Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.15

Kathy Eden, Friends Hold All Things in Common.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2001.  Pp. x + 194.  ISBN 0-300-08757-8.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Laurence Emmett, Brasenose College, Oxford (
Word count: 1798 words

The Adages of Erasmus is a collection of proverbs and quotations from ancient authors, many accompanied by short essays explaining or expanding on the idea contained in the sayings. It was first published under the title Adagiorum Collectanea in 1500 as a small work consisting of 800 or so entries, but was continually expanded during the next quarter century. By its author's death it had been retitled Adagiorum Chiliades, and the number of entries was over 4000. Exceptionally among works of renaissance Latin, there exist a trustworthy edition,1 an excellent translation, informative notes2 and a comprehensive study of the work's contents and origins.3 Eden explores just one aspect of the work: the way Erasmus represents a tradition of wisdom as a set of possessions which are to be held in common by compiler and readers. She does this by identifying the theme in various classical and patristic authors and then by examining the way Erasmus' development of the work brought it to prominence in the later editions. She contrasts Erasmus' notion of proverbial wisdom as common property with the development of notions of copyright and intellectual property in the sixteenth century.

Eden begins with Erasmus' account of the composition of the edition of 1500, arguing that the themes of friendship and property are there already juxtaposed. Friendship and property are related through the Pythagorean maxim κοινὰ τὰ τῶν φιλῶν, which, translated, gives the book its title. The book constitutes, she says, a gloss on this maxim and Erasmus' commentary on it. She argues that her examination will illuminate Erasmus' understanding of the past and of its relationship to the present. She begins to expound this theme in the opening chapter by examining the term traditio, which Erasmus uses as, effectively, the equivalent of 'tradition', to denote an intellectual heritage. But the term has other functions, and Eden draws particular attention to its use in legal discourse, where it identifies one kind of transfer of property. That is to say, she argues that where Erasmus refers to the process by which people in the present receive wisdom from the past as one of traditio, he intends to draw a close analogy with the transfer of legal title to property.

She starts on this theme by examining Erasmus' attempt to relate ancient secular wisdom to Christianity. Her particular focus is one image, which is found in the writings of Tertullian, Origen and Jerome, the 'spoliatio Aegyptiorum'. The point of the image for those writers is that just as the Israelites received divine sanction for taking with them whatever possessions of the Egyptians they could find when they departed, Christian thinkers were justified in taking whatever was of value in traditions of Greek and Roman wisdom. And so, Eden argues, all three authors represent ancient texts as a form of property, now transferred to Christian ownership. But, she goes on, Erasmus adapts this tradition. He too presents knowledge as property, but, whereas the patristic writers represent Christian possession of that knowledge as dishonest, deriving from an act of theft from ancient authors, he regards the property as common to Christian and pagan alike, as being between friends. He has, then, significantly altered the import of the notion of traditio insofar as it defines Christian wisdom.

Eden's next three chapters (2, 3 and 4) look back further to the conception of wisdom as property in pre-Christian authors. The earlier two focus exclusively on Plato, and she says little in them about Erasmus. This is justified on the grounds that Erasmus was a 'thoughtful and thorough' reader of Plato and that the similarity between their ideas on the 'tradition' of wisdom is therefore more than coincidental -- even if Erasmus never makes it explicit. Chapter 2 is a close reading of the Symposium, in which it is argued that Plato defends a philosophical, rather than poetic, notion of 'tradition'. It is further argued that this notion is one which Plato has adopted from Pythagoras. Chapter 3 covers the Protagoras, the Phaedrus and the Gorgias, in which Eden argues that Plato contrasts the philosophical notion of 'tradition' in education with the rhetorical. In Chapter 4 she deals more generally with ancient political philosophy, and particularly with the notion of common property in Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. Plato again receives the most thorough examination. Eden's argument here is that the concept, as it appears in the Republic and is then adapted by Aristotle and Cicero, is essentially Pythagorean. This is important for an understanding of Erasmus' work because the maxim with which he opens the Adages, and which forms the title for Eden's book, is that which encapsulates Pythagoras' teaching on the matter.

Chapter 5 brings Erasmus back into consideration, and the argument is for that reason stronger and more coherent. The chapter concerns Erasmus' response to texts from the High Empire and Late Antiquity which deal with the concept of common property. Eden begins with Aulus Gellius, Iamblichus and Diogenes Laertius as Erasmus' pagan sources on Pythagoreanism, before considering Basil of Caesarea and Augustine as his Christian sources. Chapter 6 is concerned directly with Erasmus, bringing together various themes from earlier chapters. It is the best of the book, not only illuminating the nature of Erasmus' sources, but also providing sensitive readings of the editions of the Adages. The Conclusion is suggestive rather than definitive and draws attention to the wider political implications of the concept of (intellectual) property which, Eden argues, Erasmus advances for the sixteenth century. The prince who is motivated by friendship to share what wisdom he has will, Erasmus is said to argue, act rather to extend the boundaries of his studium than of his imperium -- good news for all concerned, one would imagine.

The argument of the book is, then, diffuse, and consequently it is difficult to offer just one response to it. Its main virtue -- which has attendant vices -- is its avoidance of cliché. Eden does not follow a herd, but herds sometimes move in the right direction. For example, there is no 'self-fashioning' or 'negotiating' here. On the whole this is a good thing, and there is quite enough of both to go around in other works on classical reception. But with them has gone the rhetorical and playful Erasmus. Take Eden's discussion of Erasmus' response to the Horatian line, 'difficile est proprie communia dicere' (Ars Poetica 128). For Horace, the successful poet, by his creative energy, lays private claim to what was previously public property. Erasmus responds that he is assembling his learning, exerting his literary powers, for the common good. He writes for the benefit of the community, not for his own benefit.4 Now this makes Erasmus sound very worthy, but is he being altogether ingenuous? The Adages was, after all, a work from which he intended to profit personally, and by which he meant to lay his claim to be the most learned man in Christendom. These are levels of irony in Erasmus' writing which ought to be unpacked.

In fact, the book has little to say on the literary aspects of the Adages. For example, to what extent does Erasmus write in the genre of the ancient miscellany or florilegium, such as that of Aulus Gellius? The letter to Lord Mountjoy, with which Eden opens the work, would suggest that this is an important feature of the work. Erasmus there refers to the work as 'sylva aliquis adagiorum', 'wood' being a common title for miscellaneous collections of this kind.5 Moreover, his insistence in the same letter that the work has been thrown together quickly, not artfully composed for publication, could likewise be understood as a literary convention.6 More importantly for Eden's thesis, concern with the sharing of knowledge (often expressed as a reluctance to share) is a feature of such works. Gellius, for example, ends his preface by warning away those who would read his text only in order to cavil or who are insufficiently learned (NA praef. 19-20). Clement of Alexandria claims that his miscellany is only for a spiritual elite, saying that for a profane reader to encounter it is like a donkey hearing a lyre (Str. Erasmus' statements about his readers, and his intention of sharing his wisdom with them, should not be abstracted from these literary traditions. Further, since the work is a collection of sayings with an explicitly Pythagorean bent, Eden might have been expected to make more of the aphoristic character of Pythagorean thought and especially the role of enigmatic sayings in defining wisdom in that tradition. The well-known Pythagorean strictures against eating beans, keeping a swallow in the house, shaking the bed clothes and the like, are of a different nature and purpose from the trite gnomai and literary clichés that constitute the bulk of Erasmus' collection. The topic of the book really demanded a discussion of these matters.

Finally, it is unclear at what level Eden intends to comment on Erasmus' ancient sources. It is not obvious, for example, whether she intends Chapter 3 to be a reading of Plato's Symposium, or an account of the text as interpreted by Erasmus. It may be that she intends to fuse the two, thinking that there is merit in understanding ancient authors in the canonical context in which they come to us as part of the traditions in which they have been interpreted. But, if this is her intention, she does not say so. Take as an example her discussion of Tertullian's legal language in Chapter 1. While it is true that he speaks of classical learning as an inheritance, with all the proprietary and legal overtones of the word, it is misleading to suggest that this is Tertullian's coherent theory of the relationship between Christian and non-Christian thought. It is a rhetorical flourish, and, while it is legitimate to try to take Tertullian seriously at other levels, the element of rhetoric cannot be ignored. Again, it is unclear how Eden intends references to 'Pythagoras' to be understood. Presumably she means Pythagoras as represented in ancient texts rather as an historic individual as such. But here too there is an unanalysed level of rhetoric: were Plato, Aristotle and Cicero really attempting to adapt an authentically Pythagorean tradition, or is 'Pythagoras' a cipher, which these authors use to create their literary personae?

The book is original, intelligent, and thought-provoking. So is it right to criticise it for its omissions? Perhaps its only real fault is that it is the wrong length. If just the material on Erasmus were included, it would be a substantial article. If the discussions of Plato and ancient traditions of writing about friendship, property and tradition were expanded to the size they merit, this would be a major study. As it stands, it is a rewarding read, but ultimately unsatisfying.


1.   Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera Omnia (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1962), vol. ii.
2.   The translation by Margaret Mann Phillips and notes by Sir Roger Mynors are to be found in the Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), voll. xxxi-xxxiv.
3.   Margaret Mann Phillips, The Adages of Erasmus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1964.
4.   Collected Works of Erasmus xxxiv, 179-80.
5.   Erasmus, Epistle 279. See Gellius, Noctes Atticae, praef. 6 for a list of common titles for collections of miscellanea.
6.   See for example Gellius, NA, praef. 2; Arrian, Epicteti Dissertationes, praef. 1; Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis

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