In Praise of Folly Illustrated with Many Curious Cuts
IN my late travels from Italy into England, that I might not trifle away my time in the rehearsal of old wives' fables, I thought it more pertinent to employ my thoughts in reflecting upon some past studies, or calling to remembrance several of those highly learned, as well as smartly ingenious, friends I had here left behind, among whom you (dear Sir) were represented as the chief; whose memory, while absent at this distance, I respect with no less a complacency than I was wont while present to enjoy your more intimate conversation, which last afforded me the greatest satisfaction I could possibly hope for. Having therefore resolved to be a doing, and deeming that time improper for any serious concerns, I thought good to divert myself with drawing up a panegyrick upon Folly. How! what maggot (say you) put this in your head? Why, the first hint, Sir, was your own surname of More, which comes as near the literal sound of the word,* as you yourself are distant from the signification of it, and that in all men's judgments is vastly wide.
In the next place, I supposed that this kind of sporting wit would be by you more especially accepted of, by you, Sir, that are wont with this sort of jocose raillery (such as, if I mistake not, is neither dull nor impertinent) to be mightily pleased, and in your ordinary converse to approve yourself a Democritus junior: for truly, as you do from a singular vein of wit very much dissent from the common herd of mankind; so, by an incredible affability and pliableness of temper, you have the art of suiting your humour with all sorts of companies. I hope therefore you will not only readily accept of this rude essay as a token from your friend, but take it under your more immediate protection, as being dedicated to you, and by that tide adopted for yours, rather than to be fathered as my own. And it is a chance if there be wanting some quarrelsome persons that will shew their teeth, and pretend these fooleries are either too buffoon-like for a grave divine, or too satyrical for a meek christian, and so will exclaim against me as if I were vamping up some old farce, or acted anew the Lucian again with a peevish snarling at all things. But those who are offended at the lightness and pedantry of this subject, I would have them consider that I do not set myself for the first example of this kind, but that the same has been oft done by many considerable authors. For thus several ages since, Homer wrote of no more weighty a subject than of a war between the frogs and mice, Virgil of a gnat and a pudding-cake, and Ovid of a nut Polycrates commended the cruelty of Busiris; and Isocrates, that corrects him for this, did as much for the injustice of Glaucus. Favorinus extolled Thersites, and wrote in praise of a quartan ague. Synesius pleaded in behalf of baldness; and Lucian defended a sipping fly. Seneca drollingly related the deifying of Claudius; Plutarch the dialogue betwixt Gryllus and Ulysses; Lucian and Apuleius the story of an ass; and somebody else records the last will of a hog, of which St. Hierom makes mention. So that if they please, let themselves think the worst of me, and fancy to themselves that I was all this while a playing at push-pin, or riding astride on a hobby-horse. For how unjust is it, if when we allow different recreations to each particular course of life, we afford no diversion to studies; especially when trifles may be a whet to more serious thoughts, and comical matters may be so treated of, as that a reader of ordinary sense may possibly thence reap more advantage than from some more big and stately argument: as while one in a long-winded oration descants in commendation of rhetoric or philosophy, another in a fulsome harangue sets forth the praise of his nation, a third makes a zealous invitation to a holy war with the Turks, another confidently sets up for a fortune-teller, and a fifth states questions upon mere impertinences. But as nothing is more childish than to handle a serious subject in a loose, wanton style, so is there nothing more pleasant than so to treat of trifles, as to make them seem nothing less than what their name imports. As to what relates to myself, I must be forced to submit to the judgment of others; yet, except I am too partial to be judge in my own case, I am apt to believe I have praised Folly in such a manner as not to have deserved the name of fool for my pains. To reply now to the objection of satyricalness, wits have been always allowed this privilege, that they might be smart upon any transactions of life, if so be their liberty did not extend to railing; which makes me wonder at the tender-eared humour of this age, which will admit of no address without the prefatory repetition of all formal titles; nay, you may find some so preposterously devout, that they will sooner wink at the greatest affront against our Saviour, than be content that a prince, or a pope, should be nettled with the least joke or gird, especially in what relates to their ordinary customs. But he who so blames men's irregularities as to lash at no one particular person by name, does he (I say) seem to carp so properly as to teach and instruct? And if so, how am I concerned to make any farther excuse? Beside, he who in his strictures points indifferently at all, he seems not angry at one man, but at all vices.
Therefore, if any singly complain they are particularly reflected upon, they do but betray their own guilt, at least their cowardice. Saint Hierom dealt in the same argument at a much freer and sharper rate; nay, and he did not sometimes refrain from naming the persons: whereas I have not only stifled the mentioning any one person, but have so tempered my style, as the ingenious reader will easily perceive I aimed at diversion rather than satire. Neither did I so far imitate Juvenal, as to rake into the sink of vices to procure a laughter, rather than create a hearty abhorrence. If there be any one that after all remains yet unsatisfied, let him at least consider that there may be good use made of being reprehended by Folly, which since we have feigned as speaking, we must keep up that character which is suitable to the person introduced.
But why do I trouble you, Sir, with this needless apology, you that are so peculiar a patron; as, though the cause itself be none of the best, you can at least give it the best protection. Farewell.