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The Genius of Erasmus


By davidswanson - Posted on 15 March 2014

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, who lived from October 27, 1466, to July 12, 1536, faced censorship in his day, and has never been as popular among the rich and powerful as has his contemporary Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli. But at a distance of half a millennium, we ought to be able to judge work on its merit -- and we ought to have regular celebrations of Erasmus around the world.  Some of his ideas are catching on.  His name is familiar in Europe as that of the EU's student exchange program, named in his honor.  We ought perhaps to wonder what oddball ideas these days might catch on in the 2500s -- if humanity is around then.

In 1517, Erasmus wrote The Complaint of Peace, in which Peace, speaking in the first-person, complains about how humanity treats her. She claims to offer "the source of all human blessings" and to be scorned by people who "go in quest of evils infinite in number."

The Complaint is not a contemporary twenty-first century piece of thinking; its outdatedness in any number of areas is immediately obvious. But that's to be expected in an essay written 500 years ago in Latin for a readership made up of what we would call creationists, astrologers, monarchists, and Eurocentric bigots.

What ought to amaze us is the extent to which the Complaint does address the same troubles we face today and the same bad arguments used today in defense of wars.  The Complaint offers rebuttals to such arguments that have never been surpassed.  Its text could serve as the basis for dozens of important sermons were some preacher inclined to favor peace on earth. 

Peace, in her complaint to us, begins by imagining that humans must be insane to pursue war instead of her.  She does not complain out of indignation, but weeps over people who actively bring so much harm on themselves and are incapable of even realizing it.  The first step, Erasmus/Peace says, is recognizing that you have a problem.  Or rather, "It is one great step to convalescence to know the extent and inveteracy of a disease." 

War was deemed to be the supreme international crime at Nuremberg following World War II, because it includes all other evils within it.  Erasmus defined war in that manner a good four-and-a-half centuries earlier, calling war an ocean "of all the united plagues and pestilences in nature."

Erasmus (in the voice of Peace) notes that many other types of animals do not wage war on their own species.  And he notes the universal presence of love and cooperation among humans, animals born unarmed and obliged to find safety in numbers.

Erasmus proposes that we think of ourselves as humans, and thereby become unwilling to make war on any of our brother and sister humans anywhere.  Admittedly, 500 years may be a little rushed for some people to catch on to that idea.

On a search for peacefulness, Peace hunts in vain among seemingly polite and amicable princes, among academics whom she finds as corrupted by war as we find ours today, among religious leaders whom she denounces as the hypocrites we've come to know so well, and even among secluded monks. Peace looks into family life and into the internal mental life of an individual and finds no devotion to peace.

Erasmus points Christian readers toward the words supporting peace in the New Testament. One might accuse him of hand-picking his quotes and avoiding those that don't support his goal, except that Erasmus quite openly says that that's what he's doing and advises others to do the same.  The vengeful God of the Old Testament should be ignored in favor of the peaceful God of Jesus, Erasmus writes.  And those who can't so ignore Him, writes Erasmus, should re-interpret him as peaceful.  Let "God of vengeance" mean vengeance "on those sins which rob us of repose." 

Solomon the peace-maker was more worthy than David the war-maker, Peace says, despite David's war-making being at the bidding of God. So, imagine, Peace argues, if David's divinely commanded wars rendered him unholy, "what will be the effect of wars of ambition, wars of revenge, and wars of furious anger" -- i.e. the wars of Erasmus' day and our own.

The cause of wars, Erasmus finds, is kings and their war-hungry chickenhawk advisors.  The term in Latin is not exactly "chickenhawk" but the meaning comes through.  Erasmus advises addressing the causes of war in greed and the pursuit of power, glory, and revenge.  And he credits Jesus with having done the same, with having taught love and forgiveness as the basis for peace. 

Kings, writes Erasmus, start wars to seize territory when they would be better off improving the territory they have now.  Or they start wars out of a personal grudge.  Or they start wars to disrupt popular opposition to themselves at home.  Such kings, Erasmus writes, should be exiled for life to the remotest islands.  And not just the kings but their privileged advisors.  Ordinary people don't create wars, says Peace, those in power impose wars on them. 

Powerful people calling themselves Christian have created such a climate, says Peace, that speaking up for Christian forgiveness is taken to be treasonous and evil, while promoting war is understood to be good and loyal and directed at a nation's happiness. Erasmus has little tolerance for Orwellian propaganda about "supporting the troops" and proposes that clergy refuse to bury in consecrated ground anyone slain in battle:

"The unfeeling mercenary soldier, hired by a few pieces of paltry coin, to do the work of man-butcher, carries before him the standard of the cross; and that very figure becomes the symbol of war, which alone ought to teach every one that looks at it, that war ought to be utterly abolished.  What hast thou to do with the cross of Christ on thy banners, thou blood-stained soldier? With such a disposition as thine; with deeds like thine, of robbery and murder, thy proper standard would be a dragon, a tiger, or wolf!"

" . . . If you detest robbery and pillage, remember these are among the duties of war; and that, to learn how to commit them adroitly, is a part of military discipline.  Do you shudder at the idea of murder? You cannot require to be told, that to commit it with dispatch, and by wholesale, constitutes the celebrated art of war."

Peace proposes in her complaint that kings submit their grievances to wise and impartial arbiters, and points out that even if the arbiters are unjust neither side will suffer to remotely the extent that they would from war.  Perhaps peace must be purchased -- but compare the price to the cost of a war!  For the price of destroying a town you could have built one, Peace says.

For arbitration to replace war, Peace says, we will need better kings and better courtiers.  You can't get any more timely and relevant than that.

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