Posted by: HAT | October 17, 2007

On Erasmus’ Praise of Folly

I am trying to clean up my office.  To this end, I am pursuing a program of about 5 minutes every hour or couple of hours reducing the height of the piles of books and other materials that cover almost the entire surface of the [large, very large] desk, and a good part of the floor as well.  As I said to Z. this morning, if I put in 20 minutes a day for a month, I will have been cleaning up for 10 hours by the end of the month, and 10 hours of picking up should go a pretty long way.  Maybe about half.

 

 

 Except.  There’s the problem of getting distracted, which is a little worse under the 5 minute plan.  So today I found a copy of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, which I apparently – now God alone knows why – I located on Project Gutenberg and printed in its entirety sometime last November.  [I can date it more or less precisely by stratigraphy.  There it was, between publishers’ catalogs from the AAR meeting.]   

Of course I had to read it. 

Sadly, there are some sort of predictable equations of women with beauty and sex near the beginning, maybe not any worse than anything else from around that time, or since, but still.  At least he recognizes that women suffer in marriage and motherhood, but it’s not so clear that people haven’t always known that.  [Think of the 5 woes of womanhood in Buddhist tradition.]  But . . . Folly is a crafty one, she is.  Because the text turns around on itself more than once, and just how Erasmus is making use of gender thematics in this text would probably make at least one good paper, if it hasn’t already. 

But then things turn a little serious; everyone knows war is a good glorious thing, and who would rush into that if they weren’t impelled by folly?  And then, what about the enterprises of the divines, the theologians – and they get such pleasure out of their exercises!  (And everyone recognizes that pleasure is a good thing, Folly established that right off . . . and we couldn’t have it without folly.)  Same with riches (Folly’s father, too.)  And so, how much pleasure and wealth would be lost to these folks – and the religious, and popes – were they to have any wisdom, rather than folly.   

And then things are really becoming quite serious, because now Folly points out how miserable for them it would be for the religious leaders to be held to the examples of the apostles, let alone Christ himself.  Yet . . . in her proofs of the praiseworthiness of Folly, she turns to Scripture – Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, and especially Paul – and some breathtaking Greek and Hebrew exegesis [!!!  AD FONTES !!!] and some amazing theology [“And Christ himself, that he might the better relieve this folly [of humanity], being the wisdom of the Father, yet in some manner became a fool when taking upon him the nature of man . . .”] so that “all Christian religion seems to have a kind of alliance with folly and in no respect to have any accord with wisdom.”  And Christian happiness itself is a kind of madness.  And that madness, such as conduces to the ultimate good of the contemplation of God, the greatest pleasure.  (you see my point about the text turning on itself . . .) 

So reading In Praise of Folly turned out to be quite a digression, in the end a pleasant enough one, though needless to say it didn’t help me clean off the desk.  It was probably long overdue – apart from how long it had been since I printed it.  I blame my deficiency in the classics. 

And there seems to be a connection between Erasmus’ praise of folly and utopian discourse, after all.  The Project Gutenberg text “translated by John Wilson, 1668” is signed “Erasmus of Rotterdam to his friend Thomas More, health. . .” and then contains a fairly long preface which commends More and which ends ‘But why do I run over these things to you, a person so excellent an advocate that no man better defends his client, though the cause many times be none of the best?  Farewell, my best disputant More, and stoutly defend your Moriae [that is, folly]’  More is, as most everyone knows, the first proper utopian and inventor of the name.  Plenty foolish.    

Furthermore, there is the connection of all this with Adorno’s praise of folly at the end of Negative Dialectics:  “A thought that does not capitulate to the wretchedly ontical will founder upon its criteria; truth will turn into untruth, philosophy into folly.  And yet philosophy cannot abdicate if stupidity is not to triumph in realized unreason.  Aux sots je préfère les fous.  Folly is truth in the form which men are struck with as amid untruth they will not let truth go.”  (ND, trans. E.B. Ashton, New York: Continuum, 1995, p. 404) 

So maybe I can count the time spent reading Erasmus towards my dissertation after all.

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