BOOK REVIEW / Humanist thinker who set out to rock the ship of fools: Erasmus the reformer - A G Dickens & Whitney R D Jones: Methuen, pounds 25

'ERASMUS Shmerasmus,' our high school history teacher in Buenos Aires muttered when we got to chapter VI of our Historia Universal. 'A braggart and a meddler. We'll start on chapter VII: The Counter Reformation.' The result of this pedagogical ellipsis was to send us scuttling for the renegade's books and that year the cafe next to our school was full of pimply 14-year-olds reading The Praise of Folly. Strange as it may seem, we found that here, at last, was something immensely appealing. Erasmus's sarcasm, his refusal to accept power without authority, his constant questioning, spoke temptingly to our rebellious urges. We too lived among fools.

By 1525, The Praise of Folly had been reprinted almost 40 times and had established Erasmus as a European celebrity. Though he was previously known among scholars for his editing of the Church Fathers, his writings on education and his controversial readings of the New Testament, for the majority of his readers it was The Praise of Folly that crystallised the multitude of doubts that had riddled the Church for centuries. But the work had even vaster implications.

'Peter received the keys,' says Erasmus's enthroned Folly, ' . . . from one who would not have entrusted them to an unworthy recipient, yet I doubt whether Peter understood . . . how a man without knowledge can nevertheless hold the key to it.' This was the sort of observation on which we apprentice revolutionaries, reading him five centuries later, pounced.

And yet, as Erasmus the Reformer makes clear, The Praise of Folly shows only one side of his genius. Though the authors have not set out to write a true biography, they use Erasmus's peripatetic career to chronicle the evolution of his thought within the changing climate of 15th- and 16th-century Europe, and remark that, for Erasmus, 'translation, transcription and transport constituted a way of life'.

No doubt, though, the title begs a question. Reformer of what? The authors map out with admirable clarity the spiritual and political cartography of the Europe through which he travelled, and analyse the currents which fed his thought - from the orthodoxies of scholasticism to the temptations of neo-Platonism - and whose dogmas he sought to change.

The final section of the book considers the contemporary reception of Erasmus's writings, and also the meaning they might have for us today. For the modern reader, the complexities of Erasmus's moral thought (in the books which few today ever open, from the intriguing Concerning the Eating of Fish to the angry Enchiridion) seem daunting and yet, at times, stupendously relevant. His misogyny and anti- Semitism (like those of most of his fellow humanists) are apparent and unjustifiable; but there is also (and perhaps these other texts redeem him) an essential compassion which seems to contradict those aberrations. And every one of his texts declares a strong confidence in what he called 'the philosophy of Christ', which frees the human soul from 'the deadweight of a mechanical and superstitious ritual' and from a theology that condemns it through predestination.

In this book's sober analysis, Desiderius Erasmus emerges as poised somewhere between the ankylosed pre-Lutheran church and the extreme features of the Protestant Reformation, striking a balance between critical theology and optimistic philosophy: 'Erasmus did not write for the 'free-thinkers' of the 18th century; but perhaps he came nearer to writing for the Ecumenical Christian movement of the 20th.'

But would our century tolerate an Erasmus? Probably not. Almost 15 years before the publication of The Praise of Folly, a young doctor of law, Sebastian Brant, brought out a small volume in German under the title of The Ship of Fools in which he catalogued the sins of his fellow human beings. The first and most important fool is the Book Fool, the man whose folly consists in burying himself in books and learning nothing in the process. In him, Brant and Erasmus criticised the sterile scholastic tradition; our time seems to have chosen that image of the bespectacled fool lost in a sea of print, to condemn all intellectual pursuits, even the very craft of reading which is gradually becoming more and more suspect. Erasmus feared that we might become misguided or sinfully ignorant. He did not suspect that we might become merely trivial.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star