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The Great Erasmus

The Colloquies of Erasmus

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

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 Gospel teaching as found in the Book, and the return to pure good letters as found in those hardly less sacred books, the classics.

Erasmus is, or so it seems to me, one of whom the often misapplied term of “Christian humanist” can be used with perfect accuracy. Born in Rotterdam in 1466, he was a true humanist in the precise sense of the term of one concerned with a philological and literary approach to classical texts. And he associated this culture with a Christian program. In his earlier and more hopeful years he believed that a golden age would come when there had arrived an international society of politely learned people, communicating easily with one another in an international language of good Latin. His remedy for the religious disorders was that of a humanist scholar with an intense belief in the sovereign importance of a well-edited text. The remedy was to use the new invention of printing to make available the basic texts of Christianity. Hence the primary labors of his life devoted to the publication and annotation of the New Testament and of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. The secondary activity was the pouring forth of writings like the Colloquies which diffused the Erasmian spirit, critical and kindly, classical and evangelical, the spirit of a Christian man whose culture was purely literary.

The Colloquies began as dialogues on bright and interesting topics designed for use in teaching boys the Latin language; they were expanded in edition after edition to include all the themes most dear to Erasmus, forming a marvelous mirror of the times as seen by a humanist scholar and an evangelical Christian. This genesis of the Colloquies is in a sense illuminating for the Erasmian humanism as a whole. As they developed out of “grammar,” so did Erasmian humanism develop to include his whole religious outlook. Belief in the power of the book, in a good and critically established text, and in the diffusion of such books through printing, is the mainspring of the huge labors of the life of Erasmus, which was passed in close association with the printing press.

Erasmian humanism, though it derived of course from Italian humanism, particularly as developed by Lorenzo Valla, was different from it in that it included the new Christian pietistic spirit of the devotio moderna, diffused in Erasmus’s native country of Holland. Though Erasmus himself never broke with the Catholic Church and was shocked by much in early Protestantism, yet Erasmian humanism was the direct ancestor of Protestant humanism. Probably nowhere did the Erasmian influence take so strong a hold as in England. As the author of this new translation of the Colloquies reminds us, English translations of some of them appeared at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries to encourage the process by disseminating Erasmus’s satires. The Tudor Church was permeated with Erasmian influences; and the substitution of a philological and literary classical culture for the old philosophical culture was to persist as the normal education of a “parson” right through the main periods of English history. The trace of this was stamped on English life, letters, and religion, and, reading the Colloquies, one senses the genesis of so much that is attractive in the “humane” piety of the generations, and also, at times, of the spirit of donnishness.

Now that classical culture is dead, now that the printed book has lost its prestige, we may look back and ask ourselves the question which Huizinga asked. Were Erasmus and his fellow-workers as leaders of civilization on a wrong track? In spite of the gentleness and tolerance which make Erasmianism an oasis for the spirit amidst the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, in spite of the beautiful fruits of human character brought forth in the long tradition of pious literary classicism, did Erasmianism, in fact, introduce a fatal crack in the cultural tradition by its isolation of literature and religion from philosophy and science? The Neoplatonists were perhaps working along an ultimately more hopeful line with their attempts at comparative religion. They were certainly much nearer to the trends eventually leading to the emergence of sevententh-century science, which humanism of the Erasmian type was to drive into an opposite camp.

The new English translation of the Colloquies by Craig R. Thompson, the first complete translation to be published since 1725, renders them in a lively and “colloquial” style which gives that impression of immediate and urgent contact with the reader which was one of Erasmus’s great gifts. In a lucid Introduction, Dr. Thompson indicates the main problems in Erasmus scholarship, including the hardest one of all: Erasmus and Luther. Erasmus and the Reformation. “Printing alone,” he says, “does not explain Erasmus, any more than it explains Luther, who enjoyed the same advantage and exploited it just as successfully.” Though these two men were both concerned with attacking abuses and corruptions in the Church, through the same medium, the fundamental difference in temper between them—through which Luther initiated the schism which Erasmus never intended—is one of the great imponderables of history. When the Reformation got under way, Erasmus found himself in the inevitable position of the tolerant person. Hated by the conservatives for having laid the egg which Luther hatched, execrated by the revolutionaries for his lack of “commitment” amidst the burning issues of the day, what did Erasmus himself think in those last years after the outbreak of the storm? The advocate of Christian tolerance and unity saw the beginnings of the great schism. The pacifist and hater of war watched the growth of a situation which would lead to the most cruel wars that Europe had ever known, the wars of religion of the sixteenth century. The Erasmian dream of the polite Europe bound together in unity under its Christian princes was most painfully shattered by the march of events beyond the control of the scholar in his study. Delicately ironical as he was, how did that scholar react to the coarse bludgeoning of the terrible irony of history? One has the impression that he was too old and ill and tired to face it.

In addition to his general Introduction, Dr. Thompson prefaces each colloquy with a note which leads into the subject of the dialogue and suggests bibliography for following it up. These notes open up routes into a very wide range of subjects; some are better than others, and the best ones are very good indeed; but even for subjects in which the translator seems less at home (Erasmus and Reuchlin for example) some useful help is given. Dr. Thompson promises to provide a further volume of more detailed commentary, and his modest hope that the translation “may be of interest to the reader of general literature, if that old-fashioned character still exists, and useful to students whose special province is the social, literary, and religious history of the Renaissance” is certainly justified.

The research student looking for “sources” will find them staring him in the face, as colloquy after colloquy reminds him of plays or novels. This was one of the most widely read books, not only in the Renaissance but long after; no student of English literature can ignore it. It is immensely rich for students of social history. Erasmus was sympathetic and enlightened in his attitude to women; the learned lady who pleads for advanced education with the reactionary abbot may be Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret Roper. He takes an unusual interest in such subjects as the organization (or lack of organization) of the fish and meat trades. He is horribly fascinated by diseases, particularly syphilis and the plague, and has a shrewd idea that one might catch things in the stove-heated rooms of German inns, which from his description of them seems more than likely. How he hated dirt and stinks! It would be interesting to know whether he was the first to have this highly developed longing for sanitation.

And for the student of human nature, this book is the revelation of a most extraordinary character. In spite of the solemn question which I have asked as to the rightness of the direction which Erasmus took, there can be no doubt that he is himself a wonderful example of the development of a richly humane personality out of Christian humanism. Irritable through overwork and through an oversensitive physical organization he often was, but the Colloquies give one a sense of someone moving in an environment full of friends and of enemies, too; Erasmus reacted quickly to human contact and never forgot a friend. And then what shall one say of the humor? Very few writers can really make one laugh, even those with a reputation for wit. But Erasmus can.

This book makes accessible in a readable and attractive translation a great feast of learning and humanity. And the godly aspect of the feast raises questions which have been of infinite significance in the religious history of Europe.

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