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Some Medieval Elements and Structural Unity in Erasmus' The Praise of Folly

Author(s): Clarence H. Miller


Reviewed work(s):
Source: Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1974), pp. 499-511
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Renaissance Society of America
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SomeMedievalElementsandStructural
Unityin
Erasmus'The Praiseof Folly
by CLARENCE

H. MILLER

IN the courseof editingandannotatingErasmus'ThePraiseofFolly

for the forthcomingAmsterdameditionof his completeworks,I


have come to believethatthe 461 yearssinceits firstpublicationhave
on theMoria.In 1515a fairly
producedonlytwo originalcommentaries
thoroughcommentary,almostas long as the work itselfandof a sort
usuallyreservedfor ancientworks,was publishedwith ThePraiseof
Folly.ReprintedeleventimesduringErasmus'lifetime,1it hasretained
somecurrency,thoughnot much,becauseit was reprintedin the LeydenOperaomniaof 1703-06.Thoughit goesunderthenameof Girardus
Listrius,we know from one of Erasmus'lettersthathe himselfwrote
partof it-how muchwe do not know.2The secondmajorcommentarywasthatby I. B. Kan,publishedatTheHaguein 1898.Inourown
centurysome usefulinformationandsuggestionshavebeenprovided
by MauriceRat3andHoytHudson.4Therest,alas,is not silence,but (as
criticism)fearlessrepeDouglasBush once saidaboutShakespearean
tition.
Kan,who was a classicalscholar,addeda greatdeal of preciseinformationaboutclassicalallusions,but his commentaryhas tendedto
turntheattentionof scholarsandcriticsawayfromthemedievalsideof
Moriabecausehe usuallyignoredmedievalallusions,even when Listriusprovidedsome usefulhints. ThePraiseof Follymight be saidto
havesufferedfroma too thorough-goingvictoryof thehumanistcamBut in
paignagainstmedievaltheology,hagiography,andliterature.5
fact,men like ErasmusandMoreborrowedmorefrom theirenemies
thanwe areoftenlikelyto realize,becausethey themselveswere saturatedwith the culturethey wishedto reform.Forall its brilliantrhe1 F. van der Haeghen,Bibliotheca
Ge'nerale
desPaysBas, re-edited
Belgica:Bibliographie
by Marie-ThereseLenger (Brussels,1964), n, 874-883.
2 J. Austin Gavin and Thomas M. Walsh, 'The Praiseof Folly in Context: The Commentary of Girardus Listrius,' RenaissanceQuarterly, 24 (1971), 195.
3 In his commentaryon Pierre de Nolhac's Frenchtranslation,Paris,1936.
4 In the notes on his English translation,Princeton,1941.
5

C. S. Lewis, EnglishLiteraturein the SixteenthCenturyexcludingDrama (Oxford,

1954), pp. 20-26.

[499 ]

500

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torical fanfare,Folly's proem is a reworking of a thoroughly medieval


topos, the revival of nature and man in the springtime.6
If we follow the leads offered by Listrius,we discover that Erasmus
knew a great deal about the scholastictheology he protested against
with such wit, intensity, and perseverance.Ernst-Wilhelm Kohls (in
Die Theologiedes Erasmus[Basel, 1966]) and John Payne (in Erasmus'
Theologyof the Sacraments
[Richmond,Va., 1970]) have begun to show
that Erasmuswas by no means unsophisticatedor inept as a dogmatic
theologian, though naturallyhe wrote no summa or commentary on
the Sentences.And Raymond Himelick'srecentset of translationscalled
Erasmusandthe SeamlessCoat ofJesus (PurdueUniversity Studies,Lafayette, Indiana,1971) shows how usefulErasmus'ecclesiology may be
to modern readers.In the Moriathere is, of course, no attempt to present positive theology, but Erasmus'knowledge of scholastictheology
made it possible for him to dispatchhis enemies with clean thrustsat
vulnerablepoints-the rapierratherthan the mace. His four yearsat the
University of Pariswere not entirely spent in studying classicalphilology and literature.7The Listriuscommentary often lets us know exactly what distinctionin the commentarieson Lombard'sSentencesor
Gratian'sDecretumFolly is referringto. Conservativetheologiansfound
this little book so infuriatingnot merely becauseof its extravagantwit
but also becauseof its wicked accuracy.
When we readthe questionsthat, accordingto Folly, make great and
illuminatedtheologiansperk up their ears, they sound sufficientlysurreal: 'Whether there is any instantin the generationof the divine person? Whether there is more than one filial relationship in Christ?
Whether the following propositionis possible:God the Fatherhatesthe
Son. Whether God could have taken on the natureof a woman? of the
devil? of an ass?of a cucumber?of a piece of flint?And then how the
cucumberwould have preached,performed miracles,and been nailed

F. J. E. Raby, A Historyof SecularLatinPoetryin theMiddleAges (Oxford, 1934), in,


193, 238-239, 245, 249; and R. Baldwin, The Unity of the CanterburyTales, Anglistica v
siue de rationeconcionandi,
(Copenhagen, 1955), 20-25. In his Ecclesiastes,
Operaomnia
(Leyden, 1703-06, hereaftercited as LB), v, 868B,Erasmusmentionsthe kind of proem
actuallyemployed byFolly and gives a medievalillustrationof it (Prudentius,PassioPetri
et Pauli, Peristephanon,xn, 1-4, CorpusScriptorum
Latinorum
Ecclesiasticorum
LXI, 420).
7 PaceAlbert Hyma in his review of Payne'sbook in Renaissance
Quarterly,24 (1971),
242-244. See Payne, pp. 228-229, and Edward Surtz, S.J., The Praiseof Pleasure (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), pp. 102-118.

ERASMUS'

THE PRAISE OF FOLLY

501

to the cross?'8But howeverfantasticthey sound,almostall of these


questionscan be foundin the actualwritingsof the scholastictheoloandsomenot only
gians,some of themrepeatedwith truefearlessness
in theworkof obscuretheologiansbutalsoin thegreatest,likeThomas
andBonaventure.Godefroidof Fontainesaskswhethertherearetwo
realfilialrelationsin Christ,one to his fatherandone to his mother.9
JohnBuridanaskswhetherit is permissiblefor the fatherto deny the
son, but not for the son to deny the father.10PeterLombard,with a
knowing smile,askswhetherChristcould have been incarnatedas a
woman.11The sameGodefroidaskswhetherChristmighthavetaken
But the devil,the cucumber,
on the natureof an irrationalcreature.12
and the pieceof flintare,so far as I can tell, Erasmus'own exaggerations.Halfthefunof Folly'sgameis to pushtheactualjusta bit beyond
the paleinto a grotesquewildernessof fantasy.I would haveincluded
the questionwhetherChristcouldhave takenon the natureof an ass
amongtheexaggerations,
exceptthatI foundonenamelesspractitioner
asErasmuscalledthem,who askswhetherGodis truly
of quaestiunculae,
an ass, since asseshave their essenceby participationin the divine
essence.13
8 Kan, pp. 116-117. All Englishtranslationsare my own. They are basedon the Latin
of my finaltext (derivedfrom a collationof all editionsprintedin Erasmus'lifetime), but
for convenienceI refer to the correspondingpages in Kan'sedition.
9 Les quatrepremiersQuodlibets,ed. M. de Wulf and A. Pelzer (Louvain,1904), p. 6.
10 Questiones
Aristotelis(Paris,1513), Bk. vm, q. 23, fols.
superdecemlibrosEthicorum

189-189V.

11Sententiaem, dist. 12, 3.


12 Quodlibeta,
ed. J. Hoffinans, iv (Louvain,1924), 208-210.
13 The discussionis part of a set of questionson Books I-rx of Aristotle'sMetaphysics
(fols. 1-49) in PeterhouseMS.152 (CambridgeUniversity), fol. 8v: 'Queritur utrum deus

uere sit asinus....

Omne tale per essentiam prius et uerius est tale quam quod est tale per

participationem.Sed isti asini particularessunt asini per participationem,deus uero est


asinusper essentiam,quoniam omne tale per participationemreduciturad tale per essentiam.Si igiturasiniparticularessuntasiniper participationem,tunc reducunturad aliquid quod est asinusper essentiam,et illud uel erit ydea Platonisuel deus. Nunc autem
non est ponereydeasPlatonis.Quaredeuserit asinusper essentiam...' (I have expanded
abbreviationsand suppliedcapitalsandpunctuation).I owe this referenceto the kindness
of Prof. CharlesErmatingerof St. Louis University. In his letter to Dorp in defenseof
Erasmus'Moria(The Correspondence
of Sir ThomasMore,ed. ElizabethRogers [Princeton
University Press,1947], pp. 38-40), Thomas More attackedPeter of Spain'sSummulae
Logicales,using examples that demonstratean intimate acquaintancewith the enemy.
Prof. RichardSylvesterremarksthatin thisletter 'whathe [More] is reallydoing is to use
"dialectic"againstitselfby redefiningthe term so that it will embracea level of rational
discourseavailableto all men and not merely to the academicschools' ('ThomasMore:
Humanistin Action,' MedievalandRenaissance
Studies,ed. 0. B. Hardison[Universityof
North CarolinaPress,1966], p. 130).

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So too, when Folly drawsan ironicalcontrastbetween modem theo-

logiansandthe apostles,she assertsthatthe apostles'worshippedGod,


but they did so in the spirit,followingno otherdirectivethanthe one
givenin the gospel:"Godis a spiritandthosewho worshiphim should
worshiphim in the spiritandin truth."But it is hardlyclearthatat the
sametime it was revealedto them thata charcoalsketchdrawnon a
wall shouldbe worshippedwith the sameworshipas Christhimself,
providedthatthepicturehastwo fingersextended,long hair,andthree
raysin thehalostuckon the backof the skull.Forwho couldperceive
thesethingsunlesshe had spentthirty-sixwhole yearsstudyingthe
physicsand metaphysicsof Aristotleand the Scotists?'(Kan,p. 120).
Follyrefersto the drawingsof sidewalkartists,asListriusnotes,but the
doctrinesheridiculeswaspropoundedby Aquinashimselfandwas an
to his adherentsfor centuriesafterhis death.14Because
embarrassment
Erasmusknewhis enemieshe knewwhereto look for the weakpoints
armor.
in theirinvincibleandirrefragable
But not all the medievalideasin the Moriaareexposedto ridicule.
Some of Erasmus'views, filteredthroughthe personof Folly, are
his view of merthoroughlyreactionaryand medieval-particularly
so
much
as
not
class
does
chants.Themercantile
appearin Folly'ssurvey
of the socialclasses,but they areamongthatswarmof petty fools she
cannottaketime to indictindividually.Of them she says:'The most
sincethey
foolishandthemeanestprofessionof allis thatof merchants,
even
the
meanest
methods;
seekthe meanestgoal by
thoughthey tell
lies everywhere,perjurethemselves,steal, cheat, deceive, still they
thinkthey outshineeveryoneelsejust becausetheyweargold ringson
theirfingers.Naturallythereis no lackof flatteringfriarswho standin
awe of them and openlycall them "venerable,"
clearlyfor no other
reasonthanto get a littleshareof theirill-gottengains'(Kan,pp. 98view is explainedandreinforcedby thenotein the
99). Thisreactionary
Listriuscommentary,which Erasmusat leastdid not rejectand may
even have writtenhimself:'by "sordid"he meansilliberaland unworthyof a lofty spirit.In the rankingof goods,evenaccordingto the
nothingis vilerthanmoney,andmoneyis the whole obperipatetics,
Even Cicerodoesnot approvethe classof merof
merchant.
the
ject
chantswho buy thingsin one placein orderto sell them at a higher
priceelsewhere.Andveryfew of them,I wouldevengo so farasto say
14

catholique,vi
Aquinas, SummatheologicaIIIa, q. 25, a. 3. Dictionnairede the'ologie

(Paris, 1923), 825-826.

ERASMUS'

THE PRAISE OF FOLLY

503

noneof them,grow richwithoutresortingto fraud.Andyet theyhave


is clearlycondemned,if
the higheststatus,eventhoughmerchandizing
or if we
we maybelieveGregory,forhe is citedin Lombard'sSentences,
and
for
believe
Cassiodorus,
they are
Chrysostom,Augustine,
may
Theopinionsof these
Decretum.
citedin the 88thdistinctionof Gratian's
holy menhasbeenqualifiedandrestrictedby somefriaror otherwho
wishedto flattermerchants....'15Thefriarmentionedin thecommenas St.Antoninus,fifteenthtarymightwell havebeensucha Franciscan
centurybishopof Florence,or St. Bernardinoof Siena.Both friars
recognizethe dangerstraditionallypointedout by theologians,but
both also spendmuch time and effortexplaininghow necessaryand
useful'mercatio'is andunderwhatcircumstances
profitmay be taken
from the exchangeof goodsor money.16
andmedievalnot onlyin theknowledge
But theMoriais reactionary
of scholastictheology it displaysor in a hyper-conservative
attitude
towardmercantilemembersof the middleclass.Its socialsatirealso
reliessignificantlyon the techniquesof medievalsatire,what is someErastimescalledthe literatureof complaintor the satireof estates.17
mus' surveyof social types has remindedsome criticsof the danse
anduntilrecentlyit seemedto be consideredderigeurto repeat
macabre,
fearlesslythat the Moriacan be closely relatedto SebastianBrant's
enormouslypopularsatire,TheShipof Fools.But Brant'ssatire,howeverlively,is so formlessanddiffusethatit wouldprobablyneverhave
beenlinkedwith Erasmusat allif thetwo bookswerenot associated
by
andelementary;
he seems
theirtitles.Brant'ssocialview is fragmentary
to have little or no senseof societyas a large,complex,interrelated
organism.

Erasmus'socialviews, however,even in this witty little book, are


15 I have translatedListriusfrom Froben's1532 edition (Bibliotheca
BelgicaE872),pp.
183-184. The passagesreferredto by ListriusareCicero,De officiis,i, 42, 150; PeterLomiv, dist. 16, 2, PatrologiaLatina(Migne), cxcn, 878-879; DecretumGrabard, Sententiae
tiani,dist. 88, c. xi, CorpusIurisCanonici,ed. E. RichterandE. Friedberg(Leipzig,1922),
I, 307-309; ibid., c. xii, I, 309-310,

quoting Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmos, Patrologia


Latina (Migne), xxxvi, col. 886-887; ibid., c. xiii, i, 310.
16 St. Antoninus,Summatheologica,
m, tit. 8 (Verona,1740; repr.Graz,1959), m, 295-

307; St. BemardinusSenensis,De euangelioaeternosermo xxxm, art. 1, Operaomnia


(Quaracchi-Florence, 1956), IV, 140, and sermo xxxrx, art. 1-2, IV, 266-294. St. Bernar-

dino says that the statementattributedto Chrysostomby Gratianin distinction88 is


either a rhetoricalexaggerationor is simply wrong.
17 Ruth Mohl, The ThreeEstatesin MedievalandRenaissance
Literature(New York,
1933), andJohn Peter, ComplaintandSatirein EarlyEnglishLiterature(Oxford, 1956).

504

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thanBrant's.The middlesectionof the


farwiderandmorearticulated
Moriais a surveyfirstof academicandthen of socialclasses.The first
listincludesgrammarians,
writersof books,lawyers,
poets,rhetoricians,
monks.18
and
The socialclasses
dialecticians,
theologians,
philosophers,
arekings,courtiers,bishops,cardinals,popes,andpriests.Thissurvey
occupiesabouta quarterof the text (Kan,pp. 101-153),the largest
sharebeing devoted to the pivotal groups,the theologiansand the
monks.Erasmus'surveyis more intellectualthan medievalsatireof
estatesusuallyis, butit displaysa similarsenseof hierarchical
cohesiveness.Societyis madeup of the bodypoliticandthe mysticalbody, the
stateandthechurch,eachwith distinctandvariousgroupscontributing
diverselyto the harmonyof the whole. If medievalsatiristslike Nigel
Wireker(orLongchamp)or Langlandprobethe diseasesandwounds
of thesebodiesfiercely,theiroutragenevertheless
dependson anawareness of what the healthysocialorganismshouldbe. Socialills were
believedto springfromthe failureof variousclassesto contributetheir
shareto the whole.
So too Erasmusconcludeshis surveywith two swift'buck-passing'
secularandecclesiastic,
which show societyin a stateof
progressions,
various
classes
refuse
to fulfilltheirduties:'Butpriests
because
collapse
have this in commonwith laymen:they all keep a sharplookout to
harvesttheirprofits,andin thatpointno one is ignorantof the laws.
But if thereis someresponsibility,
theyprudentlyshiftthatonto someone else'sshouldersandpassthe buckdown the line from one to another.In fact, even lay princes,just as they parcelout the dutiesof
so too
rulingto deputies,andthe deputiespassthemon to subdeputies,
they leaveall the practiceof piety, in theirmodesty,to the common
for
people.Thepeoplefoistit off on thosewhom theycallecclesiastics,
all the worldas if they themselveshadnothingto do with the church,
as if theirbaptismalvows hadhadno effectwhatever.Thenthe priests
who call themselvessecular-as if they were united to the world
ratherthanto Christ-passon the burdento the canonsregular,the
canonsto the monks,the laxermonksto the stricterones,bothgroups
to the mendicantorders,the mendicantsto the Carthusians,
andwith
them alonepiety lies buried,hiddenaway in such a mannerthat it
The sectionsdevoted to theologiansandmonks (which arethe two longest sections,
having been greatlyenlargedby Erasmusin 1514)mediatebetween the academicandthe
politicalsurveys:Erasmusconcentrateson the speculativework of the theologiansandon
the practicalpiety and preachingof the monks.
18

ERASMUS'

THE PRAISE OF FOLLY

505

hardlyever appears.In the sameway the popes,howeverdiligentin


harvestingmoney, delegatetheir excessivelyapostoliclaborsto the
bishops,the bishopsto thepastors,thepastorsto theirvicars,thevicars
to themendicantfriars,andtheytoo foistoff theirchargeon thosewho
shearthe fleeceof the flock' (Kan,pp. 153-154).
Follyherselfis awarethathersurveydoesnot entirelyfit thepattern
of the encomium,for shebringsit to a closeby remarking,'Butit is no
part of my presentplan to rummagethroughthe lives of popesand
priests,lestI shouldseemto be composinga satireratherthandelivering
an encomium'(Kan,p. 154). Some criticshave been distressedpreciselybecausethey thinkthatin his socialsurveyErasmuslets us hear
himselfdirectlyratherthanironically.19
Certainlythe genreto which
the Moriaprimarilybelongsis not the satireof estates,but ratherthe
paradoxicalencomium;it is one of the most brilliantexamplesof
Paradoxa
asRosalieColiehasdubbedthe genre.Hoyt HudEpidemica,
son gives a detailedanalysisof Folly'swhole speechas a Quintilian
oration,thoughthelongsurveyof theclassescauseshimsometrouble.20
WalterKaisersupplements
the effortsof Hudsonby findingsignificant
tracesof theAphthonianencomiumin theMoria.21
But therestillseems
to remaina feelingthatthetwo sidesof thework,themedievalsatireof
estatesandthe Renaissance
paradox,havenot quitecoalesced.
The problemmay remindus of the similarsplitin criticalopinion
aboutthe othergreatLatinwork of the earlyRenaissance
in England,
ThomasMore's Utopia.R. W. Chambers,in his greatbiographyof
More (London,1935), was redressingthe balanceby emphasizing
medievalcurrentsin Utopia.At theotherendof thescale,RussellAmes
in CitizenThomasMoreandHis Utopia(Princeton,1949) emphasized
theprogressive,
viewsof Utopia.Anyonewho
liberal,forward-looking
has readthe handsomefestschriftfor FatherSurtzlatelypublishedby
Moreana
will know that the friendlyconflictperpetuatedin the concordiadiscors
of the two Yale editorsof Utopiais farfrom ended.And
19For example,A. E. Douglas, 'Erasmusas a Satirist,'in Erasmus,ed. T. A. Dorey
(Albuquerque,1970),pp. 47-49. A stimulatingpaperon the unity of the Moriadeliveredby
Prof. RichardSylvesterduringthe Notre Dame Erasmussymposiumin 1970encouraged
me to think about the subject of this paper.Joel Lefebvre,in Lesfols et lafolie (Paris,
1968), which I had not had an opportunityto see when I wrote this paper,gives a subtle
and sensitive analysisof the interactionand interpenetrationof the three parts of the
Moria.
20

21

In an appendix to his translation (Princeton, 1941), pp. 129-143.

Praisersof Folly (Cambridge,Mass., 1963), p. 49.

506

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some may even suspectthatthis is exactlythe sort of conflictMore's


book was designedto stirup.
The Moriarestsnot on one but on two basicparadoxes,which deal
with how individualaspirations
towardsuccessandfulfillmentarereof societyat large.Apartfromsomegraceful
latedto the requirements
and amusingpreliminaries
aboutFolly'sbirthplace,lineage,and role
Homeric
the
the
among
gods, firstsection,the partprecedingthe surandsocialclasses,is devotedto theironicalthesisthat
vey of intellectual
thehappiestlife is a fool'slife.Follyenablesus to get alongverywell in
a societyof fools.The wise manis not only ineptandineffectivein the
practicalaffairsof everydayliving, but his harshtruthswould also
destroythe illusionsanddeceptionsnecessaryto keepup the stageplay
of life. Sexualpleasure,the propagationof the humanrace,the pleasuresof the table,friendshipandmarriage,the gloriesof warfare,the
of science,the inventionsof technology,theharmonyof
investigations
civil societyall dependon illusions,self-deception,and vainglorious
Naturalfools areamongthe happiestof men. Even madaspirations.
ness,as long as it is not violent,canmakepeoplefarhappierthanwisdom. Protectedby benevolenteuphoria,fanaticsof all sorts-hunters,
of saints-canmaintain
gamblers,alchemists,
worshippers
superstitious
the illusionof happiness.Self-loveandflatteryoil thewheelsof society
and keep it runningsmoothly.22All life is dual, like the Sileni of
Alcibiades-uglyandbeautifulaccordingto the viewer'sangleof vision.The comedyof life is a playthatcanbe entertaining
only so long
asitsbasicillusionis keptup. To stripawaydisguisesruinstheplayand
leadsonly to disillusionment,
futility,despair,or even suicide.
The ironicdoublevisionof thisfirstpartof ThePraiseof Follyhas
been most frequentlysummarized,analyzed,admired,and relatedto
the outlookof othergreatwritersof the Renaissance,
suchas Ariosto,
As in the Utopiathe readeris
Rabelais,Cervantes,or Shakespeare.
views;with a laugh,
piquantlypoisedbetweenseeminglycontradictory
22 As Folly sums up: 'In short, without me no companionshipamong friends, no
blending of lives in marriagecan be either pleasantor stable-so much that the people
would not toleratetheirprince,nor the servanthis master,nor the maidservanther mistress,nor the teacherhis pupil, nor one friendanother,nor the husbandhis wife, nor the
worker his employer, one lodger would not put up with another,one roommate could
not standanother,if in theirrelationswith one anotherthey did not sometimeserr,sometimes flatter,sometimeswisely overlook things, sometimessoothe themselveswith the
sweet salve of folly' (Kan,pp. 34-35).

ERASMUS'

THE PRAISE OF FOLLY

507

or a smile, or a sigh he is forced to admit that what seems absurdis


sometimes, often, very often, almost always true.
The thirdpartof the Moria,the partfollowing the surveyof academic
and socialclasses,is basedon a paradoxwhich seemsdirectlyopposed to
the first part: the folly of Christianfools throws them out of step with
society at large. This sort of folly does not integrate men into their
social surroundings;it separatesthem from the world and its values.
Such folly may lead to ridiculouseccentricity,mental alienation,a kind
of ecstatic madnessin which even ordinary sense perceptionsmay be
lost. Indeed, this folly seems to be oriented toward the final, perfect
alienationof the beatificvision. Folly capsher argumentwith a brilliant
and daringpun: ecstasy,the alienationof a mind drawnout of itselfinto
union with God, is 'Moriae pars,' Folly's portion, 'which is not taken
away by the transformationof life but is perfected' (Kan, p. 188).
Placed between these two contradictoryparadoxes,the middle third
of the Moria,the survey of academicand social classesin the mannerof
medieval satire, is essential to the impact of the whole work. The
easiestway to discover how essentialis to read the first and last parts
alone: it is like being served two differentkinds of sweet-sour sauce
with no meat for them to flavor. Erasmusclaimed that in the Moriahe
was presenting many of the same goals as in his more serious and
straightforwardworks, except that in the Moriahe was doing it 'via
diuersa.'23His voice does not entirelyreplaceFolly's, but blendswith it
so that Erasmus'own intellectualand social aims can be apprehended
more directly.I supposethat Erasmuswould have had a reply readyfor
anyone who objected to his appropriatingFolly's voice: he noted that
the only fool he mentioned by name in the Moriawas himself.24At any
rate, like More, he could not be satisfiedwith the witty spoofing of
Lucian,who is genial and caustic,witty and flagrant,but so thoroughly
disillusionedthat he seems to have little hope of amelioratingman's
absurditiesand follies. Erasmusintended the Moriato be 'non minus
festiuusquamsalutaris,'25
no lesswitty thanpithy, not lesspleasantthan
profitable. Hence, when he added the longest sections to the Moriain
1514, the expansionsfell mainly in the sectionsdevoted to theologians
and monks. In doing so he placed more emphasison his practicalpro23
24
25

ed. P. S. Allen (Oxford, 1906-47), Ia,93.


Opus EpistolarumDes. ErasmiRoterodami,
Allen, In, 95.
Gavin and Walsh, p. 197.

508

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reform.But theadditionsarein keepingwith the


gramfor ecclesiastical
the middlesection.
character
of
mediating
The medialsurveyagreeswith the firstpartin that both find the
'establishment'
quitefoolishandeven the happierfor its folly. Would
be amongthe most miserableof
andschoolteachers
not grammarians
men, tyrannizingfutilelyover a wretchedand filthy pack of cowed
schoolboys,if theywerenot puffedupby arrogantandfoolishdelusions
of quibblingtheoloThe almostincredibleself-deception
of grandeur?
gianslets them imaginethat by their petty laborsthey supportthe
whole churchlike Atlasholdingthe world on his shoulders.If a king
would he not be most miserable?
consideredhis responsibilities,
But thesehappyfoolsin the middlesectionalsodifferfromthe fools
in thefirstpart.Howeverbeatificfolly maybe for individualacademic
effecton societyas a whole. The
andsocialleaders,it hasa disastrous
are
not
first
roles;they
foolsin the
usuallypresentedin responsible
part
lecherousold men
arealchemists,hunters,gamblers,fortune-hunters,
and women, thick-skulledsoldiers.Even the gods indulgein folly in
theiroff-dutyhours,as it were,when theyhavefinishedsettlingquarrelsandhearingpetitions(Kan,p. 97). In the firstpartthe ineptnessof
wisemenin publicaffairsmightbe borne(we aretold)if theywerenot
boresat parties,dances,plays (Kan,
suchawkwardand cantankerous
pp. 41-42). One important reason why Folly is able to carry off the

ironicalparadoxof the firstpartis preciselythatshe doesnot sortout


peopleaccordingto theirsocialfunctionsbutrathertreatsprivatevices
swarmsof mankind.The fabricof
or depictslarge, indiscriminate
a pageantor a playwhichcan
as
is
unreal,
society presented essentially
and
be maintainedonly by hidingreality acceptingdisguises.
But theverywisemenwho woulddisrupttheplayof life in the first
leadersinpart comprisethe intellectual,political,and ecclesiastical
cludedin the surveyof the secondpart.And theirindividualhappiness
of theirroles.Thusin
consistspreciselyin avoidingthe responsibilities
the firstpartthe robesof a king areonly one of the costumesnecessary
to keepuptheillusionsof life:'Now thewholelifeof mortalmen,what
is it but a sortof play,in whichvariouspersonsmaketheirentrancesin
variouscostumes,and eachone playshis own partuntil the director
giveshim his cue to leavethe stage?Oftenthe directoralsoordersone
andthe sameactorto comeon in differentcostumes,so thattheperson
who wasjust now dressedin royalscarletto play the partof the king
now comes on in rags to play a miserableservant.True, all these

ERASMUS'

THE PRAISE OF FOLLY

509

images are unreal,but this play cannot be performedin any other way'
(Kan, pp. 48-49). In the second part, however, the trappingsof a king
are symbols of his responsibilities:'Then put a gold chain around his
neck, a sign of the interlockingagreementof all the virtues. Then give
him a crown set with precious gems, a timely reminderthat he is supposed to excel everyone in the exercise of all the heroic virtues. Give
him a scepter, a symbol of justice and of a heart completely fortified
against the assaultsof corruption,from whatever source. And finally,
give him a robe of royal scarlet,symbolizing, as it were, an extraordinary love of the commonwealth. If a prince should compare these
accoutermentswith his own way of life, I cannot but think that he
would be thoroughly ashamedof his splendid appareland would be
afraid that some clever wit might make a laughing stock of all this
solemn and lofty costume' (Kan, pp. 142-143). We are not surprised to

learn that the emblematic royal costume which provides the basis for
this ironic contrastin the Moriais presentedin a more straightforward
But when we learn that
mannerin TheEducation
of a ChristianPrince.26
most of the symbolic meaningsFolly assignsto a bishop'sclothescan be
found almost exactly in the writings of Innocent III and William
Durandus,27it may serve to remind us of the serious and traditional
view of social duties which is presentedin Folly's survey.
This survey not only leads us out of Folly's first paradox, but also
preparesus for the Christianparadoxof the thirdpart. Here, the whole
fabric of society is again dissolved. The world and all its ways are
rejected by Christianfools. They refuse to love even their country,
parents,children,and friendsexcept insofaras they reflectthe goodness
of God. The survey agreeswith thisview in that it too rejectsthe foolish
establishment-the academics,politicians,and ecclesiasticswho fail to
fulfill theirfunctions. Society as it has degeneratedundertheir management is indeed the very world which is rejected by Christianfools.
We can accept the final ironic paradox of the Christianwho is absurd
and foolish in the eyes of the world becausethat world has alreadybeen
presentedas vitiated by another less basic ironic contrast:the rulersof
26 Institutio
principis Christiani, LB rv, 566E-F and 582C-D.
27 InnocentIII,De sacroaltarismysterio,Patrologia
Latina(Migne), ccxvI, col. 793, 795.
Durandus, Rationale diuinorumofficiorum(Venice, 1568?), m, i, 3, lo-11, 12-13, 15 (pp.
42-43, 49V-50, 51v); Iv, 6 (p. 67). The traditional symbolism is traced in detail by Joseph
Braun in Die liturgische
Gewandungim OccidentundOrient(Freiburgim Breisgau,1907),
pp. 701-726.

510

RENAISSANCE

QUARTERLY

the worldremainhappyby ignoringtheirduty to regulateandpurify


the world.
Folly'sChristianparadoxhas been frequently,and rightly,linked
with Plato.28But it would be well to rememberalso that Erasmus
himself,askedto explaina passagein thelastpartof theMoria,referred
not only to Plato but also to Aristotle and St. Paul.29 In fact, St.

ThomasAquinas'discussionof ecstasyprovidesa closerparallelto


Folly'sdoubleparadoxesthanPlato.Accordingto Aquinas,30
ecstasy
may proceedfroma movementof eitherthe will or the intellect.The
ecstasywhicharisesfromknowledgemay leadmanbeyondreasonto
unionwith God or below reasonto the level of the animals.Forsuch
alsogoesby thenameof ecstasy.Herein Thomas'cool and
irrationality
accountof ecstasyis the basisfor the grandironic
straightforward
of
the
Moria:the elevationabovehumanfacultiesto the
dichotomy
visionof God goes by the samenameas pathologicalmadness.Folly's
openingparadoxdependson an irrationalecstasy,31
just as her conecstasy.The medialsurveyof
cludingparadoxleadsto suprarational
estatesexposesthe discrepancybetweenwhat societycan reasonably
expect from its membersand what they in fact do-or do not do.
The middlethirdof the Moriais medievalin whatit includesabout
of variousclassesof society.But it is
the hierarchyandresponsibilities
in whatit omits.The commonpeopleandthe
alsopeculiarlyErasmian
mercantilemiddleclassesarealmosttotallyignored.Erasmusincludes
intellectuals,
kingsandcourtiers,popes,cardinals,bishops,andpriests
becausethesearethe classesthroughwhichhe hopedto carryout his
reform.Writingin Latinas he did, Erasmusneverwrote to the commonpeople,thoughhe wroteforthem.Withoutitsmiddlesection,the
Moriacouldneverhave servedas the finestquintessence
of Erasmian
ideals.In annotatingit I have becomeawarenot only of its medieval
rootsbut also of how well it agreeswith Erasmus'laterviews. Very
28

Most recently,for example,by Paul 0. Kristellerin 'Erasmusfrom an ItalianPer-

spective,' RenaissanceQuarterly, 23 (1970), 1l, and by A. H. T. Levi in his introduction


and notes to the Penguin edition of Betty Radice's translation (1971), pp. 21-24,203-204.
29
Opus Epistolarum,ed. Allen, IV, 289.
30 Summatheologica
Ia-nae,q. 28, a. 3. Cf. also Iia-Iiae,q. 46, a. 1. A penetratingcomment made by Prof. William Gilbertwhen I readthis paperat the CentralRenaissance
Conferenceset me to thinking about the relationof the three partsto reason.
31 In this partFolly urgesmen to emulatethe carefreeeaseof animals,admiresGryllus
for refusingto be changedfrom a pig back to a man, and alludesto happy hunterswho
have become like the animalsthey hunt (Kan,pp. 57-63, 74).

ERASMUS'

THE PRAISE OF FOLLY

511

often the Moria is best illuminated by such later works as Institutio


Ratio verae
principis Christiani,Annotationesin Nouum Testamentum,
or
siue
de
The
third of
middle
ratione
concionandi.
Ecclesiastes,
Theologiae,
the Moriaitself not only holds together the contradictoryparadoxesof
the firstand lastparts,but also is an importantreasonfor the centraland
commanding place it holds in the large and varied body of Erasmus'
works.
SAINT

LOUIS

UNIVERSITY