this kind of sporting wit would be especially acceptable to you. To you, Sir, who are likely to be mightily pleased with this sort of jocose raillery which, if I mistake not, is neither dull nor impertinent; to you, who in your ordinary converse are considered yourself  to be a descendant of Democritus. For truly, as you do from a singular vein of wit very much dissent from the common herd of mankind so, by an incredible affability and pliableness of temper you have the art of adapting your humor to all types of com­pany. I hope therefore you not only will readily accept of this rude essay as a token from your friend but will also take it under your more immediate protection, as being dedicated to you, and by that title adopt it as yours, rather than leave it to my own paternal care.

                             From  Letter to Thomas More

 

Folly Speaks:

19  However slightly I am praised in the common judgment of the world—for I well know how hypocritically Folly is decried, even by those who are themselves the greatest fools—yet it is from my influence alone that the whole universe receives its ferment of mirth and hilarity. As a convincing argument for this, observe that as soon as I appear to converse with this numerous assembly, all faces are gilded over with a lively sparkling pleasantness.

20  I say there two sorts of madness. One, the furies bring from hell. Those that are possessed by it are spurred on to wars and disputes by an inexhaustible thirst of power and riches, or inflamed to some infamous and unlawful lust, enraged to act the parricide, seduced to become guilty of incest, sacrilege, or some other of those crimson-dyed crimes, or, finally, to be so awakened in their conscience as to be lashed and stung with the whips and snakes of grief and remorse.

      But there is another sort of madness, proceeding from Folly, that is so far from being any way injurious or distasteful as to be thoroughly good and desirable. And this happens when by a harmless error in judgment the mind is freed from those cares which would otherwise gratingly afflict it, and is smoothed over with a contentment and satisfaction it could not in any other way so happily enjoy. And this is that comfortable apathy or insensibility which Cicero, in a letter to his friend Atticus, wishes to master, so that he might take less to heart the insufferable outrages committed by the tyrannizing triumvirate, Lepidus, Antonius, and Augustus.

21  But if anyone allows not just his senses but his judgment be imposed upon in the most ordinary common concerns, he will come under the scandal of being thought next door to a madman. As would be one who hearing an ass bray should take it for ravishing music; or one who was born a beggar fancying himself as great as a prince; or the like. But if this sort of madness is—as is most usual—accompanied with pleasure, it brings great satisfaction both to those who are possessed with it and to those who deride it in others, though they are not both equally mad. And this species of madness has a larger extent than the world commonly imagines.

22  Among these are to be ranked such as take an immoderate delight in hunting, and think no music comparable to the sounding of horns and the yelping of beagles. And were they to require medication, would no doubt think the most supreme virtues to be in the dried shit on a dog's tail. When they have run down their game, what strange pleasure they take in cutting of it up! Cows and sheep may be chopped by common butchers, but what is killed in hunting must be dismembered by none under the rank of a gentleman, who shall throw down his hat, fall devoutly on his knees, and drawing out a fancy swordfor a common knife is not good enoughafter several ceremonies shall dissect all the parts as artificially as the best skilled anatomist, while all that stand round shall watch this intently, and seem to be mightily surprised with the novelty, though they have seen the same an hundred times before. And he that can but dip his finger, and taste of the blood, shall think his own blood improved by it.

23  Near akin to these are such as take a great fancy for construction. They raise up, pull down, begin anew, alter the model, and never rest till they run themselves out of their whole fortune, taking up such a space for buildings that they leave themselves not one foot of land on which to earn a living, nor one poor cottage to shelter themselves from cold and hunger. And yet all the while are mighty proud of their contrivances, and sing a sweet requiem to their own happiness.

24  To these are to be added those plodding virtuosos that delve into the most inward recesses of nature to pillage for a new invention. They rake over sea and land to turn up some hitherto hidden mystery. And they are so continually led on by the hopes of success that they spare no cost or pains, but always trudge on, and upon a defeat in one course, courageously tack about to another, and fall upon new experiments, never giving up till they have reduced their whole estate to ashes, and have not money enough left unmelted to purchase one crucible or still.

25  Whether dice-players may be so favorably dealt with as to be admitted among the assembly of fools is scarcely yet resolved. But it is certainly a hugely vain and ridiculous sight when we see some persons so devoted to this occupation that at the first rattle of the cup their hearts shake within them, and keep consort with motion of the dice. They are always egged on with the hopes of winning, till at last, in a literal sense, they have thrown away their whole estate. They have made shipwreck of all they have, scarce escaping to shore with their own clothes to their backs. All the time they think it sacred religious dogma to be just in the payment of their gambling stakes, and will cheat any creditor sooner than him who trusts them in play.

26  The next to be placed among the regiment of fools are such as make a trade of telling, or inquiring after, incredible stories of miracles and prodigies. Never fearing that a lie will choke them, they will muster up a thousand strange tales of spirits, ghosts, apparitions, raisings of the devil, and such like abominations of superstition which, the farther they are from being probably true, the more greedily they are swal­lowed, and the more devoutly believed. And these absurdities do not only bring them an empty pleasure and cheap amusement, but they are a rewarding trade, procuring a comfortable income to such priests and friars as make their money by this craft.

27  To these again are nearly related such other fools that attribute strange virtues to the shrines and images of saints and martyrs, and so would make their credulous proselytes believe that, if they pay their devotion to St. Christopher in the morning, they shall be safe and secure the following day from all dangers and misfortunes. That, if soldiers, when they first take up arms, shall come and mumble through such a set prayer before a picture of Saint Barbara, they shall return safe from all battles. Or if anyone prays to Erasmus on such particular holidays, with the ceremony of wax candles and other fop­peries, he shall in a short time be rewarded with a plentiful increase of wealth and property.

28  What shall I say of such as advertise and practice the fraud of pardons and indulgences? Those that will compute the time of each soul's residence in purgatory, and assign them a longer or shorter stay there, according as they purchase more or fewer of these paltry pardons and saleable exemptions? Or what can be said bad enough of others who pretend that by the force of such magical charms or by their fumbling over the fool's heads in the rehearsal of such and such petitions (which some religious impostors invented either for amusement or, what is more likely, for gain) they shall procure riches, honor, pleasure, health, long life, a lusty old age, and even, after death sitting at the right hand of their god.

29  Now though I am in so great haste and would not willingly be stopped or detained, yet I cannot pass on without bestowing some remarks upon another class of fools who, though their first descent was perhaps no better than from a bar tender or tinker, yet highly esteem themselves on account of their birth and parentage. One fetches his pedigree from Aeneas, another from Brutus, a third from King Arthur. They hang up worm-eaten pictures of their ancestors as proof of antiquity, and keep a long list of their predecessors, with an account of all their offices and titles. All the while, they themselves are but poor copies of their forefathers' dumb statues, degenerating even into those heraldic beasts that they carry in their coat of arms as ensigns of their nobility.

30  But why should I dwell upon one or two instances of folly, when there are so many of like nature. Conceit and self-love by strength of delusion make many believe themselves happy, when in fact they are truly wretched and despicable. Thus the most ape-faced, ugliest fellow in the whole town will think himself a mirror of beauty. Another will be so proud of his brains that, even though he can barely mark out a triangle with a pair of compasses, he thinks he has mastered all the difficulties of geometry, and is able to excel Euclid himself. A third will admire himself as a ravishing musician, though he has no more skill in handling of an instrument than a pig playing on the organ. And another who groans in his throat as hoarse as a cock crows will be so proud of his voice that he thinks he sings like a nightingale.

31  It is almost needless to point out the folly of many in the arts and sciences who are all so egregiously conceited that they would sooner give up their title to land than part with their reputation. Among these are more especially stage-players, musicians, orators, and poets: the more stupid they are and the more overbearing their pride, the greater their ambition. And no matter how conspicuously dull they are, they find admirers. In fact, the sillier they are the more highly they are extolled.

32  As nature in her dispensation of conceitedness has dealt with private persons, so has she given a particular swatch of self-love to each country and nation. Upon this account it is that the English challenge the prerogative of having the most handsome women, of the being most accomplished in the skill of music, and of keeping the best tables. The Scotch brag of their gentility, and pretend the genius of their native soil inclines them to be good disputants. The French think themselves remarkable for complaisance and good breeding. The Sorbonists of Paris pretend before any others to have made the greatest proficiency in polemic divinity. The Italians value themselves for learning and eloquence. . .But not to mention any more, I suppose you are already convinced how great an improvement and addition to the happiness of human life is occasioned by self-love. Next step to which is flattery: for as self-love is nothing but the cajoling of ourselves, so the same fawning on others is termed flattery.

33  Flattery, it is true, is now looked upon as a scandalous name, but only by people who mind words more than things. They are prejudiced against it by its reputation, because they suppose it jostles out all truth and sincerity. Whereas indeed its property is quite the contrary, as appears considering the examples of several animals. What is more fawning than a spaniel? And yet what is more faithful to his master? What is more fond and loving than a tame squirrel? And yet what is more sporting and inoffensive?

34  There is indeed a pernicious, destructive sort of flattery with which confidence tricksters and crooks deceive their prey, by decoying them into traps and snares beyond recovery. But that which is the effect of folly is of a much different nature. It proceeds from a gentleness of spirit and a flexibleness of good humor, and comes far nearer to virtue than that other ex­treme of friendship, namely, a stiff, sour, dogged moroseness. Flattery refreshes our minds when tired, enlivens them when melancholy, reinforces them when languishing, invigorates them when heavy, recovers them when sick, and pacifies them when rebellious. It gives us a way to procure friends, and to keep them. It entices children to swallow the bitter rudiments of learning. It gives a new ferment to the almost stagnated souls of old men. It both reproves and instructs without offence, under the mask of commenda­tion. In short, flattery makes every man fond and indulgent of himself, which is indeed no small part of each man's happiness; and at the same time renders him obliging and complaisant in all company, where it is pleasant to see how asses rub and scratch one another.

35  Yes, you say, but to flatter is to deceive; and to deceive is very harsh and hurtful. No, rather just contrary; nothing is more welcome and bewitching than being deceived. They are much to be blamed for a lack of perceptiveness that make a judgment of things according to what they are in themselves, when the whole nature of things consists solely in the opinions that people have of them. For all worldly matters are enveloped in such a cloud of obscurity, that the short-sightedness of' human understanding cannot pry through and arrive to any comprehensive knowledge of them. Hence the sect of academic philosophers have modestly resolved that, all things being no more than probable, nothing can be known as certain; or, if there could, it would only interrupt and weaken the pleasure of a more happy ignorance.

36  Finally, our souls are so fashioned and molded, that they are sooner captivated by appearances than by real truths; of which, if any one would demand an example, he may find a very familiar one in churches, where, if what is delivered from the pulpit be a grave, solid, rational discourse, all the congregation grow weary, and fall asleep, till their patience be released. Whereas if the preacher—pardon the impropriety of the word, the prater I should have said—be zealous in his thumps of the cushion and clownish gestures, and spend his time in the telling of pleasant stories, his beloved shall then stand up, tuck their hair behind their ears, and be very devoutly attentive.

37  In the meanwhile observe how cheaply happiness is purchased by the strength of fancy. For whereas many things even of inconsiderable value would cost a great deal of pain and perhaps money to procure, personal opinion spares such cost. And yet by self-deception it gives us things in as ample a manner as if we possessed them in reality. Thus he who feeds on such a stinking dish of fish that another must hold his nose at some distance from him, yet if he feed heartily and relish it on his palate, they are to him as good as if they were fresh caught. Whereas, on the other hand, if any one be invited to never so dainty a cut of sturgeon, if it go against his stomach to eat any, he may sit a hungry, and bite his nails with greater appetite than his victuals.

38  Among the several good properties of Bacchus, this is looked upon as the chief, namely, that he drowns the cares and anxieties of the mind, though it be indeed but for a short while. For after a small rest, when our brains become calm, they all return to experience their former corrosion. How much greater is the more durable advantage which folly brings? For by one uninterrupted fit of being drunk with conceit, I perpetually cajole the mind into riots, revels, and all the excess and energy of  joy.

39  Well, but there are none, you say, build altars, or dedicate temples to Folly. I marvel, as I have before intimated, that the world should be so wretchedly ungrateful. But I am so good natured as to pass by and pardon this seeming affront. Indeed, the proposal that such actions are unnecessary may well be put forward. For to what purpose should I demand the sacrifice of frankincense, cakes, goats, and swine, since all persons everywhere pay me that more acceptable service—which all divines agree to be more effectual and meritorious—namely, an imitation of my communicable attributes? I do not therefore in any way envy the goddess of hunting for having her altars bedewed with human blood. I think myself most religiously adored when my own devotees, as is their usual custom, conform themselves to my practice, adopt my characteristic style, and so create a living copy of me in their own persons.

40  And as to the manner of my worship, I am not yet so irrecoverably foolish, as to be prayed to by proxy, and to have my honor intermediately bestowed upon insensate images and pictures. This quite subverts the true end of religion, because the unwary supplicants seldom distinguish between the things themselves and the objects they represent. The same respect in the meanwhile is paid to me in a more legitimate manner. For to me there are as many statues erected as there are moving canvases of mortality, every person, even against his own will, carrying the image of me—the sign of folly—stamped on his countenance.

41  It is indeed almost too incredible to relate what mirth, what sport, what diversion, the groveling inhabitants here on earth give to the gods seated in heaven. For these exalted deities spend their fasting, sober hours in listening to those petitions that are offered up, and in succoring such as they are appealed to for redress. But when they are a little entered at a glass of nectar, they then throw off all serious concerns, and go and place themselves on the ascent of some promontory in heaven, and from thence survey the little mole-hill of earth. And trust me, there cannot be a more delightful scene than to view such a theatre so stuffed and crammed with swarms of fools.

42  One falls desperately in love, and the more he is slighted the more does his spaniel-like passion increase. Another is wedded to wealth rather than to a wife. A third pimps for his own spouse, and is content to be a cuckold so he may wear gold-plated horns. A fourth is haunted by jealousy of his visiting neighbors. Another sobs and roars, and plays the child, for the death of a friend or relation; and lest his own tears should not rise high enough to express the torrent of his grief, he hires other mourners to accompany the corpse to the grave and sing its requiem in sighs and lamentations. Another hypocritically weeps at the funeral of one whose death at heart he rejoices for. Here a gluttonous cormorant, whatever he can scrape up, thrusts all into his guts to pacify the shouts of a hungry stomach. There a lazy wretch sits yawning and stretching, and thinks nothing so desirable as sleep and idleness.

43  Some are extremely industrious in other men's business, and sottishly neglectful of their own. Some think themselves rich because their credit is great—though they can never pay—till they go bankrupt and seek to settle their debts. One is so covetous that he lives poor to die rich. One for a small uncertain profit will venture to cross the roughest seas, and risk his life for the purchase of a livelihood. Another will depend on the plunders of war, rather than on the honest gains of peace. Some will befriend and humor such warm old blades as have a good estate and no children of their own to bestow it upon. Others practice the same art of wheedling upon good old women, that have hoarded in their coffers more money bags than they know how to dispose of. Both of these sly flatterers make fine sport for the gods when they are beaten with their own weapons, and as oft happens are fooled by those very persons they intended to prey on.

44  There are base scoundrels in gentility, wheedling merchants who to better sell their commodities lie, swear, cheat, and practice all the intrigues of dishonesty. Yet these think themselves no way inferior to persons of the highest quality, only because they have raked together a plentiful estate. And there are not wanting such insinuating hangers on, who will caress and compliment them with the greatest respect, in hopes of sharing some of their dishonest gains. There are others so infected with the philosophical principle of banishing property and having all things in common that they make no conscience of grabbing and purloining whatever they can get, and converting it to their own use and possession. There are some who are rich only in wishes, and yet while they can only dream of vast mountains of wealth, they are as happy as if their imaginary fancies were founded in real truths.

45  Some put on the best side outermost, and starve themselves at home to appear gay and splendid abroad. One with an open-handed freedom spends all he lays his fingers on. Another is gripped by a logic that demands he catch at and grasp all that comes within reach. One apes it about in the streets to court popularity. Another surrenders to his desire for ease, and sticks to the confineent of a chimney-corner. Many others are tugging hard at law for trifles, and drive forward an endless lawsuit, only to enrich a prevaricating judge or a crooked advocate. One is for overturning a settled government. Another is for some notable heroic attempt. And a third by all means must travel as a pilgrim to some holy site, though he have no other business than the paying of a impertinent token visit, leaving his wife and children to starve while he himself, in truth, has gone to pray for better things.

46  But wait. I would but expose myself too far and incur the guilt of being roundly laughed at, if I proceeded to enumerate the several kinds of the folly of the vulgar. I shall confine therefore my following discourse only to such as seek a reputation for wisdom, and seemingly pass for men of the soundest intellects. Among whom the school masters present themselves in the front, a sort of men who would be the most miserable, the most slavish, and the most hateful of all persons, if I did not in some way alleviate the pressures and miseries of their profession by blessing them with a bewitching sort of madness. . . To wear out themselves in fret and drudgery; to be deafened with the noise of gaping boys; and in short, to be stifled with heat and stench and yet to cheerfully acquiesce in all these inconveniences, schoolmasters by the help of a foolish conceit think themselves as happy as any men living—taking a great pride and delight in frowning and looking big upon the trembling urchins, in boxing, slashing, striking with the rod, and in the exercise of all their other methods of tyranny. While thus lording it over a pack of young, weak kids, they imitate the Cuman ass, and think themselves as stately as a lion that domineers over all the inferior herd.

47  The Poets, although somewhat less beholden to me, must confess  to a professional dependence on me, being mostly lawless youths that pretend to a license for providing proverbial wisdom, while the whole intent of their profession is only to smooth over and tickle the ears of fools. By mere toys of delusion and sham fables, no matter how ridiculously they are bolstered up in an airy imagination, they promise themselves an everlasting name and, by their balderdash, at the same time to celebrate the never-dying memory of others. To these rapturous wits, self-love and flattery are never-failing attendants; nor do any prove more zealous or constant devotees to folly.

48  Of the same gang are those scribbling fops, who think to eternalize their memory by setting up for authors. Among which, though they are all some way indebted to me, are those more especially so who spoil paper in blotting it with mere trifles and impertinences. For as to those graver drudges of the press that write learnedly, beyond the reach of an ordinary reader, who dare submit their labors to the review of the most severe critic, these are not so liable to be envied for their honor, as to be pitied for their sweat and slavery. They make additions, alterations, blot out, write anew, amend, interline, turn it upside down, and yet can never please their fickle judgment, but that they shall dislike the next hour what they penned the former;. And all this to purchase the airy commendations of a few understanding readers, which at most is but a poor reward for all their fasts, observations, confinements, and brain-breaking tortures of invention. Add to this the impairing of their health, the weakening of their constitution, their contracting sore eyes, or perhaps turning stark blind; their poverty, their envy, their debarment from all pleasures, their hastening on of old age, their untimely death, and what other inconveniences of a like or worse nature can be thought upon them. And yet the recompense for all this severe penance is at best no more than a mouthful or two of frothy praise.

49  These, as they are more laborious, so are they less happy than those other hackney scribblers which I first mentioned, who never stand much to consider, but write what comes next into their mind, knowing that the more silly their compositions are, the more they will be bought up by the greater number of readers, who are fools and blockheads. And if they happen to be condemned by some few judicious persons, it is an easy matter to drown their censure by clamor, and to silence them by urging the more numerous commendations of others.

50  Of course, even the learned and more judicious that have wit enough to laugh at the other's folly are very much beholden to my goodness, which—except when ingratitude drowns their frankness—they must be ready upon all occasions to confess. Among these I suppose the lawyers will shuffle in for precedence, and they of all men have the greatest conceit of their own abilities. They will argue as confidently as if they spoke religious doctrine instead of law. They will cite you six hundred several precedents, though not one of them come near to the case in hand. They will muster up the authority of judgments, deeds, glosses, and reports, and tumble over so many musty records that they make their employment, though in itself easy, the greatest slavery imaginable; always believing that the best plea is the one they have taken the most pains over.

51  Next to these come the philosophers in their long beards and short cloaks, who esteem themselves the only possessors of wisdom, and look upon the rest of mankind as the dirt and rubbish of the creation. Yet these men's happiness is only a frantic craziness of brain. They build castles in the air, and infinite worlds in a vacuum. They will give you to a hair's breadth the dimensions of the sun, moon, and stars, as easily as they would do that of a flagon or saucepan. They will give punctual account of the creation of thunder, of the origin of winds, of the nature of eclipses, and of all the other abstrusest difficulties in physics, without the least demur or hesitation, as if they had been admitted into the inner council of nature, or had been eye-witnesses to all the accurate methods of creation. Alas, nature does but laugh at all their puny conjectures. For they never yet made one worthwhile discovery on which they are unanimously agreed in each point of the smallest moment. Each finds nothing plain or evident but that someone or other will be opposed to it and contradict him.

 

Sources

1-18      Adapted from The Epistles of Erasmus,  translated by Francis Morgan Nichols. First published in 1901, reissued in 1962 by Russell & Russell Inc, New York.

19-51   Adapted from by Desiderius Erasmus. Hamilton, Adams & Co, London, 1887.

The Praise of Folly translated by John Wilson can be found online at Project Gutenberg

Erasmus material can also be found at the Erasmus Text Project of Sewanee: The University of the South.

 

 

Adaptation and selection Copyright © Rex Pay 2000