In Praise of Folly by Erasmus - Summary & Analysis

Caitlin Stephens, Cirrelia Thaxton
  • Author
    Caitlin Stephens

    Caitlin Stephens has taught English for nine years. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Colby College. She has published two books and a variety of pieces in magazines.

  • Instructor
    Cirrelia Thaxton

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

Learn about In Praise of Folly and its author Desiderius Erasmus. Read a short biography of Erasmus and read about major themes such as religion and self-love. Updated: 05/15/2022

In Praise of Folly: Overview

In Praise of Folly is a theological essay originally written in Latin in 1509 and published in 1511 by Desiderius Erasmus. The essay is a satirical work, and it criticizes the European society of the time, superstitions, and the Roman Catholic Church. In Praise of Folly was written during the Renaissance, and it was influential in helping spearhead the Protestant Reformation. The essay's title is also sometimes translated into English as The Praise of Folly.

Who Wrote In Praise of Folly?

Who wrote The Praise of Folly? It was originally written in Latin by Desiderius Erasmus in 1509 while he was in London. The essay was first published in 1511. In the decades to follow, The Praise of Folly became very popular and was translated into French, German, Czech, English, and other languages.

Erasmus is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. He was a Dutch, Catholic philosopher and theologian who wrote many books. Erasmus was a humanist, meaning he studied the Humanities and the works of classical antiquity. He was also very active in and faithful to the Catholic Church, even though he criticized the Church in his written works, including The Praise of Folly.

Some other books written by Erasmus include:

  • On Free Will
  • On Civility in Children
  • Julius Excluded from Heaven
  • Handbook of a Christian Knight

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.

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  • 0:05 Folly Herself
  • 0:48 Marital Folly & Matters of Age
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In Praise of Folly: Context and Background

In Praise of Folly was written and published during the Renaissance in Early Modern Europe. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Catholic Church had a lot of power over the political and intellectual climate of Europe. However, the Renaissance began to change this, and the cultural climate of Europe became ripe for the Protestant Reformation and ideas like Erasmus's. The Church had begun to relax some of its previous restrictions on what types of art and expression were allowed.

The Renaissance and Humanism

The Renaissance in Europe came along with the end of feudalism, and was characterized by high levels of production and innovation in art, architecture, literature, science, technology, and political and philosophical thought. Humanism, or the revival of the study of classical antiquity and the Humanities, was very popular during the Renaissance, and was influential to artists and thinkers working during the Renaissance. The invention of the printing press allowed for the wide-spread publication of new texts, as well as the re-printing of classical Greek and Latin texts. The invention of the caravel, a special sailing ship, made it possible for Europeans to travel across the Atlantic and to widen their trade routes and exposure to different cultures. All of these changed impacted the intellectual environment of the European Renaissance.

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a movement within European Christianity in the early sixteenth century, which challenged various aspects of the Catholic Church, including the authority of the pope. The Protestant Reformation resulted in the beginning of Protestantism, and the split of Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation is typically considered to have begun with the publication of German priest Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses in 1517. However, earlier works that criticized the Church while remaining faithful to it, such as The Praise of Folly, also helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.

In Praise of Folly: Summary

What is The Praise of Folly about? Here is an In Praise of Folly summary.

The main character is Folly, who is represented as a woman in a fool's costume. She says that she is the reason for man's happiness, and she will therefore deliver a eulogy to herself.

In the first part of the book, Folly discusses marriages, childbirths, friendships, and relationships of all kinds, all of which she claims would not exist without her. She argues that all relationships need folly and flattery to thrive, and that folly is useful in social settings because it is entertaining. Folly also discusses one's relationship with the one's self, and argues that self-love is productive but also requires a certain amount of folly.

In the second part of the book, Folly discusses the role of folly in the professional lives of all types of people: lawyers, doctors, philosophers, hunters, royalty, gamblers, artists, theologians, and more. She claims that folly plays an especially important role for theologians, who interpret scripture to fit their own preconceived opinions, intentionally mislead audiences, ignore the true message of Christianity, and live hypocritical lives.

Lastly, Folly discusses Christianity and folly, drawing many parallels. She notes that the Bible praises simplicity and ignorance, and that Jesus praised meekness and humility. She even argues that Jesus was the biggest fool of all, because he became sin to save sinners, which seems paradoxical.

In Praise of Folly: Themes

In order to make a variety of important points in his essay, Erasmus focuses on several different themes in In Praise of Folly. These themes are elaborated on below.

Marriage and Folly

Folly argues that folly is essential to the success of marriages and to the success of all relationships. In terms of marriage and romance, Folly argues that men and women are each foolish in specific ways. She says that women are foolish because they constantly try to be beautiful and to please men, but men are even more foolish than women because something as inconsequential as a woman's physical beauty can cause them to behave in ridiculous ways.

Self-Love and Prudence

In addition to other relationships, another major theme in The Praise of Folly is self-love. Folly argues that self-love is basically necessary for people to be productive in life, and that without it, we would not accomplish many goals because we would be detained by doubt or self-hatred. Of course, Folly argues that in order to have self-love, people must have a certain amount of folly. Too much prudence, the quality of being wise in practical matters, can lead to doubts and a decrease in self-love and/or productivity.

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the intended audience for In Praise of Folly?

Erasmus first wrote In Praise of Folly in 1509 while staying in London with his friend Sir Thomas Moore. Originally, the intended audience for In Praise of Folly was Sir Thomas Moore. However, the work was later revised and published as a book in 1511, and the audience widened to include various theologians, intellectuals, and members of the public.

What was one of the targets of Desiderius Erasmus in his satire In Praise of Folly?

In Desiderius Erasmus's In Praise of Folly, he satirizes many different types of people, but one of his main targets is the Catholic Church and its clergy. He claims that the clergy and even Jesus himself are some of the most foolish people of all, although he also claims that foolishness is the cause of happiness for mankind.

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