Erasmus’ Interpretation of the Allegory of the Cave as Seen in Praise of Folly

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In Praise of Folly, Erasmus indirectly voices opinions through a woman named Folly. Folly, who is giving a public speech to an audience, encapsulates her viewpoint on knowledge and the lack thereof. Folly argues that knowledge is the downfall of man and her speech seeks to explain and validate the ways in which knowledge is detrimental to humans. In book seven of The Republic by Plato, there is the allegory of the cave. In this story, Plato discusses his own thoughts about knowledge and his belief that it is a thing that man should strive for. While both of these texts examine the concept of knowledge, they each do it in a differing light—Folly views knowledge as harmful, while Plato views it as not only beneficial, but necessary.

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When Folly first makes reference to the allegory of the cave, she chooses to focus on those who are trapped, rather than the one person, the philosopher, who broke free from his chains. She says, “What difference is there, do you think, between those in Plato’s cave…provided they are content and don’t know what they miss, and the philosopher who has emerged from the cave and sees the real things?” (Erasmus, p. 72). With this rhetorical question, Folly is asserting that since both parties are happy with their lot in life, then there is no true reason as to why one would need to leave the comforts of the cave. She goes on to say, “And so there’s nothing to choose between the two conditions, or if there is, the fools are better off, first because their happiness costs them so little, in fact only a grain of persuasion, secondly because they share their enjoyment of it with the majority of men” (Erasmus, p. 72). Not only is it better to stay in the cave, but it is also easier to do so. Folly insists that if the ones who are trapped and the freed man are both happy with what they know, then it is the better choice to choose the situation in which happiness is gained with little to no effort. (PLATOS VIEW)

In her speech, Folly condemns intelligence. The overarching theme of her speech can be summarized into one quote: “for ignorance provides the happiest life” (Erasmus, p. 22). Folly equates life to a play wherein people are actors who put on various masks and play certain roles. She states, “To destroy the illusion is to ruin the whole play, for it’s really the illusion and make-up which hold the audience’s eye” (Erasmus, p. 44). These “illusions” are what makes man satisfied with life. In the cave, the fettered people see shadows being cast onto the wall. They are content with this given that it is all they have ever known; they have no experience that allows them to recognize that the shadows are in fact an illusion. From Plato’s perspective, these illusions are nothing but falsehoods that make for a superficial and unfulfilling life. This is proclaimed in the allegory, when Plato states that the freed prisoner, after becoming aware of the outside world, “would felicitate himself on the change, and pity [the prisoners]” (Plato, p. 375). Folly finds these illusions to be superior to actually knowing. She says, “But it’s sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it’s far sadder not to be deceived. They’re quite wrong if they think man’s happiness depends on actual facts; it depends on his opinions” (Erasmus, p. 70). (EXPLAIN)

One of the arguments in Folly’s speech is that as one ages, they become more and more hardened by the troubles, namely experiences, of life. She begins, “First of all, everyone knows that by far the happiest and universally enjoyable age of man is the first…Then follows adolescence, which everyone finds delightful, openly supports, and warmly encourages…” (Erasmus, p. 22). In the early stages of life, people are encompassed by Folly and because of this, they lead a much happier life then their counterpart, which is anyone in the “painful age. ” This “painful age” equates to old age and the troubles that accompany it. As one ages, and in turn has a better understanding of the world around them, “the bloom of youthful beauty begins to fade at once, enthusiasm wanes, gaiety cools down, and energy slackens” (Erasmus, p. 22). With maturity and education so too comes the “frowns. ” To folly, attaining wisdom only leads to a more decrepit life. In the allegory, the people in the cave attain no true wisdom because they have never been exposed to the outside world. The only things they know are empirical and Plato asserts that living without true knowledge is just as bad as being tethered to the pits of a cave. Although the fettered people are trapped, they are content with it given that they have yet to experience otherwise. This state of contentment is exactly what Folly deems as something that humans should hope to have. After all, ignorance is bliss.

Folly claims that those who are learned, such as Plato, detest the idea that knowledge is an adverse thing. “…I believe I can hear the philosophers protesting that it can only be misery to live in folly, illusion, deception, and ignorance. But it isn’t—it’s human” (Erasmus, p. 50). Folly’s entire point revolves around the idea that knowledge makes man unhappy. Remaining “true to type” is not a thing to pity someone for. She goes on to make an analogous reference to animals and humans: “…the finest horse could be called unfortunate because it knows no grammar and doesn’t eat cake, and a bull unhappy because it’s useless in a gymnasium. But a horse who knows nothing of grammar isn’t unhappy, and a foolish man isn’t unfortunate…” (Erasmus, p. 50). People tend to pity others for their lack of knowhow, however this lack of experience is what allows them to live a more blissful and enjoyable life. Folly even goes as far as to say that the Egyptian god Thoth, from Plato’s Phaedrus, who was said to have invented numbers and letters, was responsible for the human race’s greatest curse. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Plato states that, “It is the duty of us…to attain the knowledge which we pronounced the greatest…” (Plato, p. 5) voicing his opinion that not only is the ascent to a knowledgeable life a thing that is good, it is a thing that needs to be considered an obligation. Plato views knowledge as a mountain that must be climbed, however once we “have reached the heights and taken an adequate view” we must come back down and share that which we have learned. To Plato, this pursuit of knowledge, coincides with enlightenment and the understanding of the world around us.

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