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Machiavelli and Erasmus on Human Nature

Both Niccolo Machiavelli in “The Prince” and Desiderius Erasmus in “The Praise of Folly” give insights into the concept of human nature. For the most part, both texts share certain key similarities while differing in certain instances. While “The Prince” discusses human nature by exploring the ways in which the ruler should govern his subjects and should make the most out of his authority for the sake of power itself and of the society in general, “The Praise of Folly” belabors the satire of human nature as revealed from the point of “foolishness”.

In “The Praise of Folly,” Erasmus satirizes human nature through a narrative of the life of the main character, Folly. Through Folly, Erasmus presents a comic but witty satirical interpretation of human nature. She contends that she is the one responsible for all the foolishness in the world and yet she complains that she does not receive the proper recognition or gratitude she deserves. She also explains that people enjoy life better if they act senile and silly rather than being wise. These things give the initial impression that human beings are none the wiser when born.

During the process of their personal growth, they begin to acquire knowledge which, as far as Folly argues, only reduces their charm and beauty as experience and age bring more troubles in life. Human beings by nature, then, are foolish as they lack wisdom but are nevertheless capable of enjoying life. Folly also agrees that wisdom is to reason while folly is to passion but argues that human beings have more passion than reason which, in effect, signifies that they are essentially foolish. As for women, Folly contends that they lack wisdom, but what they lack for wisdom they make up for beauty.

In contrast, men turn into ugly human beings just because of their knowledge. And yet, she continues, life continues through the marriage between man and woman. Without her, Folly argues that people will not decide to get married. These things reiterate the idea that their lack of wisdom pushes human beings to enter into the union of marriage. In a more general sense, the lack of wisdom drives human beings to seek happiness, and it is the foolish person who is the most happy since the foolish person is the one who is the most deluded human being of all who can only care less.

In fact, Folly mentions the story of the first couple in the Bible who ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge as an example to her point that knowledge destroys happiness. Taking into consideration the idea that “The Praise of Folly” is in itself a piece of satire, it is only prudent to say that human nature is presented in a negative light in order to emphasize the true nature of human beings. In essence, the lack of wisdom of human beings can only give them the worst scenarios in life as opposed to a life lived with wisdom.

Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is similar to “The Praise of Folly” in the sense that both acknowledge the basic human instinct for self-preservation. In “The Praise of Folly”, foolishness is alluded to as a human characteristic that inhibits a person from securing his welfare and interests. On the other hand, “The Prince” through the perspective of the Prince reveals that human beings especially those in power are driven by their thirst for power and self-preservation and that, therefore, authorities should display several characteristics or at least attempt to mimic such characteristics.

These characteristics include the capacity to appear strong, wise and benevolent before his subjects as well as the capacity to appear religious and honest. In effect, Machiavelli contends that it is better to deceive people by showing those characteristics than by actually having them and practicing them in daily affairs. That is because many if not most people judge others by the way they see them instead of the way they feel what other people really are.

It is also important for authorities to be able to easily switch to another persona—from good to evil and vice versa—because doing so will enable them to appropriately match their leadership styles depending on the situation. The nature of human beings for Machiavelli, therefore, consists of being suspicious and untrusting, which is why the Prince should be sly like the fox and intimidating and frightening like the lion. In essence, human nature is evil; human beings are faithless to the words of the authority and do not always keep their promises.

These negative descriptions of the human nature according to Machiavelli’s “The Prince” portray a society that is always on the verge of chaos since each person seeks to preserve his welfare and those in power desire to retain their authority at any given cost. In contrast to “The Prince”, “The Praise of Folly” does not emphasize that human beings are selfish by nature. However, it does highlight the idea that their lack of wisdom is the ultimate cause of their miseries in life.

It should be noted that “The Praise of Folly” is a satirical work that is aimed at illuminating the absurdities of human foolishness. The main and, perhaps, the most significant similarity between “The Prince” and “The Praise of Folly” as far as the concept of human nature is concerned is the idea that human beings can change their personal conditions for the better despite their basically flawed human nature, especially through the practice of wisdom or human reason.

“The Prince” suggests that human beings can resist the destructive effects of Fortuna—the source of both human miseries and fortunes—through wisdom. Similarly, “The Praise of Folly” suggests that human beings can attain happiness and satisfaction through wisdom. In sum, both texts share the ground that human beings ultimately have the capacity to make their lives better despite their inherent human nature. Work Cited Norton Anthology of World Literature. Eds. Sarah N. Lawall and Maynard Mack. 2nd ed: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.

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