Story type: Essay
We see not a few mortals who, striving to emulate this divine virtue with more zeal than success, fall into a feeble and disjointed loquacity, obscuring the subject and burdening the wretched ears of their hearers with a vacant mass of words and sentences crowded together beyond all possibility of enjoyment. And writers who have tried to lay down the principles of this art have gained no other result than to display their own poverty while expounding abundance.
—Erasmus on “Preaching”
Erasmus was born in Fourteen Hundred Sixty-six, and died in Fifteen Hundred Thirty-six. No thinker of his time influenced the world more. He stood at a pivotal point, and some say he himself was the intellectual pivot of the Renaissance.
The critics of the times were unanimous in denouncing him–which fact recommends him to us.
Several Churchmen, high in power, live in letters for no other reason than because they coupled their names with that of Erasmus by reviling him. Let the critics take courage–they may outwit oblivion yet, even though they do nothing but carp. Only let them be wise, and carp, croak, cough, cat-call and sneeze at some one who is hitching his wagon to a star. This way immortality lies. Erasmus was a monk who flocked by himself, and found diversion in ridiculing monkery. Also, he was the wisest man of his day. Wisdom is the distilled essence of intuition, corroborated by experience. Learning is something else. Usually, the learned man is he who has delved deep and soared high. But few there be who dive, that fish the murex up. Among those who soar, the ones who come back and tell us of what they have seen, are few. Like Lazarus, they say nothing.
Erasmus had a sense of humor. Humor is a life-preserver and saves you from drowning when you jump off into a sea of sermons. A theologian who can not laugh is apt to explode–he is very dangerous. Erasmus, Luther, Beecher, Theodore Parker, Roger Williams, Joseph Parker–all could laugh. Calvin, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards never gurgled in glee, nor chortled softly at their own witticisms–or those of others.
Erasmus smiled. He has been called the Voltaire of his day. What Rousseau was to Voltaire, Luther was to Erasmus. Well did Diderot say that Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched. Erasmus wrote for the educated, the refined, the learned–Luther made his appeal to the plain and common mind.
Luther split the power of the Pope. Erasmus thought it a calamity to do so, because he believed that strife of sects tended to make men lose sight of the one essential in religion–harmony–and cause them simply to struggle for victory. Erasmus wanted to trim the wings of the papal office and file its claws–Luther would have destroyed it. Erasmus considered the Church a very useful and needful organization–for social reasons. It tended to regulate life and conduct and made men “decentable.” It should be a school of ethics, and take a leading part in every human betterment. Man being a gregarious animal, the congregation is in the line of natural desire. The excuse for gathering together is religion–let them gather. The Catholic Church is not two thousand years old–it is ten thousand years old and goes back to Egypt. The birth of Jesus formed merely a psychosis in the Church’s existence.
Here he parted company with Luther, who was a dogmatist and wanted to debate his ninety-five theses. Erasmus laughed at all religious disputations and called them mazes that led to cloudland. Very naturally, people said he was not sincere, since the mediocre mind never knows that only the paradox is true. Hence Erasmus was hated by Catholics and denounced by Protestants.
The marvel is that the men with fetters and fagots did not follow him with a purpose. Fifty years later he would have been snuffed out. But at that time Rome was so astonished to think that any one should criticize her that she lost breath. Besides, it was an age of laughter, of revolt, of contests of wit, of love-bouts and love-scrapes, and the monks who lapsed were too many to discipline. Everybody was busy with his own affairs. Happy time!
Erasmus was part and parcel of the Italian Renaissance. Over his head blazes, in letters that burn, the unforgetable date, Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two. He was a part of the great unrest, and he helped cause the great unrest. Every great awakening, every renaissance, is an age of doubt. An age of conservatism is an age of moss, of lichen, of rest, rust and ruin. We grow only as we question. As long as we are sure that the present order is perfect, we button our collars behind, a thing which Columbus, Luther, Melanchthon, Erasmus, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Gutenberg, who all lived at this one time, never did. The year of Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two, like the year Seventeen Hundred Seventy-six, was essentially “infidelic,” just as the present age is constructively iconoclastic. We are tearing down our barns to build greater. The railroadman who said, “I throw an engine on the scrap-heap every morning before breakfast,” expressed a great truth. We are discarding bad things for good ones, and good things for better ones.
* * * * *
Rotterdam has the honor of being the birthplace of Erasmus. A storm of calumny was directed at him during his life concerning the irregularity of his birth. “He had no business to be born at all,” said a proud prelate, as he gathered his robes close around his prebendal form. But souls knock at the gates of life for admittance, and the fact that a man exists is proof of his right to live. The word “illegitimate” is not in the vocabulary of God. If you do not know that, you have not read His instructive and amusing works.
The critics variously declared the mother of Erasmus was a royal lady, a physician’s only daughter, a kitchen-wench, a Mother Superior–all according to the prejudices preconceived. In one sense she was surely a Mother Superior–let the lies neutralize one another.
The fact is, we do not know who the mother of Erasmus was. All we know is that she was the mother of Erasmus. Here history halts. Her son once told Sir Thomas More that she was married to a luckless nobody a few months after the birth of her first baby, and amid the cares of raising a goodly brood of nobodies on a scant allowance of love and rye-bread, she was glad to forget her early indiscretions. Not so the father. The debated question of whether a man really has any parental love is answered here.
The father of Erasmus was Gerhard von Praet, and the child was called Gerhard Gerhards–or the son of Gerhard. The father was a man of property and held office under the State. At the time of the birth of the illustrious baby, Gerhard von Praet was not married, and it is reasonable to suppose that the reason he did not wed the mother of his child was because she belonged to a different social station. In any event the baby was given the father’s name, and every care and attention was paid the tiny voyager. This father was as foolish as most fond mothers, for he dreamed out a great career for the motherless one, and made sundry prophecies.
At six years of age the child was studying Latin, when he should have been digging in a sand-pile. At eight he spoke Dutch and French, and argued with his nurse in Greek as to the value of buttermilk.
In the meantime the father had married and settled down in honorable obscurity as a respectable squire. Another account has it that he became a priest. Anyway, the little maverick was now making head alone in a private school.
When the lad was thirteen the father died, leaving a will in which he provided well for the child. The amount of property which by this will would have belonged to our hero when he became of age would have approximated forty thousand dollars.
Happily, the trustees of the fund were law-wolves. They managed to break the will, and then they showed the court that the child was a waif, and absolutely devoid of legal rights of any and every kind. He was then committed to an orphan asylum to be given “a right religious education.” It’s a queer old world, Terese, and what would have become of Gerhard Gerhards had he fallen heir to his father’s titles and estate, no man can say. He might have accumulated girth and become an honored burgomaster. As it was he became powder-monkey to a monk, and scrubbed stone floors and rushed the growler for cowled and pious prelates.
Then he did copying for the Abbe, and proved himself a boy from Missouri Valley.
He was small, blue-eyed, fair-haired, slender, slight, with a long nose and sharp features. “With this nose,” said Albrecht Durer, many years later, “he successfully hunted down everything but heresy.”
At eighteen he became a monk and proudly had his flaxen poll tonsured. His superior was fond of him, and prophesied that he would become a bishop or something.
Children do not suffer much, nor long. God is good to them. They slide into an environment and accept it. This child learned to dodge the big bare feet of the monks–got his lessons, played a little, worked his wit against their stupidity, and actually won their admiration–or as much of it as men who are alternately ascetics and libertines can give.
It was about this time that the lad was taunted with having no name. “Then I’ll make one for myself,” was his proud answer.
Having entered now upon his novitiate, he was allowed to take a new name, and being dead to the world, the old one was forgotten.
They called him Brother Desiderius, or the Desired One. He then amended this Latin name with its Greek equivalent, Erasmus, which means literally the Well-Beloved. As to his pedigree, or lack of it, he was needlessly proud. It set him apart as different. He had half-brothers and half-sisters, and these he looked upon as strangers. When they came to see him, he said, “There is no relationship between souls save that of the spirit.”
His sense of wit came in when he writes to a friend: “Two parents are the rule; no parents the exception; a mother but no father is not uncommon; but I had a father and never had a mother. I was nursed by a man, and educated by monks, all of which shows that women are more or less of a superfluity in creation. God Himself is a man. He had one son, but no daughters. The cherubim are boys. All of the angels are masculine, and so far as Holy Writ informs us, there are no women in heaven.”
That it was a woman, however, to whom Erasmus wrote this, lets him out on the severity of the argument. He was a joker. And while women did not absorb much of his time, we find that on his travels he often turned aside to visit with intellectual women–no other kind interested him, at all.
* * * * *
To belong to a religious order is to be owned by it. You trade freedom for protection. The soul of Erasmus revolted at life in a monastery. He hated the typical monks–their food, their ways of life, their sophistry, their stupidity. To turn glutton and welcome folly as a relief from religion, he said, was the most natural thing in the world, when men had once started in to lead an unnatural life. Good food, daintily served, only goes with a co-ed mental regimen. Men eat with their hands, out of a pot, unless women are present to enforce the decencies. Women alone are a little more to be pitied than men alone, if ‘t were possible.
Through emulation does the race grow. Sex puts men and women on their good behavior.
Man’s desire for power has caused him to enslave himself. Writes Erasmus, “In a monastery, no one is on his good behavior, except when there are visitors, but I am told that this is so in families.”
The greasy, coarse cooking brought on a nice case of dyspepsia for poor Erasmus–a complaint from which he was never free as long as he lived. His system was too fine for any monastic general trough, but he found a compensation in having his say at odd times and sundry. At one time we hear of his printing on a card this legend, “If I owned hell and a monastery, I would sell the monastery and reside in hell.” Thereby did Erasmus supply General Tecumseh Sherman the germ of a famous orphic. Sherman was a professor in a college at Baton Rouge before the War, and evidently had moused in the Latin classics to a purpose.
Connected with the monastery where Erasmus lived was a printing-outfit. Our versatile young monk learned the case, worked the ink-balls, manipulated the lever, and evidently dispelled, in degree, the monotony of the place by his ready pen and eloquent tongue. When he wrote, he wrote for his ear. All was tested by reading the matter aloud. At that time great authors were not so wise or so clever as printers, and it fell to the lot of Erasmus to improve upon the text of much of the copy that was presented.
Erasmus learned to write by writing; and among modern prose-writers he is the very first who had a distinct literary style. His language is easy, fluid, suggestive. His paragraphs throw a shadow, and are pregnant with meaning beyond what the lexicon supplies. This is genius–to be bigger than your words.
If Erasmus had been possessed of a bit more patience and a jigger of diplomacy, he would have been in line for a bishopric. That thing which he praised so lavishly, Folly, was his cause of failure and also his friend.
At twenty-six he was the best teacher and the most clever scholar in the place. Also, he was regarded as a thorn in the side of the monkery, since he refused to take it seriously. He protested that no man ever became a monk of his own accord–he was either thrust into a religious order by unkind kinsmen or kicked into it by Fate.
And then comes the Bishop of Cambray, with an attack of literary scabies, looking for a young religieux who could correct his manuscript. The Bishop was going to Paris after important historical facts, and must have a competent secretary. Only a proficient Latin and Greek scholar would do. The head of the monastery recommended Erasmus, very much as Artemus Ward volunteered all of his wife’s relatives for purposes of war.
Andrew Carnegie once, when about to start for Europe, said to his ironmaster, Bill Jones, “I am never so happy or care-free, Bill, as when on board ship, headed for Europe, and the shores of Sandy Hook fade from sight.”
And Bill solemnly replied, “Mr. Carnegie, I can truthfully say for myself and fellow-workers, that we are never so happy and care-free as when you are on board ship, headed for Europe.”
Very properly Mr. Carnegie at once raised Bill’s salary five thousand a year.
The Carthusian Brothers parted with Erasmus in pretended tears, but the fact was they were more relieved than bereaved.
And then began the travels of Erasmus.
The Bishop was of middle age, with a dash of the cavalier in his blood, which made him prefer a saddle to the cushions of a carriage. And so they started away on horseback, the Bishop ahead, followed at a discreet distance by Erasmus, his secretary; and ten paces behind with well-loaded panniers, rode a servant as rearguard.
To be free and face the world and on a horse! Erasmus lifted up his heart in a prayer of gratitude. He said that it was the first feeling of thankfulness he had ever experienced, and it was the first thing which had ever come to him worth gratitude.
And so they started for Paris.
Erasmus looked back and saw the monastery, where he had spent ten arduous years, fade from view.
It was the happiest moment he had ever known. The world lay beyond.
* * * * *
The Bishop of Cambray introduced Erasmus to a mode of life for which he was eminently fitted. It consisted in traveling, receiving honors, hospitality and all good things in a material way, and giving his gracious society in return. Doors flew open on the approach of the good Bishop. Everywhere he went a greeting was assured. He was a Churchman–that was enough. Erasmus shared in the welcomes, for he was handsome in face and figure, had a ready tongue, and could hold his own with the best.
Europe was then dotted with monasteries, nunneries and other church institutions. Their remains are seen there yet–one is really never out of sight of a steeple. But the exclusive power of the Church is gone, and in many places there are only ruins where once were cloisters, corridors, chapels, halls and gardens teeming with life and industry.
The “missions” of California were founded on the general plan of the monasteries of Europe. They afforded a lodging for the night–a resting-place for travelers–and were a radiatory center of education–at least all of the education that then existed.
In California these “missions” were forty miles apart–one day’s journey. In France, Italy and Germany they were, say, ten miles apart. Between them, trudged or rode on horseback or in carriages, a picturesque array of pilgrims, young and old, male and female. To go anywhere and be at home everywhere, this was the happy lot of a church dignitary.
The parts in church institutions were interchangeable; and by a system of migration, life was made agreeable, and reasonable honesty was assured. I have noticed that certain Continental banking institutions, with branches in various cities, keep their cashiers rotating. The idea was gotten from Rome. Rome was very wise–her policies were the crystallizations of the world-wisdom of centuries. The church-militant battle-cry, “The world for Christ,” simply means man’s lust for ownership, with Christ as an excuse. If ever there was a man-made institution, it is the Church. To control mankind has been her desire, and the miracle is that, with a promise of heaven, a threat of hell, and a firm grip on temporal power–social and military–she was ever induced partially to loosen her grip. To such men as Savonarola, Luther and Erasmus, do we owe our freedom. These men cared more for truth than for power, and their influence was to disintegrate the ankylosis of custom and make men think. And a thought is mental dynamite. No wonder the Church has always feared and hated a thinker!
The Bishop of Cambray was not a thinker. Fenelon, who was later to occupy his office, was to make the bishopric of Cambray immortal. Conformists die, but heretics live on forever. They are men who have redeemed the cross and rendered the gallows glorious.
* * * * *
And so the Bishop of Cambray and his little light-haired secretary fared forth to fame and fortune–the Bishop to be remembered because he had a secretary, and the secretary to be remembered because he grew into a great teacher.
At each stopping-place the Bishop said mass–the workers, students and novitiates quitting their tasks to hear the words of encouragement from the lips of the great man. Occasionally Erasmus was pushed forward to say a few words, by the Bishop, who had to look after his own personal devotions. The assembled friends liked the young man–he was so bright and witty and free from cant. They even laughed out loud, and so, often two smiles were made to grow where there were no smiles before.
Leisurely they rode–stopping at times for several days at places where the food and drink were at their best, and the society sulphide. At nunneries and monasteries were always guest-chambers for the great, and they were usually occupied.
Thus it was that every church-house was a sort of university, depending of course on the soul-size of the Superior or Abbe. These constant journeyings and pilgrimages served in lieu of the daily paper, the Western Union Telegraph, and the telephone. Things have slipped back, I fear me, for now Mercury merely calls up his party on the long-distance, instead of making a personal visit–the Angel Gabriel as well. We save time, but we miss the personal contact.
The monastic impulse was founded on a human need. Like most good things, it has been sadly perverted; but the idea of a sanctuary for stricken souls–a place of refuge, where simplicity, service and useful endeavor rule–will never die from out the human heart. The hospice stands for hospitality, but we have now only a hotel and a hospital.
The latter stands for iodoform, carbolic acid and formaldehyde; the former often means gold, glitter, gluttony and concrete selfishness, with gout on one end, paresis at the other and Bright’s Disease between.
The hospice was a part of the monastery. It was a home for the homeless. There met men of learning–men of wit–men of brains and brawn. You entered and were at home. There was no charge–you merely left something for the poor.
Any man who has the courage, and sufficient faith in humanity to install the hospice system in America will reap a rich reward. If he has the same faith in his guests that Judge Lindsey has in his bad boys, he will succeed; but if he hesitates, defers, doubts, and begins to plot and plan, the Referee in Bankruptcy will beckon.
The early universities grew out of the monastic impulse. Students came and went, and the teachers were a part of a great itinerancy. Man is a migratory animal. His evolution has come about through change of environment. Transplantation changes weeds into roses, and the forebears of all the products of our greenhouses and gardens once grew in hedgerows or open fields, choked by unkind competition or trampled beneath the feet of the heedless.
The advantage of university life is in the transplantation. Get the boy out of his home environment; sever the cord that holds him to his “folks”; let him meet new faces, see new sights, hear new sermons, meet new teachers, and his efforts at adjustment will work for growth. Alexander Humboldt was right–one year at college is safer than four. One year inspires you–four may get you pot-bound with pedant prejudice.
The university of the future will be industrial–all may come and go. All men will be university men, and thus the pride in an imaginary proficiency will be diluted to a healthful attenuation. To work and to be useful–not merely to memorize and recite–will be the only initiation.
The professors will be interchangeable, and the rotation of intellectual crops will work for health, harmony and effectiveness.
The group, or college, will be the unit, not the family. The college was once a collection of men and women grouped for a mutual intellectual, religious or economic good.
To this group or college idea will we return.
Man is a gregarious animal, and the Christ-thought of giving all, and receiving all, some day in the near future will be found practical. The desire for exclusive ownership must be sloughed.
Universities devoted to useful work–art in its highest sense: head, hand and heart–will yet dot the civilized world. The hospice will return higher up the scale, and the present use of the word “hospitality” will be drowned in its pink tea, choked with cheese-wafers, rescued from the nervous clutch of the managing mama, and the machinations of the chaperone. A society built on the sands of silliness must give way to the universal university, and the strong, healthful, helpful, honest companionship and comradeship of men and women prevail.
* * * * *
The objective point of the Bishop was the University of Paris.
Here in due time, after their lingering ride from Holland, the Bishop and his secretary arrived. They settled down to literary work; and in odd hours the beauty and wonder of Paris became familiar to Erasmus. The immediate task completed, the Bishop proposed going home, and thought, of course, his secretary was a fixture and would go with him. But Erasmus had evolved ideas concerning his own worth. He had already collected quite a little circle of pupils about him, and these he held by his glowing personality. At this time the vow of poverty was looked upon lightly. And anyway, poverty is a comparative term. There were monks who always trudged afoot with staff and bag, but not so our Erasmus. He was Bishop of the Exterior.
The Bishop of Cambray, on parting with Erasmus, thought so much of him that he presented him with the horse he rode.
Erasmus used to take short excursions about Paris, taking with him a student and often two, as servants or attendants. Teaching then was mostly on an independent basis, each pupil picking his tutors and paying them direct.
Among other pupils whom Erasmus had at Paris was a young Englishman by the name of Lord Mountjoy. A great affection arose between these two, and when Lord Mountjoy returned to England he was accompanied by Erasmus.
At London, Erasmus met on absolute equality many of the learned men of England. We hear of his dining at the house of the Lord Mayor of London, and there meeting Sir Thomas More and crossing swords with that worthy in wordy debate.
Erasmus seems to have carried the “New Humanism” into England. It has been said that the world was discovered in Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two, but Man was not discovered until Seventeen Hundred Seventy-six. This is hardly literal truth, since in Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two, there was a theologico-scientific party of young men in all of the European Universities who were reviving the Greek culture, and with it arose the idea of the dignity and worth of Man. To this movement Erasmus brought the enthusiasm of his nature. Perhaps he did as much as any other to fan the embers which grew into a flame called “The Reformation.”
He constantly ridiculed the austerities, pedantry, priggishness and sciolism of the old-time Churchmen, and when a new question came up, he asked, “What good is there in it?”
Everything was tested by him in the light of commonsense. What end does it serve and how is humanity to be served or benefited by it?
Thus the good of humanity, not the glory of God, was the shibboleth of this rising party.
Erasmus gave lectures and taught at Cambridge, Oxford and London.
Italy had been the objective point of his travels, but England had, for a time, turned him aside. In the year Fifteen Hundred, Erasmus landed at Calais, saddled his horse, and started southward, visiting, writing, teaching, lecturing, as he went. The stimulus of meeting new people and seeing new scenes, all tended toward intellectual growth.
The genius monk made mendicancy a fine art, and Erasmus was heir to most of the instincts of the order. His associations with the laity were mostly with the nobility or those with money. He was not slow in asking for what he wanted, whether it was a fur-lined cloak, a saddle, top riding-boots, a horse, or a prayer-book. He made no apologies–but took as his divine right all that he needed. And he justified himself in taking what he needed by the thought that he gave all he had. He supplied Sir Thomas More the germ of “Utopia,” for Erasmus pictured again and again an ideal society where all would have enough, and none suffer from either want or surfeit–a society in which all would be at home wherever they went.
Had Erasmus seen fit to make England his home, his head, too, would have paid the forfeit, as did the head that wrote “Utopia.” What an absurd use to make of a head–to separate it from the man’s body!
Italy received Erasmus with the same royal welcome that England had supplied. Scholars who knew the Greek and Roman classics were none too common. Most monks stopped with the writings of the saints, as South Americans balk at long division.
Erasmus could illumine an initial, bind a book, give advice to printers, lecture to teachers, give lessons on rhetoric and oratory, or entertain the ladies with recitations from the Iliad and the Odyssey.
So he went riding back and forth, stopping at cities and towns, nunneries and monasteries, until his name became a familiar one to every scholar of England, Germany and Italy. Scholarly, always a learner, always a teacher, gracious, direct, witty, men began to divide on an Erasmus basis. There were two parties: those for Erasmus and those against him.
In Fifteen Hundred Seventeen, came Luther with his bombshells of defiance. This fighting attitude was far from Erasmus–his weapons were words. Between bouts with prelates, Luther sent a few thunderbolts at Erasmus, accusing him of vacillation and cowardice. Erasmus replied with dignity, and entered into a lengthy dispute with Melanchthon, Luther’s friend, on the New Humanism which was finding form in revolution.
Erasmus prophesied that by an easy process of evolution, through education, the monasteries would all become schools and workshops. He would not destroy them, but convert them into something different. He fell into disfavor with the Catholics, and was invited by Henry the Eighth to come to England and join the new religious regime. But this English Catholicism was not to the liking of Erasmus. What he desired was to reform the Church, not to destroy it or divide it.
His affairs were becoming critical: monasteries where he had once been welcomed now feared to have him come near, lest they should be contaminated and entangled. It was rumored that warrants of arrest were out. He was invited to go to Rome and explain his position.
Erasmus knew better than to acknowledge receipt of the letter. He headed his horse for Switzerland, the land of liberty. At Basel he stopped at the house of Froben, the great printer and publisher. He put his horse in the barn, unsaddled him, and said, “Froben, I’ve come to stay.”
* * * * *
I was mousing around the other day in a book that is somewhat disjointed and disconnected, and yet interesting–“The Standard Dictionary”–when I came across the word “scamp.” It is a handy word to fling, and I am not sure but that it has been gently tossed once or twice in my direction. Condemnation is usually a sort of subtle flattery, so I’m not sad. To scamp means to cut short, to be superficial, slipshod, careless, indifferent–to say, “Let ‘er go, who cares–this is good enough!” If anybody ever was a stickler for honest work, I am that bucolic party. I often make things so fine that only one man out of ten thousand can buy them, and I have to keep ’em myself.
You know that, when you get an idea in your head, how everything you read contains allusions to the same thing. Knowledge is mucilaginous. Well, next day after I was looking up that pleasant word “scamp,” I was reading in the Amusing Works of Erasmus, when I ran across the word again, but spelled in Dutch, thus, “schamp.” Now Erasmus was a successful author, and he was also the best authority on paper, inks, bindings, and general bookmaking in Italy, Holland or Germany. Being a lover of learning, and listening to the lure of words, he never wallowed in wealth. But in his hunt for ideas he had a lot of fun. Kipling says, “There is no hunt equal to a man hunt.” But Kip is wrong–to chase a thought is twice the sport. Erasmus chased ideas, and very naturally the preachers chased Erasmus–out of England, through France, down to Italy and then he found refuge at Basel with Froben, the great Printer and Publisher.
Up in Frankfort was a writer-printer, who, not being able to answer the arguments of Erasmus, called him bad names. But this gentle pen-pusher in Frankfort, who passed his vocabulary at Froben’s proofreader, Erasmus in time calls a “schamp,” because he used cheap paper, cheap ink and close margins. Soon after, the word was carried to England and spelled “scamp”–a man who cheats in quality, weight, size and count. But the first use merely meant a printer who scamps his margins and so cheats on paper. I am sorry to see that Erasmus imitated his enemies and at times was ambidextrous in the use of the literary stinkpot. His vocabulary was equal to that of Muldoon. Erasmus refers to one of his critics as a “scenophylax-stikken,” and another he calls a “schnide enchologion-schistosomus.” And perhaps they may have been–I really do not know.
But as an authority on books Erasmus can still be read. He it was who fixed the classic page margin–twice as wide at the top as on the inside; twice as wide at the outside as the top; twice as wide at the bottom as at the side. And any printer who varies from this displays his ignorance of proportion. Erasmus says, “To use poor paper marks the decline of taste, both in printer and in patron.” After the death of Erasmus, Froben’s firm failed because they got to making things cheap. “Compete in quality, not in price,” was the working motto of Erasmus.
All of the great bookmaking centers languished when they began to scamp. That worthy wordissimus at Frankfort who called Erasmus names gave up business and then the ghost, and Erasmus wrote his epitaph, and thus supplied Benjamin Franklin an idea–“Here lies an old book, its cover gone, its leaves torn, the worms at work on its vitals.”
The wisdom of doing good work still applies, just as it did in the days of Erasmus.
Erasmus proved a very valuable acquisition to Froben. He became general editor and literary adviser of this great publishing-house, which was then the most important in the world.
Besides his work as editor, Erasmus also stood sponsor for numerous volumes which we now know were written by literary nobodies, his name being placed on the title-page for commercial reasons.
At that time and for two hundred years later, the matter of attributing a book to this man or that was considered a trivial affair. Piracies were prevalent. All printers revised the work of classic authors if they saw fit, and often they were specially rewarded for it by the Church. It was about this time that some one slipped that paragraph into the works of Josephus about Jesus. The “Annals” of Tacitus were similarly doctored, if in fact they were not written entire, during the Sixteenth Century. It will be remembered that the only two references in contemporary literature to Jesus are those in Josephus and Tacitus, and these the Church proudly points to yet.
During the last few years of his life Erasmus accumulated considerable property. By his will he devised that this money should go to educate certain young men and women, grandchildren and nephews and nieces of his old friend, Johann Froben. He left no money for masses, after the usual custom of Churchmen, and during his last illness was not attended by a priest. For several years before his death he made no confessions and very seldom attended church service. He said, “I am much more proud of being a printer than a priest.”
A statue of Erasmus in bronze adorns one of the public squares in Rotterdam, and Basel and Freiburg have honored themselves, and him also, in like manner.
As a sample of the subtle and keen literary style of Erasmus, I append the following from “In Praise of Folly:”
The happiest times of life are youth and old age, and this for no reason but that they are the times most completely under the rule of folly, and least controlled by wisdom. It is the child’s freedom from wisdom that makes it so charming to us; we hate a precocious child. So women owe their charm, and hence their power, to their “folley,” that is, to their obedience to the impulse. But if, perchance, a woman wants to be thought wise, she only succeeds in being doubly a fool, as if one should train a cow for the prize-ring, a thing wholly against Nature. A woman will be a woman, no matter what mask she wear, and she ought to be proud of her folly and make the most of it.
Is not Cupid, that first father of all religion, is not he stark blind, that he can not himself distinguish of colors, so he would make us as mope-eyed in judging falsely of all love concerns, and wheedle us into a thinking that we are always in the right? Thus every Jack sticks to his own Jill; every tinker esteems his own trull; and the hobnailed suitor prefers Joan the milkmaid before any of milady’s daughters. These things are true, and are ordinarily laughed at, and yet, however ridiculous they seem, it is hence only that all societies receive their cement and consolidation.
Fortune we still find favoring the blunt, and flushing the forward; strokes smooth up fools, crowning all their undertakings with success; but wisdom makes her followers bashful, sneaking and timorous, and therefore you commonly see that they are reduced to hard shifts; must grapple with poverty, cold and hunger; must lie recluse, despised, and unregarded; while fools roll in money, are advanced to dignities and offices, and in a word have the whole world at command. If any one thinks it happy to be a favorite at court, and to manage the disposal of places and preferments, alas, this happiness is so far from being attainable by wisdom, that the very suspicion of it would put a stop to advancement. Has any man a mind to raise himself a good estate? Alas, what dealer in the world would ever get a farthing, if he be so wise as to scruple at perjury, blush at a lie, or stick at a fraud and overreaching?
It is the public charter of all divines, to mold and bend the sacred oracles till they comply with their own fancy, spreading them (as Heaven by its Creator) like a curtain, closing together, or drawing them back, as they please. Thus, indeed, Saint Paul himself minces and mangles some citations he makes use of, and seems to wrest them to a different sense from what they were first intended for, as is confessed by the great linguist, Saint Hieron. Thus when that apostle saw at Athens the inscription of the altar, he draws from it an argument for the proof of the Christian religion; but leaving out great parts of the sentence, which perhaps if fully recited might have prejudiced his cause, he mentions only the last two words, namely, “To the Unknown God”; and this, too, not without alteration, for the whole inscription runs thus: “To the Gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa, to all Foreign and Unknown Gods.”
‘T is an imitation of the same pattern, I will warrant you, that our young divines, by leaving out four or five words in a place and putting a false construction on the rest, can make any passage serviceable to their own purpose; though from the coherence of what went before, or follows after, the genuine meaning appears to be either wide enough, or perhaps quite contradictory to what they would thrust and impose upon it. In which knack the divines are grown now so expert that the lawyers themselves begin to be jealous of an encroachment on what was formerly their sole privilege and practise. And indeed what can they despair of proving, since the forementioned commentator did upon a text of Saint Luke put an interpretation no more agreeable to the meaning or the place than one contrary quality is to another.
But because it seemed expedient that man, who was born for the transaction of business, should have so much wisdom as should fit and capacitate him for the discharge of his duty herein, and yet lest such a measure as is requisite for this purpose might prove too dangerous and fatal, I was advised with for an antidote, and prescribed this infallible receipt of taking a wife, a creature so harmless and silly, and yet so useful and convenient, as might mollify and make pliable the stiffness and morose humor of man. Now that which made Plato doubt under what genus to rank woman, whether among brutes or rational creatures, was only meant to denote the extreme stupidness and Folly of that sex, a sex so unalterably simple that for any one of them to thrust forward and reach at the name of wise, is but to make themselves the more remarkable fools, such an endeavor being but a swimming against the stream, nay, the turning the course of Nature, the bare attempting whereof is as extravagant as the effecting of it is impossible: for as it is a trite proverb, that an ape will be an ape, though clad in purple, so a woman will be a woman, that is, a fool, whatever disguise she takes up. And yet there is no reason women should take it amiss to be thus charged, for if they do but rightly consider, they will find to Folly they are beholden for those endowments wherein they so far surpass and excel Man; as first for their unparalleled beauty, by the charm whereof they tyrannize over the greatest of tyrants; for what is it but too great a smatch of wisdom that makes men so tawny and thick-skinned, so rough and prickly-bearded, like an emblem of winter or old age, while women have such dainty, smooth cheeks, such a low, gentle voice, and so pure a complexion, as if Nature had drawn them for a standing pattern of all symmetry and comeliness? Besides, what greater or juster aim and ambition have they than to please their husbands? In order whereunto they garnish themselves with paint, washes, curls, perfumes, and all other mysteries of ornament; yet, after all, they become acceptable to them only for their Folly. Wives are always allowed their humor, yet it is only in exchange for titillation and pleasure, which indeed are but other names for Folly; as none can deny, who consider how a man must dandle, and kittle, and play a hundred little tricks for his helpmate.
But now some blood-chilled old men, that are more for wine than wenching, will pretend that in their opinion the greatest happiness consists in feasting and drinking. Grant it be so; yet certainly in the most luxurious entertainments it is Folly must give the sauce and relish to the daintiest delicacies; so that if there be no one of the guests naturally fool enough to be played upon by the rest, they must procure some comical buffoon, that by his jokes and flouts and blunders shall make the whole company split themselves with laughing; for to what purpose were it to be stuffed and crammed with so many dainty bits, savory dishes, and toothsome rarities, if after all this epicurism, the eyes, the ears, and the whole mind of man, were not so well foisted and relieved with laughing, jesting, and such like divertisements, which, like second courses, serve for the promoting of digestion? And as to all those shoeing-horns of drunkenness, the keeping every one his man, the throwing high jinks, the filling of bumpers, the drinking two in a hand, the beginning of mistresses’ healths; and then the roaring out of drunken catches, the calling in a fiddler, the leading out every one his lady to dance, and such like riotous pastimes–these were not taught or dictated by any of the wise men of Greece, but of Gotham rather, being my invention, and by me prescribed as the best preservative of health: each of which, the more ridiculous it is, the more welcome it finds. And indeed, to jog sleepingly through the world, in a dumpish, melancholy posture, can not properly be said to live.