Erasmus on the Folly of Political Leaders

“Show me a man such as princes commonly are: a man ignorant of the laws: an enemy of the public: intent upon private gain; taken to pleasure; against knowledge, liberty, and truth; never occupied with the safety of the state; and finally measuring all things in terms of his own desire and profit.  Now first seat him on a golden chair, the chair symbolizing the union of all the virtues; next give him a crown adorned with precious gems, this symbolizing that he ought to surpass all others in every heroic quality.  In addition to these hand him a scepter, en emblem of justice and of a devoted heart and soul; and last of all place on him a scarlet robe, symbolizing the love and fervent respect that he ought to have for the realm.  If any prince would try to uphold these symbols, even if it meant giving up his life, then I am sure that he would have the honor to be ashamed of his depravity.  He would fear that some satirist might turn this whole solemn affair into ridicule and sarcasm.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in The Essential Erasmus, trans. John P. Dolan (New York, 1964), 155.

In this famous work Erasmus satirized European society in the early sixteenth century. This quote demonstrates that he did not spare kings and the nobility from his acerbic literary attacks.  This portrayal is the opposite of Erasmus’ description of the Christian prince

Also he did not spare the courtiers.  The modern courtiers are staffers, diplomats, and lobbyists.  “Now what shall I say about the noble courtiers? These men desire to be likened as God’s foremost creatures, yet the fact is that no group of men is more sordid, more obsequious, more idiotic, or more contemptible than this set of men…They are contented with being able to speak of the king as ‘our master’; in knowing how to return a compliment in three words; in knowing on which occasion to use the titles of ‘Your Grace’ ‘Your Lordship,’ and ‘Your Majesty’; in not knowing shame; and in having mastered the art of flattery with exceptional success.” Ibid.

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