The illegitimate son of a 15th century Dutch priest, Erasmus of Rotterdam is the source of one of my e-mail signature quotes, part of it which the title of today’s entry. The full quote is as follows: “When I have money, I buy books. When I have no money, I buy food.” Given what I know about the (surprisingly happily) celibate intellectual, and what it says about me as a fellow intellectual, it is an accurate quote of my own sentiments as well.
Erasmus of Rotterdam was famous for a few writings of his, even though as an intellectual his popular success with writings which satirically insulted the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy at the time was somewhat surprising. He wrote Econium More (“In Praise Of Folly”) which spoke of the absurdity of life and how irrational it was. The title was a sly joke to his fellow Catholic humanist Sir Thomas More, most famous for his scatological insults of one of my favorite all time intellectuals, William Tyndale, and for being unworthily named to sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church as a result of his “martyrdom” by King Henry VIII over the separation of the English church from the Roman Catholic Church.
Besides his satirical writings, Erasmus is most famous for being the source of the Textus Receptus, based on about a dozen or so random Byzantine Greek texts that were brought over from refugees escaping from Constantinople after its fall to the Turks in 1453. The Textus Receptus, the first direct translation of the New Testament from the Greek in about a thousand years, was directly responsible for the groundbreaking work of Luther, Tyndale, and others in translating the Bible into the common languages of German and English. As a result of the King James “translators” largely stealing the work of Tyndale without attribution (and then making a few poor word substitutions of their own), the Textus Receptus became the base of the King James version as well.
Ironically, despite becoming famous, even notorious, for his work in satirizing the corrupt Catholic hierarchy of his time and for his work in laying the foundation for the textual success of Protestant Bibles, Erasmus remained a loyal Catholic for the rest of his life, even though he had to flee to the more “tolerant” areas of Europe away from those who wanted to kill him in his older years after the storm of Protestantism had broken over 16th Century Europe. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a true intellectual in being nearly without the hot-blooded nature of most men. He was a rational person with a dry and witty sense of humor but without a great deal of lust or anger, qualities which most men (myself included) possess in great amounts.
His particular tragedy, which allowed both for his popular success as a humorist as well as the sorrow of his later years, was to lampoon the moral corruption of his age in ways that led others who had more anger about it than he did to do something about it. While Erasmus was a great scholar of Greek, he had no interests in destroying the corrupt Catholic hierarchy. Other intellectuals followed his lead, like William Tyndale, who were far less interested in being part of a humanist clique and far more interested in brutally direct attacks upon the corruption of the Catholic religious and political power base. For his bluntness, William Tyndale paid with his life, while Erasmus was able to eat the bittersweet bread of exile. I appreciate the intellectual gifts of Erasmus, but I honestly think I have more of the William Tyndale in me myself.
Erasmus of Rotterdam was a true intellectual, and as a fellow intellectual I can understand some of his indifference to material affairs. The quote that serves as the title of this entry makes an important point: “When I have money, I buy books. When I have no money, I buy food.” A true intellectual is most comfortable collecting a large library of books, when the daily logistical needs of food and shelter are taken care of. Erasmus also said, “Home is where I keep my library,” another fair way of saying that he was largely indifferent to luxury but most appreciated his library. And that is how I think as well.
When I have to think about logistical concerns, especially food, is only when times are tough. As someone who doesn’t have fancy tastes, I’m not overly concerned with living palatially or in having cars or houses or property that makes others envious. I’m not a particularly greedy or materialistic person. I want a nice comfortable bed, a good computer, and a nice place for my (many) books, and reliable transportation. I want enough food to eat so I don’t feel (or look) like a starved crow. I want a life of dignity and the respect of my peers. These are fairly straightforward and not extravagant desires. They are fairly common desires to most of the intellectuals I know, who are more interested in creating worthwhile and lasting works of the mind than acquiring temporal possessions. They have been difficult goals to attain, though.
When things are going well, most intellectuals aren’t concerned about logistics at all. It is only when there are problems that an intellectual turns their attention to logistics, even though the study can be very fruitful. Most of logistics work that I have seen or done is rather lonely. Truck drivers and people who work on giant cargo ships or trains are the quintessential logistics workers. They move goods from distant lands so that largely unappreciative consumers can pay the cheapest price for them at a Walmart or get the best luxury imports at high end stores. But few people think about where their goods are coming from until disaster strikes.
It is a shame that Erasmus of Rotterdam, a man blessed with a great intellect, a witty and cultured sense of humor, a lot of grace and personal charm, had the misfortune of spending his last years in bitter exile afraid for his life because the fruits of his intellect wrecked his comfortable and corrupt world. He did not realize in mocking the elite corruption of his time, which was a scandal, that he would be cutting out the foundations of his own health and comfort. He learned to care a great deal about logistics when he was without a home and dependent on tolerant and urbane rulers for his survival and safety, lest he be taken away by be tortured and burned on the stake.
But as difficult as life was for Erasmus of Rotterdam, he lived most of his adult life in comfort, privileged to write without having to worry about his daily bread. He mocked the corruption of his time while profiting from it in the same way that a witty and urbane tenured professor might laugh about the corruption of our society while living very well. For those who were younger, like William Tyndale, there were no easy spots for tenure, only obscure and distant jobs and the danger of having one’s life at stake because of doing necessary and godly work in very dangerous times.
I cannot help but think that the times of Erasmus Rotterdam are the times of our own. Whereas Erasmus got famous because the printing press was new and allowed his ideas to spread far and wide in a world hungry for information and inflamed with hostility over the corruption and injustice of the time, today’s Erasmus of Rotterdam is probably some kind of university professor who rails against the corruption and evil of our society, not realizing he provokes a whirlwind that will endanger his own safe place, dependent as it is upon those taxpayers who elites often insult as ignorant rubes. It is deeply unwise for those who are dependent on ivory tower positions to preach and inflame revolution, because it is those towers that get burned down first, and deepest. An infrastructure that rewards intelligence requires a stable society with strong and confident institutions. Only time will tell if we are able to escape the same sort of troubling times that Erasmus and his peers brought on the late Medieval world. But the signs aren’t good.