But let me go back to a topic on which I barely started: what force do you suppose brought into civil concord those primitive men, savage as their native rocks and forests–what force if not mutual flattery? The lyres of Amphion and Orpheus can signify nothing else. What impulse recalled the Roman plebeians, on the brink of mutiny, to their civic allegiance? Was it a philosophic discourse? Scarcely. Rather, it was a ridiculous and puerile fable about the belly making its apology to the other members of the body. Hardly any better was the tale told by Themistocles about the fox and the hedgehog. What learned oration could have worked as well as the silly story recited by Sertorious to the Spaniards about a fantastic white deer? Or the equally ridiculous Spartan stories about trained and untrained puppies? Or that other one about pulling hairs from a horse’s tale one strand at a time? I hardly need mention Minos and Numa, both of whom reigned over their stupid subjects on the strength of fabulous stories. It is trifles like this that stir to action that great beast the people. What city ever accepted the laws devised by Plato and Aristotle, or undertook to guide itself by the precepts of Socrates? On the other hand, what impulse led the Decii to devote themselves to death? What force drew Quintus Curtius into the abyss, unless it was thirst for glory, a most alluring siren, but marvelously unpopular with the men of wisdom. What sight could be more stupid, they ask, than a candidate begging humbly for votes, flattering the dregs of the populace, buying their favor with handouts, basking in the applause of all those idiots, lapping up their applause, and allowing himself to be carried like a dummy in parades before the people, only to stand in the forum finally, a piece of brass? The hero must put up, as well, with special names and epithets, divine honors (often granted to very sorry predecessors), and public ceremonies associating him, as part of the pantheon, with a set of very scoundrelly tyrants indeed. These carryings-on are utterly ridiculous, you’d need more than one Democritus to laugh at them properly. Who denies it? And yet from these sources spring the deeds of mighty heroes, trumpeted to the heavens by the literary works of innumerable scribblers. This same foolish desire of praise gave rise to cities, held together empires, built legal and religious systems, erected political and religious structures; in fact, human life as a whole is nothing but a kind of fool’s game.
-Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, 27(Adams trans. in the Norton edition)