Thursday, February 08, 2007

Erasmus: In Praise of Folly

In Praise of Folly is a sarcastic critique of the Church and state. Erasmus, the Einstein of the 15th century, dedicated his work to Thomas More, that Man of All Seasons, whose life was caught between two powerful men, one a prince and one a pontiff. More, stand was foolishness (moriae) to the world, but was morally superior.

Immediately Erasmus alludes to the foolishness of the world’s wisdom (1 Cor 2:6-16) and the vanity of wisdom (Ecc 1:2) and Lady Folly carries that thought through her treatise. Erasmus’ trenchant humor in Folly’s op ed on the gods, his comparison of old men and babies, and the vicissitudes of marriage disarms the reader for the caustic sarcasm for divinity and dominion.

Erasmus first needles the state for More’s satisfaction, condemning war and politicians as “parasites, pander, thieves, cut-throats, plowmen, sots, spendthrifts, and such other dregs of mankind” who are not enamored of wisdom, citing ancient and contemporary history that fools make the most powerful monarchs.

Princes, Folly contends, would rather foolishly hunt, gamble, build, engage in the occult arts, and figure out new avenues for raising tax revenues rather than tend to the matters of state. She declares that she “laid the foundation of cities; and by it, empire, authority, religion, policy, and public actions.” Folly, she asserts, is the backbone of government.

After a long-winded diversion for More’s benefit poking fun at Scholastic education, philosophy, and the arts, Erasmus moves to the church, attacking the religious foolery of “counterfeit pardons” (indulgences), purgatory, saints, clergy’s manipulation of the pocketbooks of the parishioners, and the sillinesses of funerals. All proceeding from self-love, Erasmus charges, this foolishness lifts the Virgin higher than the Son and the papal directive above the Word of God.

Conscious of his danger in writing, Erasmus has Folly dare not “stir [the] pool or touch [the] fair but unsavory plant” of the divines. Any nonconformist or aberrant opinion is shouted down with an order to “attack me by troops and force me to a recantation sermon, which if I refuse, they straight pronounce me a heretic.”

Folly denounces the prelates’ haughtiness, stupid arguments regarding transubstantiation, the Virgin, and the keys, admitting an inability to rectify the incoherence between the apostles and those who claim their succession. The Scripture for the clergy is “a nose of wax [which] they fashion and refashion according to their pleasure.”

Folly decries that the monks and priests pass the responsibility for the flock to the bishops, they to the archbishops, they then to the pope who refers the matter to the bishops who in turn ask the priests to look into the matter. All the while, the chief issue for the church is the inability to spell the word prophet/profit, as no gospel work can be done for the need of harvesting a healthy bottom line. Indeed, the world’s wisdom demands “among prelates, princes, judges, magistrates, friends, enemies, from highest to lowest, you’ll find all things done by money.”

In correction, Folly submits the wisdom of foolish to confound the wise, “support[ing] our praises with some testimonies of Holy Writ also,” quoting liberally from Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, 1 Corinthians, as well as Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Christ Himself, and Sirach. “God has chosen the foolish things of this world, Folly quotes Paul, and Erasmus encourages More, to confound the so-called wise.