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.