Erasmus’s “Word Wars,” Part 2 of 2

18 Feb

Virtue of the common people?

“Sheep,” Erasmus define as “unlearned but rational men” (131), commoners whose simple piety could restore purity to an increasingly worldly Church.  And perhaps more importantly for the peace-loving Erasmus, they could restore unity: “the common Christian folk content themselves with that general name” (122), he reflects in the Paraclesis, a sharp contrast to the faction-ridden theologians whose word wars only divide and set at odds members of the Christian community.

Ultimately, Erasmus predicts that access to the New Testament would only reinforce the simple spirituality which the general population of “sheep” possess already—the clergy having “put off onto common people the exercise of piety” (73), as Folly observes.

The solution to factionalism and discord is present in these common people, but latent: “Christ is asleep in all of us” he observes in Foreword to the Third Edition—recalling Folly listing Negretos Hypnos and Lethe, or Sound Sleep and Forgetfulness, among her followers (11).  The awakening comes with knowledge of scripture, the most significant result being a transfiguration of daily life, a thought in keeping with Erasmus’s emphasis on imitating the behavior of Christ, rather than dissecting it with logical propositions and dialectical arguments—“the farmer driving his plow could change a passage in his native tongue from the mystic psalms,” he imagines in the Foreword to the Third Edition, or “the matron sitting at her spinning wheel could hear some scriptural story recited by her maid or niece” (135).

But Erasmus’s idyll might be, after all, just the utopia of his friend Thomas More—“no place.”

Idealizing the common people as more virtuous in their ignorance than all the Scholastics with their erudition, Erasmus ignores the less romantic portrait he painted of the unlearned in The Praise of Folly: “What goes on among the common people,” Folly asks, “that isn’t full of foolishness, contrived by fools for fools?” (26).  Lamenting in Paraclesis that theologians twist the scriptures to their own purposes—“we drag down the teachings of heaven and force them… to fit our own life patterns” (123)—Erasmus ignores the fact that common people reading the gospels in their own tongues would be just as susceptible to similarly self-interested interpretations of holy writ.

Perhaps Erasmus slips by imputing to these Christian “sheep” so much virtue.  Putting radical words in Saint Peter’s mouth in Julius Excluded from Heaven, the scholar going so far as to suggest that “a public uprising” would be more effective at purifying the Church than an institutional or intellectual solution—that the common people “should arm themselves with stones and expel such an infectious plague” as the war-mongering Julius II represents.

Though the pacifism of his Complaint of Peace makes abundantly clear that Erasmus means zeal for the gospel rather than actual battle—the “trumpet of the evangelist” as opposed to than the “trumpet of Mars” he writes in the Complaint of Peace (103); language repeated in Paraclesis with his call to men “as with a trumpet blast, to undertake study of the gospel” (118)—the allusion to a revolution in the service of reformation is nonetheless extreme for a man who, when the Reformation did sweep Europe, never left the orthodox Catholic Church.

Erasmus’s trumpet-blast was an exhortation to make Christ’s teachings widely accessible, in the optimistic hope that true piety and true catholic, universal unity could be renewed.  “Let everyone who seeks a Christian philosophy be practiced in these books,” he advises in his Foreword to the Third Edition; “Let him seek, implore, knock.  One who seeks is often rewarded by finding; to him who asks, it is sometimes given; for him who knocks, the door will be opened by one who holds the key—and what it opens can never again be shut” (132).

Ironically, and tragically for a theologian who valued unity above all else, time proved Erasmus right.

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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