The lesson of Erasmus: the center that could not hold

The return of the civilian

“On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them”
-Niccolò Machiavelli

The sentiments expressed above are typical of Renaissance men, prone to archaisms and love of ancient learning. As all stylized facts are, the dichotomy between a dark Middle Ages and a flourishing Renaissance are clearly overwrought, and an artifact in some ways of the reality that the victors write history. A passionate intellectual such as Abelard is clearly a familiar figure despite the reality that he flourished in the early part of the High Middle Ages. And the period described in Aristotle’s Children was not lacking in brilliance on the whole.

But generalizations also have a basis. Henry the VIII reputedly wrote Defence of the Seven Sacraments as a rebuke to the assaults from the nascent Protestant tradition. For his services the Pope gave the king the title Defender of the Faith. It is no surprise that Thomas More “aided” in the composition, but the point is that a Renaissance monarch was expected to be a cultured individual for whom writing a theological treatise was not ludicrous.

Though one should not take the analogy too far, in some ways the polities of the medieval period in Western Europe exhibited a social structure not unlike that of the Bronze Age. Literacy was one of the hallmarks of Romanitas, and later of Christian civilization. But literacy was not broad-based in Western Europe, but rather concentrated in a particular caste, that of the priests. In the Bronze Age literacy was also defined by its caste association, that of the scribes. In contrast, kings fought. Their rule was by divine right, whether as living gods on earth, or as vice-reagents of the national deity. Similarly, monarchs during the medieval period ruled as representatives of the God on high.

During the Iron Age the antipodes of Eurasia were dominated by polities and civilizations which were predicated on military rule, but at whose peak civilian norms reigned supreme. Even as militaristic a figure as Julius Caesar was a cultural patron who also wrote The Gallic Wars. Similarly the Chinese emperors were manifestly civilian figures, who often also had personal skills in the arts which they cultivated. It wasn’t until the reign of the emperor Justin in the year 518 that Rome first had an illiterate ruler (and this is implausible enough that some historians attribute this claim as one intended to be scurrilous toward Justin and his successor and nephew, Justinian).

The fall of the Western Roman Empire ended this civilian ascendancy, which in any case was being eroded by the necessary rise of military emperors to defend the borders against barbarian incursions. Once the German tribes, Roman allies or not, took the reins of power there were deep fundamental transformations of the order of society. Though great rulers such as Charlemagne were patrons of learning and Roman civilization, he himself remained very much a barbarian warlord.

The ruling elite of medieval Europe were manifestly a military elite. The feudal system demanded that they provide service in the armies of their lords, and that service entailed outfitting themselves and a retinue. Martial skills were a necessity. The legacy of this physical aspect to being part of the ruling elite persists down to the present day. Both of the two young princes in the House of Windsor have had military careers, while hunting remained a major part of every nobleman’s life down to the early modern period (apparently Louis XVI’s diaries are filled with days which simply state “went hunting”).

The gun and the printing press

Events such as the Battle of Crecy, the rise of the Swiss infantry, and the ubiquity of the gun, heralded the end of the military elite as a necessity. Gentility of birth became a matter of mores and manners, and the reemergence of an almost classical model of education and cultivation took hold.

Along with the the rise of the gun, there was the printing press. The existence of ancient graffiti in Egypt and Rome tells us that we should be cautious about assuming that literacy was rare in antiquity, but we should also admit that it was not quite common (when men of the lower classes were allowed in the legions in the late republic there were accommodations made for the fact that many would be illiterate).

The printing press was a technology that made production of printed works much easier. And so Europe was indudated with pamphlets and books. This was not always due to the literate content, as illustrations were quite influential. But it is hard to deny that this spread of information technology probably triggered a blooming of the “republic of letters” not out of chance, but necessity. The intellectuals of the medieval period were by and large clerics, but now they were joined by newly emerged urban professionals and the leisured nobility.

The Age of the Princes and their Liberal Critic

As medieval Western Christendom entered into the final stages of putrefaction something new was ripening within it. I do not believe it is coincidental that the Iberian powers were pushing forward and exploring the world beyond Europe in the decades before Martin Luther, and during the same period new learning was overturning the long reigning scholasticism.

At the center of much of the cultural religious ferment was Desiderius Erasmus. Born in 1466, he was the illegitimate son of a priest, and became a priest himself. After a fashion he was man of the later medieval period, born of a cleric who violated his vows of chastity, in the decades after the papacy was riven between different claimants, and conciliarism attempted to throw the Western Church back to a more antiquated style of governance. This was the age of the Borgia and Medici popes.

Erasmus’ accomplishments are legion in the field of humanities. Today he would be a stellar public intellectual, as well as a productive research scholar. He was the prince of the republic of letters of his day.

Like many Catholic reformers Erasmus aimed to sweep the superstition from his faith, and mocked and criticized the corruptions that he saw in the Church. With his pen he attempted to reform Christian civilization in his own image, sincere of faith and theologically orthodox, shorn of the idolatrous excesses of the medieval Catholicism, with its cult of saints and Marian devotions, as well as contemptuous of the hypocrisy of the clerical class as a whole (though still reverential of its role in performing the sacraments).

Erasmus was instrumental in the rebirth of the liberal arts in Europe in his day. But it seems clear that Erasmus was also fundamentally a liberal person in his attitude toward deviation from what he himself thought was true and right. And, events at the end of his life also suggest that he was much more accepting of the imperfections of the institutions which he critiqued throughout his whole life than others would be.

The Age of the Zealot

The last 19 years of Erasmus’ life overlapped with the Reformation. At the peak of his fame and influence men such as Luther reached out to him, but Erasmus did not return their enthusiasm in kind. The Reformation unleashed atavistic passions, and much of the world Erasmus had known, that he had critiqued and chided, collapsed before him.

Where Erasmus inveighed against the corruption of the Catholic Church, zealous new converts to the Protestant cause destroyed church property and relics, and expelled priests from their territory. When the Jews did not convert to Luther’s form of Christianity, he attacked them. When the peasants rose up against their lords, analogizing their rebellion to that of Luther and his colleagues, he justified their slaughter. When Erasmus temporized Luther attacked him.

Though there were long periods of peace in the decades after Erasmus’ death, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre became emblematic of an age. The period of the Reformation is also one of the age of Wars of Religion. The whole map of Europe transformed due to religious disputes, and between 25 to 50 percent of the population of the German nation died during the Thirty Years War due to causes rooted in the war itself.

In Northern Europe they burned witches. In Southern Europe the inquisition was in full effect. In France Protestants and Catholics lived separate lives, until the French monarchy gave the Protestants a choice of conversion or emigration.

Ideas With Consequences

In Erasmus’ life and work we see the shadow of the future. Some figures just subsequent to him, such as Montaigne, echoed his liberality of spirit. But they were marginalized for centuries by the intolerance of Luther, the controlling character of Calvin, and the machinations of the Jesuits. The power of monarchs grew, as they dispossessed the Catholic Church, or claimed that the Catholic Church gave them divine right to rule.

Charity toward those with whom one disagreed with, a plea of Erasmus in his later  years, disappeared. And what reason had the Catholics to be generous to the Protestants after the iconoclastic attacks on their sacred sites and objects? Protestants when they were expelled or forcibly converted by Catholics? Reformed when they were driven out of Lutheran and Catholic lands? Baptists when they were oppressed everywhere?

The decline of the centrality of fighting as the primary task of nobles, and the rise of humanist and cultured values among the aristocracy, was coincident with wars which tore the fabric of Europe apart for generations, over and over.

The Exhausted Return

Of course as I write today in 2017 the figure of Erasmus strikes many moderns, whatever our religious inclinations, as an admirable one. His emphasis on heart, and the fact that his heart was in the right place, are appealing. His liberality of spirit, his low tolerance for hypocrisy and corruption, but acceptance of genuine disagreement due to human fallibility, are characteristics many of us would wish we could cultivate more.

But it’s nearly 500 years since he died, and it took about two centuries after he died for the long road to enlightenment to put us where we are now. Erasmus shows us that a moderate position, taking the middle path, speaking in the language of intellectuals, has difficulties with the zealots who spew the argot of the street. John Calvin had a humanist education, as did many of the Reformers were humanists, but that did not prevent him from burning a heretic and giving voice to his inner totalitarian (though I do understand that Geneva was not totalitarian in a way we would understand it today). Humanism became a tool, part of one’s education, as opposed to the broad liberal minded spirit with Erasmus exemplified.

When learning is instrumentalized, when it is reduced purely to a tool in the service of society, that enslavement saps something out of its spirit. The idea of truth, the valorization of it above other things, likely does have broader cultural consequences. Without truth, I believe that our species reverts to zero-sum and negative-sum “games.” That was our past. I believe it could be our future.

 

4 thoughts on “The lesson of Erasmus: the center that could not hold

  1. Very interesting post, Razib.

    The most common explanation I’ve seen for the link between printing and literacy is that printing made literacy a tool of recreation. Reading books, if you can afford them, is a good way to pass the time.

    Your first paragraph from Machiavelli is very reminiscent of the way that Orthodox Jews view traditional learning. Regular Talmud study, before or after work, is like leaving the everyday world behind and “entering the Yeshiva of the ancient rabbis”. It helps that the Talmud is structured as a conversation / debate.

  2. His name is probably best known to millions of European university students as the EU programme that funded their year abroad since 1987. I don’t know if Emmanuel Macron was an Erasmus student, but a comment I saw shortly after his victory walk at the Louvre, to the adopted Theme of the European Union, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, was that he was the first major EU political leader of the Erasmus generation.

  3. “25 to 50 percent of the population of the German nation died during the Thirty Years War”

    Whenever I see a tragic war stat like that, I reflexively think, “predictable war due to overstrained agricultural carrying capacity (given farming technologies at that time)”.

    So, am I wrong to guess that at the period leading up to Thirty years’ war, Germany’s arable land base had been relatively underexploited for a few centuries, as the population-size was recovering from the period of the Black Death, and then arable land-use was maxed out right before the Thirty Years’ bloodbath?

    {I may be way off base, but that’s the pessimistic-reductionist mental model I have about war: “Historic accounts of cause are usually fancy talk about monkeys behaving as monkeys must behave around access to calories and mating prospects”.}

    Then, going back to the Reformation, then forward to today, I see the immediate post-Columbus Americas, after having been conveniently de-populated-by Old-World pathogens, providing Europe with E-Z resources aplenty for illusion of Euro Enlightenment-and colonialist “liberal-civilized-peaceful” afterglow, and now the Americas are full, world wars 1 and 2 as resources become strained, the world is people-filled, at agricultural carrying capacity, our simian backbrains know it, and whoopee, enormous populace-culling bloodbaths commence, with complaints about “PC”, “SJW’s” etc, and yes, real questions of conduct and personal responsibility are unfortunately just window-dressed agita, as the animal-deep but unstated comprehension of resource-impingements is what’s driving…

    Or am I way off base? I’m not steeped in these scenarios like many of Razib’s readers are.

    Of Course! I’d like to think the global situation is, even now, resolvable via course-corrections arrived at by compassionate Reason..

  4. You could key the reader in early to your central idea by putting the most interesting part of your post, which is the last paragraph, first.

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