… God, the maker of the whole world, prohibited the eating of the tree of knowledge, as if knowledge was poisonous to happiness.  […] Perhaps I shouldn’t omit the argument that folly seems to be pleasing to the higher powers because it is accepted as an excuse for errors, whereas the knowing man receives no pardon. […] Even more cogent is the example of Christ on the cross when he prayed for his enemies: “Father, forgive them”–he made no other excuse for them than their ignorance–“for they know not what they do.” In the same vein, Paul writing to Timothy says, “I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly, in unbelief.” What does he mean by “I did it ignorantly” if not, ‘I did it out of foolishness, not in malice’? And what is the force of “because” if not that he wouldn’t have obtained mercy if he hadn’t pleased the excuse of folly? The mystic psalmist whom I forgot to mention in his proper place, also strengthens my case when he writes, “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my stupidities.” […] And now to sum up (lest I go on with these citations to infinity), the entire Christian religion seems to bear a certain natural affinity to folly, and to relate far less clearly to wisdom.


But now that I’ve ‘got on my high horse’ I want to take the next step, and argue that the happiness after which Christians strive so passionately is nothing but  a certain kind of folly amounting to madness. Don’t startle at the words, but look at the realities. First of all, Christians come close to agreeing with the Platonists that the mind is buried deep in the body and bound to it by chains so thick and heavy that they prevent it from seeing and enjoying things as they really are. Next, Plato defines philosophy as a ‘meditation on death’ because it leads the mind away from visible, bodily things, just as death does. And so, as long as the mind makes use of the body’s organs, it is called ‘sane’; but when, breaking these bodily shackles, it tries to achieve its own liberty, as if meditating flight from a prison, then people call it ‘insane.’ If this happens as a result of sickness or some bodily defect, then everyone unhesitatingly agrees in calling it ‘madness.’ And yet we see men in such dire straits predict the future and speak in tongues they were never taught–thus giving clear evidence of some divine presence. And I don’t doubt that this happens because the mind at this juncture is a little freer of the combination of the body, and now starts to resume its native powers. For the same reason I think something similar happens to people hovering in the shades of death, so that they utter astounding things, as if they were inspired.

[…] Thus the majority find themselves in the position of those described in Plato’s cave …

[… ] … the ultimate reward for which they strive is nothing but a kind of madness. First then, you should consider that Plato had some premonition of this idea when he wrote that “the madness of lovers is the height of felicity.” For one who loves passionately no longer lives in himself but in the object of his love, so that the farther he departs from himself and the closer he comes to the love-object, the more joyful he is. Now when the soul prepares to leave the body and no longer exercises perfect command over its organs, that state you would call madness, and rightly so. Otherwise, what would be the sense of the common expressions, ‘he is beside himself,’ ‘he has come to,’ and ‘he is himself again’? Moreover, the more profound the love, the greater is the madness, and the happier. What then is that future life in heaven for which pious minds yearn so ardently? At that point the spirit, stronger and at last victorious, will absorb the body, and this it will do more easily in part because now it will be in its own kingdom, and in part because in its former life it had been purging and refining the body in preparation for this transformation. Now the spirit will be mingled with the highest mind of all, which is far greater than its infinitude of parts, so that the whole man will be outside himself, and will be utterly happy at being outside himself, and will receive unspeakable bliss from that highest good which attracts everything to itself.

-Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, 82-85 (Adams trans., Norton edition)