It may seem strange to praise Folly, but there is one certain advantage to foolishness: the freedom to speak the truth. In Praise of Folly, Erasmus put this freedom to good use in reminding his readers, a society greatly corrupted by worldly concerns, that one cannot serve both God and Mammon. He smoothed over his satire by assuring us that "there is merit in being attacked by Folly" (7), and finished with the reminder that "it's Folly and a woman who's been speaking" (134), a disclaimer that allowed him to be as harsh as he needed to be in his criticism. He certainly found need for harshness, for the values he saw at the heart of Christianity, the compassion and sacrifice of the Scriptures, were everywhere overwhelmed by greed, ambition, and superstition. Donning the mask of Folly, Erasmus criticized the emerging bourgeois economic values, politics of hierarchy, and even Catholicism itself, and in the process he defended the conservative Christian ethic-which seems as Folly to the world.
Erasmus recognized that the values and economic system of Capitalism that were emerging along with the new bourgeois class were in many ways opposed to conservative Christianity, so merchants and their kind were included in the satirical attacks of Folly. He criticized many types of people for their devotion to Mammon: gamblers who "make shipwreck of their entire resources" (62), the man who "marries a dowry, not a wife" (76), or "thinks himself rich on loans and credit" (76), priests who seek to profit by their flocks (66), and of course the merchants themselves, "most foolish of all, and the meanest" (76). Erasmus pointed out their "lies, perjury, thefts, frauds, and deceptions" (76), wh...
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...ch are the wisdom of God that seems foolishness to men. He referred to Paul's teachings of the folly of the Gospel, asserting that "the Christian religion has a kind of kinship with folly in some form, though it has none at all with wisdom" (128). If "by stoic definition wisdom means nothing else but being ruled by reason; and folly, by contrast, is being swayed by the dictates of the passions" (29), then the central teaching of Christianity, love for God and one's neighbor, was truly akin to folly, for love is a passion. This love, along with compassion, sacrifice, and the other doctrines of Christian foolishness, was what Erasmus sought to defend in his criticism of a society corrupted in the service of Mammon rather than God.
Erasmus, D. 1511. In Praise of Folly. (Translated by L. Dean and republished by Hendricks House Farrar Straus. 1946.)
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