Each issue of The Pilgrims Review highlights a Christian classic in danger of being forgotten.
Ok. It’s probably the case that most readers of The Pilgrims Review have heard of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, published in 1511. But like so many other western classics, knowing about the book and actually opening it are two different things. So we offer no apology for designating it as a Christian Classic You’ve Never Heard Of.
Erasmus, (1466-1536) is surely the most famous representative of Northern Renaissance humanism. His was a voice of reason during the stormy opening years of the Protestant Reformation that called for reform within the Roman Catholic Church rather than a rupture from it. Unlike Martin Luther, who disdainfully rejected his humanism, Erasmus believed that Christian theology could only be enriched by a study of the Greek and Latin classicists. In nearly all of his works, Erasmus recommended them to his readers.
At the same time, however, Erasmus, who was an ordained priest, advocated a simple piety of the heart that reflected his deep immersion in scripture. He taught himself Greek by studying it day and night for three years, eventually publishing a Greek text of the New Testament that was more reliable than the Latin Vulgate.
Erasmus was a prolific writer. His best-know work is surely his Praise of Folly. Modeled after the rhetorical style of an encomium, the book purports to be a speech given by Dame Folly, who in her infancy was suckled by Drunkenness and Ignorance. Folly argues that even though there are no temples erected to her, she nonetheless is worshipped by most humans; one only has to observe their behavior to see her influence upon them.
Throughout the text, Folly praises the pedantry of philosophers, the lust and arrogance of princes of the church, the pride of secular rulers, and the idiocy of warmongers. In having Folly praise such “simpletons” for their foolishness, Erasmus the satirist pulls aside the screen that conceals the Wizard of Oz. The dramatic impact upon the reader is strong, much more powerful than a straightforward denunciation would be. And in exposing the genuine foolishness of rulers, priests, and ordinary men and women, Erasmus pays a sly homage to wisdom.
For readers who might be ordained, the final third of the Praise will be especially uncomfortable, for it’s there that Erasmus, through Dame Folly, takes on clergy. Folly praises them for their ability to squeeze a meaning out of a scriptural text that is completely false but nonetheless furthers their own interests. Folly praises clergy for not burdening themselves with learning. Doing so, she avers, would interfere with the leisurely lives to which they’ve grown accustomed. As she says,
thanks to me, practically no class of man lives so comfortably with fewer
cares; for they believe they do quite enough for Christi if they play
their part as overseer by means of every kind of ritual, near-
theatrical ceremonial and display, benedictions and anathemas, and
all their titles of ‘your Beatitude,’ ‘Reverence, and ‘Holiness.’
But laziness isn’t the most admirable trait in clergy, according to Dame Folly. Their willingness, and indeed eagerness, to take up arms, Protestants against Catholics and Catholics against Protestants, is.
They continue to manage their affairs by the sword as if Christ has perished
and can no longer protect his own people in his own way. War is
something so monstrous that it befits wild beasts rather than men, so crazy
that the poets even imagine that it is let loose by Furies, so deadly that it
sweeps like a plague through the world, so unjust that it is generally best
carried on by the worst type of bandit, so impious that it is quite alien to
Christ; and yet [clerics] leave everything to devote themselves to war alone.
Not long ago, the attacks upon the editorial offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo sparked a discussion of the nature and possible limits of satire. But missing in most of it was reflection on good as opposed to heavy-handed satire. Hebdo specialized in adolescent and vulgar mockery that pummeled readers. It’s a pity that the satire of a genius like Erasmus, which opens eyes rather than blackens them, has been largely forgotten.