The Half Time Review: In Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam

I think that to truly understand a book you have to both know what it’s about and understand it enough to give your opinion about it. Unfortunately there are few books I have time to truly understand. But it doesn’t mean that I haven’t benefitted from reading them. First impressions are important and so I wanted to start writing ‘half time’ reviews of books that have shaped me during my first reading. I don’t claim to give an analysis of the book. I’m simply reflecting on its effect on me and what I think it’s about. This week, the book I read was In Praise of Folly by Eramus, the last medieval humanist of the 16th century.

In Praise of Folly is a speech given by Folly who’s personified by a woman. In it she extols herself as the god above gods because underneath all appearances, it’s folly that makes the world go round. Life is absurd. The foolish truly know how to live. The wise are truly fools. Folly shows no quarter as she goes after peasants and knights but especially priests, popes and kings. It’s almost as if she’s saying, ‘is life really what we think?’ The world of folly is a world up side down and yet…it’s the real world she’s referring too.

Folly of course mediates Erasmus’ voice through biting satire. It doesn’t come across as bitter but playful. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which meaning he intends to convey because of his paradoxical prose and double entendres. It’s common wisdom never to listen to someone sing their own praises. But at the same time, truth is found in the strangest places. If Folly is the jester’s voice to the enthroned king shouldn’t we pay attention to her? I think by the end of Folly’s speech the message is clear: while much of what passes for wisdom in this world is folly like the scholar who publishes works no one will read, what is foolish is what is truly wise. A Christian is God’s fool – a holy fool whom no one takes seriously but is really how life ought to be lived.

I loved Erasmus’ wit and use of irony. In a dark world, humor refreshes the heart and cuts through hardened spirits. He rightfully exposes the corruption in much of Christendom at the time. But for all his perceptiveness, I can’t help but pity that he couldn’t link his high sense of morality with the truth of Christian faith. He is like an artist who paints a clear picture of the world but then walks away when it finally looks like his painting. He had no problem poking the stick at bad popes but never paused to think about whether there was a problem with what the church had taught herself. Either way, In Praise of Folly made me laugh and smile and I hope it’ll do that for you too.

Curiosity Is Not Cereal

What does the worker gain from his struggles? I have seen the task that God has given people to keep them occupied. He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but man cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end. Eccl. 3.9-11

Do you remember what it was like to watch an ant crawl through the cracks and crevices of your school grounds? Or to peer through the gap between the seat and the seatbelt buckle to see what mysteries lay hidden underneath the car? Did you ever wonder why parrots talked and other birds cawed? Do you remember…the last time you looked up the night sky?

For those of you who’ve reached the elusive status of ‘grown up’ you may remember the world back then was an interesting place. Somewhere and somehow the same spark behind every question ‘why?’ was extinguished in you, leaving only dull eyes beholding a gray world. You’ve seen it all before. As the great philosopher Peter Griffin said, ‘silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.’ I used to love eating Trix cereal. It had every color of the rainbow and was sold by a rabbit. Of course I had to eat it. But once I found that it was just sugar and coloring it gradually lost its sheen. Now I’ve replaced it with granola and oats. I’ve gone from eating the rainbow to eating like a horse; much better. But I had to outgrow Trix cereal if I didn’t want diabetes.

But it seems absurd to me that our curiosity often takes the same path. Have our lives become completely boring? No wonder we can’t seem to stop trying to avoid it ourselves. Few last more than a few minutes face to face with themselves. It’s probably why smart phones sell faster than hot cakes. One tap can transport you into an LED world filled with news and videos of whats not happening to you. Another glittering world seems to lie at your fingertips and the more you stay in it, the darker the adult world seems when you return back from your trip to the digital ether. Rather than grow with us, it is as though someone had taken our curiosity out the backdoor and put a bullet in his head. He had caused enough trouble as it was and for Mr. Certainty’s sake, his services were no longer required.

I’ve often wondered what role curiosity plays in our lives. Do we reach a stage where we can stop and stay where we are? It doesn’t seem humanly possible. Imagine working in an office where your role was to sharpen pencils. You sharpen a pencil one at a time until thousands are completed. But every morning the pencils return blunt. The same cycle repeats until you are old and gray and ready to go home. Insanity would not be far off. Yet a cat seems to have no problem with the same life, day in and day out. My cat wakes, eats, sleeps, plays and sleeps. She does this from dawn to dusk, Monday to Sunday. All the while her body ages and her whiskers grow longer. We seem to be the only particular beings who need to pursue something endlessly. The athlete who wins a championship is no longer a success the moment he gets it because in doing so he’s no longer winning it.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.

I don’t think we’re drawn to an achievement but rather the pursuit of infinite goodness, truth and beauty. In each of us a void exists that seeks to rise above where we are now to grasp where we could be. The world shows us that finite beings don’t strive for infinite things. Animals don’t know that one day they will die. They don’t care about living on or being remembered. Yet every desire that I’ve ever had correlated to an object I could find in it. My hunger shows me that I need food. My thirst reminds that I need water. My loneliness draws me to find a friend. And so I must also conclude that my insatiable curiosity leads me to a world beyond this unbearable lightness of being. So our curiosity draws us from where we are to where we could be but it is a pity that it too often dies a lonely death.

Because you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee. Augustine, Confessions

The Problem of The Holy Fool

In 1869, Dostoevsky captured the problem of the holy fool as he was during his time and as he has been from time immemorial, from every people and place. His novel The Idiot portrays Prince Myshkin’s attempt to integrate into secular Russian society. As Dostoevsky’s ideal of Christlike love, he is childlike yet spiritually profound. But instead of respect, he is caught up in a world of vanity and desire. He is the butt of jokes, and often finds himself ridiculed, mocked and even despised. Much of it is because those around him are unable to use him in their social games as he seems to exist in a world alien to everyone else:

‘My joy is that there is no such world at all, but that the substance of life is in everyone! There is no reason to be troubled because we are absurd, is there? For we really are: we are absurd, frivolous, we have bad habits, we’re bored, we don’t know how to look around ourselves, we don’t know how to understand, we are all like this, all of us, you, and I, and everyone! And you aren’t offended by my telling you straight to your faces that you are absurd? There is the basic stuff of life in you, isn’t there? You know, I believe it’s sometimes even good to be ridiculous. Yes, much better. People forgive each other more readily and become more humble, we can’t understand everything at once, we can’t begin with perfection! To reach perfection there must first be much we do not understand. And if we understand too quickly we will probably not understand very well. I tell this to you who have been able to understand so much and — do not understand.’

Around the same time, Nietzsche’s message that those around him had not grasped the implication of God’s death in European culture could only take shape in his character of the madman:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console our selves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has so far possessed, has bled to death under our knife, who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? Nietzsche, 1882. The Parable of the Madman.

But those around him could only laugh and stare stunned at the madman. Realizing he had come too soon, he departs. He quips that just as the light from the stars take time to reach earth, the meaning of God’s death had yet reached his hearers.

Besides the 19th century, the holy fool existed in the ancient world too. The apostle Paul himself expressed that Christians should live in such a way, rejecting worldly concerns in their imitation of Jesus. But the rejection of common social rules — hypocrisy, brutality, greed and domination, the very drivers of human life itself, comes at the cost of being a figure to be mocked and an insult.

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” (1 Corinthians 3:19)

So what can these timeless grains of wisdom teach us about temporal life? I think it is that underneath the appearance of gullibility that is so easily derided, there is another face to the holy fool. It is that his words and actions reveal a heart hidden with truth and sincerity which can only be spiritually discerned. He makes plain what is hidden, and draws light out from darkness. But can those used to living in darkness bear to look at the sun? By the words of Anthony the Great: “Here comes the time, when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say: ‘You are mad,’ — because he is not like them.” In Dostoevsky’s case, I think what he teaches us is that there is a cost to living with simplicity and sincerity. Yet the problem of the holy fool isn’t him but his hearers. Blinded by their own ambitions, they’re unable to receive his words as they are. It is a strange world we live in when those who seem mad can teach us the most about living. We would all do well to pay attention to fools from time to time as we pursue what it means to live well. If in revealing themselves they all reveal something about us, this world could certainly do with more holy fools.

To call a man a fool is not necessarily an insult, for the authentic life has frequently been pictured under the metaphor of the fool. In figures such as Socrates, Christ, and the Idiot of Dostoyevsky we see that foolishness and wisdom are not always what they seem to be. – Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder

To read on…

Foolishness for Christ – Wikipedia

Wise Fool – Wikipedia