The Praise of Folly, by Desiderius Erasmus, Limited Editions Club (1943), also Essex House Press (1901)

[5/15/2015 Ed Note: Added some information and pictures of an edition from 1901 of The Praise of Folly from Essex House Press, thanks to Books and Vines Contributor Dlphcoracl. Scroll of the bottom of the article, past the LEC pictures.]

I have not enjoyed a book more, certainly if enjoyment is measured by the amount of times I laughed out loud, than that of the great work of Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium). Besides the satirical humor, add a huge dose of wisdom and classical allusions that leaves you not only entertained, but smarter. Anyone who fools themselves, dazzled by technology illusion, that humanity has progressed in the last five hundred years since this was written, needs to read this book. Not only has the allure of Folly grown, not faded, but the world also wallows in political correctness and muddle-headed thought that would frown on anyone attempting such a poke in the eye to humanity as what Erasmus accomplishes here.

Erasmus (1466-1536) is arguably the greatest of Renaissance humanist and one of the great scholars of history. Erasmus travelled widely for his time. He was a friend of King Henry VIII and of Sir Thomas More. In fact, Erasmus claimed that it was More’s fondness for wit and fun that prompted him to write The Praise of Folly.  During the time that Erasmus was the editor of the great Froben Press, he published the first complete edition of Aristotle as well as the first modern edition and translation of the New Testament. In addition, he translated or edited a wealth of the great works of the Western World, including Saint Augustine and Cicero. As the Monthly Letter (ML) of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) wrote of Erasmus:

[He} combined vast learning with a fine style, a wealth of keen and quiet humor, wisdom and tolerance.  He is the modern man of culture of any age.

Hendrik Willem Van Loon, who wrote the introduction of the edition of The Praise of Folly reviewed here, says of Erasmus:

He wanted mankind to be set free from fear and disaster by being set free from its own ignorance; he hoped for a world in which intelligence, common sense, good manners, tolerance, and forbearance should dominate the scene instead of violence, ignorance, prejudice and greed.

Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly, in Latin, in 1509. It was first published in 1511.  The ML tells us:

The profundity of Eramus’ scholastic thought, and the charm of his presentation of this thought, have made ‘The Praise of Folly’ one of the great adventures in literary discovery.

I could not agree more and could not be more desirous of you trusting me on this and reading it yourself! Before diving into this edition from LEC, let me give you a sample of some of Erasmus’ writing (keeping in mind, per Erasmus himself, that Folly was raised by Excess and Rusticity and her main companions are Self-love, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Laziness, Pleasure, Heedlessness, Luxury, Debauchery and Drunken Sleep).

What could be more fitting than that Folly should blow her own trumpet? Is there anyone better qualified? No, I always say if you want a thing well done, do it yourself.

Folly tells how to speak to impress:

In case of difficulty in finding enough Greek, it does nearly as well to hunt up a few obsolete words in your own language with which to mystify your audience; the few who understand them will be mightily gratified, and the many who do not will respect you all the more for being unintelligible.

She is quick to point that the world would depopulate if it not for her:

Without Folly there would be no union for the procreation of children. Who would put his neck into the noose of wedlock if he first, like a wise man, weighed all the disadvantages of it? What women would let a man come near her if she knew or considered in time the dangers of childbirth or the drudgery of bringing up a child?

Not to mention the impossibility of marriage without her guiding hand:

How many husbands could be got to the alter if they were wise enough to investigate the past history of their brides, and find out the things the apparently bashful little maidens had done? Few marriages could endure unless laziness and stupidity blindfolded the husband. Folly is to be thanked for making spouses bear with one another, the home remain in peace, and that marriage bond stay firm…To sum up, I may claim that no human relation can be happy or lasting unless I enter into it…people could not endure…unless each turned a blind eye to the other’s failings and sugared his own nature with a sprinkling of folly.

Folly dislikes hypocrisy:

…the Stoics do not really despise pleasure; they only decry it in public in the hope of having it all the more to themselves.

And:

What a fallacy to suppose that happiness comes from real things! It comes from our notions of them.

But praises passion:

Accordingly mighty Jove has endowed human nature with reason and passions in the right proportions — say an ounce of one to a pound of the other — to save it from a miserable existence. The reason he tucked away in an obscure corner of the skull, and he gave passions a free run of the rest of the body.

And self-love:

Self-love, you may say, can teach only foolishness and vanity. I answer: you can do nothing gracefully that you do not enjoy doing. Take away vanity, the salt of life, and the orator becomes tongue tied, the musician goes out of tune, the actor forgets his part, the poet loses heart, the painter tears up his canvas, the doctor decries his pills and dies of hunger. But given a good conceit of himself, every cripple is an athlete, every halfwit a genius, every stammerer an orator, every hag a beauty, every bumpkin a model of breeding.  Before a man can impress others he must think well of himself…

Folly praises the power of women:

For my part, I shall not suppose that women will be so silly as to mind my calling them silly, being myself a women and the personification of silliness. On reflection they will see that I have made them in many respects better-off than men. For one thing, they have physical attraction and rightly prize it above all else, for it gives them power to lord it over the lords of creation.

Folly, bless her heart, recognizes the usefulness of vino!

…a sorry business life would be if its troubles were never to be drowned in a glass.

Ahh, Shakespeare obviously had read Erasmus:

…for what is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?

Folly seems to have a similar feeling towards certain professions that many have today!

In medicine the more ignorant, rash, and unthinking the practitioner, the more highly he is esteemed  particularly in the most exalted circles…A degree less popular than the doctors are the lawyers. I shall not assume to pronounce on their profession; but you know how much amusement their asinine doctrines give the philosophers, with whom, for once, I find myself agreeing.

Folly certainly has pegged the politicians of today:

Fortune loves a fool; her darling is a man that risks his all, and says, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, ‘The die is thrown.’ While wisdom begets a timid, grubby, hungry wretch, your unwise man rolls in money, is called to the helm of state, and prospers in every way.

Some good nuggets to consider:

The way to die well is to live well: you cannot redeem sin by giving a few coins, but by hating wrongdoing, repenting, watching, praying, fasting, and so changing the whole course of your lives…

And:

In sum, if you could see mankind from the point of view of the man in the moon, you would take it for a swarm of flies, quarreling among themselves, fighting, plaguing and robbing one another, gambling, lusting, being born, dropping down and dying: you would find it hard to believe that so small and so short-lived a creature could be the cause of so much bother and so many tragedies.

This edition from the Limited Editions Club (LEC) is wonderful in many respects, though one could be a bit picky about certain aspects. The book is beautifully bound in sheepskin dyed black, polished to “a calf finish” by Russell-Rutter Company. Sheepskin is notoriously fickle when it comes to aging, so finding this in near fine or better condition can be a real challenge. Into the front cover is inserted a cameo sculptured by the great American illustrator Lynd Ward with Folly depicted as a court jester and the title is stamped in gold on the spine. The book is illustrated by Lynd Ward with ten original Mezzotints engraved in copper pulled by hand directly from the copper-plate. The ML tells us about the process around Mezzotints:

It is a form of engraving. It is different from a dry-point engraving, which is what is usually called an etching, because no line drawing is used at all. The process involves a uniform burring with a curved, saw-toothed tool by cradling it back and forth across the plate until the surface of the plate presents an all-over, even grain. The yields a soft effect when the print is made. The picture is created in chiaroscuro with a scripture and a burnisher, every degree of light and shade from black to white being attainable. Since no lines are drawn into the picture, the result is usually a velvety and harmonious and naturalistic picture.

Besides these ten mezzotints, Ward also provides 100 cartoons as marginal glosses. These cartoons are printed in a bright vermilion ink, with their captions printed in Cushing italic type. George Macy expressed some regret at the brightness of these glosses, saying he wished the red ink was a little less bright because it could perhaps interfere with reading the text itself. With this I have to agree. As readers of Books and Vines know, I like color on pages of fine press books, though judiciously used. Here I think there is a bit too much, though I enjoy the cartoons immensely anyway. For what it is worth, I also think the mezzotints are too dark for the type.

Speaking of the type, it is Monotype Suburban French. The ML tells us that this type is seldom used, opining that:

…we suspect this is because the letters have not been carefully fitted together, and a mass of this type generally creates a loose and open effect on the page.

Yet, Macy tells us that is what he deliberately sought for this book, saying it results in an “an open and inviting page.” In fact, “the type looks handsome and exotic only because it is now so unusual.” I do not disagree and in fact found the text easy to read and apropos for the tone of the work. As for the rest of the page, the text is printed in black ink in  a narrow column, with wide margins for the printing of the above-mentioned marginal looses. The headlines are in a type called Forum (which was designed by Frederic Goudy after tracings made by him from the capital letters at the top of the Trajan columns in Rome). The paper has a thick feel with what the ML calls  a “toothy” surface. It seems to work well with the mezzotints, though I am not sure it is such a good match for the glosses.

The ML mentioned that the translation is “smooth and simple and easy to read.”  I wholeheartedly agree, and find it fabulously done. The translation was newly done for this edition from LEC, by Harry Carter, the accomplished typographer who worked with the Monotype Corporation, the Curwen Press, and Nonesuch Press. The basis of the translation was the Latin from the Froben Press edition of 1515.

The Praise of Folly is a great book, one of the greatest works in the Western Canon. It is biting in its satire and as relevant today as the day it was written. It is unquestionably one of my favorite works. This edition from Limited Editions Club comes highly recommended. It has some quirks (the overly bright red ink, the overly dark mezzotints, the unusual type), but such quirks actually combine with the very fine aspects of the edition to give it a unique charm and feel.

About the Edition (Limited Editions Club)

  • Newly translated from the Latin by Harry Carter
  • Introduction by Hendrik Willem Van Loon
  • Illustrate with original Mezzotints engraved in copper (and with cartoons as marginal glosses) by Lynd Ward
  • Mezzotints hand-pulled in the shop of Charles Furth in New York
  • Printed in letterpress, in black and rubric red, by Horace McFarland Company at the Mount Pleasant Press
  • Type is Monotype Suburban French, 12 point size, 6 points leading; captions printed in Cushing italic type, headlines in a type called Forum (designed by Frederic Goudy)
  • Paper specially made by Worthy Paper Company
  • Bound in sheepskin dyed black, polished to “a calf finish” by Russell-Rutter Company; into the front cover is inserted a cameo sculptured by Lynd Ward with Folly depicted as a court jester; the title stamped in gold on the spine
  • Square quarto, 7 1/2″ x 10 1/4″, 160 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Lynd Ward

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase Spine
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase Spine
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover

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In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Decorations with Section Title
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Decoration #1 with Section Title
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Decoration #2 with Section Title
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Decoration #2 with Section Title
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text with Illustration #1
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #2 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #3 (Tissue Over) with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 (without Tissue) with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #3 (without Tissue) with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #4 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #9 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #5 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #8 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #6 with Text
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #10
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustrations #7
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Macro Text #2
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Macro Text #2
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
In Praise of Folly, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

 

The Essex House Press edition of The Praise of Folly

The Essex House Press was founded by Charles Robert Ashbee in 1897 and it was intended to be a continuation of William MorrisKelmscott Press following Morris’ death.  Ashbee purchased the Kelmscott Press equipment and hired many of the printers, typesetters, and craftsmen that had been employed by Morris, subsequently publishing seventy books between 1898 to 1910.

About the Edition (Essex House Press)

  • Uses the original Elizabethan translation (“Englished”) of Sir Thomas Chaloner Knight from 1549
  • Edited by Janet E. Ashbee
  • The binding is stiff vellum with a patterned design over the boards
  • Measures 300 x 230 mm (12 x 9 inches)
  • The wood-engravings for the frontispiece, title page, illustrations, ornamental borders and initial letter were designed by William Strang and cut by Bernard Sleigh
  • Printed under the direction of Charles Robert Ashbee
  • Limited to 250 copies

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Front Cover
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Front Cover
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Spine and Covers
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Spine and Covers
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Title Page
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Title Page
Introduction page with illustration - verso
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Introduction page with illustration – verso
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Introduction page with illustration - recto
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Introduction page with illustration – recto
Final page of translator’s introduction with wood-engraved illustration
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Final page of translator’s introduction with wood-engraved illustration
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Title Page
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Title Page
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Page one with wood-engraved capital letter
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Page one with wood-engraved capital letter
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Page one, Macro view of capital letter wood-engraving
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Page one, Macro view of capital letter wood-engraving
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Sample text page with margin comments
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Sample text page with margin comments
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Final page with matching wood-engraved illustration
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Final page with matching wood-engraved illustration
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Colophon
The Praise of Folly, Essex House Press, Colophon

3 thoughts on “The Praise of Folly, by Desiderius Erasmus, Limited Editions Club (1943), also Essex House Press (1901)

  1. Chris,
    Great review! You have selected a nice sample of some of the best text passages. I never cease to be amazed at the condition of your books. The spine of my copy, while superior to about 90% of the ones I’ve seen, is still not nearly as intact and free of flaking as yours. Still as a major fan of Erasmus, Lyn Ward and mezzotint as an illustration process, this will always be among my favorite and most cherished LECs. My only mild criticism (the red cartoons do NOT bother or distract me unnecessarily) is for all of Ward’s talent, I might have preferred the illustrations to be a bit more reflective of when Erasmus wrote this classic (think Cloister and Hearth) and a little less 1930s/1940s. But truly a favorite!

    Sean

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