Satire/Comedy

Review of Praise of Folly

Image result for praise of folly penguinWhat was it about?

At the start of the 16th century, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam writes an encomium on folly from the perspective of Folly herself. Inspired by the satires of Lucian whom Erasmus translated with his friend Thomas More, Praise of Folly is a critique of late medieval society and religion. School theologians concern themselves with nonsensical questions and parish priests are barely literate. Popes and princes go to war. Mendicants are known for their wealth, arrogance, and greed. The satire begins with the genealogy of Folly before moving to a description of her role in the ancient world. Folly argues that humanity is indebted to her. Although philosophers generally condemn folly, life would be unbearable without some foolishness. In fact, folly holds a special place in the Christian tradition. Praise of Folly (trans. Betty Radice) is both a social satire and a commentary on true wisdom.

What did I think of it?

I read Praise of Folly at the right time. Last semester I took a course on medieval philosophy, and I am currently reading Don Quixote. Therefore, late medieval theology and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics are all I think of these days. There’s nothing like reading Praise of Folly after a semester-long course on the scholastics! Reading this book  was therefore quite rewarding.

The narrative voice changes throughout the work. The first part is clearly from Folly’s perspective. She is not beyond ridiculing 16th century humanists for their learning. But the voice changes mid-way through the work. Folly’s criticism of the Church is clearly Erasmus’. It no longer reads as a satire but as a diatribe. I wish Erasmus’ had maintained Folly’s perspective throughout the work. I wonder what she would have said. The final part is on the place of folly in Christianity. Here, Erasmus shares his philosophical and social views with the reader.

My Penguin edition came with a good introduction and thorough footnotes. Because Praise of Folly is a highly intellectual satire, the footnotes are indispensable. Thanks to the editor, it is quite accessible to the non-specialist. Erasmus’ Colloquies are (in my opinion) superior to Praise of Folly, but Praise of Folly was more influential. It voiced the criticisms of countless intellectuals on the eve of the Reformation. Erasmus never wrote for the lay person, but his writings inspired educational and religious reforms in 16th century Europe. I am glad I read it when I did.

Once I finish and review Don Quixote, I hope to make at least one post comparing it to Praise of Folly.

Favorite Quote (!)

“Nothing is so foolish as mistimed wisdom, and nothing less sensible than misplaced sense. A man’s conduct is misplaced if he doesn’t adapt himself to things as they are, has no eye for the main chance, won’t even remember that convivial maxim ‘Drink and depart’, and asks for the play to stop being a play. On the other hand, it’s a true sign of prudence not to want wisdom which extends beyond your share as an ordinary mortal, to be willing to overlook things along with the rest of the world and wear your illusions with a good grace. People say that this is really a sign of folly, and I’m not setting out to deny it – so long as they’ll admit on their side that this is the way to play the comedy of life.”

Greene, Graham, Literary Fiction

Review of The Power and the Glory

Image result for the power and the gloryWhat was it about?

A cleric known as the “whisky priest” is the last surviving priest in Mexico. Despite his reputation, the “whisky priest” secretly hears confessions and administers the Sacrament to the faithful in Mexico. The Lieutenant, an inquisitor for the socialist state, considers the Church to be the greatest threat to the revolution. What has the Church ever done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Priests seem to serve the poor only so that the Church looks good; they have no desire to abolish the social hierarchy. As long as the poor remain poor, the Church is needed. And look at the priests’ lifestyles!

The “whisky priest”, on his end, doesn’t really know why anybody would waste their time pursuing him. He is comforted by the idea that, despite his sins, he can administer the sacraments, but the “whisky priest” is not martyr material. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene explores the lines that divide saint from sinner and liberator from oppressor.

What did I think of it?

I read this book more than six months ago, but it had such a great impression on me that I think about it nearly every day. The questions Greene deals with in The Power and the Glory are questions that come up a lot in public discourse. How should poverty be addressed? Is religion the opium of the people as Karl Marx claimed, or can it play a role in social justice? The book also explores sainthood and martyrdom. Should a person as sinful as the “whisky priest” be considered a martyr? What cause is he dying for if he is? If you like character studies, you will enjoy The Power and the Glory. The prose is gorgeous. I am not surprised that it is included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Favorite Quotes

“It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy–a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”

“How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

 

Eliot, T.S., Historical Fiction, Plays, Religious

Review of Murder in the Cathedral

What was it about?

Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot is a play in verse about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Caught up in one of the perennial conflicts between pope and emperor, Thomas Becket is exiled to France. Upon his return to England, four tempters try to prevent him from assuming his role as archbishop. They remind him of the power he had as Lord Chancellor to Henry II prior to his ordination. In view of more pleasant alternatives, why risk martyrdom?

What did I think of it?

Thomas Becket’s tomb was the site of a popular pilgrimage in the late Middle Ages. He was venerated as a holy archbishop who defended the Church against the encroachments of the State. Becket represented not only a good person but a man who defended a particular model of Church and State. Eliot rightly explores Becket’s murder from this latter perspective. Becket is not humble and peace-loving but arrogant and power-seeking. I really enjoyed this play. Despite its short length, the play packed a punch. It explored questions relating to Church and State that are debated still today in England. I also loved the style. I know that not everyone will enjoy a play in verse, but the repetition of imagery and language heightened the drama. The critics are right to compare this play to Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. They are both excellent!

Favorite Quote

“Peace. And let them be, in their exaltation.
They speak better than they know, and beyond your
understanding.
They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the
action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.”