But who are they that for no other reason but that they were weary of life have hastened their own fate? Were they not the next neighbors to wisdom? among whom, to say nothing of Diogenes, Xenocrates, Cato, Cassius, Brutus, that wise man Chiron, being offered immortality, chose rather to die than be troubled with the same thing always. And now I think you see what would become of the world if all men should be wise; to wit it were necessary we got another kind of clay and another Prometheus. But I, partly through ignorance, partly unadvisedness, and sometimes through forgetfulness of evil, do now and then so sprinkle pleasure with the hopes of good and sweeten men up in their greatest misfortunes that they are not willing to leave this life,. even then when according to the account of the destinies this life has left them; and by how much the less reason they have to live, by so much the more they desire it; so far are they from being sensible of the least wearisomeness of life.Nietzsche, like any good German schoolboy, would probably have been intimately familiar with Erasmus in general and the Praise of Folly in particular. Yet no mention of Erasmus graces his work. That suggests a question: is there some affinity between them, whether causal or synchronistic? The Praise of Folly made Erasmus one of the most trenchant, but learned, social critics of his day (aside from Rabelais, of course). And Nietzsche, with his philological paraphernalia, was (is!) the most perceptive and intransigent critic of his.
- Desiderius Erasmus, In Praise of Folly
In fact, I think, the similarity goes deeper; for Nietzsche's method owes much to Folly. Folly's enemies, the wise men, are also Nietzsche's enemies: they are the Stoics who deny life, the scholars who banter periphrastically about periphrasis, deluded statesmen and priests. And in its most crushing diagnosis Folly gives direction to a future Zarathustra:
For what is there at all done among men that is not full of folly, and that too from fools and to fools? Against which universal practice if any single one shall dare to set up his throat, my advice to him is, that following the example of Timon, he retire into some desert and there enjoy his wisdom to himself.
Nietzsche's technique, in many ways, is an attempt to take Folly seriously from the very beginning--and reject it when it literally dons its Christian garb. The wisdom that Folly mocks is the wisdom of Schopenhauer, which affirms the world to be excrement (calm yourself). And while Nietzsche does not deny wisdom, it is precisely this form of it that he considers most pernicious. Folly loves pride, that which makes life livable; and Nietzsche, bearing the banner of life, certainly doesn't prefer a stultifying and soul-destroying truth to a glorious and noble myth.
It is convenient, then, to describe Nietzsche's appropriation of folly as a sort of synthetic union between wisdom and delusion. But Nietzsche and Folly often don't agree, even when the subject isn't Christianity. Folly, for instance, prefers the squirrel to the lion; and on a less ironic level, Erasmus wants a fair and equitable royal authority rather than a corrupt one. So Nietzsche's work is never just a calque or imitation, since the implication of a better possible world in Erasmus's narrative is not at all his.
That consideration must complicate any attempt at linking Nietzsche to humanism directly. Still, even as he preaches the Overman, Nietzsche reveals his affinity with the lively and Bakhtinian sixteenth-century world (Montaigne, he says, was almost as influential for him as Schopenhauer was). Perhaps the note they both respond to is a more ancient one still: of rising through self-overcoming above the darkness of a declining world, and maybe bringing some chunk of it along. This legacy neither Erasmus nor Nietzsche could ever disavow.