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Praise of Folly
Translated by Roger Clarke
The goddess Folly gives a speech, praising herself and explaining how much humanity benefits from her services, from politicians to philosophers, aristocrats, schoolteachers, poets, lawyers, theologians, monarchs and the clergy. At the same time, her discourse provides a satire of Erasmus’s world, poking fun at false pedantry and the aberrations of Christianity. Woven throughout her monologue, a thread of irony calls into question the goddess’s own words, in which ambiguities, allusions and interpretations collide in a way that makes this work enduringly fascinating.
A central text of the Renaissance, Praise of Folly is an essential part of the Western canon, without which much that has followed it – in culture, theology and literature – would not exist. Deeply subversive in its time, its early years of controversy finally gave way to acceptance as theologians, philosophers and readers came to appreciate Erasmus’s lucid, playful and eloquent reasoning.
In addition to a sparkling modern translation of Praise of Folly, this volume also includes other works by Erasmus: Pope Julius Barred from Heaven, ‘Epigram against Pope Julius II’ and a selection of his Adages. Together with the extensive annotation of the texts, these help to set Erasmus’s masterpiece in an accessible context for the modern reader.
From the terrible hate storm of his age, Erasmus has salvaged this intellectual gem, his faith in humanity, and on this small burning wick Spinoza, Lessing and Voltaire – and all Europeans past and present – could light their torch.
Praise of Folly, still a masterpiece of slyly subversive wit, was in a sense the first best-seller, read covertly under desks and sniggered over by countless trainee monks and priests.
Erasmus searched for reconciliation between Faith and Reason, refusing not only the dogmas of Faith, but the dogmas of Reason as well.
I am well aware that what I have had to say on the problem of peace is not essentially new. It is my profound conviction that the solution lies in our rejecting war for an ethical reason; namely, that war makes us guilty of the crime of inhumanity. Erasmus of Rotterdam and several others after him have already proclaimed this as the truth around which we should rally.
Albert Schweitzer in his 1952 Nobel Peace Prize lecture
Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536) devoted his life to the study of theology and the defence of Christian ideals. He rose to a prominent position in the Church, and achieved fame for his writings. He played an important part in history by fostering the intellectual climate for the Reformation, and many of his ideas have a legacy which endures to the present day.