Erasmus Loses All His Money, And Still Triumphs

We have observed many times before in these pages that disaster can often serve as an impetus to growth and eventual victory. This point was reinforced in an interesting story that I recently came across in a biography of the famous humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam.

The reader should here be reminded that the life of the itinerant scholar and writer has never been an easy one.  Desiderius Erasmus, who lived from 1466 to 1536, is considered by many to have been the greatest humanist of his or any other era; and he was one of the first writers of the modern era to try to make a living exclusively with his writing.  Time and time again he turned down permanent academic and secretarial positions out of fear that employment would restrict his freedom of the pen.  He wanted to be able to say and write as he wished.  The price of this independence, of course, was a perpetual financial insecurity; he had to save his earnings carefully, as there was no way to predict when feast or famine might greet him on life’s road.  For him the price was worth it; but there were times that the price was very, very high.  For most of his life he would find himself constantly seeking the patronage of the wealthy to support his scholarly pursuits.  

Disaster struck him in January 1500 as he was leaving England at the conclusion of his first visit to that country.  It had been a pleasant sojourn for him, and he had made a number of stimulating contacts, especially with Sir Thomas More and William Blount, the 4th Baron Mountjoy.  Erasmus of course desired to take his monetary savings with him when he left England for France; this amount ran to about twenty pounds, which in those days was a significant sum.  An old edict of Edward III (reaffirmed by Henry VII) prohibited the export of gold and silver from the country unless a valid exemption applied; and Erasmus had been assured by both Mountjoy and More that he would be exempt from the law, since his funds were not in foreign currency.  To his anguish, he discovered that the customs officers in Dover interpreted the law to mean any currency, regardless of origin.  He was permitted to retain a nominal sum but almost all of his precious savings was confiscated.  It seems he was unable to reverse their ruling; or perhaps he made some effort to do so, but eventually gave it up as futile.  

This event was a serious blow.  Sensitive by nature, the incident darkened his views of England for many years after this; but to his credit he never lashed out at More or Mountjoy, the people on whose advice he had so mistakenly relied.  He absorbed the bitterness of the event and channeled his energies into writing as if he were possessed by a demon.  In a way, this is exactly how it was.  He knew now that his back was up against a wall, and that he was writing for survival.  There was no alternate plan.  He would later say, “Things are with me as they are wont to be in such cases; the wound received in England begins to  smart only now that it has become inveterate, and that the more as I cannot have my revenge in any way.”  Some months later he wrote, “I shall swallow it.  An occasion may offer itself, no doubt, to be even with them.”

So Erasmus had returned to Paris nearly penniless.  What was his next move?  What should he do now.  With the need to earn an income now his entire focus, he hit upon an idea that can only be described as a stroke of genius.  He found a way to turn his strengths into financial benefit.  He knew that his knowledge of classical Latin literature had given him an armory of quotes, sayings, and adages.  Why not take this knowledge and create a compendium of such quotes, as a resource that could be used by students and writers?  We should be reminded that this was a novel idea at the time.  It was also an idea that happened to come along at just the right moment:  this was the dawn of the age of printing, and good books might enable an author to earn something from his works.  In classical and medieval times, it was understood that writing was not a profitable enterprise.  It was the exclusive domain of the rich or the Church, and neither of these had to worry about earning a living.

Thus was born the idea of Erasmus’s most-used work, the Adagia.  The proverbs were drawn from both Latin and Greek sources, and Erasmus followed them with short explanations or illustrations.  The first edition was published in Paris in 1500 and contained roughly 800 entries.  As it went through edition after edition, the work would expand significantly, eventually comprising 3,000 entries.  Erasmus organized and indexed the work in such a way that it could be used by speakers or writers needing just the right adage to flavor their efforts.  He would continue to expand the work right up until his death in 1536, at which time it contained over 4,000 entries.  

This is a particularly striking example of how disaster and tragedy can serve as the focus for future triumph.  On the one hand, we could say that the confiscation of Erasmus’s savings in England was a setback; and on the other, we may reasonably wonder if the Adagia would ever have been published but for this tragedy.  There are valid arguments both ways.  My own opinion is that serious setbacks can, indeed, be turned to our advantage, provided we do not allow them permanently to darken our vision.  We must never allow ourselves to descend into bitterness or despair; for these are wells that have no bottom to them.  Erasmus had the tenacity and strength of character to seize the moment, swallow his anguish, and continue to move forward.  

 

Read more in On Moral Ends:

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