Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Notes: Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus)

What was Erasmus's problem with the Catholic Church?

In The Praise of Folly (1509), he mercilessly ridicules the clergy and ecclesiastical scholars for several pages towards the end. I think the translation "folly" is a bit mild actually. I'm not sure how the Greek translates, but the Latin Stultitiae can mean both foolishness and stupidity. Often he is clearly talking about stupidity; in some places, he seems to be talking about madness. In the case of the clergy, Erasmus mocks them for their pedantry and power-hunger. Today, the book is considered one of the catalysts of the Protestant Reformation. And he was criticized at the time for his ridicule, although apparently, the Pope found the book amusing. Nevertheless, Erasmus was a devout Catholic and had recently turned down advancement in the curia, the central governing body of the Catholic Church. He was a theologian and we can be assured that Erasmus died a Catholic. So what gives?

Well, he's not exactly attacking the Church, at least not the historical Church. But, he does criticize ecclesiastic officials for failing to live like Christ. He criticizes the wealth and honors, sovereignty and triumphs, offices, taxes, indulgences, retinues, vast tracts of land, and countless pleasures. And the religious wars- there is a strong pacifism in Erasmus. He says that the tonsure should remind them that a priest is supposed to be free from earthly concerns and focused on heaven, and yet they're all fighting on the battlefield over tithes. There's something funny about it all, which Erasmus dryly mocks; but there's also a sense that the Church has lost its historical mission.

Erasmus also makes fun of pedants; always an easy target. And I think you can see the overlap between 'Renaissance' and 'Reformation' in this text; he ridicules the classical scholars and the ecclesiastical authorities for the same reason: they're going through the motions without feeling for their historical mission. Renaissance humanism really was about people who loved the classical texts being sick of how the pedants were playing increasingly specialized and arcane word games without any sort of feeling intellect; there's probably a parallel there with some of the critiques of "postmodernism" that we've heard in the academy in recent years. And perhaps the Reformers were making the same criticisms of the clergy; without emotion or intelligence the rites become dead and empty rituals.

I definitely don't think Erasmus is going as far as Luther in his criticisms of the Church. What differentiates Erasmus from Luther, at least in my mind, is that Erasmus believes a certain human foolishness has led the Church away from its historical mission, which implies that it could probably pretty easily get its act together. With Luther, you get a feeling that the crisis has reached critical mass. However, it's interesting to me, as a relative outsider, to see how the Catholic Church was formed in one historical moment and came to a crisis point in another moment not so much because it had failed to adapt to new times, but instead had changed too much in the minds of some of the faithful. It's interesting to see a younger generation challenging an older one for having failed to conserve the old traditions.

How do cultural institutions adapt to changing circumstances enough to survive, while still maintaining their historical mission? The Church, by the 1500s, was up to its knees in power and wealth and really all the things Christ rejected. It's easy to ridicule them for hypocrisy, even today. On the other hand, if they had all lived like the desert fathers, would the Church have survived for as long as it has? Cultures are basically the translation of the sacred order into the social order. And yet, the sacred order is unchanging and frozen in the moment of revelation; while the social order changes to meet changing contingencies. How do you maintain the original forms and still change enough to endure?

It's a tough question because I'm part of a cultural institution (the university) that I'd rather not change at all like it is; but which I also realize will cease to exist if it does not adapt to the larger culture. I would much prefer us to return to our historical mission-i.e.: maintaining a chain of authoritative transmission of written culture: not a lot different from the Church really. But, I also realize that living in the world means adapting to the world. When I look at the Church, as it struggles to steward its scripture in a world that has changed and through an institution that has dramatically changed, I wonder if the challenges aren't the same; and if they don't crop up in all hierarchical (and perhaps therefore corrupt) institutions that attempt to meet the world on the world's terms.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The Greek translates best as stupid basically. We get our word 'moron' from it. Recently discovered that 'idiot' refers to selfishness as well.

Anonymous said...

I like to eat my own poop