Church History Teasers (Part 7): Erasmus ‘In Praise of Folly’

February 4, 2009 at 2:02 pm 1 comment

Brief Outline of ‘In Praise of Folly’

1.    Introduction: Reason for Writing.

To Thomas Moore, in order “to resolve something of our common studies”.

2.    On ‘Folly’: The Mythological Character.

Erasmus explains Folly’s “lineage, education, and companions”.

3.    Defending Folly’s Deity: Her Self-Love.

Erasmus illustrates the role of Folly in the relationships of men. The illustrations draw on the necessity of self-love and the virtues of foolishness.

4.    On ‘folly’: A Broad and Sweeping Critical Analysis.

Erasmus illustrates and provides a critical analysis of the foolishness of men. Erasmus launches into a full scale discourse on the weakness and strength of folly (as it relates to men and their relationship with one another).

5.    On ‘those who exercise folly’: Specific Application: Certain Positions and Dispositions.

Erasmus specifically critiques those who are blinded by their folly, in two senses. There is a positive blindness (foolishness of belief in the transcendental reality), and a negative blindness (foolishness of sole focus on the earthly reality).

6.    On Christian ‘foolishness’: A Distinction Between Foolishness.

Erasmus encourages the Christian to depend on the wisdom of God, which equates to foolishness to other men. Erasmus provides a good ‘check’ for Christians to be ‘in this world but not of this world’.

‘In Praise of Folly’

Erasmus work ‘In Praise of Folly’ attempts to warn his contemporaries of attempting to ‘be wise beyond their own conditions’. Moving in and out of a satirical fantasy, and his own personal voice, Erasmus uses the mythological character Folly, in representation of the trait of folly often spoken of in Biblical texts. Using these varied literary devices, Erasmus offers a clear and moving analysis of the classes ‘wise men’ and ‘fools’.

In developing a critical analysis of the society Erasmus found himself in, he had one goal in mind – to purify the religious sect of their pride of position. Erasmus was disillusioned with the state of the church. Yet Erasmus also offers a critique of secular academics in seeking to redeem culture.

The character Folly was consumed with self-love, which impelled her to seek praise. Folly claims to be ‘man’s greatest patron’. Interestingly enough, this mythological character was nursed by ‘Drunkenness and Ignorance’. Even more, Folly claims to have followers such as Flattery, Laziness, Oblivion and Pleasure. Moving in and out of satire, Erasmus is able to bring mythological features home with real world application with his ‘real voice’.

To name a few, Erasmus speaks of the logicians and sophists who gain their laughs and reap the benefit of others folly.  Claiming to have ‘mastered all’, they circle each other in their blind conjectures about inexplicable matters. Yet Erasmus saves his most piercing analysis for the ‘divines’. He claims that the superstitious divines explicate the most hidden of mysteries according to their own fancy. In explaining the mysteries of the Bible, the ‘Theologians’ seek to suit their won tastes. Erasmus gives a similar caricature of the ‘Monks’, who live as if they are stage-players acting out ‘righteousness’. They use their religious uprightness to oppress those of other classes.

In the last section of the piece, Erasmus turns his attention to the ‘happiness of Christians’ found in folly. Erasmus illustrates that to the world, the Christian appears foolish, but in actuality possesses a much different type of wisdom.  For instance, the apostles refuted the heathen philosophers with their good lives and miracles rather than arguing over subtle trifles, though they were learned and well equipped for such a defense. It is true that the foolishness of God is wiser than men. Even Christ, in some manner became a fool in taking on the nature of man. This is the very essence of the cross; it is foolishness to those of this world.

In a sense, there is a duality of foolishness in this piece. In one way, the theologians and philosophers are described with a certain dislike. For they pursue their grammarian ways with much toil, which is a kind of madness and folly in itself. While in another way, certain fools have an advantage for they understand the true nature of folly. Some things are not meant to be defined as‘doctor-like’. This statement illustrates the concept of faith, ‘it is something not seen’.

Though the literary structure of this piece makes it somewhat difficult to follow, the overall message is clear. Beware of being so consumed with self-love and the particulars of this world, for in these things one can loose a sense of humility. The elements of scholarship and humility are to be held in balance. If these things were held in balance, the church would grow towards purity and a proper understanding of the humans’ role in God’s eternal redemptive plan.

Part 1: Tertullian’s Apology

Part 2: Athanasius ‘On the Incarnation’

Part 3: Saint Benedict ‘The Rule’

Part 4: Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Rule’

Part 5: Anselm’s ‘Proslogion’

Part 6: Bernard of Clairvaux ‘On Loving God’

Entry filed under: Christianity, Faith, Philosophy, Religion.

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