Desiderius ERASMUS To The THEOLOGIAN MARTIN DORP and the Textus Receptus
I haven't had your letter, but a friend in Antwerp showed me a copy. I don't know how he came by this. I see you think that the publication of Folly was unfortunate, warmly approve of my painstaking restoration of the text of Jerome, and are against my bringing out an edition of the New Testament. You are far from offending me by this letter of yours, my dear Dorp, indeed you are now much dearer to me, dear though you always were before such is the candour of your advice, the friendliness of your admonitions and the affectionate tone of your criticism. Christian charity has the gift of retaining its natural sweetness even when it is most severe. I receive many letters daily from learned men which hail me as the glory of Germany, as the sun or the moon, and pile on such splendid titles by way of a compliment, and I really find this rather overwhelming. I swear on my life that not one of them has given me so much pleasure as that censorious from my friend Dorp.
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As Paul rightly says, charity is never at fault. If she praises, she wishes to do good, if she takes offence her intention is the same, and I only wish I could answer your letter at my leisure and acquit myself properly to such a friend. I am very anxious for your approval in all I do, for I think so highly of your almost godlike ability, your exceptional learning and your outstandingly perceptive judgement, that I would rather have a single vote from Dorp in my favour than a thousand from elsewhere. At the moment I'm still feeling rather sick from the channel crossing and tired from being on horseback, and I also have a lot to do sorting out my bits of baggage, but I thought it better to send a reply of sorts than to leave a friend thinking as you do - whether you formed your opinion unaided or it was put into your head by others who prevailed on you to write your letter so that they could masquerade under another name.
The reference to St. Paul in this paragraph alludes to 1 Corinthians xiii, 4-8 but is inexact.
On Martin Dorp and the circumstances of Erasmus's letter, see the third section of the introduction, p.49. Erasmus, having just returned from England, was on his way to Strasbourg and Basle. This letter was first printed by Froben at Basle in August 1515 with three other important letters. All four were considerably expanded versions of what had actually been sent. However, even if we do not know the length of the original letter, Erasmus's references to sickness and fatigue have a touch of the conventional disclaimer about them.
The letter to Dorp has regularly been printed as an appendix to the Folly from 1516. Like the Folly, it underwent a series of additions and corrections during Erasmus's lifetime.
First of all, then, to be frank, I almost regret myself that I published Folly. That little book has brought me fame, or reputation, if you prefer. But I've no use for fame combined with odium, and heaven knows, what is popularly called fame is nothing but an empty name and a legacy from paganism. Several expressions of this kind linger on amongst Christians, who give the name of immortality to the reputation one leaves to posterity, and virtue to a taste for the arts of any kind.
My sole aim in publishing all my books has always been to do something useful by my industry, and if I can't achieve that, at least to do no harm. There are plenty of examples of men (even great ones) who abuse their learning to serve their passions,
one singing his foolish loves, another using flattery to win favour, a third hitting back with his pen when provoked by insult, a fourth blowing his own trumpet and outdoing Thraso or Pyrgopolynices in singing his own praises.
Now my own talent is slender and my education scanty, but at least I've always aimed at doing good, if I could, or anyway at hurting no one. Homer worked off his hatred for Thersites by drawing a cruel picture of him in the Iliad. Plato censured a lot of people by name in his dialogues, and whom did Aristotle spare, when he had no mercy for Plato and Socrates? Demosthenes could vent his fury on Aeschines, Cicero on Piso, Vatinius, Sallust and Antony, and many names mentioned by Seneca are the victims of his ridicule and scorn. To turn to more recent examples, Petrarch similarly took up his pen against a doctor, Lorenzo against Poggio, and Politian against Scala. Can you name me a single person whose self-restraint is sufficient to stop him writing a harsh word against anyone? Even Jerome, serious and pious as he was, sometimes couldn't prevent himself from flaring up against Vigilantius, or from excessive abuse of Jovinian and bitter attacks on Rufinus. The learned have always been in habit of committing their joys and sorrows to paper, as a faithful companion into whose bosom they can pour out all the turbulence of the heart. Indeed, there are people to be found whose sole purpose in starting to write a book is to find an outlet for their emotions and thus transmit these to posterity.
Thraso is the boasting soldier of Terence's Eunuch who hopes to attract his girl by vaunting his prowess. Pyrgopohynices was the name of Plautus's boastful soldier. Homer's attack on Thersites is in the Iliad (2, 215 ff.). Aristotle's disrespect for Plato and Socrates rests only on calumny and conjecture. Aeschines was an orator of the fourth century B.C. accused by Demosthenes of accepting bribes. Lucius Calpurnius Piso, consul and governor of Macedonia, was accused by Cicero of peculation and maladministration in 55 B.C. The other victims of Cicero mentioned are Vatinius, with whom Cicero was reconciled after a political dispute, Sallust, who opposed him at Milo's trial for murder in 52 B.C. and Antony, against whom Cicero wrote the Philippics in 44 B.C. Petrarch wrote his invective Against a Doctor to defend himself against attack. Lorenzo Valla carried on a sustained battle with his fellow-humanist Poggio in the fifteenth century. Politian's dispute on Latin usage with the Florentine Chancellor Bartolomeo Scala took place in the late fifteenth century.
Vigilantius' late fourth-century attack on the cult of martyrs' relics and miracles is today known only through Jerome's attacks on him. St. Jerome also attacked Jovinian for denying the value of celibacy and Rufinus for defending Origen after Jerome had come to regard him as heretical.
In this letter, now signed with his own name, Erasmus preserves echoes of Folly's voice. The abjuration of the pursuit of fame as pagan and the denunciation of Christians who confuse immortality with posthumous reputation and a taste for the arts suggest that Erasmus, while no doubt sincere, is concerned that the image he is projecting should in some degree accord with the paradoxes of the final pages of the satire. Deprecatory remarks about his education and talent fit into the same mould. But the burden of his apologia is clear: he uses his learning in the interests of good, and he does not attack individuals by name, as Dorp had attacked him. Julius II is not named in the Folly, as Erasmus' calls it. The list of classical and modern precedents for personal attacks fills a prefatory function here analagous to the list of mock encomia in the letter- preface to More.
But in my case, in all the many volumes I have published to date, in which I have praised so many in all sincerity, can you tell me anyone whose reputation I have damaged or besmirched in the slightest? What nation, class of person or individual have I ever censured by name? Yet you little know, my dear Dorp, how often I have been on the point of doing so under provocation from insults which no one should be expected to endure. However, I have always controlled my resentment and thought more of how posterity would judge me than of what the wickedness of my detractors deserved. If the true facts had been known to others as they were to me, no one would have judged me a too sharply censorious, but rather a just, restrained and reasonable man. Then I wonder why others concern themselves with my personal sentiments, or how any criticism of mine can have any influence on other countries or future times. I shall have done what was right for me, not them. Moreover, I've no enemy whom I wouldn't prefer to make my friend, if I could. Why should I bar the way to this, or write against an enemy what I might afterwards regret too late having written against a friend? Why should my pen blacken a character whose purity I could never restore even it were deserved? I would rather err on the side of praising the undeserving than castigating where blame is due. Unmerited praise passes for ingenuousness on the part of the giver, but if you paint in his true colours someone whose conduct calls for nothing but censure, this is attributed to your own sick judgement and not to his deserts. I'll say nothing here of how a serious war can sometimes break out as a result of injuries leading to reprisals and how a dangerous fire is often sparked off by insults bandied to and fro, but if it is unchristian to repay injury with injury, so equally is it undignified to work off resentment by exchange of abuse in the way women do.
It was arguments like these which convinced me that I should keep my writings free from malice and cruelty, unspoilt by naming wrongdoers. My aim in Folly was exactly the same as in my other works. Only the presentation was different. In the Enchiridion I simply outlined the pattern of Christian life. In my little book The Education of the Prince I offered plain advice on how to instruct a prince. In my Panegyric I did the same under the veil of eulogy as I had done elsewhere explicitly. And in Folly I expressed the same ideas as those in the Enchiridion, but in the form of a joke. I wanted to advise, not to rebuke, to do good, not injury, to work for, not against, the interests of men. The philosopher Plato, serious-minded though he is, approves of lavish drinking-matches at banquets because he believes that there are certain faults which austerity correct but the gaiety of wine-drinking can dispel. And Horace thinks that joking advice does as much good as serious. "What stops a man who can laugh," he says, "from speaking the truth?"
This was surely well understood by the famous sages of antiquity who chose to present the most salutary counsel for life in the form of amusing and apparently childish fables, because truth can seem harsh if unadorned, but with something pleasurable to recommend it can penetrate more easily the minds of mortals. No doubt this is the honey which doctors in Lucretius smear on the rim of a cup of wormwood which they prescribe for children. And the sort of fools which princes of former times introduced into their courts were there for the express purpose of exposing and thereby correcting certain minor faults through their frank speech which offended no one. It would perhaps seem inappropriate to add Christ to this list, but if divine matters are at all comparable with human, his parables have surely some affinity with the fables of the ancients. The truth of the gospel slips more pleasantly into the mind and takes firmer grip there if it is attractively clothed than it would if it were presented undisguised, something which St. Augustine amply confirms in his work On Christian Doctrine. I saw how ordinary men were corrupted by opinions of the most foolish kind in every walk of life. I longed to find a remedy more than I hoped for success. And then I believed I had found a means whereby I could somehow insinuate myself into these over-indulged souls and cure them by giving them pleasure. I had often observed how a gay and amusing form of advice like this had happy results in many cases.
On the Enchiridion and The Education of the Prince, see the Introduction (pp. 37-8) and note 115, p. 175. The reference Plato and drinking-matches alludes to the Symposium. The line from Horace is quoted from the Satires (I, I,24-5) and the reference to Lucretius alludes to the de rerum natura, I, 935 ff.
Erasmus's defence of his Folly contains some special pleading. He is trying to win Dorp's support in the controversy which the publication of the Greek New Testament is bound to raise. In claiming that he is reasonable and sweet-tempered, that he has been misjudged and that the Folly does not go beyond the Enchiridion, Erasmus is admitting to less than the whole truth. In quoting Plato, Horace and Lucretius, he is protecting himself behind a little Folly-like banter.
Dorp's letter explained Augustine's advice (in the de doctrina christiana) to have recourse to the Greek sources by the absence at that date of any officially received Latin text of scripture. Since Augustine's day the Greek text, too, had probably become corrupt. Dorp was worried about what Erasmus's Greek text, with its revelations of the Vulgate's inadequacies, would do to the authority of scripture and, by later calling Augustine a 'dialectician', he showed that he wished to use his authority in an anti-humanist sense.
Erasmus, however, knew that Augustine also taught in the de doctrina christiana both the necessity of consulting Hebrew and Greek texts and the necessity of grammatical correction. He therefore here unnecessarily mentions the de doctrina christiana, as if announcing his intention of making Dorp's weapon boomerang on him. In his reply, Dorp juggles with quotations to try
The idea that truth requires to be wrapped in fable if it is to be understood by the simple is neoplatonist. It is exploited later in the century by Dorat and Ronsard.
If you answer that the character I assumed is too frivolous to provide a mouthpiece for a discussion on serious matters, I am ready to admit that I may be at fault. It's the charge of excessive severity I protest against, not that of being foolish, though I could defend myself well against this too, if only by quoting the example of the many serious men whom I listed in the short preface to the book itself. What else could I do? I was on my way back from Italy, staying as a guest in the house of my friend More, where an attack of kidney trouble kept me several days indoors. My books hadn't yet arrived, and even if they had, my illness prevented concentrated application to serious studies. With nothing to do, I began to amuse myself with a eulogy of folly, with no idea of publication but simply as a distraction from the pain of my complaint. Once started, I let some close friends have a look at what I'd done, so as to add to my amusement, by sharing the joke. They were delighted, and urged me to continue. I did as they asked, and spent a week, more or less, on the job: too long, I'm sure, for such a light-weight subject. Then the friends who had persuaded me to write undertook to take the book to France, and there it was printed, though from a faulty and mutilated copy. Proof of its popularity, or lack of it, is the fact that within a few months it was reprinted seven times, in several places. I was amazed myself at the way people liked it. If you call this being foolish, my dear Dorp, I can only plead guilty or at least offer no defence. I played the fool when I had nothing to do and my friends persuaded me, and it's the first time in my life I've done so. Who is wise all the time? You admit yourself that all my other works have been the kind to win warm approval from pious and learned men everywhere. Who are your stern censors or rather, Areopagites who won't forgive a man a single lapse into foolishness? They must be remarkably captious if they are so offended by a single humorous book that they immediately despoil a writer of the credit won from so many previous long hours of serious work. I could produce many fooleries from other sources which are far more foolish than this one, even from the great theologians who think up tedious subjects to provoke argument and then do battle among themselves for these futile futilities as if for hearth and home. Moreover, they play out these ridiculous farces which are far sillier than the Atellan without masks, whereas I show much more modesty. When I wanted to play the fool, I assumed the character of Folly, and just as in Plato Socrates masks his face in order to sing the praises of love, I too have played my comedy in character.
On the mixture of truth and falsehood in Erasmus's account of the circumstances of the Folly's composition, see the Introduction (pp. 48-9). Erasmus always attributed his trouble with kidney stone to the wine he had had to drink while staying at Venice with Aldus in 1507-8. The Areopagites were members of the Areopagus, the Athenian political council which was also a bench of judges, later proverbial for its severity. Atella was the town from which the improvised, masked and often licentious 'Atellan' farces took their name. The reference to Plato alludes to the beginning of the Phaedrus.
You say that even the people who dislike the subject admire my intelligence, learning and eloquence, but are offended by my outspoken severity. Your critics pay me higher compliments than I want. I've no use for praise like this, especially coming from those in whom I find neither intelligence, learning nor eloquence - if they were better endowed in these respects, believe me, my dear Dorp, they wouldn't be so put out by jokes which aim at doing good rather than giving a display of learning and wit. In the Muses' name, I beg you to tell me what sort of eyes and ears and taste these people have if they are offended by severity in that book. In the first place, what severity can there be when no name is singled out for attack except my own? They might have remembered what Jerome is always saying, that a discussion of faults which is general injures no individual. But if anyone does take offence, he has nothing to complain about to the author - he can claim redress for his wrongs from himself, if he likes, for he's his own betrayer in seeing a personal attack in words which were addressed to everyone and so to no one in particular, unless someone wants to claim them for himself. You must have noticed that all the way through I was so careful not to mention any names of persons that I was even unwilling to criticize any nation too sharply, for in the passage where I review the forms of self-love which are special to each country, I assign military glory to the Spaniards, culture and eloquence to the Italians, good looks and fine food to the English, and so on, all things which anyone can recognize in himself without displeasure or indeed can hear about with a smile. And then when I am going through all the types of men, in accordance with the plan I set myself for my theme, and noting the faults peculiar to each, do I ever let fall a word which is venomous or unpleasant to hear? Where do I uncover a cesspool of vice or stir up the secret Camarina of human life? We all know how much could be said against evil pontiffs, wicked bishops and priests and vicious princes, against any class of society, in fact, if, like Juvenal, I had not been ashamed to commit to paper what many are not ashamed to do. All I have done is to recount what is comic and absurd in man, not the unpleasant, but in such a way that in passing I often touch on serious things and give advice which it is important for people to hear.
Folly deals with national characteristics in chapter 43. On the mud of Camarina, See note 100, P.153.
I know you haven't time to descend to trifles like this, but if you ever have a spare moment, do try to look more carefully at those absurd jokes of Folly's. I'm sure you'll find them much more in accordance with the views of the evangelists and apostles than the, dissertations of certain persons are, however splendid they think them and however worthy of the great masters. You admit yourself in your letter that most of what I wrote is true. But you believe it does no good to "wound the delicate ear with sharp-edged truth". If you think that one should never speak freely and that truth should only be told when it gives no offence, why do doctors prescribe bitter drugs and count hierapicra amongst their most valuable remedies? If those who cure the ills of the body use these methods, surely we should do the same when we would heal the diseases of the soul.
The quotation about wounding the delicate ear with sharp-edged truth comes from Persius (Satires, I, 107). 'Hierapicra' is a wonder-working but bitter drug. The reference to St. Paul alludes to 2 Timothy iv, 2. The anecdote concerning Pyrrhus is narrated by Plutarch in his Life of Pyrrhus. Cicero discusses humour towards the end of the second book of the de Oratore and Quintilian in the Institutio oratoria (6, 3). Julius Caesar's willingness to forgive is remarked on by Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars.
Make your appeal, says Paul, argue and reprove, in season and out of season. If the apostle wants faults to be attacked in every possible way, do you really want no sore spot to be touched, even when this is done so gently that no one could possibly be hurt unless he deliberately sets out to hurt himself? Now, if there is any way of mending men's faults without offence to anyone, by far the easiest way is to publish no names. Next best is to restrain oneself from mentioning things which are repugnant to the ears of decent men, for just as some incidents in a tragedy are too horrible to be presented to the eyes of the audience and are better only reported, men have certain traits of character which are obscene to be related with decency. Finally, put everything into the mouth of a comic character so that it will amuse and divert, and the humour of the spoken word will remove any offensiveness. We have all seen how an appropriate and well-timed joke can sometimes influence even grim tyrants. What pleas or serious speech do you think could have calmed the rage of the great king Pyrrhus as easily as the joke the soldier made? "Why, if only our bottle hadn't given out," he said, "we'd have said far worse things about you." The king laughed and pardoned him. And the two greatest orators, Cicero and Quintilian, had every reason for laying down rules for raising a laugh. Speech which has wit and charm has such power to please that we can enjoy a well-turned phrase even if it is aimed at ourselves, as history relates of Julius Caesar.
Now, if you admit that what I've written is true, is enjoyable, and is not obscene, what better means can devised for mending the common ills of men? In the first place, pleasure is what catches a reader's attention and holds it when caught. In other respects no two readers look the same thing, but pleasure wins over all alike, unless someone is too stupid to be sensitive to the pleasures of the written word. And then those who can be offended by a book where no names are mentioned seem to me to react in much the same way as those silly women who get worked up whenever anything is said against a loose living woman as if it were a personal insult to them all, and conversely, if a word of praise is spoken about virtuous women they are as pleased with themselves as if a tribute paid to one or another applies to the whole sex. Men should be far removed from silliness of this kind, learned men further still, and theologians furthest of all! If I come upon charge of which I am innocent, I don't take offence, I gratulate myself on having escaped the evils to which I see many fall victim. But if something is touched on and I see myself mirrored there, that's no reason either for taking offence. If I'm wise I'll hide my feelings and not give myself away. If I'm honest I'll take warning and make sure that I'm not subsequently confronted by name with a reproach which I saw levelled there in general terms. Can't we at least allow my little book what even the ignorant crowd permits popular comedies? How many taunts are freely thrown out there against monarchs, priests, monks, wives, husbands - against anyone in fact? Yet because no one is attacked by name everyone laughs, and either frankly admits or wisely conceals any weakness of his own. The most violent tyrants put up with their clowns and fools, though these often made them the butt of open insults. The emperor Vespasian didn't retaliate when someone said his face looked as if he were excreting. Then who are these ultra-sensitive people, who can't bear to hear Folly herself joking about the common life of men with no personal reproach? The Old Comedy would never have been hissed off the stage if it had refrained from publishing abroad the names of well-known men.
But you, my dear Dorp, write as if my little book of Folly had set the entire body of theologians against me. "Why ever did you have to attack theologians so bitterly?" you ask, and you deplore the fate which awaits me. "Hitherto everyone was all eagerness to read your works and longed to meet you in person. Now Folly, like Davos, has upset everything."
The description of Vespasian's face derives from Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars. Davos is the slave of Horace who told him during the Saturnalia what he felt to be the truth about him (Satires, 2,7)
I know you write this with the best intentions, and I'll give you a straight answer. Do you really think that the whole theological order is disturbed if anything is said against foolish or bad theologians who don't deserve the name? If that were the prevailing law, no one would say a word against criminal men without making the entire human race his enemy. Has any king had the presumption to deny that there have been several bad kings who were unworthy of their position? Or any bishop been too arrogant to admit the same about his own order?
Are the theologians the only order to have amongst their large numbers no one who is stupid, ignorant or quarrelsome? Do we find they are all Pauls, Basils or Jeromes? On the contrary, the more eminent a profession, the fewer people in it can answer to the name. You'll find more good skippers than good princes, more good doctors than good bishops. That is no reproach to an order, but rather a tribute to the few who have conducted themselves nobly in the noblest of orders. So please tell me why should the theologians take more offence, if they really are offended, than kings, nobles, or magistrates, than bishops, cardinals and supreme pontiffs?
Or than tradesmen, husbands, wives, lovers and poets, for Folly doesn't omit any type of mortal, unless they are stupid as to apply to themselves any general criticism of bad men?
St. Jerome addressed his book On Virginity to Julia Eustochium, and in it depicted the character of bad virgins so clearly that a second Apelles couldn't set it so vividly before our eyes. Did Julia take offence? Was she angry with Jerome for disparaging the order of virgins? Not a bit. And why not? Because a sensible virgin would never assume that criticism of her bad sisters was directed at herself. She would in fact welcome such an admonition, where-by the good could take warning against letting themselves deteriorate, and the bad could learn how to change their ways. Jerome wrote On the Life of Clerics for Nepotian, and
On the Life of Monks for Rusticus. He painted a colourful picture of both orders, with some extremely shrewd criticism of their faults. Neither of the two he addressed took offence, for they knew none of it applied to them. Why doesn't William Mountjoy, by no means the lowest of the nobility at court, break off our friendship because of Folly's numerous jokes about courtiers? Because he is as eminently sensible as he is virtuous and quite rightly thinks that criticism of nobles who are bad and stupid has nothing to do with him. How many jokes does Folly make at the expense of bad and worldly bishops? And why is the archbishop of Canterbury not offended? Because he is a man who is an absolute model of all the virtues and concludes that none of them is aimed at himself.
Julia Eustochium took a vow of virginity at the age of eighteen in A.D. 383, the date of St. Jerome's treatise for her. She later directed a convent at Bethlehem. Apelles was the celebrated Greek painter mentioned by Folly (ch. 45, p.136). Nepotian was a young officer of the imperial guard who became a monk. Jerome wrote to him in 394 at his request and, on his early death of fever, he wrote a consolatory letter to his uncle. Rusticus was a monk who corresponded with Jerome from Gaul.
Erasmus is quite aware that Folly included among her followers more than that proportion of theologians corresponding to the proportion of criminals in the human race and more than 'several' kings. He now justifies himself by arguing that the higher the rank, the fewer to be found to fill it worthily, so ironically twisting the
He now goes on tellingly to name the people who have not taken offence. In his letters of the winter 1517-18, when he can add Leo X to the list, he will make more of this argument. For William, Lord Mountjoy, see the Introduction (p. 35). The Archibishop of Canterbury was Erasmus's patron, William Warham.
But I needn't go on naming sovereign princes and all the oher bishops, abbots, cardinals, and distinguished scholars, not one of whom so far has shown the slightest sign of estrangement because of Folly. And I simply can't believe that any theologians are annoyed by this book, unless there are a few of them who fail to understand it or are envious or so grudging by nature that, nothing meets with their approval. There are some individuals amongst them, as is well known, who start off with such wretched ability and judgement that they're unsuited for any form of study, and least of all theology. Then when they've learned up a few rules of grammar from Alexander of Villedieu and dabbled in some sort of sophistic nonsense, they go on to memorize without understanding them ten propositions of Aristotle and the same number of topics from Scotus and Ockham. Anything else they hope to get out of the Catholicon, the Memmetrectus, and other dictionaries of the same sort which will serve them as a Horn of Plenty.
Alexander of Villedieu's thirteenth-century grammar or Doctrinale in rhymed hexameters was a much-used medieval textbook printed a hundred times before 1500. At the end of his treatise on education de pueris ... instituendis (1529), Erasmus is not far from paying it a compliment, perhaps because he must have known it at Deventer. The Catholicon of the thirteenth-century Dominican John Balbi of Genoa was a Biblical encyclopaedia printed as early as 1460 and called Summa grammaticalis valde notabilis, quae Catholicon nominatur. The Mammetrectus was a glossary on the Bible, the lives of the saints and other devotional writings. compiled by one Marchesinus of Reggio of very uncertain date. It was printed in 1470.
But now just look how high they carry their heads! Nothing is so arrogant as ignorance. These are the persons who despise St. Jerome as no more than a grammarian, for they fail to understand him. They pour scorn on Greek and Hebrew, even on Latin, and though they're as stupid as pigs and totally lacking in common sense, they imagine they occupy the citadel of all wisdom.
They all censure, condemn and pass sentence; they've no doubts nor hesitations, and there's nothing they don't know. Yet these two or three individuals often create considerable disturbances, for there's nothing so shameless or so obstinate as their ignorance. It is they who are bent on conspiring against good learning. They aspire to be something in the senate of theologians, and they are afraid that if good learning is reborn and the world given new life, they will be shown up as knowing nothing though hitherto they were generally believed to know all. Theirs is the outcry and opposition, theirs the combined attack on men who devote themselves to good learning. They are the ones who dislike Folly, because they understand neither Greek nor Latin. If a harsh word is spoken against these bogus theologians who are only putting on an act, what has that to do with the true theologians, an order of genuine distinction? For if it is their pious fervour which makes them upset, why is their anger specially directed against Folly? How much impiety, indecency and invective is there in Poggio's writings? Yet he is cherished every where as a Christian author and translated into nearly every language. Doesn't Pontano attack the clergy with insult and abuse? But he is read for his elegance and wit. How much obscenity is there in Juvenal? But people think he provides a useful lesson even in the pulpit. Tacitus wrote insultingly and Suetonius with hostility against Christians; Pliny and Lucian both scorned the idea of the immortality of the soul; yet they are read by everyone for their learning and rightly so. It is only Folly who is unacceptable, simply because she amused herself with witticisms not at the expense of true theologians who are worthy of their but name, against the trivial disputes of the ignorant and the absurd title of Our Master.
Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (I380-I459), whose invective Lorenzo Valla Erasmus has already referred to (see note 2 p.214), spent his life as a layman in the service of the Roman curia and unearthed unknown manuscripts of many important ancient authors. He was devoted to classical studies but, like many of the humanists, also wrote works of history. His collection of largely indecent satirical material known as the Facetiae and aimed particularly at monks and priests was widely translated by 1500.
Giovanni Pontano (I429-1503) was the Latinist president of the academy which later bore his name. His voluminous writings included a series of lively Lucianic dialogues. Dorp's reply to Erasmus particularly objected to his invocation of Poggio and Pontano models.
Erasmus goes on to allude to Juvenal's well-known obscenities, to the anti-Christian passages of Tacitus (Annales, 15, 44) and Suetonius (Life of Nero), to Pliny's materialism and to Lucian's
The absurd title of 'Magister Noster' refers to the end of chapter 52 of Folly. The first of Ulrich von Hutten's Letters of Obscure Men(1515) makes considerable play of it.
Two or three of these charlatans, tricked out in theological fashion, are trying to stir up resentment against me on the grounds that I have injured and alienated the order of theologians. For my part, I value theological learning so highly that I give the name of learning to nothing else. I admire and revere the whole order so much that I am enrolled as a member of it alone, and wish for nothing more, though modesty forbids me to assume such a distinguished title. I know the standards of learning and life which the name of theologian requires.
There is something in the profession of theology which is beyond human capacity. It is an honour which belongs to bishops, not to people like me.
For me it's enough to have learned the Socratic maxim that we know nothing at all,
and to apply my efforts to helping others with their studies as far as I can.
And I really don't know where to look for those two or three godlike theologians who you say have so little sympathy with me.
I've stayed in several places since the publication of Folly, lived in many universities and many large towns. I have never found any theologian angry with me, apart from one or two of the sort who are hostile to any liberal studies, and even these have never uttered a word of protest in my hearing.
What they say behind my back doesn't worry me much,
especially as I have the opinion of so many good men to support me.
If I weren't afraid this would look more like personal pride than sincerity, my dear Dorp, I could quote you numbers of theologians, all renowned for the sanctity of their lives, outstanding in their learning and pre-eminent in rank, several of them bishops, who have never shown me greater friendliness than since the publication of Folly, and take more pleasure in that little book than I do myself. I could cite them all with their names and titles at this point if I didn't fear that your three theologians would extend their hostility on Folly's account even to men as great as these.
One of those responsible for this unhappy situation is with you now, I think, though I'm only guessing, and if I cared to paint him in his true colours no one would be surprised that Folly displeases him.
There is no mention of three theologians in Dorp's letter. P.S. Allen conjectures that the single adversary referred to may be John Briard, who was a leader of conservative theological opinion at Louvain but who approved the Novum Instrumentum on its publication. Erasmus was on cordial terms with him except for a short period early in 1519.
Indeed, if she didn't, she wouldn't please me. Of course she doesn't really please me, but she's certainly less displeasing for not pleasing minds like his. I set more store by the opinion of theologians who are wise and learned and so far from accusing me of over-severity that they even praise my sincerity and the restraint with which I handled a somewhat licentious subject without undue licence and amused myself with a humourous theme without malice. And if I'm to address myself only to the theologians, as you say they're the only people to take offence, everyone knows how much more is common talk about the habits of bad theologians. Folly doesn't touch on any of that. She does no more than make fun of their time-wasting trivial discussions, though she doesn't simply disapprove of these but condemns men who base what's called the "poop and prow" of theology on them, and who are so taken up with these battles of words, as St. Paul named them, that they haven't a moment to spare reading the words of the evangelists, the prophets or the apostles.
I only wish, my dear Dorp, that there were fewer of them guilty of this charge. I could show you some who've passed their eightieth year and wasted so much of their life in nonsense like this that they've never even opened the gospels. I discovered this for myself and in the end they adInitted it. And even in the character of Folly I didn't dare to say what I often hear the theologians themselves deplore, and here I mean true theologians, that is, honest, serious and learned scholars who have drunk deeply of the teaching of Christ at its very source. Whenever they are among people with whom they can give free voice to their thoughts they deplore the new kind of theology which has come into the world and regret the passing of the old one, which was so much more holy and sacred and so well able to reflect and recall the heavenly teachings of Christ. But quite apart from baseness and monstrosity, the barbarity and artificiality of its vocabulary, its total unawareness of liberal studies and ignorance of languages, this new-fangled theology is so adulterated by Aristotle, by petty human inventions and profane regulations, that I doubt if it knows anything of the genuine, pure Christ.
Running through Erasmus's letter is the assumption, which he elsewhere makes explicit, that the contentiousness of the scholastics is connected with the barbarity of their Latin and their Aristotelian logic. What Erasmus earlier described as the 'rebirth' of liberal studies (or perhaps 'good learning': the Latin phrase bonae Iitterae which occurs frequently in the letter has no exact modern equivalent) was felt by him not only to open the way back to a more spiritual Christianity based on the values of the scriptures and the early Fathers, but also of itself to promote with elegance of style humanity of behaviour.
This view of the moral benefits to be derived from the cultivation of bonae litterae, quite apart from the examples and values contained in classical literature, was widely shared by Erasmus's humanist contemporaries. Some of them, like Budé, who regarded humanitas as a quality of behaviour rather than a type of erudition, based their view on a passage of Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae, 13, 17) which identifies humanitas with both the Greek educational ideal and learning and instruction in the liberal arts (artes liberales). The rebirth of bonae litterae which, at its narrowest, means classical studies, was felt by the humanists to be an event of immense cultural significance, a view to which our own use of the term 'renaissance' to describe Erasmus's period partly subscribes.
For in fixing its eyes too firmly on man-made instruction it loses sight of the archetype. Consequently the more prudent theologians are often obliged to speak differently in public from what they think in their hearts or say to their close friends, and there are times when they are uncertain what answer to give those who consult them, realizing that Christ taught one thing and man's inherited teaching prescribes another. What, I ask you, has Christ to do with Aristotle, or the mysteries of eternal wisdom with subtle sophistry? What purpose is served by that maze of debatable issues, so many of which are a waste of time or a noxious evil, if only because of the strife and dissension they create? Some points need elucidating and some decisions have to be taken, I don't deny, but on the other hand there are a great many questions which are better ignored than investigated, seeing that part of our knowledge lies in accepting that there are some things we cannot know, and a great many more where uncertainty is more beneficial than a firm standpoint. Finally, where there has to be a decision, I should like to see it taken with reverence, not with a feeling of superiority, and in accordance with the holy scriptures, not the fabrications of men's petty minds. Today there's no end to futile investigations which are the root of all the discord between sect and party, and every day one pronouncement leads to another. In short, we have come to the point when the basis of the issue involved rests not so much on Christ's teaching as on the schoolmen's definitions and the power of the bishops, such as they are. Consequently everything is now so complicated that that there is not even a hope of recalling the world to true Christianity. All this and many other such things are clearly seen and deplored by those theologians who are outstanding for their sanctity and scholarship, and they refer the prime cause of everything to the effrontery and irreverence of the modern type of theologian. If only you could penetrate my mind, my dear Dorp, and read my thoughts in silence, you would appreciate only too well how much I am careful to leave unsaid at this point. And Folly doesn't touch these questions either, or only very lightly, for I didn't want to offend anyone. I was equally cautious on every point, not wishing to write anything distasteful or personally libellous or factious, or what could be taken as an insult to any class of people. If anything is said there about veneration of saints, you'll that it always has some qualification to make it clear that what is criticized is the superstition of those who venerate saints in the wrong way. Similarly, where I said anything against princes, bishops or monks, it was never without some indication that this was not intended as an insult to the whole order but as a reproach to its corrupt and unworthy members, so that I could censure their faults without hurting any good man. And in doing so without mentioning any names I did my best to avoid a personal affront even to a bad man. Finally, in working out my theme by means of jokes and witticisms through the mouth of a fictitious and comic character, I thought that even the critics who are normally sour and ill disposed would take it in good part.
But then, you say, I am condemned not so much for over severity in my satire as for impiety. How are pious ears to accept my calling the happiness of the life to come a sort of madness? Dear Dorp, you are naturally open-minded, and I should like to know who has taught you this artful method of misrepresentation, or rather, which I think more likely, what master of cunning has suborned your true honesty to put up this malicious charge against me? The method adopted by those pernicious perverters of the truth is to pick out a couple of words and take them out of context, even changing the meaning at times and ignoring anything which would tone down and explain a phrase which would othenwise seem harsh. This is a device which Quintilian notes and teaches in his Institutions, telling us to present our case to full advantage by means of supporting assertions and anything which can soften or extenuate or, otherwise assist our cause; but on the other hand, to quote our adversaries' arguments stripped of all this and in the most odious terms possible. Your friends have learned this device not from Quintilian's teaching but from their own evil disposition, and it is often the reason why words which would have been a pleasure to hear if they had been quoted as they were written are offensive when misrepresented.
I do beg you to reread the passage and to look closely at the stages and development of the argument which leads to my conclusion that this happiness is a form of madness. Take note too of the words I use to explain this. What you will find there is far from being offensive to pious ears and will give them genuine pleasure. Anything at all offensive is not in my book but in your version of it.
The reference to Quintilian alludes to the fifth hook of the Institutio oratona. The phrase 'offensive to pious ears' was a quasi-official if relatively mild formula of ecclesiastical disapprobation (see note 106, p.162).
For when Folly was arguing that her name could be extended to cover the whole world and showing that the sum of all human happiness depends on her, she went through every type of man up to kings and supreme pontiffs, then went on to the apostles themselves and even to Christ, to whom we find a kind of folly attributed in the holy scriptures. There is surely no danger of anyone's imagining that the apostles and Christ were fools in the literal sense. Yet in them too there is some sort of weakness due to human affections which in comparison with the pure eternal wisdom can be seen to be not wholly wise.
The question of whether or not there were 'passions' in Christ is an ancient one. It was acute during the Christological disputes of the fifth century. In 1499 Erasmus had firmly maintained against Colet that Christ in his human nature was subject to fear. The prophet is Isaiah (lxiv, 6).
This is the folly which triumphs over all the wisdom of the world. That is why the prophet compares all the justice of mortal men with the soiled linen of a menstruating woman; not because the justice of good men is polluted, but because whatever is purest among men is somehow impure when compared with the ineffable purity of God. Thus, in showing a folly which is wise, I also showed an insanity which is sane and a madness which retains its senses. To soften what followed about the happiness of the blessed, I first cited the three forms of madness prescribed by Plato, where the happiest is that of lovers, for it takes them out of themselves. In the case of the pious, this ecstasy is only a foretaste of the happiness to come, in which we shall be wholly absorbed into God and be more in him than in ourselves.
Now Plato calls it madness when anyone is carried out of himself and exists in the object of his love where he finds his happiness. Can't you see then how careful I was in the passage which follows to distinguish between types of folly and insanity so that no literal-minded reader could misunderstand my words?
Erasmus (see note 69, p. 120) is careful here to use the term furor for the sort of madness described by Plato which is ecstatic in that it takes people out of themselves. In Ficino's largely Plotinian commentary on Plato's Symposium, there is a four-fold divine furor which sets the soul on its quest for progressive reunification as it moves through the four degrees of creation towards the vision of God.
The poetic (and musical) furor is the gift of the Muses, the religious furor of Dionysus, the prophetic furor of Apollo and the erotic furor of Venus. This theory, which was well known in the renaissance, gives Erasmus an impeccable precedent for accepting the morally elevating properties of some sorts of folly, even before he goes on to argue from the authority of St. Paul.
But this is not the real issue, you say. It's my actual wording which offends the ears of the pious. Then why aren't they equally offended when they hear Paul speak of "God's foolishness" and "the folly of the Cross"? Why don't they call St. Thomas to account? He writes of Peter's ecstasy that "in his pious foolishness he began a sermon on tabernacles". By foolishness he means Peter's holy and ecstatic happiness; and his words are chanted in churches. Why, I wonder, did they not quote one of my own prayers in which I referred to Christ as a worker of spells and charms? St. Jerome calls Christ a Samaritan, although he was a Jew. Paul also calls him "sin", which would be stronger than "sinner", and also "a cursed thing".
The reference to St. Thomas may be to the Commentary on Matthew (xvii, 5). The prayer in which Erasmus refers to Christ in the terms mentioned is the Precatio ad Virginis Filium Jesum, certainly before 1499. Saint Jerome refers to Christ as a Samaritan in the homilies on Luke (xxxiv) and Paul says of Christ that he was made sin in 2 Corinthians v, 21. At Galatians iii, 13 the Vulgate has maledictum while Erasmus prefers exsecratio.
What an impious sacrilege, if anyone wished to interpret this with evil intent! But if it is taken in the spirit in which Paul wrote, it is a pious tribute. Similarly, if anyone were to call
Christ a robber, an adulterer, a drunkard or a heretic, wouldn't all good men stop their ears? But if he expresses this in proper terms, and as his argument develops gently leads his listener by the hand, so to speak, to an understanding of how Christ triumphed through the Cross to restore to his Father the body he snatched from the jaws of hell; how he took to himself the synagogue of Moses, like the wife of Uriah, so that from it be born a peaceful people; how drunk with the sweet wine of charity he gave himself freely for us; how he introduced a new form of teaching, far removed from the tenets of wise and unwise alike - how, I ask, could anyone be offended especially when we often find in the holy scriptures each one of these words used in a good sense? And this reminds me, in the Chiliades I called the apostles Sileni, indeed, I said that Christ himself was a sort of Silenus. Now this would be intolerable if some prejudiced critic dismissed it briefly with an unpleasant interpretation, but anyone who is fair-minded and pious, if he reads what I wrote, will appreciate the allegory.
David's sin with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, is recounted in 2 Samuel xi. Adagiorum Chiliades was the title given to the book of adages from the Aldine edition of 1508 to the Froben edition of 1523. Before 1508 the work was called Adagiorum Collectanea and from 1526 Adagiorum Opus. The 1536 edition reverts Chiliades. On the Silenus figure, see note 8, p.67 and note 50, p.103.
I'm really surprised your friends haven't noticed cautiously I express myself, and how careful I am to tone down my words with a qualification. This is what I wrote: "But now that I have donned 'the lionskin', let me tell you another thing. The happiness which Christians seek with so many labours is nothing other than a certain kind of madness and folly. Don't be put off by the words, but consider the reality." You see how at the staft, as Folly is to speak about something so sacred, I lighten the tone with the proverb about wearing a Iionskin. And I don't refer simply to folly or madness but to "a kind of folly and madness", so that it will be understood that I mean pious folly and happy madness, in accordance with the distinction I go on to make. Not satisfied with this, I add "certain", so that, it is quite clear that I'm speaking figuratively, not literally. Still not satisfied, I guard against any offence that may be given by the sound of the words by asking for more attention to be paid to what I say than to how I say it. All this is stated at once in the opening words of my argument. Then when I develop the subject, do I ever use a word which is not pious and circumspect, and indeed, more reverent than in keeping with the character of Folly? But here I preferred to forget consistency for a while, rather than to fall below the dignity of the subject. I chose to offend rhetoric, not to injure piety. And finally, when my exposition was complete, so as not to upset anyone because I made a comic character like Folly speak on such a sacred subject, I excused myself like this: "But I've long been forgetting who I am, and I've 'overshot the mark'. If anything I've said seems rather impudent or garrulous, you must remember it's Folly and a woman who's been speaking."
You can see that everywhere I've always been careful to avoid anything which could be at all offensive. But those whose ears are open only to propositions, conclusions and corollaries pay no heed to that. What was the point of arming my little book with a preface which I hoped would forestall misrepresentations? I don't doubt that it will satisfy any open-minded reader, but what's to be done with those who don't want to be satisfied either through their natural obstinacy or because they're too stupid to understand what is there to satisfy them? Simonides said that the Thessalians were too dull-witted to deceive, and here we have people too stupid to placate. And it's not surprising if a subject for misrepresentation can be found if all one looks for is something to misrepresent. If anyone reads the works of Jerome in a similar spirit he'll come up with a hundred places open to misrepresentation, and there are passages which can be called heretical in the most Christian of all scholars of the Church, to say nothing for the moment of Cyprian and Lactantius and their like.
Simonides of Ceos was a lyric and elegiac poet of the sixth century B.C. and Erasmus is referring to a passage about him in . The Thessalians of northern Greece were considered dull-witted by their political and military rivals in the south. Cyprian and Lactantius were both orthodox early Christian apologists.
Finally, who ever heard of a humorous essay being subjected to a theologian's scrutiny? If this is approved practice, why don't they equally apply this rule to all the writings and witticisms of the poets of today? They'll find plenty of obscenities there, and much that smells of the old paganism. But as these aren't classed as serious works none of the theologians thinks they're his concern.
However, I wouldn't want to seek shelter behind an example like this. I shouldn't wish to have written anything, even in fun, which could offend Christian piety in any way. I only ask for someone to understand what I wrote, someone fair-minded and honest who brings a true concern to comprehend, not a fixed intention to misrepresent. But if one were to count up first those who have no natural ability and less judgement, then those who have never come in contact with liberal studies but are infected rather than educated, in a limited and confused doctrine, and lastly those who are hostile to anyone who knows what they don't know themselves and set out to misrepresent anything and everything which comes to their notice, a man could only be sure of escaping calumny by writing nothing at all. There are also a lot of people who make these false accusations simply out of a desire to win reputation, for nothing is so vain-glorious as ignorance combined with confidence in one's own learning. Then when their thirst for fame can't be satisfied by honest means, instead of a life of obscurity they prefer to imitate the young man of Ephesus who distinguished himself by setting fire to the most celebrated lighthouse in the whole world. As they can't publish anything worth reading of their own, they concentrate on picking holes in the works of distinguished men.
By these I don't mean myself, for I'm a mere nothing, and I think so little of Folly that no one need suppose I'm upset by this. It's not surprising that the sort of people I've been describing pick on several points in a long work and make them appear scandalous or irreverent or impious or smelling of heresy - all faults which they introduce themselves and aren't to be found there.
'Smelling of heresy' (haeresim sapiens) is another technical formula of ecclesiastical condemnation.
It would be far more conciliatory and more in keeping with Christian sincerity to support and encourage the industry of learned men, and where they inadvertently slip into error either to let it pass or to interpret it sympathetically, rather than to keep a hostile lookout for points to criticize and to behave like a professional informer instead of a theologian. It would also be a far happier state of affairs if we could teach or learn by combining our forces, and in Jerome's words, if we could skirmish on the field of letters without doing each other harm. What is surprising about such people is that for them there's no middle course. In some of the authors they read they can find a trivial pretext for defending even the grossest of errors which come to their notice, while against others they are so prejudiced that nothing can be said with sufficient circumspection to escape their trumped-up accusations. Instead of behaving like this, tearing others to pieces and then being torn themselves, wasting their time and everyone else's, how much better it would be if they would learn Greek or Hebrew, or Latin at least! Knowledge of these languages is so important for understanding the holy scriptures that it seems to me gross impertinence for anyone to assume the name of theologian if he is ignorant of them.
And so, dear Martin, in my concern for your own interests I shall continue to beg you, as I've done often enough before, to extend your studies at least to learning Greek. You are blessed with rare intellectual gifts, and your style of writing is firm and vigorous, fluent and richly worded. This indicates a mind which is both sound and fertile in ideas. You are not only in the prime of life but at the peak of your developing powers, and you have just completed your general course of studies with success. If you added a knowledge of Greek as the finishing touch to the distinguished start you have made, you may be sure that I should be emboldened to promise myself and everyone else to expect from you what no present-day theologian has hitherto achieved. You may take the view that all human learning is contemptible in comparison with love for true piety and believe that you will arrive at such wisdom more quickly by being transformed through Christ. You may also believe that anything worth understanding is more fully comprehended through the light of faith than from the books of men, and I can readily share your opinion. But if in the present state of the world you persuade yourself that you can have a true understanding of theology without a knowledge of languages, especially of the one in which most of the holy scriptures have come down to us, you are entirely wrong.
I only wish I could convince you of this as much as I want, for I want it as warmly as I love you and interest myself in your studies, and you know that I love you with all my heart and my interest knows no bounds. But if I can't persuade you, please listen to these pleas from a friend at least enough to give what I'm asking a trial. I'll bear any blame, as long as you'll admit that my advice was friendly and disinterested, If you value my love for you at all, if you feel you owe anything to our common homeland or to what I wouldn't call my learning but at least to my laborious training in good learning, or to my age (for if it were only a matter of years I could be your father) - grant me my wish, and let my position or the good will between us convince you if my arguments can't. You have often praised my eloquence, but I shan't believe in it unless I can persuade you now. If I succeed then we'll both be happy, I for having given my advice and you for having taken it, and though you're already the dearest of my friends you'll be dearer still to me because I've made you dearer to yourself. If I fail, I fear that as you advance in age and experience you'll come to appreciate the advice I gave and condemn your present attitude, and then, as generally happens, you'll see your mistake only when it is too late to correct it. I could give you the names of a great many men who had to make a start like children on this language when their hair was white, because at long last they realized that all scholarship was blind and crippled without it.
But I've said too much on this subject. To return to your letter: you think that the only way I can pacify the theologians' hostility and recover their former good will is by producing a sort of 'recantation' in praise of Wisdom to counter my praise of Folly. You strongly advise and beg me to do this. My dear Dorp, I'm a man who despises no one but himself and wants nothing so much as to be at peace with the world, nor would I shrink from embarking on such a task if I didn't foresee what the result would be. Any hostility which may have arisen amongst a handful of prejudiced, uneducated people certainly wouldn't be removed but would be still more inflamed. I think it's better to 'let sleeping dogs lie and not touch this Camarina'. It would be wiser, unless I'm mistaken, to let this evil die away in time.
On the mud of Camarina, see note 100, p.153.
This whole passage is noteworthy for several reasons. Erasmus willingly admits the inconsistency of his satire. He quite sincerely states his continuing belief in the primacy of piety over learning and faith over knowledge, but by 1515 he no longer feels the need to explore the possibility that these views invalidate his learned and humanistic theological work. He is much more confident and sure of touch. And he here reverses the letter's earlier disclaimers to accept the role of a senior scholar old enough to be Dorp's father. Dorp was exactly thirty and Erasmus not yet fifty.
Now for the second part of your letter. You much admire my care in restoring the text of Jerome, and you urge me to continue with similar work. Well, you're spurring on a willing horse, though it's not so much encouragement I need as assistance, for the work is proving very difficult. But never believe me in future if I'm not speaking the truth now: your theologians who are so offended by Folly won't like my edition of Jerome. And they aren't much more kindly disposed towards Basil, Chrysostom or Gregory of Nazianzus than they are to me, though in my case their fury is unrestrained. However, in their more exasperated moments they don't hesitate to speak insultingly even of those lights of learning. They're afraid of liberal scholarship and fearful for their own tyranny. Let me tell you that this is no rash pronouncement of mine. When my work had started and news of it had spread, certain individuals who passed for serious scholars and believed themselves outstanding theologians hastened to implore the printer, in the name of everything sacred, not to allow the insertion of a single word of Greek or Hebrew; these languages were fraught with immense danger and offered no advantage, and served only to satisfy men's curiosity. And previously, when I was in England, I happened to be dining with a Franciscan, a follower of Scotus (the first of that name) who has a popular reputation for learning and in his own opinion knows all there is to know. When I told him what I was trying to do in Jerome he expressed astonishment that there was anything in Jerome's books which the theologians didn't understand, though his own ignorance is such that I should be surprised if he properly understands three lines in the whole of Jerome's works. This agreeable person went on to say that if I was in any difficulty over my introduction to Jerome, Briton had made everything clear in his commentary.
The 'first' Scotus was John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth-century neoplatonist philosopher with monist tendencies. Briton was a learned thirteenth-century Dominican theologian. Erasmus recounts his meeting with the Franciscan at greater length in his notes on Jerome.
Now what can one make of theologians like that, my dear Dorp, or what can one wish for them except perhaps a good doctor to prescribe for their brains? And yet it is often men of this type who make most outcry in a theologians' assembly, and they are the ones who make pronouncements on Christianity.
They fear and dread what they see as an evil and a mortal danger, though this is the very thing which St. Jerome and Origen himself in his old age toiled so hard to acquire in order to be a true theologian.
And Augustine, when he was already a bishop and advanced in years, regrets in his Confessions that as a young man he had been unwilling to learn what would have been so useful to him for interpreting the holy scriptures.
If there is danger, I am not afraid to take a risk which was sought by men of such wisdom. If it's a question of curiosity, I've no wish to be holier than Jerome, and those who call what he did no more than curiosity may judge for themselves what service they do him.
There still exists an ancient decree of the Pontifical Senate on the appointment of doctors to give public instruction in languages,
though there is no mention anywhere of provision for learning sophistic or Aristotelian philosophy, apart from the doubts expressed in the decrees whether these should lawfully be learned or not.
And many great authors disapprove of them as a subject for study.
Then why do we neglect what pontifical authority has ordered and apply ourselves to what is doubtfully recommended or positively discouraged?
Nonetheless Aristotle suffers the same fate as the holy scriptures. Nemesis is everywhere at hand, ready to exact vengeance for our contempt for language, and here too the theologians indulge in their dreams and fantasies, producing fresh enormities as they fasten on some points and fail to see others. We owe it to these splendid theologians that of all the writers whom Jerome lists in his Catalogue so few survive, simply because they wrote what Our Masters can't understand. To them we owe the corrupt and defective condition in which we now have St. Jerome, so that others have to work harder restoring his words than he did when he wrote them.
Origen is known to have taken up very late the study of Hebrew to help his study of scripture. On the significance of Erasmus's use of Augustine as an authority, see note 3, p.217. The Catalogue of Jerome was the treatise On Famous Men.
Erasmus had earlier referred to the decrees of the 'Pontifical Senate' in a letter to Christopher Fisher of 1505. It is a Constitution of Clement V after the Council of Vienne (1311-12) ordaining the appointment of two teachers in each of the three languages Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldaean in each of the four universities Paris, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca. Greek was presumably omitted because the Constitution was aimed at promoting the conversion of the infidels, a category which did not include the schismatic Greeks.
I come now to the third part of your letter concerning the New Testament. I really do wonder what has happened to you and where you are applying your wits which used to be so keen. You don't want me to make any changes, except where the meaning may be clearer in the Greek text, and you won't admit there are any faults in the version we generally use. You think it sacrilege to pick holes in something which has been confirmed by the approval of so many centuries and by so many councils of the Church. If you, with all your learning, my dear Dorp, are right on this point, can you explain why the quotations in Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose often differ from the text we have? Why does Jerome criticize and correct word by word many passages which still appear in our version? What will you do in the face of such a consensus of evidence, I mean when the Greek texts have a different reading which Jerome quotes as proof, the earliest Latin texts read the same, and the sense fits in much better with the general context?
You surely can't intend to ignore all this and follow your own text which may be corrupt through a copyist's errors. No one is claiming that anything in the holy scriptures is a lie, if that is the inference you draw, and none of this has anything to do with the personal conflict between Augustine and Jerome. But the truth demands, what is plain even for the blind to see, that there are often passages where the Greek has been badly translated because of the inexperience or carelessness of the translator, and often a true and faithful reading has been corrupted by uneducated copyists, something we see happening every day, or sometimes even altered by half educated scribes not thinking what they do.
Then who is giving his support to a lie - the man who corrects and restores these texts or the man who would rather accept an error than remove it? Especially when it is a characteristic of corrupt texts that one mistake leads to another. Moreover, the emendations I have made generally concern the implications of a passage rather than its actual meaning, though there are often places where the implication is a major part of the meaning, and not infrequently the whole passage has gone astray. In cases like this, what did Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary and Jerome have recourse to if not the Greek sources? And although this practice has also been approved by ecclesiastical decrees, you can still prevaricate, and try to refute or rather to wriggle out of the argument by hair-splitting.
You say that in their time the Greek texts were more accurate than the Latin, but that today the situation is reversed, and we should not trust the writings of those who disagreed with the teaching of the Roman Church. I find it hard to believe that this is your considered opinion. Really! Aren't we then to read the works of those who didn't hold the Christian faith? Then why allow so much authority to Aristotle, a pagan who never had anything to do with faith? The entire Jewish race disagrees with the teaching of Christ; so are the Prophets and the Psalms, written in their own tongue, to have no meaning for us? Now count up all the points in which the Greeks differ from the orthodox Latin beliefs. You'll find nothing there which originates in the words of the New Testament or refers to them. The dispute between the two rests only upon the word hypostasis, on the procession of the Holy Spirit, the ceremonies of consecration, the poverty of priests and the power of the Roman pontiff.
The first three heads of the dispute between Latins and Greeks listed by Erasmus involve complex issues. The fifth century had seen bitter disputes about the correct usages of the terms 'nature' and 'hypostasis' (which Latin theology came to translate as 'person') when applied to Christ and the Trinity.
The Council of Chalcedon made it necessary after 451 to speak of one nature and three persons in God, but one person and two natures in Christ.
Unhappily, the meaning of both terms was still shifting at the time of the definition and there are examples of orthodox thought expressed subsequendy in heterodox terminology and heterodox thought expressed in orthodox terminology.
The Latins argued on the second point the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son (adding the word Filioque to the Creed), which the Greeks rejected. It is a mark of Latin theology to reject the term 'generation' applied to the Holy Spirit and to insist on 'procession'. On the third point, the Latins attached much less importance than the Greeks to the function in the rite of consecration of the invocation to the Holy Spirit or 'epiclesis'. For centuries indeed the Roman rite contained no explicit epiclesis.
None of these is supported by arguments from corrupt texts. What will you say when you find the same interpretation in Origen, Chrysostom, Basil and Jerome? Surely not that someone has altered the Greek texts even in their times! Has anyone ever found a single passage where the Greek texts have been falsified? Why ever should they want to do this when they make no use of them to defend their beliefs? And then we have evidence from Cicero, who is otherwise prejudiced against the Greeks but always admits that in every branch of learning Greek texts were more accurate than the ones we have, for the different lettering, the accents and the sheer difficulty of writing Greek make it less easy for faults to arise and easier to correct them if they do.
In saying that I shouldn't diverge from the current version which has won the approval of so many councils, you behave like one of those popular theologians who always give ecclesiastical authority to anything which has crept into common usage.
But can you produce a single assembly in which this version has been approved?
Who would have approved it, when no one knows its author? It wasn't Jerome, as Jerome's own prefaces bear witness. But even if some assembly did approve it, did it also refuse to allow any emendation in accordance with the Greek sources? Did it approve all the errors which could creep in in various ways? I suppose the Fathers worded their decision like this:
"We approve of this version, though we do not know its author. We will allow no changes even if the most accurate Greek texts have a different reading,
or Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius or Jerome read something different, which may accord better with the meaning of the gospels; although in all other respects we have a high regard for these authorities. Furthermore, we set the seal of our approval on any error or corruption, any addition or omission which may subsequently arise by any means whatsoever through ignorance or presumption of scribes or through their incompetence, drunkenness or negligence. We grant permission to no one to change the text once it is accepted." An absurd pronouncement, you say. But it must have been something like this if you invoke the authority of an assembly to deter me from the task I have set myself.
Finally, what are we to say when we see that there are variations even in the copies of this version? Could an assembly really have approved these contradictions, foreseeing no doubt the alterations which different hands would make? How I wish, my dear Dorp, that the Roman pontiffs could find time to issue salutary pronouncements on these points, whereby provision could be made for restoring the noble works of the great authors and for preparing and issuing emended editions.
Yet I shouldn't wish to see as members of any such council those so-called theologians who are unworthy of the name and whose only purpose is to give status to their own learning.
But is there anything in their learning which is not completely irrelevant and confused?
If these petty despots had their way the world would be compelled to reject the best authorities and to treat their stupid utterances as divinely inspired,
though these men are so lacking in true learning that so long as they acquire no better scholarship
I would rather be humble artisan than the best among them. These are the people who want no changes in a text, for fear of exposing their own ignorance.
It is they who oppose me with the fictitious authority of assemblies and exaggerate the serious crisis in the Christian faith.
They spread rumours about the peril of the Church (which I suppose they support on their own shoulders, though they'd do better propping up a common cart) and
other such hazards in the hearing of ignorant and superstitious crowd who take them for real theologians and hang on their lips.
They fear that when they misquote the holy scriptures as they frequently do, someone will confront them with the authority of the truth in Greek or Hebrew, and then it will be apparent that their so-called oracles are no more than idle nonsense. St.
Augustine, who was a great man and a bishop, was not unwilling to learn from a year-old infant. But people like this prefer to throw everything into confusion
rather than allow themselves to appear ignorant of any detail concerning knowledge, though I see nothing in this which concerns sincerity of Christian faith. If it did, it would be a further reason for my labours.
Surely there can be no danger that the world will immediately abandon Christ if someone happens to hear that a passage has been found in the holy scriptures which has been corrupted by an ignorant or a drowsy copyist or wrongly rendered by some translator. There are reasons for this danger, but I'm being careful to say nothing of them here. It would show a far more Christian spirit every man would set argument aside and make what voluntary contribution he can to the common 'interest, acting in all sincerity; putting off his pride to learn what he does not know and ridding himself of jealousy to teach what he knows. If there are any too illiterate to teach anything properly or too proud to be willing to learn, they are few in number and can be ignored, while we concern ourselves with those whose abilities are good or at any rate promising. I once showed my annotations while they were still unrevised, still hot from the forge, as they say, to certain unprejudiced men, to eminent theologians and learned bishops. They all declared that even these rudimentary outlines were highly illuminating for their understanding of the holy scriptures.
Then you tell me that Lorenzo Valla has undertaken this work before me. I knew this, for I was the first to publish his Notes on the New Testament. I have also seen the Commentaries of Jacques Lefèvre on the letters of Paul. I only wish that their labours had made my own efforts unnecessary. I certainly believe that Valla merits the highest praise, if more for his rhetoric than for his theology, for in his work on the holy scriptures he devoted himself to comparing the Greek with the Latin texts, although there are quite a number of theologians who have never read straight through the complete Testament. However, I disagree with his conclusions in several places, especially where they touch on points of theology. Jacques Lefè'vre was engaged in writing his commentaries while my own work was in preparation, and it's a pity that even in our most intimate conversations neither of us thought of mentioning what we were doing. I didn't know what he had been busy with until his work appeared in print. I very much admire his undertaking, though here again I disagree with him in several places - reluctantly, for I'd gladly be 'of one mind' with such a friend in all respects. But truth must count for more than friendship, especially with regard to the holy scriptures.
On Jacques Lefèvre d'Éaples and Lorenzo Valla, see the Introduction (pp. 45, 36). Until shortly after the date of this letter, Erasmus's relations with Lefèvre were cordial, though scarcely intmate. There was however a dispute after the publication of the Novum Instrumentum and, when once Luther had been condemned, the group of reformers in the diocese of Meaux, led by Lefèvre as vicar general in spiritualibus to the bishop Guillaume Briçonnet,was never to trust Erasmus.
However, I'm not quite clear why you confront me these two authors. Is it to dissuade me from a task you believe has already been performed? But it will be apparent that I had good reason for undertaking this work even if I came after two such great men. Or do you mean that the theologians disapprove even of their activities? I personally can't see how Lorenzo could have met with such continuing resentment, and I'm told that Lefèvre is universally admired. Have you considered that I'm attempting something quite different? Lorenzo, it seems clear, limited himself to annotating certain passages as he came to them and with what is commonly called a light touch. Lefèvre has only published commentaries on the letters of Paul, which he translated in his own way and then added notes in passing where there were matters of dispute. What I have done is to translate the entire New Testament from the Greek texts, putting the Greek opposite for easy reference. have added notes which are separate from the text, in which I show partly through examples and partly through the authority of the early theologians that I have changed nothing in my revision without due consideration, in the hopes that my work of correction will inspire confidence and my emendations can't easily be changed. If only my painstaking efforts could be certain of success! For as far as relations with the Church are concerned, I shall have no hesitation about dedicating this humble product of my working hours to any bishop or cardinal or even to any Roman pontiff, provided he is like the one we have now. Finally, although you discourage me from publication at present, I'm quite sure that you too will congratulate me when the book is out, once you've had a mere taste of the learning without which a true judgement on these questions is impossible.
On Erasmus and Leo X, see the Introduction (pp. 46-7).
So you see, my dear Dorp, you've won gratitude twice over for a single service - from the theologians in whose name you have conscientiously carried out your mission, and from me for having given clear proof of your affection in the friendly tone of your admonition. You in your turn will surely take my equally frank explanation in good part, and if you are wise, will listen more readily to advice from me, who have only your interests at heart, than from those who are anxious to win over to their party a talent born for the highest things such as yours, but only in order to strengthen their forces by the addition of such a distinguished leader. Let them choose a better part, if they can; but if they can't, you yourself can choose the best. If you can't make them better men, as I hope you'll try to do, at least you can ensure they don't make you worse. Make sure you put my case to them with the same conviction you brought to putting theirs to me. You will placate them, as far as it's possible to do so, and make them see that I act as I do not with any intention of insulting those who do not share my learning but in the general interest of all mankind. This is something which will be open to anyone to make use of, if he wishes, without putting anyone under compulsion who prefers to dispense with it. Tell them too that if anyone comes forward with the ability or the desire to offer better guidance than I can, I intend to be the first to tear up and destroy my work and to adopt his way of thinking
Give my best regards to Jean Desmarais, and be sure to let him see this defence of Folly, on account of the commentary on it which my friend Lijster dedicated to him. Remember me warmly to the learned scholar Nevius and my kind friend Nicholas of Beveren, priest-in-charge of St. Peter's. You pay splendid tribute to the abbot Menard, and knowing your honesty, I'm sure this is wholly genuine. It inspires me to feel affection and regard for him on your account, and I won't fail to make honourable mention of him in my works at the first favourable opportunity.
Jean Desmarais was rector of Louvain and had taught Gerard Lijster. who dedicated to him the commentary on Folly. Nevius was the principal of the Collège du Lis at Louvain and Nicholas of Beveren (also Nicholas of Burgundy) was the illegitimate son of Anthony of Burgundy (1421-1504) and a member of the powerful Veere family which had sporadically provided Erasmus with patrons. The abbot Menard of Egmond, praised by Cornelius Gerard for his antiquarian interests, had provided Dorp with a benefice. Erasmus mentions him warmly in 1516 when dedicating a minor work to one of his relations.
A fond farewell to you, my friend, dearest of mortal men.
This translation first published 1971 / Translation copyright © Betty Radice,
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