It is above all thanks to the beautiful portraits painted by Holbein, Dürer and Quintin Metsys, as well as the author's youthful work, In Praise of Folly, that Erasmus of Rotterdam remains imprinted on our cultural memory. His immense output and his life, previously known only to a handful of specialists, began to be more widely studied and disseminated in the early years of the 20th century, and it was thanks to various essays, in particular that of Stefan Zweig, Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam (published in Germany in 1934, in the United States in 1934 (under the title Erasmus of Rotterdam), in France in 1935, in Italy in 1935, etc.), that the wider public began to be aware of the true dimension of this great traveller and impassioned seeker after dialogue and peace: in his Querela pacis he proclaimed: “The whole world is the common fatherland of all” at a time when Europe was torn by bloody conflicts. He saw only absurdity in the hatred that pitted English, German, Spanish, Italian and French against one other.
Erasmus was always ready to take up his pen against injustice, wars, fanaticism and even the moral decline of his own Church. The “reign” of Erasmus, whose authority at the beginning of the 16th century extended throughout Europe, triumphed without the need for violence by virtue of spiritual force alone. As Stefan Zweig writes “For one wonderful moment, Europe was united by the dream of a shared civilization, which, thanks to its unity of language [Latin], religion and culture, would put an end to its dreadful, age-old discord. The memory of that unforgettable bid for unity will forever be linked to the personality and name of Erasmus. His ideas, his hopes and his dreams captured and held the imagination of Europe for a brief span in its history, and it is to his great chagrin, as well as ours, that such pure intentions turned out to be only a short interlude in the cruel tragedy of humankind.”
In Erasmus's view, the tyranny of an idea amounted to a declaration of war against freedom of thought, which explains why throughout his life he refused to align himself with any ideology or group, because he firmly believed that political allegiance of any kind took away the individual's freedom to believe, think and feel impartially. That is why Erasmus respected all ideas while refusing to recognize the authority of any. He was the first thinker to define himself as European; he advocated universal access to culture and knowledge as the indispensible basis for the education of mankind, arguing that only an uneducated, ignorant man will be an unthinking slave to his own passions. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life he was forced to confront the brutal reality of a violent, uncontrollable world: “At Paris his translator and disciple Louis Berquin was burned at the stake; in England his mutual friends John Fisher and Thomas More were beheaded (1535)…” Zwingli, with whom he had exchanged so many letters, was killed at the battle of Kappel…Rome was sacked by the mercenaries of Charles V (1527).
It was above all his clash with the theories of Martin Luther that was to cause him the greatest sorrow: knowing that his peaceful struggle was doomed to failure in the face of obstinacy and intransigence, he could see that disaster was inevitable. Overcome with foreboding, he exclaimed, “I pray that this tragedy will not end badly. It was at that time that Luther, seeing the peasant revolt turn against his powerful protectors, condemned the uprisings of 1525 in an unusually violent pamphlet, issuing nothing short of a call to massacre, entitled “Against the thieving and murdering hordes of peasants”. In it he writes:
“Whoever is able, let him stab, smite, slay (...), secretly or in public, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, harmful or diabolical than a rebel (...). Now is the time of anger and the sword, it is not the day of grace. Rulers should be undaunted and strike with a clear conscience, and go on striking, as long as there is breath in the rebels' bodies. (...) Therefore, dear lords, (...) stab, strike, slay whoever can” (quoted in J. Lefebvre, Luther et l'autorité temporelle, 1521-1525, Paris, Aubier, 1973, pp. 247, 253, 257). Luther promptly sided with the authority of the princes against that of the people. Finally, when the fields of Wurtemberg were soaked with blood, he boldly stated: “I, Martin Luther, slew all the peasants during the uprising, for it was I who ordered them to be put to death. I have their blood on my conscience.”
Erasmus was devastated to see “Rome, Zurich and Wittenberg a prey to bitter wars of religion; sweeping wars beat down like storms on Germany, France, Italy and Spain; the name of Christ has become a battle standard.” The cruellest illustration of the overestimation of man's civilized state was finally to come in the history of the 20th century: Erasmus could not have imagined the terrible and almost insoluble problem of racial hatred. But, as Stefan Zweig writes, “The world always needs men who refuse to admit that history is anything more than a perpetual, drab beginning over and over again, the same play insipidly re-enacted against different backdrops; men who have the unshakeable conviction that history has a moral purpose; that it embodies a progress steadily pursued by the human race in its ascent from brute force to a spirit governed by order and wisdom, from bestiality to divinity, and that humanity is already within reach of the highest rung on the ladder… Soon, Erasmus and fellow-travellers joyfully told themselves, humanity, well educated and conscious of its own strength, would recognize its moral mission, and, after finally shedding the last traces of bestiality in its nature, would live in peace and brotherhood… But it was not the glow of a holy new dawn that they glimpsed through the darkness of this world: it was the conflagration that was about to destroy the ideal world of humanism. Like the German tribes who invaded Classical Rome, Luther, a fanatical man of action, was about to unleash a grassroots national movement of irresistible force, overrun the humanists and smash their internationalist dreams. Before humanism had truly begun its task of building universal concord, the Reformation brought its hammer down on the Eclessia universalis, thus shattering the last vestige of spiritual unity in Europe.”
This new CD-Book project initially grew out of the idea for an ambitious tribute to this exceptional humanist, articulated through the living dialogue of texts and music from the period, placed in their historical context. We reproduce Erasmus's own words, with texts drawn from his correspondence and a number of his most important writings. Apart from Erasmus himself, we shall also hear the voices of Folly, Thomas More and Luther. On the 3 CDs accompanying this book, the texts heard in dialogue with music of the period are spoken by: Louise Moaty (Folly) in French, Marc Mauillon (Erasmus and the Adages) and René Zosso (Thomas More, Machiavelli and Luther). All the texts, with the same musical accompaniment, will also be published on the Internet in another six European languages: German, English, Spanish, Catalan, Dutch and Italian. Finally, for those who are only interested in listening to the music, we are releasing another 3 CDs featuring all the music without the spoken texts. The texts on Folly are accompanied by improvisations, variations and vocal or instrumental adaptations on the musical theme of folly, while in CDs 2 and 3 our tour of the landmark events in the life and times of Erasmus are accompanied by pieces by Dufay, Josquin, Sermisy, Lloyd, Isaac, Du Caurroy, Moderne, Morales and Trabaci, as well as anonymous pieces from the Western, Sephardic and Ottoman traditions.
We strongly believe that the ideas of this great humanist, his critical reflections and philosophical thought continue to be an essential source of humanistic and spiritual wisdom, and, even after 500 years, are still surprisingly relevant, as were the prescient words of his great friend, the remarkable intellectual Thomas More, from his book Utopia: “Wherever there is private property, and everything is measured in terms of money, one will never achieve justice and social prosperity, unless you consider as just the kind of society where the wickedest people have the best share, and you regard as perfectly happy a State in which public wealth is in the hands of a tiny minority of insatiable individuals, while the majority is a prey to poverty.” This exact description of the crisis currently gripping Europe and the world, written five centuries ago, shows how the study and knowledge of these great humanist thinkers can help us to reflect on our human destiny and seek out new paths of dialogue, justice and peace. Their ideas are an early blueprint, still not fully realised today, of a European Union bound together by a shared culture and civilization: a united Europe capable of developing according to a moral ideal that soars beyond merely economic or territorial interests.
Bellaterra, Autumn 2012
Translated by Jacqueline Minett