Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In Praise of Folly

The word “folly” doesn’t have a very good reputation. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “lack of good sense; foolishness,” or, secondly, as “a foolish act, idea, or practice.”
It is somewhat surprising, then, that a man who has been called one of Europe’s “most famous and influential scholars” of the 16th century is the author of a book titled In Praise of Folly.
Introducing Erasmus
That man, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (in South Holland), was born around 550 years ago (probably in 1466), and died 480 years ago, in July 1536.
Erasmus is not currently widely known by the general public, but Samuel W. Crompton closes his book Desiderius Erasmus (2004) with this assertion: “Arguably, Erasmus was the greatest intellectual of the sixteenth century—and perhaps of any other” (p. 76)—and Crompton states that Erasmus’ book, written in Latin and sometimes titled The Praise of Folly in English, has been “one of the most widely read books of all human history” (p. 35).
Considering Folly
Erasmus’s brilliant book is multifaceted. It begins with Folly speaking as a woman “dressed in cap and bells to signify her foolishness.” In Crompton’s words, she explains that “the world would not turn, people would not marry, and there would be no future generations of humans were it not for her gift to the world.” 

Indeed, “Who would be so rash as to marry if he knew what it might entail, and who would ever allow herself to become pregnant if she could foretell the arduous work ahead” (pp. 35-36).
I certainly can resonate with that. It, perhaps, was because of Folly that June and I married when I was still 18 years old and that our first child was born on my 20th birthday. What foolishness!
Still, I have never for a moment regretted either of those momentous events—so I join with Erasmus in praise of folly.
Much of Erasmus’s book, though, is satire and criticism of the political and religious situation of his day. In this work published in 1511, six years before Luther’s severe questioning of the Catholic Church’s use (sale) of indulgences, Folly spoke out against “the cheat of pardons and indulgences.”
The fourth and last part of the book goes on to take “a quiet, subdued, but unmistakable defense of the Christian faith” (p. 41).
Praising Folly
In that concluding part of his erudite book, Erasmus cites numerous Bible passages which seem to praise folly or foolishness. He especially focuses on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, such as “We are fools for Christ's sake” (1 Cor. 4:10; cited at loc. 1233 in the free Kindle version of The Praise of Folly, translated by John Wilson).
(For you who want to explore this theme, I recommend a careful reading of 1 Cor. 1:18-31 and 4:9-13. I also suggest that there is a way to understand the meaning of the cross that is decidedly different from the “evangelical” view that interprets it primarily as Jesus’ penal substitution for sinners.)
It is amazing that a book written over 500 years ago is still in print—and with two Kindle versions published this year! But such is the nature of classics: they continue to speak.
If Erasmus were writing today, my guess is he would castigate the folly of the PEOTUS and his Cabinet picks.
On the other hand, Erasmus would no doubt praise the folly/”foolishness” of those, including many sincere followers of Christ, who are resisting—and will continue to resist—the questionable stances of the coming new Administration in Washington.


  1. Leroy, Patricia and I also married very young. I was 19 and she was 16. Our first child Nancy was born before I was 21 and Patricia was 17. Sixty three plus years later we're still together. Maybe the world is a tiny bit better because of our folly (and yours). Charles Kiker

  2. I like the challenge. I believe I shall read "In Praise of Folly".

    Having been baptized Presbyterian and Baptist (accepted as valid by the traditional Church), and raised evangelical among a diverse group of missionaries who accepted each other - Baptist, Assemblies, 7th Day, church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite, Anglican, Catholic, St. Thomas, (as well as Friends, Moravian, Church of Christ, and Bible Church who did not recognize the others), I come with a pursuit of Church unity in my sojourn. I note that Erasmus did not accept all of the "reformers", including England and Switzerland.

    The farther into the sojourn I move, the more Traditional (orthodox/catholic) I become. This has led me away from Sola Fide in which I was raised, into faith + works, and away from a God focused on penalty to a God of love seeking to sacrificially save his fallen creation (and still exceptionally holy).

    Politics is an interesting creature. I am not sure spiritual attribution is valid. One finds both positive and negative views from Jesus and his early followers. The theme was focused on the Kingdom of God. I don't think any politician is worthy of spiritual commendation, especially in our times, although each have/had good and bad points.

  3. Here are significant comments about Erasmus and his work as a Greek New Testament scholar by Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about 'In Praise of Folly,' a work I have not read.

    "Erasmus is also famous for putting together in 1516 the first printed Greek NT text. It was based on six or seven miniscule (late) manuscripts. It was full of errors and he issued a revised version that became the text used by Luther when he translated the NT into German.

    "The revised Erasmus text later became, along with some additional manuscripts, the basis of the Textus Receptus, which was used by the King James translators. Although a better text than the ones published by Erasmus, it too had a number of errors, only revealed after much older manuscripts were gradually discovered. Modern NT Greek texts are based principally on the Codex Sinaiticus (discovered in the 1850's), although many other manuscripts are used, or at least cited in the apparatuses (footnotes).

    Interestingly, the Latin text used by Roman Catholics was actually more accurate. The first printed Latin texts were done by Gutenberg in the 1450's.

    "For the OT, Luther used the first printed Hebrew OT text, published by Jews in Soncino Italy in 1488. I wonder if Luther excluded the books of the Apocrypha from the Bible because he was unable to obtain texts in the original languages for those books; only the Latin texts were available since Jews did not include the Apocrypha in the OT canon. Perhaps."

  4. Ebenezer Scrooge was a man of exceeding rationality, making himself and everyone around him rather miserable, until at last the Ghost of Christmas Past had to come and pay a visit. Finding the right balance between the the rational and the irrational has never been easy. Too much rationality leads to inquisitions. Too much irrationality leads to pogroms. Finding the wise medium where life can flourish is the challenge of a civilized soul. I salute Erasmus (and Charles Dickens) for his wise folly.

  5. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "We need an Erasmus today. He was probably not quite the 'scholar of the century' he professed himself to be, but he did leave us great gifts in his Greek New Testament (even if badly flawed) and in this classic. I love satire."

  6. Don Pepper, a local Thinking Friend, shares these comments:

    "I read your referenced passages in 1 Corinthians three times and the surrounding text once. In my New Century version Bible there is an abundance of usage of 'fool' and 'foolish.' (I was forbidden, in my upbringing, to use either of those 'fighting words.')

    "To me verse 1:24 suggests that Jesus is the manifestation of God's wisdom brought to human kind. That links to the notion of Wisdom (Sophia) being with, or part of God, from the Beginning.

    "Verse 1:21 is a profound statement and perhaps points to the contrary nature of God's wisdom thru the life and teachings of Jesus.

    "These two verses suggests to me that Jesus's life, death, and resurrection is an object lesson about leading a good life with an outcome other than substitutional atonement.

    "In any event, Paul is using role reversal, counter-intuitive, posturing that is suggestive of the irony in some of Jesus's parables.

    "In my view, Jesus was executed by the government at the behest of religious authority for being a rabble rousing protester and trouble maker, while Paul is fixated (1Cor. 1:17) on the death and resurrection and ignores the pre-Easter Jesus.

    "I just can't buy the notion of God requiring a blood sacrifice of Jesus. All that reminds me of far-fetched (mythical?) behaviour of Abraham toward Isaac in Genesis 22. (See Romans 3:25.)"

    1. Paul's emphasis on the cross may have been, at least partly, about the matter of Jesus-followers living in a new sub-culture that was an alternative to, as well as a threat to, the dominant culture. The message of the cross, then, was perhaps partly, or maybe even largely, about resistance to both Jewish religion and the Roman government.

  7. I signed up for Reddit today and posted this blog article on it. Here is the first (and to this point, only) comment received there:

    "Yes Jesus was foolish to love so lavishly those who despise and reject his love. Yes Jesus was foolish to take upon himself all that separate those who hated and despised him. Yes Jesus was foolish to endure Gethsemane, the trial and the cross.

    "Fortunately, God's foolishness is far wiser than our wisdom and he willingly did this for us."