Humor and Criticism in Praise of Folly
Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is a humor-filled satire of pretty much everything. It is filled with wit and sarcasm which make light of serious problems and blow insignificant issues out of proportion all the while bringing a smile to the reader’s face. It is not stinging humor at the expense of others (unless, of course, the shoe fits), rather it is directed towards everyone. Erasmus even includes himself in the joke, practically parodying himself in the first section (xvi). In Praise of Folly, Erasmus uses this humor to criticize without the harsh judgment of seriousness. His humor parallels the import of his subject. When Folly discusses the issues most significant to Erasmus, she loses her jocularity and ironic tone, whereas in her first voice, Folly laughs at those whose foolish ways are reason for criticism but not for scorn.
This section finds great ironic humor in the folly of all types of conceit, pointing out that the most condescending of people have little reason for such egotism. Folly laughs at the conceit of “the general run of gentry and scholars” with their “distorted sense of modesty” (11) including “those who lay special claim to be called the personification of wisdom, even though they strut about ‘like apes in purple’ and ‘asses in lion-skins’” (13). Folly, of course, is guilty of this most of all in dedicating a whole book to praising herself, and she admits the great folly behind this when she asks, “What could be more fitting than for Folly to trumpet her own merits abroad and ‘sing her own praises’” (11). Erasmus jokes about this type of conceit because it is innocent and commonplace. His point is to en...
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...art for any lack of seriousness. Here we see the culmination of Folly’s progression towards Erasmus’s most serious subject and away from humor.
Erasmus demonstrates the value of humor by making fun of insignificant issues and teaching us how to laugh at ourselves. “Jokes of this kind . . . which aren’t lacking in learning and wit” (4) help us put the less significant aspects of life in perspective. They also aim to moderate the level of his criticism making it more constructive than insulting. For it is “the ridiculous rather than the squalid” (7) to which his humor applies. He reserves a more serious voice for more serious wrongdoing. We see this parallel between humor and subject clearly as Erasmus progresses from constructive criticism of insignificant folly to harsh indictment of religious pretension and most of all in his solemn praise of Christian folly.
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