Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly

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Author: Desiderius Erasmus  | Date: 1509

A Wise Man should Abstain from Public Business

Is not war the very root and matter of all famed enterprises? And yet what more foolish than to undertake it for I know not what trifles, especially when both parties are sure to lose more than they get by the bargain? For of those that are slain, not a word of them; and for the rest, when both sides are close engaged "and the trumpets make an ugly noise," what use of those wise men, I pray, that are so exhausted with study that their thin, cold blood has scarce any spirits left? No, it must be those blunt, fat fellows, that by how much the more they exceed in courage, fall short in understanding. Unless perhaps one had rather choose Demosthenes for a soldier, who, following the example of Archilochus, threw away his arms and betook him to his heels e’er he had scarce seen his enemy; as ill a soldier, as happy an orator.

But counsel, you’ll say, is not of least concern in matters of war. In a general I grant it; but this thing of war is not part of philosophy, but managed by parasites, panders, thieves, cutthroats, plowmen, sots, spendthrifts, and such other dregs of mankind, not philosophers; who how unapt they are even for common converse, let Socrates, whom the oracle of Apollo, though not so wisely, judged "the wisest of all men living," be witness; who stepping up to speak somewhat, I know not what, in public was forced to come down again well laughed at for his pains. Though yet in this he was not altogether a fool, that he refused the appellation of wise, and returning it back to the oracle, delivered his opinion that a wise man should abstain from meddling with public business; unless perhaps he should have rather admonished us to beware of wisdom if we intended to be reckoned among the number of men, there being nothing but his wisdom that first accused and afterwards sentenced him to the drinking of his poisoned cup. For while, as you find him in Aristophanes, philosophizing about clouds and ideas, measuring how far a flea could leap, and admiring that so small a creature as a fly should make so great a buzz, he meddled not with anything that concerned common life. But his master being in danger of his head, his scholar Plato is at hand, to wit that famous patron, that being disturbed with the noise of the people, could not go through half his first sentence.

What should I speak of Theophrastus, who being about to make an oration, became as dumb as if he had met a wolf in his way, which yet would have put courage in a man of war? Or Isocrates, that was so cowhearted that he dared never attempt it? Or Tully, that great founder of the Roman eloquence, that could never begin to speak without an odd kind of trembling, like a boy that had got the hiccough; which Fabius interprets as an argument of a wise orator and one that was sensible of what he was doing; and while he says it, does he not plainly confess that wisdom is a great obstacle to the true management of business? What would become of them, think you, were they to fight it out at blows that are so dead through fear when the contest is only empty words?

And next to these is cried up, forsooth, that goodly sentence of Plato’s, "Happy is that commonwealth where a philosopher is prince, or whose prince is addicted to philosophy." When yet if you consult historians, you’ll find no princes more pestilent to the commonwealth than where the empire has fallen to some smatterer in philosophy or one given to letters. To the truth of which I think the Catoes give sufficient credit; of whom the one was ever disturbing the peace of the commonwealth with his hair-brained accusations; the other, while he too wisely vindicated its liberty, quite overthrew it. Add to this the Bruti, Casii, nay Cicero himself, that was no less pernicious to the commonwealth of Rome than was Demosthenes to that of Athens. Besides M. Antoninus (that I may give you one instance that there was once one good emperor; for with much ado I can make it out) was become burdensome and hated of his subjects upon no other score but that he was so great a philosopher. But admitting him good, he did the commonwealth more hurt in leaving behind him such a son as he did than ever he did it good by his own government.

For these kind of men that are so given up to the study of wisdom are generally most unfortunate, but chiefly in their children; Nature, it seems, so providently ordering it, lest this mischief of wisdom should spread further among mankind. For which reason it is manifest why Cicero’s son was so degenerate, and that wise Socrates’ children, as one has well observed, were more like their mother than their father, that is to say, fools.

However this were to be born with, if only as to public employments they were "like a sow upon a pair of organs," were they anything more apt to discharge even the common offices of life. Invite a wise man to a feast and he’ll spoil the company, either with morose silence or troublesome disputes. Take him out to dance, and you’ll swear "a cow would have done it better." Bring him to the theatre, and his very looks are enough to spoil all, till like Cato he take an occasion of withdrawing rather than put off his supercilious gravity. Let him fall into discourse, and he shall make more sudden stops than if he had a wolf before him. Let him buy, or sell, or in short go about any of those things without there is no living in this world, and you’ll say this piece of wisdom were rather a stock than a man, of so little use is he to himself, country, or friends; and all because he is wholly ignorant of common things and lives a course of life quite different from the people; by which means it is impossible but that he contract a popular odium, to wit, by reason of the great diversity of their life and souls. For what is there at all done among men that is not full of folly, and that too from fools and to fools? Against which universal practice if any single one shall dare to set up his throat, my advice to him is, that following the example of Timon, he retire into some desert and there enjoy his wisdom to himself.

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Chicago: Desiderius Erasmus, "A Wise Man Should Abstain from Public Business," Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly, trans. John Wilson in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0 (Irvine, CA: World Library, Inc., 1996), Original Sources, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DD8ZCWRFAJS9P4S.

MLA: Erasmus, Desiderius. "A Wise Man Should Abstain from Public Business." Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly, translted by John Wilson, in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, Irvine, CA, World Library, Inc., 1996, Original Sources. 23 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DD8ZCWRFAJS9P4S.

Harvard: Erasmus, D, 'A Wise Man Should Abstain from Public Business' in Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly, trans. . cited in 1996, Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, World Library, Inc., Irvine, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 23 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DD8ZCWRFAJS9P4S.