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:
- Sometimes Folly says the exact opposite of what Erasmus believes.
- More often, Folly gives only a partial picture, an exaggerated
version, or a strange inversion of the real situation.
- 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
- At points, Folly delivers surprising or uncomfortable truths about
the way the world works--"Perhaps we do get along better due to Folly. . ."
- At other points, Folly is simply makes jokes (arguably without any
final ethical lesson). Erasmus is playing and punning with a show of wit.
- 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
- Folly is also occasionally the voice for Erasmus' code of tolerance,
moderation, and self-awareness--humility mixed with forgiveness.
- Folly is, in the final pages of the work, the spokesperson for the
holy foolishness of Christ and Christianity.
Look over the eight categories above and name some
examples of each.
Compare and contrast Lady Folly as a spokesperson
with that of Lady Peace. When do they use similar methods? When do they use
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?
What is Erasmus' message concerning wisdom and folly?
Try to summarize it in a paragraph.
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?