The intelligence, talent and erudition of Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus were no doubt without equal in the 16th century. Their books, “Utopia” and “In Praise of Folly”, alone justify such a distinction for their authors. The second, a minor work of the prolific Dutchman, deserves a special Reflection in a blog the title of which, “Blind Faith, Blind Folly”, is itself inspired by the great author’s satire on silliness in all its forms and notably that of religious beliefs and practices. (The title, “Moriae Encomium”, is already a play on words, in Greek. More would have been both flattered and amused.)
Erasmus took just a week, spent while he was a guest in More’s home in England, to write his ground-breaking classic. Five hundred years later, it has lost none of its pertinence or impertinence. Indifferent to the fact that he would be ruffling the feathers of not a few theologians, “a remarkably supercilious and touchy lot”, he left us some priceless pearls of which the following sampling may be enough incentive to tempt readers of this blog to peruse the rest in toto on the Net. They will not be disappointed.
1. “Could anything be so foolish … as those who promise themselves supreme bliss for repeating daily those seven short verses of the Holy Psalms, the “magic verses” which some demon is believed to have pointed out to St Bernard ? He was a joker no doubt, but silly rather than witty, as the poor fellow was caught in his own trap. Things like this are so foolish that I almost blush for them myself, yet they win general approval, and not just among the mob but also among those who make profession of religion.” (“Anything so foolish” ? One cannot but think of the later invention of the Nine First Fridays, a central belief in Catholic pious practice when I was a kid (“From Illusions to Illumination”, p. 168).
2. “It is much the same when separate districts lay claim to their own particular saints. Each one of these is assigned his special powers and has his own special cult, so that one gives relief from toothache, another stands by women in childbirth, a third returns stolen objects, a fourth will appear as a savior for shipwrecks, another protects the flocks, and so on – it would be too long to go through the whole list. There are some whose influence extends to several things, notably the Virgin, Mother of God, for the common ignorant man comes near to attributing more to her than to her son (Martin Luther would reinforce the point when just six years later he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral).
3. “But what do men seek from these saints except what belongs to folly ? Amongst all the votive offerings you see covering the walls of certain churches right up to the very roof, have you ever seen one put up for an escape from folly or for the slightest gain in wisdom ? One man escaped drowning, another was run through by his enemy and survived, another boldly (and equally fortunately) fled from battle and left his fellows to continue the fight. Another fell down from the gallows, thanks to some saint who befriends thieves, and went on to relieve a good many people of their burden of wealth. This one broke out of prison, that one recovered from a fever, to the annoyance of his doctors, yet another swallowed poison, but it acted as a purge and did him good instead of killing him – a waste of effort and money for his wife, who was not at all pleased. Another upset his wagon but drove his horses home unhurt, another escaped with his life when his house collapsed, and another was caught in the act by a husband but got away. Not one of them gives thanks for being rid of folly, and it’s so pleasant not to be wise that mortals would prefer to pray for deliverance from anything rather than from me, Folly.
4. “But I don’t know why I’m wading through this sea of superstition :
“Had I a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
A voice of iron, I could not count the types
Of fool, nor yet enumerate the names
Of every kind of folly.”
Erasmus was never an atheist, but his “in cauda venenum” will remain for critics like me a model of lucidity and courage : “The ordinary life of Christians everywhere abounds in these varieties of silliness, and they are readily permitted and encouraged by priests who are not unaware of the profit to be made thereby.”
“BLIND FAITH, BLIND FOLLY”