Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Praise of Erasmus

I’m aware that I risk derision and worse by saying, with attempted insouciance, that I have just been reading Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, but never mind that; he has rather wonderful things to say about ‘those who court immortal fame by writing books’:

“But people who use their erudition to write for a learned minority and are anxious to have either Persius [the learned] or Laelius [the not-so-learned] pass judgement don’t seem to me favoured by fortune but rather to be pitied for their continuous self-torture. They add, change, remove, lay aside, take up, rephrase, show to their friends, keep for nine years, and are never satisfied. And their futile reward, a word of praise from a handful of people, they win at such cost – so many late nights, such loss of sleep, sweetest of all things, and so much sweat and anguish. Then their health deteriorates, their looks are destroyed, they suffer partial or total blindness, poverty, ill will, denial of pleasure, premature old age, and early death, and any other such disasters there many be. Yet the wise man believes he is compensated for everything if he wins the approval of one or other purblind scholar.”

I get a little comfort from knowing that the literary world was as crabby and self-obsessed five hundred years ago. But even then they had their Dan Browns:

“The writer who belongs to me [Folly] is far happier in his crazy fashion. He never loses sleep as he sets down at once whatever takes his fancy and comes from his pen, even his dreams, and it costs him little beyond the price of the paper. He knows well enough that the more trivial the trifles he writes about the wider the audience which will appreciate them, made up as it is of all the ignoramuses and fools. What does it matter if three scholars can be found to damn his efforts, always supposing they’ve read them? How can the estimation of a mere handful of savants prevail against such a crowd of admirers?”


William said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

After reading those words, I can't help but project them onto my own experiences as a musician - almost seamlessly, really.

Also, thanks for fixing the RSS feed titles. This should make my internetting much more worthwhile now.

Philip Ball said...

I'm a complete dunderhead about such techie things, so I fear that fix took longer than it should. But I'm glad it'll help now it's done - thanks (was it you?) for alerting me to the problem.
This is just one of the many ways in which Erasmus sounds as though he is writing for today and tomorrow, not just for the Renaissance.

Unknown said...

Would that it were so easy to get the world to notice important stuff. Yes, I stumbled into important ideas, and it is difficult to make others the least bit aware.
How important it is to keep an open-mind, especially when new and logical views appear that change our understanding of reality.
I challenge atheists who say we just don't have our brains in gear: 166 years ago Abbott' s 'Flatland' showed that contiguous geometrical worlds explain where God is and why we can't see him. So we wrote 'Techie Worlds' for mechanical people and did the scientific thing: we looked at Christian teachings like the Trinity, like resurrection, judgment, the idea of a soul. In contiguous geometrical worlds these things are logical and understandable, even though to 'this-world-only' atheists they are ridiculous imaginings.
We see a lot of belief in devils, in miracles, in good and evil spirits. Just talk with your friendly Wiccas and Satanists. Their recognition of spirit worlds makes it more probable that our view (the view of love) of the world is correct. Besides, there is Pascal's wager, pointing out that Christian belief can reward while atheism surely leads to death. The labels: Thinking, Logical, Reasonable, Rational really belong to Christians more than to those proudly acclaimed agnostics. Get a copy of 'Techie Worlds' from amazon.com and see the reasonableness of Abbott's explanation.