Don't Read Erasmus

March 11th, 1998

Erasmus is my hero, but I don’t recommend that you read his stuff. Why not? Because Erasmus just doesn’t suit modern tastes. To understand why, you have to take yourself back 500 years. Erasmus was born just a few years after the invention of the printing press. Right up until his early adulthood, printed books were still quite rare; most books were still copied by hand. Erasmus’ own father supported himself as a book copyist.

Thus, the people of the early sixteenth century were not bombarded with information as we are. They didn’t have radio, television, movies, newspapers, magazines, handbills, billboards, or any of the other communications that jostle for our attention. Back then, information of any kind was a rare and precious commodity. A good library might possess a few dozen books. Anything with more than a hundred books was held in awe. Indeed, even Erasmus’ own library was apparently rather small until his last years. During his many travels, he apparently was able to move all his books and papers in a few chests. Compare this with the dozens of books you’ll find in even the least scholarly of modern households.

The significance of this lies in the effect on people’s attitudes towards information. For us modern-day readers, information is cheap and ubiquitous, and our concern is to prioritize it, to reject all the junk info that comes our way. Our communication styles have accordingly shifted over the years to emphasize conciseness. We don’t have time to waste on long-winded tomes; we want to get to the point and move on.

Not so our sixteenth-century forbears. For them, a single book might well be the only source of knowledge available -- so they wanted the author to pack as much information into the book as possible. There’s a story that Erasmus, walking across the market square, noticed a scrap of paper lying on the ground. He picked it up and read it. Who knows, maybe there’d be something interesting on it.

Erasmus met this demand for well-upholstered books by larding everything he wrote with all the excess baggage he could think of. His writing is filled with allusions to classical letters. Indeed, he wrote an entire book on the subject of adding fluff to your writing. He didn’t call it "fluff" -- he called it "copia", and the title of his book was "On Copia of words and ideas." Here he lays out formulae for amplifying, extending, or otherwise padding your writing. We moderns have no interest in methods of padding our writing, but Erasmus was a master of technique and it made his books especially popular.

Here’s a sample of Erasmus’ writing, from The Complaint of Peace:

"If I am truly that peace so extolled by God and by men; if I am really the source, the nourishing mother, the preserver and the protector of all good things in which heaven and earth abound; if, without me, no prosperity can endure here below; if nothing pure or holy, nothing that is agreeable to God or to men can be established on earth without my help; if, on the other hand, war is incontestably the essential cause of all the disasters which fall upon the universe and this plague withers at a glance everything that grows; if, because of war, all that grew and ripened in the course of the ages suddenly collapses and is turned into ruins; if war tears down everything that is maintained at the cost of the most painful efforts; if it destroys things that were most firmly established; if it poisons everything that is holy and everything that is sweet; if, in short, war is abominable to the point of annihilating all virtue, all goodliness in the hearts of men, and if nothing is more deadly for them, nothing more hateful to God than war -- then, in the name of this immortal God I ask: who is capable of believing without great difficulty that those who instigate it, who barely possess the light of reason, whom one sees exerting themselves with such stubbornness, such fervor, such cunning, and at the cost of such effort and danger, to drive me away and pay so much for the overwhelming anxieties and the evils that result from war -- who can believe that such persons are still truly men?"

Yes, the entire quotation is a single sentence, and it’s one sentence in the original Latin.

There are other problems with Erasmus’ writing that interfere with the comprehension of the modern reader. Erasmus writes in a strong cultural context, and makes reference to many issues that we no longer concern ourselves with. A simple example is his frequent religious allusions; in the above quotation, there are no less than six religious references. This kind of thing was entirely appropriate in the sixteenth century, but we denizens of the twentieth century are unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with such frequent appeals to religious belief. Then there were the medicant friars, itinerant religious orders that begged for their living and promulgated a crude and intolerant Christianity. Erasmus managed to take pot shots at them in just about everything he wrote, but how many of us have ever met a friar, much less the now-extinct class of mendicant friars?

Another difficulty is that Erasmus had to write with great subtlety to avoid getting himself condemned for heresy. By Erasmus’ time, Christianity had undergone so much hardening of the arteries that Christian belief was a minefield of required and prohibited beliefs, extending down to many fine details. A single carelessly worded statement could get a man condemned for heresy. Yet Erasmus objected to many of the sillier aspects of Christian practice. Hence the need to clothe his writings in subtleties, innuendoes, and other confusing tricks. Readers in his time could understand his elliptical references, but the modern reader finds them befuddling.

Thus, Erasmus has a high threshold of utility. If you read only his Praise of Folly, his most popular work with modern readers, you might understand an adequate fraction of his wit and intellect, but much would inevitably be lost upon you. Only after you’ve read a goodly chunk of his work -- the Praise of Folly, the Colloquies, some of his letters, some of the Adages, the Julius Exclusus, and the Complaint of Peace -- can you start to appreciate the depth and subtlety of the man’s thought. I suppose that the fairest summation is that Erasmus is an acquired taste, and one acquired only at the cost of great effort.