Another Kind of Bird: Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly

Glutton for edification (or punishment) that I am, I finished Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly yesterday. Oh, you might say, the humorous points of that 15th century thinker’s wit shouldn’t be so difficult to follow (discounting the shifts in language usage, ignorance of medieval theological debate, or amount of interest in people speaking in the persona of minor Roman deities)? But I will reply, I was suffering from such extreme sinus pressure I couldn’t even remember the name of ‘that thing you take a temperature with’* when I was describing my awful pain to my doctor.** I was too fuzzy-headed even to post!

But Erasmus was a fascinating man:

Exhibit A: The bastard child of a monk, Gerrit Gerritszoon renamed himself ‘Desire Desire,’ first in Latin and then Greek (Desiderius Erasmus). That’s excellent.

Exhibit B: When Martin Luther led the Reformation and others defended Catholicism, Erasmus stood alone. Erasmus was one of the greatest critic of the Catholic Church, yet thought it should be reformed from within, and part of that was to translate the scripture as accurately as possible from the original Greek, leading to his Latin version of the New Testament. Erasmus wanted it to be free of corrupting Medieval theology. (Martin Luther found his translation useful when creating a German version of the New Testament.)

Written in 1509 and dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas Moore, In Praise of Folly would no doubt have been more funny to me if satirical portraits of princes and monks struck home. He is unrelentingly witty, saying of theologians, in the persona of Folly: ‘That short-tempered and supercilious crew is unpleasant to deal with. . . . They will proclaim me a heretic. With this thunderbolt they terrify the people they don’t like. Their opinion of themselves is so great that they behave as if they were already in heaven; they look down pityingly on other men as so many worms.” Erasmus leaves no one out, including the Pope, so you can see why the Catholic church prohibited this, and all his other works, from being read.

A freethinker whose only allegiance was to books, he was also a witty correspondent to some 500 of the most important individuals of his day. He died in Basel still at odds with the majority of the world. When Erasmus was accused of having “laid the egg that Luther hatched, he is said to have replied that he did, but he “had expected quite another kind of bird!”

*A thermometer.
**Apparently, I don’t even have a sinus infection like I thought, so I feel like a wimp. ; (

3 thoughts on “Another Kind of Bird: Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly

  1. Several years ago, I picked up a copy of IN PRAISE OF FOLLY, but never got around to reading it. You post has convinced me that I should reconsider it.

    There’s some more fascinating material on Erasmus in Richard Marius’ bio of Thomas More.

    Glad you didn’t have a sinus infection after all. As one who’s had at least a couple, I can tell you that they’re painful as hell.–Mike T.

  2. I found it a little hard to focus on, but it’s honestly still funny, which is quite an achievement. And I cannot get over how amusing it is that he named himself ‘Desire Desire.’ Not the most important part of his work or life, I know, certainly no else seems fixated by it, but it’s so awesome.

    Mike, I might have to check that out.

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