Erasmus from Rotterdam

Erasmus from Rotterdam

Dedicatory Letter

Erasmus of Rotterdam, to his friend Thomas More,* greetings:

When I was returning to England recently from Italy, I had to spend

a lot of time on horseback, and I didn’t want to waste it all on chatter

that was trite and (as the Greeks would say) devoid of the Muses.

I preferred sometimes to turn over in my mind subjects of common

interest to us both, or to enjoy the memory of the friends that I had

left behind here – friends whose great learning is matched only by

their great charm. And among these friends it was you, my dear More,

that were regularly in the forefront of my thoughts. The constant

enjoyment I found in remembering you while we were apart matched

the joy I’d just as constantly found in your company when we were

together. In fact I’ll be damned if anything else has ever given me such

happiness in all my life! Anyhow, I felt that I absolutely had to occupy

myself with something, and as the circumstances seemed little suited

to serious endeavour, I decided to amuse myself with an encomium of

Mo ̄ria,* a “praise of Folly”.

“But what in Wisdom’s name put that into your head?” you’ll ask.

Well, first, your family name More suggested it to me, because it’s

as close to the word “Mo ̄ria” as you are remote from its meaning

– indeed, by universal assent you couldn’t be remoter. Then I had a

suspicion that this intellectual game of mine would appeal particularly

to you, for the reason that you always get a great deal of pleasure

from jests of this kind that contain both learning (if I’m not mistaken)

and, here and there, some wit; you’re always, too, playing the role of

a “laughing philosopher”* in everyday human life. Your exceptional

mental discernment, it’s true, sets you utterly apart from the common

run of humanity, but at the same time the legendary charm and good

nature of your personality mean that you’re able, indeed delighted, to

be for everyone “a man for all seasons”.* So please be willing not just

erasmus

to accept this little dissertation as a “memento of your pal”,* but also

to take up its defence: it’s dedicated to you, and no longer mine now

but yours.

I ask this because there’ll surely be detractors who’ll allege that

these tomfooleries are either too frivolous to befit a theologian or have

too sharp a sting to accord with Christian humility. They’ll loudly

accuse us of reviving the old-style comedy of Athens* or composing

satires like a latter-day Lucian* – of sinking our teeth into everything,

that is, without discrimination.

People that are upset by the flippancy and playfulness of my subject

matter will bear in mind, I hope, that I’m not the first in this field:

what I’m doing is identical to what was done time and again by the

great authors of the past. Think how many centuries ago Homer had

fun with his ‘Battle of Frogs and Mice’,* Virgil with his ‘Gnat’ and his

‘Garlic Salad’,* Ovid with his ‘Nut Tree’.* Think how both Polycrates

and his critic Isocrates composed eulogies of Busiris;* how Glaucon*

praised injustice; Favorinus,* Thersites and malaria; Synesius,* baldness;

and Lucian, a fly and a sponger.* Think how Seneca* amused

himself with the apotheo ̄sis of Claudius, Plutarch* with his dialogue

between Gryllus and Odysseus, Lucian and Apuleius with their asses,*

and someone-or-other with their testament of Grunnius Corocotta the

piglet* (which even St Jerome recalls).

Would my critics rather imagine me to have amused myself by

playing draughts from time to time, or, if they prefer, by “galloping

around on a long stick”?* For it really is quite unreasonable to grant

every other of life’s professions its opportunities for fun, but to allow

no fun at all to scholars. What if the jokes bring with them some serious

ideas? What if the absurdities are handled in such a way that the

not altogether undiscriminating reader gains rather more benefit from

them than from some people’s forbiddingly elaborate treatises? I’m

thinking of the sort that spend long hours stitching together a discourse

in praise of public speaking or philosophy; or who compose a

eulogy of some head of state; or a speech urging war against the Turks;

or a prophecy of future events; or a discussion of every last argument

about goat’s wool.* Nothing’s more futile than to treat serious subjects

in a frivolous way – but at the same time nothing’s more entertaining

than to treat frivolities in such a way that you come across to others

as the opposite of frivolous. The verdict on me is for others to deliver;

praise of folly

nevertheless, (unless self-love* is duping me completely) though it’s

Folly we’ve praised, it’s not altogether foolishly we’ve done it.

I’ll deal now with the taunt about sting. Intelligent critics have

always been allowed the liberty of using irony to make fun of our

shared humanity without fear of consequences, provided only that

the freedom doesn’t express itself in rage. That’s why I’m so surprised

at the tenderness of modern ears, which can barely now tolerate anything

beyond conventional compliments: you’ll find some people so

religiously correct, in a back-to-front way, that they’re readier to stomach

the most harshly offensive language against Christ than to have a

pope or head of state sullied by the gentlest of jokes, especially if it

touches on what Aristophanes terms “pay and rations”.* Anyhow, if

one censures the way people live their lives without criticizing a single

person by name, I question whether that should be regarded as administering

a sting so much as offering information and advice. Or try

totting up the counts on which I’m censuring myself. Besides, if critics

exempt no class of people from reproof, then they’re not displaying

animosity against any individual but against human shortcomings in

general. So, if anyone should come forwards to complain that they’ve

been libelled, they’ll be betraying their guilty conscience, or at least

their unease. St Jerome* indulged in the same kind of ridicule as I

have with much more bluntness and sting, often exposing identities.

As for us, not only have we refrained completely from naming names;

we’ve also regulated our manner of writing to ensure that the perceptive

reader can readily comprehend that our aim is to entertain rather

than to sting. Unlike Juvenal,* we’ve left unstirred the hidden cesspool

of wickedness; we’ve made it our business to identify what’s laughable

rather than what’s loathsome. If there are some that can’t be won

round even by these arguments, let them at least remember this: to be

rebuked by Folly is a compliment; since we’ve made Folly the speaker,

it’s only right that she be true to character.

But why do I go on like this to you? Outstanding advocate that

you are, it’s in upholding cases less than strong that you show your

strength. So fare you well, my eloquent More, and defend your Mo ̄ria

with vigour!

From the country, 9th June*

Goddess Folly is the Speaker

Folly Introduces Herself

Humans may talk about me in public as they like –

I realize how bad a name Folly has even among the

biggest fools. But I’m the one, I tell you, yes the only one,

to use my divine power to bring good cheer to all, gods

and humankind alike. I’ve more than ample proof of it

too: as soon as I stepped forwards to address this packed

congregation, all your faces at once beamed out with a

new and unaccustomed cheerfulness; you suddenly lost

your frowns; you showed your delight; you gave me a

friendly laugh and clapped your hands. As I look round

at you on every side, you really seem, all of you, to be

merry on the nectar that Homer’s gods drank, nectar

laced with nepenthe* to banish sorrow. Yet only just now

you were sitting there glum and worried, just as if you’d

freshly emerged from Trophonius’s cave.*

To put it another way, you know how it is when that

beautiful golden sun first rises on the earth, or when

after a harsh winter the new spring makes the balmy

west winds blow: everything immediately takes on a

new aspect again, a new colour, a new youth even.

That’s the way your faces changed as soon as you

caught sight of me. To dispel cares that vex the soul

– that’s something great preachers can hardly manage

with a lengthy, long-rehearsed sermon; but that’s what

I’ve achieved in an instant, just by my appearance.

Why is it, though, that I’ve come before you today

in such a bizarre costume?* You’ll hear soon enough,

provided you can bear to lend me your ears as I talk

– I don’t mean the ears that you normally lend to those

that rant at you here in church, but the ears you prick up

for charlatans, jesters and fools outside – the donkeys’

First Impressions

Why I’ve Come

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ears that long ago our friend Midas* sprouted for Pan’s

sake. The fact is, I’ve decided I want to spend a little

time giving you the benefit of my doctorate – not, I

hasten to add, a doctorate of the sort held by teachers

that these days stuff schoolboys with unsettling nonsense

and give them an argumentativeness worse than

a woman’s. No: my model will be those clever men of

long ago who, to avoid the discredited title of “doctor

of philosophy”, preferred to be known as “spin doctors”.*

It was these “doctors” who busied themselves

composing encomiums in praise of gods and mighty

men. And it’s an encomium you’re now going to hear,

not one of some demigod like Hercules or lawgiver like

Solon,* but my encomium of myself, Folly.

Now I don’t care a finger snap for those educated

people who call it the height of foolishness and bad

taste for someone to boast of their own merits: it can

be as foolish as they want, but let them at least admit

that it’s fitting. What’s more apt than for Mo¯ ria herself

to blow her own trumpet – “pipe herself on the flute”,*

as the Greeks say? Who can talk about me better than I

can? – unless there’s anyone who knows me better than

I know myself!

Actually I consider praising myself a good deal less

pretentious than what the well-bred, well-educated

crowd do all the time: through a twisted sense of modesty

they prevail on some ingratiating speechwriter or

windbag of a poet (and pay them, what’s more) to tell

them how good they are – and it’s all lies, pure lies!

Yet the bashful subject lifts his tail like a peacock and

raises the feathers of his crest, while his bare-faced

flatterer equates a paltry human being with the gods:

he declares the man perfectly attuned to every virtue,

though the fellow knows himself to be more than “two

octaves distant”* (as the Greeks express it); he dresses

the pathetic crow in another bird’s plumage; and (more

Greek sayings) he “whitens the African” and “makes

an elephant out of a fly”.* Well, I go along with this

An Encomium

of Myself?

praise of folly

well-worn proverb: “you can fairly praise yourself if

there’s no one else to praise you”.

How extraordinary, by the way, is human ingratitude

– or should I call it inertia? Humans all worship me

devotedly; they all gladly acknowledge the good I do

them; but not one has come forwards in all these centuries

to celebrate Folly’s merits in an appreciative speech.

And yet there’s never been a shortage of people to extol

tyrants like Busiris and Phalaris, malarial fevers, flies,

bald heads* and similar afflictions in eulogies crafted

late at night at great cost of oil and sleep.

This speech of mine you’re about to hear will be

impromptu and unworked, but truer for all that. I

wouldn’t want you to think it’s been put together to

show off my cleverness, as happens with the mass of

public speakers. They, as you know, publish a speech

they’ve worked on for all of thirty years – or may sometimes

have borrowed from someone else – and then

swear on oath that they’ve written it, or even dictated

it, in three days for fun. As for me, I’ve always taken the

greatest pleasure in speaking (as the Greeks say) “whatever

comes to my unready tongue”.*

No one, what’s more, should now expect me to proceed,

as those run-of-the-mill public speakers of yours

do, by subjecting myself to definition or – still less – to

analysis.* Drawing a boundary round someone whose

divine power is so vast, or dissecting someone whose

worship unites the universe – either would invite heaven’s

disfavour. In any case, what possible point is there

in presenting a shadow or outline of myself by way of

definition, when you and I are here together in the same

place and you can behold me for myself.

So I am, as you see, the great dispenser of blessings*

that they call in Latin “Stultitia” and in Greek “Mo ̄ria

– that is, “Folly”. Why did I need say even this, though?

Don’t I display who I am adequately on my person – “on

countenance and brow”, as they say? If anyone claimed

I was the incarnation of Wisdom, whether pagan or

My Manner of

Speaking

Who I Am

erasmus

10

Christian, wouldn’t they be set right at once just by

the sight of me, even without my giving voice (that

least deceptive mirror* of the personality)? Rouging

cheeks* is not for me: I don’t profess one thing on my

face and hide another deep within. I resemble myself

exactly from every angle – so much so that I can’t be

mistaken even in people who are the keenest to claim

for themselves the mask and title of Wisdom and who

parade about, as in those Greek fables, like “baboons

in fine robes” and “donkeys in lion skins”.* But, for

all their careful pretences, the long ears sprouting from

somewhere or other betray the foolish Midas. Oh, the

ingratitude of people like this: they’re leading members

of our troupe, but are so ashamed of our name in public

that they use it as a major insult to throw indiscriminately

in other people’s faces. These people, who are in

reality the greatest morons but want to be regarded as

intellectuals and philosophers* – surely we’ve an excellent

right to call them “morosophers”.*

You see, we’ve decided to copy today’s public speakers

in one respect: they evidently consider themselves gods

if they show themselves two-tongued, like leeches,* and

they think it a splendid achievement if they can keep

embroidering a few little decorative Greek-sounding

words onto their Latin speeches, even if out of place.

What’s more, if foreign material fails, they dig four or

five archaic words out of some mouldering manuscript

to darken the reader’s mind. The purpose, of course,

is this: those who understand become more and more

pleased with themselves and those who don’t are the

more impressed the less they understand. It’s really

rather charming, the pleasure our people find in looking

up to things the more foreign they are. It allows the

vainer sort to laugh and applaud, and (as in the Greek

saying) “twitch their ears like donkeys”,* to show the

company how excellently they comprehend.

Well, καὶ ταῦτα δὴ μὲν ταῦτα* (as the Greeks say!).

Now I’ll return to my theme.

I Can Speak

Greek

— credits to almaclassics.com —

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