those who have had something to say but could not say it without peril have … assumed a fool’s cap.” Sigmund Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).
On 29.3.08, Nicholas Lezard reviewed Desiderius Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (1511) (Oneworld, 2008) for The Guardian:
“I must confess that when this dropped on the doormat, I actually did a little dance. I love Erasmus, and am delighted at any chance I get to introduce more people to him.
The modern world begins, in a sense, with this book. Or at least the modern sense of humorous, sceptical inquiry, a world in which the claims of dogma are countered by those of wit and good sense. You could say that we have regressed somewhat, at least in religious terms…
Praise of Folly should be on every civilised bookshelf. There was a time when it was: it was the must-read of its day, and reverberations from its impact are still being felt. Erasmus’s style, for one thing, is recognisable even through translation (from the original Latin) and the long passage of time. That style is perhaps best summed up as one of “immense cheek”. Here he is, digressing during the explanation of an adage: “A few years ago we ourselves composed The Praise of Folly for fun . . . Whatever the work amounts to, I know for sure that it is highly commended by open-minded people and those with an appreciation for good literature.”
It is hard not to be disarmed by such nerve, and Praise of Folly was itself a brave book: inspired by the satires of Lucian and the momentum of the Renaissance, it dared to tell the truth to power – and the truth to ourselves. I may be giving away one of the book’s great lines, but you would have come across it soon enough: “The chief element of happiness is this: to want to be what you are.” How many tiresome self-help books need not have been printed, not to mention acres of agonised philosophy, when their essence is contained in 14 words – and 14 words so rich in irony?
To praise folly over wisdom is still a subversive act, and Erasmus’s work is so subversive that it often subverts itself. Its irony is serpentine, uncatchable, always at play, mocking not only our aspirations and our better selves, but lampooning the elite with immaculately directed barbs. Sometimes you wonder how on earth he managed to evade execution. (A fate that caught up with the book’s dedicatee, Thomas More.) I suppose his trick was a continual play of charm. The character of Folly herself, as imagined by Erasmus, has an answer for everything. When it’s pointed out that no one has ever built a temple to Folly, she first says “I’m rather surprised at the ingratitude”, and then points out that “this entire world is my temple . . . for me alone does the whole world unite to offer unceasing sacrifices”.
One doesn’t want to make claims that are too extravagant, but, considering that he flourished 500 years ago, Erasmus is a wonderfully congenial companion for modern times – humorous, anti-partisan (there are Lutherans but not, alas, Erasmians), gently progressive and tolerant down to his toenails. He’s a believer in higher education for women, in having a good time whether in play or feasting, in the humanising power of learning, politeness, irony, pan-European peace, cultural harmony and enlightenment – in short, everything that the fascists, demagogues, bigots, tyrants, lickspittles and wowsers who have plagued humanity since, presumably, its inception are not. And rarely has Christian piety been presented in such an attractive – and indeed persuasive – fashion…”