My Birth And Education
From Folly Speaks by Erasmus (1509)

Whatever is generally said of me by mortal men, and I'm quite well aware that Folly is in poor repute even amongst the greatest fools, still, I am the one — and indeed, the only one — whose divine powers can gladden the hearts of gods and men. Proof enough of this is in the fact that as soon as I stepped forward to address this crowded assembly, every face immediately brightened up with a new, unwonted gaiety and all your frowns were smoothed away. You laughed and applauded with such delightfully happy smiles that as I look at you all gathered round me I could well believe you are tipsy with nectar like the Homeric gods, with a dash of nepenthe too, though a moment ago you were sitting looking as gloomy and harassed as if you had just come up from Trophonius' cave. Now, when the sun first shows his handsome golden visage upon earth or after a hard winter the newborn spring breathes out its mild west breezes, it always happens that a new face comes over everything, new colour and a kind of youthfulness return; and so it only takes the mere sight of me to give you all a different look. For great orators must as a rule spend time preparing long speeches and even then find it difficult to succeed in banishing care and trouble from your minds, but I've done this at once — and simply by my looks.

Why have I appeared today in this unaccustomed garb? Well, you shall hear the reason if you have no objection to lending me your ears — no, not the ..ones you use for preachers of sermons, but the ears you usually prick up for mountebanks, clowns, and fools, the sort of ears that once upon a time our friend Midas listened with to Pan. I've a fancy to play the sophist before you, and I don't mean by that one of the tribe today who cram tiresome trivialities into the heads of schoolboys and teach them more than feminine obstinacy in disputation — no, I shall follow the ancients who chose the name sophist in preference to the damaging title of wise men. Their concern was to provide eulogies in praise of gods and heroes, so it's a eulogy you are going to hear now, though not one of Hercules or Solon. It's in praise of myself, namely, Folly.

Now, I don't think much of those wiseacres who maintain it's the height of folly and conceit if anyone speaks in his own praise; or rather, it can be as foolish as they like, as long as they admit it's in character. What could be more fitting than for Folly to trumpet her own merits abroad and 'sing her own praises'.(1) Who could portray me better than I can myself? Unless, of course, someone knows me better than I know myself. Yet in general I think I show a good deal more discretion than the general run of gentry and scholars, whose distorted sense of modesty leads them to make a practice of bribing some sycophantic speaker or babbling poet hired for a fee so that they can listen to him praising their merits, purely fictitious though these are. The bashful listener spreads his tail-feathers like a peacock and carries his head high, while the brazen flatterer rates this worthless individual with the gods and sets him up as the perfect model of all the virtues — though the man himself knows he is nowhere near that; 'infinity doubled' would not be too far away. Thus the wretched crow is decked out in borrowed plumage, the 'Ethiopian washed white', an 'elephant created out of a gnat'. Finally, I follow that well-worn popular proverb which says that a man does right to praise himself if he can't find anyone else to praise him.

Here, by the way, I can't help wondering at the ingratitude (if I may say so) or the dilatoriness of mankind. Everyone is only too anxious to cultivate me and freely acknowledges the benefits I bring, yet throughout all the ages nobody has ever come forward to deliver a speech of thanks in praise of Folly. Yet there has been no lack of persons ready to spend lamp-oil and lose their sleep working out elaborate speeches in honour of tyrants like Busiris [and Phalaris], quartan fever, flies, baldness, and plagues of that sort.(2) From me you're going to hear a speech which is extempore and quite unprepared, but all the more genuine for that. Still, I wouldn't have you think I composed this to show off my talent, as the common run of orators do. As you know, they can spend thirty whole years elaborating a speech which even then may not be theirs at all, and then swear they wrote it for a joke in a mere three days or even dictated it extempore. For my part, I've always liked best to say 'whatever comes [ill-timed] to the tip of the tongue'. None of you need expect me to follow the usual practice of ordinary rhetoricians and explain myself by definition, still less by division. It wouldn't bode well for the future either to limit and confine one whose divinity extends so far, or to cut her up when the whole world is united in worshipping her. And what purpose would it serve for a definition to produce a sketch which would be a mere shadow of myself when I am here before you, for you to look at with your own eyes? For I am as you see me, the true bestower of 'good things,' called stultitia in Latin, ancient Greek in Greek.

But was there any need to tell you even as much as that, as if I didn't make it perfectly clear who I am from the look on my face, as they say? Anyone who argued that I was Minerva or Wisdom could easily be convinced of his mistake simply by the sight of me, even if I never spoke a word, though speech is the least deceptive mirror of the mind. I've no use for cosmetics, my face doesn't pretend to be anything different from my innermost feelings. I am myself wherever I am, and no one can pretend I'm not — especially those who lay special claim to be called the personification of wisdom, even though they strut about 'like apes in purple' and 'asses in lion-skills'.(3) However hard they try to keep up the illusion, their ears stick up and betray the Midas in them. There's an ungrateful lot of folk for you — members of my party if anyone is, and yet so ashamed of my name in public that they cast it freely at others as a term of strong abuse. They're 'complete fools' in fact, and yet each of them would like to pass for a wise man and a Thales; so wouldn't the best name for them all be 'morosophoi' or foolish-wise?

For at this point too I think I should copy the rhetoricians of today who fancy themselves practically gods on earth if they can show themselves twin-tongued, like horse leeches, and think it a splendid feat if they can work a few silly little Greek words, like pieces of mosaic, into their Latin speeches, however out of place these are. Then, if they still need something out of the ordinary, they dig four or five obsolete words out of mouldy manuscripts with which to cloud the meaning for the reader. The idea is, I suppose, that those who can understand are better pleased with themselves, and those who can't are all the more lost in admiration the less they understand. Indeed there's a special sort of refined pleasure which all my followers take in paying their highest regard to any particular exotic import from foreign parts, and the more pretentious among them have to laugh and clap their hands and 'twitch their ears' like a donkey does to show the others how well they can understand. 'So much for that.'(4)

Now I return to my subject. Well, you have my name, gentlemen — but how shall I address you? As 'most foolish'? What more honourable title could the goddess Folly use in addressing her devotees? But first of all, with the help of the Muses, I'll try to explain my ancestry to you, which not very many people know. I didn't have Chaos, Orcus, Saturn, Japetus, or any other of those out-of-date mouldy old gods for a father, but 'Plutus', god of riches himself, the sole 'father of gods and men' whatever Homer and Hesiod and even Jupiter may say. He has only to nod his head, today as ever before, for everything to be thrown topsy-turvy, whether sacred or profane. War, peace, governments, councils, law courts, assemblies, marriage ties, contracts, treaties, laws, arts, gaieties, gravities (I'm out of breath) — in a word, the affairs of men, public and private, are all managed according to his will. Without his help the entire race of poets' divinities, or if I may be so bold, the chosen Olympian gods themselves either wouldn't keep alive at all, or would certainly fare very badly on the food they get 'at home'. If a man annoys Plutus not even Pallas Athene herself can save him. But anyone who wins his approval can tell mighty Jupiter to go hang himself, thunderbolt and all. 'It's my proud claim that he is my father.' And he didn't make me spring from his brain. as Jupiter did that sour and stern Athene, but gave me Freshness for a mother, the loveliest of all the nymphs and the gayest too. Nor was he tied to her in dreary wedlock like the parents of that limping blacksmith, but 'lay with her in love,' as Homer puts it, something much more delightful. Moreover, my father was not the Plutus in Aristophanes (make no mistake about that), half-blind, with one foot in the grave, but Plutus as he used to be, sound and hot-blooded with youth — and not only youth, but still more with the nectar he'd just been drinking, as it happened, neat and in generous cupfuls at a banquet of the gods.

If you also want to know my birthplace, as people think it matters a lot in judging noble birth nowadays where an infant uttered its first cries, I wasn't born on wandering Delos or out of the waves of the sea or 'in hollow caves', but on the very Islands of the Blest, where everything grows 'unsown, untilled'. Toil, old age, and sickness are unknown there. There's no asphodel, mallow, onions, vetch, and beans or any other such worthless stuff to be seen in the fields, but everywhere there's moly, panacea, nepenthe, marjoram, ambrosia, and lotus, roses, violets, and hyacinths, and gardens of Adonis to refresh the eye and nose. (6) Born as I was amidst these delights I didn't start life crying, but smiled sweetly at my mother straight away.

And I certainly don't envy the 'mighty son of Kronos' his she-goat nurse, for two charming nymphs fed me at their breasts, Drunkenness, daughter of Bacchus, and Ignorance, daughter of Pan. You can see them both here along with the rest of my attendants and followers, but if you want to know all their names, you'll have to hear them from me in Greek. This one you see with her eyebrows raised is, of course, 'Philautia', Selflove. The one clapping her hands with laughter in her eyes is 'Kolakia', Flattery. The sleepy one who looks only half-awake is 'Lethe', Forgetfulness, and this one leaning on her elbow with her hands folded is 'Misoponia', Idleness. This one wearing a wreath of roses and drenched in scent is 'Hedone', Pleasure. The one here with the rolling eyes she can't keep still is 'Anoia', Madness, and this plump one with the well-fed look is called 'Tryphe', Sensuality. You can see there are also two gods amongst the girls; one is called 'Comus', Revelry, and the other 'Negretos Hypnos', Sound Sleep. This, then, is the household which serves me loyally in bringing the whole world under my sway, so that even great rulers have to bow to my rule. (8)