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on 23 December 2015
I received the Folio Society edition of Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly" some time ago as a gift which gave me the opportunity to reread the work after a first reading many years ago. The Folio Society edition is lavishly put together in a slipcase, with large print, on quality paper, and with beautiful color illustrations and made a lovely gift. For reading purposes, however, this Penguin edition will do just as well. With the exception of the artwork, it includes the same material as the folio edition -- the introductions, translations, notes, and Erasmus "Letter to Martin Van Dorp". "In Praise of Folly" rewards reading and rereading.
Erasmus (1466 - 1536) wrote the book in 1509 while he was recovering from an illness and revised and expanded the work some years later. He dedicated the work to his friend and fellow-scholar Sir Thomas Moore. The book was translated from the Latin for this edition by Betty Radice (1912 -- 1985) who tutored in philosophy, classics, and English before she became joint editor of Penguin Classics in 1964.
"In Praise of Folly" can be read as a work addressing issues of its time in the Renaissance and Reformation, but the work's significance goes beyond the events of the day. It is a delight to read and still has much to teach.
The work is a satire and a long speech delivered by Folly, the illegitimate daughter of avarice and freshness, in praise of herself and of her pervasive influence on human life. At first, Folly is a satirical figure and the reader and the author aren't meant to like her much. She points out the endless lust, greed, and self-aggrandizement committed under her influence as opposed to the use of reason. Folly talks about the power of sexuality and money-making which are her children. There are sharp, incisive portrayals of in influence of emotion and folly throughout human life from the cradle to the grave. Folly bitingly satirizes professions and nations for their pompousness and partiality to themselves. The book still packs a sting. For example, here is Folly's characterization of my former profession of lawyer.
"Amongst the learned the lawyers claim first place, the most self-satisfied class of people, as they roll their rock of Sisyphus and string together six hundred laws in the same breath, no matter whether relevant or not, piling up opinion on opinion and gloss on gloss to make their profession seem the most difficult of all. Anything which causes trouble has special merit in their eyes."
As Folly proceeds with her speech, she turns gradually to political and religious leaders and academics. The satire becomes more biting as Folly criticizes the ignorance, violence, and greed, and bigotry that she finds in much of the Church and secular leadership of the time. Folly criticizes as well scholastic Aristotelianism and what she sees as its tendency to quibble over minutiae and to ignore the nature of Christianity and the religious life. This portion of the book resulted in a great deal of controversy during Erasmus' lifetime and beyond.
Finally, in the last several pages of the book, Erasmus appears to reverse himself. Instead of criticizing and satirizing the impact of folly on human life, Erasmus seems to in fact praise folly's influence. He alludes to Scripture and to Plato to discuss who wisdom is found in folly and even madness, by which he seems to mean simplicity, humility, and faith, rather than in puffing up one's own self and one's own understanding. With all the learning of the book, Erasmus wants his readers and his Church to return to what he sees as the simplicity of the Gospel and the hope for eternal life. That is the ultimate lesson his "Folly" has to teach.
The book is beautifully written but full of learning and of classical and Scriptural allusions that many readers will find unfamiliar. This edition includes footnotes which explain Erasmus' references in detail. Most readers will find these notes highly useful in getting inside a work which otherwise would be difficult to follow. Among the many writers Erasmus quotes is Virgil. Here is a passage from the book quoting the "Aeneid" with an understanding of folly much like Folly's own.
"Had I a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
A voice of iron, I could not count the types
Of fool, nor yet enumerate the names
Of every kind of folly."
Erasmus' 1515 letter to Van Dorp was new to me and is worth reading. Erasmus emphasizes the religious nature of his writing, advises has friend to learn to study the Scriptures in their original languages, and rejects the charge that his satire disrespects religion or specific persons. The letter is a valuable supplement to reading and understanding "In Praise of Folly".
I was glad to have the opportunity to reread this book after many years. It will reward the attention of every thoughtful reader. "In Praise of Folly" deserves its stature as a classic.