The Praise of Folly by Erasmus: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:05 Folly Herself
  • 0:48 Marital Folly & Matters of Age
  • 1:31 Self-Love & Prudence
  • 2:32 Foolishness vs. Reason
  • 3:24 Religion & Christianity
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Read about Erasmus' essay, 'The Praise of Folly,' a classical satire about the merits of foolishness which can be easily applied to our day and age. Then, take a brief quiz when you finish to evaluate your knowledge!

Folly Herself

Desiderius Erasmus, the great writer and philosopher of 16th-century Medieval Europe, crafted the character of Folly, the daughter of the great gods, Plutus and Youth. In the essay, The Praise of Folly, she introduces herself with an impromptu speech, asserting her bold confidence. Nursed by the gods, Drunkenness and Ignorance, and attended by other gods, Self-Love, Flattery, Laziness, Pleasure, and Wantonness, Folly admits to a life of privilege and indulgence. She claims power over human beings who are weak-willed, and states that they would be unable to procreate without her.

Marital Folly and Matters of Age

She comments on how marriage depends on folly to survive. Wives are viewed as the main culprits in marital folly, including adultery. Because Folly brings pleasure to life, she is able to relieve the pain and abuses suffered in matrimony, and provide solace to husbands.

Concerning age, Folly insists that children are loved because they are foolish. Likewise, old people adopt foolish tendencies to have a second childhood and free themselves from the stress caused by aging. In the words of Erasmus, 'Folly is the one thing that holds fast to fleeting youth and wards off hateful old age.'

Self-Love and Prudence

Using a tone of voice that switches between seriousness and banter, Folly declares that a modest amount of self-love is necessary because it allows men to like themselves. She cautions that when men, such as philosophers, are obsessed by self-love, they tend to lack the ability to speak well. They 'disturb peaceful kingdoms' with their lofty speeches and theories. Moreover, scholars 'kill the joy of the people,' as they cannot take pleasure in the simpler things of life.

Folly then discusses prudence, the state of being wise in practical matters. She adds that all men try to imitate her, not only because of her lack of modesty and fear, but also because she has much experience in life. Therefore, she knows that true prudence, or wisdom, is the ability to avoid the trappings of society, and only enough is needed for the sake of propriety.

Foolishness Versus Reason

On the concept of foolishness, Folly asserts that it is far better to be foolish than to be wise. The fact that men possess knowledge of science is unimportant, as it does not lead to happiness. To Folly, fools are the happiest creatures on Earth.

Folly criticizes the reason of prominent folks; merchants, grammarians, scholars, lawyers, poets, authors, and philosophers. She condemns these men for not being as foolish as ordinary men. Because prominent folks learn nonsense in order to make themselves feel self-important, they are worthless. Lawyers, for instance, are insignificant because they 'confuse tediousness with brilliance.' Thus, Folly asserts that these people must follow her to become wise.

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