The Courage to be Alone
February 10, 1998
We are social creatures; we define ourselves by the groups in which we claim membership. Indeed, how much of the stress of losing one’s job arises from the ejection from one’s social group rather than from the economic consequences? Membership in a group is a fundamental prop of identity.
Such group membership provides many benefits: protection, assistance, support in time of need, emotional backstopping. Surely the social structure of our distant hominid ancestors, with their troop organization of a few dozen individuals, continues to exert a profound influence on our psyches today.
But group membership has its costs, costs that can be especially painful to one’s conscience. What German today can feel patriotism uncompromised by embarrassment for Hitler? What Catholic can take pride in his religious affiliation without some small twinge of conscience about the Inquisition? Republicans have Nixon, baseball aficionados have Pete Rose, scientists have Lysenko, and lawyers -- well, lawyers have themselves.
Every group makes mistakes, and we are often least civilized when we run in packs. Otherwise upright individuals find their moral standards compromised in the complexities of group politics. The taint of a group’s moral infractions applies to all its members.
Erasmus recognized the moral risks of group membership, and resolved at an early age never to permit himself to be so compromised. Perhaps it was his experience at the monastery at Steyn, when he was barely 20, that taught him the lesson. He was disillusioned by the easy lives of pleasure they led, and the spiritual vacuousness of their religious rituals. Life as an Augustinian canon was not what he wanted, and he certainly didn’t want to identify himself with the corruption of monastery life.
Whatever the causes, Erasmus learned the lesson thoroughly and applied it consistently through his life. He dissociated himself from all factions, parties, groups, and organizations. He went so far as to obtain a papal dispensation to refrain from wearing his priestly garb, on the excuse that in some countries it could be confused with the attire of a doctor. I believe that his true goal in seeking the dispensation was to free himself from even a symbolic tie to any group.
The obsessiveness with which Erasmus pursued his freedom from group entanglements is difficult to appreciate today; back then, group membership played a crucial role in everyone’s existence. Yet Erasmus eschewed his native language, Dutch, for Latin, the one truly non-national language. Although legally a subject of the Holy Roman Empire, he moved freely between kingdoms, dealt freely with other sovereigns, and never betrayed the slightest preference for any polity. Whether or not he coined the phrase "citizen of the world", he certainly used it often in his writings and lived the role in his life. At one time or another, he was solicited by just about every major sovereign to come to court, enjoy a pension and a life of leisure merely for adorning the court with his presence. Recognizing the inherant affiliations implicit in such a course, he rejected all such offers.
His professional affiliations did involve some compromises. He taught at Cambridge for a few years, and later held a position at the university at Louvain, but travelled away often, and never participated in the social life of the college communities. As soon as he achieved financial independence, he left Louvain, never to return.
But the acid test of Erasmus’ moral courage came with the Lutheran upheaval. Everybody was choosing up sides, for or against Rome, and the pressure on Erasmus to declare his affiliation was enormous. By refusing to do so, he earned the enmity of both sides. The Catholics called him disloyal, a secret supporter of Luther. The Lutherans called him a coward, unwilling to publicly declare himself in favor of the side he knew to be right. Erasmus himself continued to insist, to both sides, that Luther had some worthy points to make, but that he was unnecessarily confrontational and abusive. In 1525 he finally yielded to the pressures by publishing De Libero Arbitrio (On the Freedom of the Will), which challenged the very core of Luther’s thinking. But he quickly followed it up with a number of works criticizing faults in the Catholic Church. In his letters, he declared his loyalty to the true Church -- but always qualified it in some way. He would obediently defer to the Church’s "proper" decisions, but he always left wiggle room in his definition of propriety. Erasmus insisted on attacking each issue separately, on its own merits. The hardliners in the Church saw it as a simple matter of loyalty to the team. Either Erasmus was with the Church or against it. And Erasmus just as stubbornly refused to accept that kind of thinking.
Erasmus’ courageous self-isolation is difficult to appreciate in these days of fairly honest law. Back then, there were many authorities capable of imposing severe penalties, including capital punishment: kings, parlaiments, ecclesiastical bodies, local magistrates. Ofttimes mobs implemented their own concept of vigilante justice. A man’s best protection in such uncivilized times is membership in a powerful group capable of exacting terrible revenge on those who would injure him. The Sorbonne burned Berquin at the stake for the crime of translating some of Erasmus’ books into French -- imagine what they would have done to Erasmus himself. Despite the very real danger, Erasmus eschewed all the protective entanglements of group affiliation. To the very end, he remained his own man, utterly alone and utterly himself. "There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect."