The Great Erasmus

The Colloquies of Erasmus

translated by Craig R. Thompson
Chicago, 662 pp., $15.00

Erasmus; drawing by David Levine

This book is fascinating reading now. How the Colloquies must have been devoured when first-rate journalism was a thing as yet unknown, a thing only just made possible by the then newborn art of printing. For a women’s page on how to manage your husband read “Marriage.” Or for an exposé of conditions in students hostels in Paris, read “A Fish Diet.” Or for an up-to-date coverage of a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury just before the Reformation, read “A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake.” What treasure of gold and silver and gems as big as eggs glitter in this dimly lighted shrine; what constant unhygienic kissing of unsavory relics; what comic patter by the guides; what sharp little vignettes—for instance, the crowd of old men from an almshouse rushing at the pilgrim on the narrow part of the road with St. Thomas’s shoe to be kissed. The mystery of medieval Canterbury recedes as we make the pilgrimage with this most amusing man, who is as germ-conscious as any modern tourist in backward countries.

But the brilliant writer, making a first use of the opportunity provided by the new medium to reflect critically and to influence profoundly the life of his times is only one aspect of the complex phenomenon which is summed up under the name, Erasmus. The classical scholar, the fervent believer in “good letters,” good Latinity, in a literary culture based exclusively on classical authors as the only basis of true education—in short, Erasmus the humanist is present on every page of the Colloquies. This it was which made his every utterance so impressive. Here was a man steeped in the New Learning, who wielded the new Latin with infinite flexibility and skill, who could draw on inexhaustible funds of apt learned allusion. How fashionable was this new style of Erasmus’s and how intensively it was to be imitated.

Beneath all these enormous attractions lay the vein of religious seriousness, giving weight and timeliness to these fascinating writings. Beginning with Erasmus’s curiously modern physical sensitivity which made him unable to support the stink of rotten salt fish, the dialogue between a fishmonger and a butcher in “A Fish Diet” passes on to the theme of spiritual liberty, where for a blind following of man-made ordinances, such as the rules for fasting, he calls for the substitution of a true effort to follow the Gospel teachings. The kindly and gentle evangelical religion is supported by a classical nurture which interprets its favorite ancient authors as Christians before Christianity, as in the famous invocation to Saint Socrates in the charming colloquy called “The Godly Feast.” In this essay, friends meet in a beautiful garden for a banquet; their talk passes easily and happily from witty classical allusion to devout examination of Scriptural texts. This feast of learning and piety sums up Erasmus’s panacea for the times, the return to pure…

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