Erasmus’s “Word Wars,” Part 1 of 2

18 Feb

Scripture as a cure for religious discord

In his allegorical dialogue between the late popes Peter, first bishop of Rome, and the just slightly secular-minded Julius II, Desiderius Erasmus details the afflictions of the late-medieval church: materialism, war, pomp and ceremony, empty ritual.

But while the more recently deceased pontiff in Julius Excluded from Heaven proves completely unrepentant—“Three hundred schisms” would be preferable, Julius II declares, “rather than find myself forced into submission and a reformation of my entire life” (160)—Erasmus does hint at a possible remedy for the religious corruption and discord of the time.  “Perhaps the common people may be curable,” he has Peter muse in the satire’s final lines, “or so I conjecture from the fact that because of the mere empty title of pope they gave honor to such a filthy piece of garbage as this” (173).

This speculation that the Church’s future purification, if there was to be any, lies in the simple, innocent piety of common Christians is further developed in Erasmus’s other works—though he denounces the willful ignorance of Scripture among his fellow theologians, the humanist scholar suggests that opening the gospels and epistles to the masses in their vernacular languages would both refresh true devotion and replace the sophistic theology of the Scholastics.

The war and discord he abhors, after all, and labels in his Complaint of Peace “a violent plague” (89), a “hateful Fury” (90), and ultimately “harmful to everything in the universe” (89), is as manifest in the bloodless casuistry of Scholastic theologians as the battles of generals and soldiers.  “No less lunatic” than artillery, these “word-warriors… attack each other with poison pens, ripping each other up with the keen phrases of satire and hurling lethal darts of insinuation at each others’ reputations” (93).

If nothing else, the repeated use of martial terminology signals Erasmus’s acute contempt for factionalism within the Christian community—“hardly any peace,” he later observes, “is so bad that it isn’t preferable to the most justifiable war” (106), an assertion as applicable to philosophers as princes.  The personified Folly herself claims the double-tongued scholars of Erasmus’s day as men after her own heart: “the wise men can turn black to white” (37), she says, a high compliment from a woman who begins The Praise of Folly by declaiming that she hopes to “imitate those men of old who in order to avoid the odious designation of ‘Sages’ preferred to be known as ‘Sophists’” (8).

Erasmus himself has less patience for these logic-choppers, men “terrified for their own dictatorship” (235) in the realm of religious thought, as he describes them in his Letter to Martin Dorp; in Erasmus’s opinion, the intricacies and subtleties of Scholastic theological edifices only serve to mask a profound ignorance of Scripture.  As Folly remarks on their “contempt for certain Greeklings” (77), Erasmus—again employing martial language—decries to Dorp the men who “get so embroiled in their own word-wars… that they have no time to read the evangelists, the prophets, or the apostles” (238).

In Erasmus’s opinion, it is this “deliberate ignorance” (238) that breeds Scholastic sophistry; “What, I ask you, does Christ have to do with Aristotle?  If a question does have to be decided, I’d like to have the decision reached reverently, and on the basis of holy Scripture” (239).

Erasmus’s optimism that concord would be almost immediately forthcoming with widespread knowledge of Scripture—if a question should arise, he adds almost tangentially, as though the idea hardly merits consideration—is understandable in light of his views on the nature of both the evangelists and contemporary Christian faithful.  “The sun itself,” he maintains in the Paraclesis, or Exhortation to the readers of his Latin New Testament, “is not so open and exposed to every gaze as is the teaching of Christ” (121).

Jesus Christ, who suffered the little children to come to him—along with women, publicans, common laborers, and other unlearned people—“wanted his mysteries to be disseminated as widely as possible,” bypassing “no age, no sex, no condition of fortune or rank of society” (121).  Christ’s teachings, Erasmus holds, are so clear and accessible, a “path direct and ready for anyone to take” (120), that discord would be unthinkable—should vernacular translations of the gospels and epistles be made widely available, that is.  So strong is his faith in the transformative power of Scripture that Erasmus asserts, dramatically, “you would see less” of Christ’s sacred mind even “if you had him directly in front of your eyes” (127).

This efficacy of Christian ideals lies in their compatibility with general human character: “our philosophy sinks easily into the human mind because it is so largely in accord with human nature” (123), Erasmus contends in the Paraclesis.  The idea is reaffirmed once more in his Foreword to the Third Edition of the Latin New Testament—“for the most part, to be sure, the common folk consist of sheep, simple and unlearned” (137), an innocent ignorance born of lack of access to, rather than the deliberate rejection of, holy Scripture.

Unfortunately, this is not a rambling post on science fiction.  If you’ve read this far down, of course, you well know that.  Academic research/writing has kept me completely swamped this month (I learned how to use the microfilm readers!), so I’ve decided to use the Internet like Luther used the printing press: democratize information!  There might be 3 or 4 people out there who want to read an analysis of the Praise of Folly, so… here it is.


Erasmus, Desiderius, and Robert Adams. The Praise of Folly and Other Writings. W W Norton & Co Inc, 1989. Print.


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