---- Desiderius Erasmus in a Letter to Christian Northoff (1497)
Oh mankind. Is it any wonder you cannot help but look upon me and go mad with desire. Just outside your grasp, I keep always a bit ahead. Reach out for a touch, but never can you capture. You call me a diversion, an interruption, a disturbance. You do what you can do to try to spurn me with bad labels, with blaming weaknesses of character for your short span of attention. You even test out pills to give you strength against my lures, while extolling the great uses of grit, focus, and resolve. But where would you all be without me in front of your nose. What joy would be in life without some thing to chase and chase. Spend too much, too much, time in deep and quiet contemplation, and one is always led toward a difficult old question. One whose likely answer we would rather not consider. What's that over there? Oh I see, you've caught me anew. I am your own Distraction. Now let me go and hide again.
---- In Praise of Distraction (my own attempt at mingling enjoyment with these studies)
The Erasmus bridge in Rotterdam with its single, strong, bent tower anchored to one side of a river, enabling dozens of smaller strands to support a path to the other side. Is there a better metaphor for the man himself whose landmark work In Praise of Folly buttressed the revolt in Europe against Catholic control of the spirit—a revolt that led eventually to the humanism that lessened the role of the supernatural in daily life? I think not.
In Praise of Folly, published in 1511, starts off with "a satirical passage, in which Folly praises herself; it then takes a darker tone in a series of orations as Folly praises self-deception and madness and moves to a satirical examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in parts of the Roman Catholic Church and the folly of pedants. The essay ends with a straightforward statement of Christian ideals." This short book (less than 100 pages), supposedly written in one week as a gift to Erasmus' friend Thomas More (he of Utopia), laid the foundations of the Protestant Reformation with an impervious critique against the practices of the Church and its political allies. Over the past four weeks, I've been stuck in the medieval religious musings of Islamic and Christian philosophers--Avicenna, Anslem, Averroes, and Aquinas—who represented the stagnation of European thought from AD 1000-1250 with something akin to a stutterer trying to begin a recitation of the alphabet. A, a, a, a… But then, a further 250 years later, after that stagnation left society rotting in corrupt practices among the powerful, someone finally became more concerned with human affairs than with finding proofs for the existence of beings that offer no such evidence of being.
Erasmus was the most famous and influential humanist of the Northern Renaissance. He was, to quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy at length, "a phenomenally productive writer (the most complete edition of his collected works fills ten large folio volumes) and was the first European intellectual to exploit fully the power of the printed word, making the true center of his career not a university or the court of a secular prince or high prelate but the greatest publishing houses of the Netherlands, Paris, Venice, and—above all—Basel. He was a prolific and influential author in many genres. He was a leading writer on education, author of five influential treatises on humanist educational theory, and even a greater number of widely used and often reprinted textbooks taught in humanistic schools throughout Europe. The guides to theological method and exegesis of the Bible that he wrote as prefaces to the 1516 and 1518 editions of the New Testament mark a major turn in theology and the interpretation of Scripture and posed a serious challenge to the scholastic theology that had dominated university faculties of theology since the thirteenth century. The one genre in which Erasmus wrote no works at all was philosophy, though he often cited ancient philosophers and dealt (normally in a non-philosophical way) with several intellectual problems of interest to philosophers."
In those days, humanism was not so much a philosophy, but more of a method of learning that stood in contrast to the medieval scholastic mode. While scholastics focused on resolving contradictions between authors, humanists studied ancient texts in the original and appraised them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence. This is exactly what I am trying to do with my analysis of the survival of the fittest philosophers. So even though he's less of a philosopher and more of a social critic, Erasmus nevertheless marks an important shift in thinking that took place so he is worth noting in this series of essays on the evolution of human philosophy. With that in mind, let's see how Erasmus stacks up.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, early proponent of religious toleration, and theologian. He has been called the Prince of the Humanists, and the crowning glory of the Christian humanists.
Erasmus is most famous for “In Praise of Folly” in which the personification of Folly praises foolish activities of the day, including superstitious religious practices, uncritical theories held by traditional scientists, the vanity of Church leaders, folk beliefs in ghosts and goblins, Christian rituals involving prayers to the saints, and the sale of “indulgence certificates” by the Catholic church to raise money for lavish building projects in return for less time in purgatory. It’s always good to call for an end to wasteful practices that do harm to the species.
Needs to Adapt
Erasmus marks the point where the “new learning” had arrived at the parting of the ways. He tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions. His life seems full of fatal contradictions, but it was his conviction that what was needed to regenerate Europe was sound learning, applied frankly and fearlessly to the administration of public affairs in Church and State. All great, except the applications of this learning would eventually undermine the very existence of a church at all.
When Erasmus was charged with “laying the egg that Luther hatched,” he half admitted the charge but said he had expected quite another bird. Unfortunately he showed cowardice or a lack of purpose by writing that a man may properly have two opinions on religious subjects - one for himself and his intimate friends, and another for the public. Truth should never be hidden from the public. Erasmus probably would not have felt the need to hide his beliefs in later ages, but at least he was another thin wedge cracking the hegemony of the church.
After his death his writings were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s not his writings that have gone extinct, but the idea that a book should ever be banned by a religion. What a shame this Catholic practice occurred for over 400 years from 1559 to 1966.
Not bad. Erasmus is also the man who coined the following famous phrase:
In the country of the blind the one eyed man is king.
And while he did, unfortunately live in very blind times, Erasmus managed to open one eye and also had this sage advice to offer:
You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn.
Would that we all could take such a path and avoid the madness many of our childhoods inflicted…
Phew. Got a satire you'd like to write for fun? Share it in the comments below. I think we could all use a giggle.