The latest installment of the Adages of Erasmus continues the project of the University of Toronto Press, begun in 1974, to publish the Collected Works of Erasmus in scholarly, annotated editions that provide readers with translations of and information about the texts’ philological and historical details. This volume — the fifth of seven — contains discourses on 900 adages, including a little over 100 short comments on sayings from Homer (which are both briefer and less vigorously pursued than one might have hoped), as well as the justly famous “anti-war” commentaries on ” Scarabaeus aquilam quaerit” and ” Dulce bellum inexpertis.” Though the translators for the individual volumes of the Adages change, the format remains roughly the same: this one has footnotes; some others have endnotes; all have lists of “Works Frequently Cited” and each a “Table of Adages.” Each volume, though, is a marvel that reflects the editors’ and translators’ dedication to Erasmian humanism.
The translator and annotator of this edition, Denis L. Drysdall, attempts the “Herculean task” of capturing Erasmus’ polytropic mind at work. Though Drysdall’s valiant efforts to track down uncited sources and Erasmus’ many amendments are admirable, sometimes one wishes he had exercised a little less modern scholarly audacity and a little more ancient prudence. For example, he occasionally feels capable of announcing that Erasmus has made “an incorrect interpretation” (n. 421, 145), or assumes he has the power to discern when “Erasmus’ memory is at fault” (n. 27, 184). At other points he asserts “Erasmus presumably misunderstands the Greek” (n. 64, 190), or that he “declines [the Latin] incorrectly” (n. 96, 194). While it is, perhaps, one’s professorial duty to point out such seeming “slips,” it would seem overhasty to assume that a writer as careful and cunning as Erasmus would make “mistakes” unknowingly. That Drysdall does so makes one wonder if we have perhaps only gotten the letter of the text and not always its spirit — though that rarely survives translation.
Erasmus’ collection of comments on over 4100 famous and obscure adages from ancient Greek and Latin sources could, at first. seem a strange, unsystematic reference book best to thumb through when desperate for a witty turn of phrase to spice up a speech. And certainly for nearly 500 years it has been that: writers who could not be bothered to keep their own commonplace books (or to read old books in the first place) could rely on that bookworm Erasmus to do their homework for them. However, clever and cautious readers have always understood Erasmus’ book to be more than that. A careful reading of the Adages reveals that Erasmus clandestinely conveys heterodox classical philosophical ideas that the Catholic Church, and the equally rabid anti-classical Protestants, hoped to expurgate forever from the minds of the faithful. Erasmus, however, was less interested in stumping for classical authors who corrupt hearts and minds with their indiscriminate and eloquent treatment of delicate and irreligious subjects than in demonstrating the connection between Athens and Jerusalem — the highest human wisdom and revealed wisdom. Whether he was reediting the Bible, satirizing the Church’s follies, or advising Christian princes and soldiers about the war on vice, Erasmus was guided by his notion of ” preparatio evangelica : his idea that God’s revelation is historically persistent and that to properly understand Judeo-Christian truths, particularly the life of Christ, one must understand the allegories contained in the great old books. While Erasmus, in some texts, launched frontal attacks on pious dogmatism, in the Adages he was more circumspect, hiding his critiques and his radical political humanism in the light.
The adages that survived the “calamities of history” were derived from oracles, sages, poets, and philosophers. Erasmus compiled these not as one composing a reference book on style and rhetoric might but as a moral philosopher, aware that these little maxims contained more than enough ancient wisdom to guide a well-lived life. These ironic and ambiguous allegories are not what they seem to be on the outside. Only those who understand they are ” paroimia” — roads that “travel everywhere” — and who are willing to follow reverently wherever they lead can discover the true beauty inside. It is possible that Erasmus meant for his collection of adages to be something like “a wooden horse,” an expression, he says in this volume, which “was used of secret conspiracies.” An “ingenious use” of the phrase would be “to call some learned person’s school a ‘wooden horse’ because over a short period of time a number of the best men were produced by it” (502-03). Commenting on Plato’s adage “Nobody who is wicked shall know this,” from the Laws, Erasmus indicates that things “extraordinary and worth knowing” only come to those who are, as Plato says, “experienced, and endowed with virtuous habits,” to “the initiated and the pure,” not to “pigs” (6-7). Such initiates will not be like “the ignorant man who has just put on trousers [and] shows them off to everyone” (34), nor will he be a “Diagoras of Melos,” who was “wicked, perfidious, and impious,” who mocked “the rites of Athenian sacred observances,” who discouraged others from being initiated in them, and who publicly divulged “the occult mysteries . . . to the uninitiated” (46). They will understand the saying, “Shut the door, ye profane,” and know that “secret words” are not meant for the unconsecrated who are incapable of understanding when “we are about to speak of difficult and arcane matters” (76-7). Drawing on Aristotle, Plutarch, Augustus Caesar, Horace, Simonides, and Xenocrates, Erasmus trains his initiate to understand the maxim “Safety is silence’s reward” (68-69). Montaigne, who also knew how to pick aphorisms that would allow others to say what he could not say so well — or say at all if he wished to avoid the Church censors — recognized Erasmus as a master of stratagems, and in “Of repentance” writes, “If I had been able to see Erasmus in other days, it would have been hard for me not to take for adages and apophthegms everything he said to his valet and his hostess.” Those who exit Erasmus’ wooden horse know how to deploy their wisdom prudently in their public writings and will recognize one another by their prudence. Thus, they will not draw dangerous attention to themselves or their proscribed views.
The labor of the scholars and editors of the University of Toronto Press who have been translating, footnoting, and publishing all of Erasmus in English is certainly something to which humanist scholars will continually be indebted, and this excellent volume edited by John N. Grant and translated and annotated by Denis L. Drysdall brings us closer to having a better edition of Erasmus’ Adagia than any so far. It would take another Erasmus, it would seem, to do better. While most readers, teachers, and students will find William Barker’s selected edition sufficient, the true aficionado will want to do the sifting herself, for only then can we grasp the nature of Erasmus’s project, and only then do we also see that amidst all of the gravity of these wise words there is also the levity of such adages as “To give a Siphnian wave”; that is, to wave “the hand towards the backside” (117).