Waking in London

On waking, this time in London, I have two of the greats on my mind, Erasmus and Proust, the former for a titbit characteristic of his inventive wit and of which I have only recently become aware, which merely reveals that I should have made a point of reading footnotes more assiduously:

“He was born Gerrit Gerritszoon. Believing that this name derived from the German word begehren (to desire), he manufactured the name by which he is known by translating “desired” into Latin (desiderius) and Greek (erasmus).”

the latter for his eyes and for the painstakingly inventive character of his relationship with them:

“Je n’oublierai jamais, dans une curieuse ville de Normandie voisine de Balbec, deux charmants hôtels du XVIIIe siècle, qui me sont à beaucoup d’égards chers et vénérables et entre lesquels, quand on la regarde du beau jardin qui descend des perrons vers la rivière, la flèche gothique d’une église qu’ils cachent s’élance, ayant l’air de terminer, de surmonter leurs façades, mais d’une matière si différente, si précieuse, si annelée, si rose, si vernie, qu’on voit bien qu’elle n’en fait pas plus partie que de deux beaux galets unis, entre lesquels elle est prise sur la plage, la flèche purpurine et crénelée de quelque coquillage fuselé en tourelle et glacé d’émail.”

With delicious Lucianic irony, the great and gentle Erasmus, through the eyes of Folly and with the problems afflicting the sixteenth century Church in the crosshairs, prophetically describes, with a comprehensiveness that leaves little left to be said, the patterns of management and administration prevalent in the independent school system in the twenty-first century: “Whereas if there be anything burdensome, they prudently lay that on other men’s shoulders and shift it from one to the other, as men toss a ball from hand to hand, following herein the example of lay princes who commit the government of their kingdoms to their grand ministers, and they again to others, and leave all study of piety to the common people. In like manner the common people put it over to those they call ecclesiastics, as if themselves were no part of the Church, or that their vow in baptism had lost its obligation. Again, the priests that call themselves secular, as if they were initiated to the world, not to Christ, lay the burden on the regulars; the regulars on the monks; the monks that have more liberty on those that have less; and all of them on the mendicants; the mendicants on the Carthusians, among whom, if anywhere, this piety lies buried, but yet so close that scarce anyone can perceive it. In like manner the popes, the most diligent of all others in gathering in the harvest of money, refer all their apostolical work to the bishops, the bishops to the parsons, the parsons to the vicars, the vicars to their brother mendicants, and they again throw back the care of the flock on those that take the wool. But it is not my business to sift too narrowly the lives of prelates and priests for fear I seem to have intended rather a satire than an oration, and be thought to tax good princes while I praise the bad.” from “In Praise of Folly (Dover Thrift Editions)” by Desiderius Erasmus, John Wilson

The great & gentle Erasmus: “The fool, in undertaking and venturing on the business of the world, gathers, if I mistake not, the true prudence, such as Homer though blind may be said to have seen when he said, “The burnt child dreads the fire.” For there are two main obstacles to the knowledge of things, modesty that casts a mist before the understanding, and fear that, having fancied a danger, dissuades us from the attempt. But from these folly sufficiently frees us, and few there are that rightly understand of what great advantage it is to blush at nothing and attempt everything.” from “In Praise of Folly (Dover Thrift Editions)” by Desiderius Erasmus, John Wilson

Zweig sees more in Erasmus than a mere propounder of the notion of “la vertu païenne”, so easily refuted by La Rochefoucauld in the maxims. His design is more akin to the unifying purpose of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Regrettably, neither has yet had a unifying impact, largely owing to a want of common purpose and a poverty of educational aspiration. I do not consider the solution to reside in either the pipe-dreams of progressivism or in the trammelled apprehensiveness of a complacent conservatism. As I’ve said before, I’d march for neither, but I should wish for the ghosts of Erasmus, Zweig, Egon Friedell and their ilk to march abroad. “Für Erasmus bestand kein moralischer, kein unüberbrückbarer Gegensatz zwischen Jesus und Sokrates, zwischen christlicher Lehre und antikischer Weisheit, zwischen Frömmigkeit und Sittlichkeit. Er nahm die Heiden, er, der geweihte Priester, im Sinne der Toleranz in sein geistiges Himmelreich und stellte sie brüderlich zu den Kirchenvätern; Philosophie war ihm eine andere und ebenso reine Form des Gottsuchens wie die Theologie, zum christlichen Himmel sah er nicht minder gläubig empor wie dankbar zu dem griechischen Olymp.” from “Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam (German Edition)” by Stefan Zweig

Masterful Lucianic irony from the great and gentle Erasmus: “For what is there at all done among men that is not full of folly, and that too from fools and to fools? Against which universal practice if any single one shall dare to set up his throat, my advice to him is, that following the example of Timon, he retire into some desert and there enjoy his wisdom to himself.” from “In Praise of Folly (Dover Thrift Editions)” by Desiderius Erasmus, John Wilson

“For since according to the definition of the Stoics, wisdom is nothing else than to be governed by reason, and on the contrary Folly, to be given up to the will of our passions, that the life of man might not be altogether disconsolate and hard to away with, of how much more passion than reason has Jupiter composed us? putting in, as one would say, “scarce half an ounce to a pound.” Besides, he has confined reason to a narrow corner of the brain and left all the rest of the body to our passions; has also set up, against this one, two as it were, masterless tyrants—anger, that possesses the region of the heart, and consequently the very fountain of life, the heart itself; and lust, that stretches its empire everywhere. Against which double force how powerful reason is let common experience declare, inasmuch as she, which yet is all she can do, may call out to us till she be hoarse again and tell us the rules of honesty and virtue; while they give up the reins to their governor and make a hideous clamor, till at last being wearied, he suffer himself to be carried whither they please to hurry him.” from “In Praise of Folly (Dover Thrift Editions)” by Desiderius Erasmus, John Wilson. The great and gentle Erasmus.

“And as to the place of my birth, forasmuch as nowadays that is looked upon as a main point of nobility, it was neither, like Apollo’s, in the floating Delos, nor Venus-like on the rolling sea, nor in any of blind Homer’s as blind caves: but in the Fortunate Islands, where all things grew without plowing or sowing; where neither labor, nor old age, nor disease was ever heard of; and in whose fields neither daffodil, mallows, onions, beans, and such contemptible things would ever grow, but, on the contrary, rue, angelica, bugloss, marjoram, trefoils, roses, violets, lilies, and all the gardens of Adonis invite both your sight and your smelling. And being thus born, I did not begin the world, as other children are wont, with crying; but straight perched up and smiled on my mother. Nor do I envy to the great Jupiter the goat, his nurse, forasmuch as I was suckled by two jolly nymphs, to wit, Drunkenness, the daughter of Bacchus, and Ignorance, of Pan. And as for such my companions and followers as you perceive about me, if you have a mind to know who they are, you are not like to be the wiser for me, unless it be in Greek: this here, which you observe with that proud cast of her eye, is Philautia, Self-love; she with the smiling countenance, that is ever and anon clapping her hands, is Kolakia, Flattery; she that looks as if she were half asleep is Lethe, Oblivion; she that sits leaning on both elbows with her hands clutched together is Misoponia, Laziness; she with the garland on her head, and that smells so strong of perfumes, is Hedone, Pleasure; she with those staring eyes, moving here and there, is Anoia, Madness; she with the smooth skin and full pampered body is Tryphe, Wantonness; and, as to the two gods that you see with them, the one is Komos, Intemperance, the other Eegretos hypnos, Dead Sleep. These, I say, are my household servants, and by their faithful counsels I have subjected all things to my dominion and erected an empire over emperors themselves. Thus have you had my lineage, education, and companions.” from “In Praise of Folly (Dover Thrift Editions)” by Desiderius Erasmus, John Wilson. The great and gentle Erasmus.

“Aber im tiefsten hat Erasmus immer gewußt, daß dieser Unheilgeist der menschlichen Natur, daß der Fanatismus ihm seine eigene mildere Welt und sein Leben zerstören werde.” from “Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam (German Edition)” by Stefan Zweig

This is a bleak assertion, particularly when considered in the light of contemporary potentialities, such as the clash between the forces of intransigent reaction and those of inelastic neo-puritanical progressivism, each in its way tending toward fanaticism and the false certainty of the “premature synthesis”, each therefore requiring caution. I would march for neither. The poignancy of Zweig’s allusion to the fate of Erasmus’ spirit of tolerance and moderation bears with it the weight of a terrible indictment, when we consider the manner in which all that he, the author, held dear, including life itself, was extinguished by Nazism.