Humor And Criticism In (Erasmus
’s) Praise Of Folly Essay, Research Paper
Humor and Criticism in Praise of Folly
Erasmus?s Praise of Folly is a humor-filled satire of pretty much everything. It is filled with wit and sarcasm which make light of serious problems and blow insignificant issues out of proportion all the while bringing a smile to the reader?s face. It is not stinging humor at the expense of others (unless, of course, the shoe fits), rather it is directed towards everyone. Erasmus even includes himself in the joke, practically parodying himself in the first section (xvi). In Praise of Folly, Erasmus uses this humor to criticize without the harsh judgment of seriousness. His humor parallels the import of his subject. When Folly discusses the issues most significant to Erasmus, she loses her jocularity and ironic tone, whereas in her first voice, Folly laughs at those whose foolish ways are reason for criticism but not for scorn.
This section finds great ironic humor in the folly of all types of conceit, pointing out that the most condescending of people have little reason for such egotism. Folly laughs at the conceit of ?the general run of gentry and scholars? with their ?distorted sense of modesty? (11) including ?those who lay special claim to be called the personification of wisdom, even though they strut about ?like apes in purple? and ?asses in lion-skins?? (13). Folly, of course, is guilty of this most of all in dedicating a whole book to praising herself, and she admits the great folly behind this when she asks, ?What could be more fitting than for Folly to trumpet her own merits abroad and ?sing her own praises?? (11). Erasmus jokes about this type of conceit because it is innocent and commonplace. His point is to enlighten, not to offend.
Folly constantly jokes when she criticizes the foolishness of everyday life, because she intends for people to realize their imperfection but not to take it too seriously. This is why Folly asks her audience to listen not with the ears ?you use for preachers of sermons, but the ears you usually prick up for mountebanks, clowns, and fools? (10). Humor in this situation lowers the defenses of one who might otherwise take offense to Erasmus?s criticism. He chose Folly to carry his message because ?truth has a genuine power to please if it manages not to give offence, but this is something the gods have granted only to fools? (57). He does not single out specific individuals or limit himself to specific groups of people; he includes almost everybody. Only the fools who personify the lightheartedness and happiness that are the essence of Erasmus?s comedy escape this criticism.
Erasmus even includes himself as a subject of this whimsical criticism showing that it is meant to be constructive not harshly judgmental as it was taken by his many critics. His criticisms of wise men, Seneca, women, and pedantry all apply to himself and he jokes about them all (xvi). He knows that, in her first and most humorous voice, Folly is criticizing aspects of life that are of small significance in comparison to her later targets, and Erasmus takes no shame in admitting his participation in such minor foolishness. With Folly?s first voice, Erasmus points out the insignificant foolishness that plays into every person?s life, including his own, with banter and sarcasm which itself is a criticism of man?s uptight nature. He realizes that people are too uptight, and he teaches them, by example, the benefit of laughing at oneself. For this is the way to avoid the self-deception of the obstinate sophists (10) and those who ?brib[e] some sycophantic speaker or babbling poet hired for a fee so that they can listen to him praising their merits, purely fictitious though these are? (11). Towards the end, when Folly speaks more seriously, she explains the humble nature of this attitude in her agreement with St. Paul?s praise of folly ?as a prime necessity and a great benefit? (123). Erasmus believes that folly is an important asset to living well, and he points it out to criticize conceit and to enlighten but not to judge.
As Folly continues, her tone and her subject matter become more serious. As she moves on from human nature to human affairs, she takes on a more serious second voice to compliment the increasing seriousness of her subject. This section starts suddenly and clearly when Folly grimly describes life by the many disasters in store for it (47). In this cynical paragraph it becomes clear that her attitude has changed with her subject. Folly first addresses religious issues, a topic of great importance to Erasmus, in this section when she criticizes religious superstitions such as the belief that one can attain ?supreme bliss for repeating daily those seven short verses of the holy Psalms- the magic verses . . .? (65). This part of Erasmus?s commentary is much harsher than the first because Erasmus does not have the sympathy for this type of folly that is indicated by the humor of Folly?s first voice. But Folly has not completely lost her sense of humor yet. She returns to her more amusing first voice to note that ?Dog?s dung smells sweet as cinnamon to them [hunters], I suppose, and what delicious satisfaction when the beast is to be dismembered!? (60). She also laughs at architects, those who seek to manipulate nature, and gamblers in this brief reappearance of her comic banter. Though the subject matter of this second part of the satire doesn?t completely wipe the grin off of Erasmus?s face, he has nothing to smile about in his stinging criticism of churchmen.
For this, Folly takes up yet another voice- critical and harsh; comedy has no place here. Nor is there any hint of amusement when Folly praises Pauline Folly in a voice which is practically that of Erasmus. These are the issues to which Erasmus attributes the greatest import. The conceit of a theologian ?looking down from aloft, almost with pity, on all the rest of mankind as so many cattle crawling on the face of the earth? (86) is more profound than the conceit Folly jokes about earlier in the book. A theologian?s conceit is applied to the great majority of mankind all at once and on a spiritual level that is far more significant (at least to Erasmus) than the everyday affairs that are the butt of his initial humor. Folly?s irony continues in this criticism of churchmen and through the introduction of the book?s final section, a praise of Christian folly that is totally earnest and serious, but is quickly dropped making this the most completely serious section of Erasmus?s work. This is clearly a reflection of Erasmus?s own pious attitude toward such an important religious issue. Even in the seriousness of his criticism of churchmen, irony subtly moderates Erasmus?s tone, but in his pious assessment of Christian ideals he is clearly addressing a subject too close to his heart for any lack of seriousness. Here we see the culmination of Folly?s progression towards Erasmus?s most serious subject and away from humor.
Erasmus demonstrates the value of humor by making fun of insignificant issues and teaching us how to laugh at ourselves. ?Jokes of this kind . . . which aren?t lacking in learning and wit? (4) help us put the less significant aspects of life in perspective. They also aim to moderate the level of his criticism making it more constructive than insulting. For it is ?the ridiculous rather than the squalid? (7) to which his humor applies. He reserves a more serious voice for more serious wrongdoing. We see this parallel between humor and subject clearly as Erasmus progresses from constructive criticism of insignificant folly to harsh indictment of religious pretension and most of all in his solemn praise of Christian folly.