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The Nature of Folly in Erasmus

Folly, as a dramatic figure in Erasmus' Praise of Folly has her origins in a number of literary precedents, including that of Greco-Roman satire and of the Lady Folly of the biblical Proverbs.  She is a shifting figure, putting forth opinions that Erasmus shares and that he does not. Often, in the same passage she can both condemn and defend foolish behavior, and much of the fun and challenge of reading Erasmus' satire is in following this shifting voice.  Much of the humor is dependent upon our knowledge, as an audience, of when to agree with Folly's insights and when to revisit them.  Folly's recommendations can be understood in a number of different manners in regards to Erasmus' own position:
  1. Sometimes Folly says the exact opposite of what Erasmus believes.
  2. More often, Folly gives only a partial picture, an exaggerated version, or  a strange inversion of the real situation.
  3. Folly scorns and mocks fools (which Erasmus would agree with), only to reverse herself or explain why this folly is actually beneficial (which Erasmus may not agree with).
  4. At points, Folly delivers surprising or uncomfortable truths about the way the world works--"Perhaps we do get along better due to Folly. . ."
  5. At other points, Folly is simply makes jokes (arguably without any final ethical lesson).  Erasmus is playing and punning with a show of wit.
  6. Folly can also be the voice for what is right about humor.   The play and wit can speak the truth to us--teach us not to take ourselves so seriously.
  7. Folly is also occasionally the voice for Erasmus' code of tolerance, moderation, and self-awareness--humility mixed with forgiveness.
  8. Folly is, in the final pages of the work, the spokesperson for the holy foolishness of Christ and Christianity.


  1. Look over the eight categories above and name some examples of each.

  2. Compare and contrast Lady Folly as a spokesperson with that of Lady Peace.  When do they use similar methods?  When do they use divergent ones?

  3. Compare and contrast the methods of humor in The Praise of Folly with those in Julius Excluded from Heaven. How different are the two works' tone, method, genre of satire?

  4. What is Erasmus' message concerning wisdom and folly?   Try to summarize it in a paragraph.


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Mikhail Bakhtin argues that some forms of medieval humor (as well as the later novel) are inherently dialogistic.   This suggests that there are competing voices in the text that offer a dialogue over the text's position and values.   Such a text has a kind of "authorial surplus" in which the voices in a work may overwhelm any possible authorial intentionality. Instead of either a complete relativism (where no final meaning can be decided on) or finalized system (where only one meaning can be derived), Bakhtin argues for a continued negotiation between the voices that can never be finally closed. 

Can this model be applied to Erasmus' The Praise of Folly?   Do Folly's shifting voices act as authorial surplus?  Do they overwhelm Erasmus' intentions?  Why or why not?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding