I think that every Erasmian should read In Praise of Folly, but that’s easier said than done. The story is interesting, it’s told in a simple manner and there are some good contemporary translations available (including in English), but the fact remains that the book was written over five centuries ago. It’s not so easy to bridge that gap in time and culture. Several university staff confided to me that they started this book enthusiastically and enjoyed reading it, but that it was very difficult to get through, partly because Erasmus’s language and the time in which he lived are so different from now.
Sandra Langereis is the perfect person to help us with this. She previously wrote the biography Erasmus: Dwarsdenker [Erasmus: Controversial thinker] (2021), in which she opened up the person and the world of our university’s namesake to a much broader audience. Langereis decided to retell In Praise of Folly in today’s language. It seems rather brutal to rewrite this classic text, but when it comes to Erasmus there is no objection to such brutality: after all, Erasmus did the exact same thing with the famous authors from classical antiquity at the time.
This retelling by Sandra Langereis is shorter than most existing versions of In Praise of Folly, because it is based on the very first version. That is also the most distinctive text, as the publication of this speech triggered a storm of criticism and Erasmus felt forced to explain or tone down various sensitive passages. In Praise of Folly is once again topical, now that we are increasingly discussing words that should no longer be used and opinions that are in danger of being cancelled.
In this book, Erasmus gives the floor to Folly, ‘who tells humanity the inconvenient truth with a good joke’, Sandra Langeries says. This speech is also an exercise in thinking: Erasmus teaches his readers to play with words and to empathise with other viewpoints through the use of humour and irony, and above all by putting one’s own views into perspective. Diversity in the Erasmian sense is not claiming that you are right, but learning to empathise with others: like a mirror in which you also get a better understanding of your own prejudices. It’s a skill that we see less and less in public discourse, but which is part of an academic education.
The retelling of In Praise of Folly by Sandra Langereis is a good introduction to Erasmus. His way of thinking can still help us, in the debate on Erasmian values at this university. I’ll share more about how that can be done on Friday, 25 November, when I will give my inaugural lecture. You are cordially invited to attend in the Erasmus University auditorium.