In Praise of Folly - Erasmus' Dichotomy Essay

In Praise of Folly - Erasmus' Dichotomy Essay

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In Praise of Folly - Erasmus' Dichotomy

 
   The Silenus box is a "case carved like an ugly Silenus" that can be "opened to reveal beautiful, precious objects" (Erasmus 43, footnote). This box appears in Erasmus' Praise of Folly as a metaphor for the central claim in the novel, which is that that which appears to be Folly (ugly) externally, is wise (precious) within. Erasmus reveals this dichotomy on three levels: in the image of the box itself, in his genuine praise of Folly, and in the structure of the novel as a whole.

Erasmus, using the female voice of Folly, introduces his reader to the image of the Silenus box early in the text, thereby allowing his reader to carry the image with her for the rest of her time reading (and see its metaphoric nature when appropriate). Folly makes the introduction, saying, "All human affairs... have two aspects quite different from each other." She then goes on to explain that this means, according to Plato, that things that "appear 'at first blush'... to be death, will, if you examine [them] more closely, turn out to be life... in brief, you will find everything suddenly reversed if you open the Silenus" (43). In more direct terms, something which on its surface seems one way (the 'bad' way), has opposite ('good') guts. In The Praise of Folly, the pair of opposites that Erasmus focuses on is that of folly and wisdom.

By including a passage dedicated to the description of the Silenus, Erasmus gives his readers a concrete picture to grasp onto that stands for the novel's link between this pair of opposites, which is that wisdom comes under the wrapping of folly. The passage allows the reader to understand this central concept more easily. The concept, in its many manifestations, c...


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...this same literary tradition, Rabelais utilizes this peculiar narrative technique in Gargantua and Pantagruel, where he too hides the wisdom in his work behind the veil of foolish, and even vulgar, language.

Erasmus' inclusion of the passage explaining the Selenus box allows it to be a metaphor for the central concept in the novel. Through its presence, Erasmus gives us, his readers, a tool with which to separate the layers of his text. Without it, we might be stranded (after reading) with the inaccurate belief that Erasmus was a babbling hypocrite, with contradictory ideas sprinkled throughout his work. But, I suppose, we could have just attributed that fault to Folly, who is always more than willing to accept such a title.

Work Cited

Erasmus, D. 1511. In Praise of Folly. (Translated by L. Dean and republished by Hendricks House Farrar Straus. 1946.)

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