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Erasmus in Lake Tahoe

Well, I haven’t been posting because I’ven been leading a discussion the intellectual rock star of the early 16th c. at a Liberty Fund Conference at Lake Tahoe, which is very pretty and way too hard to get to. Questions for discussion: Was the funny, practically conservative, church reforming (but not Protestant or sectarian), peace loving, Socratically ironic, and liberal- education defending Erasmus a neglected alternative to the control or certainty freaks Machiavelli and Luther? Or was he an overrated wimp who had little new or pentrating to say?

Discussions - 15 Comments

I've never read anything by him that persuades me he's anything other than the latter (but I haven't read a whole lot). When the going got tough and his friend Tom More was trying to hold back the first wave of modernity single-handed, he sure wimped out then.

Peter, you lead a hard life.

Erasmus was a great man. Read his colloquies. He has Xantippes - yes, Socrates's wife - counsel a young wife. As Xantippes dialectically gets the wife to retrace the stages of their early married life, it turns out that she was "knocked up" pre-nuptials and way too long after the birthof the kid she's been declining to render the conjugal duty; hence her hubby is staying out with the boys way too much. I'm not doing the colloquy justice, but it may entice some of you Socratic feminists to read him.

A great man who suffered from a need to appear wise, manifested in a tendency to split the difference on any truly difficult issue. It's what made him so vulnerable to Luther's polemic; Erasmus picked a fight on a subject slightly beyond his expertise and came out much worse for wear.

This isn't to say he had nothing new to offer; part of the reason for the violence of Luther's response was that he recognized in Erasmus a new position--a kind of intellectual neutrality that sees itself as free from commitment. He wasn't holding back modernity because he was giving birth to it.

What was Erasmus up to when he attempted to show, at least in one of his Colloquies, that Christianity and Epicureanism were reconcilable?

Good comment by Paul--yes, E. is almost eerily Socratic. Gabe--great question, I will look into that. But the beginning of an answer: for E. the bottom line is clearly truthful human happiness.

And to Adam, E's modernity would have been of a much different kind.

Adam, Gabe, or anyone, say more about this "new position" and this Christian Epicureanism. I'm intrigued.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a number of Christian thinkers attempted to rehabilitate Epicureanism (especially after the recovery of Lucretius in a monastery in Germany in 1417), apparently in order to show that at least that thesis of Epicureanism according to which the good is identical with the pleasant was in fact reconcilable with Christianity. (They preferred to remain largely silent about certain other aspects of the Epicurean teaching.) The names that are most immediately associated with that attempted rehabilitation or reconciliation are Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus. While Valla wrote a whole dialogue between a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Christian in which the Christian appears to win the debate finally, this reconciliation of Epicureanism and Christianity is most clearly on display in Erasmus’ Colloquies, in a dialogue actually entitled “The Epicurean.” There he has a character aptly named Hedonius claim that “none are greater Epicureans than those Christians that live a pious Life.” For Christ “alone showed the way to the most comfortable life in the world, and fullest of pleasure.” Whereas Christians “seem to mourn to men of the world,” Hedonius says, “in reality they live deliciously.” The Christian life is “most comfortable,” or enables men to live “deliciously” because if one lives the Christian life in the proper manner, one has what Hedonius calls a “clear,” or a “good conscience.” The man with a “good conscience” is ultimately “truly rich,” because he “has God for his friend.” Having “friendship” with God, the man of “good conscience” can say “with confidence to God” that he does not “fear Hell” because he KNOWS he’s going to Heaven.

For want of time and space, I can only say here that the argument of the little dialogue can basically be boiled down to this: If the fundamental premise of Epicureanism is that the good is identical with the pleasant, then Christianity is in full agreement with (at least that premise of) Epicureanism because Christianity claims to give men what they most long for: the key to an eternal life of bliss, of Heavenly pleasure. The essential thesis of Erasmus or his Hedonius, then, seems to be something like this: moral virtue must have its reward in some form of pleasure; but the highest reward is eternal blessedness in heaven. Epicurean hedonism, then, is not hostile to Christian faith, but is protected and supported by it.

I don't buy this view of the whole problem of the relation between morality, faith, and redemption, or even that Erasmus really believed this. The question, I suppose, is what did he really believe? So who can suggest what he was trying to do by setting forth this view (which, admittedly, he does not do in some systematic manner more reminiscent of later thinkers. Martin Luther, by the way, made no bones about calling Erasmus a "double-dealing Epicurean" who no more believed in the divinity of Christ than of Solon. Was he right? Or did Luther simply misunderstand Erasmus? I don't have enough of a sense of Erasmus' other writings and/or project as a whole. In response to Peter's initial question, whatever that project may have been, it seems to have failed.

I would venture to say it's virtually impossible to say whether Erasmus belieed in the divinity of Christ or "particular providence," and he surely worked for a world in which it would be possible to quietly and responsibly doubt those claims. And it's obvious that he's playing with "Epicurean," although he clearly mocked what amounts to the rational moralism of the Stoics on behalf of the happiness not of disembodied minds but real human beings with all the flaws and absurdities. But there's also plenty of evidence that Erasmus took justice seriously. His "best practical regime," in effect, would be a bunch of peaceful small countries looking inward--toward "improvement" and not "increase" or toward virtue and merit-based prosperity and not toward empire--united loosely in the spirit of a soft but real Christian universalism--a true criticism of pagan political parochialism or "civil theology" that distinguished fundamentally between citizens and foreigners nor friends and enemies. Erasmus shared little in common with the Christian fanaticism of Luther and the anti-Christian "ire" of Machiavelli.

In the for what it's worth department, Philippe Beneton's working on a book on Machiavelli, Erasmus, and More. (I'm assuming we can continue to believe that More was a genuine and even devout believer.)

So, Peter, Erasmus: more "humanist" than "Christian"?

I tend to think More became more devout over the years, but there's no proof he was ever ungenuine in his belief. I guess more humanist than Christian, although Erasmus certainly wrote to preserve and improve upon both Christianity and liberal education. He certainly wasn't an anti-Christian humanist, although he was rather anti-theologian--especially insofar as ignorant and rather bloodthirsty so-called theologians spent their time outing heretics. He was also anti-Luther insofar as he was fanatical enough stir up faith-based bloody anger and condemn liberal education. The realistic anti-anger and pro-love (of particular persons with all their absurdities or follies) features of Erasmus surely have a Christian dimension. And for the record, the kind of happiness--the madness of lovers--that surpasses reason described at the end of the PRAISE OF FOLLY is definitely not Epicurean, but both/either (?) Platonic and Christian.

Phillipe Beneton published a make-believe letter written by Thomas More to Machiavelli explaining, albeit rather cryptically (as one should expect him to have done), the meaning of rational religion in Utopia. It's worth looking at: "Moreana" (Vol. 41, 159, Sep. 2004).

It's possible that More became more devout as he got older, although there's the business about the Carthusian charterhouse when More was a young man, which one would have to take into consideration in trying to understand his relation to faith. (Not to mention the hair shirt!) But I was struck once, in reading some of his so-called polemical and even devotional writings, how, in certain respects, they're rather heterodox. He condemns the Lutherans not as such, but because they foment civil unrest. (If they had kept quiet, he implies at one point in the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he'd have had no problem with them.) In his treatment of the Four Last Things -- Death,
Judgment, Hell, and Heaven -- he really only ever ends up treating death. And as far as Utopia is concerned, Christianity doesn't come off all that well in it, does it?

I do like what Peter said about the end of Praise of Folly and the madness of lovers and the Christian element there.

There isn't very much by way of fiery judgment, though, in Erasmus, is there?

This is all fascinating stuff. Thanks to all.

REMI BRAGUE ON THE NEW TESTAMENT IN HIS The Wisdom of the World: "In theology one would say that the Word cannot come from the world, but is incarnated as it comes from elsewhere....One might interpret as follows: man must not attribute that which makes him a man to anything of this world. The humanity of man transcends his worldliness. The Synoptic Gospels therefore have a strange kinship with Epicurus."

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