Thomas Layton / Sunday, October 27, 2019 / Categories: Intro To Ethics Intro to Humanism: Desiderius Erasmus The importance and agency of human beings Humanism today encompasses a range of ideas so broad that the scholars of its origin have been retroactively designated ‘Renaissance Humanists’ or ‘Christian Humanists’. But the term humanism was coined in the Renaissance. Studia Humanitatis refers to a scholarly and philosophical movement based on renewed study of ancient greek and roman texts. The early humanists endeavoured to emulate and build upon classic literary forms for renewed inquiry. It was less an organised movement than a diverse collection of thinkers corresponding upon their pursuits of this new discipline. This collection included Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, Marcillio Ficino, Nicolo Machiavelli and John Colet. Their lasting impact can be seen in the continued growth of humanism to inform philosophy, religion, ethics and politics. Each member of that distinguished company is worth an article by themselves but this one will focus on Desiderius Erasmus, for many the founding humanist and not the least controversial. Just for starters; in one of his later books Erasmus claimed to be the illegitimate son of a priest, a big statement from someone born in 1467. But by the 1520s he was one of the most widely respected scholars in Europe, particularly in the French, German, and English universities where he corresponded heavily with other humanists. He was also known in Italy but the Papal states were where he was most infamous. Erasmus preferred to publish in the vernacular languages of Europe rather than Greek or Latin, and worked at translating early church texts including the New Testament. This was seen by many Catholics as a threat to the orthodoxy of the church but was also a major reason why Erasmus became so influential. STUDIA HUMANITATIS: A CHALLENGE TO THE STATUS QUO Studia Humanitatis was the term coined during the Renaissance for the study of language, grammar, rhetoric, history and philosophy; via immersion in classical literature newly rediscovered from Greece and Rome. This was a radical change in the academic method of the time which was steeped in the medieval scholastic tradition. Scholasticism was far narrower in its field of study and its method disregarded reasoning and rhetoric in favour of pure logic. The ethics of Studia Humanitatis, or humanism as it would later be known, were still being felt out. It should be remembered that this was not an organised movement but a group of largely independent scholars pursuing new inquiries for the first time. The most important theme Erasmus struck was the value of education and it drove him to butt heads with the orthodoxy of his day. Erasmus wished to see knowledge disseminated widely, in particular the New Testament and the early Christian writers such as St Augustine. For Erasmus the spread of knowledge was an ethically mandated task, since education was the primary method by which an individual could better themselves. ERASMIAN ETHICS: THE ADAGIA A reading of Erasmian ethics begins with the Adagia, published in 1500 by Erasmus to train his students in the art of rhetoric and debate. The book was revisited multiple times in the author’s life and William Barker writes in his analysis that “Erasmus never properly completed, nor could complete, what he set out to do.” What he set out to do, according to Barker, was meditate on personal ethics through moral interpretations of famous sayings. These sayings were sourced in both the Greko-Roman tradition and the Bible. From these sayings sprang a series of essays with no entirely cohesive theme, but forming a wide ranging series of ethical speculations. Barker identifies; “The right use of language, about personal as well as social behaviour…(and)...strong ethical orientation” as the overlapping themes of the Adagia, with branching and developing sub themes involving; “good self government, the exercise of will and judgement, rational thought affecting actions…(and)... peaceful relations with others”. One Erasmian principle missing from Barker’s quote is the value of education. Erasmus often invoked the maxim that “All time not imparted to study is lost.” Frequently in his letters he would attribute it to Gaius Plinius Secundus, a famous naturalist and scholar of the early Roman empire. Erasmus likely had no way of knowing where the saying originally came from but ascribing it to such a respected name shows the importance of the maxim to him. RATIO HUMANITATIS: HUMANIST ETHICS Pursuit of Knowledge and Peaceful Relations - Or how being a smarter person can make you a better person. Much of Erasmus’s correspondence refers to the joys of discovering new knowledge and he wanted to share this joy with everyone. He wrote in his introduction to the New Testament translation that his goal was to have every farmer, weaver and traveller in Europe immersed in the gospels. Erasmus and his contemporaries translated and disseminated texts of all sorts in the vernacular languages of their day to improve the chances for education in the wider population. They hoped that this would bring about reforms. This neatly represents the ethical principle upon which humanism was founded; the pursuit of knowledge as a way to become a better person. The first ethical point arising from this makes knowledge into a righteous goal in and of itself. The act of educating oneself or pursuing education is virtuous for its own sake because by learning more about the world we are better able to reflect upon ourselves and our place within it. Furthermore if a person can always be elevated by learning then conflict can always be avoided through properly reasoned debate and compromise. The early humanists abhorred political division of any kind and Erasmus in particular. He believed that properly educated people should have no need to resort to violence and that the honest practice of the art of debate would always lead to compromise. In 1527 he dramatically expanded his New Testament introduction to criticise war waged on religious grounds and would frequently correspond with priests, scholars and politicians in warring European nations to express his desire for peace. Personal Responsibility - Or how becoming a better person is up to you. Another Erasmian ethic is that each individual is individually responsible for their own salvation and self betterment. It can be summed up neatly in relation to Erasmus’s New Testament translation: Erasmus’s immersion in the classics, language, grammar and rhetoric, saw him less focused on questions of theology than on errors and mis-translations in the text. Take for example his treatment of Mark 1:15. At the time it traditionally read ‘Believe and do penance for the kingdom of God is at hand’. Erasmus, who was working with an early Greek manuscript, instead translated it ‘Repent and believe for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ A more accurate translation that is still used today. Erasmus always maintained that his translation work was purely academic and never influenced by his personal philosophy. With hindsight we can say it is far more likely that Erasmus’s personal philosophy was heavily influenced by his translation work. He was not only working with the New Testament but also the writings of early theologians such as St Augustine. These introduced him to a more personal and spiritual faith than the heavily ritualised church. It is also telling that the man who preached personal responsibility throughout his life would find in the scripture a command to personally turn back to God, as opposed to finding a command to receive punishment. Good Self Government - Or how you should not let being educated go to your head. Erasmus wrote in his Enchiridion (1502) that “the first point of wisdom is to know yourself.'' A saying now rendered generic from being laid over inspiring images and shared on social media pages the world over. However, on the original pages where Erasmus set it down ‘knowing yourself’ should be read in the context of deeply Christian 16th century Europe. To know oneself in that time had deep spiritual significance as it required an honest appraisal of where one stood with God. Himeleck, who provides a modern english translation of the Enchiridion, observes that Erasmus sought to begin any introspection with “rational humility in the face of unsolvable problems”. The most obvious of these problems involved the nature of God but Erasmus tied them to the nature of man as well; “I doubt that anyone completely understands even his own body; how then can he be fully acquainted with the nature of his mind?” One can see the influence of Greek philosophy on Erasmus here. His argument is stemmed in the moral tradition that a person’s inner demons are their greatest enemy. Both spiritually in their potential to drive a person to sin and secularly to drive away their friends and family as a result of their vices. Thus an ethical person is one resistant to vice, and the best way to resist your vices is to know them and avoid them. Thus it follows naturally that you should strive to know yourself. Erasmus’s extension on this idea is that an honest appraisal of yourself can only come from an underlying assumption that your own personal knowledge is neither perfect nor complete. This humility is a tool that allows stillness in the mind and is the basis of honest self reflection. That is then the basis of good self government. And a well governed person is one well positioned to pursue knowledge. Will and Judgement - Or how you will know nothing of yourself until you test yourself. Strong will and sound judgement do not necessarily go together, as anyone who follows politics will tell you. But Erasmus saw both these things as necessary ethical properties and saw practice as the best and most ethical way to test your will and judgement against yourself. The term he used for this in the Enchiridion was “the value of temptation”. Equating one feeling strongly tempted to betray their principles to the suffering of Jesus in the desert. Jesus was required to undergo temptation so that his experience on earth would be recognizably human. In the same way Erasmus positions serious temptation as a lesson from heaven and a necessary part of a person’s development. In more secular terms, someone who has been strongly tempted to betray their principles and resists that temptation comes out of that experience a stronger person with a stronger will. This relates back to good self government as someone honestly aware of their own weaknesses is more likely to resist temptation. For Erasmus this is also a strong indicator of good judgement as he viewed personal weaknesses (of the kind preyed upon by temptation) as the greatest inhibitors good judgement. The greatest of all being hubris. These points continually tie back to personal responsibility. The learning experience of strong temptation is only useful to the individual, it is on the individual to gain the required knowledge to overcome their limitations. The benefits of pursuing these ethics continue to fall on the individual by their personal improvement. It should be noted here that Erasmus also devoted lengthy essays to criticism of corrupt institutions. Most famously In Praise of Folly, which targeted the entire 16th century theological establishment for mockery and satire for its institutional failings. However Erasmus saw personal improvement and education of individuals as the best and most ethical way to bring about reform. Since real change could not be forced but must be the natural result of introducing to the institution people with sound judgement to bring about reform, and the willpower to see it happen. This, and his abiding belief in free will over predestination, saw him stay a catholic despite living through the Reformation and having sympathies with many of Martin Luther’s theses. CONCLUSION - How the author ran out of questionably witty subtitles. Desiderius Erasmus has one of the longest legacies of any philosopher. Humanism might still exist had Erasmus’s priestley father kept his vows, but its form and content might be wholly different. The central disciplines of modern humanities studies; history, philosophy, and the use of language, were the same disciplines studied by Erasmus. More important however is Erasmus’s legacy of ethical teaching on the value of learning and self betterment. And as we examine a modern world where, of all things, anti-intellectualism is making a comeback alongside anger at corrupt institutions; those teachings might prove more valuable than ever. After all, possibly the most famous saying attributed to Erasmus is “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Intro to Kantian Ethics Intro to Utilitarianism: Overview Print 1703 Rate this article: 2.5 Please login or register to post comments.