Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam reportedly said, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”
Book lovers everywhere feel a profound affinity with Erasmus. They have always loved this quotation, because they can readily relate to the sentiment. But did Erasmus, a Renaissance humanist who died in 1536, really starve himself in order to buy books?
Perhaps we should look at what Erasmus actually said. It was written in Latin, in a letter to Jacob Batt, dated April 12, 1498: “Ad Graecas literas totum animum applicui; statimque, ut pecuniam acceptero, Graecos primum auctores, deinde vestes emam.”
“I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”
A more accurate translation of Erasmus’ famous saying would thus be: “I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.” (Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 1)
Now that makes more sense. I too, on many occasions, rather than update my wardrobe, have elected to buy more books instead. Besides, how many garments does an absent-minded scholar need? It’s much easier simply to wear the same thing, especially when you are busy thinking about the argument of a fine new book you just bought.
Erasmus produced a Greek and Latin scholarly edition of the New Testament, which became a bestseller. When Martin Luther made his German translation of the Bible, he used Erasmus’ newest edition of the Greek text.
One of the best new books coming across my desk recently is The Stoic Origins of Erasmus’ Philosophy of Christ, written by the scholar Ross Dealy. It makes a fascinating argument about the profound philosophical reasoning at the heart of Erasmus’ deepest convictions.
Erasmus was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 25. While Erasmus was critical of notorious abuses within the Catholic Church, he nonetheless famously disagreed with Luther about how to deal with such problems.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. From those tumultuous times beginning in 1517, Erasmus is an historical figure worth revisiting. There is still much to be learned from him, especially since as “Prince of the Humanists” (so he has been called) he possesses much scholarly wit and wisdom.
With the passage of time, Erasmus’ steering of a via media (“middle course”) in the midst of the bitter controversies of his day can be better appreciated. Although conscious of the ways in which the Church needed to be reformed, Erasmus profoundly differed from Luther by not attacking the authority of the Pope or Catholic doctrine.
Yet by fair-mindedly pursuing the moderate way of the “middle course,” Erasmus ended up pleasing almost no one. He angered the partisans of both sides, who only wanted to fight with each another. What then made Erasmus tick? How did he keep his cool when others sought to sow anger and division?
Erasmus drew upon fundamental principles of Stoic philosophy in order to arrive at his sophisticated theological views.
The Stoic Origins of Erasmus’ Philosophy of Christ describes how Erasmus drew upon fundamental principles of Stoic philosophy in order to arrive at his sophisticated theological views; for example, on Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane.
Many of Erasmus’ contemporaries adopted a one-dimensional view of ancient Stoic philosophy. In this caricature, Stoicism suppresses all emotion, in order to exalt the one dimension of reason.
This misunderstanding of Stoicism still survives today. But consider how not even Star Trek’s Mr. Spock is capable of being such a “one-dimensional Stoic,” since emotion is still an essential part of Spock’s half-human make-up, which he eventually learns how to properly integrate into his full personality. How could fully human ancient Stoics be any different?
Dealy presents abundant evidence for Erasmus’ keen understanding of a “two-dimensional” view of Stoicism, which embraces both reason and emotion as appropriately human. The spirit is not meant to ruthlessly vanquish the flesh.
“While earlier humanists had relentlessly criticized Stoic coldness and irrelevance to human emotions and human endeavours,” Dealy writes, “with Erasmus it is Stoicism that unfolds human feelings and the uniqueness of one’s personality and shows their relationships to higher truth.”
To understand Christ in Gethsemane, then, we must appreciate he had real human feelings, including a real fear of death. That at the same time Christ also experienced joy in his divine nature should not lead us to deny those very real emotional aspects of his incarnate human experience.
Erasmus knew that classical reasoning has many excellent resources to help us understand divine mysteries better. No wonder the guy liked books so much.