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Free «Utopia and The Praise of Folly» Essay Sample

In this paper we will analyze about Thomas More’s "Utopia" and Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly". Let’s first analyze Utopia by Thomas More.

Thomas More’s "Utopia”

Utopia shows many influences. More was a classical scholar of high standing — a product of the Renaissance. He also pursued a career in law with great success. Amerigo Vespucci’s writings on America inspired him with references to paradisiacal lands and the communal ownership of property. The Catholic Church was the dominant influence of his boyhood, and perhaps of his whole life. Interestingly, More wrote Utopia in a lull before the Reformation; one year after its publication, Martin Luther defied the Church by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. (More, 22-85)

In book 1, More describes meeting a man called Hythloday, who first castigates European society and then proceeds in book 2 to describe Utopia with heartfelt admiration. Hythloday condemns the idle of Europe, including noblemen and their servants. He asserts that rulers wage war, not peace, and that ministers at court do not listen to arguments, but indulge in politics for their own gain. His remedies for economic ills include stopping the enclosure and monopoly of land by the rich. With strong words, he condemns the execution of thieves as unfair and ineffective, stating that it incites men to kill, since murder, carries the same penalty.



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Book 2 describes More’s fictional state in detail. The Utopians live a regulated, standardized life. All the cities are beautiful and identical. All citizens wear the same simple clothes, with some modifications for gender. They live together in families of specific size and work six hours a day, spending their leisure time reading and attending lectures. Women may marry at the age of eighteen, men at twenty-two. Adultery is strongly condemned and can result in slavery or even execution. In extreme circumstances of recurrent adultery or perversion, however, divorce is permitted. (More, 22-85)

Utopia is a state founded on compassion and altruism. No one wants for material goods. Health care is universal, though few get sick. Society gently encourages euthanasia when a mortally ill person suffers from great pain. All property is owned communally. Every ten years, a family exchanges its house, which is supposed to encourage people to take proper care for the next tenant. Even their eating takes place in a large hall that holds as many as thirty households.

Ultimately, authoritarianism is a strong feature of this model state. No one has the freedom to remain idle. Everyone needs permission to travel. Any discussion of government matters outside official meeting-places is punishable by death. Utopia also has rigid hierarchies: children defer to adults, women to men, younger to older, and families to their elected representatives. Paradoxically, however, Utopia has strong democratic elements, including voting for all key political posts, though people are barred from canvassing votes, to minimize corruption. Slavery replaces hanging as the deterrent for deviant behavior. Serious criminal behavior leads to slavery, which entails working constantly in chains, performing the meanest labor.

Citizens may practice any religion, but strong proselytizing is barred for fear that it may lead to argument. Certain tenets must be held by all: belief in a wise Providence and an afterlife. Utopians pursue pleasure as natural and logical, but they abhor vanity and pomp and place no value on gold and silver, even while storing it for economic advantage and for trade. They avoid war whenever possible but conduct military training for both sexes. When threatened by another nation, they offer rewards to kill the ruler of the opposing nation. Failing that, they sow contention in that nation and, as a last resort, hire mercenaries to fight alongside their own soldiers. (More, 22-85)

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More uses this book to debate opposing viewpoints for intellectual stimulation. For example, when Hythloday says that as long as there is property there will be no justice, More counters that in a communist society people would not work or have any incentive to better themselves. Hythloday contrasts the greed and selfishness of Europe with Utopia’s communism based on a harmony of purpose, with the family unit at its core. Utopia also, however, has internal contradictions. The residents’ humanistic values — respecting individual inquiry and religious freedom — contrast with the total conformity of their lives and the fact that certain basic beliefs must be held by all.

Utopia is a commentary on More’s own society, a combination of monasticism and feudalism, but Utopia is founded on reason, not Christianity. More is pleading: If they can do so well without divine revelation, why can Europe not do better with it? It is impossible to believe that More meant Utopia as a blueprint for an ideal society. Elements that support this conclusion include the deadpan humor (Anider, a river, means “no water”; Utopians use gold in making chamber pots) and the contrast with More’s own religious convictions (he persecuted heretics and chose execution rather than compromise his opposition to divorce). Ultimately, Utopia is not so much interesting or original in itself as it is noteworthy because it stimulated discussion regarding “social engineering” as a remedy for society’s ills. (More, 22-85)

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Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly"

The Praise of Folly makes use of one of the oldest forms of rhetorical discourse: the encomium. In a mock encomium, Erasmus makes use of the satirical devices of one of the world’s most influential satirists, Lucian, to poke gentle fun at the tradition of praising great people and great ideas. Putting words of wisdom in the mouth of Folly, Erasmus highlights the paradoxical relationship between conventional wisdom and the religious dimensions of human life. Like all great satirists, Erasmus focuses on specific targets (especially the clergy of his own day), but his general aim is to tell his readers something about universal human nature. Beneath his carefully constructed argument, Erasmus echoes the biblical lesson that, in the eyes of the world, it is truly folly to adopt the Christian lifestyle; in that folly, however, lies real wisdom.

Although written centuries ago, The Praise of Folly is still an effective analytic examination of humankind’s abilities and vanities. It not only gives the modern reader an idea of the struggle of the Humanists in their effort to rid the world of the conventions and forms of the Middle Ages but also provides insight into continuing problems of life. As the result of this work and several others, Erasmus became one of the most popular men of letters of his time and, consequently, one of the most influential. He was of prime importance in the spread of Humanism through the northern part of Europe and was instrumental in many aspects of both the Reformation and the later phase of the Renaissance. Everything he did was to aid humankind in tearing away the veils of foolish traditions and customs, so that people could find the road back to the true God and their true selves. (Erasmus, 8-98)

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The form itself is an immediate indication of the type of work that the book is to be. Written as a parody of a classical oration, the essay sets Folly as the orator. Her subject is society, and she quickly becomes a many-sided symbol that stands for all that is natural in people, all of their misdirected efforts, and all of their attempts to get the wrong things out of life. She discusses the problem of wisdom and tells how it can be united with action to gain success in a world of folly; she is concerned with the way in which reason and simple Christian advice can be presented to humankind; she wonders what Christian Humanists can do for themselves and the world. Parody, irony, and satire are used throughout the essay to show people what they do and what they should do. No one is spared. Neither king nor prince, pope nor priest, aristocrat nor worker escapes the indignation that Erasmus feels toward society. (Erasmus, 8-98)

At the beginning of her oration, Folly declares that she is giving a eulogy for herself, and she justifies the impertinence by saying that she knows herself better than anyone else and that no one else will do it for her. Her father, she says, is Plutus, the real father of all people and gods, and she was born out of his passion for Youth. Significantly, her birth took place in the Fortunate Isles, and she lists among her followers Drunkenness, Ignorance, Self-love, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Laziness, Pleasure, Madness, Sensuality, Intemperance, and Sound Sleep — all of whom help her to gain control of all things.

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It is Folly, for instance, who leads people to marriage and the conception of life, thus prolonging this life that is so foolish. It is Pleasure, one of her followers, who makes life bearable at all. It is Forgetfulness who makes youth such a carefree time, and who restores this same characteristic to old age, thereby bringing about a second childhood. By throwing off care and avoiding wisdom, one can achieve perpetual youth.

Folly goes on to say that she is the source of all that is pleasurable in life. People will never be completely divorced from Folly, because they are ruled more by passion than by reason, and the two most ruling passions are anger and lust. One of the chief sources of men’s pleasure, of course, is women, who are even more subject to folly than are men. Men’s coarser looks are a result of the infection of wisdom.

Friendship also derives from Folly because it makes people ignore the faults and defects of others. Marriage itself is held together with compromise, infatuation, and duplicity. Without Folly, people could not get along with each other; they would soon begin to hate themselves and everything would seem sordid and loathsome. (Erasmus, 8-98)

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Folly praises herself under the guise of Prudence, because she allows humans to have firsthand experience with the world. She frees people from the shame and fear that cloud their minds and inhibit their actions, thus preventing real experience. Thanks to Prudence, people go along with the crowd, which is Folly. It is Folly who has caused all the great achievements of humanity;

wisdom and learning are no great help. Everything that a person does is motivated by self-love, vainglory, flattery, or other followers of Folly.

To lead such a life of folly, error, and ignorance is to be human; it is to express one’s true nature. All other forms of life are content with limitations, but humans are vainly ambitious. Those who are most ignorant are the happiest; those who are most deluded are those who delight in telling lies. For an example, one might consider the priests — those who propose to gain happiness by relying on magic charms and prayers, saints and particular rites. There is no happiness without Folly, because all emotions belong to Folly, and happiness depends on expressing one’s human nature, which is full of folly.

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Among the most foolish people, therefore, are those who try to deny their true nature and find happiness through the Christian religion. Folly proves that this religion has more to do with her nature than with wisdom by showing that children, women, old people, and fools take more delight in it than do others. It is they who are always nearest the altars. In the way that Christianity is most often taught and practiced, humans must deny their true nature by disdaining life and preferring death. One must overlook injuries, avoid pleasure, and feast on hunger, vigils, tears, and labors. One must give up and scorn all physical pleasures, or at least take them more lightly than spiritual pleasures. (Erasmus, 8-98)

Folly is at her most serious when she says that this is the most foolish way, and the only sure way, to true happiness. Only by forgetting the body and everything physical can a person approach this goal. Few are able to accomplish this task completely enough while in this world to approach an experience that, she says, is close to madness. This madness, in turn, is similar to the heavenly joys that one will experience after death when the spirit has completely left the body. (Erasmus, 8-98)


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