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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there