Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly

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Author: Desiderius Erasmus  | Date: 1509

Men should Follow the Guidance of Nature

Go to then, don’t you find among the several kinds of living creatures that they thrive best that understand no more than what Nature taught them? What is more prosperous or wonderful than the bee? And though they have not the same judgment of sense as other bodies have, yet wherein has architecture gone beyond their building of houses? What philosopher ever founded the like republic? Whereas the horse, that comes so near man in understanding and is therefore so familiar with him, is also partaker of his misery. For while he thinks it a shame to lose the race, it often happens that he cracks his wind; and in the battle, while he contends for victory, he’s cut down himself, and, together with his rider "lies biting the earth"; not to mention those strong bits, sharp spurs, close stables, arms, blows, rider, and briefly, all that slavery he willingly submits to, while, imitating those men of valor, he so eagerly strives to be revenged of the enemy. Than which how much more were the life of flies or birds to be wished for, who living by the instinct of nature, look no further than the present, if yet man would but let them alone in it. And if at anytime they chance to be taken, and being shut up in cages endeavor to imitate our speaking, ’tis strange how they degenerate from their native gaiety. So much better in every respect are the works of nature than the adulteries of art.

In like manner I can never sufficiently praise that Pythagoras in a dunghill cock, who being but one had been yet everything, a philosopher, a man, a woman, a king, a private man, a fish, a horse, a frog, and, I believe too, a sponge; and at last concluded that no creature was more miserable than man, for that all other creatures are content with those bounds that nature set them, only man endeavors to exceed them.

And again, among men he gives the precedency not to the learned or the great, but the fool. Nor had that Gryllus less wit than Ulysses with his many counsels, who chose rather to lie grunting in a hog sty than be exposed with the other to so many hazards. Nor does Homer, that father of trifles, dissent from me; who not only called all men "wretched and full of calamity," but often his great pattern of wisdom, Ulysses, "miserable"; Paris, Ajax, and Achilles nowhere. And why, I pray but that, like a cunning fellow and one that was his craft’s master, he did nothing without the advice of Pallas? In a word he was too wise, and by that means ran wide of nature.

As therefore among men they are least happy that study wisdom, as being in this twice fools, that when they are born men, they should yet so far forget their condition as to affect the life of gods; and after the example of the giants, with their philosophical gimcracks make a war upon nature: so they on the other side seem as little miserable as is possible who come nearest to beasts and never attempt anything beyond man. Go to then, let’s try how demonstrable this is; not by enthymemes or the imperfect syllogisms of the Stoics, but by plain, downright, and ordinary examples.

And now, by the immortal gods! I think nothing more happy than that generation of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts; splendid titles too, as I concive them. I’ll tell you a thing, which at first perhaps may seem foolish and absurd, yet nothing more true. And first they are not afraid of death- no small evil, by Jupiter! They are not tormented with the conscience of evil acts, not terrified with the fables of ghosts, nor frightened with spirits and goblins. They are not distracted with the fear of evils to come nor the hopes of future good. In short, they are not disturbed with those thousand of cares to which this life is subject. They are neither modest, nor fearful, nor ambitious, nor envious, nor love they any man. And lastly, if they should come nearer even to the very ignorance of brutes, they could not sin, for so hold the divines.

And now tell me, you wise fool, with how many troublesome cares your mind is continually perplexed; heap together all the discommodities of your life, and then you’ll be sensible from how many evils I have delivered my fools. Add to this that they are not only merry, play, sing, and laugh themselves, but make mirth wherever they come, a special privilege it seems the gods have given them to refresh the pensiveness of life. Whence it is that whereas the world is so differently affected one towards another, that all men indifferently admit them as their companions, desire, feed, cherish, embrace them, take their parts upon all occasions, and permit them without offense to do or say what they like. And so little does everything desire to hurt them, that even the very beasts, by a kind of natural instinct of their innocence no doubt, pass by their injuries. For of them it may be truly said that they are consecrate to the gods, and therefore and not without cause do men have them in such esteem.

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Chicago: Desiderius Erasmus, "Men Should Follow the Guidance of Nature," Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly, trans. John Wilson Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=47X7G1HMNIYVXWH.

MLA: Erasmus, Desiderius. "Men Should Follow the Guidance of Nature." Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly, translted by John Wilson, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=47X7G1HMNIYVXWH.

Harvard: Erasmus, D, 'Men Should Follow the Guidance of Nature' in Moriae Encomium: The Praise of Folly, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=47X7G1HMNIYVXWH.