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Stultitia and Diatribe: Erasmus' Praise of Prudence

Author(s): Victoria Kahn

Source: The German Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (May, 1982), pp. 349-369
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German
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Stultitia and Diatribe:
Erasmus' Praise of Prudence


When Erasmus criticized Luther's decision to publish the paradox of

enslaved will to the world for fear of the offense it would cause "piou
ears,"' Luther replied ironically that paradox is nevertheless everywher
apparent in the argument of Erasmus' Diatribe: "See how the invincibl
and all powerful truth has cornered witless Diatribe and turned her wi
dom into folly, so that while meaning to speak against us, she is com-
pelled to speak against herself" (p. 180). The feminine personification o
'Diatribe,' and the description of her wisdom as folly suggest that Luther
is alluding to Erasmus' earlier published paradox, perhaps with the im
plication that the Moriae encomium was a true praise of Christian wis
dom while Erasmus' contradictory praise of prudence in the Diatribe
is merely foolish.2 Erasmus himself, however, did not publicly distin-
guish between the positions espoused in the two works. When Martin
Dorp charged that the publication of the Encomium was an offense to
pious ears, Erasmus did not insist on its offensiveness, as Luther woul
have, but appealed instead to the principles of decorum and prudenc
which were to figure so largely in the argument of the Diatribe. The cen-
tral problem which faces readers of the Encomium is whether to accep
the guidelines for interpretation which Erasmus offers in his letter t
Martin Dorp, or to see the Encomium as Luther may have, that is, as a
uncharacteristic exploration by Erasmus of the complexities, difficulties,
and inevitable ironies of his own prudential position. In the first case, the
Encomium would simply prefigure Erasmus' position in the Diatribe; i
the second it would anticipate Luther's critical response as well. It would
in short, enact the whole debate.

Erasmus' Diatribe is an attempt to navigate a passage (what he himself

refers to as a transgressus3) between epistemological skepticism and ethi-
cal practice by means of an hypothesis or a faith in the possibility of free
will. Luther's response attacks both the hypothetical nature of this de-
fense and the considerations of decorum and prudence by which it is gov-
erned. While the impossibility of knowing divine will makes Erasmus
cautious about assertions (p. 37), Luther views his caution, or prudence


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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 350

in the modern sense of the word, as an all-too-hu

bristic attempt to bind God to the rule of decorum
compromisingly offensive meaning of Scripture.
"He is God, and for his will there is no cause or r
down as a rule or measure for it, since there is noth
to it, but it is itself the rule of all things" (p. 236
argues that it is not always expedient to speak the tr
"Who has empowered you or given you the right
trine to places, persons, times, or causes when Ch
claimed and to reign throughout the world in entire
of God is not bound,' says Paul [2 Tim. 2:9]; and w
Word?" (p. 132)'
Throughout De servo arbitrio Luther criticizes E
ance on the protean rhetorical standard of decoru
mus' "highly decorative arguments" (p. 103) and h
(p. 102); he calls him a "distinguished rhetorician
orator" (p. 127), and remarks on the "prudence" o
of free will: "It is very prudent of you to give only
not to explain (as others usually do) any part of i
were afraid you might be shipwrecked on more than
Elsewhere Luther is more abusive: he accuses Era
"very elegant and ingenious style with . . . trash
"utterly worthless matter . . . in . . . rich ornam
refuse or ordure being carried in gold and silver vas
more, Luther argues, the excessive concern with
rhetorical concessions that the language of the Bi
Erasmus, make to its human readers, leads one to conceive of God
Himself as a rhetorician: "To talk as you do, one must imagine the living
God to be nothing but a kind of shallow and ignorant ranter declaiming
from some platform, whose words you can if you wish interpret in any
fashion you like, and accept or reject them according as ungodly men are
seen to be moved or affected by them" (p. 135).7
The implication of Erasmus' argument is that as creatures of the phe-
nomenal world we can only justify our interpretations in the context of
that world. In this life all conclusions will be provisional and pragmatic,
since the only authentic judgment is the Last Judgment. It is because of
these human limitations, according to Erasmus, that God speaks to man
in figurative language and that the reader of Scripture is obliged to ex-
ercise a prudential and reflective judgment by drawing analogies be-
tween clear passages and unclear ones. But Luther cannot accept the
dangerous and all-too-human instability of this method of interpreta-
tion. He cannot accept the view that Scripture requires any human inter-
pretation at all. Thus when the collatio ends with the formal contuli of
the Sunday conference, "I have completed my discourse," Luther puns
on this 'conclusion' by claiming that he has made assertions, not com-
And it is not difficult to suppose that you, since you are
human, may not have rightly understood or observed

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 351

with due care the Scriptures or the sayings of the

Fathers under whose guidance you think you are at-
taining your goal; and of this there is more than a hint
in your statement that you are asserting nothing, but
have only 'discoursed.' No one writes like that who has
a thorough insight into the subject and rightly under-
stands it. I for my part in this book have not dis-
coursed, but have asserted and do assert, and I am un-
willing to submit the matter to anyone's judgment, but
advise everyone to yield assent. (p. 334)8

Thus while Erasmus writes that it would be harmful to assert the ab-
sence of free will, Luther claims that this assertion "is not irreverent,
inquisitive, or superfluous, but essentially salutary and necessary for a
Christian" (p. 116). For the skeptic who is uncertain, it may be possible
to argue on both sides of a question and to suspend one's judgment (p.
105), but "the Holy Spirit is no skeptic" (p. 109). Furthermore, if as-
sertions are necessarily part of Christianity, then any assertion to the
contrary will also be an assertion. Thus when Erasmus argues that it is
not necessary to know that which it is impossible to know (whether or
not we have free will), Luther points up the assertion consequent upon
Erasmus' skepticism: "contrary to your natural bent, and with an asser-
tion unprecedented for you, you declare that those things are not neces-
sary; whereas, unless they are necessary and known with certainty, then
neither God, nor Christ, nor gospel, nor faith, nor anything is left, not
even of Judaism, much less of Christianity" (p. 114).9
But Luther does not simply object that skepticism about free will is
itself a kind of assertion. He also argues against Erasmus' attempt to
separate pedagogical exhortation from the act of cognition, or the per-
suasive from the cognitive function of language, on the grounds that the
impossibility of persuasion is undermined by the skeptical assertion of
the impossibility of knowledge:
But when you tell Christians themselves to become
reckless workers, and order them not to be inquisitive
about what they can and cannot do in the matter of ob-
taining eternal salvation, this is beyond question the
truly unforgiveable sin. For as long as they are ignorant
of what and how much they can do, they will not know
what they should do; and being ignorant of what they
should do, they cannot repent if they do wrong; and
impenitence is the unforgiveable sin. This is what your
moderate Skeptical Theology leads to. (p. 116)10

Both Erasmus and Luther seem to agree that rhetoric is concerned

with persuasion and with tropes. But for Luther the latter are defined
by their deviance from the proper or literal expression which allows
the cognition of an external or a priori referent, whereas for Erasmus
the reader who recognizes a figurative dimension to the language of the
Bible will always be compelled to be an interpreter, to make a decision
about or distinction between the literal and figurative uses of language.

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But, Luther inquires, if tropologica

cording to the skeptical critique of jud
suaded to anything? Or, in the word
does not know what is being said?"
objects to Erasmus' practical theology
persuasive function of language depe
ing attention to the fact that the ve
the availability of the literal meaning.
of the interpreter: scriptura sui ipsius
Beginning then with the assumption
only be salutary, Luther is forced to c
er it is one of indirection or indecision:

For if you think that free choice is a subject we need

know nothing about, and one that has nothing to do
with Christ, then your language is correct [i.e., con-
forms to your thought], but your thought is impious.
If, on the other hand, you think it is a necessary sub-
ject, then your language is impious [because indirect],
though your thought is correct. (p. 107)12
If a skeptical distrust of assertion is, within the context of faith, the
most dogmatic of positions, then the attempt to separate epistemology
and ethics, to draw an analogy on the basis of an amphiboly, and to
preserve the realm of responsible human action from the consequences
of this skepticism will be merely contradictory. Thus Erasmus' statement
that he is arguing in order to engender such a distrust in his reader pro-
vokes this characterization of his unwitting self-contradiction:
It is, you say, irreverent, inquisitive, and superfluous
to want to know whether our will does anything in mat-
ters pertaining to eternal salvation or whether it is simply
passive under the action of grace. Yet now you contra-
dict this by saying that Christian godliness means striv-
ing with one's powers, and that without the mercy of
God the will is not effective. Here you plainly assert
that the will does something in matters pertaining to
eternal salvation, when you represent it as striving,
though you make it passive when you say it is ineffec-
tive apart from mercy. You do not, however, state pre-
cisely how this activity and passivity are to be under-
stood, for you take good care to keep us in ignorance
of what God's mercy and our will can achieve, even
while you are telling us what they actually do. Thus that
prudence of yours makes you veer about, determined
not to commit yourself to either side, but to pass safe-
ly between Scylla and Charybdis; with the result that,
finding yourself battered and buffeted by the waves in
the midst of the sea, you assert everything you deny
and deny everything you assert. (p. 114-15)"
This, Luther would seem to be arguing, is indeed a new kind of pru-
dence, which is merely indirection and inconsistency, and a new rhetoric

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 353

whose paradigmatic topos is aporia, and whose p

because Erasmus expresses his reluctance to "pu
enslaved choice to the world," paradox of anothe
the Diatribe. It is a function of Erasmus' attemp
of God, to master Christian folly by the foolish
For although Erasmus himself is critical of the a
by human reason" instead of "reverencing the
(p. 229), he is guilty of just that when he refuse
of the enslaved will or tries to "make excuses" for
paradox away. 'Diatribe' is falsely constrained b
consistency when she argues that "Absurdity . .
reasons for not taking the words of Moses and
will] literally" (p. 229).
But what article of faith does this absurdity sin
[Luther retorts]. Or who is offended by it? H
Reason is offended, who although she is blind
stupid, impious and sacrilegious with regard t
words and works of God, is brought in at th
as a judge of the words and works of God. ...
therefore invent some tropes with the Arians to
Christ from being literally God. Let us invent
with the Manichees to prevent his being truly
That will be a fine way for us to handle Script
But tropes are no use, and there is no avoidin
surdity. For it remains absurd (as Reason judge
God who is just and good should demand of fr
impossible things. (p. 229-30)'~

It would be possible to argue that the very fac

Erasmus in debate means that he believes in the value of rhetoric: there
would be no point in arguing if there were no chance of persuading one's
interlocutor. Furthermore, this possibility of persuasion (the classical
movere) is what Luther seems to presuppose when he points up the dan-
gers of Erasmus' teaching (p. 116). Yet both Erasmus and Luther are
concerned with redefining the notions of persuasion and debate as they
are commonly understood. Just as Erasmus engages in a skeptical effort
to suspend argument even as he practices it, so Luther has his own way of
doing away with the conditions of legitimate disagreement. Whereas
Erasmus separates the authority of Scripture from the reader's grasp of
its meaning, Luther refers the reader to a principle of interpretative
authority so transcendent that it is immanent.'5 He argues that although
God is obscure to human knowledge, the meaning of His Scripture is
perfectly accessible to man (pp. 110-11). There is no need for skeptical
moderation when one has access to the truth of the Bible, though Luther
is careful to define this truth not as perfect understanding but as cer-
tainty (p. 108).
The exegetical consequences of this are important, for the gift of cer-
tainty is the gift of a monological or literal meaning. The self-evidence
of Scripture means that Luther can reject the tradition of patristic

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hermeneutics as a supplementary kind

whom the authority of the Bible is
obscurity which Erasmus finds in Sc
Erasmus' own darkened heart. As Lut
"Erasmus ist rex amphiboliarum."'6
Luther's insistence on the literal readi
one to object with Erasmus that God
implies that we can indeed do good
Luther's reading comes to the fore:
mands and exhortations should be un
the all-too-human inference."7 While in
mand or urge others on the assumpt
to our urging, the same cannot be said
argues, commands precisely in order
standing. In other words, He uses our
eral reading, or, in more familiar th
destroy the law. Thus in Von der Freih
tells us that the Bible consists of tw
setz Gottes und Verheif3ung oder Zu
der Mensch drin sehe sein UnvermOg
selbst verzweifeln. . . . Daraus lernt
derswo Hilfe zu suchen, daB er ohne
erftille durch einen anderen, was er au
auch alle anderen Gebote uns unmOg
Luther insists that this destruction of the law or of the old man must
not be understood as the simple replacement of the law by grace, or of
the letter by the spirit (which he accuses Erasmus of in his reliance on
figurative interpretation in the manner of Origen or Jerome). We are no
longer operating with the distinctions of literal and figurative (p. 144) or
even of cognitive and persuasive, since we must understand God's com-
mandments literally, yet at the same time outside of any human context.
And the commandments persuade us to something, but only because we
wrongly assume they are assertions.
There are many points of agreement between Luther and Erasmus, as
Erasmus himself indicated when he wrote that he feared Luther's ene-
mies more than Luther himself."' Critics have argued that a close exami-
nation of the debate on free will shows many of the disagreements to be
terminological, since ultimately both men agree that we have free will in
affairs not pertaining to God but no independent power to affect our
own salvation. Thus Gerhard Ebeling writes, "The point at issue between
Luther and Erasmus does not lie in the first instance in the evaluation of
the free will itself, but in the value of posing the question at all."20 But
this point finally makes all the difference. It is the difference between
Erasmus' desire to be prudent even about asserting the possibility of pru-
dence, and Luther's assertion of the impiety of such a desire. It is a dif-
ference which is due finally not to a disagreement about whether one in-
terprets Scripture literally or figuratively, but rather to where one locates
and how one understands the authoritative standard for interpretation,

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 355

or the relationship between authority and interp

Luther believed that God guaranteed the meaning of Scripture. Al-
though the Bible is written in the language of men, God speaks through
it incontrovertibly and univocally. Such an intersection of the divine and
the human, or eruption of the absolute into the phenomenal context of
our lives, cannot help but have a violent effect. To Erasmus' desire for
peace Luther objects: "You do not read or do not observe that it is the
most unvarying fate of the Word of God to have the world in a state of
tumult because of it. This is plainly asserted by Christ, when he says: 'I
have not come to bring peace, but a sword' (Matt. 10:34), and in Luke:
'I came to cast fire upon the earth' (12:49). .... The world and its God
cannot and will not endure nor can keep silence; so when these two Gods
are at war with one another, what can there be but tumult in the whole
world?" (p. 129)21
Erasmus also believes that God speaks to man in human words, but
unlike Luther he holds that man is not capable of a complete or un-
equivocal understanding of these words, not so much because it is God
who is speaking, but because it is man who is interpreting-a distinction
Luther would not have allowed insofar as it suggests the reader's par-
ticipation in deciding the meaning of the text. Amphiboly is not simply
due to carelessness or ignorance on the part of the reader: it is unavoid-
able, precisely because there is no accessible criterion for distinguishing
between literal and figurative language. Luther accuses Erasmus of being
merely rhetorical and merely prudent: Erasmus' dislike of assertion be-
trays an irreligious caution. But Erasmus is prudent in this cautious sense
because he does not know whether man can exercise the prudence which
is right judgment. In the absence of this knowledge, assertion is not only
violent, but also unjustified; and this, according to other works of Eras-
mus, is precisely Christ's lesson. For His adoption of human form was
not so much the eruption of the absolute into the phenomenal, as a
reconciliation of the two through the humble acknowledgement of our
inability to know God. Christ's message is not one of violence but of
In Erasmus' theology, theoretical wisdom or contemplation is sup-
planted by prudence as an ethical practice which can praise God but can-
not conceive Him. With Augustine he says, 'I know the love by which I
love better than that which I love.' The human approximation of Christ's
example of accommodation, the imitatio Christi, entails the now divinely
sanctioned rhetorical principle of decorum, for it is decorum which en-
ables us to accommodate ourselves to different circumstances as Christ
accommodated Himself to this world. And just as Erasmus viewed the
authority of Scripture as partially formal, so the authority of Christ's
example lies in the formal principle of the d propos. Kairos is not only
the moment of epiphany but every moment ever after which demands a
new response to and interpretation of Christ's example. The Encomium
moriae is just such an act of interpretation. But it is one which, in rein-
terpreting Christ's prudential example, causes us to rethink with Luther

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Erasmus' praise of prudence in the D


Most readers of the Encomium agree that the work falls roughly into
three parts of uneven length. Each of these sections has something to tell
us about prudence; the problem for the reader is to determine the rela-
tionship of these sections to each other. In the first Folly appears as an
amiable goddess and rhetorician who praises her followers and the natu-
ral and social forms of accommodation which constitute society. It is at
the end of this part that she humorously redefines the prudent man as
"the fool, who is never restrained from any undertaking whatsoever,
neither by modesty (because he has none), nor by danger (to which he
pays no attention)" (p. 42). As most critics have noted, this redefinition
gains a kind of seriousness when Folly proceeds to criticize the common
definition of prudence as good judgment. At first the famous description
of human affairs in terms of the Sileni of Alcibiades (pp. 42-43) suggests
that a single reversal of terms will enable us to determine the contents
of the box, the truth of the figure, or the true form of prudence. It sug-
gests, in short, that it is possible to read the Encomium as Enchiridion.
But Folly's concept of figuration or indirection is complicated both by
the subject of accommodation and by the further analogy she introduces
to clarify her point:

Listen then to how I will develop the argument. If

someone should try to strip away the costumes and
makeup from the actors performing a play on the stage
and to display them to the spectators in their own natu-
ral appearance, wouldn't he ruin the whole play?
Wouldn't all the spectators be right to throw rocks at
such a madman and drive him out of the theatre? ...
to destroy the illusions in this fashion would spoil the
whole play. (pp. 43-44)23

With the introduction of the theatrical metaphor the reader is directed

to the surface rather than to the inside of the Silenus box, for if the
search for the kernel of meaning beneath appearances is indecorous an
imprudent, then it is only by the prudent crediting of appearances th
consensus and social harmony can be maintained.24
If the Encomium is (at this moment) a praise of accommodation an
prudence, then the description of the wise man anticipates Luther's b
havior towards the Diatribe:

If at this point some wise man, dropped down direct

from heaven, should suddenly jump up and begin
shouting that this [theatrical] figure whom everyone
reverences as if he were the lord god is not even a man
because he is controlled by his passions like an animal
... or if he should turn to another man who is mourn-
ing the death of his parent and tell him to laugh instead
because the dead man has at last really begun to live,

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 357

whereas this life is really nothing but a sort of

what would he accomplish except to make every
him for a raving lunatic? (p. 44)25
Folly's defense against the wise man's charge t
sion or that consensus is a mere fiction can then be
tribe's defense of the hypothesis of free will: "T
these images are unreal, but this play cannot be p
way" (p. 44). It is a 'false' conception of wisdom t
"Why keep still," she inquires, "[about a thing
truth itself'" (p. 45).26 Folly's summary remark
first section of the Encomium could then be read as a defense of Eras-
mus' moderate skeptical theology, in which she opposes the accomoda-
tion of the prudent man to the assertions of the 'wise.' The former makes
no assertions not simply because to do so would be destructive, but also
because he has no basis upon which to make them. As Folly has re-
marked, the person who tries to do away with illusion is rightly called a
madman, since to see life as it really is, is to be left with nothing. "True
prudence," she concludes, "recognizes human limitations and does not
strive to leap beyond them" (p. 44).
While the concern with prudence and decorum carries over into the
middle section of the Encomium, the form this concern takes is at odds
with Folly's earlier praise of prudence. For in engaging in a medieval
satire of ecclesiastical and secular authorities and professions, Folly
adopts the stance of the critical wise man she earlier mocked. In the final
third of the Encomium Folly's attitude changes once again: far from at-
tacking her followers, as in the second section, or praising them, as in the
first, she is newly concerned with persuading them to accept her claims to
fame. She begins by citing proverbs and classical authors, but she is grad-
ually led, by considerations of decorum, to an examination of Scripture:
"But perhaps the authority of these [classical] writers is not highly re-
spected among Christians. Therefore, if you please, let us support (or as
the learned say, 'ground') our praises from Holy Scripture" (p. 118).27
After quoting a number of Biblical passages, Folly introduces Christ as
yet another example of her omnipresence. As a good orator she knows
that the example of Christ is the most persuasive one she can present to
the Christians in her audience. At the same time, Christ's accommoda-
tion offers another instance of Folly's rule of decorum:
Christ himself, though he was the wisdom of the Father,
became foolish in order to relieve the folly of mortals
when he took on human nature and appeared in the
form of a man. .... Just as he became sin in order to
heal sin. Nor did he choose any other way to heal them
but through the folly of the cross, through ignorant
doltish apostles. For them, too, he carefully prescribed
folly, warning them against wisdom, when he set before
them the example of children, lilies, mustard seed, and
sparrows-stupid creatures lacking all intelligence,
leading their lives according to the dictates of nature.
(p. 130)28

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There is a tension throughout Eras

unique instance of accommodation which sanctions and enables all
others, and the fact that as the incarnation of decorum, He renders the
uniqueness of the metaphysical event less important than its force as an
ethical example.29 Folly's discussion of Christ as one more type of ac-
commodation, the one most appropriate for the Christians in her audi-
ence, calls attention to the paradox implicit in Erasmus' ethical inter-
pretation of the incarnation. In making Folly refer to Christ as an ex-
ample of decorum and then portraying the followers of Christ in their
refusal to accommodate themselves to this world, Erasmus seems to be
acknowledging the force of Luther's radically uncompromising denial of
prudence and free will. Thus, while Folly's mock definition of prudence
in the first section of the Encomium turned out to contain an element of
truth, if only because the grounds of truth had themselves been under-
mined by a skeptical critique of appearance, here Folly's skeptical and
prudential authority comes into conflict with an example which is Truth
itself. It is an example which affects the second part of the Encomium
as well, for whereas the satire of professionals and social classes had
seemed to preserve the possibility of the sort of accommodating posture
adopted by Erasmus and More, in this last part the ideal of prudence as
wordly-wise accommodation is put aside:
Paul testifies very clearly on this point when he says
'What is foolish to the world, God has chosen' and
when he says that God was pleased to save the world
through folly because it could not be redeemed by wis-
dom. Indeed, God himself makes the same point clear
enough when he cries out through the mouth of the
prophet, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the
prudence of the prudent I reject,' and again when he
gives thanks that the mystery of salvation has been hid-
den from the wise and revealed to the simple, that is,
to fools. (pp. 128-29)30

In recalling us to the natural folly of the first section, the analogy be-
tween the Christian and the simpleton suggests momentarily another
principle of structural and semantic unity: if not prudence then the natu-
ral and supernatural rejection of prudence. But a few pages later even
this analogy between Christian folly and natural folly is revealed to be
merely apparent. The natural fool, at least as he is portrayed in the first
part of the Encomium, is a slave of his bodily needs and passions, while
the pious man "flees from whatever is related to the body and is car-
ried away in the pursuit of the eternal and invisible things of the spirit.
Hence, since these two groups are in such utter disagreement on all mat-
ters, the result is that each thinks the other is insane-though that word
applies more properly to the pious man than to ordinary men, if you
want my opinion" (p. 136).1' The madness of the Christian fool, who
strives to contemplate and enjoy "things as they really are" (p. 133),
sounds remarkable like the umcompromising position of the (Lutheran)
critic of prudence whom Folly describes as a "raving lunatic" (p. 44).

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 359

Yet whereas the critic was a spectator (p. 136) of th

foolish Christian is a participant in spiritual ecs
compromising, tentative, or prudent about this s
Readers have had some difficulty reconciling F
tian folly with her earlier praise of natural folly an
in recent years a number of critics have interprete
dialectically. Although these critics differ about th
dialectical progression is itself finally question
on the dialectic itself. So Geraldine Thompson w
one part is repeatedly made the folly of the nex
inversions, the follies of each part become the w
the last third of the book, the folly of the cross is
dictions arraigned in the preceding cycles."32 W
article entitled "The Metamorphoses of Moria:
in The Praise of Folly," argues for a similar sor
dressing the problem of why Folly turns to inve
of her speech, he asks: "Why has she changed? W
of invective serve when the ironic praise of the fir
much criticism of man's foibles? The answer to
simple: this middle section serves to dispel the illus
and to show the idolatry and futility involved
mutable goddess.""33
Rebhorn then sees the third section of the Encomium as "a direct re-
sponse to the shifting vision of life presented in the first two sections,"
one which offers us "a new perspective . . . which transcends the illusory
hope of the first section and the horrifying reality of the second. Note
that Folly no longer claims man's worship, for Christian folly clearly
means worship of God, trust in that which alone is good, stable, and
immutable." According to this reading, when Folly "wakes from her
vision, the world is no longer the same place." She "has succeeded in
transforming the world from an insecure oscillation between comedy and
tragedy into what she calls a 'shadow' of her transcendent experience."
This interpretation makes both the portrayal of Christ's humble accom-
modation and the ecstatic movement of the third section of the Encomi-
um reconcilable with the prudence of the first: the Christian will live
prudently by playing the comedy of life while recognizing its limitations.34
Finally, while W. David Kay does not make the same points about the
progress of the Encomium as Thompson and Rebhorn, he shares their
willingness to determine the unified meaning of Erasmus' "learned jok-
ing. "35 Kay argues that Folly's deliberate perversion of familiar classical
and humanist arguments allows the reader to perceive Erasmus' unam-
biguous intention behind Folly's intentional ambiguities: "Folly's misuse
of humanistic learning continually encourages an evaluative response,
and it is not the least of the work's paradoxes that her foolish praise of
irrationality is responsible for exercising the reader's own reason." He
admits, however, one exception:
one strategy of Folly's might seem to bear out Kathleen
William's contention that the Praise offers us 'a view

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of the complexities of truth, truth w

looked at from another point of vie
may also be true.' This is the strate
her discussion of prudence, where sh
folly of human delusion and the w
of it, but argues that folly is pre
Ultimately, Erasmus leaves us to ch
between the higher and the lower fo
appeal to our sense of human comm
discussion of prudence makes that c
plicated than it seems in the Enchir

Two pages later, however, Kay deni

he claims that the portrayal of More i
"way of reminding his readers that
we must, between wisdom and our h
them both as his friend More has done."
This remark returns us to the problem of interpretation posed at the
beginning of this essay, that is, whether we are to take the references to
prudence and decorum in the prefatory letter as a model of interpreta-
tion or as an expression of Erasmus' reluctance to publish his paradox
to the world. On the basis of Erasmus' own view of interpretation36 we
might well credit this letter with authority without assuming that it offers
us the key to interpreting either it or the Encomium. Why, Folly might
inquire, should we trust the prudential figure that Erasmus impersonates
in this letter any more than we would trust the critic of prudence in the
Encomium? Yet to the extent that the critics I have cited propose a dia-
lectical synthesis for the Praise of Folly, they are guided by the consider-
ation of prudence which Folly praises in the end of the first part of her
speech. They assume that because Erasmus speaks for prudence in the
majority of his works, he must really intend to speak on its behalf in the
Encomium as well. Thus in his Introduction to the new Latin edition of
the Encomium Clarence H. Miller writes: "when Folly uses the same
[Platonic] ideas [as Erasmus does in the Enchiridion] in the last part of
the Moria to explain the notion of the Christian fool, our experience of
her ironic and inconsistent use of Plato ought to alert us not to take her
idea of Platonic love and of the Christian fool as absolutely identical
with Erasmus'."I' It is true that the fictional persona of Folly is not iden-
tical with Erasmus, but the more pressing question for the interpreter is
whether Erasmus is identical with himself. Why should we assume that
he was always comfortable with or confident of his moderate position?
As he tells us himself in the Diatribe, the dislike of assertions necessarily
involves the willingness to examine one's own views along with those of
On the other hand, if we cannot rely on Erasmus' letters, neither can
we appeal to Folly to resolve the problem of interpretation since she is,
by her own admission, an unreliable narrator. We have seen how in the
satirical middle section of her speech Folly turns into a critical wise man,
disrupting the illusion of harmony she had created in the first section.

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 361

So in the final section, in her description of the

plicity of the pious Christian, she attacks both the h
stance and the accommodating prudence of the f
though she represents herself as a very Erasmian
tion and learned ignorance, her final "example" o
stroys the possibility of synthesis which the dialecti
speech had seemed to promise. To view either Foll
Christianity or her concluding remarks which ret
appearance as the dialectical solution of the earlier
Erasmus of blame at the very moment when Folly
cusatory, and to resolve prudently the paradox o
moment when Folly is most insistent upon it. It is h
of decorum breaks down-both in terms of the r
of Christian folly to the rest of Folly's speech and in
sort of unwordly accommodation which Christia
simile of common folly and divine madness is a
common ground is utopic, as Folly herself may ind
alogical clues (her home is the Blessed Isles); and t
ful resolution of the two makes the Encomium s
greater difficulties of Erasmus' Christian humani


The problems involved in the Encomium's analogy of natural and

Christian folly take the form elsewhere in Erasmus' work of an attempt-
ed reconciliation of piety and learning. In the Encomium Erasmus par-
tially signals his awareness of these difficulties by having Folly satirize
the scholar who, like Erasmus, defends the Christian faith with humanist
weapons. A. H. T. Levi writes in his Introduction to the Praise of Folly
that "Folly proclaims the virtues of the religious ideal in which Erasmus
was brought up, in terms which exclude the possibility of defending it in
the way Erasmus has dedicated his life to defending it.""9 In light of what
Folly actually says, this may be true; but when we consider the way in
which she speaks the issue becomes more complicated, since the wealth
of classical and Christian allusion testifies to a great deal of learning on
her part (as Erasmus does not hesitate to tell us in the prefatory letter
and the letter to Dorp): it is itself an emblem of docta ignorantia. The
problem is not one of exclusion but of contradictory inclusion, since the
conflict between Christian folly and the classical ideals of decorum and
prudence is apparent not only in the thematic ridicule of the scholar, but
more importantly in the form of the work, which forces us to examine
the appropriateness of a figure of decorum to expound, at least in part,
the teaching of Christ.
Yet, while in the last third of the Encomium Folly seems to anticipate
Luther's criticisms of the Diatribe, it is impossible to say that this self-
castigation is the meaning of the work. The juxtaposition of the Chris-
tian wise fool and the folly of classical prudence in a single figure works
to create a skeptical logic of contradiction rather than Luther's mono-

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logic discourse of assertions. One co

rhetoric,40 Folly cannot contradict her
ure of contradiction: "I am no counte
I carry one thing in my looks and anot
respect so like myself that neither can
themselves the appearance and title of
seems at several points to be speakin
wise fool, the fool who can speak the
cause she is by definition not taken ser
structure of the Encomium nor the
like the Silenus box, as a simple stra
which, by a final ironic twist, a moc
turned into a real encomium (of Ch
comium self-destructs in the end, the q
in the way Christ takes leave of his dis
to make the prudential, ethical task mo
in a way that dramatizes the impossi
fluousness of letters, not least of all th
former is the case, if the Encomium
learned joking will have served not to
will Erasmus then, ironically enough,
sacred and secular scriptures, piety an
which Folly criticizes in her praise of C
Folly does direct us back to the world
but she can do so only because she has f
of her final praise of Christianity. Si
who effects a reconciliation of the d
forget that they are irreconcilable. And
the realm of appearance is characteri
that is, of the attempt to reconcile C
a different context, Montaigne has d
as "faire valoir la vanitY."42 From the
lar literature and human activity are
reason, sacred scripture is foolish. To
hubristic, while the same attempt w
necessarily self-defeating: pagan liter
transcended.44 Enjoyed for itself, it is
priate to the vanity of this life. But ju
speculation which may ultimately oppos
lution of faith, so, Folly implies, the
and classical letters, of piety and pr
subtle form of violence.45
The difficulties of Erasmus' ideal of reconciliation might be explained
on the microcosmic grammatical level by comparing the subjective and
objective genitive of the Moriae encomium46 to Luther's very different
understanding of the genitive. For Luther was also aware of the theologi-
cal and ontological implications of this grammatical hinge. In the famous
Introduction to his Latin works, he writes that he could not understand

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 363

the passage in Romans (1.17)47 concerning the j

realized that justice was not to be thought of in
meting out of punishment and reward accordin
rather as the justifying of man by God.48 The corr
Dei then led to a similar understanding of virtu
that is, to an understanding of the subjective gen
course, which meant, paradoxically, an understan
hensibility of God's ways.49
Erasmus' customary reading of the genitive wa
to Luther's radical isolation of man in the face of God and his refusal of
human intellection. In the best of all possible worlds (in the best of all
possible words), the "of" in the Praise of Folly would function tempo-
rally and copulatively to permit a response to and integration of the clas-
sical tradition, a response which would be appropriate to our inescapably
human and temporal existence. We need all the help we can get; it would
be indeed foolish to reject both the recreative and the authoritative re-
sources of the past.
But to Luther it is precisely this utopian suspension bridge which be-
trays the hubris of Erasmus' skepticism. For the power of attribution
(of "of") belongs properly to God alone. This power is the crux of the
debate on free will where the issue is whether free will can be attributed
to man without God's grace, whether man can attribute free will to
himself. Luther challenges Erasmus to prove this attribution:
If from such a series of ages, men and everything else
you have mentioned, you can show one work (if only the
lifting of a straw from the ground), or one word (if only
the syllable "MY"),50 or one thought (if only the faint-
est sigh), arising from the power of free choice, by
which they have applied themselves to grace or merited
the Spirit or obtained pardon or done anything along-
side God, however slight . . . then again you shall be
the victors and we the vanquished."

For Luther, however, post-lapsarian man no longer has the power to

attribute predicates freely to himself. He is subject to the devil, bound
by his own sinful nature, and incapable of effecting his own salvation
in any way (p. 175). In this world the words "free will" no longer have a
referent; their proper meaning is nowhere realized among men. It is for
this reason that Luther accuses Erasmus over and over again of employ-
ing a meaningless term, "a voice and nothing more," an "empty
name."52 Thus when Erasmus writes, "I shall make full use of the au-
thority [abutor] of the Fathers who say that there are certain seeds of vir-
tue implanted in the minds of men by which they in some way see and
seek after virtue" (p. 96), Luther retorts that this authority by consensus
is as catachrestic, as abusive and utopian as the "neutral ground" which
Erasmus claims for human judgment:
Meanwhile you seek to 'make full use of' the authority
of the Fathers who say that there are certain seeds of
virtue implanted in the minds of men. First, if that is

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what you want, as far as we are conc

or abuse the authority of the Fathe
take note of what you believe whe
who are expressing their own ideas w
God. (p. 277)"
There is no neutral ground for Luther, there is only the paradox; there is
no rule of the appropriate (pp. 122-23), but only Christ's exhortation to
be "urgent out of season."
By insisting on the absolute difference between God and man, and the
absurdity and offensiveness to reason of the incarnation (pp. 230-31),
Luther implies the sacrilege of those prudential fictions (p. 177) which
are designed to reconcile men in and to this world by obscuring the folly
of the next. And in pointing up the contradictions in Erasmus' argument
for free will (the embedding of a discussion of the hypothetical value
of free will within an assertion of the dangers involved in such a dis-
cussion; claiming that free will has no power and can yet do something),
Luther also comments on the self-destructing operation of Folly's praise
of prudence.
This turn to the debate on free will in a discussion of the Encomium is
suggested not only by Luther's characterization of witless 'Diatribe,' but
also by the structure of Erasmus' argument in the two works. Both the
Encomium and the Diatribe are examples of the kind of argument by
contraries which Henri Estienne proposed in his 1562 preface to the
Hypotyposes pyrrhoniens of Sextus Empiricus. The Christian apology
for the publication of this pagan work was that the believer could coun-
ter the excesses of dogmatic philosophy with the deliberately excessive
logic of skepticism (which argued by contraries) and thus make room for
faith. So, if we can believe the prefatory letter, the Praise of Folly fights
folly with folly,54 just as the Diatribe would ideally fight its own asser-
tions as well as Luther's with its praise of skepticism, and in both cases
this rhetoric is defended as that which is most appropriate. If the En-
comium is read as the Enchiridion, all three works could then be con-
sidered as Erasmian imitations of Christ, Himself interpreted as a figure
of rhetorical argumentation and decorum: Christ too argues by con-
traries, whether in taking on sin to rid us of sin, or in absenting Himself
from His disciples in order to make Himself more forcefully present.
And just as Estienne's 'cure' destroys itself, so does Christ's incarnation.
He takes on sin because this is the most appropriate way to set an exam-
ple, and He leaves His disciples and is crucified because this too is the
most appropriate way to persuade us to action." But as a figure of deco-
rum, Christ calls attention to the difficulties and dangers of (our) imita-
tion. How do we know, both Luther and Folly seem to be asking, that
this kind of argumentation necessarily results in faith? If Christ, accord-
ing to the Enchiridion, urges us by a self-destructing rhetorical proposi-
tion to realize prudence in our own lives, what is there to keep us from
understanding that what is most appropriate to human existence is that
all propositions, even that of our imitation of Christ, necessarily self-
destruct? One reading of the Encomium might then argue that while the

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 365

speech is structured by contraries, the effect is not

of prudence and decorum, but to destroy it altoge
The Encomium is finally the dialogic text par ex
way, the natural folly of the first section and the C
third are alike in criticizing and containing the d
section. Read in another, these two sections repre
rhetoric and religion, prudence and faith. For alth
scribed in the letters to More and Dorp as though it
which concealed a religious truth, it turns out th
destroyed (as it seems to be in the third section),
modation or reconciliation is as well. But natural foll
way to Christian folly, nor false encomium to real (w
that the praise of natural folly was not serious); t
and folly is not structured according to the med
and effect (which would allow us to privilege on
ontologically superior), but as an apparent likenes
evaluation of which depends on the individual rea
sensus of interpretation for the Praise of Folly.
The similarity of Christ and Folly, according to
both are figures of contradiction, which can be inte
ures of reconciliation or as paradoxes. Folly thus bec
paradox at the very heart of the project of reconcili
all of Erasmus' work. For the problems of choosin
and decorum to eulogize Christian folly are analo
classical letters as a propaedeutic to faith. The proble
Folly's classical perspective acts as a solvent on C
therefore implicitly questions the usefulness of cl
that, in speaking as Folly, she ironizes the classic
ideas as prudence and the consensus omnium. The
of the Encomium points to this abyss between the sa
which generations of theologians before Erasmus
in most of his lifework, had tried to bridge, and wh
of the paradox of the incarnation at the center o
ironically, to interpret Christ as the paradigm of de
Christ formally, at least in part, as a figure of recon
and man, allows for the suspension of conclusions
ticism. Similarly, one might argue, the interprete
the analogy between natural folly and Christian
adopt Erasmus' own moderate skeptical viewpoint
critique of skepticism argues as well that in refusing
meaning, to fix the object (or subject) of the en
directly illustrated Luther's view of Christ: as an
be imitated, or an interpretative paradox which ca

The Johns Hopkins University

This is what the Louvain theologian Dorp accuses Erasmus of. See Erasmus' reply,

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printed in The Praise of Folly, translated an

and London, 1979), p. 158. All subsequent refe
and pagination will be indicated in the text.
collatio was published in 1524, thirteen year
tions from this work and Luther's De servo arbitrio are taken from Luther and Eras-
mus: Free Will and Salvation, translated and edited by E. Gordon Rupp, The Library of
Christian Classics 18 (Philadelphia, 1969). Pagination will be given in parentheses fol-
lowing quotations. WA will refer to De servo arbitrio in D. Martin Luthers Werke,
kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol. 18 (Weimar, 1928); LB will refer to De libero arbitrio in
Opera omnia, ed. J. Leclerc, vol. 9 (Leiden, 1703-1706; rpt. Hildesheim, 1962); LE
will refer to the English edition of the debate.
2 Vide, huc perpulit Diatriben imprudentem invincibilis et potentissima veritas, et stultam
fecit sapientiam eius, ut contra nos dictura, pro nobis contra se dicere cogetur (WA,
p. 270). In his Erasmus (New York, 1922; rpt. 1962), p. 127, Preserved Smith tells us that
Luther wrote in his own 1532 copy of the Encomium, "When Erasmus wrote his Folly,
he begot a daughter like himself. He turns, twists, and bites like an awl, but he, as a fool,
has written true folly." Smith interprets this as a criticism of the Encomium, but the
meaning of Luther's remark is just as difficult to pin down as is the meaning of the

? See Alfons Auer, Die vollkommene Frommigkeit des Christen, nach dem "Enchiridio
militis Christiani" des Erasmus von Rotterdam (Dusseldorf, 1954), p. 83.
" Deus est, cuius voluntatis nulla est causa nec ratio, quae illi ceu regula et mensu
praescribitur, cum nihil sit illi aequale aut superius, sed ipsa est regula omnium (WA
p. 712).
' Et quis tibi fecit potestatem aut ius dedit, doctrinae Christianae locis, personis, tempo-
ribus, causis, alligandae, cum Christus eam velit liberrimam in orbe vulgari et regnare.
Non est enim verbum Dei alligatum, ait Paulus, et Erasmus verbum alligabit? (WA,
p. 628)
6 Prudenter sane definitio a te nuda ponitur, nec ulla eius particula (ut mos est aliorum)
declaratur, quod naufragium non unum forte veritus sis (WA, p. 662).
? Sic loqui deberet, qui Deum vivum imaginaretur nihil esse nisi levem et imprudentem
aliquem rabulam in aliquo suggesto declamantem, cuius verba liceat, si velis, quorsum
libuerit, interpretari, acceptare, refutare, secundum quod viderit impios homines illis
moveri vel affici (WA, p. 631).
8 Neque difficile est, ut, homo cum sis, scripturas aut patrum dicta, quibus ducibus te
credis scopum tenere, neque recte intelligas, neque diligenter satis observes, quod satis
monet illud, quod nihil asserere, sed contulisse te scribis. Sic non scribit, qui rem penitus
perspicit et recte intelligit. Ego vero hoc libro NON CONTULI, SED ASSERVI, ET
ASSERO, ac penes nullum volo esse iudicium, sed omnibus suadeo, ut praestent
obsequium (WA, p. 787). This pun is pointed out by the editors of LE, p. 28.
9... contra ingenium tuum assertione inaudita iudicas, ea non esse necessaria, quae
nisi necessaria et cognita certo fuerint, nec quicquam reliquum est, ne ludaismi quidem,
multo minus Christianismi (WA, p. 610).
'o At cum Christianos ipsos iubeas temerarios operarios fieri, et in salute aeterna paranda
incuriosos esse mandas, quid possint et non possint, hoc plane peccatum est vere irre-
missibile. Nescient enim, quid faciant, dum ignorant, quid et quantum possunt, Igno-
rantes autem, quid faciant, penitere (si errent) non possunt. Impenitentia autem pecca-
tum irremisibile est, atque hoc ducit nos tua illa moderata Sceptica Theologia (WA,
p. 613).
" WA, vol. 7.97.23. See LE, p. 110 (WA, pp. 606ff.).
" Si enim causam liberi arbitrii non necessariam scitu, nec ad Christum pertinere arbitra-
ris, recte loqueris, At impie tamen arbitaris. Si vero necessarium arbitraris, impie
loqueris, et recte arbitraris (WA, p. 604).
3 Irreligiosum (inquis), curiosum et supervacaneum est nosse velle, an voluntas nostra
aliquid aget in iis, quae pertinent ad aeternam salutem, an tantum patiatur ab agente
gratia. At hic dicis contra, Esse pietatem Christianam, Eniti totis viribus, et sine
misericordia Dei voluntatem non efficacem esse. Hic plane asseris voluntatem aliquid
agere in iis, quae pertinent ad aeternam salutem, dum eam fingis enitentem, At
rursus patientem, dum sine misericordia dicis inefficacem, licet non definias, quatenus

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 367

illud agere et pati intelligendum sit, data opera facturus ign

cordia Dei, quid valeat voluntas nostra, et misericordia Dei,
dentia, qua neutri partium adherere statuisti, et inter scyllam
ut medio mari fluctibus obrutus et confusus, omnia asseras qu
asseris ( WA, p. 611).
" Sed ea absurditas in quem peccat articulum fidei? aut quis illa
offenditur, quae, cum in omnibus verbis et operibus Dei ca
lega est, hoc loco adducitur iudex verborum et operum Dei.
aliquos cum Arrianis, ne Christus sit simpliciter Deus. Fing
cheis, ne sit verus homo. .... Sit pulchre scripturas tractabim
tropi, nec evaditur absurditas. Absurdum enim manet (ratione
et bonus, exigat a libe. arb. impossibilia. . . . (WA, p. 707)
' See Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical C
367, 400, 412-13, 436; and Augustine, Confessiones 1.2.2: "qu
quid peto, ut venias in me, qui non essem, nisi esses in me?
meus, non omnino essem, nisi esses in me."
'6 Cited in A. Meyer, Etude critique sur les relations d'Erasm
p. 115, n. 4.
" See LE, p. 125, for Luther's calling Erasmus' thoughts about God "all-too-human."
Also see pp. 135 and 184.
18 (Stuttgart, 1962), p. 129.
19 See Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P. S. Allen (Oxford, 1906-58),
epistles 1901, 45-50; 2175, 5-11 (1529). See also Allen, epistle 1119, 34ff. (July 6, 1520)
to Spalatin: "I would prefer Luther to refrain from these contentions for a little while,
and to expound the Gospel simply, without admixture of personal feelings: perhaps
his undertaking would succeed better. Now he is exposing even bonae litterae to an ill
will which is ruinous to us and unprofitable to himself." (Cited in John Williams
Aldridge, The Hermeneutic of Erasmus, Basel Studies of Theology 2 (Richmond, Vir-
ginia, 1966), p. 14.
20 Luther, An Introduction to his Thought, translated by R. A. Wilson (Ttibingen, 1964;
London, 1970), p. 221.
21 Tu dicis vero talia, quod non legis vel non observas, hanc esse fortunam constantissi-
mam verbi Dei, ut ob ipsum mundus tumuletur. Idque palam asserit Christus: Non veni
(inquit) pacem mittere, sed gladium. Et in Luca: Ignem veni mittere in terram. ...
Mundus et Deus eius verbum Dei veri ferre non potest nec vult, Deus verus tacere nec
vult nec potest, quid iam illis duobus Diis bellantibus, nisi tumultus fieret in toto
mundo?" (WA, p. 626)
22 See Erasmus, Ratio seu methodus in Ausgewdhlte Schriften, vol. 3, edited Gerhard B.
Winkler (Darmstadt, 1967), pp. 316 and 320 for figurative interpretations of violent
passages in the Bible. Also see Querela Pacis.
23 The Latin text here and following is taken from Ausgewdhite Schriften, vol. 2, edited
by Werner Welzig (Darmstadt, 1975), henceforth referred to as Laus: Audite quo rem
deducamus. Si quis histrionibus in scena fabulam agentibus personas detrahere
conetur, ac spectatoribus veras nativasque facies ostendere, nonne is fabulam omnem
perverterit, dignusque habeatur, quem omnes e theatro velut lymphatum saxis eiiciant?
. . Verum eum errorem tollere, est fabulam omnem perturbare (p. 62).
24 Clarence H. Miller rightly remarks in his Introduction to the new Latin edition of the
Encomium (Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, vol. 4 [Amsterdam-Oxford,
1979]), Folly "uses Plato's image of the Sileni to prove an essentially sceptical or
Pyrrhonist viewpoint" (p. 19).
25 Hic si mihi sapiens aliquis coelo delapsus subito exoriatur, clamitetque hunc quem
omnes ut Deum ac dominum suscipiunt, nec hominum esse, quod pecudum ritu duca-
tur affectibus. .... Rursum alium, qui parentem existinctum luget, ridere iubeat, quod
iam demum ille vivere coeperit, cum alioqui vita haec nihil alid sit quam mors quaedam.
... quid is alius egerit, nisi ut demens ac furiosus omnibus esse videatur (Laus, pp.
26 At istud, inquiunt, stultitiae est. Haud equidem inficias iverim, modo fateantur illi
vicissim hoc esse, vitae fabulam agere. . . . Cur autem sileam, cum sit vero verius?
(Laus, p. 64)

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27 Atqui fortassis apud Christianos horum lev

Litterarum testimoniis, si videtur, laudes nost
mus, principio veniam a Theologis praefatae,
28 Ipsum quoque Christum quo stultitiae morta
tamen quodammoclo stultum esse factum, c
modum et peccatum factus est, ut peccatis me
quam per stultitiam crucis, per Apostolos id
praecipit, a sapientia deterrens, cum eos ad p
rum exemplum provocat, rerum stupidiarum
... (Laus, p. 196)
29 For other references of Erasmus to Christ
Erasme et Luther: leur polkmique sur le libr
note 55 below.
30 Testatur id Paulus haud quaquam obscure, cum ait: 'Quae stulta sunt mundi eligit
Deus,' cumque ait, 'Deo visum esse, ut per stultitiam servaret mundum,' quandoquidem
per sapientiam restitui non poterat. Quin ipse idem satis indicat, clamans per os
Prophetae: 'Perdam sapientiam sapientium, et prudentiam prudentium reprobabo.'
Rursum cum agit gratias, quod salutis mysterium celasset sapientes, parvulis autem,
hoc est, stultis, aperuisset (Laus, p. 194).
31 ... in omni vita refugit pius ab his quae corpori cognata sunt, ad aeterna, ad invisi-
bilia, ad spiritalia rapitur. Proinde cum summa sit inter hos et illos omnibus de rebus
dissensio, fit ut utrique alteris insanire videantur. Quamquam id vocabuli rectius in
pios competit quam in vulgus, mea quidem sententia (Laus, p. 206).
32 Under Pretext of Praise: Satiric Mode in Erasmus' Fiction (Toronto, 1973), p. 62. See
also Richard Sylvester, "The Problem of Unity in The Praise of Folly," English
Literary Renaissance, 6 (1976), p. 138.
33 PMLA, 89 (1974), 463-76, here p. 468, below pp. 471, 473.
3" Rebhorn is persuasive when he discusses the way in which Folly as satirist shows the
limitations of her initial praise of natural and social folly. But he fails to note that this
same strategy of flattering the reader's illusions about the possibility of social harmony
and then undeceiving him is recapitulated in the final third of the work. Furthermore,
as we have seen, it is not the case that in praising Christian folly, Folly "no longer
claims man's worship," since the example of Christianity is introduced in the first place
precisely in order to substantiate that claim.
3 "Erasmus' Learned Joking: The Ironic Use of Classical Wisdom in The Praise of Folly, "
Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 19 (1977), 246-67, below pp. 260, 261, 263.
36 "But the authority of Scripture is not here in dispute. The same Scriptures are ac-
knowledged and venerated by either side. Our battle is about the meaning of Scrip-
ture" (LE, p. 43).
"3 See Miller's Introduction. Opera omnia, p. 20, n. 33 for different interpretations of
this third section.
38 See Joel Lefebvre, Les Fols et la folie (Paris, 1968), p. 246 and 247, n. 131, on the
antinomies of Erasmus' thought. Although Lefebvre discusses the similarities between
the first and third parts of the Encomium, he also remarks, "L'&cart entre la premiere
partie de l'Eloge et la troisibme peut tout aussi bien souligner que la mythologie est
inconciliable avec l'Evangile," and that immanence is incompatible with transcendence
(p. 246). I am in basic agreement with Lefebvre's interpretation of the Encomium.
39 (Harmondsworth, England, 1971), p. 15.
40 See Institutio oratoria 2.17.30-36.
4 This translation is taken from the 1668 version by John Wilson (Ann Arbor, 1958),
pp. 10-11.
42 Essais 3.9; Oeuvres completes, edited by Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat, Biblio-
th~que de la Pleiade (Paris, 1962), p. 974.
43 This is Dorp's object to the Encomium. See Praise, p. 163.
" See Paul Mestwerdt, Die Anfainge des Erasmus (Leipzig, 1917), p. 265: "Aber in gewisser
Weise o1st doch Erasmus dieses Dilemma auf [the dilemma of reconciling piety and
erudition]. Der Endzweck des geistigen Lebens und das wahre Wesen der Frommigkeit
ist allerdings die 'Verachtung (contemptus)' alles Iridischen und damit auch der welt-
lichen Bildung. Aber dieser Endzweck kann zu seiner wirklichen Erfuillung nur gelangen

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Erasmus' Praise of Prudence 369

unter der Voraussetzung, daB man erst selber besitzt, was m

ist das notwendige Mittel, das dem Menschen die richtige un
der Welt ermoglicht."
45 Wendelin Schmidt-Denger in his Introduction to the Encom
ten), p. xxii, writes: "Halt man nun den Eingang gegen das
dieses zu diskreditieren, ja, der Verdacht der Blasphemie ist
46 See the discussion by Walter Kaiser in Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, and
Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1963), p. 36ff.
47 In the Vulgate: "Iustitia enim Dei in eo revelatur ex fide in fidem: sicut scriptum est:
Iustus autem ex fide vivit."
48 WA, LIV, 165f.
49 Eugene Rice has written that the Reformation idea of wisdom was inseparable from
revelation: "no trace of metaphysics disfigures it, no philosophy profanes it. As a
knowledge of the essential points of Christian doctrine it is revealed, and, with the aid
of grace, firmly believed. If one could overthrow the poverty of words, one would see
that it is not even a form of knowledge. It is certain, but cannot be demonstrated; it is
true but cannot be known." The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge, Mass.,
1958), p. 147.
50 The capital of the Greek upsilon, which was also a symbol of the choice between good
and evil. See Erwin Panofsky, "Hercules am Scheideweg," Studien der Bibliothek
Warburg 18 (Leipzig and Berlin, 1930).
51 LE, pp. 147-48. Si poteritis in tanta serie saeculorum, virorum, et omnium quae
memorasti, ostendere unum opus (sit etiam levare stipulam de terra) aut unum verbum
(sit vel syllaba MY) vel unum cogitatum ex vi lib. arb. (sit vel tenuissimum suspirium),
quo vel applicuerunt sed ad gratiam, vel quo meruerunt spiritum, vel quo impetraverunt
veniam, vel quo aliquid cum Deo egerunt quantumvis modiculum.... Iterum victores
vos estote, et nos victi (WA, p. 643).
52 LE, pp. 175-76, 181.
3 Interim veterum authoritate vis abuti, qui semina quaedam honesti tradunt insita menti-
bus hominum. Primum, si ita vis, per nos quidem licet, ut veterum authoritate utaris vel
abutari tu videris, quid credit, qui hominibus credis, sua dictantibus sine verbo Dei
(WA, pp. 744f.).
54 Praise, p. 4.
55 See The Enchiridion of Erasmus, translated by Raymond Himelick (Bloomington,
Indiana, 1963), Chapter 14, Rule 5, p. 113. Christ chides his disciples for their lack of
faith: "Then what was the reason? Assuredly the flesh of Christ stood in the way. So it
is that He says, 'Unless I go away the Comforter will not come. It is best for you that I
go.' The spiritual presence of Christ is useless as far as spiritual health is concerned. ...
Paul had seen Christ in the flesh. What do you consider more important than this?
But he is indifferent to the fact. 'Even if we have known Christ in the flesh,' he says,
'we know Him no longer.' Why not? because he had achieved more satisfying gifts
of the spirit."

Die Eichendorff-Gesellschaft verleiht alle zwei Jahre einen Forderungspreis aus

Mitteln einer Stiftung eines bekannten amerikanischen Eichendorff-Forschers in
Hohe von ca. Dm 5.000,-. Mit dem Preis sollen Arbeiten aus dem Bereich der
deutschen Romantik und insbesondere aus dem Umkreis Eichendorffs gefordert
oder ausgezeichnet werden. Der Preis wird erstmals 1982 in Wuirzburg auf dem
internationalen Kongref3 der Eichendorff-Gesellschaft vom 14. 17. Juli verlie-
hen. Nahere Auskiinfte erteilt der Geschaftsfiihrer der Eichendorff-Gesellschaft
(Dr. Franz Heiduk, Postfach 5503, 8700 Wiurzburg).

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