Rulers, for all the advantages they enjoy, seem to me in one respect most disadvantaged: they’ve nobody from whom they can hear the truth; in place of friends they’re lumbered with flatterers. p. 45
The Moriae Encomium by Erasmus (1469-1536), written in Latin and first published in 1515, has been described as ‘in a sense the first best-seller’. If not the first, it is one of two pivotal European primary sources on fools, following by a few decades another best-seller, Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494).
Both books fuelled, and were quite possibly fuelled by, a growing Renaissance fascination with fools and folly which reached a high point during the 16th century. Both are written with a masterly light touch, the one in Latin prose, the other in German rhyming couplets. Both come with a superb deck of illustrations, those for Erasmus sketched in the margins of one edition by Holbein, artistic doodles for eternity, while Brant’s features a woodcut for each of its 100+ chapters. Both, should you ever sign up for the FoolsAreEverywhere master’s degree in foolology, would be required reading.
The difference, which is something of a tectonic shift, is that the Ship of Fools is an anatomy of folly as something to be fixed, mitigated or, even better, avoided. It exposes the full gamut of human daftness and weakness in a skippingly cheery style, to help mortals sharpen up their moral act. It builds on a tradition of folly as a sign of the sinner and our lot in life.
Erasmus turns the whole thing on its head. In so doing, he is building on another medieval tradition, that of the ‘world upside down’, whether referring to the inversion of hierarchies, such as during a specific festival, or to a genre of art dedicated to such topsy-turvy ideas.
While Brant’s narrator gallops us through every type of folly, there is no sign that he embodies it himself. Instead we are addressed as by a lively preacher levelling with us as to our failings. In Erasmus, we are addressed from the pulpit by Folly directly. If that isn’t revolutionary enough, Folly is a woman, or, as she would have it, a goddess. Her motives? To turn us away from sin and the frittering away of our lives? To make us strive for self-improvement? Not a bit of it.
Unlike Juvenal, we’ve left unstirred the hidden cesspool of wickedness; we’ve made it our business to identify what’s laughable rather than what’s loathsome. If there are some that can’t be won round even by these arguments, let them at least remember this: to be rebuked by Folly is a compliment. p. 5
In addition, her aims are little short of outrageous and she hasn’t even the decency to cover herself in some sort of moral fig-leaf, instead giving the game away in the title: Praise of Folly.
And it’s an encomium you’re now going to hear, not one of some demigod like Hercules or lawgiver like Solon, but my encomium of myself, Folly … Actually I consider praising myself a good deal less pretentious than what the well-bred, well-educated crowd do all the time: through a twisted sense of modesty they prevail on some ingratiating speechwriter or windbag of a poet (and pay them, what’s more) to tell them how good they are – and it’s all lies, pure lies! p. 8
She’s there to praise herself to the skies and prove to us that without her we wouldn’t exist and couldn’t bear to anyway.
Anyhow, if you get rid of me, not only will no one be able to put up with their neighbour, but everyone’ll be a stench in their own nostrils, too: they’ll find everything about themselves disgusting, they’ll be full of self-loathing. p. 27
There are no bounds to Folly’s boasting, setting herself up as nothing less than the creator of life:
I create life. In the first place, what can be more agreeable or more precious than life itself? Who is it, though, that’s generally credited with originating life? Isn’t it me? … The reproducer of the human race is the organ that’s so foolish and laughable that it can’t be mentioned without a guffaw: that is the sacred spring from which all things draw life, that and not Pythagoras’s set of four numbers. pp. 13-14
One of the principal traits of the fool is their licence to speak the truth and their willingness to exercise it, particularly towards those in power. Folly makes clear that no self-respecting ruler can do without one:
Fools are such favourites with great monarchs too that some kings can’t eat breakfast or start anything new or endure a single hour without them. And they prefer blockheads like this to those churlish philosophers, even though they usually retain a few for show … You must also acknowledge one other precious gift that fools have: they alone are forthright in telling the truth. And what’s more creditable than truthfulness? p. 45
That said, the wisdom of fools is wit-wrapped and sweet-tasting, and rings as true now as ever:
The chief element of happiness is this: to want to be what you are. And the short cut that my dear Self-love offers to achievement of this is that no one should be defensive about their appearance, their personality, their ancestry, their home, their upbringing, their nationality. p. 28
Like the jesters whose patron saint she is, Folly couldn’t help but take her all-assailing irreverence and irrepressible pawkiness to uncomfortable limits. Of the two books, it is Erasmus’ which ran into flak. At first, perhaps because it was in Latin and so less accessible to the lower orders who could be unwholesomely influenced by it, it was widely circulated and enjoyed. However, as its influence spread – we now switch to the diplomatically evasive passive voice – concerns were raised:
The Moriae Encomium took its place as the leader of a growing genre of creative anti-establishment works including books, poems, pamphlets, plays, engravings and painting. For the time being most of the European intelligentsia were disposed to nod and laugh and say ‘how clever’ but as the ripples created by the new book spread wider and wider, reaching non-academic readers and, via translated fragments, those who in no sense belonged to the educated elite, anxieties began to be voiced.
And after Erasmus’ death, the censors set to work: the Sorbonne banned it in 1543 and by the 1550s it was appearing on Italian lists of proscribed reading, finally making it into Pius IV’s Tridentine Index in 1564. It may be that Folly / Erasmus anticipated this, judging by a plea for tolerance of critical views. Living as we do at a time which seems to vacillate between tolerating anything and everything under an oriflamme of relativism even while a ‘cancel culture’ wants to ban views which offend or discomfit us, Folly’s plea resonates with merry acuity:
I’ll deal now with the taunt about sting. Intelligent critics have always been allowed the liberty of using irony to make fun of our shared humanity without fear of consequences, provided only that the freedom doesn’t express itself in rage. That’s why I’m so surprised at the tenderness of modern ears, which can barely now tolerate anything beyond conventional compliments. p. 5
It’s no accident that God has taken such an enormous liking to fools. I believe the reason is this: supreme rulers feel suspicion and hostility towards people who think too much. pp. 105-06
 Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
 Derek Wilson, In the Lion’s Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII (London: Pimlico, 2002 ), p. 147
Brant, Sebastian (c. 1458-1521), Ship of Fools (1494), trans. by E. Zeydel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944; repr. New York: Dover, 1962); Das Narrenschiff (1494), ed. by Hans-Joachim Mähl (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1964; repr. 1988).
Erasmus, Desiderius (1469-1536), Praise of Folly, trans. Roger Clarke (Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2008 (1511))