Erasmus’ Praise of Folly – extracts from my translation


Praise of Folly

Goddess Folly is the speaker

on women (pages 22, 23):      

 … [B]ecause males were born to manage, they had to be gifted with a tiny bit more rationality.  So Jupiter, in a manful attempt to work this out, called me in for advice (as he has done in other matters); and I quickly responded with advice I’m proud of: he should introduce womankind, a foolish species, of course, without sense, but funny and endearing, so that, as they lived together at home, her folly might add spice and sweetness to the unpalatable male mentality. 


In truth, I don’t believe womankind are so foolish as to resent me charging them with folly: after all, I’m a woman myself, and Folly in person.  If they consider the matter rightly, they should reckon it to Folly’s credit that on many counts they’re better off than men. 

First of all, women have the gift of beauty, which they rightly rank above everything else, and which they deploy to tyrannise real-life tyrants.  Why does a man have that bristly appearance, hairy skin and bushy beard – features of old age – except from a mistaken attempt to look wise, while women’s cheeks are always smooth, their voices high-pitched, their skin lovely and soft, as if they’re assuming a perpetual youthfulness?  Then what else do women want from life than to be as attractive as possible to men?  Surely that’s the purpose of all those smart dresses, all that make-up, all those baths and hairdos, all those creams and perfumes, and all those clever ways of restoring, repainting and reshaping the face, eyes and complexion. 

Again, Folly must be the one reason for men finding women so agreeable.  Men let women get away with anything.  And the pay-back? – pleasure!  The enjoyment that women give comes through Folly, none else.  The truth of this will be plain to anyone who’s reflected on the silly things that a man says and does with a woman, whenever he’s decided to take his pleasure with her.

So there you have the source of life’s first and chiefest joy…

 on flattery and the superiority of impressions over reality (pages 56-58)

… Today to flatter is bad form, but only among people who are more influenced by what things are called than by the things themselves.  They consider that flattery and loyalty don’t go well together; but the example of dumb animals could have warned them that the opposite was the case.  What is more fawning than a dog?  But what too is more loyal?  What is more endearing than a squirrel?  Yet what is a better friend to humans?  Surely you don’t imagine that savage lions, fierce tigers or ferocious panthers do more for human life. 

There is, of course, an altogether pernicious flattery that some untrustworthy and cynical people deploy to destroy their victims.  But my sort of flattery proceeds from a kindly and open disposition and comes much closer to goodness than does its opposite; for, as Horace puts it, ‘churlishness’ (or irritability) is ‘clumsy and gross’.  My Flattery perks up flagging spirits, soothes those that are depressed, energises the sluggish, excites the apathetic, relieves the ailing, tames the fierce, unites the lovesick and holds them in union.  She motivates children to eager study; she gladdens the elderly; and to rulers she gives warning and instruction without offence by masking it as praise.  In short, she makes everyone more acceptable and more precious to themselves, and that’s the chiefest part of happiness.  After all, what’s more congenial than when ‘mule scratches mule’? 

I could even say this: Flattery’s a great part of the eloquence that everyone admires, it’s a greater part of medicine, and it’s the greatest part of poetry.  Flattery is the honey and spice of all human intercourse.

            ‘But to be misled is wretched,’ I can hear people saying.  Well, not to be misled is most wretched of all.  People are excessively stupid if they think that human happiness resides in facts.  Opinions are what it depends on. 

There’s such an obscurity and diversity in human affairs that it’s impossible to know anything clearly…  If on the other hand it is possible to know something, that can often interfere with the enjoyment of life.  In any case, the human spirit is formed in such a way that it’s much more susceptible to fancies than to realities.  If anyone wants plain and ready proof of this, they should go to church and hear sermons: if anything serious is being talked of, people will be dozing, yawning or fidgeting.  But if the screecher – sorry, slip of the tongue: I meant the preacher – launches into some old wives tale (as they often do), the listeners wake up, they sit straight, they’re all agog.  Again, take one of the more legendary and fanciful saints – if you want an example, make it, say, George or Christopher or Barbara – you’ll observe that they’re worshipped with far more devotion than Peter or Paul or even Christ himself…

Now, consider how cheap this extra happiness is.  It often costs a great deal of trouble to gain factual knowledge, even on the most trivial subjects like classical studies.  But it’s extremely easy to gather impressions.  Yet impressions contribute as much or even more to happiness. 

on writers (pages 67-68):

Flour of the same milling too are people who chase undying fame by producing books.  Everyone of course owes me a great deal, but none more than those who daub pure nonsense onto sheets of paper. 

The ones who write learned works to impress a few academic readers and expose themselves to the appraisal of the harshest critics – these people, in my view, deserve pity more than envy, like people that inflict perpetual torture on themselves.  They’re always adding, amending, excising, reinserting, reconsidering, reformulating, seeking opinions, ‘suppressing till year nine’, without ever being satisfied.  The prize they seek, the good opinion of a tiny few, is worthless, and they purchase it at such cost – the late nights, the loss of sleep (that sweetest of pleasures!), the grind, the torment – and, on top of that, damage to health, loss of figure, soreness of eyes (or even blindness), poverty, ill will, pleasure forsworn, old age before time, an early death, and whatever such else.  These intellectuals reckon that the approval of one or two bleary-eyed scholars is worth all these drawbacks. 

My followers, on the other hand, for all the drivel they write, are so much better off: they never work at night; they do as they please; they publish straight off whatever slips onto their pen, be it even their dreams; they waste little paper; and they’re comfortable in the knowledge that, the more nonsensical the nonsense they write, the more admirers they’ll have, fools and ignoramuses all of them.  What does it matter that two or three academics greet their work with contempt (if indeed they even read it)?  What weight does the assessment of a few intellectuals carry against a huge crowd proclaiming the opposite view? 

Astuter still are those who publish others’ work in their own name: they divert to themselves the literary prestige generated by efforts not their own, confident in the expectation that, even if their larceny’s exposed, it’ll have earned them some short-term interest in the meantime. 

The smugness of these writers is a sight to behold – acclaimed as celebrities, pointed out in the throng (‘Here’s the clever fellow everyone’s talking about!’), fêted by booksellers, their names spelt out in full on every title page, especially if they’re foreign and exotic!…

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