Erasmus And Sexual "Preference"
Even with the advantage of a name as benign and welcoming as Desiderius Erasmus (which means, when stripped of its Latin clothing and the floral lettering in which was draped, “desired beloved”), the great humanist, satirist, and Christian scholar of the fifteenth century was the subject of much enmity and scorn. To him, very little love was extended, despite the gentle enticement of his charming name. He was actively opposed by many, if only ever convincingly challenged by few. Those agitated by his writings were without number, yet there was a rather smaller lot daring enough, or clever enough, to refute the subtlety of his wit.
This smaller lot was composed of Europe’s finest scholars. It included the continent’s deepest thinkers, most fervid philosophers, most antique Aristotelians, and most irritable churchmen, upon whom Erasmus’s lovable name failed to exert its intended softening effect. I suppose this was a consequence of his own doing, a fate for which a man so esteemed for his letters and unfettered by his thought must be prepared. No name, no matter how endearing and gentle, can protect a contrarian from the blunt reality of this fact.
A brilliant but occasionally incautious spirit, a dazzling but sometimes intractable flame, Erasmus provoked the ire of both colleague and enemy alike. He pushed the former to a state of unease, and encouraged the latter’s censure. He put his allies in a position to defend his heresies, jokes, and his delightfully sparkling banter. For them, it was a small price to pay for the promise of being able to read his inimitable writing, and for the ability to find courage in the dauntless expression of his thought. As for his enemies, he exposed himself, time and again, to all their biting accusations and warring words. From the assaults of the schoolmen, to the blows of the papists, to the astonishing fury of the fledgling Lutherans who were, at this stage, just beginning to take form, Erasmus was confronted by every cruel opinion on every side.
A countryman of his, the Dutch theologian Maarten Van Dorp, bestrode both camps. He was, for most his adult life, both critic and friend to our beloved Erasmus, a figure from whom a healthy and forceful insight was never wanting. Yet after the publication of Erasmus’s most famous and enduring work, The Praise of Folly, Van Dorp had this to say to his endangered friend: “You should know that your Moria has excited a great disturbance even among those who were formerly your most devoted admirers”. Implicitly included among those “devoted admirers” was Van Dorp himself. This, from a devout Catholic theologian—whose faith in God clearly superseded any allegiance to a friend—was putting the case rather mildly.
Of course, Van Dorp hadn’t an inkling that Erasmus was capable of disturbing the settled order further still, as he did, years later, with the publication of his anti-papal sketch, Iulius exclusus. In it, Erasmus imagines a conversation held at the threshold of the Pearly gates, that grand entrance to heaven through which the warrior-pope himself (the recently-deceased Julius II) hoped to pass. There, he encounters a surprisingly obstinate St. Peter, the man by whom his bishopric was once, and best, occupied.
“Then you won’t open the gates?”, an exasperated Julius II asks. “Sooner to anyone else than to such as you”, was Peter’s unpliable response. Julius, resorting to his preferred métier, shot back, “If you don’t give in, I will take your place by storm”. One might remove the Pope from the battlefield, but not the warrior from the Pope. Thus began a second battle for right to exist in heaven, a celestial struggle about which a near contemporary, John Milton, might’ve wrote.
Although never shy in the face of confrontation, and rarely reticent to engage in debate, Erasmus felt himself wrongly accused. After absorbing the blows of criticism issued in response to his Praise of Folly, he felt himself momentarily stunned. No longer was he arguing ideas, merely, but characters—namely his own. It wasn’t Van Dorp’s harsh literary criticism by which he was bothered, as that was a part of life to which he’d grown thickened skin, but his misrepresentation of the thoughts he’d expressed in his work. He thought that his Praise of Folly was deliberately misread, and its author, for that reason, unjustly abused.
To him, this was an intolerable offense. It was completely unbecoming to the standards of his home, a supposedly liberal Europe, and utterly inconsistent with the goals of that proudly philosophical land. It was an abdication of honesty, fairness, understanding, and tact. It was the replacement of an open acceptance and consideration of diverse views, for a closed partisanship and the meanness of feeling. It was the last refuge of a lazy critic, someone unwilling to engage frankly with new ideas, but perfectly eager to indulge his old passions. It’s for this reason that Erasmus responded to Van Dorp with a masterful and eloquent letter, the type of epistle that nearly succeeds in overshadowing the main text, The Praise of Folly, to which, necessarily, it was later appended.
“It’s not surprising”, said Erasmus, “if a subject for misrepresentation can be found if all one looks for is something to misrepresent; I only ask for someone to understand what I wrote, someone fair-minded and honest who brings a true concern to comprehend, not a fixed intention to misrepresent”.
Nearly five-hundred years later, we echo Erasmus’s heartfelt plea. In the course of our public debate, and during the exchange of our private conversation, we ask of our interlocutor but one simple thing: a true concern to comprehend, not a fixed intention to misrepresent. Theoretically, this ought not to be a high bar to clear. What we want, more than anything else, is intellectual sympathy and an earnest hand, not a pre-mediated goal to manipulate and to spin. These days, so humble a request seems to have grown too large. No longer are there shoulders atop which it can sit. Once a small effort, it’s become an imposition that none wants to bear. It’s for this reason, above any other, that our discourse has been vitiated and our society weakened.
Examples of this strange phenomenon abound. I’ll neither bore nor upset you with their enumeration, but I’ll risk your patience by making reference to one. It happened a few weeks ago, during the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett. Innocent of any malicious intent, she responded to a question with the use of the word, “sexual preference”. Unaware that this simple word, “preference”, had but only recently been deemed verboten, she used it without any discernable intention to provoke. She used it as countless writers had before, and as many will after.
No matter. Those of the opposing political party, by whom she was quickly accosted, decided against exercising restraint. They thought better than to deign to decency, or to comport themselves with integrity, by showing a true concern to comprehend. The only thing for which they were looking was line to misrepresent. They found it, and they exploited it. They opted to besmirch her virtue and to misrepresent what she’d intended to convey.
The example given by Amy Coney Barrett, and her ill-fated use of the word “preference”, is but one among many. It’s demonstrative, however, of the larger problem with which we’re now beset: we lack charity for one another. We’ve neither intellectual goodwill for our neighbor, nor basic respect for the opponent with whom we’re engaged. To give a charitable reading of their position, with which, it might be assumed, we strongly disagree, is an act unknown to our era. One wouldn’t even know how to go about it, if given the task. All we do is approach one another with a fixed intention to belittle, abuse, and misrepresent. That’s unfortunate, because a pinch of charity, garnished by a true concern to comprehend, is what we need to add flavor to our empty discourse, and fellow-feeling to our world.
Sadly, in his age, Erasmus’s entreaty to Van Dorp was ignored; the high churchman and his allies continued to read him uncharitably until his death. We seem to have learned nothing from their mistake. Let Erasmus, the beloved, be our guide to the future, and may he help us to reject our acquired tendency to misrepresent. Should we follow him, our conversation will celebrate, and our liberty will cheer.