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Desiderius Erasmus' The Praise of Folly

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Desiderius Erasmus' The Praise of Folly   


Originally meant for private circulation, the Praise of Folly, by Desiderius Erasmus, scourges the abuses and follies of the various classes of society, especially the church. It is a cold-blooded, deliberate attempt to discredit the church, and its satire and stinging comment on ecclesiastical conditions are not intended as a healing medicine but a deadly poison.

The Praise of Folly, by Desiderius Erasmus, takes on a very diverse form of life during sixteenth century Europe. In 1509 the author, Desiderius Erasmus, turned his literary talents to the ridicule and denunciation of monastic vice, immorality, and wickedness. He was considered the "Prince of Humanists" [1] because he was one of the most important men in Europe during the period of the Reformation, The historical and cultural references in his book proves that the Praise of Folly could not have been written during any other time period except sixteenth century Europe. Erasmus is one of the most fascinating and inscrutable characters in history. There is no doubt that he was a genius, He was also a bon vivant, but his tastes ran toward good conversation and good food rather than conspicuous consumption. He whined endlessly about his troubles, and he begged shamelessly for ever more money from his patrons. But he was one of the "most far-sighted individuals to walk this planet," [2]. Before any others, he saw how the corruption and misdeeds of the church would lead to danger, and when Martin Luther hijacked Erasmus’ reform efforts and turned them into outright revolt, Erasmus saw that this split in Christendom would lead to catastrophe; a catastrophe that was realized a century later. Erasmus, even from childhood, had a craving to read, study, learn and know. He spent his life as a scholar and writer. He was a man of quick wit and a keen mind. He had struck a raw nerve by writing the Praise of Folly. But it must be noted that while Erasmus found the wickedness of the priests revulsive, he did not disapprove of Roman Catholic doctrine. He praised himself to be a citizen of the world, not attached 2 to a particular country but finding himself at home in European countries where culture and humanism were flourishing. The two societies he claimed to belong to were both the republic of letters and the Christian church. In Roman Catholic doctrine, he wished only for a reformation of priestly morals and conduct, not of Roman theology, and he disapproved of the doctrinal revolution initiated by Luther. It is said that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched, meaning that Erasmus was the one who inspired the Protestant Reformation. The particular state of mind which produced the "modern world" was a manifestation of the same mind as underlay the Protestant Revolution. The Protestant "calling" was a treatment of worldly avocations as God-created and fulfillable in a spirit of worship. This concept enabled the Protestant to see in his ordinary daily work an activity pleasing to God and therefore be pursued as actively and profitably as possible. On the other hand, medieval and Roman Catholic Christianity were held to have condemned the world, with consequent hostility to economic activity and especially to that essential capitalist ingredient, the taking of interest on usury. Protestantism were therefore asserted to have been the necessary precondition of the growth of modern industrial capitalism. The basic belief of Protestantism promoted the spirit of the entrepreneur, and for that reason capitalism is found flourishing in reformed countries, while the Reformation is found spreading among the commercial and industrial middle classes. The desire for spiritual nourishment was great in many parts of Europe, and movements of thought which gave intellectual content to what in so many ways was an initial search for God have their own dignity. Neither of these, however, comes first in explaining why the Reformation took root her and vanished heresies led to a permanent division within the church that had looked to Rome. This particular place 3 is occupied and the play of secular ambitions. The Reformation maintained itself wherever the lay power favored it; it could not survive where the authorities decided to suppress it. For this was the age of uniformity, an age which held at all times and everywhere that one political unit could not comprehend within itself two forms of belief or worship. Much of the work of the Praise of Folly is satire at the expense of rhetoricians, grammarians and theologians, but towards the close, Erasmus tackles monks and prelates also, not excluding the Popes. But it concludes in an unexpected way; a witty moving praise of a form of religious ecstasy with the folly of God in saving the world through crucifixion associated with the folly and madness of the pious. Erasmus regarded scholasticism as the greatest perversion of the religious spirit; according to him this degeneration dated from the primitive Christological controversies, which caused the church to lose its evangelical simplicity and become the victim of hair-splitting philosophy, which culminated in scholasticism. With the latter there appeared in the church that Pharisaism which based righteousness on good works and monastic sanctity, and on a ceremonialism beneath whose weight the Christian spirit was stifled. Instead of devoting itself to eternal salvation of souls, scholasticism repelled the religiously inclined by its hair-splitting immaterial speculations and its over curious discussion of unsolvable mysteries. In Erasmus’ work, Mistress Folly delivers a speech praising herself. "And to whom is it generally agreed life owes its beginning if not to me? For it certainly isn’t the spear of ‘mighty-fathered’ Pallas or the shield of ‘cloud-gathering’ Jupiter which fathers and propagates the human race," [3]. Here, she tries to put herself above everyone else, even the Gods on Olympus. She says that she is the beginning of all life, and that she should be the most regarded person, while in reality, this is all a bunch of 4 folly. She ridicules the Gods and strips them of their powers. She tries to convince the reader that they can never have self-love, flattery, forgetfulness, idleness, pleasure, madness, sensuality, revelry, and sound sleep again without the presence of her. In Folly’s eyes, she proves these items as being virtues and not defects. Folly tricks the reader into believing that all foolishness is, in fact, wisdom. While Folly is deceiving the examiner of the book, she criticizes the philosophy of Christ. She sees the happiness of Christians as a type of folly. As long as the mind makes proper use of the organs of the body, it is called sane and healthy. But once it begins to break its bonds and tries to win freedom, men call it insane. Even so we see this type of person foretelling the future, showing a knowledge of languages and literature they had never previously learned, and giving clear indication of something divine. It is also seen in sacraments and observances that both the body and the spirit are involved. An example of this is fasting for a meal. It represents the death of Christ, which men must express through the mastery and extinction of their bodily passions, in order to rise to a new life where they can be united with Him and with each other. The physical decision, on the other hand, tells the body to get as close to the altar as possible for Mass. It is seen here that the spiritual soul and the physical body are as far away from each other as they possibly could be, which is not at all true. Folly also satirizes theologians, dignitaries an other churchmen. She states that she would rather pass over them because they are such a foolish people, but if she does, she says that they will rule against her. She thinks that they boast too much and that they interpret hidden mysteries to suit only themselves. Folly also says that their whole life is paradoxical and that everything about them doesn’t make sense. The 5 terms religious and monks doesn’t appeal to Folly as being true. She thinks that both names are false, and the characters portraying them are false as well. Folly sees the figures as a self-centered people, who take pride in themselves even though they don’t have enough education to read. They mechanically repeat psalm after psalm, which they don’t even understand. We know that none of this is true, but she tries to outsmart the thinker into believing that all learned people know absolutely nothing.

Originally meant for private circulation, the Praise of Folly scourges the abuses and follies of the various classes of society, especially the church. It is a cold-blooded, deliberate attempt to discredit the church, and its satire and stinging comment on ecclesiastical conditions are not intended as a healing medicine but a deadly poison. As one can see, numerous connections prove that the Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, could not have been written at a different time period other than sixteenth century Europe.

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