Does Erasmus have anything to teach us in the 21st century?

portrait of Erasmus by Holbein

a talk given 10 March 2009 at Trinity Western University, in Langley, British Columbia, at the invitation of Kimberly Franklin, dean of the College of Teaching

By Jim Forest

My interest in Erasmus is long standing, though I’m not an Erasmus scholar. In fact, not being a Latinist, I can only read him in translation. Nonetheless Erasmus has been an influence in my life ever since I first read his best-known book, The Praise of Folly. What renewed my interest and inspired this text was attending a major Erasmus exhibition at the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam this past January.

It was in Rotterdam that Erasmus was born in 1466, the illegitimate son of a priest and a physician’s daughter. His early education occurred mainly at a renowned school in the Dutch town of Deventer. His educators were the Brothers of the Common Life, best remembered for a book, The Imitation of Christ, written a generation earlier by one of the members of that community, Thomas à Kempis. Erasmus later went to Paris to further his education. He was ordained a priest in 1492, the same year that Columbus made his first voyage to the New World.

Erasmus became one of the greatest writers and scholars not only of his era but of western civilization. All Europe was his home. At various times he lived in Holland, England, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. No matter where he was, he seems never to have felt out of place. His friendships were numerous, one of the closest being with Thomas More, “the man for all seasons” who paid with his life for declining to support Henry VIII in the matter of the king’s divorce from his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Henry’s related decision to declare himself head of the Church in England.

The Praise of Folly, written in a week’s time as a gift for Thomas More, uses satire not only to expose — chiefly with sympathy — the irrationalities that ensnare so many of us, but also to reveal his most profound thoughts. In the book, Folly — dressed in the colorful, bell-embellished costume of a medieval professional fool — rises to the lector’s pulpit before a crowded assembly to defend herself from her detractors, pointing out that, after all, she alone “has the power to bring joy to both gods and men.” In her oration, she targets every sort of human being and social enterprise, from those who worship money to idolaters of power, from the sex-driven to those for whom the table provides the meaning and purpose of life.

The religious follies of Christians are among her targets — for example those who would rather venerate the relics of saints and walk to faraway shrines than live according to the example of Christ, for, as Erasmus said, “it is easier to kiss a bone than to forgive a neighbor.” In its mischievous way, The Praise of Folly is ultimately a defense of Christ’s Gospel, whose teachings — to love God and neighbor, to grant forgiveness, to heal, to care for those in need, to give rather than to take, to live in peace — are so often dismissed as foolishness but which, in fact, are the only true wisdom.

Hard as Erasmus’ book was on the rulers of state and church — it wasn’t a work many popes or kings would have offered to friends as a gift — it was so funny that it’s more than likely all Europe’s rulers read it themselves when no one was looking. The Praise of Folly went through numerous printings across Europe.

Few writers of Erasmus’ generation wrote or published so much. Erasmus is sometimes thought of as the first man to take full advantage of the printing press. Kenneth Clarke remarks that the printing press “made Erasmus, and unmade Erasmus” — made him in the sense of his being widely read and greatly respected, unmade him in the sense that he sometimes got into hot water for what he wrote. Clarke goes on to say that Erasmus “had all the qualifications [a writer requires]: a clear, elegant style (in Latin, of course, which meant that he could be read everywhere, but not by everyone), opinions on every subject, even the gift of putting things so that they could be interpreted in different ways. … [T]he extraordinary thing is what a huge following he had and how close Erasmus, or the Erasmian point of view, came to success. It shows that many people, even in a time of crisis, yearn for tolerance and reason and simplicity of life — in fact for civilization.”

Nothing is rarer than an academic celebrity, but Erasmus — though living in an age without publicists — belonged to that special category. Only the more important kings and queens of the period were the subjects of so many portraits. Paintings and engravings of Erasmus were to be found across Europe done by such artists as Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Massys. Today these paintings are treasures of such museums as the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Among Erasmus’ most important projects was a new Latin translation of the New Testament that corrected some of the errors made by St. Jerome and others translators in earlier centuries. He also edited a massive collection of proverbs and adages to many of which he added commentaries. He was the author of collections of colloquies — play-like conversations that were intended as teaching aids for students learning Latin and rhetoric, but which also served as a means for Erasmus to popularize his ideas, many of which had to do with the renewal of Christianity.

Erasmus was one of the great Christian reformers — a relentless critic of the sins and shortcomings of the Catholic Church as it was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. His influence on Luther was huge, yet, unlike Luther and others who became advocates of schism, Erasmus refused to sanction splitting the Church or becoming part of any splinter group. Not only did he take seriously Christ’s commandment that his followers should remain together in unity, but he was put off by the incivility and humorlessness of the fierce Protestants he knew. “I have seen them,” he wrote, “return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. Their faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”

While himself involved in many debates, Erasmus argued that not every question need to be given a final answer in this life. There are various ways of understanding many aspects of Christian teaching, but what is very clear is we have to love each other. By all means let us debate our points of view, and learn what we can in the process, but then patiently wait until we reach the next world to find out who, if anyone, was right.

Pope Julius Excluded from Heaven

Even so, words can be as inflammatory as matches and Erasmus sometimes lit matches. In one of his most famous satires, “Julius Excluded,” the highly militaristic pope of the time, Julius II, is shown, just after death, standing impatiently at the gates of heaven, military armor gleaming under his papal robes, demanding that Peter open the door and roll out the red carpet. Julius has in his hand a golden key but unfortunately it doesn’t fit the lock. It turns out to be the key of worldly power, not a key to the kingdom of heaven. Despite Julius’ furious demands to clear the way, Peter — though a mere fisherman, as Julius has pointed out — won’t budge. “I admit only those,” Peter tells Julius, “who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison.” One could get into very hot water by ridiculing a man as powerful as Pope Julius, who was very much alive at the time. Erasmus never actually denied writing “Julius Excluded,” but felt it was prudent to take distance from the text by asking such a rhetorical question as, “Who could possibly believe me so foolish as to author such imprudent words?”

For all his criticism of popes who lived more like kings and generals than ambassadors of Christ, Erasmus sought to hold the middle ground in the religious earthquakes of his time. He opposed the promoters of division, urging patience, dialogue and toleration. But such a stand is rarely popular in a time of conflict, with leaders on both sides insist that whoever is not with me is against me. Luther was bitterly disappointed with Erasmus for failing to do as he had done. The fact that Erasmus remained Catholic didn’t, however, mean that he was esteemed by the popes of the Counter-Reformation. When the Catholic Church decided to publish a list of prohibited books, all the works Erasmus were placed on the Index.

Erasmus was also the most articulate advocate of peace in his time. As someone who was read and respected by rulers and their advisers, through letters and published works Erasmus repeatedly strove to prevent war. “There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely destructive [than war], nothing more deeply tenacious or more loathsome.…Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?” One of his sayings was: “Man is a creature born without claws.” Like many artists of the period, he saw death itself striding triumphantly at the end of all military expeditions and parades.

In The Complaint of Peace, a small book that has much in common with The Praise of Folly, Peace herself rises to complain about how much her name is praised by one and all yet how few live peaceful lives. “Without me,” she points out, “there is no growth, no safety for life, nothing pure or holy, nothing agreeable,” while war is “a vast ocean of all the evils combined, harmful to everything in the universe.” Again and again, we turn our backs on peace and set off to kill those whom we currently regard as enemies or whose territory and wealth we covet. It would be unfair to lions to compare them to human beings. “Only men, who above all other species should agree with one another and who need mutual understanding most of all, fail to be united in mutual love … not even by the awareness of the many evils resulting from war.”

Erasmus was a scholar. Probably his best known words these days are, “When I have money, I buy books, then, if anything is left over, I buy food and clothing.” In his early years, he often didn’t have money, which is lucky for us as, thanks to his occasionally empty pockets, economic necessity forced him to turn to teaching, and thus not only to take an ever-deepening interest in how best to help students develop their gifts but also to take issue with teaching methods that he was convinced had little or no positive effect, or even did great harm. It seemed to him the future of the human race depended to a great extent on what happens in classrooms. “Education.” he said, “is of far greater importance than heredity in forming character.”

Holbein’s drawing of a teacher thrashing a young student

If you look at paintings or engravings of the classrooms of Erasmus’ day, one of the details rarely if ever left out is the bundle of birches held firmly in the teacher’s hand, ready at a moment’s notice to strike any offending pupil. In a margin of Erasmus’ own copy of The Praise of Folly, Holbein drew a teacher with a handful of birches beating a bare-bottomed child. In the same book, Erasmus notes how many classrooms were little more than “beating mills.” Many of the students’ talents and good qualities were destroyed rather than fostered. Erasmus would surely have agreed with Bob Dylan’s remark that “the only difference between schools and old age homes is that more people die in schools.” What was obvious to Erasmus was that dread of teachers completely undermines the climate of learning. Think of the David Copperfield in his childhood cowering before his stepfather, holding a rod and poised to beat the boy the moment his recitation falters.

What would Erasmus think of our school systems today? It was his view that the classroom isn’t for everyone. If a student consistently behaved in such a way that it made clear an aversion to study, then Erasmus thought it was best to free him from the classroom and send him back to the plow. What was needed were not birches but the development of an attitude on the part of the teacher, coupled with appropriate methods, methods that made learning, as much as possible, a delight for both student and teacher.

Because Erasmus believed in a close relationship developing between teacher and student, he believed in small classes — one teacher to five students was his ideal number. This is because the larger the class, the harder it is for a teacher to really know each student, and vice versa.

One gets a glimpse of Erasmus’ approach to building student-teacher relationships by reading a letter he sent in 1498 to one of his first students, Christian Northoff, who was apparently away at the time and had failed to write. “If you don’t break your silence,” Erasmus told him, “I will call you a scamp, hangman, rascal, rake, criminal, blasphemer, monster, phantom, manure pile … wastrel, jailbird, scourge, cat-of-nine-tails or any other abuse I can think of.” My guess is his student replied in equally funny terms. In the process, it was clearer than ever to him just how much he mattered to Erasmus.

Erasmus saw teaching as an art whose foundation is respect and love. The classroom must provide an environment of warmth and good humor. Several of the books for which Erasmus was to become famous in his lifetime were teaching manuals, books through which Erasmus sought to share with other teachers the methods he found most effective.

While these methods are not ones that could easily be copied in today’s educational world, it is nonetheless interesting to be aware of Erasmus’ reliance on memorizing adages — sayings and proverbs — and then discussing their meanings. His largest collection contained 3,000 adages, among them “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Then there is “the folly of taking owls to Athens.” One gets an impression of his method from a portrait of a young scholar painted in 1531, five years before Erasmus’ death, by Jan van Scorel. The proverb the boy has written on the paper he holds in his left hand reads, “The Lord provides everything yet has nothing less,” while the text at the base of the painting reads: “Who is rich? He who desires nothing. Who is poor? The man who is greedy.”

Education, of course, was far more than memorization of proverbs. Erasmus advocated a spirit of freedom and inquiry. As he wrote: “When faith came to be in writings rather than in hearts … contention grew hot and love grew cold. … That which is forced cannot be sincere, and that which is not voluntary cannot please Christ.”

The emphasis here is on freedom, not in the sense of simply doing as you please, but freedom in the sense of acts that occur in relations of love and respect.

Erasmus put great stress on conversation and the art of dialogue. Without dialogue, how could we become people capable of living in peace? He produced a steady stream of model conversations — colloquies, he called them — which provided those using them with models of well-framed communication while at the same time introducing a wide range of topics that stretched one’s intellectual and spiritual borders. Precisely because these were dialogues, at least two viewpoints were presented, and both sides at their best and most convincing. One side might be a series of arguments in favor of the monastic life and celibacy, the other of marriage and parenthood. The result for students was learning to see things from more than one point of view and developing a capacity to respect opinions other than one’s own.

One of the great admirers of Erasmus was Roland Bainton, longtime professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale. In his biography, Erasmus of Christendom, Bainton offers this observation: “Education for Erasmus did not consist in drawing out of the pupil what was not there. The student must first be steeped in the knowledge and wisdom of the ages. Only thereafter is he in a position to express himself.”

For Erasmus education was far more than a process of acquiring information, certain skills and a facility with languages, but of acquiring wisdom, or at least being in a state that makes one more capable of acquiring wisdom. A tall order. I cannot recall often hearing the word “wisdom” being used or its meaning discussed in any classroom in which I was a student.

One last comment regarding Erasmus as educator: Probably he would have loved the internet. What is certain is that he placed great value on visual aids and saw the printing press as a boon for teachers. What a difference it makes for a student to see and not simply hear about a fabulous creature. One can imagine Dürer’s famous engraving of a rhinoceros hanging in one of Erasmus’ classrooms. After all, Erasmus and Dürer were good friends. Erasmus owned some of Dürer’s engravings of biblical scenes. These would provided the sort of classroom imagery that Erasmus welcomed. Whether an image of an animal a student had never seen or of the Annunciation, pictures seen day after day in a classroom will never be forgotten and may contribute, each in its own way, to the development of wisdom. For finally what mattered most to Erasmus was that he might pass on to his students not only the love of learning, but the love of God and neighbor.

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a set of Erasmus-related photos is in this folder in my Flickr site:

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