Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Reflection: The Praise of Folly

Who could have known last weekend that, by the end of the week, The Praise of Folly would be a most topical subject for our Friday Reflection?

All right, you've got me—it was a fairly safe bet, knowing what we know of our leaders and our media, and their reassuring constancy, their imperviousness to change.

But before we go back in time to Wednesday night and the early 16th century, check out this comparison between the leader of the free world and The Black Adder. And if you're too young to remember that show, give yourself a New Year's gift of the dvd and get ready to split your sides laughing.


Man's mind is much more taken with appearances than with reality. This can be easily and surely tested by going to church.

Desiderus Erasmus wrote the above words nearly 500 years ago in The Praise of Folly. He may have been writing yesterday in the New York Times.

I would only amend his remark about where one might easily test the obsession with appearances. For those of us living today, the easiest way to make such a discovery is by going to work. For there, particularly if your work is done in corporate America, Appearance is a deity, the only god worth worshipping. When you enter the corporate realm, you have left fairness, honesty, decency, and truth--and practically everything else of substance--behind. You have delivered yourself over to the mercy of a lie, the worship of an illusion.

In a corporation, everything is defined around and devoted toward the Corporate Person: all effort, every resource; the sum of all money and the totality of belief—all directed toward and sacrificed for the greater glory of the collective god. As with any religion, no depredation is too extreme or inhuman to forego, if it is committed in the name of the chosen deity. And so it is as well, with our Roveian corporate government.

This, in fact, is the folly that Erasmus describes through the mouth of the very god that is the target of his satire. For Erasmus, a lifelong Catholic, much of this involved an attack on the superstitions and falsehood of his own church (the Catholic Church could use a fellow like him now, in fact). But the satire of The Praise of Follly extends beyond the arc of Catholicism. Let us enjoy another excerpt from Erasmus' classic, as we remember our President, the leader of the free world:

If Folly is any judge, the happiest man is the one who is the most thoroughly deluded. May he maintain that ecstasy...[He is] most pleased by stories that are farthest from the truth. Such wonders are a diversion from boredom, and may also be very profitable...

But wisdom makes men bashful, which is the reason that those wise men have so little to do, unless it be with poverty, hunger, and chimney corners; that they live such neglected, unknown, and hated lives: whereas fools abound in money, have the chief commands in the commonwealth, and in a word, flourish every way. For if it be happiness to please princes and to be conversant among those golden and diamond gods, what is more unprofitable than wisdom, or what is it these kind of men have, may more justly be censured? If wealth is to be got, how little good at it is that merchant like to do, if following the precepts of wisdom, he should boggle at perjury; or being taken in a lie, blush; or in the least regard the sad scruples of those wise men touching rapine and usury...

They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens' purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet'nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.

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