Tuesday 12 July 2011

Happy 500 Birthday!

Erasmus's Praise of Folly has just turned five hundred. Although written between 1509 and 1510, Erasmus's masterpiece was published in Paris, by some of his friends, by August 1511. The author apparently did not supervise the printing, which contained many mistakes and omissions. An authorized text appeared only the following year.

Witty, trenchant at times, Praise of Folly is undeniably one of the most important works in the Western canon, giving rise to countless imitations and influencing the culture, theology and literature for centuries to come.

How has it aged? When I read it for the first time in my teens I found it very modern, for some reason. Now it seems to me closer to the Middle Ages than to the times we live in. Its constant resorting to quotation and classical allusion may be tiresome to some readers today. However, most of the truths it reveals are as relevant in our times as they were when the book was first published five centuries ago. (For example this bit about "the ones who are fired with an insatiable zeal for building, constantly converting round structures into square and square structures into round. There's no end or limit to it until they are reduced to utter destitution and have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. Never mind what the future holds: in the meantime they've had huge fun for years." I know quite a few people like these round about where I live...)

As Stefan Zweig once said of this book: "From the terrible hate storm of his age, Erasmus has salvaged this intellectual gem, his faith in humanity, and on this small burning wick Spinoza, Lessing and Voltaire – and all Europeans past and present – could light their torch".

Long may this small wick remain burning.

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