In 1509 Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly for the amusement of his learned friend Thomas More (author of Utopia). He wrote in the character of Folly, daughter of Money and Youthfulness. Folly declaims on the foibles of mankind-- sometimes in a light and humorous vein and sometimes taking careful and deadly aim at beliefs and abuses of the time.
One of the wonderful things about reading historical satire is that you get a sense both of the specificity of the time it was written in as well as of the general and enduring idiocies of mankind. Praise of Folly is a great book because it is equal parts familiar (railing about the pedantic nature of scholars) and exotic (discussing the interaction of church and heretics). The book is published together with the Letter to Martin Dorp, defending Praise of Folly to Dorp against charages of being insulting to theologians in general.
The Radice translation is clear, and blessedly puts the notes at the bottom of each page, making them readable. The book also comes with a context-providing introduction and bibliography.
on April 25, 2000
Searching for happiness is a full-time job for me and it seems that almost 500 years ago--Erasmus wrote this book in 1511--others were looking for it too. They called it The Good Life ("summum bonum") then, and the ship of fools that were searching for it had completely booked its passage. Today, it's the same.
Erasmus doesn't let up. He catalogs every type of fool, every kind of folly, and has room to spare. Reading this funny, I mean, profound book, has given me a new respect for those idiotic life decisions I have made. Looking back over the grand scheme of it all...yikes! I can't believe I did that, said that, acted like that!
I highly recommend this satire for teachers, politicians, priests, professors, administrators, managers, Rotarians, poets, grave diggers, and anyone else tempted toward hypocrisy (and if you think you aren't tempted, I mean you most of all).
Reading this book can make you human again. And that is the first step toward the good life.
I stumbled upon Erasmus while reading Durant's Reformation volume of the Story of Civilization, and later while reading Johnson's History of Christianity. Both authors were rightly impressed with the great influence he had on the Christian world prior to and during the time of the reformation. I had previously known that Luther and Calvin were the major players in the reformation but hadn't realized that so many characters prepared for it and also tried to temper the violent outcomes. Erasmus stood out for me as an intriguing person that I wanted to learn more about. As a result, I purchased this book to get a sample of his writings.
This book of just over 300 pages contains as its major work "The Praise of Folly". This satirical gem has Folly incarnated as a type of a classical goddess discussing the virtues of folly and using various classical and everyday examples to justify why folly is such a good thing. Fortunately, the compiler has footnotes to explain the classical references to those not familiar with most of them; this helped me a lot.
There follows the brilliant anti-war piece entitled "The Compliant of Peace", where peace is embodied and complains of how he is abused and neglected. Then follows two forewords to his groundbreaking Latin translation of the Greek New Testament, explaining why he did this. I hadn't realized how intense the opposition was. After that we have the hilarious "Julius Excluded from Heaven"; an imagined conversation between Pope Julius and St. Peter at heavens gate. I can see why it was initially published anonymously.
The next section includes four of his Colloquies; very well written and bringing out some good points. Three letters are also included including one defending his Praise of Folly, another describing his travels, and another to a high ranking Bishop. The final section includes six essays of varying interest discussing Erasmus.
I loved Erasmus' writing style and though the compilation a very good introduction to his writing. Adam's translation was very clear. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more of Erasmus and sample his writing.
on June 27, 2001
A full-front blast against the stupidities of us arrogant humans, with a crazy satirical sense of humor. Erasmus reminds us that we have no freakin' idea why we are here and who we are, so we better be humble and respect each other. "In Praise of Folly" was written during a horse travel from Rome to London, as a gift to Erasmus' close friend Thomas More, who was to die under the axe by orders of his former boss Henry VIII, exactly the kind of lunatic Erasmus pokes fun at in this book.
Erasmus strips naked the vanities of politicians, intellectuals, theologians, poets, monks, priests, Popes, magicians, etc. but the most surprising thing about this book first published in 1511 is its relevance to today's world. It even seems more relevant to our times than to his times!! Think about the celebrity system, when people read about soap-opera "actors'" opinions on God, politics and the environment, etc.
Very funny, very honest, very brave. Just imagine, in those times, stating the stupidity and sinfulness of the Pope no less. Erasmus wrote an extremely refreshing, smart, witty and wise book. If more people read it, the world would be a little less insufferable and more enjoyable. Please don't pay any attention to its age or to its classical references. The marrow of the book is just what you need to relax and see the world like it really is. In case you've ever read a self-help or "excellence" book, you'll never do it again: you'll be laughing your brain out at how shallow and stupid they are. Read it now.
on May 21, 2001
This edition has "some" of Erasmus' most influential works; namely, "The Praise of Folly", the political "Complaint for Peace", "Forewords to the Latin New Testament", "Julius Excluded from Heaven", the "Colloquis", and excerpts from his finest letters. These works are selected more to understand the humanistic side of Erasmus rather than the scholarly doctrinaire who labored for the peace of christendom. With these selections - entailed by fotenotes, the editor's prefaces, and critcical commentaries - this edition will invariably enhance a more intimate impression of the mind of Erasmus at the dawn of the reformation.
on February 25, 2001
If the only thing your remember about Erasmus from high school is that he's a Humanist and has a serious looking face, you should pick up this short tome and read it. Lest you think writers "back then" weren't funny, guess again. This book lambasts everyone from Popes and Cardinals to merchants and ownders for their ridiculous pursuits. My only regret is that the edition I read (not the Penguin) had no footnotes at all and no explanation of background information. Even though the work is short, I'd recommend going with the Norton Critical Edition, or at least one that has some explanatory notes. It will greatly enrich your understanding. Of course, his book was super-popular because of its naughty content and criticisms. In the guise of his little "folly" play, everyone gets it at the hand of a master.
on January 16, 2000
"Folly speaks: Whatever is generally said of me by mortal men, and I'm quite well aware that Folly is in poor repute even amongst the greatest fools, still, I am the one - and indeed the only one - whose divine powers can gladden the hearts of gods and men." So begins the greatest book written in the long convoluted history of man... If you've ever thought you screwed up somewhere or your whole life was one giant slip on the banana peel read this book to discover the inner idiot savant within... Proof enough that the world is filled with fools is the fact that I am the first one to review this ultimate treatise on the human condition... War and Peace, The Bible, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, The Communist Manifesto, Plato, Socrates and especially all those who lay special claim to be called personifications of Wisdom are crushed under the heals of Folly...  "For great orators must spend time preparing long speeches and even then find it difficult to succeed in banishing care and trouble from your minds, but I've done this at once-and simply by my looks." Everything you once thought of as ignoble will be turned upside down and made into a virtue... drunkenness, ignorance, self-love, flattery, forgetfulness, idleness, pleasure, madness, sensuality, revelry and sound sleep...  "This, then, is my household which serves me loyally in bringing the whole world under my sway, so that even great rulers have to bow to my rule." This book is the perfect antidote to all those pointless self help books, psychotherapies and/or Chicken Soup-Anthony Robbins unlimited power tapes... Throw out everything you know or think you know... Everything you know is wrong... Learn what great advantages Folly brings to gods and men alike, and how far her divinity extends...  "Those who strive after wisdom are the furthest from happiness; they are in fact doubly stupid simply because they ignore the fact that they were born men... they try to adopt the life of the immortal gods... with the sciences for their engines of war... Heavens above, doesn't the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons?.. All splendid names according to my way of thinking." This book was written on the back of a horse for no particular reason five hundred years ago... Buy it Now! ..
on February 8, 2009
The other reviewers have praised Erasmus, and, well, duh. Anyone still in print after 500 years probably had some profound and interesting things to say.
But I suspect most people looking at this edition will be doing so in the hope it will contain the variety of secondary materials commonly found in the usually excellent Norton Critical Editions. In that respect I was disappointed with this volume. It does an excellent job of selecting from Erasmus's works, but a poor one, in my opinion, of including secondary literature.
I like what is there, I just want more.
on January 16, 2013
This book was written by Erasmus, but it is presented as a first person narrative of Folly, the god responsible for foolishness. Sixteenth century literature is not easy to read and while it appears to be presented in a light-hearted manner, Folly lacks no barbs in commenting on the human race. In the first third of the book (there are no chapters or other indicators) he talks about human nature in general: There are two types of human beings; the serious and wise men who live their lives based on established ideas, and the rest of us who do foolish things without considering the consequences, tend to enjoy life, new adventures and new ideas. The next third of the book is directed toward individual professions before moving to the princes and kings who do not like the wise men because they tell the truth, whereas royalty prefers those who tell them how great they are and support their foolish ideas. In the final third of the book, Folly gets warmed up to his philosophizing, and moves on to the delights in the folly of all organized religion. In retrospect, Folly, as an ancient god, considered himself on equal terms with Zeus, Mars and Venus and all the other gods. While they needed the assurance of temples and worship, Folly could look and easily see that the human race strongly supported his view of life; in other words, appreciate the fact that humans are venturesome. Folly gives us what we have today and not what was considered established and unchangeable with the past. Personally, I support Folly!
I received the Folio Society edition of Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly" some time ago as a gift which gave me the opportunity to reread the work after a first reading many years ago. The Folio Society edition is lavishly put together in a slipcase, with large print, on quality paper, and with beautiful color illustrations and made a lovely gift. For reading purposes, however, this Penguin edition will do just as well. With the exception of the artwork, it includes the same material as the folio edition -- the introductions, translations, notes, and Erasmus "Letter to Martin Van Dorp". "In Praise of Folly" rewards reading and rereading.
Erasmus (1466 - 1536) wrote the book in 1509 while he was recovering from an illness and revised and expanded the work some years later. He dedicated the work to his friend and fellow-scholar Sir Thomas Moore. The book was translated from the Latin for this edition by Betty Radice (1912 -- 1985) who tutored in philosophy, classics, and English before she became joint editor of Penguin Classics in 1964.
"In Praise of Folly" can be read as a work addressing issues of its time in the Renaissance and Reformation, but the work's significance goes beyond the events of the day. It is a delight to read and still has much to teach.
The work is a satire and a long speech delivered by Folly, the illegitimate daughter of avarice and freshness, in praise of herself and of her pervasive influence on human life. At first, Folly is a satirical figure and the reader and the author aren't meant to like her much. She points out the endless lust, greed, and self-aggrandizement committed under her influence as opposed to the use of reason. Folly talks about the power of sexuality and money-making which are her children. There are sharp, incisive portrayals of in influence of emotion and folly throughout human life from the cradle to the grave. Folly bitingly satirizes professions and nations for their pompousness and partiality to themselves. The book still packs a sting. For example, here is Folly's characterization of my former profession of lawyer.
"Amongst the learned the lawyers claim first place, the most self-satisfied class of people, as they roll their rock of Sisyphus and string together six hundred laws in the same breath, no matter whether relevant or not, piling up opinion on opinion and gloss on gloss to make their profession seem the most difficult of all. Anything which causes trouble has special merit in their eyes."
As Folly proceeds with her speech, she turns gradually to political and religious leaders and academics. The satire becomes more biting as Folly criticizes the ignorance, violence, and greed, and bigotry that she finds in much of the Church and secular leadership of the time. Folly criticizes as well scholastic Aristotelianism and what she sees as its tendency to quibble over minutiae and to ignore the nature of Christianity and the religious life. This portion of the book resulted in a great deal of controversy during Erasmus' lifetime and beyond.
Finally, in the last several pages of the book, Erasmus appears to reverse himself. Instead of criticizing and satirizing the impact of folly on human life, Erasmus seems to in fact praise folly's influence. He alludes to Scripture and to Plato to discuss who wisdom is found in folly and even madness, by which he seems to mean simplicity, humility, and faith, rather than in puffing up one's own self and one's own understanding. With all the learning of the book, Erasmus wants his readers and his Church to return to what he sees as the simplicity of the Gospel and the hope for eternal life. That is the ultimate lesson his "Folly" has to teach.
The book is beautifully written but full of learning and of classical and Scriptural allusions that many readers will find unfamiliar. This edition includes footnotes which explain Erasmus' references in detail. Most readers will find these notes highly useful in getting inside a work which otherwise would be difficult to follow. Among the many writers Erasmus quotes is Virgil. Here is a passage from the book quoting the "Aeneid" with an understanding of folly much like Folly's own.
"Had I a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
A voice of iron, I could not count the types
Of fool, nor yet enumerate the names
Of every kind of folly."
Erasmus' 1515 letter to Van Dorp was new to me and is worth reading. Erasmus emphasizes the religious nature of his writing, advises has friend to learn to study the Scriptures in their original languages, and rejects the charge that his satire disrespects religion or specific persons. The letter is a valuable supplement to reading and understanding "In Praise of Folly".
I was glad to have the opportunity to reread this book after many years. It will reward the attention of every thoughtful reader. "In Praise of Folly" deserves its stature as a classic.