A Foolish Christ

James McConica

  • Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly by M.A. Screech
    Duckworth, 267 pp, £24.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1044 9

Erasmus is the Reformation’s orphan. Illegitimate at birth and deprived of his parents as a boy, his origins seem in retrospect oddly prophetic of his fate. He was passionately concerned about the faith and enlightenment of Europe, but quite unable to give unqualified assent to any of the rival orthodoxies which the civil war in Christendom had spawned. Before the time of Luther, he was the most widely read and persuasive critic of the Church that he wanted – like Luther – to reform, but Luther found him equivocal and faint-hearted. To the end of his life he was stubbornly loyal to Catholic unity, but he suffered the posthumous excommunication of having all his works placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. He lived away from his native Holland and found his most lasting domicile with the Froben press, but his true homeland was the one he constructed with his pen through his vast correspondence, his tireless publication of the sources of Christian faith, and the alluring warmth of his intimate, lucid and insinuating style. In the centuries that followed, it is not surprising that the professional defenders of religion have been slow to claim him as their own, nor that his general reputation has been that of the dauntingly witty, erudite and corrosive critic of official belief. For his irenic and rational faith, however, he has received the steady devotion of such as Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, who regarded him as one ‘who thought himself no Martyr, yet one who may passe for a Confessor, having suffered, and long by the Bigotts of both Parties’.

In our sceptical and self-consciously tolerant age, Erasmus seems at times to be coming into his own. Until quite recently, the modern revival of Erasmus and his legacy has rested chiefly on the great critical edition of his correspondence by Percy Stafford Allen, who from 1924 to 1933 was President, appropriately enough, of the outstanding Erasmian foundation at Oxford, Corpus Christi College. The appearance of a comprehensive edition of Erasmus’s letters naturally tended to draw the interest of historians to this fresh resource, and to concentrate their attention, not so much on Erasmus’s vast legacy of texts in their 18th-century edition, as on this more accessible material, the most important single archive for the intellectual history of the time. But the letters, which were often written or revised for publication, inevitably throw into relief the Erasmus of the public forum, responding to criticism, adapting to change, pursuing patrons and justifying his work. Seen through the eyes of the first scholars to exploit Allen’s researches in detail, what emerged was the face of the religious politique, the founder of the ‘third church’ of Augustin Renaudet, a prophet of the Enlightenment who led his followers ‘au doute discret, à une sorte de scepticisme de bonne compagnie, et qui se trahit par le sourire ou par les silences respectueux’. And so, even among the scholars of our time, echoes of the old hostilities can still be heard from those who feel that the history of the Reformation really belongs to the confident dogmatists, and that Erasmus, for all his erudition (or even because of it), was not, somehow, really serious about religion.

The Praise of Folly is the only one of Erasmus’s writings still to live, and it is his most famous work. Through its paradoxical character and its boisterous, Lucianic satire of conventional religion and society, it has contributed heavily to his reputation as a salon sceptic from his day to ours. It is the purpose of Professor Screech’s latest book to show that the only thing right about this familiar verdict is that the Moriae Encomium is central to Erasmus’s thought. At the heart of its paradox, however, there is not doubt but ecstatic faith.

It has long been realised that the structure of the Praise of Folly, which is derived from the Classical mock-encomium, is formally unsatisfactory. In particular, at the conclusion there is a sudden change of tone, in which Folly’s genial mockery turns to the most sacred matter of Christian faith, the person of Christ himself. And the mockery vanishes, to be replaced by the earnest urgings of the Pauline ‘fool for Christ’s sake’. Until now, scholars have either ignored the conclusion, or attributed it to haste, or simply to bad rhetoric. In this impressive examination, Screech argues that the curious conclusion is the key to the whole.

His first step is to return to the original version of the text, published in 1511. The longer and better-known version of 1514 contained a number of revisions and satirical interpolations which reduced the prominence of the ecstatic conclusion, although they did not affect its force. In the first version, however, the final passage dominates. It is regrettable that Screech does not give at least a cursory analysis of the total structure, but he aims at a rigorous and detailed exegesis of the concluding passage to show its intimate relation to a wide range of Erasmus’s writings, chiefly the Paraphrases and Annotations on the New Testament. In this, he is eminently successful.

The book is constructed like a genial but exacting seminar. Erasmus’s ‘praise of ecstasy’ is first related to his ‘philosophy of Christ’ which was most famously expounded in the Handbook of the Christian Knight, the Enchiridion. Screech recalls that Erasmus himself held that his Moria obliquely continued the doctrine of the Enchiridion, and concludes that what was added was Lucianesque humour, and a new depth of conviction about ‘the joys of a mad ecstatic union of a man with his God and his neighbour’.

Erasmus’s humanism was more at home with the emphasis of the Greek Fathers on man as capax Dei than it was with the severe Augustinianism of the West, especially as developed in the later Middle Ages, obsessed with the distance between man and God. It is not surprising therefore that much of the background for Erasmus’s view of ecstasy is in Greek sources, especially Origen and Theophylact. Equally, the Latin sources are non-scholastic, with the Victorines, Bernard of Clairvaux and St Bonaventure frequently cited. The history of the Christian doctrine of ecstasy is carefully indicated, as are the senses of the term used by Erasmus. His is not Philonic ecstasy (enthusiasm) or a ‘charismatic’ Christianity of today. There are two essential features: amazement produced by fear and awe at the Holy; and the ‘real or apparent transporting of the soul out of the body’. To the observer, such a condition may be indistinguishable from madness.

A crux of this book, and perhaps its most important contribution to the general study of Renaissance humanism, is the exact assessment of the contribution of Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought to this doctrine. The issue arises more than once, but is dealt with chiefly in Chapter Four, where the important Socratic and Platonic influences on Erasmus are acknowledged. Erasmus tends to combine Platonic and Christian influence, but he was not deceived by the inauthentic Pseudo-Dionysius, and never wavered over the fundamental doctrines of the Incarnation, Crucifixion or Resurrection. His ecstatic folly is not, therefore, a rapture of overpowering absorption in the invisible, spiritual world. He is no disciple of Ficino, and behind the myth of the Cave in Plato, Erasmus located, not the secret verities of the prisca theologia, but the divine realities disclosed in Scripture to which the Risen Christ was the only guide. Neither does he yield to the temptation to spiritualise the body, nor to downgrade the importance of the created order. In this, as in all other critical points of doctrine, the Erasmus of this study is undeviatingly orthodox.

Nevertheless, contemporaries were quick to suspect in his views the heterodoxy of some of the German mystics like Tauler and Eckhart, whose analogies of spiritual union suggested dangerously the total loss of individual identity in a soul rapt in God. There was none of this mysticism in Erasmus, to whom the vision of bliss was the gift of ‘personal, individual immortality’. His particular doctrine was even used, unexpectedly, to support the immortality of the soul independently of the resurrected body (the Scriptural doctrine), through the argument that the souls of the pious dead are already in God, as is shown by what happens to them in ecstasy.

The intellectual strength of Erasmus’s apparently eccentric view is its foundation in the Pauline doctrine of kenosis, the self-emptying of God to become truly man: although sinless, becoming very sin itself, the very Wisdom of God becoming ‘in some way a fool’. Far from being heterodox, this is one of the enduring explanations of Christ’s redemptive action, and it formed the central preoccupation of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. The suggestion that Christ himself could seem mad was a legitimate inference, supported in Scripture, if a rather gratuitous one, and one feels a certain sympathy with Erasmus’s critics who were bewildered or offended by it. There is, of course, inescapable difficulty in having to render in English sanus and insania, which Screech acknowledges fully – but the reader must bear it constantly in mind. Screech concludes that, in an incautious moment, Erasmus actually allowed himself to step over the boundary into the heresy of Montanism, which may be seen as some justification for his critics. Later editions of the Moria in his lifetime modified the sharpness of his views, but his insistence that there was more to Christian folly than the rather obvious fact that a perfect Christian life was bound to seem ‘daft’ remained with him to the end.

A general account of this study cannot touch the particular points of its carefully constructed argument. Despite its narrow focus, it is searching in its implications, and the challenge is in the author’s control of sources. It may be said, however, that it is almost as important an essay on Erasmus’s New Testament scholarship as it is on the Praise of Folly.

Professor Screech clearly expects the reader to understand the kind of textual study he is engaged in, and he does not allow himself to speculate about the question that fairly cries out: why this, of all things? Was Erasmus’s preoccupation a debt to the devotio moderna? Did it evolve from a personal experience? What does it mean in the context of his personal evangelism? A reviewer may perhaps be permitted to speculate that his concern with a mundane vision of eternal truth was, at least in part, a successful adaptation of monastic ideals to a universal Christian vocation; it made sense of the City as monastery. Thus Erasmus’s mockery in the 1514 edition of those who wish to honour Jesus by representing him with a halo and fingers raised in blessing shows, surely, a concern with the human, harassed and ‘foolish’ Christ as the accessible image for a Christian in the world. This is genuine humanism. To have isolated this perception is to have allowed us a notable advance on the overly familiar and not very informative suggestion that Erasmus and his kind were proclaiming the ‘imitation of Christ’. Yes, but what imitation? And what Christ?

A new critical edition of the entire Erasmian corpus is now well under way and it is certain to produce a wave of fresh interest in his major writings. Professor Screech has set a high standard in the deliberation with which he has approached his subject, and by his refusal to isolate this tempting text from the whole fabric of Erasmus’s complex personality and erudition. His book is not the first to present Erasmus as a serious theologian, but it is much the best. It is also (which is another matter) the best book yet written about the personal religion of Erasmus. We would like to know more about why Erasmus stated it in this unlikely form, and why dévots as close to his own erudition and love of Scripture as the group of Meaux found his devotion so cool. No one is better placed than Professor Screech to tell us.