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Erasmus: What is more foolish than war?


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Erasmus: Selections on war


Desiderius Erasmus
From In Praise of Folly
Unknown translator

(Folly speaks)

To enlarge farther, I may well presume to aver, that there are no considerable exploits performed, no useful arts invented, but what I am the respective author and manager of: as first, what is more lofty and heroical than war? and yet, what is more foolish than for some petty, trivial affront, to take such a revenge as both sides shall be sure to be losers, and where the quarrel must be decided at the price of so many limbs and lives? And when they come to an engagement, what service can be done by such pale-faced students, as by drudging at the oars of wisdom, have spent all their strength and activity? No, the only use is of blunt sturdy fellows that have little of wit, and so the more of resolution: except you would make a soldier of such another Demosthenes as threw down his arms when he came within sight of the enemy, and lost that credit in the camp which he gained in the pulpit.

But counsel, deliberation, and advice (say you), are very necessary for the management of war: very true, but not such counsel as shall be prescribed by the strict rules of wisdom and justice; for a battle shall be more successfully fought by serving-men, porters, bailiffs, padders, rogues, gaol-birds, and such like tag-rags of mankind, than by the most accomplished philosophers….


Thus if we enquire into the state of all dumb creatures, we shall find those fare best that are left to nature’s conduct: as to instance in bees, what is more to be admired than the industry and contrivance of these little animals?

While the horse, by turning a rebel to nature, and becoming a slave to man, undergoes the worst of tyranny: he is sometimes spurred on to battle so long till he draw his guts after him for trapping, and at last falls down, and bites the ground instead of grass….


And indeed there is a two-fold sort of madness; the one that which the furies bring from hell; those that are herewith possessed are hurried on to wars and contentions, by an inexhaustible thirst of power and riches, inflamed to some infamous and unlawful lust, enraged to act the parricide, seduced to become guilty of incest, sacrilege, or some other of those crimson-dyed crimes….

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