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.