Erasmus, Praise of Folly (excerpts)

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Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (1509)


Late medieval religion was not without its critics, ranging from harmless cranks and troublemakers, to fire and brimstone preachers of the impending apocalypse, to sophisticated and subtle thinkers gently prodding the church in the direction of reform. At one extreme we have the illiterate peasant in the remote village of Montaillu who opined that Mary was certainly not a virgin. And on the other, we have a figure like Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536), standing at the pinnacle of culture and learning. In his 1509 book In Praise of Folly, Erasmus launched a scathing attack on the manifold stupidities and blatant immoralities of the religious establishment. The fact that he remained to the end of his life a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church shows that critical thought did not necessarily have to move in the Protestant direction. The Encomium Moriae ("Praise of Folly") is a half-satirical work, in which the character of "Folly" praises herself and all her satirized "followers," including credulous lay people, church officials, and others.


Things to pay particular attention to: the specific criticisms made of medieval religious practices, of particular institutions and persons in medieval religious life, and also author's emphasis on speaking well and writing well, which was especially characteristic of the humanist movement.





[T]here is no doubt but that that kind of men are wholly ours [i.e., followers of Folly]  who love to hear or tell feigned miracles and strange lies and are never weary of any tale, though never so long, so it be of ghosts, spirits, goblins, devils, or the like; which the further they are from truth, the more readily they are believed and the more do they tickle their itching ears. And these serve not only to pass away time but bring profit, especially to mass priests and pardoners.


And next to these are they that have gotten a foolish but pleasant persuasion that if they can but see a wooden or painted [Saint] Polypheme Christopher, they shall not die that day; or do but salute a carved Barbara, in the usual set form, that he shall return safe from battle; or make his application to Erasmus on certain days with some small wax candles and proper prayers, that he shall quickly be rich. Nay, they have gotten a Hercules, another Hippolytus, and a St. George, whose horse most religiously set out with trappings and bosses there wants little but they worship; however, they endeavor to make him their friend by some present or other, and to swear by his master's brazen helmet is an oath for a prince.


Or what should I say of them that hug themselves with their counterfeit pardons [i.e., indulgences]; that have measured purgatory by an hourglass, and can without the least mistake demonstrate its ages, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, as it were in a mathematical table? Or what of those who, having confidence in certain magical charms and short prayers invented by some pious imposter, either for his soul's health or profit's sake, promise to themselves everything: wealth, honor, pleasure, plenty, good health, long life, lively old age, and the next place to Christ in the other world, which yet they desire may not happen too soon, that is to say before the pleasures of this life have left them?


And now suppose some merchant, soldier, or judge, out of so many rapines, parts with some small piece of money. He straight conceives all that sink of his whole life quite cleansed; so many perjuries, so many lusts, so many debaucheries, so many contentions, so many murders, so many deceits, so many breaches of trusts, so many treacheries bought off, as it were by compact; and so bought off that they may begin upon a new score. But what is more foolish than those, or rather more happy, who daily reciting those seven verses of the Psalms promise to themselves more than the top of felicity? Which magical verses some devil or other, a merry one without doubt but more a blab of his tongue than crafty, is believed to have discovered to St. Bernard, but not without a trick. And these are so foolish that I am half ashamed of them myself, and yet they are approved, and that not only by the common people but even the professors of religion.


And what, are not they also almost the same where several countries avouch to themselves their peculiar saint, and as everyone of them has his particular gift, so also his particular form of worship? As, one is good for the toothache; another for groaning women; a third, for stolen goods; a fourth, for making a voyage prosperous; and a fifth, to cure sheep of the rot; and so of the rest, for it would be too tedious to run over all. And some there are that are good for more things than one; but chiefly, the Virgin Mother, to whom the common people do in a manner attribute more than to the Son.


Yet what do they beg of these saints but what belongs to folly? To examine it a little. Among all those offerings which are so frequently hung up in churches, nay up to the very roof of some of them, did you ever see the least acknowledgment from anyone that had left his folly, or grown a hair's breadth the wiser? One escapes a shipwreck, and he gets safe to shore. Another, run through in a duel, recovers. Another, while the rest were fighting, ran out of the field, no less luckily than valiantly. Another condemned to be hanged, by the favor of some saint or other, a friend to thieves, got off himself by impeaching his fellows. Another escaped by breaking prison. Another recovered from his fever in spite of his physician. Another's poison turning to a looseness proved his remedy rather than death; and that to his wife's no small sorrow, in that she lost both her labor and her charge. Another's cart broke, and he saved his horses. Another preserved from the fall of a house. All these hang up their tablets, but no one gives thanks for his recovery from folly; so sweet a thing it is not to be wise, that on the contrary men rather pray against anything than folly.


But why do I launch out into this ocean of superstitions? Had I a hundred tongues, as many mouths, and a voice never so strong, yet were I not able to run over the several sorts of fools or all the names of folly, so thick do they swarm everywhere. And yet your priests make no scruple to receive and cherish them as proper instruments of profit; whereas if some scurvy wise fellow should step up and speak things as they are, as, to live well is the way to die well; the best way to get quit of sin is to add to the money you give the hatred of sin, tears, watchings, prayers, fastings, and amendment of life; such or such a saint will favor you, if you imitate his life- these, I say, and the like- should this wise man chat to the people, from what happiness into how great troubles would he draw them?


Of this college also are they who in their lifetime appoint with what solemnity they'll be buried, and particularly set down how many torches, how many mourners, how many singers, how many almsmen they will have at it; as if any sense of it could come to them, or that it were a shame to them that their corpse were not honorably interred; so curious are they herein, as if, like the aediles of old, these were to present some shows or banquet to the people.




As for the theologians, perhaps it would be better to pass them over in silence, “not stirring up the hornets’ nest” and “not laying a finger on the stinkweed,” since this race of men is incredibly arrogant and touchy. For they might rise up en masse and march in ranks against me with six hundred conclusions and force me to recant. And if I should refuse, they would immediately shout “heretic.” For this is the thunderbolt they always keep ready at a moment’s notice to terrify anyone to whom they are not very favorably inclined.


Certainly, though no one is less willing than they are to recognize my good will toward them, still these men are also obliged to me for benefits of no little importance. They are so blessed by their self-love as to be fully persuaded that they themselves dwell in the third heaven, looking down from high above on all other mortals as if they were earth-creeping vermin almost worthy of their pity. They are so closely hedged in by rows of magistral definitions, conclusions, corollaries, explicit and implicit propositions, they have so many “holes they can run to,” that Vulcan himself couldn’t net them tightly enough to keep them from escaping by means of distinctions, with which they cut all knots as cleanly as the fine-honed edge of “the headsman’s axe”—so many new terms have they thought up and such monstrous jargon have they coined. Moreover, they explicate sacred mysteries just as arbitrarily as they please, explaining by what method the world was established and arranged, by what channels original sin is transmitted to Adam’s posterity, by what means, by what proportion, in how short a period of time Christ was fully formed in the virgin’s womb, how accidents subsist in the Eucharist without any domicile. But such questions are run-of-the-mill. There are others which they think worthy of great and “illuminated” theologians, as they say. If they ever encounter these, then they really perk up. Whether there is any instant in the generation of the divine persons? Whether there is more than one filial relationship in Christ? Whether the following proposition is possible: God the Father hates the Son. Whether God could have taken on the nature of a woman, of the devil, of an ass, of a cucumber, of a piece of flint? And then how the cucumber would have preached, performed miracles, and been nailed to the cross? And what Peter would have consecrated (if he had consecrated) during the time Christ was hanging on the cross? And whether during that same time Christ could be called a man? And whether it will be permissible to eat and drink after the resurrection?—taking precautions even now against hunger and thirst.


There are numberless petty quibbles even more fine-spun than these, concerning notions, relations, instants, formalities, quiddities, ecceities—things to which no eyesight could ever penetrate, unless it were an “x-ray vision” so powerful it could perceive through the deepest darkness things that are nowhere. Also throw in those sententiae of theirs, so paradoxical that those oracular sayings which the Stoics called paradoxes seem downright crude and commonplace by comparison—such as this, for example: it is a less serious crime to murder a thousand men than to fix just one shoe for a poor man on the Lord’s day; or it would be better to let the whole world be destroyed—“lock, stock, and barrel,” as they say—than to tell just one, tiny, little white lie. And then these most subtle subtleties are rendered even more subtle by the various “ways”or types of scholastic theology, so that you could work your way out of a labyrinth sooner than out of the intricacies of the Realists, Nominalists, Thomists, Albertists, Occamists, Scotists—and I still haven’t mentioned all the sects, but only the main ones.


In all of these there is so much erudition, so much difficulty, that I think the apostles themselves would need to be inspired by a different spirit if they were forced to match wits on such points with this new breed of theologians. Paul could provide a living example of faith, but when he said “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,” his definition was not sufficiently magisterial. So too, he lived a life of perfect charity, but he neither distinguished it nor defined it with sufficient dialectical precision in the first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 13.


Certainly the apostles consecrated the Eucharist very piously, but still if they had been asked about the “terminus a quo” and the “terminus ad quem,” about transubstantiation, about how the same body can be in different places, about the difference between the body of Christ as it is in heaven, as it was on the cross, and as it is in the Eucharist, about the exact point at which transubstantiation takes place (since the speech through which it is accomplished is a divisible quantity which takes place in a flowing period of time), I don’t think they would have responded with a subtlety equal to that of the Scotists when they discuss and define these points. They knew Jesus’ mother, but which of them has shown how she was preserved from the stain of Adam’s sin as philosophically as our theologians have done it? Peter received the keys, and received them from one who would not have committed them to someone unworthy of them, but still I don’t know whether he understood—certainly he never attained sufficient subtlety to understand—how even a person who does not have knowledge can still have the keys of knowledge. They baptized everywhere, but nowhere did they teach what are the formal, material, efficient, and final causes of baptism, nor do they even so much as mention the delible and indelible marks of the sacraments. Certainly they worshiped God, but they did so in the spirit, following no other directive than the one given in the gospel: “God is a spirit and those who worship him should worship him in the spirit and in truth.” But it is hardly clear that it was also revealed to them that a charcoal sketch drawn on a wall should be worshiped with the same worship as Christ himself, provided that the picture has two fingers extended, long hair, and three rays in the halo stuck on the back of the skull. For who could perceive these things unless he had spent thirty-six whole years in studying the physics and metaphysics of Aristotle and the Scotists? So too, the apostles preach grace very forcefully, but nowhere do they distinguish between grace “gratis data” and grace “gratificans.” They exhort us to good works, without distinguishing “opus operans” from “opus operatum.” Everywhere they inculcate charity, without separating infused from acquired charity or explaining whether charity is an accident or a substance, a created or an uncreated thing. They detest sin, but I would stake my life they couldn’t define scientifically what it is that we call sin, unless perchance they had been instructed by the spirit of the Scotists. Nor can I bring myself to believe that Paul, from whose learning we may judge that of the others, would so often have condemned questions, disputes, genealogies, and (as he calls them) quarrels about words, if he had been so expert in subtle argumentation, especially since all the quarrels and disputes of that time were coarse and crude by comparison with the supersubtleties of our doctors of theology.


But they are men of the greatest modesty: if the apostles have perhaps written something a bit loosely, without magisterial precision, far be it from them to condemn it; rather, they make the proper allowances in their interpretation, paying at least that much respect to the antiquity of Scripture on the one hand and to the title of apostle on the other. And Lord knows it would be a little unfair to demand from them things about which they never heard a single word from their teacher. But if the same thing happens in Chrysostom, Basil, or Jerome, then they consider it sufficient to write next to it “non tenetur” (untenable). These Fathers certainly did confute pagan philosophers and Jews, who are by temperament extraordinarily stubborn, but they did it by the lives they led and the miracles they performed rather than by manufacturing syllogisms. They also convinced people whose minds were completely incapable of following even a single quodlibet of Scotus. But nowadays what pagan, what heretic would not immediately yield to so many fine-spun subtleties, unless he should be too crude to follow them, or so impudent as to make fun of them, or provided with the same snares so that the two sides would be evenly matched, just as if you should match one magician against another or as if one man with a charmed sword should fight against another whose sword was also charmed. For then it would be like the loom of Penelope: weaving and unweaving the same piece of cloth over and over again. So far as I can judge, Christians would be wise if, instead of sending out those regiments of thick-skulled soldiers who have been fighting for so long now without winning a decisive victory, they should send against the Turks and Saracens these most clamorous Scotists and most stubborn Occamists and invincible Albertists, together with the whole band of dialecticians: they would behold, I think, the finest battle imaginable and such a victory as was never seen before. For who could be so cold as not to be inflamed by their acumen? Who could be so dull as not to be stimulated by the sharpness of their wit? Who so sharp-sighted that they could not pull the wool over his eyes?


But I may seem to be saying all this merely as a joke. No wonder, indeed, since among the theologians themselves there are some better educated men who are disgusted by these theological quibbles, which they consider utterly pointless. There are those who denounce it as a form of sacrilege and consider it the worst sort of impiety to talk in such a tawdry fashion, to dispute with the worldly subtleties of the pagans, to lay down such arrogant definitions, about sacred mysteries which should be reverently contemplated rather than explicated, and to besmirch the majesty of divine theology with words and ideas so bloodless and even squalid.


But meanwhile they themselves are so completely contented and self-satisfied, they even applaud themselves so enthusiastically, that they spend their days and nights in these most delightful trifles and have not a moment to spare to read through the gospel or Paul’s epistles even once. At the same time, while they are talking nonsense in the schools, they think they are supporting the universal church, which otherwise would collapse, with their syllogistic props in much the same way that Atlas, in the mythology of the poets, holds up the world on his shoulders. You can imagine how happy a life they lead while they distort and reshape Holy Scripture however they like (just as if it were a lump of wax), while they demand that their conclusions (to which some schoolmen have subscribed) should be more revered than the laws of Solon and more binding than the papal decretals, while—like moral guardians of the whole world—they demand a recantation of whatever doesn’t square “to a ‘T’” with their explicit and implicit conclusions, while they deliver their oracular pronouncements: “This proposition is scandalical,” “This one is not sufficiently reverential,” “This one gives off a whiff of heresy,” “This one does not tinkle true,” so that not even baptism, not the gospel, not Paul or Peter, not St. Jerome or St. Augustine, in fact not even Thomas himself Aristotelicissimus, can make someone a Christian unless he has the vote of these bachelors of divinity, so fine-honed is the edge of their judgment. Who would ever have thought that someone who said that the two parts of such paired expressions as “matula putes” and ‘‘matula putet” or “ollae feruere” and “ollam feruere” are equally congruent is no true Christian if these wise men had not taught us about it? Who would ever have delivered the church from the darkness of such grave errors—which, in fact, no one would ever have heard of if they had not read them in pronouncements issued with the great seals of the universities? But aren’t they as happy as can be while they do such things? And also while they depict every detail of the infernal regions so exactly that you would think they had spent several years in that commonwealth. And also while they manufacture at their pleasure new heavenly spheres, finally adding the largest and most beautiful of all just to make sure that the blessed souls would have plenty of room to take walks, to stage their dinner-parties, or even to play ball. With these trifles and thousands more like them their heads are so swollen and stuffed that I don’t think Jupiter’s brain was any more burdened when he called for Vulcan’s axe to give birth to Pallas. Therefore don’t be surprised when you see them at public disputations with their heads so carefully wrapped up in swaths of cloth, for otherwise they would clearly explode.


Sometimes I myself have to laugh at them: they think they have finally reached the very acme of theology if they plumb the depths of barbarous and foul language; and when they mumble so badly that only another mumbler could understand them, they call it ingenuity beyond the reach of the ordinary listener. For they assert that it is not consonant with the dignity of sacred writing for them to be compelled to obey the rules of grammar. Wonderful indeed is the majesty of theologians if they alone have the right to speak faultily, though they have that in common with many lowly cobblers. Finally, they think they are most godlike whenever they are scrupulously addressed with the title “Magister noster,” for they seem to find in that name something of the same mysterious profundity that the Jews reverenced in the ineffable four letters of Yahweh. Hence they say it is quite improper to write magister noster in anything but capital letters. But if anyone should say it backwards—“Noster magister”—at one stroke he has corrupted the entire majesty of the theological title.




Almost as happy as the theologians are those men who are commonly called “religious” and “monks”—though both names are quite incorrect, since a good part of them are very far removed from religion and no one is encountered more frequently everywhere you go. I cannot imagine how anything could be more wretched than these men, if it were not for the many sorts of assistance I give them. For even though everyone despises this breed of men so thoroughly that even a chance meeting with one of them is considered unlucky, still they maintain a splendid opinion of themselves. First of all, they consider it the very height of piety to have so little to do with literature as not even to be able to read. Moreover, when they roar out their psalms in church like braying asses (counting their prayers indeed, but understanding them not at all), then (of all things!) they imagine that the listening saints are soothed and caressed with manifold delight. Among them are some who make a great thing out of their squalor and beggary, who stand at the door bawling out their demands for bread—indeed there is no inn or coach or ship where they do not make a disturbance, depriving other beggars of no small share of their income. And in this manner these most agreeable fellows, with their filth, ignorance, coarseness, impudence, recreate for us, as they say, an image of the apostles.


But what could be more charming than to observe how they do everything by rules, as if they were entering figures in a ledger where it would be a terrible sin to overlook the smallest detail: how many knots to the shoe, what colors and different styles for each garment, of what material and how many straws wide the cincture may be, the cut of the hood and how many pecks it should hold, how many inches long the hair may be, how many hours are allowed for sleep. Who cannot see, considering the variety in physical and mental constitutions, how unequal this equality really is? Nevertheless, because of such trifles, not only do they consider outsiders beneath their contempt but one order scorns another, and men who profess apostolic charity raise a catastrophic uproar about a garment that is belted somewhat differently or a color that is a little darker. You can see some of them who are so strictly religious that their outer garments are of coarse goat’s hair, but their undergarments are of fine silk; and then again you will see others who wear linen outside, but lamb’s wool underneath. Or others who shrink from contact with money as if it were a deadly poison, but at the same time do not refrain from contact with wine and women. In short, they are all amazingly eager to avoid any agreement in their manner of life. Nor do they strive to be like Christ, but to be unlike each other. Then too, a great part of their happiness consists in their titles: one order likes to be called Cordeliers, and among them some are Coletans, others Friars Minor, some Minims, others Bullists. Then some are Benedictines, others Bernardines; some are Brigetines, others Augustinians; some Williamites, others Jacobites—as if it weren’t enough to be called Christians. The majority of them rely so much on their ceremonies and petty human traditions that they think one heaven is hardly a fitting reward for such merits, never quite realizing that Christ will scorn all such things and will require the fulfillment of his own precept, namely charity. One will display his barrel-belly, bloated with all kinds of fish. Another will pour out a hundred pecks of psalms. One will reckon up thousands of fasts and will claim that his belly has almost burst because he had only one lunch so often. Another will bring forth such a pile of ceremonies that seven freighters could hardly transport it. One will boast that for sixty years he never once touched money unless his fingers were protected by two pairs of gloves. Another will bring in a hood so filthy and greasy that no common seaman would consider it fit to put on. One will tell how for more than five and fifty years he led the life of a sponge, always fixed to one spot. Another will assert that his voice grew hoarse from continually singing, another that he became almost catatonic from solitude, another that his tongue atrophied from constant silence. But Christ, interrupting their boasts (which would otherwise never come to an end), will say, “Where did this new race of Jews come from? The only law I recognize as truly mine is the only one I hear nothing about. Long ago, not speaking obliquely in parables but quite openly, I promised my Father’s inheritance not to hoods, or trifling prayers, or fasts, but rather deeds of faith and charity. Nor do I acknowledge those who too readily acknowledge their own deeds: those who want to appear even holier than I am can go dwell in the heavens of the Abraxasians if they like, or they can order that a new heaven be built for them by the men whose petty traditions they have placed before my precepts.” When they hear this and see sailors and teamsters chosen in preference to them, how do you suppose their faces will look as they stare at each other? [Note: the Abraxians were thought to be a Gnostic sect that believed in the existence of 365 heavens, a number they arrived at by adding up the numerical values in the Greek letters for "abraxas".]


But meanwhile they are happy in their hopes, not without a helping hand from me. Then too, though these men are cut off from political office, still no one dares to scorn them, especially the mendicants, because they have complete knowledge of everyone’s secrets from what they call confession. Of course, they hold that it is wrong to reveal them, except every now and then when they are in their cups and want to amuse themselves with some funny stories, but then they make their point obliquely and hypothetically, without mentioning any names. But if anyone stirs up these hornets, they get their full measure of revenge in their sermons to the people, pointing out their enemy indirectly, so covertly that no one who understands anything at all can fail to understand who is meant. Nor will they ever make an end of barking until you throw “a sop to Cerberus.”


Tell me now, is there any comedian or pitchman you would rather see than these men when they orate in their sermons, imitating quite absurdly but still very amusingly what the rhetoricians have handed down about the way to make a speech? Good lord! How they gesticulate, how fittingly they vary their tone of voice, how they croon, how they strut, continually changing their facial expressions, drowning out everything with their shouts! And the mysterious secret of this oratorical artistry is passed down personally from one little friar to another. Though it is not lawful for me to know it, I will guess at it anyway and come as close as I can.


First of all, they make an invocation, a device they have borrowed from the poets. Then, if they are going to talk about charity, their exordium has to do with the Nile River in Egypt. Or if they are going to discourse on the mystery of the cross, they open their sermon very auspiciously with Bel, the dragon of Babylon. Or if they are going to discuss fasting, they open with the twelve signs of the zodiac. Or if they are going to speak about faith, they go through a long prologue about squaring the circle. I myself once heard an eminent fool—I beg your pardon, I mean scholar—who was going to explain the Holy Trinity in a sermon before a large audience. To show that his learning was far above the ordinary and to meet the expectations of the theologians among the hearers, he invented a completely new approach—namely, to start with the letters, syllables, and the whole word, then to take up the agreement of noun and verb, adjective and substantive, to the amazement of many listeners, some of whom muttered to themselves that question in Horace “What is he driving at with all this damned nonsense?” He finally came to the conclusion that the rudiments of grammar give such a clear picture of the whole Trinity that no mathematician could make it any plainer by drawing in the dust. And this theologicissimus had sweated over this oration for eight whole months, so much so that to this day he is blind as a bat, since all the acumen of his sight was diverted to the sharpness of his wit. But the man hardly regrets his blindness and considers it a small price to pay for such glory. [Note: "theologicissimus" is a Latin word meaning "this most theological man." Erasmus means it humorously and satirically.]


We once heard another preacher, an old man of eighty, so thoroughly theological that you would have thought he was Scotus come back to life. Undertaking to explain the mystery of the name Jesus, he showed with amazing subtlety that whatever could be said on this subject was hidden in the very letters of the name. That it has only three inflectional endings is a clear sign of the Trinity. Then, that the first inflection (Jesus) ends in “s,” the second (Jesum) in “m” and the third (Jesu) in “u” conceals an unspeakable mystery: namely, the three letters show that he is first (summum), middle (medium), and last (ultimum). He had in store for us an even more recondite mystery: dividing “Jesus” into two equal parts leaves a penthemimer in the middle. Then he explained that in Hebrew this letter is sh, pronounced “sin.” Now in the language of the Scots [i.e., in English], I think, “sin” means “peccatum.” Thus we have a very clear indication that it was Jesus who took away the sins of the world. Everyone was struck with open-mouthed wonder at this novel exordium, especially the theologians, so that they almost shared the fate of Niobe. But my fate was nearly that of Priapus, that good-for-nothing figwood statue, who, much to his dismay, watched the nocturnal ceremonies of Canidia and Sagana. And certainly with good reason. For when did Demosthenes among the Greeks or Cicero among the Romans ever think up such an exordium as this? They considered an introduction faulty if it strayed too far from the subject at hand. As if any swineherd, taught by nature alone, wouldn’t have enough common sense to begin with something relevant. But these learned friars think their preamble (for that’s their word for it) will be most exquisitely rhetorical only if it has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter, so that the bewildered listener mutters under his breath “What is he up to now?”


In the third part, which serves as a narration, they interpret something from the gospel, but fleetingly and as if in passing, though that is the only thing they ought to be doing in the whole sermon. In the fourth section, assuming an entirely new character, they raise some theological question, often enough one that is neither here nor there, and they think that this too belongs to the art of preaching. Here they really ruffle their theological feathers, quoting solemn doctors, subtle doctors, most subtle doctors, seraphic doctors, cherubic doctors, holy doctors, irrefragable doctors, dinning these grandiose titles into our ears. Then, preaching to uneducated lay people, they put on display their syllogisms, majors, minors, conclusions, corollaries, most jejune hypotheses and utterly pedantic quibbles. There remains now the fifth act, in which it behooves them to perform with the greatest artistry. Here they haul out some foolish folktale, something from the Speculum Historiale, say, or the Gesta Romanorum, and interpret it allegorically, tropologically, and anagogically. In this fashion they put together their chimera, one far beyond what Horace imagined when he wrote “If to a human head, etc.”


But they have heard from somebody or other that the beginning of a speech should be quite restrained, not at all loud. And so in the opening they start out so softly that they can’t even hear their own voices, as if it did any good to say something that no one can understand. They have heard that exclamations should sometimes be employed to stir up the emotions. Thus, in the middle of a passage delivered in a low voice, every now and then they suddenly raise their voices and shout like crazy men, even when there is no need for it at all. You would think they needed a dose of hellebore, as if it made no difference at what point you raise your voice! Moreover, because they have heard that a sermon should gradually become more and more fiery, they begin the individual parts in a more or less reasonable tone of voice; but then they suddenly burst out in an incredible vocal barrage, even if the subject is quite dry and abstract, breaking off at last in such a way that you would think they had run out of breath.


Finally, they have learned that the rhetoricians have something to say about laughter and hence they also take pains to sprinkle in a few jokes. But those jokes (by all that’s refined!) are so elegant and so appropriate that they would remind you of an ass playing a harp. Sometimes they are also satirical, but in such a way as to titillate rather than wound. And they never serve up more genuine flattery than when they try hardest to give the impression of speaking sharply. In short, their whole performance is such that you would imagine they had taken lessons from some street peddler, except that the friars lag far behind them. Still, they resemble each other so closely that no one can doubt that the friars learned their rhetoric from the peddlers or the peddlers from the friars.


And even so, these preachers, with my help, find people who listen to them with as much admiration as if they were Demosthenes himself or Cicero. This group consists mostly of merchants and fine ladies. The friars devote all their energies to pleasing the ears of these people because the merchants, if they are rubbed the right way, will usually give them some of their booty, a little slice of their ill-gotten gains. The women have many reasons for granting their favors to the friars, but the chief one is that they are accustomed to pour into the sympathetic ear of the friars the grievances they hold against their husbands.


You can see, I think, how much this class of men owes me: though in fact they browbeat mankind with their petty observances and ridiculous nonsense and screaming and shouting, they think they are veritable Pauls or Anthonys. But I am glad to be done with these playactors, whose ungrateful disavowal of my benefits is matched by their disgraceful pretense to piety. . . .


Then too, the lifestyle of princes has long since been diligently imitated, and almost surpassed, by popes, cardinals, and bishops. In fact, if anyone should consider the moral meaning of the linen rochet, so striking because of its snowy whiteness, namely a life innocent in all respects; or the significance of the miter, with its two horns joined by one knot at the top, namely a thorough knowledge of both the Old Testament and the New; or the meaning of hands protected by gloves, namely, administering the sacraments with purity undefiled by merely human considerations; or of the crosier, the most watchful care of the flock entrusted to him; or of the cross carried before him, that is, victory over all human passions; if, I say, anyone should consider these things and others like them, would he not lead a life full of grief and anxiety? But now they do a fine job if they feed themselves. The care of the sheep they either commend to Christ himself or pass on to their brothers, as they call them, and vicars. They don’t so much as remember their own name—what the word “bishop” means—namely, painstaking labor and concern. But in casting their nets for money, there they play the bishop, and keep a sharp enough lookout.


In the same way, if cardinals realized that they have succeeded in the place of the apostles and are required to perform the same functions; then, if they thought that they are not lords but ministers of spiritual gifts, for every one of which they will soon have to give a most exact account; indeed, if they even gave a little serious consideration to their apparel and thought to themselves: “What does the whiteness of this garment mean? Isn’t it the most eminent and flawless innocence of life? What does the scarlet underneath mean? Isn’t it the most burning love of God? And then what is meant by the scarlet outside, flowing down in such wide undulations and completely covering the Most Reverend Father’s mule?—though, for that matter, it would be enough by itself to cover a camel. Isn’t it charity reaching out far and wide to help everyone, that is, to teach, exhort, console, reproach, advise, settle wars, resist wicked princes, and freely give not merely riches but even life-blood for Christ’s flock—though why should any riches at all belong to those who act in the place of the poor apostles?”they considered these things, I say, they would not strive to get that office and would gladly relinquish it, or at least they would lead very laborious and anxious lives, such as those ancient apostles lived.


Now, as for the popes, who act in Christ’s place, if they tried to imitate his way of life—namely poverty, labor, teaching, the cross, contemptus mundi [disregard for this world]—if they thought of the name “pope” (that is, “father”) or of the title “most holy,” who on earth could be more miserable? Or who would spend everything he has to buy that office? Or defend it, once it was bought, with sword, poison, and all manner of violence? How many advantages would these men be deprived of if they were ever assailed by wisdom? Wisdom, did I say? No, even by a single grain of that salt mentioned by Christ. So much wealth, honor, power, so many victories, offices, dispensations, taxes, indulgences, so many horses, mules, retainers, so many pleasures! You see what a warehouse, what a harvest, what a sea of good things I have gathered together. These would be replaced by vigils, fasts, tears, prayers, sermons, studies, sighs, and thousands of such wretched labors. Nor should we neglect another point: so many scribes, copyists, notaries, advocates, ecclesiastical prosecutors, so many secretaries, mule-curriers, stableboys, official bankers, pimps (I had almost added something more delicate, but I am afraid it might sound indelicate to some ears), in short, the huge mass of humanity which weighs down—pardon me, I meant “waits on”—the see of Rome would be turned out to starve. Certainly an inhuman and monstrous crime! And, what is even more abominable, the very highest princes of the church, the true lights of the world, would be reduced to a scrip and a staff.


But as it is now, they leave whatever work there is to Peter and Paul, who have plenty of free time. But the splendor and the pleasures, those they take for themselves. And thus, through my efforts, I have brought things to such a pass that almost no sort of person leads a softer, more carefree life, since they think they have done quite well by Christ if they play a bishop’s role with mystical and almost theatrical pomp, with ceremonies, with titles like “your Beatitude,” “your Reverence,” “your Holiness,”with blessings and anathemas. For them, to perform miracles is old-fashioned, outworn, completely out of step with the times; to teach the people is burdensome; to interpret Holy Scripture, academic; to pray, otiose; to pour forth tears, base and womanish; to be in want, degrading; to be conquered, disgraceful and quite unsuitable for one who hardly allows even the greatest kings to kiss his blessed foot; and finally, to die seems disagreeable; to be lifted up on the cross, disreputable.


All that is left are the weapons and sweet benedictions mentioned by Paul, and with such things they are sufficiently liberal: with interdicts, suspensions, formal warnings—denounced and reiterated—solemn excommunications, pictures of vengeance meted out to heretics, and that horrific lightning bolt which they employ with a mere nod to send the souls of mortals to the bottomless pit of perdition. That bolt, however, these most holy fathers in Christ and Christ’s vicars on earth hurl at no one more fiercely than at those who, at the instigation of the devil, seek to diminish and gnaw away the patrimony of Peter. Though Peter says in the gospel, “We have left all and followed you,” they interpret his patrimony as fields, towns, taxes, imposts, dominions. While they fight for such things with burning Christian zeal and defend them with fire and sword, not without the loss of much Christian blood, they believe this is the very way to defend apostolically the church, the bride of Christ, manfully putting her enemies to flight, as they say. As if the church had any more deadly enemies than impious popes, who allow Christ to fade away in silence, who bind him with mercenary laws, who defile him with forced interpretations, who murder him with the pestilent wickedness of their lives.


Thus, although the Christian church was founded with blood, confirmed with blood, expanded with blood, nowadays they settle everything with the sword, just as if Christ had perished completely and would no longer protect his own in his own way. And although war is so inhuman that it befits beasts, not men, so insane that even the poets imagine that it is unleashed by the Furies, so noxious that it spreads moral corruption far and wide, so unjust that it is normally carried on best by robbers, so impious that it is utterly foreign to Christ, still they neglect everything else and do nothing but wage war. Here you can see rickety old men demonstrate the hardiness of a youthful spirit, not upset by any expense, not wearied by any labors, not the least bit disturbed by the thought of reducing all human affairs, laws, religion, peace, to utter chaos. Nor is there any lack of learned flatterers who call this patent madness by the names zeal, piety, fortitude, having devised a way to allow someone to unsheathe cold steel and thrust it into his brother’s guts without any offense against that highest duty of charity which, according to Christ’s precept, he owes to his fellow Christian. Indeed, I am still not sure whether the popes have set or followed the example of some German bishops who pay no attention to vestments or benedictions or any such ceremonies but carry on as secular lords, plain and simple, so much so that they consider it cowardly and hardly worthy of a bishop to render up their courageous souls to God anywhere but on the front lines of the battle.


Now the general run of priests, thinking it would be a crime for them to fall behind the holy dedication of their superiors—good lord! how stoutly they fight for their right to tithes, with sword, spear, stones, with every imaginable sort of armed force. In this point how sharp-sighted they are in ferreting out of the writings of the Fathers anything they can use to intimidate the simple people and make them think they owe even more than a tenth. But at the same time, it never occurs to them how often those writings explain the duties which priests in turn are supposed to perform for the people. They do not even consider what their tonsure means: that a priest is supposed to be free from all worldly desires and ought to meditate on nothing but heavenly matters. But these agreeable fellows say they have fulfilled their duty perfectly once they have mumbled through their office in some fashion or other—as for me, by heaven, I would be amazed if any god either heard or understood such prayers, since they themselves can hardly be said to hear or understand them at the very time their mouths are bawling them out.


But priests have this in common with laymen: they all keep a sharp lookout to harvest their profits, and in that point no one is ignorant of the laws. But if there is some responsibility, they prudently shift that onto someone else’s shoulders and pass the buck down the line from one to another. In fact, even lay princes, just as they parcel out the duties of ruling to deputies, and the deputies pass them on to subdeputies, so too they leave all the practice of piety, in their modesty, to the common people. The people foist it off on those whom they call ecclesiastics, for all the world as if they themselves had nothing to do with the church, as if their baptismal vows had had no effect whatever. Then the priests who call themselves secular—as if they were united to the world rather than to Christ—pass on the burden to the canons regular, the canons to the monks, the laxer monks to the stricter ones, both groups to the mendicant orders, the mendicants to the Carthusians, and with them alone piety lies buried, hidden away in such a manner that it hardly ever appears. In the same way popes, however diligent in harvesting money, delegate their excessively apostolic labors to the bishops, the bishops to the pastors, the pastors to their vicars, the vicars to the mendicant friars, and they too foist off their charge on those who shear the fleece of the flock.


But it is no part of my present plan to rummage through the lives of popes and priests, lest I should seem to be composing a satire rather than delivering an encomium, or lest anyone should imagine I am reproaching good princes when I praise bad ones. Rather, I have touched briefly on these matters to make it perfectly clear that no mortal can live happily unless he is initiated into my mysteries and has gained my favor.

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