Praise of Folly
“Closely related to them are the people who’ve adopted the foolish but pleasurable belief that if they see some carving or painting of that towering Polyphemus, Christopher, they’re sure not to die that day, or if anyone addresses a statue of Barbara in the set formula he’ll return unhurt from battle, or a man will soon become rich if he approaches Erasmus on the proper days with the proper bits of candle and the proper scrapes of prayer. They’ve already got a second Hippolytus, but in George they’ve found another Hercules, too. They piously deck out his horse with trappings and amulets and practically worship it. Its favours are sought with some new small offering, and an oath sworn by the saint’s bronze helmet is fit for a king. And what am I to say about those who enjoy deluding themselves with imaginary pardons for their sins? They measure the length of their time in Purgatory as if by water-clock, counting centuries, years, months, days and hours as though there were a mathematical table to calculate them accurately. Then there are people who rely on certain magic signs and prayers thought up by some pious imposter for his own amusement or for gain – they promise themselves everything, wealth, honours, pleasure, plenty, continual good health, long life, a vigorous old age, and finally a seat next to Christ in heaven. However, that’s a blessing they don’t want until the last possible minute, that is, when the pleasures of this life have left their tenacious and reluctant grasp to make way for the heavenly joys to come.” - Erasmus, Praise of Folly.
“I must press on, and yet I can’t pass over without a mention those who are no better than the humblest worker but take extraordinary pride in an empty title of nobility, one tracing his family back to Aeneas, another to Brutus, a third to Arcturus. They display the statues and portraits of their ancestors everywhere, tot up their great-grand-fathers and great-great-grandfathers, know all the old family names by heart, though they’re not far off being dumb statues themselves and could well be worse than the statuary they display. And yet, there are always plenty of fools like themselves to look up to this sort of brute as if he were a god.” - Erasmus, Praise of Folly.
“Now, just as Nature has implanted his personal self-love in each individual person, I can see she has put a sort of variety in every nation and city. Consequently the British think they have a monopoly, amongst other things, of good looks, musical talent and fine food. The Scots pride themselves on their nobility and the distinction of their royal connexions as much as on their subtlety in dialectic. The French lay claim to polite manners, the Parisians demand special recognition for their theological acumen which they think exceeds nearly everyone else’s. The Italians usurp culture and eloquence, and hence they’re all happy congratulating themselves on being the only civilized race of men. In this kind of happiness the Romans take first place, still blissfully dreaming of the past glories of
“Finally, man's mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth. If anyone wants an immediate clear example of this he has only to go to church at sermon time, where everyone is asleep or yawning or feeling queasy whenever some serious argument is expounded, but if the preacher starts to rant (I beg your pardon, I mean orate) on some old wives' tale as they often do, his audience sits up and takes notice, open-mouthed. And again, if there's some legendary saint somewhat celebrated in fable (you can put George or Christopher or Barbara in that category if you need an example) you'll see that he receives far more devout attention than Peter or Paul or even Christ himself. But this is not the for the moment.” - Erasmus, Praise of Folly.
“Think of the many who set up a candle to the Virgin, Mother of God, and at too, when it isn't needed, and of the few who care about emulating her chastity of life, her modesty and love of heavenly things. Yet that is surely the true way to worship and by far the most acceptable to heaven.” - Erasmus, Praise of Folly.
“And in my opinion Christians would show sense if they dispatched these argumentative Scotists and pigheaded Ockhamists and undefeated Albertists along with the whole regiment of sophists to fight the Turks and Saracens instead of sending those armies of dull-witted soldiers with whom they've long been carrying on war with no result. Then, I think, they'd witness a really keen battle and a victory such as never before. For who is too cold-blooded to be fired by their ingenuities, too stupid to be stung into action by their attacks? And is there anyone so keen-sighted that they can't leave him groping in the dark? You may suppose that I'm saying all this by way of a joke, and that's not surprising seeing that amongst the theologians themselves there are some with superior education who are sickened by these theological minutiae which they look upon as frivolous. Others too think it a damnable form of sacrilege and the worst sort of impiety for anyone to speak of matters so holy, which call for reverence rather than explanation, with a profane tongue, or to argue with the pagan subtlety of the heathen, presume to offer definitions, and pollute the majesty of divine theology with words and sentiments which are so trivial and even vile. Yet all the while they are so happy in their self-satisfaction and self-congratulation, and so busy night and day with these enjoyable tomfooleries, that they haven't even a spare moment in which to take a single look at the gospel or the letters of Paul. And while they're wasting their time in the schools with this nonsense, they believe that just as in the poets Atlas holds up the sky on his shoulders, they support the entire Church on the props of their syllogisi and without them it would collapse. Then you can in their happiness when they fashion and refashion the holy scriptures at will, as if these were made of wax, and when they insist that their conclusions, to which a mere handful of scholastics have subscribed, should carry more weight than the laws of Solon and be preferred to papal decrees. They also set up as the world's censors, and demand recantation of anything which doesn't exactly square with their conclusions, explicit and implicit, and make their oracular pronouncements: "This proposition is scandalous; this is irreverent; this smells of heresy; this doesn't ring true." As a result, neither baptism nor the gospel, neither Paul, Peter, St Jerome, Augustine nor even Thomas, the 'greatest of the Aristotelians', can make a man Christian unless these learned bachelors have given their approval, such is the refinement of their judgment. For who could have imagined, if the savants hadn't told him, that anyone who said that the two phrases "chamber-pot you stink" and "the chamber-pot stinks", or "to boil in a pot" and "to boil a pot" mean much the same thing can't possibly be a Christian? 106 Who could have freed the Church from the dark error of its ways when no one would ever have read about these if they hadn't been published under the great seals of the school? And aren't they perfectly happy doing all this?” - Erasmus, Praise of Folly.
“To sum up (or I shall be pursuing the infinite), it is clear that the Christian religion has a kind of kinship with folly in some form, though it has none at all with wisdom. If you want proofs of this, first consider the fact that the very young and the very old, women and simpletons, are the people who take the greatest delight in sacred and holy things, and are therefore always found nearest the altars, led there doubtless solely by their natural instinct. Secondly, you can see how the first great founders of the faith were great lovers of simplicity and bitter enemies of learning. Finally, the biggest fools of all appear to be those who have once been wholly possessed by zeal for Christian piety. They squander their possessions, ignore insults, submit to being cheated, make no distinction between friends and enemies, shun pleasure, sustain themselves on fasting, vigils, tears, toil and humiliations, scorn life and desire only death - in short, they seem to be dead to any normal feelings, as if their spirit dwelt elsewhere than in their body. What else can that be but madness? And so we should not he surprised if the apostles were thought to be drunk on new wine, and Festus judged Paul to be mad. But now that I have donned 'the lionskin', let me tell you another thing. The happiness which Christians seek with so many labours is nothing other than a certain kind madness and folly. Don't be put off by the words, but consider the reality. In the first place, Christians come near to agreeing with the Platonists that the soul is and bound down by the fetters of the body which by gross matter prevents the soul from being able to contemplate and enjoy things as they truly are. Next, Plato used philosophy as a preparation for death because it leads mind from visible and bodily things, just as death does. And so as long as the mind makes proper use of the organs the body has it is called sane and healthy, but once it begins to break its bonds and tries to win freedom, as if it were planning an escape from prison, men call it insane. If this happens through disease or some organic defect, by general consent it is called insanity. Even so, we see this type of person foretelling the future, showing a knowledge of languages and literature they had never previously known and giving clear indication of something divine. Undoubtedly this happens because the mind is beginning to free itself from contamination by the body and exercise its true natural power. I think this also explains why those who are struggling at the hour of death often expel something similar, so that they speak wonders as if inspired. Again, if this happens through pious fervour, it might not be quite the same kind of insanity, but is so much like it that most people make no distinction, especially as the number of humble folk who differ in their whole way of life from the general run of mankind is very small. And so we have a situation which I think is not unlike that in the myth in Plato, where those who were chained in a cave marvelled at shadows, whereas the man who had escaped and then returned to the cavern told them that he had seen real things and they were much mistaken in belief that nothing existed but their wretched shadows. A man who has gained understanding pities his companions and deplores their insanity which confines them to such an illusion, but they in their turn laugh at him as if he were crazy and turn him out. In the same way, the herd of men feels admiration only for the things of the body and believes that these alone exist, whereas the pious scorn whatever concerns the body and are wholly uplifted towards the contemplation of invisible things. The ordinary man gives first place to wealth, the second to comforts, and leaves the last to the soul - which anyway most people believe doesn't exist because it is invisible to the eye. By contrast, the pious direct their entire endeavour towards God, who is absolute in purity, and after him towards what is closest to him, the soul. They have no thought for the body, despise wealth and avoid it like trash, and if they are obliged to deal with such matters they do so with reluctance and distaste, behaving as if they do not have, possessing as if they did not possess.138 There are moreover in each of these things widely differing degrees. To begin with, though all the senses have some kinship with the body, some of them are grosser, such as touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste, while other faculties are less physical, for instance, memory, intellect and will. The power of the soul depends on its inclinations. Since, then, all the power of the pious soul is directed towards what is furthest removed from the grosser senses, these become blunted and benumbed. The vulgar crowd of course does the opposite, develops them very much and more spiritual faculties very little. That explains what we have heard happened to several saints, who drank oil by mistake for wine. Again, take the affections of the soul. Some have more traffic with the grossness of the body, such as lust, desire for food and sleep, anger, pride and envy and on these the pious wage unceasing war, while crowd thinks life impossible without them. Then there are what we could call intermediate affections which are quasi-natural to all, like love for one's father, and affection for children, relatives and friends. The crowd sets great store by these, yet the pious strive to root them too from their soul, or at least to sublimate them to the highest region of the soul. They wish to love their father not as a father, he begot nothing but the body, and this too is owed to God the father, but as a good man and one in whom is reflected the image of the supreme mind which alone they call the summum bonum and beyond which they declare is to be loved or sought. This is the rule whereby they regulate all the remainder of life's duties, so that any visible, if it is not wholly to be despised, is still valued less than what cannot be seen. They also say that even in the sacraments and the actual advances of their religion, both body and spirit are involved. For example, they think little of fasting if it means more than abstaining from meat and a meal which for the common man is the essential of a fast. It must at the same time reduce the passions, permitting less anger or pride than usual, so that the spirit can feel less burdened by the matter of the body and can aim at tasting and enjoying the blessings of heaven. It is the same with the Eucharist: the ritual with which it is celebrated should be rejected, they say, but it serves no useful purpose or can be positively harmful if it lacks the spiritual element represented by those visible symbols. It represents the death of Christ, which men must express through the mastery extinction of their bodily passions, laying them in the tomb, as it were, in order to rise again to a new life where in you can be united with him and with each other. This then is how the pious man acts, and this is his purpose. The crowd, on the other hand, thinks the sacrifice of the mass means no more than crowding as close as possible to the hearing the sound of the words, and watching the ritual down to the smallest detail. I quote this only as one example; in fact the pious man throughout his whole life withdraws from the things of the body and is drawn towards what is eternal, invisible and spiritual. Consequently there is total disagreement between the two parties at every point, and each thinks the other mad; though in my view, the epithet is more properly applied to the pious, not the common man.” - Erasmus, Praise of Folly.
“And then those who can be offended by a book where no names are mentioned seem to me to react in much the same way as those silly women who get worked up whenever anything is said against a loose living woman as if it were a personal insult to them all, and conversely, if a word of praise is spoken about virtuous women they are as pleased with themselves as if a tribute paid to one or another applies to the whole sex. Men should be far removed from silliness of this kind, learned men further still, and theologians furthest of all!” - Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, 1515.
“Instead of behaving like this, tearing others to pieces and then being torn themselves, wasting their time and everyone else's, how much better it would be if they would learn Greek or Hebrew, or Latin at least! Knowledge of these languages is so important for understanding the holy scriptures that it seems to me gross impertinence for anyone to assume the name of theologian if he is ignorant of them.” - Erasmus, Letter to Martin Dorp, 1515.