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but a kind of death; or call another that were boasting of his family ill begotten or base, because

he is so far removed from virtue that is the only fountain of nobility; and so of the rest: what else

would he get by it but be thought himself mad and frantic? For as nothing is more foolish than

preposterous wisdom, so nothing is more unadvised than a forward unseasonable prudence. And

such is his that does not comply with the present time “and order himself as the market goes,” but

forgetting that law of feasts, “either drink or begone,” undertakes to disprove a common received

opinion. Whereas on the contrary ’tis the part of a truly prudent man not to be wise beyond his

condition, but either to take no notice of what the world does, or run with it for company. But this

is foolish, you’ll say; nor shall I deny it, provided always you be so civil on the other side as to

confess that this is to act a part in that world.

But, O you gods, “shall I speak or hold my tongue?” But why should I be silent in a thing that is

more true than truth itself? However it might not be amiss perhaps in so great an affair to call forth

the Muses from Helicon, since the poets so often invoke them upon every foolish occasion. Be

present then awhile, and assist me, you daughters of Jupiter, while I make it out that there is no

way to that so much famed wisdom, nor access to that fortress as they call it of happiness, but under

the banner of Folly. And first ’tis agreed of all hands that our passions belong to Folly; inasmuch

as we judge a wise man from a fool by this, that the one is ordered by them, the other by reason;

and therefore the Stoics remove from a wise man all disturbances of mind as so many diseases. But

these passions do not only the office of a tutor to such as are making towards the port of wisdom,

but are in every exercise of virtue as it were spurs and incentives, nay and encouragers to well

doing: which though that great Stoic Seneca most strongly denies, and takes from a wise man all

affections whatever, yet in doing that he leaves him not so much as a man but rather a new kind of

god that was never yet nor ever like to be. Nay, to speak plainer, he sets up a stony semblance of

a man, void of all sense and common feeling of humanity. And much good to them with this wise

man of theirs; let them enjoy him to themselves, love him without competitors, and live with him

in Plato’s commonwealth, the country of ideas, of Tantalus’ orchards. For who would not shun and

startle at such a man, as at some unnatural accident or spirit? A man dead to all sense of nature and

common affections, and no more moved with love or pity than if he were a flint or rock; whose

censure nothing escapes; that commits no errors himself, but has a lynx’s eyes upon others; measures

everything by an exact line, and forgives nothing; pleases himself with himself only; the only rich,

the only wise, the only free man, and only king; in brief, the only man that is everything, but in his

own single judgment only; that cares not for the friendship of any man, being himself a friend to

no man; makes no doubt to make the gods stoop to him, and condemns and laughs at the whole

actions of our life? And yet such a beast is this their perfect wise man. But tell me pray, if the thing

were to be carried by most voices, what city would choose him for its governor, or what army desire

him for their general? What woman would have such a husband, what goodfellow such a guest, or

what servant would either wish or endure such a master? Nay, who had not rather have one of the

middle sort of fools, who, being a fool himself, may the better know how to command or obey

fools; and who though he please his like, ’tis yet the greater number; one that is kind to his wife,

merry among his friends, a boon companion, and easy to be lived with; and lastly one that thinks

nothing of humanity should be a stranger to him? But I am weary of this wise man, and therefore

I’ll proceed to some other advantages.

17

Desiderius Erasmus

In Praise of Folly

Go to then. Suppose a man in some lofty high tower, and that he could look round him, as the poets

say Jupiter was now and then wont. To how many misfortunes would he find the life of man subject?

How miserable, to say no worse, our birth, how difficult our education; to how many wrongs our

childhood exposed, to what pains our youth; how unsupportable our old age, and grievous our

unavoidable death? As also what troops of diseases beset us, how many casualties hang over our

heads, how many troubles invade us, and how little there is that is not steeped in gall? To say

nothing of those evils one man brings upon another, as poverty, imprisonment, infamy, dishonesty,

racks, snares, treachery, reproaches, actions, deceits—but I’m got into as endless a work as

numbering the sands—for what offenses mankind have deserved these things, or what angry god

compelled them to be born into such miseries is not my present business. Yet he that shall diligently

examine it with himself, would he not, think you, approve the example of the Milesian virgins and

kill himself? But who are they that for no other reason but that they were weary of life have hastened

their own fate? Were they not the next neighbors to wisdom? among whom, to say nothing of

Diogenes, Xenocrates, Cato, Cassius, Brutus, that wise man Chiron, being offered immortality,

chose rather to die than be troubled with the same thing always.

And now I think you see what would become of the world if all men should be wise; to wit it were

necessary we got another kind of clay and some better potter. But I, partly through ignorance, partly

unadvisedness, and sometimes through forgetfulness of evil, do now and then so sprinkle pleasure

with the hopes of good and sweeten men up in their greatest misfortunes that they are not willing

to leave this life,. even then when according to the account of the destinies this life has left them;

and by how much the less reason they have to live, by so much the more they desire it; so far are

they from being sensible of the least wearisomeness of life. Of my gift it is, that you have so many

old Nestors everywhere that have scarce left them so much as the shape of a man; stutterers, dotards,

toothless, grayhaired, bald; or rather, to use the words of Aristophanes, “Nasty, crumpled, miserable,

shriveled, bald, toothless, and wanting their baubles,” yet so delighted with life and to be thought

young that one dyes his gray hairs; another covers his baldness with a periwig; another gets a set

of new teeth; another falls desperately in love with a young wench and keeps more flickering about

her than a young man would have been ashamed of. For to see such an old crooked piece with one

foot in the grave to marry a plump young wench, and that too without a portion, is so common that

men almost expect to be commended for it. But the best sport of all is to see our old women, even

dead with age, and such skeletons one would think they had stolen out of their graves, and ever

mumbling in their mouths, “Life is sweet;” and as old as they are, still caterwauling, daily plastering

their face, scarce ever from the glass, gossiping, dancing, and writing love letters. These things are

laughed at as foolish, as indeed they are; yet they please themselves, live merrily, swim in pleasure,

and in a word are happy, by my courtesy. But I would have them to whom these things seem

ridiculous to consider with themselves whether it be not better to live so pleasant a life in such kind

of follies, than, as the proverb goes, “to take a halter and hang themselves.” Besides though these

things may be subject to censure, it concerns not my fools in the least, inasmuch as they take no

notice of it; or if they do, they easily neglect it. If a stone fall upon a man’s head, that’s evil indeed;

but dishonesty, infamy, villainy, ill reports carry no more hurt in them than a man is sensible of;

and if a man have no sense of them, they are no longer evils. What are you the worse if the people

hiss at you, so you applaud yourself? And that a man be able to do so, he must owe it to folly.

18

Desiderius Erasmus

In Praise of Folly


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