ERASMUS’ Praise of Folly: metamorphoses for our times

ERASMUS’ Praise of Folly permits at least two different approaches to the problem of defining its structure, both of which have found their adherents, because both illuminate the meaning of Erasmus’ work. For the first of these approaches, rhetoric is the key that unlocks the mystery of narrative sequence and opens up a teleology for that sequence. Thus, when Quintilian’s structure for the classical oration or the pattern established for the Greek encomium is claimed as the organizing principle behind the Encomium Moriae, its division into distinct sections can be accounted for, and Erasmus’ implicit
intention can be explained in part as a desire to place his work in the context of classical literature or even to parody classical forms.1 The usefulness of such rhetorical analysis has its limits, however, for once one has laughed at the joke involved in having Folly, who attacks orations, deliver one, too much remains that needs explanation. To account for the particular developments in the cocept of folly and in the shifting character of
Stultitia, a quite different approach to structure has also been evolved.

This second notion of structure is psychological and affective, deriving not from external categories, however applicable, but from the experience of the work as the dual metamorphoses of Folly as concept and character. Most readers of the work have responded to this structure in their discussions,2 and many have divided it into three
quite distinct sections: a long opening section comprising almost half of the work where the most outrageous of women holds forth with the most complex irony; a shorter middle section characterized by severe, straightforward invective; and a few concluding pages devoted to Christian folly.3

In each of these sections, “folly” acquires new meanings, and Folly transforms herself into a different woman. Her first appearance is dazzling, as she flicks the scourge of her wit upon the asses who pick up their ears to hear her speech. Alternately mocking her followers and attacking her opponents, she is, from moment to moment, logical and illogical, witty and scornful. Yet, underneath her flashy rhetoric, real tolerance and sym-
pathy for the unhappy human lot shines in her repeated assertions of benevolent intention toward her initiates. Then, suddenly, she makes a dramatic change to become the fierce satirist of the middle section, and the restless, shifting movement of the first part yields to pure invective.
Folly’s tolerance and sympathy for man are replaced by a Juvenalian “saeva indignatio” over his viciousness; her praise becomes denunciation.
Then again, almost as suddenly, the final change transpires. Folly is straightforward and unironic, but this time praises unequivocally that Christian folly which St. Paul declared the only true wisdom.
Moria’s constant oscillations in character and meaning during the first half of the Praise and her general metamorphosis from ironist to satirist to Christian mystic have been accepted, but not really explained. Some astute readers have even argued that a work so filled with shifting meanings and contradictions could not possess real unity,
and that brilliant though it might be, the Encomium Moriae was a flawed masterpiece.4 In fact, because of the real changes in the work from section to section, critics have often unwittingly been led to emphasize one section as the central one in the work. Traditionally, from Martin Dorp right up to the present, they have turned to the clear,
unambiguous catalog of fools which comprises only about a third of the work. In response to such evident distortion in emphasis, others have followed the lead of Johan Huizinga in focusing on the first and last sections. Thus, Walter Kaiser, whose interpretation is the starting point for serious criticism of Erasmus’ work, devotes the
bulk of his study to the first half of the Praise and its relationship to the section on Christian folly.

As a result of this emphasis, if Folly had omitted her long catalog of fools, Kaiser’s treatment of the work would hardly be affected.5 The reading of the Encomium Moriae that follows takes as its premise the conviction that Erasmus knew what he was about in structuring his little book into three distinct sections, and that if an interpretation
considers all three, the work will reveal its real unity and fullest meaning. This unity will turn out to be dialectical and dynamic, generated by the very shifts in meaning and attitude that some have found objectionable. In essence, this essay will show that the unity and meaning of The Praise of Folly are identical with the metamorphoses of
Since throughout the course of her praise Stultitia shows herself to be a most  changeable creature, in her opening sentences she logically defines her essential power as the power of transfor mation:
However mortal folk may commonly speak of me (for I am not ignorant how ill the name of Folly sounds, even to the greatest fools), I am she-the only she, I may say-whose divine influence makes gods and men rejoice. One great and sufficient proof of this is
that the instant I stepped up to speak to this crowded assembly, all faces at once brightened with a fresh and unwonted cheerfulness, all of you suddenly unbent your brows, and with frolic and affectionate smiles you applauded; so that as I look upon all present about me, you seem flushed with nectar, like gods in Homer, not without some nepenthe, also; whereas a moment ago you were sitting moody and depressed, as if you had come out of the cave of Trophonius.6
This complex, witty, Ciceronian opening has been extolled for the brilliance with which it presents Folly’s essential characteristics: her opposition to common opinion, her uniqueness, her illogical but not unconvincing method of proof, her learning, her popularity, and her insistence on the superiority of her power (Kaiser, pp. 41-42). Yet, several interesting aspects of these opening sentences have been overlooked, especially their particular manner of presenting the dramatic effect Folly’s appearance has on her audience. After creating a vivid contrast between her own benevolence and
the ingratitude of those fools who are her unwilling followers, Folly focuses on the sudden (simulatque, repente, subito) transformation she effects in that relationship merely by appearing before them. The divine power, the “numen,” of Folly could not
receive clearer definition or demonstration of its effect than in the way her followers’ brows unwrinkle and they laugh with new and unwonted hilarity at the sight of her. Folly is a master magician, and with a wave of her wand, this gloomy, care-laden, terribly serious crowd meta morphoses into a gaggle of grinning fools.

As the goddess of metamorphosis whose power not only makes men happy, but transforms them into beasts-she hints repeatedly that they are asses-Folly places herself squarely in the family of Renaissance enchantresses and enchanters who,
from Alcina and Atlante to Armida, Acrasia, and Comus, trace their lineage back ultimately to Circe, the archetypal witch. In fact, Folly compares herself quite favorably to her literary ancestor:

Go, foolish mortals, and vainly seek for your Medeas
and Circes and Venuses and Auroras, and the un-
known fountain in which you may restore your youth!
When all the time I alone have that power; I alone
use it.7

Quite in character, many pages later Folly takes the part of Gryllus whom Circe had transformed into a pig. How much better, she exclaims, is the lot of a pig grunting in Circe’s sty, happy and content, than that of the wretchedly wise Odysseus, who left Circe’s pleasures in order to voyage on from calamity to calamity! (EM, 436B). Later
Renaissance writers like Ariosto, Tasso, and Milton all felt some attraction to the enchantress and her pleasures, but all firmly rejected them as deceptions for the unwary, deviations from duty, ultimate illusions. Consequently, no matter how
sensible Folly’s defense of pleasure’s place in this world, one should be prepared to mistrust her claims, if only on the basis of her dubious ante cedents. Her auditors should be inspired to caution in granting allegiance to a self-proclaimed goddess,8 who argues so persuasively, though soillogically, for the pleasure, self-deception, and acceptance of illusion that are essential for life. As the shifting structure of the Praise will reveal,
caution will have its reward.
The images with which Folly defines the transformation in her audience also suggest the dubious value of her magic. In the opening sentence, she declared that her initiates seemed Homeric gods drunk (temulenti) on nectar and forgetfulness. In the next sentence, she constructs an elaborate comparison:
Just as it commonly happens, when the sun first shows
his splendid golden face to the earth or when, after a
bitter winter, young spring breathes mild west winds,
that a new face comes over everything, new color and
a sort of youthfulness appear; so at the mere sight of
me, you straightway take on another aspect.9

Throughout the work, Folly is associated with pleasant inebriation, youthful vigor and wholeness, the return of spring, and the rising sun. The last three images carry the most positive associations, and even a little convivial tippling can hardly incite reproach. The real problem with the kind of happiness suggested by these images is that it does not last. All these pleasures fade:
drinking leads to renewed sobriety or pain and disease; youth yields to age; spring is the harbinger of autumn and winter; and the cheerful, rising sun always sinks into the gloom of night.
The attractions of these images are real, but it is the work of folly, indeed, to place all one’s trust in what is so transitory.
Nevertheless, despite her revelatory imagery, Stultitia bases her claim to preeminence among the gods, to superiority over Circe, significantly, on the permanence of those benefits. She makes the dubious, if not incredible, assertions that she surpasses Bacchus in granting man perpetual inebriation,10 and that because women are more complete fools than men, they enjoy the features of a perpetual adolescence.11

In fact, Folly goes so far as to insist that if men, restored to their youth by her power, would refrain from wisdom and pass their days with her, “there would not be any such
thing as old age, but in happiness they would enjoy perpetual youth.”12 In essence, this goddess can despise the lesser metamorphoses of other gods, since she holds out to all the hope of eternal metamorphosis, and, not unlike Renaissance versions of Circe, poses implicitly as the Savior of mankind (see EM, 413B-413E).

In keeping with the special nature of her magic, its ability to,turn somber men into happy fools, Stultitia significantly addresses a particular audience with her opening remarks. Her oration reveals that since some individuals-children, natural idiots, the inhabitants of the Golden Age-enjoy the blessings of folly without the special aid of this goddess, really only the adult members of society who bear the burdens of maturity, the cares of business, the tedium of labor, need Moria’s magic. Consequently, she aims her re-
marks at all those “stultissimi viri” (EM, 409B) who suffer under the burdens of life, at those who, sitting depressed and worried, need the exhilaration of her laughter and whose gloomy faces and wrinkled brows mutely beg for the transforming glow of her wine.13
Folly transforms her followers in myriad ways, and as she does, the meaning of “folly” undergoes repeated metamorphoses. At one point, it is the power of sexual instinct that forces even the Stoic to play silly roles (persona) for the sake of engendering a child (EM, 411 lD-412A). Recalling Horace’s praise of folly in his satires (particularly
I.iii), folly becomes that willful self-deception that blinds men to the faults of their friends,
enables marriages to succeed, and endears even the worst children to their parents (EM, 420A- 421A). In one place, folly is transformed into the sum of those forces that hold society together.
Praising error, flattery, and connivance, Stultitia declares:
In sum, no society, no union in life, could be either
pleasant or lasting without me. A people does not for
long tolerate its prince, or a master tolerate his servant,
a handmaiden her mistress, a teacher his student, a
friend his friend, a wife her husband, a landlord his
tenant, a partner his partner, or a boarder his fellow-
boarder, except as they mutually or by turns are mis-
taken, on occasion flatter, on occasion wisely wink,
and otherwise soothe themselves with the sweetness of

Folly’s follower Philautia is man’s indispensable self-esteem (EM, 421 D). In short, folly changes meaning from instinct to self-deception to selfesteem to those public or national illusions that weld men into communities, until there can be little disagreement when Stultitia depicts herself as the founder of civilization, the upholder of the arts, the preserver of law and order (EM, 424D- 427B). Nor does her paradoxical identification of
herself with prudence seem strange, for prudence means knowledge and experience of the affairs of this world, and this world is the true province of Moria’s madmen (EM, 427C).
As Folly waves her magic wand, vices metamorphose into virtues, wisdom becomes folly, passion reveals its superiority to reason.

The world turns upside down or rather, to use Folly’s image, inside out:
For first of all, the fact is that all human affairs, like
the Sileni of Alcibiades, have two aspects, each quite
different from the other; even to the point that what
at first blush (as the phrase goes) seems to be death
may prove, if you look further into it, to be life. What
at first sight is beautiful may really be ugly; the appar-
ently wealthy may be poorest of all; the disgraceful,
glorious; the learned, ignorant…. In brief, you find
all things suddenly reversed, when you open up the
If a king is rich and powerful, says Folly, explaining her Platonic figure, but lacks the goods of the spirit, he is really poor and enslaved to vice.
Thinking her audience needs further explanation, she turns to the “world-as-theatre” topos to express her vision of the ambivalence characterizing human life. Life is a play in which characters often take on roles contrary to their normal appearances. Nothing is established here; all roles are interchangeable. Yet, to undeceive the players would disturb the play which consists of nothing more than images and paint (figmentum & fucus)(EM, 428C).

The truly prudent man refrains from interfering with the play and accepts that rich and
powerful king for what he appears to be, even if he knows better. Since the denunciations of the wiseman only bring grief or annoyance to actors and spectators alike, and can never change the essential nature of human life, how much better for him to be silent and join the others.

Anticipating her later image for this world as Plato’s cave, Folly concludes resoundingly: “Thus all things are presented by shadows; yet this play is put on in no other way.”‘6
In analyzing prudence, Stultitia is making what Walter Kaiser follows Edgar Wind in describing as a “transvaluation of values,” an ironic inversion of commonly accepted standards (pp. 51-62, esp. p. 61). In this process Stultitia begins with satire, criticizing through ironic praise the rashness and self-deception that underlie the fool’s “prudent”
deeds. Yet, as she continues speaking, a “humanity, a sympathy for human frailty inevitably enters in . . . and deflects the point of the satirical dagger. For rashness, looked at in a certain way, may actually be prudence. To live at all is a kind of
rashness, but it is better to live than not to live” (Kaiser, p. 61). Thus, by the time she finishes, Folly has both satirized rashness and praised it really defining a new kind of prudence which both includes and transcends praise and blame.

Since throughout the first half of the Praise, Folly’s irony is so complex, it would be a mistake to reduce it to one or even two separate points of view, for the “meaning” that emerges from her ironic statements includes all points of view within a larger unity.17 To separate praise and blame, to say that Erasmus criticizes flattery in courts but praises some sort of mutual backslapping is to miss the point that the two forms of Adulatio, in
this world at least, are inextricably entwined. One feels the same sort of inadequate response when Pantagruel, after attending to Panurge’s eloquent praise of debts, responds to his servant that indebtedness is acceptable as a metaphor for the
force that binds man, society, and all of nature together, but that he will not tolerate indebtedness per se.18

As Folly turns the world upside down in her own praise, she repeatedly flares up in rage at the Stoics and their ideal of wisdom. She condemns the sage who would refuse to act a part in the play of life and establishes for himself a monstrous, inhuman ideal of perfect rationality and complete freedom from emotion. If this ideal were realized, such a man would be no man at all; he would be transformed beyond humanity, even beyond the gods, into a marble statue, tolerating no human weakness, feeling neither love nor hate,
sympathizing with no man’s sufferings (EM,430A). If this “divine” wiseman should one day descend from the sky and suddenly appear in the theater of this world, more sharp-sighted than Lynceus, he would see through men’s illusions, strip off their masks, and destroy the “fabula” of existence.19 In Folly’s terms, such a man would be the worst menace imaginable to his fellows and their civilization.

While Folly’s benevolence permits men the illusions necessary for them to become social creatures, wisdom’s malevolence reduces men to wretchedness: youth, health, and strength are lost in the pursuit of learning, which renders the wiseman hateful and hard to himself and others, and, without giving pleasure, hastens his life to its end much before his time. But what matter when this man dies, asks Folly, since he has never
lived.20 Folly repeatedly hints that the wiseman looks upon himself as no less than a god, and she always depicts him glancing down from some lofty height (“e sublimi specula,” EM, 431A), gazing with Olympian dignity and detachment upon the hardships and miseries of life beneath him. What contrast between these divine pretensions and the real condition of the wiseman Follydescribed! What hypocrisy and self-delusion on
his part to attack men as fools when he is first among Stultitia’s servants! But Folly also wonders at his intellectual consistency, for she cannot understand how anyone could stare open-eyed at the spectacle of man without committing suicide (EM,431A-431B). Yet, after Folly has excoriated the Stoic wiseman on all these counts, she fires her
heaviest barrage of criticism at his arrogant self-divination, in what must be considered a significant rejection of a fundamental, humanist tendency.
While it is generally accepted that Moria, like Erasmus, criticizes Scholasticism,21 her attacks on humanism have received less emphasis. To be sure, it has been noted that Folly criticizes the humanists directly and explicitly when she lashes out at contemporary orators (nostri temporis Rhetores) who think themselves gods because they can sprinkle a little Greek over their treatises, and it has also been noted that Erasmus himself stands guilty of such an offense.22 Yet Folly’s major attack on the humanists is far more substantial and is completely consistent with Erasmus’ rejection
in his other writings of the “pagan” tendencies he found in many humanist works (see Huizinga,pp. 170-72). From Manetti’s defense of human dignity, through Pico’s famous oration, right up to Erasmus and beyond, the praises rang loud for man the mutable, whose glory was his self-generated power to metamorphose himself into a god.23 Thus, Pico’s God told man that he had no fixed place, but could define himself and find his
own position in the universal hierarchy: “You will be able to degenerate into the inferior orders which are brutish; you will be able to be regenerated, through the judgment of your spirit, into those superior orders which are divine.”24

Man’s ability to make himself a god especially preoccupied Pico in his oration and even concerned Erasmus throughout his educational writings, where at times he almost seems to echo cautiously the fifteenth-century Italian: “When Nature gives you a son, it hands over nothing less than a crude mass…. If you do nothing, you will have a
beast; if you watch over it, you will have, if I may speak thus, a god.”25

From the perspective of this tradition of praise, Folly’s attack on the wiseman’s ardent desire for divine metamorphosis can be nothing less than a rejection of humanist and even Erasmian tendencies to rely on reason more than faith, to trust man’s will and self-direction rather than the mercy and care of God. Folly discharges her greatest scorn on the pride of the wise, when in the following passage, she compares them to the Titans, types of unregenerate pride in the Renaissance:
Hence it appears that among mortals they who are
zealous for wisdom are farthest from happiness, being
by the same token fools twice over: that is, although
they are born men, they then so far forget their own
station as to hanker after the life of the immortal gods;
and on the example of the Giants, with arts and sci-
ences as their engines they wage war on nature. So also
those appear to be least unhappy who approach
nearest to the temperament and simplicity of the
beasts, nor ever undertake what is beyond man.26

What a perfect reply to Pico and the tradition he represents! In condemning those who forget their human condition and affect the life of gods, and in praising the fools who wage no war on nature, but contentedly lead the life of beasts, Stultitia stands
the whole tradition on its head.
The Encomium Moriae thus doubly condemns the pursuit of wisdom as a sign of spiritual pride and as a threat to social concord. From the viewpoint of those fools humbly dancing the roundelay of this life, wisdom is the supreme evil, the serpent
in the Garden of their Fall. Not surprisingly, Folly interprets the myth of the Fall to suit her
vision of existence and claims that folly, not wisdom, characterized man’s life in Eden. She appropriates the Fortunate Isles and the Golden Age, both familiar analogues for Eden in the Renaissance,27 and she describes how the “simple folk of the golden age flourished without any armament of sciences, being guided only by nature and instinct.”28 These golden people needed no grammar, since they all spoke the same tongue, nor any dialectic, since they did not dispute. No laws vainly attempted to mend “mali mores,” for all men were good, content with their condition and desirous of no wisdom beyond it. Then came the Fall and the invention of arts and disciplines by evil geniuses, when man, no longer content with being “lowly wise,” lost his paradise by striving for self-elevation (EM, 431A-431B).

In this version of the Fall, wisdom plays the role of tempter; it is the contagion that later infects the pure of heart29; it is the evil serpent from which a benevolent Nature-Folly’s alter ego-defends the human race, “lest this evil of wisdom should creep farther among mortals.”30 Folly never gives a detailed account of why man fell from bliss and
explicitly avoids explanation for his present, wretched condition, but when she describes her divine acts of benevolence toward men, she instructively begins with her gift of ignorance.
But aided in part by ignorance, and in part by inadvertence, sometimes by forgetfulness of evil, sometimes by hope of good, sprinkling in a few honeyed delights at certain seasons, I bring relief from these ills; so that men are unwilling to relinquish their lives even when, by the exactly measured thread of the Fates, life is due to relinquish them.31′
Since the Fall, Folly declares that man’s happiness consists in approximating his original condition and in acting out the comedy of life without complaint about illusions (EM, 435C). Opinion rules a world of darkness and mutability, where knowledge eludes man’s grasp, or, if captured, strikes back at him and destroys his happiness.32
As the long first section of the Praise comes to a conclusion, Folly multiplies her images of a world where she is consort to King Opinion. In spite of earlier assertions that she is a rising sun or the returning spring in men’s lives, she terminates this section with images of darkness and unreality.

Man lives in the pit of Plato’s cave, staring at the shadows flitting across the rock wall to which he is chained. Yet, if he is happy, Folly questions the need for him to struggle outside and confront realities.33 Then quickly shifting her image to one
of life as a dream of contentment, she declares:
If Micyllus, in Lucian, had been allowed always
to go on dreaming that rich and golden dream,
there would have been no reason for him to choose
any other happiness.“34

Folly ends the first half of the Praise with a crescendo of rhetorical questions and conditional statements, all focusing on the same point: if man is happy with his life of opinion, his illusions and dreams, the shadow play on the walls of his cave, and if this happiness costs him so little while serving so many, how could anyone disturb it?

The remainder of the work is nothing less than Stultitia’s response to this no
longer rhetorical question.