In Praise of Folly

Folly is the brave act of telling the truth at the risk of being accused of playing crazy or dumb.

June 1511.

It's a turbulent time. The influenza pandemic is spreading to Europe (it reached Sicily a year before). Institutions need serious reforms and renewal. Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher, and humanist, does something radical in a bold attempt to challenge social institutions and the prevailing culture. He publishes one of the most controversial works of the Renaissance, "In Praise of Folly." It is a book about humankind and society and the bravery to accept the level of madness all around. It was true then as it is now.

Folly: "You'll find nothing frolic or fortunate that it owes not to me."

His sharp satire goes beyond the limits of the then-acceptable expression of ideas. How Erasmus ridicules the status quo, including himself, is fascinating. Back then, none of that was easy. Very few people dared to challenge the Church and the Monarchy with hard and inconvenient truths. But still, some did. As you may have guessed, it was the jesters.

Jesters were the social rebels that used humor as a platform for change. They were willing to take the risk and speak up about controversial topics when "wise men" wouldn't, certainly not in the presence of kings. Disguised under the pretext of entertainment, they told the truth. It was a noble and heroic act that would've otherwise cost one's head. And they mastered one key thing exceptionally well. Timing. How else do you tell the truth and get laughter as a response?

A person reading the book may see parallels with present-day society. I can't help but wonder, is the worldly prince the ideal CEO (who cares for more than just profits)? Are the Stoics the proven experts in their fields (filled more reason than passion)? Is Folly the creative (who tends to be more genuine and authentic)? Erasmus spoke about some universal truths that have the test of time.

#1 Folly is a social catalyst

"Nothing is more silly than preposterous wisdom." Erasmus

What will change if we lack the courage to speak up when we must? The bar has been too low for too long. Social issues are everyone's problem. Difficult topics, the ones that people fear to address, should no longer have a "no comment" status. We must learn to be more outspoken and face controversial issues if we want to challenge the status quo and see real change. Back then, few people were folly by choice. These days, I am not so sure. Are we doing enough?

#2 Folly is a conscious choice 

"Love curiosity, love learning." Erasmus

How can we have hopes and expectations without being a little innocent? 

It is a choice to see the world through a child's eyes with a sense of wonder. We build knowledge and acquire expertise, but it is not enough. Are we taking enough risks and being audacious? We need Folly to push beyond what we know and to overcome the fear of failure. The greatest danger to human potential is the safety of the comfort zone. We will never create until we learn to be vulnerable. It is a way forward. The choice is ours to make.

#3 Folly sparks creativity

"Character is nowhere more apparent than in a game." Erasmus

One of the hardest things is to fully and honestly meet the moment. There is a lot to learn from the jesters, who could make any room theirs as they spoke the truth disguised as humor. 

We often lack the willingness to admit that we don't always understand the complex reality. To communicate deeply, we have to be able to feel deeply. Feeling dumb is a valid state. It opens new possibilities to learn and grow.

——————

In our work at Owtcome, we started with Folly early on, when we embarked on a journey to shake the design thinking domain. Why not? And why not now? Being stuck at home during Covid-19 was bad enough. We needed hope and purpose. When I think about these days, it is a little crazy to see the room we gave ourselves to explore, make mistakes, and learn. I can't help but smile at our childlike enthusiasm. But I wouldn't change it for the world. Crazy works for us. 

"You said you wanted the truth. Now, what are you willing to do with it?" Monika Zands


The more I think about the book, the more I feel a kind of folly. It can be the result of a startling realization that I, the reader, giggling over what I am reading, am part of that same society. Struggling to find a way to shake up things leaves us no choice but to be more folly as a choice. Erasmus wanted to be a citizen of the world. I think he got much more. He won the timeless stamp on top.