It starts off with a satirical learned encomium after the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian, whose work Erasmus and Sir Thomas More had recently translated into Latin, a piece of virtuoso foolery; it then takes a darker tone in a series of orations, as Folly praises self-deception and madness and moves to a satirical examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in parts of the Roman Catholic Church—to which Erasmus was ever faithful—and the folly of pedants (including Erasmus himself). Erasmus had recently returned, disappointed, from Rome, where he had turned down offers of advancement in the curia, and Folly increasingly takes on Erasmus' own chastising voice. The essay ends with a straightforward and touching statement of true Christian ideals.
Erasmus was a good friend of Sir Thomas More—another faithful Roman Catholic and detractor of Luther, with whom he shared a taste for dry humor and other intellectual pursuits. The title "Moriae Encomium" can also be read as meaning "In praise of More". The double or triple meanings go on through the text.
The essay is filled with classical allusions delivered in a style typical of the learned humanists of the Renaissance. Folly parades as one of the gods, offspring of Plutos and Freshness and nursed by Inebriation and Ignorance, whose faithful companions include Philautia (self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (oblivion), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (Madness), Tryphe (wantonness), Komos (intemperance) and Eegretos Hypnos (dead sleep).
Moriae Encomium was hugely popular, to Erasmus' astonishment and sometimes his dismay. Leo X thought it was funny. Before Erasmus' death it had already passed into numerous editions and had been translated into French and German. An English edition soon followed. It influenced teaching of rhetoric during the later sixteenth century, and the art of adoxography or praise of worthless subjects became a popular exercise in Elizabethan grammar schools: see Charles O. McDonald, The Rhetoric of Tragedy (Amherst, 1966). A copy of the Basel edition of 1515/16 was illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger. These are the most famous illustrations of The Praise of Folly.
Praise of Folly (Penguin, 1994) ISBN 978-0140446081
Praise of Folly (Oneworld Classics, 2008) ISBN 978-1847490100 <3