Erasmus: an old Humanist to save Europe – Gabriel Hibon

Erasmus: an old Humanist to save Europe

A Lecture by Professor Carlo Ossola

“Erasmus against the folly of the European conscience”

Last November, Erasmus of Rotterdam was the surprise guest invited to enlighten the Diploma Ceremony of the Masters at the Catholic University of Paris. Professor Carlo Ossola, from the Collège de France, chose this typical humanist of the Renaissance to let the audience see and feel how actual his thinking and his witness could be for our time. Apparently we, citizens of a globalized and chaotic 21st century, do not have much in common with this rare figure of erudition: a “Batave writing in Latin, citizen of the Netherlands, formed in Venice, who chose as friend and model a British Lord Chancellor, became legatus of a Spanish Emperor, and who eventually choose to die in Basel, seeking without success a place of religious peace”[1]. This would be without mentioning Luther, who did not have enough harsh words to scorn Erasmus, his contemporary and his challenger in the purpose of reforming the Church and society. But in fact, many traces that make Erasmus seem far away from us can be considered precisely as elements we should care about in our time.  In a rather elliptic lecture, full of quotes, Professor Ossola chose three focuses to guide us through this necessary new discovery of the pertinence of Erasmus, giving a very quick bird’s eye view of his spirit.

Erasmus dedicated his most well known opus Moriae Encomium (Paris, 1511) to his friend Thomas More. He could not avoid a pun, by the way, because the word Moriae is also a name for Folly. It is therefore a praise of both More and the folly that develops, in the line of the “paradoxal praise”, a meditation upon human life as a stage play and upon the condition of the times in which we live now. “Now is the whole life of the mortals other than a stage play where everyone walks with a mask and plays his role” till he must leave the stage?”[2]  Folly, on stage to pronounce her own praise, actually speaks of the “world”, because in it everything is madness. This madness can be summarized as the symbolic figure of the “silenus”, these statues of Antiquity that have the appearance of an ugly, old and drunken man, but contain a treasure inside. Alcibiades was the first to apply this metaphor to Socrates, ugly on the outside, full of wisdom inside—a perfect example of paradoxical praise. But, complains Erasmus, most of human kind is reverse silenus: full of promises on the outside, having a beautiful appearance, but in reality full of evil and madness inside.

The second focus of Professor Ossola was on the contrast between Erasmus and Machiavelli. The latter wrote his famous Il Principe in 1513 (but published it only later) and the former wrote his Institutio principis christiani in 1516, a precise anti-thesis. But, as Professor Ossola mentioned: “We bear the responsibility of our readings”. Il Principe has been read for 500 years, whereas Erasmus’ Education of the Christian Prince has been forgotten, while its standpoints are so urgent today: those who are worthy of governing are the ones who dedicate their persons to the good of the State, and do not use the State for their own profit. Serving the common good, they seek the peace and the freedom of their citizens. The tyrant yields toward war and domination of submissive subjects; Erasmus’ Prince, on the contrary, exerts his power when his fellow citizens are free, for power is lessened when citizens become slaves. Erasmus, in the same spirit, developed a plea to diminish the number of laws, among other reasons to avoid too much of a burden for the weaker citizens, while the powerful ones always know how to escape laws. Furthermore, much in advance of his time, he advised to establish low prices for first necessity goods. Conversely, this economical concern is, significantly enough, totally absent in Machiavelli’s book. Machiavelli’s political thinking certainly dominated the modern age, alas! But now that we are celebrating the 500th anniversaries of these two Renaissance thinkers, we see that the aspirations of young people in European definitely go with Erasmus, and not with Machiavelli.

Finally, the contemplation of the human condition and the educational project that are the main concerns of Erasmus have a goal: peace. It is not by chance that writers and thinkers of the 20th Century (Johan Huizinga and Stefan Zweig, among others) turned their attention to Erasmus and tried to promote his ideal of peace, finding in him the inspiration and courage to fight against violence and war. Alluding to Erasmus’ intellectual portrait drawn by the erudite Pierre de Nolhac, Professor Ossola mentions that:

Tout se réunit autour de la défense du bien précieux qu’est la paix ; ce n’est plus l’auteur des grands textes de controverse, des manuels de formation chrétienne qui s’impose, mais plutôt celui qui, face à la violence et à la folie des guerres et des armées, élève l’éloge de la paix universelle, dans son Querela pacis ou dans son Dulce bellum inexpertis.[3]

In the most surprising way, the lecture of Professor Ossola led us to discover Erasmus as a real guiding light (a “lighthouse”) for our time.

Gabriel HIBON

Master I – Anglais

Catholic University of Paris

[1] Carlo Ossola. Érasme et l’Europe. Traduction de l’italien Nadine Le Lirzin. Paris: Éditions du Félin, 2014, p. 67

[2] Op. cit., p. 9.

[3] Op. cit., p. 72.


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