Most people who consider themselves to be well-read have read Thomas More’s Utopia, but few have read his friend Erasmus’s book, Praise of Folly. Until a fortnight ago, I belonged to the Utopian majority, familiar with his friend’s name only because it has been in the news lately as one of the many benefits of EU membership lost to us in our forgotten island somewhere north of France.
Thankfully I am now one of the few, the happy few, who can claim to have read the book that gave Shakespeare some of his best characters, his Fools. Best and happiest, for, as Erasmus says, in his character as the goddess Folly, “if mortals would henceforth have no truck with wisdom and spend all their time with me, there would be no more old age and they could be happy enjoying eternal youth.”
His praise of Folly begins with an appreciation of childhood. “What is there about babies which makes us hug and kiss and fondle them? Surely it’s the charm of folly, which thoughtful Nature has taken care to bestow on the newly-born so that they can offer some reward of pleasure to mitigate the hard work of bringing them up.”
All the pleasures of old age, Folly says, come in the form of ‘second childhood’. Old people and babies “are exactly alike: white hair, toothless mouth, short stature, liking for milk, babbling, chattering, silliness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, everything in fact. The nearer people approach old age the closer they return to a semblance of childhood, until the time comes for them to depart this life, again like children, neither tired of living nor aware of death.”
I can imagine Feste elaborating a conceit like this to entertain Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, until Malvolio interrupts them with his “Are you mad? Or what are you?”
Today’s stand-ups would find plenty of material in Erasmus, needing only to cut the classical references and bring the language up to date to get the laughs that made Praise of Folly a best-seller in its day.
“And I may as well speak more frankly to you in my usual way. What is it, I ask you, which begets gods or men – the head, the face, the breast, hand or ear, all thought of as respectable parts of the body? No, it’s not. The propagator of the human race is that part which is so foolish and absurd that it can’t be named without raising a laugh.”