He wrote it in the first decade of the 16th century and while it received mixed reviews to say the least, it is a salutary lesson for our time on a number of fronts. In ‘Praise of Folly’ is Erasmus’ most renowned work, though by no means his defining title. The book sets out through the personification of Folly to point out the inconsistencies in a variety of medieval institutions, most particularly the self-serving theology of some Catholic theologians. At the vanguard of what would become Humanism but, in his day, lacked the blessing of a title to box him into, he occupied the role of reactionary or polemicist albeit unfairly in my view. His letter to Maarten van Dorp is an extensive explanation of his reasons and methodology for taking a stand that certainly damaged his reputation but only with those for whom he held scant regard and the purveyors of half-truths, the myth makers that create and shape opinions held by the unthinking and abused by the unprincipled.
‘Folly’ is as much a commentary on our time as it was on Erasmus’s. The oracles to rail against these days are the purveyors of the half-truth or the morally bankrupt who have the capacity to dissemble and evade through a modern casuistry that would leave the Attics speechless and set new standards of empty rhetoric. There must be an emerging Erasmian willing to take on the false gods of vacuous promises, the purveyors of redundant possibility? Where is the modern response to the modern GnT’ologians?
An evening in front of the telly may well be a luxury, but the cascade of suggestions about how to improve personal appearance is entertaining. I say entertaining because it requires a certain disregard for anything that comes across. The preoccupation with what we should and shouldn’t eat, should and shouldn’t wear, the regard paid to those who have fame without foundation leaves me looking on with all of the sense of belonging of someone who wandered into the wrong wedding reception.
The so called high moral ground is occupied by whom? Opinion formers seem to abound and people I have never heard of shape priorities. I am very aware of turning into a grumpy old man reader, more aware of not wanting to be… but what and who is a ‘social influencer’? I am sure that is not a ‘thing’. But I suspect that I am well wide of the mark on that one. So, I ask what do they influence? How do they do it? Is there a body of evidence that sits behind what they do? A body of evidence built over time and subject to peer review? Nope, doesn’t seem to work like that. In a universe of followers and followed by, social influencers are the next fad. Famous for being famous, they parade and are paraded in the emperor’s new clothes but there is no little boy standing as the parade passes to ring out that this is all folly.
Over the course of this term, in a series of live virtual events with existing and future parents we are setting out what Embley stands for and how we go about our business. Yesterday’s discussion centred around our co-curricular offering. Far from being the Hampshire Country Club, the depth and breadth of our offer gives children the opportunity to be everything the so called influencers are not. Authentic opportunities to be themselves and to develop and grow as individuals unique in themselves with their own talents and attributes, their own priorities and interests and their own regard for how they engage with the world. For sure we seek to influence aspects of that such as kindness, consideration and integrity. I make no apology for those because they are thought out virtues that will lead children to live fulfilled and happy lives, allow them the inner capacity to be honest with themselves and to cope with adversity, for it certainly will come, as human beings with purpose that reaches beyond the tip of their own nose and reach of their grasp.
The message portrayed is that fame brings fortune and fortune makes you happy. I have said repeatedly that it may well make misery comfortable, but it certainly won’t make you happy. What is it that makes you happy? Is happiness to be manufactured in the same way that a workout in the gym makes you fit? OK, I’m on shaky ground with that example and will exit that stage quickly, but my point is made I think? The simple recipe of being happy is unpalatable to the social influencer, to the cult of attention seeking because it is wholly other. Humility does not exist in thinking less of yourself, but in thinking of yourself less. We work to form children with an appropriate sense of themselves, a sense of what they value and the value of their ‘No’ to the challenges and seductive promises of those Erasmus railed against. In a world where it is folly not to look out for number one, I am happy to sing the praises of that Folly. Have a wonderful half term.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)