500 years ago, in an age apparently less tolerant than our own, Erasmus made a plea for free speech, particularly in the form of mockery, providing only that its expression be without rage. I was struck by the contemporary ring of his comment on ‘the tenderness of modern ears’.
This is part of his splendid, slim, timeless and light-hearted ground-breaker in which he puts Folly in the position of wisdom, arguing (from a pulpit no less) in favour of herself and all her manifestations.
‘I’ll deal now with the taunt about sting. Intelligent critics have always been allowed the liberty of using irony to make fun of our shared humanity without fear of consequences, provided only that the freedom doesn’t express itself in rage. That’s why I’m so surprised at the tenderness of modern ears, which can barely now tolerate anything beyond conventional compliments.’
Source: Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), Praise of Folly, trans. Roger Clarke (Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2008 (1511)), p. 5
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