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In Our Time Newsletter: Erasmus

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 14:08, Friday, 10 February 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Erasmus. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.



This is an attempt at the newsletter. I'm full of cold and trying to keep my distance from people I'm meeting for the rest of the day. Then back to Lemsips and a warm fire and early bed.

I had a stack of tissues in front of me this morning but managed to use only one or two.

I'm sure you wanted to know about that!

After the programme the contributors left immediately. Usually they stay for a cup of tea and a chat and a general discussion about why we did not include this, that and the other, and how could we have missed that, this and the other, and then it spirals into additional information which I try to pass on. This time, off they vanished back to their universities to get on with teaching. I never cease to find it very, very impressive that academics of the high distinction that agree to come on the programme - and few could be of higher distinction than the three people who were on this morning - should not only find time to do this, but also fit it in with what's clearly a heavy working load. They write books, they write papers, but most importantly for us, they teach, and the habit of teaching and breaking information down and re-presenting it for minds not lined with learning is gold for the programme we do.

I've a couple more meetings. This is being dictated "between meetings". That's a phrase that heaves up a lot these days. I'm between meetings, he's between meetings, she's between meetings.

If spared after the next meeting, I want to make it to St James's Park which I haven't properly looked around for a few weeks. I think that last week I celebrated the lack of winter. Well, it's arrived and if St James's Park is as snow-locked as the pavements around my house, then I will veer away down Horse Guards Parade, which is surely cleared and swept and gritted for the horses, and arrive, I hope safely, at the next stop.

And now, off for a Lemsip.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: Is it an insult to Erasmus to put him as a PS? Since I came across him at school, Erasmus has always been to me the ideal of a great free scholar, roving Europe, amassing information, encyclopaedic, being able to enter into any discussion or debate of the times, and I was pleased that his scholarly gentleness - which I'd always thought was his deepest characteristic - could be accompanied by fury and was certainly underpinned by obstinacy. I wish we'd got around to Erasmus's influence on William Tyndale, though.

PPS: Have got to the park. The lake is frozen, almost the full length of it. But no ducks skating. Pigeons have taken over the ice and walk very carefully. Canada geese have gone up the slopes to mingle with the stumps of snowmen. Still full of French people.


  • Comment number 1.

    Melvyn isn’t it about time you started addressing the subject of the discussion in each programme in your newsletter,only you seem to be relegating it to the margins or bringing it in as an afterthought.Erasmus criticized but ultimately defended the Catholic Church when it was in danger from the radical reappraisal by Luther’s revolution.The Middle Ages were a stagnant period like Erasmus’s period as a monk,which the classics helped him escape from.Humanism was the safety hatch.His piety was of the heart not the head,but his religion is elitist in its meditation,his writing for the few not many.He squares Christian belief with the pagan philosophers, looked at each pagan philosopher, accepting the best of paganism to blend with Christianity.Taking humanist techniques with classical texts,he applied this to biblical texts,which were subject to corruptions and distortions,due to the sources they were drawn from.

    In Praise of Folly uses satire to criticize the stupidity of human institutions in a civilized dam-burst of pent-up feelings,washing away popes,kings,monks,scholars,war ,theology.Conformism and complacency held the free spirit down.This exercise was made available to readers all over Europe,encouraging people to question everything,to think for themselves.Erasmus in England helped foster English humanism,allowing the classics to dominate science in the teaching of a gentleman.Men of the Renaissance looked to old books rather than the world,discounting travellers’ tales, discounted for the marvels of Pliny. However soon curiosity became transferred from books to the real world.An interest in savages and strange animals that were discovered,rather than those described in the classical authors.Montaigne’s cannibals came from travellers.So what had been literary curiosity became scientific.A cataract of new facts overwhelmed the old systems.After the Folly Erasmus devoted himself to Greek translations of the bible.Erasmus was too civilized for his age,he paved the way for the violent extremes of Lutheran heroics.

    Despite his constant criticism of clerical abuse and folly and theological over-niceties, Erasmus could never bring himself to join Luther and finally opposed him in the treatise of free will,De Libero Arbitri (1524): the egg laid by Erasmus was hatched by Luther.

  • Comment number 2.

    John the Baptist’s admonition metanoieite, translated by Jerome as ‘repent’, certainly does not mean turn about, make a 180 degree turn. It means ‘change your mind’ and, as early as the Vth cent BC is used in the sense of repent by the orator Antipho. [Liddell and Scoot Greek Lexicon]
    If, then, this is to be taken as an example of Erasmus’ radical intervention, by way of rendering the Greek Testament in more accurate Latin, it’s a poor one.

    Graeme Fife


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