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“That Familiar Proverb”: Folly as the Elixir of Youth in Erasmus's Moriae Encomium

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Harry Vredeveld*
The Ohio State University


In order to make good her claim to be of all divinities the most important and generous, Folly in Erasmus's Moriae encomium begins her argument, according to rhetorical theory and practice, with the strongest proofs in her arsenal. First of all, she argues, it is she who has given us life, the greatest gift of all. Who among us would have been born without our parents’ folly? Second, it is the spice of folly that makes life enjoyable. For what is life if you take away merriment, pleasure, andjoy? And third, it is folly that rules the best and happiest time of life—childhood and youth—and restores it to us in the second childhood of decrepit old age.

Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 1989

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1 “'Accedit ad haec vulgati proverbii non leve testimonium, quo dictitant Stulticiam unam esse rem, quae et iuventam alioqui fugacissimam remoretur et improbam senectam procul arceat.” (Moriae encomium, ed. Clarence H. Miller, in Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami [Amsterdam, i969ff., hereafter cited as ASD] 4, pt. 3:84, 11. 247-49. All translations are my own.)

2 “Stultum caput nee canescit nee calvescit,” cited in Walther, Hans, Proverbia sententiaeque Latinitatis medii aevi, 6 vols. (Gottingen, 1963-69)Google Scholar, no. 30436a.

3 Miller, Clarence H., introd. to his annotated transl. oiDesiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly (New Haven, 1979)Google Scholar xv.

4 See Miller, “The Logic and Rhetoric of Proverbs in Erasmus's Praise of Folly,” in Essays on the Works of Erasmus, ed. Richard L. DeMolen (New Haven, 1978) 83-98.

5 “An non videtis tetricos istos et vel philosophiae studiis vel seriis et arduis addictos negociis, plerunque priusquam plane iuvenes sint, iam consenuisse, videlicet curis et assidua acrique cogitationum agitatione sensim spiritus et succum ilium vitalem exhauriente?” (84, 11. 240-43).

6 It is to these four seasons of life that Folly alludes on 82,11.186-99. Professor Miller's note on these lines (ASD 4, pt. 3:83), that “Folly mentions only four of the usual seven ages (infantia, pueritia, adolescentia, iuventus, virilitas, senectus, decrepitus),” misrepresents Erasmus's intentions. The system oifour seasons of life of about twenty years each, while primarily at home in the medical tradition, is by no means confined to it. See, for example, Ovid, Metamorphoses 15, 199-233, andHorace, Arspoetica 158-74. See also Burrow, J. A., The Ages of Man: AStudy in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1986)Google Scholar 12-36, and Sears, Elizabeth, The Ages of Man: Medieval Interpretations of the Life Cycle (Princeton, N.J., 1986) 9-37Google Scholar. When Folly claims that her rule lasts at least to the end of “adolescentia” she means to mid-life at age thirty-five or forty. Compare Erasmus, sermon on Psalm 4 (ASD 5, pt. 2:251, 11. 874-76), where the four ages are termed “pueritia”, “adolescentia,” “iuventus,” and “senectus.” In this he is following patristic usage. SeeE. Eyben, “DieEinteilung des menschlichenLebensim rOmischen Altertum,” Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie, N.F. 116 (1973):i56-58.

7 By “succum ilium vitalem” (“that vital moisture”), 84,11. 242-43, Folly does not mean “vitality” (as in some recent translations), but “the radical moisture.” This, indeed, ishowHoytH. Hudson, following John Wilson (1668), translates the phrase. See Hudson's, transl. of The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus (Princeton, N.J., 1941)Google Scholar 19. For John Wilson's translation see the rpt. Oxford, 1913, with an introduction by Mrs. P. S. Allen; I have used the rpt. (unacknowledged as such) introduced by Hendrik Willem van Loon (New York, 1942) 112. For the concept, see Hall, Thomas S., “Life, Death and the Radical Moisture,” Clio Medica 6 (1971)Google Scholar:3-23, and McVaugh, Michael, “The ‘Humidum Radicale’ in Thirteenth-Century Medicine,” Traditio 30 (1974)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 1259- 83. The phrase “vital moisture” was sometimes used as a technical term for radical moisture; see The Touchstone of Complexions, First written in Latine, by Levine Lemme, and now Englished by Thomas Newton (1581), cited in Campbell, Lily B., Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (1930; New York, 1960)Google Scholar 55: “Vitall moysture is the nourishment and matter of naturall heate.” The radical moisture should not be confused with the spirits (natural, vital, and animal) produced by the liver, heart, and brain respectively. Intensive cerebration, it was agreed, dries and cools the brain; this not only causes the animal spirits to be exhausted but, more importantly, also accelerates the drying of the body's radical moisture and the cooling of the innate heat. Clarence H. Miller (ASD 4, pt. 3:85, note on lines 242-43; and trans. 23, with n. 9) follows Chaloner's rendering in The Praise of Folie (1549), ed. Miller, Early English Text Society 257 (London, 1965) 19. Chaloner condenses Erasmus's text by combining the weakening of the animal spirits with the decaying of the radical moisture and translates “spiritus et succum ilium vitalem exhauriente” as “sokyng up the lively iuyce of the sprites.” This has led Prof. Miller to explain in his ed. of Chaloner: “Both Erasmus and Chaloner have in mind the 'vital spirits’ (highly refined bodily fluids) of medieval physiology” (141). Miller consequently translates the two terms as if they were one and the same: ”…so that their vital spirits gradually dry up, leaving them exhausted and juiceless, as it were.” But the spirits were always thought of as a “hot breath” (pneuma) or as a vapor—not a fluid, however rarified. See Bono, James J., “Medical Spirits and the Medieval Language of Life,” Traditio 40 (1984):91130 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Harvey, E. Ruth, The Inward Wits: Psychological Theory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Warburg Institute Surveys 6 (London, 1975)Google Scholar 4-7. Marsilio Ficino, like the medieval physicians, defined the spirits as “vapor”; see his De vita libri tres (Venice, 1498; Hildesheim, 1978, ed. Martin Plessner) 1, 2, fol. biv: “*piritus … , qui apud medicos vapor quidam sanguinis purus: subtilis, calidus, et lucidus definitur.” And Elyot, Thomas, The Castel ofHelth (London, 1539)Google Scholar, fol. iov, explained “spirite” (“naturalle,” “vitall,” and “animalle”) as “an ayry substance subtyll, styryng the powers of the body to perf6urme their operations.”

8 It was sometimes objected that this contradicted the theory that youth is dominated by yellow bile, which is hot and dry, and old age by phlegm, which is cold and moist. But these humors were explained as being distinct from the radical moisture. While the latter is found within the tissues, the former are extraneous to them. Hence, the tissues themselves could be hot and moist as in the summer of life or cold and dry as in the winter of life while being surrounded by the hot-dry humor of yellow bile or the cold-moist humor of phlegm.

9 On the history of the lamp metaphor which goes back to Aristotle, Galen, and Avicenna, see Niebyl, Peter H., “Old Age, Fever, and the Lamp Metaphor,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 26 (1971)Google Scholar:351-68. See also E. Withington, introduction to Fratris Rogeri Bacon De retardatione accidentium senectutis cum aliis opusculis de rebus medicinalibus, ed. A. G. Little and E. Withington, British Society of Franciscan Studies 14 (Oxford, 1928) xxxiv-xxxvii; GeraldJ. Gruman, A History of Ideas about the Prolongatipn of Life: The Evolution ofProlongevity Hypotheses to 1800, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, ns 56, pt. 9 (Philadelphia, 1966) 15-17, 64-65; and Burrow, Ages of Man 12-36.

10 “Autorem vitae igniculum decerpit [senectus], et huius / Nutricium liquorem”; Cartn. 83, 11. 19-20, in The Poems ofDesiderius Erasmus, ed. C. Reedijk (Leiden, 1956) 283.

11 “Nihil … aeque accelerat senectutem, quam immodicae atque intempestivae compotationes, impotentes amores mulierum et salacitas immoderata” (ASD I, pt. 3:382, 11. 233-35).

12 Enchiridion Militis Christiani, in Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera omnia, ed. Ioannes Clericus, 10 vols. (Leiden, 1703-1706) 5:578: “… corporis simul et vires, et speciem iftterimit: valetudinem vehementer laedit: morbos innumerabiles parit, eosque foedos: iuventae florem ante diem devenustat: turpem senectam accelerat.” See further De conscribendis epistolis, ASD 1, pt. 2:251,11.11 - 13 , also concerning erotic pleasures (“corporis voluptates”): “… corporis valetudinem atterere, ebibere succum vitalem, accelerare senium, morborum omne genus adducere, sui iustissimas ultrices.”

13 “Quoniam frequens agitatio mentis cerebrum vehementer exsiccat, igitur humore magna ex parte consumpto quod caloris naturalis pabulum est, calor quoque plurimum solet extingui” (Marsilius Ficinus, De vita 1, 4, fol. b2v; also cited, from Ficino's Opera omnia [Basel, 1576], by Miller in ASD 4, pt. 3:85, note on lines 242-43).

14 “ N u l l a … res citius accelerat senium quam animi curae, amor, odium, invidentia, metus ac moeror” (ASD 2, pt. 5:232,11. 586-87). See also Adag. 3, 10,62, “Mala senium accelerant” (ASD 2, pt. 6: 570, 11. 499-504).

15 “Curae cito senescere faciunt” (Heinrich Bebel, Proverbia Germanica, ed. Willem H. D. Suringar [1879; Hildesheim, 1969] 117, no. 436). See also Suringar's commentary, with numerous parallels, on 117, 487-88. Add to these parallels Walther, Prov. 2287b, 2292a, 31577 (29398, adapting Regimen sanitatis Salemitanum, lines 14-15): “Triste cor, ira frequens, mens raro gaudia volvens: / Vitam consumunt hec tria fine brevi.”

16 “Tristitiam longe repelle a te. Multos enim occidit tristitia, Et non est utilitas in ilia. Zelus et iracundia minuunt dies, Et ante tempus senectam adducet cogitatus” (Ecclus. 30:24-26).

17 See, for instance, Ovid, Trist. 3, 8, 24-34; 4, 6, 39-50; and Pont. 1, 4, 1-20.

18 Consolatio philosophiae 1, M. 1, 9-12:

Venit enim properata malis inopina senectus

et dolor aetatem iussit inesse suam.

Intempestivi funduntur vertice cani

et tremit effeto corpore laxa cutis.

19 Carm. 4, 1-12 (my italics):

Qum nondum albenti surgant mihi vertice cani,

Candeat aut pilis frons viduata suis, …

Atque acuant rigidae nondum mihi brachia setae, aut

Pendeat arenti corpore laxa cutis,

Denique nulla meae videam argumenta senectae,

Nescio quid misero sorsque deusque parent.

Me mala ferre senum teneris voluere sub annis,

Iamque senem esse volunt, nee senuisse sinunt.

lam quae canicie spergant mea tempora tristi

Praevenere diem cura dolorque smim.

20 “Si tibi deficiant medici, medici tibi fiant / Haec tria: mens laeta, requies, moderata diaeta” (Flos Medicinae Scholae Salerni, 2d ed., ed. Salvatore de Renzi, [Naples, 1859], 11. 12-13). For medieval and Renaissance citations of these verses see Walther, Prov. 29239, with numerous references.

21 “Tristitia corpus refrigerat et exsiccat, propterea maciem et extenuationem inducit: cor constringit, spiritus obtenebrat, et ingrossat, ingenium hebetat, apprehensionem impedit, iudicium obscurat, et obtundit memoriam, ideovitandasunteiusobiecta… . Qui vero multis curis et solicitudinibus distrahuntur, et cerebro punguntur, gaudio saepe vacare debent, et honestis solatiis, ut animus refloreat, et spiritus recreentur” (Arnaldus Villanovanus, Regimen sanitatis ad inclytum Regem Aragonum, chap. 7, “De accidentibus animi,” in Opera omnia [Basel, 1585] col. 795BC). Similarly, Roger Bacon, Liber de conservation iuventutis, in De retardatione accidentium senectutis (see above, n. 9) 137: “Hillaris anima et refecta vigorem viribus tribuit et naturam excitat, et in omnibus iuvat actionibus, confortat etiam et gaudere facit, retinet iuventutem et conservat sanitatem, et sanguinem clarificat et ipsum in venis currere facit, morbum expellit et crisim accelerat.” In his De compositione quarundam medicinarum in speciali que iuvant sensum 102 (in the edition cited above), Bacon writes: “De hiis rebus que retardant accidentia senectutis in iuvene et in sene accidentia senii, et in senio accidentia decrepite etatis sunt hec: letitia, cantus, et visio pulcritudinis humane… . ” The thought is biblical; see Ecclus. 30:23: “Iucunditas cordis haec est vita hominis … ; Etexsultatio viriestlongaevitas.”

22 Cam. 2, 9-24:

Cura dolorque procul, viridem solet ille iuventam

Ante diem rugis commaculare suis.

Ante diem solet ille gravem celerare senectam,

Ille solet dulces abbreviare dies.

Ille rapit vires, vorat ossibus ille medullas,

Fronte perempta perit forma dolore suo.

Pectoribus sensum furor aufert pessimus ille,

Eripit ingenium pessimus ille furor.

Ergo procul Stigias, procul hinc demigret in undas

Tartareumque cahos, cura dolorque cadat.

Adsit leticia, pulchram decet ilia iuventam,

Qua sine nil pulchrum, nil queat esse bonum.

Corporis ilia iuvat vires seniumque moratur

Tristius, et letos protrahit ilia dies.

Leticia maior est forma, serenior est frons;

Leticia ingenium clarius esse solet.

23 “Frigus et moeror contrahit corpus nostrum. Calor et hilaritas dilatat, eoque qui ringuntur contrahunt frontem, adducunt supercilium, et qui dolore discruciantur, macerantur et contabescunt. Contra qui gaudent, dicuntur exporrigere frontem, et corpore fiunt habitiore. Eamdem ob causam in adulescentibus quum explicat se calor nativus, corpus grandescit ac distenditur, rursum in senibus deficiente calore, omnia membra contrahuntur, ipsa etiam vox fit exilior. Similiter hyemis rigor omnia contrahit, veris tepor exhilarat ac dilatat universa. Nee aliam ob causam hilarior est iuventus, senecta tristis. Animus enim illigatus corpori iuxta naturam, velit nolit corporis affectionibus commovetur, quemadmodum vicissim affectiones animi redundant in corpus, quod notavit et Salomon: Animusgaudens aetatemfloridamfacit; spiritus tristis exiccat ossa” (ASD 5, pt. 2: 236, 11. 378-90, where ringuntur in line 379 is misprinted as riguntur, the comma before the phrase velit nolit in line 3 87 is erroneously put after it, and affectiones in line 388 is misprinted as affectionibus).

24 Lines 14-17:

Triste cor, ira frequens, … labor ingens

Vitam consumunt haec tria fine brevi:

Haec namque ad mortis cogunt te currere metas.

Spiritus exultans facit ut tua floreat aetas.

Compare also Walther, Prov. 30235: “Spiritus exsultans facit, ut tua floreat etas; / Triste cor ad mortis te cogit currere metas”; and 31576: “Triste cor ad mortis cogit te currere metas. / Spiritus exultans facit ut tibi floreat etas.”

25 “… homo sanus volens vivere, debetabeoremoveregravescuras:namcuraeexiccant corpora ex quo tristificant spiritus vitales, modo spiritus tristes exiccant ossa… . animus hominis debet esse laetus etgaudens, quia laetitia sive gaudium aetatem fioridam facit, hominem in iuventute conservat, virtutem confortat, vitam prolongat, ingenium acuit, et ad singulos actus habiliorem reddit” (Opera omnia, col. 1875 A-G; the italics are mine). The first sentence, col. 1875A, is a commentary on the lines: “si vis te reddere sanum, / Curas tolle graveis”; the second sentence, col. 1875FG, explains the lines: “Si tibi deficiant Medici, Medici tibi fiant / Haec tria: mens hilaris, requies, moderata diaeta.” Arnald's authorship of the commentary is denied by Ernest Wickersheimer, “Autour du ‘Regime de Salerne’ III,” Atti del 14° Congresso intemazionale di storia della medicina, Roma-Salerno 1954 (Rome, 1960) 2:1072-84.

26 Suringar's edition, 54: “Tria sunt, quae tollunt pulchritudinem corporis: Morbus, senium et anxietas sive curae. Dicit enim Salomon Proverbiorum decimo septimo: Animus gaudens aetatem fioridam facit: spiritus tristis exsiccat ossa.”

27 I am grateful to Professors Clarence H. Miller and Klaus-Dietrich Fischer, as well as to the anonymous reviewers of this article, for their thoughtful criticism and valuable suggestions.