Volume I. #3
Words with Erasmus & Everyday Philosopher People
Among the flow of topics, his view on Christianity and what he called the Philosophy of Christ would have time on stage. I’d marvel at his unwillingness to separate anything good, true, and beautiful from the essence of Christianity: “Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.” I’d be intrigued by how natural and positive he thought Christianity was: simply and in essence a transformative path of becoming more truly human.
Our philosophy sinks easily into the human mind because it is so largely in accord with human nature. What else is the philosophy of Christ, which he himself calls being born again, but renewal of a human nature originally well-formed?
~ Erasmus, preface,1st translation of the New Testament
I’m sure he’d surprise me and prick the ears of patrons at nearby tables with his positions on sex and marriage:
I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful…and…(originating) not in nature, but in sin. As if marriage,.. did not rise above blame…we defile by our imagination what of its own nature is fair and holy.
~ Erasmus, essay, rhetorical exercise, In Defense of Marriage
Erasmus was a proponent and an excellent practitioner of the rhetorical tool of exempla, concrete examples and stories. No doubt he would have woven one or two into the evening, but without any sense of supporting an argument. Likely, he’d again note the friend he “loved best,” Thomas More. Perhaps he’d tell stories of his days at Oxford and his battles with the group that called themselves “Trojans.” At a high pitch of the struggle, Thomas More entered and deftly wielded a subtle, sharp weapon: a masterful and savvy work of rhetoric, a letter.
Giving themselves names like “Priam,” Hector,” and “Paris,” the Trojans “warred” in cowardly fashion against Greek learning—language, philosophy, literature, arts, etc. These Trojans told themselves they were defending truth and religion (and in a way provided each other the right mirror by which to view themselves). Without any effort to understand their opponents or to engage in rational dialogue, they rested on categorical moralistic judgments (born from ignorant “intuitions”) and on assurance of their truth because they echoed their unfounded assertions back and forth. They operated with the power of gossip and the machinations of a clique—one joined the groupthink, remained silent, or was viciously marginalized. They created a culture at Oxford in which “no one can admit in public or private that he enjoys Greek, without being subjected to the jeers of these ludicrous ‘Trojans’ who think Greek is a joke for the simple reason that they don’t know what good literature is.” (Thomas More, Letter to the Directors of Oxford University)
A climax event for these Trojans occurred during a Lenten sermon. One of the “royal” members ascended the pulpit “with academic ermine over his shoulders,” and focused his entire efforts on “berating all the liberal arts.” He asserted that such learning was “secular,” and that “only theology should be studied,” of a particular late scholastic sort. After elaborating “on some stupid Bristish proverbs,” and in the heat of his own “inspiration,” the “Trojan” preacher boldly proclaimed “students of Greek ‘heretics,’ teachers of Greek ‘chief devils,..’” And “…in his ‘zeal,’ this “holy man” called “by the name of devil one…He did everything but name (D. Erasmus), as everybody realized…”
More exhorted the directors to do the right thing with the overt warning: “…learning will perish if the university continues to suffer from the contentions of lazy idiots, and the liberal arts are made sport of with impunity.” With a clever wisdom that showed he knew how to defend what is good in the not-so-innocent world, More gently warns that men like the Archbishop of Canterbury, who happens also to be the Chancellor of Oxford, and the Cardinal of York (Wolsey) would not be pleased with such “Trojan” attacks on learning and on “the royal office of sacred preaching.” If necessary, they surely would act to prevent this “decay of learning.” “Last but not least; what of our most Christian King? (Henry VIII prior to his marathon of marriages) “Will his wisdom and piety suffer him to allow the liberal arts to fail..?” He concludes with “confidence” in their “wisdom” and in their swift remedial actions, with an image of the above-mentioned men being very pleased with the corrective measures and eager to bestow benefits, with his own “deep, personal affection,” and with the wish that the university “flourish continually in virtue and in all the liberal arts.”
While notes of praise and laughter would ring, at times, in the dimmed café light, his face may have shown a tremor of profound distaste and disdain for many of those “holy” theologians and logicians—“intellectual” fundamentalists of their time (and there are plenty of all sorts in any “time”). They opposed and attacked him throughout his life (and after—successfully banning his books for a time, although unsuccessful with the label of heretic or the erasure of his memory). But I don’t think the conversation or Erasmus would get stuck in a morose rut, he was a magnanimous and humble man who labored for humanism and what he called the Philosophy of Christ until the end of his earthly days. And he was a man who frequented the refreshing and life-giving waters of silence and contemplation. He knew through experience the “now” of true leisure, that beyond time and beyond image experience in which one lovingly apprehends, sees with a raised heart and intuitive eyes, that all is good and that one has a personal meaning in the whole of things, despite it all. It was a taste of Heaven, as Jacques Maritain and others note, the highest intellectual act according to the liberal arts tradition, and available to all—children, adults, learned, unlearned. It was something Erasmus deeply wished for his friends (and enemies too).
I shall rejoice with you still more when you are blessed with leisure and with the spirit to ponder the secrets of the philosophy of Christ in deepest silence and in your inmost heart, when the Bridegroom will lead you into his chamber.
~ Letter to Johann Eck
Through all the ebbs and flows and meanderings of the conversation—from wit and humor to quiet to heavy ideas—instead of an underlying stale bitterness, I think I would have sensed the presence of a deep peace, a sense of a billowing reservoir of life underneath the surface—a sign of his habitual dip into the waters of contemplative silence.
Before the evening closed, and one way or another, I think would catch something of his practical strategy to ignite a Christian and liberal arts renaissance across Europe through the art of teaching! (Perhaps with another playful and bold flicker in the eye he’d suggest that this is just the kind of impossible possibility we should be after.) This renaissance “project” focused on educators and preachers. (One of his last works was Ecclesiastes. Regarded by many as one of his greatest masterpieces on rhetoric, and urged by John Fisher, it was a work for preachers.) Of course, part of the extensive training he advocated included rhetoric. Employing eloquence with rhetorical devices, such as stories, images, and appeals to common sense, teachers could inspire, could move souls to love learning, to delight in good things, and to rightly abhor what was petty and ignoble. They could tune the emotions so perception of reality was more truthful, could motivate souls to take noble, difficult actions (to develop those dynamic habits and dispositions of the heart called virtues). For, like water seeping from a broken jar, without the decisions and actions, there go the dispositions, the love of good things, the will to love and to endure trials, the self and the conscience.
Erasmus was not a rigid or idealistic classicist or a scholar locked in his tower of learning and far removed from the flesh and the earth and the fluid nature of actions and history. (He was not, if we may, a Shakespearean Prospero before his storm, The Tempest). His work on rhetoric, Ciceronianus, lambasted idealistic and rigid classical rhetoricians who wanted to defend and keep rhetoric static, “pure” in a perfect high-Ciceronian form, and not allow it to evolve in order to engage the people of the present. To Erasmus, these rhetoricians got stuck in a similar way as the covetous scholastic “Trojans” and their type of grip on theology and logic. The rhetoricians got stuck with a statue-like idea of Cicero, the theologians and logicians with like statues of Aristotle and Aquinas. Often mistaking style for substance, within their own “holy” idealized ivory towers, they myopically stared at the one or two polished statues within. They would open the gates and sally forth, now and then, bedecked in sparkling armor and knightly crosses, to attack liberal arts learning and its inherently rooted yet adaptive nature. They ironically hacked away at the roots of the very things they wished to preserve. Or to use another metaphor, they mummified their heroes in marble, rendering their heroes isolated, out of context, no longer themselves, and mute to the present.
To Erasmus, rhetoric meant more than eloquence and persuasion, as important as those are. He was well aware of the danger of placing eloquence and persuasion in the hands of untruthful men, and of Cicero’s saying that it was “like giving weapons to madmen.” Unfortunately, rhetoric is often held suspect and associated with its abuses by untruthful men—modern-day Sinons. (That Greek warrior in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the classic image of the false rhetorician, who most eloquently stirred and persuaded the Trojans to receive the gift of the giant wooden horse.) Rhetoric is necessary for the sake of seeing and protecting what is True, Beautiful, and Good, in all their lofty and down-to-earth ways. Rhetoric and the arts can engage the whole person in a kind of unity, can tap and tune the imagination and emotions (fear, love, hate, pity, sorrow, courage, etc.), and can engage the more receptive, creative and often neglected aspects of reason, such as intuition and contemplation. (Among others, the philosophers Josef Pieper and Jacques Maritain write extensively on this issue of reason and dynamic pathways to knowing and seeing.) In addition to reason and the gems of the liberal arts tradition, Erasmus also found a beautiful and truthful example of artful rhetoric in Scripture and in the teaching style of Christ.
With this last idea, certainly Erasmus couldn’t refrain from touching on one of his greatest passions and projects—the translations of Scripture and the need to make it available to all men. (Surprising and not surprising, it was a project vehemently opposed by many like the Oxford “Trojans” who argued that Scripture was only safe when in the trained hands of scholastic logicians and theologians.) In defense of this Scripture project, Erasmus often made the provocative declarations that all persons could be “philosophers” and “theologians” and that “nothing prevents any man from being a theologian…whether he is a ditch-digger or a weaver.” (Erasmus, preface, 1st translation, NT)
Now the evening was coming to a close, and I’m sure I would have had several striking or puzzling images hovering about my brain, that I knew I’d have to leave in their puzzling, hovering state. But, after learning of his lengthy work for preachers, and knowing of his many debates and dialogues on the topic of Scripture, this last idea of every-day “philosophers” and “theologians” seems ludicrous. On this issue, I think he’d kindly and briefly explain this daring idea. He distinguished teachers from ordinary persons, and argued that teachers did require serious training. He also noted that laymen shouldn’t try to figure out with absolute clarity some of the more difficult and figurative passages, or read Scripture with the goal of debating or winning arguments. They should struggle with the ideas, especially some of the allegorical and paradoxical images, but leave the debating and scholarly analysis to the scholars. If ordinary persons read Scripture with imagination and common sense and with the right dispositions, then they would come to know Christ and the ways of God in such a way as to render themselves true lovers of wisdom and of Christ (God)—Philosophers of Christ. And in many ways, in the most essential way, to Erasmus they would be truer philosophers and theologians than many who held such titles.
The dispositions of these potential “philosophers” were all-important and included primarily: an open heart—tuned and stirred in the waters of silence; a willingness to be engaged and transformed, especially by the person of Christ; and a desire to act in a Christian way as found in the New Testament. Again, to Erasmus, who didn’t get lost in abstractions, without the actions, there go the dispositions, the transformation, etc.
…these writings set before you the living picture of his sacred mind, Christ as he actually spoke, healed, died, and rose from the grave, rendering him so completely present that you would see less of him if you had him directly in front of your eyes...The Christian philosophy (the way and spirit of Christ) is seated more deeply in the emotions than in learned syllogisms; for it, life is more than logic, inspiration is more than erudition, transfiguration (interior transformation) more than argumentation. Very few can be learned, but no man is denied permission to be a Christian.
~ Erasmus, preface,1st translation of the New Testament
And here, perhaps returning to the topic of conversation, and its mystical possibilities, he may have posited in a whisper-like fashion the notion that the Trinity was ever in dynamic and fresh colloquy (conversation), ever seeking to gather each person into that conversation, into that song. To enlarge my baffled state, he may have added something like, “This is another reason why rhetoric and conversation are so important.”
Well, after farewells and a jest or two from Erasmus, and hearing the wooden chairs roughly announce our departure, I’d return to the outside evening and the cobbled streets. Moved to do something, not sure what, ideas spin and echo in and around and about my head. Relishing the time and engagement, the eyes and ears are more alert, more tuned. Feeling the mist, the night’s beauty is more beautiful. Returning to my hotel, where a few of my children sleep—the calm before another “tempest”—I sense a certain interior lightness, a deep peace, a quiet joy—gifts of an evening and a conversation that reached leisure.
Although connected, this exercise is not part of the above journal. So, take a break (if you’ve gotten this far), and come back if and when you will…
Emboldened by Erasmus and curious as to what I’ll find, here is a brief exploration of a couple short Gospel passages. By no means attempting to be thorough or scholarly, but mostly with the intention to observe and to raise questions, my focus will be on the personality and teaching style of Christ. In so doing, the various “senses” of Scripture will emerge—historical, tropological (moral), anagogical (spiritual), and allegorical (including analogies and allusions). But, none of them will be a focus.
By the way, in one of this month’s books, Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor touches on these levels or senses of Scripture in an interesting way—not for exegetical reasons but for artistic perspectives and training.
…this was a method…also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature.
~ Flannery O’Connor, from the essay, The Nature & Aim of Fiction
If you can, read Jn 3:1-21 and Mt 18:1-9 once or twice, it would be helpful. For what it’s worth, I look at The New Oxford Standard Bible (New Revised Standard Revision), and A Revision of the Challoner-Rheims Version.
With no more ado, we will join Jesus and Nicodemus during their evening conversation.
The opening of the meeting is striking. Under the “protection” of night, the aristocratic Jewish leader, Nicodemus, visits Jesus. As expected, he opens with polite words and a compliment, but with more than polite words, he expresses the “knowledge” that Jesus is a teacher from God. Without any overt acknowledgment of the compliment, Jesus replies in a way that seems abrupt if not random. He answers with a confusing paradoxical image of rebirth, and the idea that it is a necessary process to see the kingdom of God. He allows Nicodemus to struggle with it.
Puzzled, Nicodemus enquires, and Jesus’ responses referencing being “born in the spirit,” and the mysterious ways of the spirit seem only to add to the confusion. With apparent humility, Nicodemus questions further, and Jesus responds with a challenge that could seem rude: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus continues, not with rational explanations, but more so with a series of pictures such as the allusions to Jacob’s ladder, now with the “Son of Man” ascending and descending, and to the paradoxical serpent staff. It was crafted and raised to heal the Israelites bitten by the deadly serpents, but now it is the “Son of Man” lifted up.
Jesus gives mysterious but emotionally comforting statements of God’s love for the world, his wish not to condemn but to save, and the gift of his only Son—a gift to be received with “belief.” He concludes this conversation with more images, the light and the dark, and more mysteries connections such as the relation of actions to perceptions, desires and pleasures. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light…But those who do what is true come to the light…”
How is this learned man, Nicodemus, to “understand” all this? The appeals to understanding are beyond logic and discursive reasoning. More so, they subtly appeal to acts of beholding and to intuition, to the more secret parts of the person—the heart and the will. It is safe to presume that whatever understanding is reached it will not have total rational clarity and it will be shrouded in mystery. It is also safe to conclude that Jesus is not just “ok” with a free and “wholly” personal search for understanding (“wholly” in the sense of the whole person—mind, heart, will, intellect and emotions). He seems to demand it. Here he sparks that type of search and a disposition of openness with intriguing and often paradoxical images—of course, throughout the Gospels we’ll see him do something similar through stories. He also weaves in images, such as the serpent staff, that are later recalled by memory and possibly understood when a certain action occurs or reminder is given. (Here, for example the serpent staff allusion will later be connected to the Cross—a connection that was not possible at the time of the conversation).
In discussing this passage with a friend, one of the things he was struck with was the disposition of Nicodemus. It was drastically different from other leaders and teachers at the time. (Nicodemus is fascinating.) In this short conversation, at least the small picture we have of it, we have to wonder the things communicated without words—the eyes, the affection or lack of affection, the periods of quiet, the sense of ease and trust (which allows for real challenges that don’t simply turn people away), and/or the sense of discomfort, etc. We know Nicodemus stayed with the conversation and we don’t get any clear sense that he felt humiliated and disrespected, though he may have been humbled. We also know that he later displayed a profound love and strength (a pre-Pentecost strength, if you will) at a time far more dangerous than the time of this meeting. After Jesus’ death, “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes,” he helped Joseph of Arimathea clean and wrap the body.
I tend to think that Jesus, in eyes, manner, and tone communicated a profound sense of affection, warmth, and boldness, and allowed for gaps of quiet and stillness, of comfort and discomfort, all of which kept Nicodemus engaged and willing to begin a journey.
Let’s turn briefly to a scene from Matthew (Mt 18:1-9). Here Jesus is asked the question of “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” With a sense of drama, he says nothing and places a child “in their midst.” With what seems to be a sense that the emotional impetus for the question is off, he redirects the enquiry and gently and boldly gives an unexpected image to behold. He doesn’t quite answer the question, (or at least not the question they’re asking on the surface—this is something that happens throughout the Gospels.) His subsequent statements don’t bring any kind of rational clarity: “Unless you become like this child…Whoever…becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Beautiful and baffling—repeated pedagogical tools in the teaching box of Christ).
Continuing with a sense of love for the child, his tone dramatically changes from gentleness and quiet to a tone with some fire! “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me…” The fiery tone rises; the images get more graphic: “…cut it off and throw it away…if your eye causes you to stumble, cut it out and throw it away…”
Here, and elsewhere, I think we get an image of Christ that is far more human, creative, spontaneous, provocative, and dynamic than the nice, bourgeois, moralistic ones or the super spiritual ones we often see. (I think we also see some of the passion and “thunder” in the man who nicknamed others “Sons of Thunder.”)
With that last spark, I bid farewell.
Nicodemus Visiting Jesus by Henry Ossawa Tanner
I can imagine sitting down at an European café with Erasmus. It would be the right kind of café—made with real materials, it would be old enough to have served like a cove for conversations long past, but bustling and alive to the people and minds of the present. Voices would play off the wood and stone and glass, joining the percussion of knocking utensils, heels, and dishes. The pitch more or less right, the volume never overwhelming, lighting with a human (not operation-table) tone and little or no visual noise—few if any screens. If we may wax the image, let’s make it a crisp fall evening at dusk with a mist of rain. Lamps, lanterns, and cars cast lights. Shimmering lines mark paths, climb buildings, illumine a face. They cross and crisscross wet cobblestone streets, broken now and then by faintly colored silhouettes in an organically chaotic rhythm. The café, nestled in the shadows of a side street, bids welcome.
Invigorated by the cool moist air and the overall aesthetic harmony, I gaze at the painted sign getting larger with each step and arrive at the door. Yet, before taking the handle I think I’d hesitate. Conjured by some divine magic to the present (and speaking modern English), beyond that door was Erasmus. In the flesh. His long fingers gently strumming a wooden table, waiting. Ready to converse in all his power-house, intellectual, witty Erasmian self. What did I have to offer? Just one of his common titles could cower any intelligent soul: Prince of the Christian Humanists. To employ understatement, this guy’s intellectual and rhetorical ability was daunting. The number of literary or classical allusions that surely would pass above my head or through my ears or not even come close to my body’s radar would outnumber the handful caught by at least a thousand to one.
Then again, the word was he knew his wine. So what if I just sat and listened as he rambled in a monologue disguised as a dialogue, or casually dropped name after name of the high society players he called friends? Better than me offering a doltish remark or failing at an attempt of wit. What if others recognized him—scholars, oligarchs, politicians of today? After gently gesturing to me with a multi-ivory hello, they’d turn their backs, dominate his attention, and provide far more pressing and interesting conversation than I could. A fly on the wall? Ok. No, I’d want some of that cheese and wine. As long as I had a place at the table, a quiet large-eared mouse, even if slightly jilted, would be just fine. I’d go in.
Before closing the door, I hope I’d realize those imaginings born from short spasms of doubt and a touch of fear, were not true. I was forgetting what I knew of him, through his writings, through his friends, through the hodgepodge of history. I’m sure I could have found a few impolite moments, a few negative anecdotes from his detractors, a few “facts” gathered into a flimsy whole to support my fear-inspired images. But that effort would shed more truth on me than on him.
Taking the next steps and joining the café sounds, I’d see Erasmus. I tend to think I’d be met with a slight smirk and a playful mischievous flicker crossing his eyes and arched brow. Greeting me with a witty remark, I’d have no intelligent response. His eyes, tone of voice, and composure would express affection and a sense of personal interest that would quickly set me at ease. Settling in, the conversation would begin.
Erasmus was a natural and practiced conversationalist. Creating a friendly and familiar conversational tone was key to his theory and practice of rhetoric and of education. It was something he practiced as a teacher and as a writer, advocated time and again in his works, and admired in a friend. Here he praises Thomas More for such qualities, with that now immortal phrase:
…it would be hard to find anyone who was more truly a man for all seasons and all men, who was more ready to oblige, more easily available for meeting, more lively in conversation, or who combined so much real wisdom with such charm of character…
~ Letter to Guillaume Budé (who helped to spark a renaissance and
a classical revival in France, and to found Collège de France)
Continuing on the topic of More, and echoing his own joy in conversation and friendship, Erasmus writes:
"When he finds open-hearted people naturally suited to him, he enjoys their company and conversation so much that one would think he reckoned such things the chief pleasure in life.”
~ Letter to Ulrich von Hutten
Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein
Erasmus knew how to prepare the setting for a meaningful conversation. After all, he was the author of an educational book entitled Conversations (Colloquies). He knew the art of tuning the emotions with emotions in order to prepare conversation or to prepare a receptive and energetic dynamic for learning. Here he would have quickly taken me out of a self-focus with a disarming witty remark, and eased and redirected my apprehensive emotions with his own emoting of affection and a friendly familiarity.
As the evening passed and, enhanced by the well-crafted gifts of the earth, took its own course, I’m sure many allusions—Lucians and Origens and Vives and Ciceros, etc.—would have whirred safely past my ears. But mostly, I think he would have communicated in a way to reach and engage me and to raise me up rather than lord over me with his learning. I’m sure I’d get long looks from those deep-set eyes lining his aquiline nose, expressing, “Really?” or “Perhaps you should chew on that awhile.” Saying without saying, “It’s not just ok, it’s necessary for you to struggle so that you can see for yourself. What good is it otherwise?”
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