January 29, 1998

Erasmus had a talent for clever turns of phrase, and his writings abound with remarkably modern ideas. They’re scattered all through his work; almost everything he wrote, from letters to educational tracts to commentary on the Bible, teemed with his felicitous phrasings.

When is the fetus viable?
"...it follows of consequence that the fetus in the womb of the mother both feels and understands as soon as it begins to grow; which is a sign of life, unless a man in his formation has more souls than one, and afterwards, the rest giving place, the one acts all. So that at first, a man is a plant, then an animal, and lastly a man.

--From "The Lying-In Woman"[Note that the final sentence amounts to ’Ontogeny recapitulates theological phylogeny.’]

On Sex
"Some say that women are able to become pregnant without the act of men, if they lick salt."

"I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful and that venereal stimuli have their origin not in nature, but in sin. Nothing is so far from the truth. As if marriage, whose function cannot be fulfilled without these incitements, did not rise above blame. In other living creatures, where do these incitements come from? From nature or from sin? From nature, of course. It must borne in mind that in the apetites of the body there is very little difference between man and other living creatures. Finally, we defile by our imagination what of its own nature is fair and holy. If we were willing to evaluate things not according to the opinion of the crowd, but according to nature itself, how is it less repulsive to eat, chew, digest, evacuate, and sleep after the fashion of dumb animals, than to enjoy lawful and permitted carnal relations?" From De Conscribendis Epistolas

On Women’s Lib
"Fabulla: I believe you judge that a man is naturally more excellent and strong than a female.
Eutrapelus: I believe they are.
Fabulla: That is men’s opinion. But are men anything longer-lived than women? Are they free from distempers?
Eutrapelus: No, but in the general they are stronger.
Fabulla: But then they themselves are excelled by camels in strength.
Eutrapelus: But besides, the male was created first.
Fabulla: So was Adam before Christ. Artists tend to be most exquisite in their latter performances.
Eutrapelus: But God put the woman under subjection to the man.
Fabulla: It does not follow of consequence that he is the better because he commands, he subjects her as wife, and not purely as a woman; and besides that, He so puts the woman under subjection, that though they have each of them power over the other, He will have the woman to be obedient to the man, not as to the more excellent, but as to the more fierce person. Tell me, Eutrapelus, which is the weaker person, he that yields to another, or he that is yielded to?
Eutrapelus: [long discussion of theological issues]
Fabulla: [discusses the problem of men facing death in battle, contrasts this with female dangers in childbirth] "...We are obliged to encounter death hand to hand."
Eutrapelus: I have heard these stories before now; but the question is, whether they are true or not?
Fabulla: Too true.
Eutrapelus: Well then, Fabulla, would you have me persuade your husband never to touch you more? for if so, you will be secure from that danger.
Fabulla: In truth, there is nothing in the world I am more desirous of, if you were able to effect it.
--From "The Lying-In Woman"

"For where excellence is only upon one side, friendship is but a fleeting and insecure thing." --De Ratione Studii

Play and Learning
"The rules of grammar are crabbed things to many persons...it is important early to instil a taste for the best things into the minds of children, and I cannot see that anything is learned with greater success than what is learned by playing, and this is, in truth, a very harmless kind of fraud, to trick a person into his own profit."

"Indeed, a constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies, so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery" --Letter to Christian Northoff

"There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect."
"I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger."
"I am a lover of liberty. I cannot and will not serve parties."

"I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults."

"Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself." --Letter to Christian Northoff

A non-quote
Amazon.com is sending out a bookmark with the following quote from Erasmus: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." This is not exactly what Erasmus wrote, although it’s close enough in meaning. The actual quote is "I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes." It’s from a letter to Jacob Batt dated April 12, 1500.

And you thought Shakespeare said it first...
"For what is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?" --The Praise of Folly

"They say that the AntiChrist will be born of a monk and a nun. If so, there must already be thousands of AntiChrists."
"...even now the common people speak ill of unusually tall men, as if they were sluggards and blockheads."
"Education is of far greater importance than heredity in forming character."
"Whenever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity."