Erasmus The Ludosophist

In this essay, I want to explain just what it is about Erasmus that is so special to me, and so significant, I think, to us today.

Erasmus lived a new philosophy that I will call "ludosophism". The stem "ludo"refers to playfulness; hence my neologism means "playful wisdom"; and this term summarizes the thrust of Erasmus’ life. He was an intellectual, not a humorist, for his concerns were always with serious and important issues. But his approach to those issues emphasized an easygoing, playful style.

Nowadays this might not seem so significant; after all, there are plenty of laid-back philosophers these days. But back then, Erasmus’ ludosophism was outrageously unconventional. European culture in 1500 was deadly serious, in both senses of the adjective "deadly". These people burned each other at the stake over such issues as whether there were three persons in the Trinity or one person with three natures. The standards of discourse were much coarser than today’s; polemicism was considered merely a variation of eloquence.

For example, an Italian humanist by the name of Julius Caesar Scaliger attacked Erasmus over the question of imitating the Latin style of Cicero. Erasmus had made fun of the slavish imitation of Cicero, which he considered an affectation. Addressing a group of students, Scaliger wrote in defense of Cicero:

" must check the boldness of this calumniator... ...the railleries of so evil-spoken a man whose jealousy cannot be satisfied with insulting so illustrious a name... this beast... his rage... blot out his criminal decrees..."

And so forth. This kind of writing was standard in those days. Luther’s writings read like Wagner’s music:mostly pounding and noise. And Calvin -- sheesh, here’s a guy who considered happiness a sin.

Or consider Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss theologian who differed from Luther on some minor points of doctrine. He led a Protestant army against a Catholic army, ("Kill for God!") lost, and his body was quartered and burned on a pile of dung. Luther pronounced his death the judgement of God. These were not mellow times.
Amidst this venomous environment, Erasmus’ gentle and jovial style stood out like a toy balloon at a concentration camp. This guy just didn’t fit into his times.
Consider his most famous work,
The Praise of Folly. In this little book, Madame Folly takes the rostrum to defend her reputation. After all, she points out, humanity has embraced her at every turn. She proceeds to lampoon the folly of every walk of life. Schoolmen, merchants, husbands and wives, priests, soldiers, princes -- everybody gets a jibe. Indeed, humanity could hardly exist without her help, she maintains.

The humor is, by modern standards, not exactly thigh-slapping. For example, Erasmus chose the title
Moriae Enconium, a sort of Latinized Greek for "The Praise of Folly", and he dedicated it to his best friend Thomas More. Get it? Moriae -- More? Har-de-har-har!

OK, so he’s not up to the standards of Robin Williams. Remember, these were serious times, and by the barbaric standards of the day, this was hilarious stuff.
Even so,
The Praise of Folly came in for heavy criticism. Many churchmen were outraged by the cheekiness of Erasmus’ satires on the church. Within ten years of his death, the book was put on the Catholic Church’s list of banned books.

I must caution you, when you first read Erasmus, you will almost certainly be bored. Taken individually, his stuff doesn’t seem that compelling. Only after you’ve sampled the breadth of the man’s writings do you realize just how ambitious his aims were. Erasmus wrote aboutpolitics, religion, education, marriage, war and peace, how to write well -- he didn’t seem to have a center of gravity. But indeed there was an underlying concept, and it was play.

Thoreau began his essay "Civil Disobedience"with a reference to the old saw, "That government is best which governs least", and proposed to take the concept to its logical conclusion that the very best government would not govern at all.Erasmus’ world view can be seen in the same light:he started with the proposition, "The more I learn, the less Iknow", and carried it to its logical conclusion:he learned so much that he recognized that he knew nothing.

There’s no question that Erasmus was one of the most learned people in human history. The man was incredible; he taught himself Greek in his thirties, with no textbooks and no help, and mastered the language. He seems to have memorized the entire written output of Greco-Roman civilization; his writings choke with casual but obscure classical references.

Erasmus’ profound sense of "morosophism" led him to reject all forms of dogmatism. There is simply no point in attaching yourself too strongly to any belief; after all, nobody can know enough to be sure. His preferred form of writing were declamations and colloquies, both of which purported to examine issues from all sides rather than reveal absolute truth. His contemporaries, and many later commentators, misinterpreted Erasmus’ intellectual modesty as cowardice, a timid unwillingness to commit himself to a position, but the one position that Erasmus never budged from was "Nobody really knows."

If you can’t be certain of any dogma, then there isn’t any justification for using strong measures against those you disagree with. Burning heretics was wrong, because only God can know who’s really a heretic:

"...what sort of people are they who drag men to the flames by their condemnations? ... This mania for slandering anything and everything -- what does it produce but bitterness and dissension?Let us interpret fairly judgements that differ from our own, neither desiring ours to be accepted nor taking as oracles the judgments of those who do not understand what they read."

If we can’t really know anything, then how can we learn? Despite his profound reverence for classical learning, Erasmus recognized that reliance on written authority was inadequate, for how do you know the authorities are correct? The only solution Erasmus could see was an exploratory style, a playful willingness to consider a wide variety of possibilities.

From this sprang his remarkably modern concepts of education. He rejected the authoritarian notions of education current in his day and developed an educational theory that emphasized playfulness. When his colloquies were condemned by the Sorbonne, Erasmus defended them with the observation, "If someone protests that it is undignified for an old man to play in this childish fashion, my answer is, ’I don’t care how childish if only it’s useful.’... I’m not sure that anything is learned better than what is learned as a game."

Erasmus practiced what he preached; he wrote a variety of educational works all of which included a playful element. His colloquies were meant as educational reading for students; they demonstrated clean Latin style while discussing such matters as used-horse salesmen, shipwrecks, hunting, prostitutes, an alchemy scam, courtship, and a master and a servant who bicker incessantly. There are also several colloquies specifically about games and game-playing.

Erasmus also popularized Aesop’s fables as a means of teaching children reading while inculcating them with moral lessons.

For adults, Erasmus wrote another work:the Adagia. This was a collection of adages and metaphors that Erasmus had dug up from classical literature. You may not realize it, but a great many expressions that you use today were unearthed and popularized by Erasmus. Some examples:"Crocodile tears"; "To call a spade a spade"; "On the razor’s edge"; "One hand washes the other". Erasmus simply piled some 4,000 of these into a big book, with a few paragraphs explaining the genesis of each aphorism. These tales were the real entertainment: kings triumphant and beaten, husbands cuckholded, strange beasts and wondrous events, and Parmeno, who could imitate a pig’s call better than anybody else. Because they were short, readers could take them in easy bites; somebody once called the Adages "the world’s first bedside book". Thus, Erasmus used entertainment to improve the literacy of the adult population.

The experimental and the playful also merged in his remarkable writing style:racy, literate, sometimes obscure, always a challenge. Erasmus pushed the envelope of Latin, playing with his wordings, seeking a better way to articulate his thoughts. Metaphors, puns, and allegories abound; he was especially adept at clever puns mixing Greek and Latin. When reading Erasmus, you must always keep this rule in mind:if you can’t follow a particular thought, it’s almost certainly a cleverly veiled reference to something that an educated 16th-century reader would recognize.

This is not to say that Erasmus was a happy-go-lucky buffoon. Far from it; he had a fragile ego and was stung to the quick by the ferocious attacks on his writings. In his letters to friends, he often lashed out at his tormentors, complaining bitterly at their ugliness and vindictiveness. But publicly he maintained a properly Christian stance toward the mudslingers, gritting his teeth.

Erasmus might be loosely be called a game designer; his colloquies on games explain the rules of several game in some detail, and in "Lusus"(Playing), two boys make up the rules of a game on the fly. That’s game design, Isuppose. But Erasmus thought in larger terms than games. He was concerned with play in all its manifestations, from child’s play through romantic play to mealtime banter. Indeed, the only recreation that this workaholic allowed himself was the "convivial banquet" combining good food, good wine, good friends, and good conversation. Erasmus enjoyed these repasts immensely.

The culmination of this Erasmian ludosophism was the notion of "ecstatic folly". If all knowledge is inadequate, then the only path to true enlightenment, paradoxically, must be the willful surrender of reason and knowledge to folly. If you truly understand enough, then you can let go of your knowledge and lose yourself in transcendental union with God, the universe, or whatever you consider overarching. It is the logical conclusion of "The more I learn, the less I know":if you would learn everything, then acknowledge -- right down to your core -- that you know absolutely nothing. There lies ecstatic union with the cosmos.