You've heard of my birth, upbringing, and companions. Now I don't want it to seem that I claim the name of goddess without good reason, so please pay attention and learn what great advantages I bring to gods and men alike, and how far my divinity extends. For if being a god means helping mortals, as someone sensibly wrote; and if those who introduced mortals to wine or grain, or some other commodity, deserved their admission to the council of the gods, why shouldn't I rightly be recognized and named the 'Alpha' of all gods, when I dispense every benefit to all alike? (9)
First of all, what can be sweeter or more precious than life itself? And to whom is it generally agreed life owes its beginning if not to me? For it certainly isn't the spear of 'mighty-fathered' Pallas or the shield of 'cloud-gathering' Jupiter which fathers and propagates the human race. Even the father of the gods and king of men who makes the whole of Olympus tremble when he bows his head has to lay aside that triple-forked thunderbolt of his and that grim Titanic visage with which he can terrify all the gods whenever he chooses, and humble himself to put on a different mask, like an actor, if he ever wants to do what he always is doing, that is, 'to make a child'. And the stoics, as we know, claim to be most like the gods. But give me a man who is a stoic three or four or if you like six hundred times over, and he too, even if he keeps his beard as a mark of wisdom, though he shares it with the goat, will have to swallow his pride, smooth out his frown, shake off his rigid principles, and be fond and foolish for a while. In fact, if the philosopher ever wants to be a father it's me he has to call on — yes, me.
And I may as well speak more frankly to you in my usual way. What is it, I ask you, which begets gods or men — the head, the face, the breast, hand, or ear, all thought of as respectable parts of the body? No, it's not. The propagator of the human race is that part which is so foolish and absurd that it can't be named without raising a laugh. There is the true sacred fount from which everything draws its being, not the quarternion of Pythagoras. Just tell me, please, what man would be willing to offer his neck to the halter of matrimony if he applied the usual practice of the wise man and first weighed up its disadvantages as a way of life? Or what woman would ever agree to take a husband if she knew or thought about the pains and dangers of childbirth and the trouble of bringing up children? So if you owe your existence to wedlock, you owe the fact of wedlock to madness, my attendant 'Anoia', and can see how much in fact you owe to me. And if a woman has once had this experience, would she be willing to repeat it without the divine aid of 'Lethe', who helps her to forget? Venus herself, whatever Lucretius says, would never deny that she would be weakened and shorn of her power if my own divinity didn't come to her aid. Thus from that game of mine, drunken and absurd as it is, spring haughty philosophers and their present-day successors who are popularly called monks, kings in their purple, pious priests, and thrice-holy pontiffs; and finally, the whole assembly of the poets' gods, now so numerous that Olympus itself, for all its spaciousness, can scarcely hold such a crowd.
But I shouldn't claim much by saying that I'm the seed and source of existence unless I could also prove that whatever advantages there are all throughout life are all provided by me. What would this life be, or would it seem worth calling life at all, if its pleasure was taken away? I hear your applause, and in fact I've always felt sure that none of you was so wise or rather so foolish — no, I mean so wise — as to think it could. (10) Even the stoics don't despise pleasure, though they are careful to conceal their real feelings, and tear it to pieces in public with their incessant outcry, so that once they have frightened everyone else off they can enjoy it more freely themselves. I'd just like them to tell me if there's any part of life which isn't dreary, unpleasant, graceless, stupid, and tedious unless you add pleasure, the seasoning of folly. I've proof enough in Sophocles, a poet who can never be adequately praised, who pays me a really splendid tribute in the line
'For ignorance provides the happiest life.'(11)
But now let's take the facts one by one.
First of all, everyone knows that by far the happiest and universally enjoyable age of man is the first. What is there about babies which makes us hug and kiss and fondle them, so that even an enemy would give them help at that age? Surely it's the charm of folly, which thoughtful Nature has taken care to bestow on the newly born so that they can offer some reward of pleasure to mitigate the hard work of bringing them up and win the liking of those who look after them. Then follows adolescence, which everyone finds delightful, openly supports, and warmly encourages, eagerly offering a 'helping hand'. Now whence comes the charm of youth if not from me? I've seen to it that youth has so little wisdom and hence so few frowns. It's a fact that as soon as the young grow up and develop the sort of mature sense which comes through experience and education, the bloom of youthful beauty begins to fade at once, enthusiasm wanes, gaiety cools down, and energy slackens. The further, anyone withdraws from me the less and less he's alive, until 'painful age' comes on, that is, 'old age with its troubles' unwelcome not only to others but just as much to itself. This too would be intolerable to man if I weren't at his elbow out of pity for all he has to bear, just as the gods of fiction often come to the aid of the dying with some metamorphosis, so do I recall people who are on the brink of the grave, as far as possible, to childhood once again. Hence the aptitude of the popular expression, 'second childhood'. And if any of you are interested in my method of transformation, I'm quite willing to tell you. The spring belonging to my nymph lethe has its source in the Islands of the Blest, and what flows through the underworld is only a trickle of a stream. There I take them, so that once they have drunk deep draughts of forgetfulness the cares of the mind are gradually washed away and they recover their youth. I know they're called silly and foolish, as indeed they are, but that is exactly what it means to become a child again.
What else is childhood but silliness and foolishness? Its utter lack of sense is what we find so delightful. Everybody hates a prodigy, detests an old head on young shoulders; witness the oft repeated saying 'I hate a small child who's too wise for his years.' And who could carry on doing business or having dealings with an old man if his vast experience of affairs was still matched by a vigorous mind and keen judgement? So I see to it that the old man is witless, and this sets him free meanwhile from all those wretched anxieties which torment the man in his senses. He is also pleasant company for a drink, and doesn't feel the boredom with life which a more robust age can scarcely endure. There are times when, like the old man in Plautus, he goes back to those three special letters AM0, but he'd be anything but happy if he still had his wits. Meanwhile, thanks to what I do for him, he's happy, popular with his friends, even a welcome guest to bring life to a party. In Homer, the speech of old Nestor flows from his lips sweeter than honey, while that of Achilles is bitter, and the old men sitting on the walls of Troy speak in 'lilysweet' voices. On this reckoning old age surpasses even childhood, for that is pleasant but inarticulate, and lacks the chief amusement in life — talk and still more talk. Add the fact that old people are always particularly delighted by children, and children by them —
For thus the god always brings like to like (11)
— and there really is no difference between them except the old man's wrinkles and the number of birthdays he has counted. Otherwise they are exactly alike: white hair, toothless mouth, short stature, liking for milk, babbling, chattering, silliness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, everything in fact. The nearer people approach old age the closer they return to a semblance of childhood, until the time comes for them to depart this life, again like children, neither tired of living nor aware of death.
Anyone who likes can go and compare this service of mine with the changes made by the other gods. What they did in anger, I'd rather not recount, but even when they're particularly well-disposed to people, they have a habit of turning them into a tree, a bird, a grasshopper, or even a snake — as if becoming something else were not just the same as dying. Now I restore a man unchanged to the best and happiest time of his life. But if mortals would henceforth have no truck with wisdom and spend all their time with me, there would be no more old age and they could be happy enjoying eternal youth.
You must have seen those soured individuals who are so wrapped up in their philosophic studies or some other serious, exacting affairs that they are old before they were ever young; I suppose it's because their preoccupations and the unremitting strain of their keen concentration gradually sap their spirit and vitality. By contrast my morons are plump, sleek, and glossy, typical 'Acarnanian porkers', as they say, and never likely to know any of the disadvantages of old age unless they pick up some infection from the wise. However, man isn't permitted to be happy every bit of his life.
Then there's further good evidence in the common saying which is often quoted:
'Folly is the one thing which can halt fleeting youth and ward off the relentless advance of old age.'
And there's good reason for what is generally said about the natives of Brabant, that increasing age brings other men wisdom: but they grow more and more foolish the nearer they approach old age. At the same time there are no people so cheerful in company or so little affected by the misery of growing old. Close to them as neighbours and also in their way of life are my Hollanders — for why shouldn't I call them mine? They're my devoted followers, so much so that they've earned a popular epithet of which they're not at all ashamed, indeed they make a special boast of it.
Off you go, you foolish mortals, find a Medea, Circe, Venus and Aurora, and some sort of a spring you can use to give you back your youth! But I alone can provide this power and do so. My hands hold the magic philtre with which Memnon's daughter prolonged the youth of her grandfather Tithonus. I am the Venus by whose favour Phaon became young again to be loved so much by Sappho. Mine are the herbs, if there are any, mine the supplications received, mine the spring which can not only restore lost youth but (better still) preserve it for evermore. And if you all share the view that nothing is better than youth, nothing so hateful as old age, I think you must see how much you owe to me for maintaining such a blessing and driving such an evil away.
But why am I still talking about mortals? Search the heavens, and then anyone who likes can taunt me with my name if he finds a single one of the gods who wouldn't be disagreeable and disliked if he weren't graced by my divine powers. Why is Bacchus always a boy with long flowing hair? Surely because he's irresponsible and drunk, and spends all his life at banquets and dances, singing and revelling, and never has any dealings with Pallas. In fact he's so far from asking to be thought wise that he's happy to be worshipped with merriment and fun. Nor does he take offence when given a name which means 'foolish' in the Greek saying 'more foolish than Morychus'. (13) His name was changed to Morychus because the country people in their revels used wine-must and fresh figs to smear the statue sitting at the door of his temple. Then think of the insults flung at-him in Old Comedy! 'Stupid god', they would say, 'just the sort to be born from a thigh.'(14) Yet who wouldn't choose to be this light-hearted fool who is always young and merry and brings pleasure and gaiety to all, rather than 'crooked-counselled' Jupiter who is universally feared, or old Pan who confounds everything with his sudden alarms, ash-grimed Vulcan, always filthy from his work in the smithy, or even Pallas herself who strikes terror with her Gorgon and spear and 'fixed grim stare'? Why is Cupid always a boy? Simply because he's a joker and never shows 'sound sense' in word or thought. Why does the beauty of golden Venus never lose its bloom of youth? Surely because she's related to me and gets the colour of her complexion from my father. That's why Homer calls her 'golden Aphrodite'. And besides, she's always smiling, if we are to believe the poets or the sculptors who copy them. What deity did the Romans ever worship more devoutly than Flora, the mother of all delights? And if anyone cares to ask some searching questions of Homer and the other poets about the lives even of the sterner gods, he'll find folly everywhere. I don't think I need go into the behaviour of the others, as you're well aware of the love-affairs and goings on of Jupiter the thunderer himself, and how even that chaste Diana who ignored her sex and devoted herself to hunting could still lose her heart to Endymion.
I only wish they could still hear their conduct ridiculed by Momus, as they often used to do at one time, but it isn't long since they lost their tempers and threw him and Até headlong down to earth because he disturbed the gods' carefree happiness with his pertinent interruptions. And not a single mortal thinks of offering hospitality to the exile, far from it — there's no room for him in the halls of princes where my 'Kolakia' holds first place; she can no more get on with Momus than the wolf with the lamb. So now that they've got rid of him the gods can have their fun with much more gaiety and freedom, 'living an easy life' in fact, as Homer says, with no one to keep a sharp eye on them. What joke will that fig-wood Priapus not play? And Mercury is up to all sort of tricks with his thefts and sleight-of-hand. Vulcan too has always acted the 'buffoon' at the banquets of the gods, and delighted the company by his limping or his taunts or the funny thing he says. Then there's that amorous old Silenus who is always obscenely dancing the 'cordax' along with Polyphemus stamping his 'ratatan', and the nymphs dancing a 'barefoot ballet'. The half-goat satyrs play Atellan farces, Pan makes everyone laugh with his hopeless efforts at singing, and the gods would rather listen to him than to the Muses themselves, especially when the nectar has started to flow freely. But I needn't say here what the gods are up to when they've drunk well and the banquet's over — absurdities like these often make me feel can't stop laughing myself. It would really be better at this point to remember Harpocrates and keep silent in case some Corycian god may hear us say things which even Momus couldn't get away with.
But now it's time we left the gods in heaven and came down to earth for a spell, as Homer does. There too we shall see there's nothing happy and gay unless I've made it so. In particular, you observe how wisely mother Nature, the parent and creator of the human race, has seen to it that some spice of folly shall nowhere be lacking. By stoic definition wisdom means nothing else but being ruled by reason; and folly, by contrast, is being swayed by the dictates of the passions. So Jupiter, not wanting man's life to be wholly gloomy and grim, has bestowed far more passion than reason — you could reckon the ratio as twenty-four to one. Moreover, he confided reason to a cramped corner of the head and left all the rest of the body to the passions. Then he set up two raging tyrants in opposition to reason's solitary power: anger, which holds sway in the breast and so controls the heart, the very source of life, and lust, whose empire spreads far and wide, right down to the genitals. How far reason can prevail against the combined forces of these two the common life of man makes quite clear. She does the only thing she can, and shouts herself hoarse repeating formulas of virtue, while the other two bid her go hang herself and are increasingly noisy and offensive until at last their ruler is exhausted, gives up, and surrenders. (15)
But since man was born to manage affairs he had to be given a modicum, just a sprinkling, of reason; and in order to do her best for him in this matter Nature called on me for counsel here as she had on other occasions. I was ready with a piece of advice worthy of myself: she should give him a woman, admittedly a stupid and foolish sort of creature but amusing and pleasant company all the same, and she could share his life, and season and sweeten his harsh nature by her folly. For Plato's apparent doubt whether to place woman in the category of rational animal or brute beast is intended to point out the remarkable folly of her sex. If ever a woman wanted to be thought wise she only succeeded in being doubly foolish, just as if one enters an ox for a wrestling match, they say, one can't hope for the approval and support of Minerva. (16) The defect is multiplied when anyone tries to lay on a veneer of virtue and deflect a character from its natural bent. As the Greek proverb puts it, an ape is always an ape even if clad in purple: and a woman is always a woman, that is, a fool, whatever mask she wears.
But I don't think the female sex is so foolish as to be angry with me for attributing folly to them, seeing that I am Folly, and a woman myself. If they look at the matter in the right way they must see that it's entirely due to folly that they are better off than men in many respects. In the first place they have the gift of beauty, which they rightly value above everything else, for it ensures their power to tyrannize over tyrants themselves. Besides, that unkempt look, rough skin, bushy beard, and all the marks of old age in a man can only come from the corrupting influence of wisdom, seeing that a woman always has smooth cheeks, gentle voice, soft skin, and a look of perpetual youth. Next, what else do women desire in this life but to give maximum pleasure to men? Isn't this the purpose of all their attention to their persons, all that make-up, bathing, hair-dressing, and all those ointments and perfumes, as well as so many arts of arranging, painting, and disguising face, eyes, and skin? Now, does anything count more in winning them men's favour than their folly? There's nothing men won't permit to women, and for no other return than pleasure, but it's women's folly which makes them delight men. No one will deny the truth of this who considers the nonsense a man talks with a woman and the silly things he does whenever he wants to enjoy the pleasure she gives. So there you have the source of life's first and foremost delight.
However, there are some men, especially old men, who are more given to wine than to women, and find their greatest pleasure in drinking parties. Now whether a party can have much success without a woman present I must ask others to decide, but one thing is certain, no party is any fun unless seasoned with folly. In fact, if there's no one there to raise a laugh with his folly, genuine or assumed, they have to bring on a 'jester', one who's paid for the job, or invite some absurd hanger-on whose laughable, that is, foolish, remarks will banish silence and gloom from the company. What was the point of loading the stomach with all those delicacies, fancy dishes, and titbits if the eyes and ears and the whole mind can't be fed as well on laughter, jokes, and wit? But when it comes to that sort of confectionery, I'm the only mistress of the art. And all the usual rituals of banquets, drawing lots for a king, throwing dice, drinking healths, 'passing round the cup', singing with a myrtle branch, dancing, miming — none of them was discovered for the benefit of the human race by the Seven Sages of Greece, but by me. The very nature of all things of this sort is that the more folly they have, the more they enrich man's life, for if that is joyless it seems scarcely worth calling life at all. But it can't fail to end up joyless unless you can find diversions of this kind to remove the boredom inseparable from it.
But there will perhaps be some who have no use for this kind of pleasure, and find their satisfaction in the affection and companionship of their friends. Friendship, they're always saying, must come before everything. It is something even more essential than air, fire, and water, so delightful that if it were removed from their midst it would be like losing the sun, and finally, so respected (if this is at all relevant) that even the philosophers do not hesitate to mention it amongst the greatest of blessings. Here again I can show that of that greatest blessing I am both poop and prow. And I'll demonstrate it not by the Crocodile's Syllogism, or the Heap, or the Horns, or any other dialectical subtlety of that kind — no, with what is called sound common sense I can put my finger on the spot. Just think: winking at your friend's faults, passing over them, turning a blind eye, building up illusions, treating obvious faults as virtues which call for love and admiration — isn't all that related to folly? One man showers kisses on his mistress's mole, another is charmed by the polyp in his dear lamb's nose, a father talks about the wink in his son's squinting eye — what's that, please, but folly pure and simple? Let's have it repeated, three and four times over, it is folly, and the same folly, which alone makes friendships and keeps friends together. I'm talking of ordinary mortals, none of whom is born faultless, and the best among them is the one with fewest faults. But amongst those stoic philosopher-gods either no friendship forms at all, or else it is a sour and ungracious sort of relationship which exists only with very few men — I hesitate to say with none at all, for most men have their foolish moments, or rather, everyone is irrational in various ways, and friendship joins like to like. But if ever some mutual goodwill does arise amongst these austere characters it certainly can't be stable and is unlikely to last long, seeing that they're so captious and far keener-eyed to pick out their friends' faults than the eagle or the Epidaurian snake. Of course they're blind to their own faults and simply don't see the packs hanging from their backs. (17) It's in man's nature for every sort of character to be prone to serious faults. In addition, there are wide variations of temperament and interests, as well as all the lapses and mistakes and accidents of mortal life. Consequently the delights of friendship couldn't last a single hour among such Argus-eyed folk without the addition of what the Greeks aptly named a word we can translate either as "folly" or as "easy-going ways". Besides, isn't Cupid himself, who is responsible for creating all relationships, totally blind, so that to him 'ugliness looks like beauty'? And so he sees to it that each one of you finds beauty in what he has, and the old man loves his old woman as the boy loves his girl. This happens everywhere and meets with smiles, but nevertheless it's the sort of absurdity which is the binding force in society and brings happiness to life.
What I've said about friendship is much more applicable to marriage, which is nothing other than an inseparable union for life. Goodness me, what divorces or worse than divorces there would be everywhere if the domestic relations of man and wife were not propped up and sustained by the flattery, joking, complaisance, illusions, and deceptions provided by my followers! Why, not many marriages would ever be made if the bridegroom made prudent inquiries about the tricks that little virgin who now seems so chaste and innocent was up to long before the wedding. And once entered on, even fewer marriages would last unless most of a wife's goings-on escaped notice through the indifference or stupidity of her husband. All this can properly be attributed to Folly, for it's she who sees that a wife is attractive to her husband and a husband to his wife, that peace reigns in the home and their relationship continues. A husband is laughed at, called a cuckold and a cuckoo and who knows what else when he kisses away the tears of his unfaithful wife, but how much happier it is for him to be thus deceived than to wear himself out with unremitting jealousy, strike a tragic attitude, and ruin everything!
In short, no association or alliance can be happy or stable without me. People can't tolerate a ruler, nor can a master his servant, a maid her mistress, a teacher his pupil, a friend his friend nor a wife her husband, a landlord his tenant, a soldier his comrade nor a party-goer his companion, unless they sometimes have illusions about each other, make use of flattery, and have the sense to turn a blind eye and sweeten life for themselves with the honey of folly. I dare say you think this is the last word on the subject, but there are more important things to come.
Now tell me: can a man love anyone who hates himself? Can he be in harmony with someone else if he's divided in himself, or bring anyone pleasure if he's only a disagreeable nuisance to himself? No. one, I fancy, would say he can unless there's someone more foolish than Folly. Remove me, and no one could put up with his neighbour, indeed, he'd stink in his own nostrils and find everything about himself loathsome and disgusting. The reason is that Nature. more of a stepmother than a mother in several ways, has sown a seed of evil in the hearts of mortals, especially in the more thoughtful men, which makes them dissatisfied with their own lot and envious of another's. Consequently, all the blessings of life, which should give it grace and charm, are damaged and destroyed. What good is beauty, the greatest gift of the gods, if it is tainted by the canker of decay? Or youth, if it is soured and spoiled by the misery of advancing age? And finally, is there any duty throughout life which you can perform gracefully as regards yourself or others (for the importance of decorum extends beyond mere skill and covers every action) unless you have Self-love at hand to help you, Self-love who is so prompt to take my place on all occasions that she is rightly called my sister? What is so foolish as self-satisfaction and self-admiration? But then what agreeable, pleasant, or graceful act can you perform if you aren't self-satisfied? Take away this salt of life and immediately the orator and his gestures will be a bore, the musician will please no one with his tunes, the actor and his posturings will be hissed off the stage, the poet be a laughing-stock along with his Muses, the painter and his works deemed valueless, and the doctor starve amidst his remedies. Finally, you'll look like Thersites and Nestor instead of Nireus and Phaon, a pig rather than Minerva, and a speechless child and a boor instead of an eloquent and civilized man; which shows how necessary it is for a man to have a good opinion of himself, give himself a bit of a boost to win his own self-esteem before he can win that of others.
And since for the most part happiness consists in being willing to be what you are, my Self-love has provided a short cut to it by ensuring that no one is dissatisfied with his own looks, character, race, position, country, and way of life. And so no Irishman would want to change places with an Italian, nor Thracian with an Athenian, nor Scythian with an inhabitant of the Islands of the Blest. What remarkable foresight of Nature it was, to level out all these variations and make all alike! Where she has withheld some of her gifts she generally adds a tiny bit more Self-love — but it's silly of me to say this, seeing that Self-love is her greatest gift. Just let me add that no great deed was ever performed without my prompting and no new art discovered unless I was responsible.
And of all deeds which win praise, isn't war the seed and source? But what is more foolish than to embark on a struggle of this kind for some reason or other when it does more harm than good to either side? For those who fall in battle, like the men of Megara, are 'of no account'. When the mail-clad ranks confront each other and the trumpets "blare out their harsh note", what use, I ask you, are those wise men who are worn out with their studies and can scarcely draw breath now their blood is thin and cold? The need is for stout and sturdy fellows with all the daring possible and the minimum of brain. Of course some may prefer a soldier like Demosthenes, who took Archilochus' advice and had scarcely glimpsed the enemy before he threw away his shield and fled, as cowardly in battle as he was skilled in speechmaking. (18) People say that judgement matters most in war, and so it does for a general, I agree, but it's a soldier's judgement, not a philosopher's. Otherwise it's the spongers, pimps, robbers, murderers, peasants, morons, debtors, and that sort of scum of the earth who provide the glories of war, not the philosophers and their midnight oil. (19) As an example of just how useless these philosophers are for any practice in life there is Socrates himself, the one and only wise man, according to the Delphic oracle. It showed little enough wisdom in its judgement, for once when he tried to do something in public he had to break off amid general laughter. Yet on one point the man was sensible enough — he refused to accept the epithet 'wise' but attributed it to the god. He also held the view that the wise man should steer clear of — taking part in politics, though maybe he should have gone further and advised anyone who wants to be counted a man to keep well away from wisdom. What drove him to drink the hemlock after his trial if not his wisdom? For while he was philosophizing about clouds and ideas, measuring a flea's foot, and marvelling at a midge's humming, he learned nothing about the affairs of ordinary life. (20) And at the master's side in his hour of peril stands his pupil Plato, a splendid advocate, I must say, when he was so overwhelmed by the clamour of the crowd that he could hardly get out half a sentence. Then what shall I say about Theophrastus? When he stepped forward to speak he was immediately struck dumb as if he'd suddenly seen a wolf. (21) Who could have fired the military-minded in the time of war? Not Isocrates, who was so timid by nature that he never ventured to open his mouth. Cicero, the father of Roman eloquence, always rose to speak in an unseemly state of agitation like a child with hiccups. Quintilian explains this as a mark of an intelligent orator conscious of the risks he ran, but in saying so, doesn't he openly admit that wisdom is an obstacle to successful performance? If people are half-dead of fear when they have to fight only with words, what will they do if the issue must be settled by the sword?
And on top of all this, please heaven, that famous saying of Plato's is always quoted: "Happy the states where either philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers!" But if you look at history you'll find that no state has been so plagued by its rulers as when power has fallen into the hands of some dabbler in philosophy or literary addict. The two Catos are sufficient proof of this, I think, when one of them was a disturber of the peace of the republic with his crazy denunciations, and the other showed his wisdom by defending the liberty of the Roman people, and in doing so completely destroyed it. Then there are the families of Brutus and Cassius, the Gracchi brothers and even Cicero himself, who was just as much a scourge to the republic of Rome as Demosthenes was to Athens. As for Marcus Aurelius, we have to admit that he was a good emperor, but I could still deny him this distinction on the grounds that he was unpopular and disliked amongst his subjects for the very reason that he was so much of a philosopher. And even admitted that he was good, he undoubtedly did more harm to Rome by leaving it such a son as his than he ever benefited it by his administration. In fact this type of man, who is devoted to the study of wisdom, is always most unlucky in everything and particularly when it comes to procreating children; I imagine this is because Nature wants to ensure that the evil of wisdom shall not spread further throughout mankind. So it's well known that Cicero had a degenerate son, and the children of the great sage Socrates himself took after their mother rather than their father, as someone put it rather well: meaning, they were fools.
One could put up with it somehow if these folks would be the 'ass playing the lyre' only in public affairs, and not be so utterly incompetent in every single thing in life. Ask a wise man to dinner and he'll upset everyone by his gloomy silence or tiresome questions. Invite him to a dance and you'll have a camel prancing about. Haul him off to a public entertainment and his face will be enough to spoil the people's enjoyment. He'll have to leave the theatre like Cato the Wise when he couldn't lay aside his scowl. If he joins in a conversation, all of a sudden there's the wolf in the fable. If there's anything to be bought or an arrangement to be made, in fact if anyone of those things has to be done without which our daily life can't be carried on, you'll call your wise man a blockhead, not a man. It's quite impossible for him to be of any use to himself, his country, or his family because he's ignorant of ordinary matters and far removed from any normal way of thinking and current practice. And so inevitably he is also disliked, doubtless because of the great dissimilarity in mentality and way of life. For nothing happens in this world which isn't full of folly, performed by fools amongst fools. If any individual wants to make a stand against the rest, I'd recommend him to take his lead from Timon and move off to some wilderness where he can enjoy his own wisdom in solitude.
But to return to my subject. Take those wild men sprung from hard rocks and oak trees — what power brought them together into a civilized society if not flattery? This is all that's meant by the lyre of Amphion and Orpheus. What was it which recalled the Roman mob to harmony in the state when it was plotting violence — a philosopher's speech? Not a bit of it. It was a silly, childish fable made up about the belly and other parts of the body. A similar sort of story told by Themistocles about a fox and a hedgehog had the same effect. No sage's speech could ever have achieved so much as that fictitious white hind of Sertorius, or the ridiculous anecdote invented about the famous Spartan with his two dogs, and the one told by Sertorius about pulling the hairs out of a horse's tail, to say nothing of Minos and Numa who both ruled the foolish mob by means of fantastic trumped-up tales. (23)It's absurdities like these that sway the huge powerful monster which is the common people. But what society ever took its laws from Plato or Aristotle or the teachings of Socrates?
Again, what made the house of Decius choose to dedicate their lives to the gods of the underworld and brought Quintus Curtius to the abyss if not the vain hope of fame, the sweetest of all sirens, though damned by your wise men to a remarkable degree? Nothing is so foolish, they say, as for a man to stand for office and woo the crowd to win its vote, buy its support with presents, court the applause of all those fools and feel self-satisfied when they cry their approval, and then in his hour of triumph to be carried round like an effigy for the public to stare at, and end up cast in bronze to stand in the market-place. Then there are changes of names and surnames, divine honours awarded to a nobody, official ceremonies devised to raise even the most criminal of tyrants to the level of the gods. All this is utterly foolish, and more than one Democritus is needed for these absurdities, everyone agrees. Yet from this source spring the deeds of valiant heroes to be lauded to the skies in the writings of so many eloquent men. This same folly creates 'societies and maintains empires, officialdom, religion, law courts, and councils — in fact the whole of human life is nothing but a sport of folly.
Now let us turn to the arts. What else has fired men's natural talents to devise and hand on to posterity so many disciplines which they think remarkable if not their thirst for fame? With all their toil and sweat and sleepless nights men have thought to gain some sort of reputation, emptiestof acquisitions, and thereby showed themselves complete fools. Meanwhile it's Folly to whom you owe so many of life's major blessings, and the nicest thing of all is that you have someone else's madness to thank for your enjoyment.
Well, now I've proved that I must be given credit for courage and industry, shall I go on to lay claim to prudence? You might as well mix fire and water, I can hear someone say. But here again I believe I can succeed, if you'll continue to give me your ears and attention as before.
First of all, if prudence develops through experience, does [the honour of] possessing a claim to it rightly belong to the wise man who attempts nothing, partly through his sense of propriety, partly through his natural timidity, or to the fool who isn't deterred from anything either by the propriety which he hasn't got or the dangers which he doesn't think about? The wise man seeks refuge in his books of antiquity and learns from them the pure subtleties of what the ancients say. The fool tries everything, meets his dangers at first hand, and thereby acquires what I'm sure is genuine prudence. That is something Homer appears to have seen, despite his blindness, when he says 'even the fool is wise after the event'. (24) For the two main obstacles to learning by experience are a sense of propriety which clouds the judgement and fear which advises against an undertaking once danger is apparent. Folly offers a splendid liberation from both of them. Few mortals realize how many other advantages follow from being free from scruples and ready to venture anything.
But if people prefer the sort of prudence which comes from forming judgements on life, please hear how far those who pride themselves on that account are from having it. In the first place, it's well known that all human affairs are like the figures of Silenus described by Alcibiades and have two completely opposite faces, so that what is death at first sight, as they say, is life if you look within, and vice versa, life is death. The same applies to beauty and ugliness, riches and poverty, obscurity and fame, learning and ignorance, strength and weakness, the noble and the baseborn, happy and sad, good and bad fortune, friend and foe, healthy and harmful — in fact you'll find everything suddenly reversed if you open the Silenus. Maybe some of you will think , I've expressed this too philosophically; well, I'll speak bluntly, as they say, to make myself clear. We all agree a king is rich and powerful, but if he lacks all spiritual goods and can never be satisfied, then he's surely the poorest of men. And if he's addicted to a large number of vices he's no more than a cheap slave. We could philosophize about others in the same way, but one example will suffice. What's the point of this, someone will say. Hear how we'll develop the argument. If anyone tries to take the masks off the actors when they're playing a scene on the stage and show their true, natural faces to the audience, he'll certainly spoil the whole play and deserve to be stoned and thrown out of the theatre for a maniac. For a new situation will suddenly arise in which a woman on the stage turns into a man, a youth is now old, and the king of a moment ago is suddenly Dama, while a god is shown up as a common little man. To destroy the illusion is to ruin the whole play, for it's really the illusion and make-up which hold the audience's eye. Now, what else is the whole life of man but a sort of play? Actors come on wearing their different masks and all play their parts until the producer orders them off the stage, and he can often tell the same man to appear in different costume, so that now he plays a king in purple and now a humble slave in rags. It's all a sort of pretence, but it's the only way to act out this farce.
At this point let us suppose some wise man dropped from heaven confronts me and insists that the man whom all look up to as god and master is not even human, as he is ruled by his passions, like an animal, and is no more than the lowest slave for serving to many evil masters of his own accord. Or again, he might tell someone else who is mourning his father to laugh because the dead man is only just beginning to live, seeing that this life of ours is nothing but a sort of death. Another man who boasts of his ancestry he might call low-born and bastard because he is so far removed from virtue, which is the sole source of nobility. If he had the same sort of thing to say about everyone else, what would happen? We should think him a crazy madman. Nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense. A man's conduct is misplaced if he doesn't adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance, won't even remember that convivial maxim 'drink or depart', and asks for the play to stop being a play. On the other hand, it's a true sign of prudence not to want wisdom which extends beyond your share as an ordinary mortal, to be willing to overlook things along with the rest of the world or to wear your illusions with a good grace. People say that this is really a sign of folly, [and I'm not setting out to deny it — so I long as they'll admit on their side that this is the way to play the comedy of life.]
As for my next point — immortal gods, shall I speak out or keep silence? But why keep silent when it's something truer than truth? Though perhaps it would be better for a matter of such importance to summon the Muses from Helicon, seeing that poets are always calling on them for help over the merest trifles. Come, then, for a while, daughters of Jove, while I show that no one can approach that perfect wisdom which the wise call the citadel of bliss unless Folly shows the way.
First of all, it's admitted that all the emotions belong to Folly, and this is what marks the wise man off-from the fool; he is ruled by reason, the fool by his emotions. That is why the stoics segregate all passions from the wise man, as if they were diseases. But in fact these emotions not only act as guides to those hastening towards the haven of wisdom, but also wherever virtue is put into practice they are always present to act like spurs and goads as incentives towards good, deeds. Yet this is hotly denied by that double-dyed stoic Seneca who strips his wise man of every emotion. In doing so he leaves nothing at all of the man, and has to 'fabricate' in his place a new sort of god who never was and never will be in existence anywhere. Indeed, if I may be frank, what he created was a kind of marble statue of a man, devoid of sense and any sort of human feeling. Well, if that's what they like, they can enjoy their wise man, love him without a rival, live with him in Plato's Republic or in the kingdom of Ideas, if they prefer, or else in the gardens of Tantalus. Who wouldn't flee in terror from a man like that as a monstrous apparition, deaf as he is to all natural feelings, and no more moved by love or pity or any emotions
than if hard flint or Parian crag stands fixed? (26)
He misses nothing, he is never deceived, but like Lynceus he sees all clear, weighs up everything precisely, and finds nothing to excuse. Self-sufficient, self-satisfied, the only man to be rich and healthy, a king and free — unique in fact in everything, but only in his own unique opinion — he feels no need of friends and is a friend to no one, he doesn't hesitate to bid the gods themselves go hang, and everything that happens in real life he treats as crazy with ridicule and contempt. (27) But this is the sort of animal who is the perfect wise man. I ask you, if it were put to the vote, what state would elect such a man to office, what army would want him for a general? Still less would any woman want or endure that sort of husband, or host that guest, or servant a master with a character like his. Anybody would prefer someone from the ordinary run of fools, someone who can manage fools or obey them as a fool himself, and can please those like himself, that is, most men. And he would be pleasant to his wife and agreeable to his friends, a congenial guest for a meal and good company for a drink, a man in fact who thinks every human interest is his concern. The wise man's a bore, I had enough of him long ago; and so my speech will move on to more profitable themes.
Now suppose someone could look down on the life of a man from a great height, as the poets say Jove sometimes does, how many disasters would he see in store for it! Man's birth is painful and sordid, his upbringing wearisome, his childhood fraught with dangers, and his youth hard-won with toil. Old age is a burden and death a harsh necessity; armies of, disease close their ranks around him, misfortunes lie in wait, ill luck is always ready to attack. There's nothing without its tinge of acute bitterness, quite apart from all the evil things man does to man, such as the infliction of poverty, imprisonment, slander, dishonour, torture, treachery, betrayal, insult, litigation, and fraud. But now I'm clearly trying to 'measure grains of sand'. What man has done to deserve all this or what angry god has caused him to be born for these miseries is not for me to say at the moment, yet anyone who reflects on the question will surely approve the example set by the maidens of Miletus, however deplorable it was. But who are the people whose death was so often self-sought through weariness of life? Weren't they closely connected with wisdom? I'll say nothing at this point about people like Diogenes, Xenocrates, Cato, Cassius, and Brutus, but there's the famous centaur Chiron, who could have been immortal if he hadn't preferred to choose death. (28) This will show you, I fancy, what would happen if wisdom spread throughout mankind: we'd soon need some more clay and a second Prometheus to model it. However, I am here, and with a mixture of ignorance and thoughtlessness, often with forgetfulness when things are bad, or sometimes hope of better things, with a sprinkling too of honeyed pleasures, I bring help in miseries like these. And I do so with such effect that men are reluctant to leave life even when their thread of destiny has run out and life has long been leaving them. The less reason they have for staying alive, the more they enjoy living — so far are they from feeling at all weary of life.
Thanks to me you can see old men everywhere who have reached Nestor's age and scarcely still look human, mumbling, senile, toothless, white-haired, or bald — or rather, in the words of Aristophanes, 'dirty, bent, wretched, wrinkled, hairless, toothless, sexless'. Yet they're still so pleased with life and eager 'to be young' that one dyes his white hair, another covers up his baldness with a wig, another wears borrowed teeth taken from some pig perhaps, while another is crazy about a girl and outdoes any young man in his amorous silliness. For any real old dry bones with a foot in the grave can take some tender young girl for a wife today, even if she has no dowry and is ready for others to enjoy her — it's common practice, almost something to boast about.
Yet it's even more fun to see the old women who can scarcely carry their weight of years and look like corpses that seem to have risen from the dead. They still go around saying 'Life is good', still on heat, 'longing for a mate', as the Greeks say, and hiring some young Phaon by paying out large sums of money. They're forever smearing their faces with make-up, always looking in the mirror, and taking tweezers to their pubic hairs, exposing their sagging withered breasts and trying to rouse failing desire with their quavery whining voices, while they drink, dance among the girls, and scribble their little love-letters. All this raises a general laugh for what it is — absolute foolishness; but meanwhile they're pleased with themselves, lead a life of supreme delight suffused with sweet fantasy, and owe all their happiness to me. Those who find this too ridiculous should please consider whether they'd rather spend a life sweetened with folly like this or go and look for the proverbial beam to hang from.
The fact that such conduct is generally frowned on means nothing to my fools, for either they don't realize anything is wrong, or if they do, they find it easy to take no notice. If a rock falls on your head it does positive harm, but shame, disgrace, reproaches, and insults are damaging only in so far as you're conscious of them. If you're not, you feel no hurt at all. What's the harm in the whole audience hissing you if you clap yourself? And Folly alone makes this possible. (29)
Now I believe I can hear the philosophers protesting that it can only be misery to live in folly, illusion, deception, and ignorance. But it isn't — it's human. I don't see why they call it a misery when you're all born, formed, and fashioned in this pattern, and it's the common lot of all mankind. There's no misery about remaining true to type, unless maybe someone thinks man is to be pitied because he can't fly with the birds or go on all fours like the other animals and isn't armed with horns like a bull. In the same way the finest horse could be called unfortunate because it knows no grammar and doesn't eat cake, and a bull unhappy because it's useless in the gymnasium. But a horse who knows nothing of grammar isn't unhappy, and a foolish man is not unfortunate, because this is in keeping with his nature.
Then these verbal wizards produce another argument. Man, they say, is especially gifted with understanding of the branches of learning so that they can help him to compensate by his wits for what nature has denied him. But does it seem likely that nature would be so alert and careful about things like midges and grasses and flowers and yet be caught napping over man alone, so that he needs the kinds of learning which the notorious Thoth, the evil genius of the human race, devised to be its greatest curse? These are quite useless as regards happiness, they are in fact an obstacle to the very thing for which they were specially invented, as that sensible king in Plato neatly proves in discussing the invention of letters. And so the branches of learning crept in along with all the other banes of human life, introduced by the same evil spirits who are responsible for every wickedness, namely the 'demons' who were given their name because it means "those who know" in Greek. (30) But the innocent folk of the Golden Age had no learning to provide for them and lived under the guidance of nothing but natural instinct. What need had they of grammar when all spoke the same language, and the sole purpose of speech was to make communication possible? They had no use for dialectic when there was no battle of conflicting opinions, no place for rhetoric where no one was out to make trouble for his neighbour, no demand for jurisprudence when there were no bad habits, which are the undoubted antecedents of good laws. They were also too pious in their beliefs to develop an irreverent curiosity for probing the secrets of nature, measuring the stars, calculating their movements and influence, and seeking the hidden causes of the universe. They thought it sacrilege for mortal man to attempt to acquire knowledge outside his allotted portion. The madness of inquiring into what is beyond the heavens never even entered their heads. But as the innocence of the Golden Age gradually fell away, the branches of learning were invented by those evil spirits, as I said. These were few at first and taken up by few, but later on the superstition of the Chaldeans and the idle frivolity of the Greeks added hundreds more simply to torment the wits of man — indeed, it only takes a single system of grammar to provide continuous torture for life.
The most highly valued amongst these learned disciplines, however, are those which come closest to common sense, or rather, to folly. Theologians go hungry, scientists are cold-shouldered, astrologers laughed at, and dialecticians ignored; only 'the doctor is a man worth many men'. (31) And the more ignorant, reckless, and thoughtless a doctor is the higher his reputation soars even amongst powerful princes. In fact medicine [as it is practised now by so many] is really only one aspect of flattery, [just as rhetoric is]. Next to doctors the petty lawyers take second place. Maybe they ought to be first, but the philosophers are all agreed that theirs is a profession for asses and are always laughing at them, and I don't want to do the same. Yet these asses can settle matters large and small if they give the word, and their estates multiply, while the theologian who has combed through his bookcases in order to master the whole of divinity nibbles at a dry bean and carries on a non-stop war with bugs and lice.
Thus the happier branches of knowledge are those which are more nearly related to folly, and by far the happiest men are those who have no traffic at all with any kind of learning and follow Nature for their only guide. We shall never find her wanting unless we take it into our heads to overstep the limits of our mortal lot. Nature hates any counterfeit and everything turns out much more happily when it's unspoiltby artifice. Well then, can't you see that of all the rest of living creatures the happiest in life are those which have least to do with any formal learning and have Nature alone for a teacher? Bees do not even have all natural instincts, yet they are the happiest and most marvellous of insects. No architect could match them in building structures nor could any philosopher set up a state like theirs. Contrast the horse, which is almost human in its instincts, and since it has taken to sharing the life of man, it also has to share man's misfortunes. It feels ashamed if it loses a race, so quite often it ends up broken-winded, and while it seeks glory on the battlefield it is run through and "bites the dust" along with its rider. I needn't go into details — the sharp-toothed bit, pricking spurs, prison-like stable, whips, sticks, bridle, rider, the whole tragedy of the voluntary servitude the horse chose to undergo when he imitated man's fortitude and was all eagerness to take vengeance on the foe. Far more to be desired is the life of flies and little birds who live for the moment solely by natural instinct, so far as the snares laid by men permit. Once they are shut in cages and taught to imitate the human voice all their natural brightness is dulled, for in every way Nature's creations are more cheerful than the falsifications of art.
And so I could never have enough praise for the famous cock who was really Pythagoras. When he had been everything in turn, philosopher, man, woman; king, commoner, fish, horse, frog, even a sponge, I believe, he decided that man was the most unfortunate of animals, simply because all the others were content with their natural limitations while man alone tries to step outside those allotted to him. Again, amongst men in many ways he preferred the ignorant to the learned and great. [Gryllus was considerably wiser than 'many-counselled Odysseus' when he chose to grunt in his sty rather than share the risks of so many dangerous hazards.] Homer, the father of fables, seems to take the same view when he calls all mortals 'wretched' and 'long-suffering', and often describes Ulysses, his model of wisdom, as 'unfortunate', though he never does this to Paris or Ajax or Achilles. The reason for this is clear: that cunning master of craftiness never did a thing without Pallas to advise him, and became far too wise as he moved further and further away from Nature's guidance.
So amongst mortal men those who strive after wisdom are the furthest from happiness; they are in fact doubly stupid simply because they ignore the fact that they were born men, try to adopt the life of the immortal gods, and like the giants would rebel against Nature, with the sciences for their engines of war. Conversely, the least unhappy are those who come nearest to the instinctive folly of dumb animals and attempt nothing beyond the capacities of man. Now let's see if we can't prove our point by means of a simple illustration — no need to bother with your stoic syllogisms. Heavens above, doesn't the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons — all splendid names according to my way of thinking? Perhaps what I'm saying seems foolish and absurd at first sight, but really it's a profound truth.
To begin with, these people have no fear of death, and that surely frees them from no small evil. They're also free from pangs of conscience. Tales of the dead hold no terrors for them, and they've no fear of ghosts and spectres. They are neither tortured by dread of impending disaster nor under the strain of hopes of future bliss. In short, they are untroubled by the thousand cares to which our life is subject. They don't feel shame, fear, ambition, envy, or love. Finally, if they come still closer to dumb animals in their lack of reasoning power, the theologians assure us they can't even sin. Now, foolish sage, please count up for me all the nights and days when your soul is tortured by anxieties — heap all your life's troubles in one pile, and then at last you'll realize what the evils are from which I've saved my fools. Add the fact that they're always cheerful, playing, singing, and laughing themselves, and bring pleasure and merriment, fun and laughter to everyone else wherever they go as well, as if the gods had granted them the gift of relieving the sadness of human life. Consequently, though other folk may be at odds, they are always accepted, sought out, fed, tended, embraced, helped at time of need, and allowed to say or do anything with impunity. No one would dream of hurting them — even wild beasts have some natural perception of their innocence and do them no harm. They are indeed under the protection of the gods and most of all under mine; and for this reason they are rightly held in honour by all.
They are moreover the favourites of kings, so much so that many great rulers can't eat a mouthful or take a step or last an hour without them, and they value their fools a long way above the crabbed wiseacres they continue to maintain for the sake of appearance. The reason for their preference is obvious. I think, and shouldn't cause surprise. Wise men have nothing but misery to offer their prince; they are confident in their learning and sometimes aren't afraid to speak harsh truths, which will grate on his delicate ear, whereas clowns can provide the very thing the prince is looking for — jokes, laughter, merriment, and fun. And, let me tell you, fools have another gift which is not to be despised. They're the only ones who speak frankly and tell the, truth, and what is more praiseworthy than truth? For although Plato makes Alcibiades quote the proverb which says that truth belongs to wine and children the credit really should be mine; (32) witness Euripides and that famous line of his about me: 'for the fool speaks folly'. Whatever the fool has in his mind shows in his face and comes out in his speech, but the wise man has two tongues, as Euripides also says, one to speak the truth with, the other for saying what he thinks fits the occasion. He makes a habit of changing black into white and blowing hot and cold in the same breath, and there's all the difference between the thoughts he keeps to himself and what he puts into words. And so for all their good fortune princes seem to me to be particularly unfortunate in having no one to tell them the truth and being obliged to have flatterers for friends.
It might be said that the ears of princes shun the truth, and that they steer clear of wise men for the simple reason that they fear there may be someone outspoken enough to risk saying what is true rather than pleasant to hear. The fact is, kings do dislike the truth, but the outcome of this is extraordinary for my fools. They can speak truth and even open insults and be heard with positive pleasure; indeed, the words which would cost a wise man his life are surprisingly enjoyable when uttered by a clown. For truth has a genuine power to please if it manages not to give offence, but this is something the gods have granted only to fools.
It is also the reason why these people give so much pleasure to women, who are naturally more inclined to amusement and frivolity. Besides, however much women carryon with fools, even when things take a serious turn, as they often do, it. can always be passed off as joking and fun. The feminine sex is artful, especially at covering up its own doings.
To return to the happiness of fools. After living a life full of enjoyment, with no fear or awareness of death, they move straight off to the Elysian fields where their tricks can amuse pious souls who have come to rest.
Let's now compare the lot of a wise man with that of this clown. Imagine some paragon of wisdom to set up against him, a man who has frittered away all his boyhood and youth in acquiring learning, has lost the happiest part of his life in endless wakeful nights, toil, and care, and never tastes a drop of pleasure even in what's left to him. He's always thrifty, impoverished, miserable, grumpy, harsh and unjust to himself, disagreeable and unpopular with his fellows, pale and thin, sickly and blear-eyed, prematurely white-haired and senile, worn-out and dying before his time. Though what difference does it make when a man like that does die? He's never been alive. There you have a splendid picture of a wise man. (33)
Here the 'stoic frogs' start croaking at me again. Nothing, they say, is so pitiable as insanity, and exceptional folly is near insanity, or could even be called the real thing. Insanity only means wandering in your mind; but these frogs wander right off the track. So let's demolish their argument, if the Muses will lend their support, subtle though it is. In Plato Socrates shows how a single Venus and a single Cupid are divided into two, and so these masters of dialectic should really have distinguished between two forms of insanity, if they wanted to appear sane themselves. For not every form of insanity is a disaster, or Horace would not have asked, "Or is it fond insanity deceiving me?" And Plato would not have counted the frenzy of poets, seers, and lovers amongst life's chief blessings, nor would the sybil have called the great undertaking of Aeneas insane.
The nature of insanity is surely twofold. One kind is sent from hell by the vengeful furies whenever they let loose their snakes and assail the hearts of men with lust for war, insatiable thirst for gold, the disgrace of forbidden love, parricide, incest, sacrilege, or some other sort of evil, or when they pursue the guilty, conscience-stricken soul with their avenging spirits and flaming brands of terror. The other is quite different, desirable above everything, and is known to come from me. It occurs whenever some happy mental aberration frees the soul from its anxious cares and at the same time restores it by the addition of manifold delights. This is the sort of delusion Cicero longs for as a great gift of the gods in a letter to Atticus, for it would have the power to free him from awareness of his great trouble. Horace's Argive too was on to the right thing. His insanity was only sufficient to keep him sitting whole days alone in the theatre, laughing and clapping and enjoying himself because he believed marvellous plays were being acted on the stage, when in fact there was nothing at all. In all his duties in life he behaved well:
Pleasant to his friends,
Kind to his wife, a man who could forgive
His slaves, and at a bottle's broken seal
Not mad with rage. (34)
When his relatives intervened and gave him remedies to cure him, and he was wholly restored to his senses, he protested like this to his friends:
'My friends,' he said,
'This is not saving; it's killing me to snatch
My pleasure, take by force what I enjoyed —
My mind's delusion. (34)
He was quite right too. They were deluded themselves and more in need of hellebore than he was for thinking that such a pleasurable and happy form of insanity was an evil to be dispelled by potions.
But I've not yet made up my mind whether every vagary or mental aberration should be given the name of insanity. A purblind man who takes a donkey for a mule or one who praises an ill-written poem as an excellent one certainly won't be thought insane. But someone who is wrong in his mental judgement as well as in his perception, especially if this is continuous and goes beyond accepted practice, will surely be put down as a borderline case. Take, for example, a man who hears a donkey bray and thinks he hears a marvellous symphony, or some wretched humbly born pauper who imagines he's Croesus, king of Lydia. But often enough this kind of insanity is pleasurable and affords considerable enjoyment both to those who suffer from it and those who witness it but aren't mad in the same way, for in this form it is far more widespread than the common man believes. One madman laughs at another, and each provides entertainment for the other; and you'll often see the madder one laughing the louder at the one who's not so mad. (35) In Folly's opinion then, the more variety there is in a man's madness the happier he is, so long as he sticks to the form of insanity which is my own preserve; and which indeed is so widespread that I doubt if a single individual could be found from the whole of mankind who is wise every hour of his life and doesn't suffer from some form of insanity. The only difference is one of degree. A man who sees a gourd and takes it for a woman is called insane because this happens to very few people. But when a husband swears that the wife he shares with her many lovers outdoes faithful Penelope, and congratulates himself on what is a happy delusion, no one calls him insane, because this is seen happening in marriages everywhere.
In the same category belong those who care for nothing but hunting wild game, and declare they take unbelievable pleasure in the hideous blast of the hunting horn and baying of the hounds. Dogs' dung smells sweet as cinnamon to them, I suppose, and what delicious satisfaction when the beast is to be dismembered! Common folk can cut up an ox or a sheep of course, but only a gentleman has the right to carve wild game. Bareheaded, on bended knee, with a special sword for the purpose (it would be sacrilege to use any other), with ritual gestures in a ritual order he cuts the ritual number of pieces in due solemnity, while the crowd stands round in silence and admires the spectacle it has witnessed a thousand times and more as if it was some new rite. And then if anyone's lucky enough to get a taste of the creature, he fancies he's stepped up a bit in the world. All they achieve by this incessant hunting and eating wild game is their own degeneration — they're practically wild beasts themselves, though all the time they imagine they lead a life fit for kings. (36)
Much the same is the class of people who are consumed with an insatiable passion for building, forever changing round to square and square to round without limit or proportion, until they're reduced to utter destitution with nowhere to live and nothing to eat. What does that matter? They've spent several years enjoying themselves to the full.
Next to them I think I'll put those who are always working to change the face of nature by new and secret devices and searching land and sea for some sort of a fifth element. Led on by sweet hope so that they never grudge labour and expense, they show wonderful ingenuity in always thinking up something whereby to deceive themselves afresh. They go on enjoying their self-deception until they've spent every penny and can't even afford to set up a small furnace. Even so they continue to dream pleasant dreams and do their best to fire others to enjoy the same happiness. When at last all hope is gone they've still got a saying to give them great comfort:
The intent suffices in a great design. (37)
And then they blame the shortness of life, which wasn't enough for the magnitude of their task.
Now there are the gamblers. I'm a bit doubtful about admitting them to our fellowship, though a lot of them put on a foolish show to make us laugh. They're so addicted to the game that their hearts leap and pulses quicken at the mere sound of the rattling dice. When their hopes of winning have lured them on to make shipwreck of their entire resources, [their ship has run I on to the rock of the dice, which is no less fearsome than Cape Malea,] and they've managed to climb out of the water without a shirt on their backs, they'll take to cheating anyone — except the winner; they don't want people to suppose they're not men of honour. Now they're old and can scarcely see, but they carry on playing in spectacles, and when well-earned gout has crippled their joints they end up paying a substitute to put the dice in the box for them. It would all be delightful if this sort of game didn't so often turn into a furious quarrel, and then it is the Furies' concern, not mine.
But there's no doubt that those folk are all men of my kidney who delight in miracles and fictitious marvels, whether hearing or telling about them. They can never have enough of such tales when there are any wonders to relate about ghosts, spectres, phantoms, and the dead, and all the countless miracles there are of this kind. The further these are from truth, the more eagerly they are believed and the more agreeably they titillate the ear. Such things not only serve remarkably well for whiling away a tedious hour but can also be profitable, especially for preachers and demagogues. (38)
Closely related to them are the people who've adopted the foolish but pleasurable belief that if they see some carving or painting of that towering Polyphemus, Christopher, they're sure not to die that day, or if anyone addresses a statue of Barbara in the set formula he'll return unhurt from battle, or a man will soon become rich if he approaches Erasmus on the proper days with the proper bits of candle and the proper scraps of prayer. They've already got a second Hippolytus, but in George they've found another Hercules too. They piously deck out his horse with trappings and amulets and practically worship it. Its favours are sought with some new small offering, and an oath sworn by the saint's bronze helmet is fit for a king. (39)
Now what am I to say about those who enjoy deluding themselves with imaginary pardons for their sins? They measure the length of their time in Purgatory as if by water-clock, counting centuries, years, months, days, and hours as though there were a mathematical table to calculate them accurately. Then there are people who rely on certain magic signs and prayers thought up by some pious imposter for his own amusement or for gain — they promise themselves everything: wealth, honours, pleasure, plenty, continual good health, long life, a vigorous old age, and finally a seat next to Christ in heaven. However, that's a blessing they don't want until the last possible minute, that is, when the pleasures of this life have left their tenacious and reluctant grasp to make way for the heavenly joys to come. Take for example some merchant, soldier, or judge who believes he has only to give up a single tiny coin from his pile of plunder to purify once and for all the entire Lernean morass he has made of his life. All his perjury, lust, drunkenness, quarrels, killings, frauds, perfidy, and treachery he believes can be somehow paid off by agreement, and paid off in such a way that he's now free to start afresh on a new round of sin.
But could anything be so foolish — or, I suppose, so happy — as those who promise themselves supreme bliss for repeating daily those seven short verses of the holy Psalms — the magic verses which some demon is believed to have pointed out to St Bernard? He was a joker no doubt, but silly rather than witty, as the poor fellow was caught in his own trap. Things like this are so foolish that I almost blush for them myself, yet they win general approval, and not just among the mob but also among those who make profession of religion.
It is much the same when separate districts lay claim to their own particular saints. Each one of these is assigned his special powers and has his own special cult, so that one gives relief from toothache, another stands by women in childbirth, a third returns stolen objects, a fourth will appear as a saviour for shipwrecks, another protect the flocks, and so on — it would take too long to go through the whole list. There are some whose influence extends to several things, notably the Virgin, Mother of God, for the common ignorant man comes near to attributing more to her than to her son. (40)
But what do men seek from these saints except what belongs to folly? Amongst all the votive offerings you see covering the walls of certain churches right up to the very roof, have you ever seen one put up for an escape from folly or for the slightest gain in wisdom? One man escaped drowning, another was run through by his enemy and survived, another boldly (and equally fortunately) fled from battle and left his fellows to continue the fight. Another fell down from the gallows, thanks to some saint who befriends thieves, and went on to relieve a good many people of their burden of wealth. This one broke out of prison, that one recovered from a fever, to the annoyance of his doctors; yet another swallowed poison, but it acted as a purge and did him good instead of killing him — a waste of effort and money for his wife, who was not at all pleased. Another upset his wagon but drove his horses home unhurt, another escaped with his life when his house collapsed, and another was caught in the act by a husband but got away. Not one of them gives thanks for being rid of folly, and it's so pleasant not to be wise that mortals would prefer to pray for deliverance from anything rather than from me.
But I don't know why I'm wading through this sea of superstition:
Had I a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
A voice of iron, I could not count the types
Of fool, nor yet enumerate the names
Of every kind of folly. (41)
The ordinary life of Christians everywhere abounds in these varieties of silliness, and they are readily permitted and encouraged by priests who are not unaware of the profit to be made thereby. Meanwhile, if some disagreeable wiseacre were to get up and interrupt with a statement of the true facts:
"You won't do badly when you die if you've been good in your lifetime. You'll redeem your sins only by adding hatred for wrong-doing, tears, vigils, prayers, fasts, and a change in your whole way of living to the small sum you've already paid. The saint will protect you if you'll try to imitate his life"
— if, I repeat, your wise man starts blurting out these uncomfortable truths, you can see how he'll soon destroy the world's peace of mind and plunge it into confusion.
In the same company belong those who lay down such precise instructions in their lifetime for the funeral ceremonies they want that they even list in detail the number of candles, black cloaks, singers, and hired mourners they wish to be there, as if it were possible for some awareness of this spectacle to return to them, or the dead would be ashamed if their corpses didn't have a splendid burial. They might be newly elected officials planning a public show or banquet, such is their zeal.
I must press on, and yet I can't pass over without a mention those who are no better than the humblest worker but take extraordinary pride in an empty tide of nobility, one tracing his family back to Aeneas, another to Brutus, a third to Arcturus. They display the statue and portraits of their ancestors everywhere, tot up their great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers, know all the old family names by heart, though they're not far off being dumb statues themselves and. could well be worse than the statuary they display. And yet, thanks to sweet Self-love, they lead happy lives; and there are always plenty of fools like themselves to look up to this sort of brute as if he were a god.
But I needn't cite one instance after another like this when everywhere there are countless people made marvellously happy by Self-love. Here's a man uglier than an ape who rivals Nireus in his own eyes, and another who has only to trace three arcs with a compass to imagine himself Euclid. And the 'ass playing the lyre' with a voice worse than a squawking cock when he pecks his hen believes he sings like a second Hermogenes. But by far the most enjoyable form of insanity is that which makes many people boast about any talent in their household as if it were their own. An example of this is the doubly fortunate rich man in Seneca. He kept servants at hand to whisper the names whenever he had a tale to tell, and though he was so frail he was hardly alive, he was quite ready to take up a challenge of fisticuffs, secure in- the knowledge that he had plenty of stout fellows at home.
As for those who teach and practise the arts — what shall I say about them? They all have their special form of Self-love, and you're more likely to find one who'll give up his family plot of land than one who'll yield an inch where his ability is in question. This is especially true of actors, singers, orators, and poets; the more ignorant one of them is, the more immoderate his self-satisfaction, boastfulness, and conceit. They can always find like to meet their like, in fact anything wins more admiration the sillier it is. The worst always pleases the most people, since the majority of men, as I said before, are prone to folly. Besides, if an artist is all the more pleased with himself and the more generally admired the less skilled he is, why should he choose to undergo a proper course of instruction? It'll cost him a lot in the first place, than make him more nervous and self-conscious, and he'll end up pleasing far fewer people.
Now, just as Nature has implanted his personal self-love in each individual person, I can see she has put a sort of communal variety in every nation and city. Consequently the British think they have a monopoly, amongst other things, of good looks, musical talent, and fine food. The Scots pride themselves on their nobility and the distinction of their royal connections as much as on their subtlety in dialectic. The French lay claim to polite manners and the Parisians demand special recognition for their theological acumen, which they think exceeds nearly everyone else's. The Italians usurp culture and eloquence, and hence they're all happy congratulating themselves on being the only civilized race of men. In this kind of happiness the Romans take first place, still blissfully dreaming of the past glories of Rome, while the Venetians have their own opinion of their noble descent to keep them happy. Meanwhile the Greeks, as originators of the arts, imagine they should still share the honours of the illustrious heroes of their past; while the Turks and all the real barbarian riff-raff actually demand recognition for their religion and pour scorn on Christians for their superstition. The Jews go even further, still faithfully awaiting their Messiah and clinging tooth and nail to their Moses to this very day. The Spaniards admit no rival in the glories of war, while the Germans boast of their height and their knowledge of the magic arts. I'm sure you can see without my going into further details how much pleasure Self-love brings to men, both individually and collectively, and her sister Flattery does almost as much. (42)
Philautia is only flattery of yourself, and if you do the same to someone else it becomes 'Kolakia'. Fawning on people has fallen into disrepute today, but only amongst those who are less concerned with facts than the names applied to them. They think it's incompatible with sincerity, but examples from dumb animals could prove them quite wrong. No animal fawns so much as a dog, and none is so faithful. Nothing has such winning ways as a squirrel, and where could you find a greater friend to man? Unless perhaps you think savage lions, fierce tigers; or dangerous leopards contribute more to the life of man. There is a kind of flattery which is wholly noxious, and a good many treacherous persons use it in mockery in order to destroy their unfortunate victims. But the form I use stems from a sort of ingenuous goodness of heart and is far nearer being a virtue than the critical asperity which is its opposite: what Horace calls a harsh and disagreeable surliness. Mine raises downcast spirits, comforts the sad, rouses the apathetic, stirs up the stolid, cheers the sick, restrains the headstrong, brings lovers together, and keeps them united. It attracts children to pursue the study of letters, makes old men happy, and offers advice and counsel to princes in the form of praise which doesn't give offence. In short, it makes everyone more agreeable and likeable to himself, and this is the main ingredient in happiness. What shows such willingness to please as the way mules scratch each other? For the moment I'll say nothing about the large part flattery plays in your celebrated eloquence, a larger one in medicine, and its largest in poetry, but will sum up by saying that it is what sweetens and gives savour to every human relationship.
But it's sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it's far sadder not to be deceived. They're quite wrong if they think man's happiness depends on actual facts; it depends on his opinions. For human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain, as has been rightly stated by my Academicians, the least assuming of the philosophers. Alternatively, if anything can be known, more often than not it is something which interferes with the pleasure of life. Finally, man's mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth. If anyone wants an immediate, clear example of this he has only to go to church at sermon time, where everyone is asleep or yawning or feeling queasy whenever some serious argument is expounded, but if the preacher starts to rant (I beg your pardon, I mean orate) on some old wives' tale, as they often do, his audience sits up and takes notice open mouthed. And again, if there's some legendary saint somewhat celebrated in fable (you can put George or Christopher or Barbara in that category if you need an example(43)) you'll see that he receives far more devout attention than Peter or Paul or even Christ himself. But this is not the point for the moment.
Now this gain in happiness costs very little, whereas real facts often take a lot of trouble to acquire, even when they are quite unimportant, like grammar. An opinion, on the other hand, is very easily formed, and it is equally conducive to happiness, or even more so. Just suppose that a man is eating rotten salt fish, and they taste like ambrosia to him though another man can't stand the stink; does that affect his happiness? Whereas if the taste of sturgeon makes someone sick, what can it add to the blessings of life? If anyone has a particularly ugly wife who has the power to rival Venus in her husband's eyes, isn't it just the same as if she were genuinely beautiful? The possessor of a dreadful daub in red and yellow paint who gazes at it in admiration, convinced that it is a painting by Apelles or Zeuxis, would surely be happier than someone who has paid a high price for a genuine work by one of these artists but perhaps gets less pleasure from looking at it. I know someone of my name who made his new bride a present of some jewels which were copies, and as he had a ready tongue for a joke, persuaded her that they were not only real and genuine but also of unique and incalculable value. Now, if the young woman was just as happy feasting her eyes and thoughts on coloured glass, what did it matter to her that she was keeping such trinkets hidden carefully away in her room as if they were some rare treasure? Meanwhile her husband saved expense, enjoyed his wife's illusion, and kept her as closely bound in gratitude to him as if he'd given her something which had cost him a fortune. What difference is there, do you think, between those in Plato's cave who can only marvel at the shadows and images of various objects, provided they are content and don't know what they miss, and the philosopher who has emerged from the cave and sees the real things? If Mycillus in Lucian had been allowed to go on dreaming that golden dream of riches for evermore, he'd have had no reason to desire any other state of happiness.
And so there's nothing to choose between the two conditions, or if there is, the fools are better off, first because their happiness costs them so little, in fact only a grain of persuasion, secondly because they share their enjoyment of it with the majority of men. Indeed, no benefit gives pleasure unless it is enjoyed in company. Yet we all know how few sages there are, always supposing there's one at all. Out of all those centuries the Greeks can count seven sages at the most, and if anyone looks at them more closely I swear he'll not find so much as a half-wise man or even a third of a wise man among them. Next, among the many things to Bacchus' credit must be counted what is his chief claim to fame — his ability to free our minds from care. Of course the effect lasts only a short time, for as soon as you've slept off your drink your troubles come racing back in triumph, as the saying goes. Isn't the blessing I confer much more generous and effective? I fill the mind with a kind of perpetual intoxication, with transports of rejoicing and delight, all without any effort, and I don't leave a single mortal without a share in my bounty, though the gifts of the other deities are unevenly bestowed. Not every region produces the mellow wine of good quality which can banish care and flow with rich hopes. Few have a lovely face, the gift of Venus, and still fewer the eloquence Mercury grants. Not many owe their wealth to Hercules, and Homer's Jupiter doesn't allow authority to all comers. Often enough Mars remains neutral in battle, and a lot of people return disconsolate from Apollo's oracle. Saturn's son can often flash lightning and Phoebus shoot plague with his arrows, while Neptune destroys more lives than he spares. As for those underworld Jupiters, Plutos, Discords, Punishments, Fevers, and all that lot, I don't call them gods, but murderers. I, Folly, am the only one who extends my ever-ready generosity to all alike.
I don't expect prayers, and I don't lose my temper and demand expiation for some detail of ceremony which has been overlooked. Nor do I confound heaven and earth if someone has sent invitations to all the other gods and left me out, so that I'm not admitted to a sniff of the steaming victims. The rest of the gods are so particular about these matters that you'd almost find it better and even safer to leave them alone instead of worshipping them. There are several men who are just the same, so hard to please and easily offended that it's wiser to have nothing at all to do with them than treat them as friends.
But no one offers sacrifice to Folly, people say, or sets up a temple: Well, I'm quite surprised myself, as I said before, at such ingratitude, but I'm easy-going and take it all in good part. Besides, I can't say this is really what I want. Why should I need a whiff of incense, a sacrificial meal, a goat, or a pig? Mortals all over the world worship me in a manner which is highly approved, even by the theologians. Ought I to envy Diana because she is propitiated by human blood? I hold the view that I'm worshipped with truest devotion when all men everywhere take me to their hearts, express me in their habits, and reflect me in their way of life — as in fact they do. This form of worship even of the saints and among Christian believers is quite tare. Think of the many who set up a candle to the Virgin, Mother of God, and at midday too, when it isn't needed, and of the few who care about emulating her chastity of life, her modesty, and her love of heavenly things. Yet that is surely the true way to worship and by far the most acceptable to heaven. Besides, what should I want with a temple? The entire world is my temple, and a very fine one too, if I'm not mistaken, and I'll never lack priests to serve it as long as there are men. And I'm not yet so foolish as to demand statues carved in stone and coloured with paint, which can often do harm to the cult of us gods, when the stupid and thick-headed give their devotion to images instead of to the divinities they represent, and we suffer the fate of being supplanted by our substitutes. I fancy I can count as many statues set up to me as there are men who wear my living image in their faces, whether willingly or not. And so I've no reason to be envious of the other gods because they're each worshipped in their own comer of the earth on fixed days, like Apollo, for example, in Rhodes, Venus in Cyprus, Juno at Argos, Minerva at Athens, Jupiter at Olympus, Neptune at Tarentum, and Priapus at Lampsacus. To me the whole world offers far more precious victims, without ceasing and with one accord.