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Praise of Folly

Nec aliud omnino est vita humana, quam stultitiæ lusus quidam.

                                                                                                 Desiderius Erasmus

Those of us who pursue wisdom for its own glorious sake have often been chastised for being far too serious to be good company – good company in the very modern definition of someone who is pointedly irreverent, somewhat silly, and somewhat dangerous. Although we should never let popular definitions get in the way of who we really are, a kernel of a basic, ungnawed truth persists: along the way to our private destinies we had better have some fun. Why fun? Isn't fun a purely relative term? Am I not absurd for spending my free time reading and writing when I could just as easily be snowboarding, grilling steaks, and drinking myself to Valhalla? Isn't that what hopelessly conventional fun is all about? Fun is indeed one of those few things that do vary from mind to mind, but the variation should not keep us from profiling its partner in crime, foolishness, because when we are not practical and efficient we are to one degree or another fools. An important corollary as we consider this famous book.

We begin with a disclaimer that, scholars assure us, was typical for the era and subject, although our work is anything but typical. "Since .... the time was hardly suitable for serious meditation, I decided to amuse myself with praise of folly," says Erasmus, who will soon yield the feather to Folly herself. The impetus for the book was a lovely summer spent in the company of this man of letters, a highlight of an English exile that comprised the happiest of Erasmus's life (the book's subtitle moriae encomium refers unsubtly to the creator of Utopia). While the ultimate aim of the treatise may not be immediately obvious, Erasmus and his maid-servant are in no rush to formulate either theories or conclusions. They live in a world apart, one equally distant from the vulgar odors of popular culture and the sublime scent of incense. That Erasmus was also a Catholic priest should not concern us: his goal is to comprehend his own human foibles, his daily urges not to do anything of any particular use to anyone. The hypothesis may not be particularly original, but its introduction has little in the way of the peers. And the slow, rambling display of folly in its myriad literary forms properly reflects what has plagued men of learning since time began:

Those who court immortal fame by writing books ... owe a great deal of me, especially any who blot their pages with unadulerated rubbish. But people who use their erudition to write for a learned minority and are anxious to have either Persius or Laelius pass judgment don't seem to me favored by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years, and are never satisfied. And their futile reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at such a cost so many late nights, such loss of sleep, sweetest of all things, and so much sweat and anguish.

The writers devoted to aesthetic perfection may indeed do all these things to themselves, but they can luxuriate in the development of their sensibilities: even if they do not erect anything of commercial success, they will always have their private reserves of flora and fauna of their own image.

Folly continues in the same vein as she irons the corners of her tapestry. We learn that she appeals equally to children and the elderly for "except the old man's wrinkles and the birthdays he has counted, they are exactly alike: white hair, toothless mouth, short stature, liking for milk, babbling, chattering, silliness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, in fact, everything." As it were, Folly can make a strong argument for being the alpha and omega of our terrestrial existence, since when "the time comes for [us] to depart this life, again like children, [we are] neither tired of living nor aware of death." Since childhood is our period of innocence and old age our period of solemn reflection and remembrance, it would be simplicity itself to take these years too seriously and squirm at their implications. But this is precisely what we should not do. Instead we nourish a few comforting superstitions in our hearts:   

Man's mind is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth. If anyone wants an immediate, clear example of this he has only to go to church at sermon time, where everyone is asleep or yawning or feeling queasy whenever some serious argument is expounded, but if the preacher starts to rant (I beg your pardon, I mean orate) on some old wives' tale, as he often does, his audience sits up and takes notice open-mouthed.

If we did not know the context, the passage above might be catnip for the old, snarling agnostic who wishes to harpoon everyone's faith on the same skewer. There is nothing wrong with superstitions provided that we do not use them to account for everything under the sun (the same can be said, as it were, for science, as Erasmus indicates), but we are not talking about mere superstition. A believer may think less of folly because his God has never laughed; or he may think more of it because he can only find his attempts at knowledge ridiculous. Folly suggests that she is holy exactly for this second reason, and as the treatise progresses from encyclopaedic satire to ironic cavilling to stern moralizing, we become far more inclined to believe her.    

These days Erasmus and other humanists are read mostly by those who are forced to read them, which is both good and bad since so few would appreciate him for what he really is: a blissfully happy Christian apologist with a nasty sense of humor. In this way he is the direct ancestor of this gentleman of letters and this pundit of Catholic ideals.  While Praise of Folly may lose something in translation as a work steeped in the tradition and tongue of Rome, it boils and seethes at the right moments, producing an effect much like the lifting of those fogs that forever strive to cloud our judgments – and our judgment is clouded more often than not. We consecrate ourselves to nothing in particular and deem the whole matter a waste of breath and blood. Yet how are we to know the value of our other actions and thoughts – love, curiosity, nostalgia, friendship, regret, faith, atonement – if not for those odd moments of indigence? How are we to ponder the eternal if we cannot step back and curl our toes in the sumptuous brown earth? It is so very hard to forget that brown earth. It is so warm and solid, a museum to all the skeletons of all the generations that once walked upon it. And like so many of us think ourselves either God or mortal, something in-between may be most appropriate.

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