The Adages of Erasmus: Philosophy, Formation and Wisdom

Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. Eastertide 2022.

        I can hardly say what nectar sweet as honey I sip from your most delightful Adages, rich source of nectar as they are, what lovely flowers of every mind I gather thence like a honey-bee, carrying them off to my hive and building them into a fabric of what I write. To their perusal I have devoted two hours each day.

-Niccolo Sagundino

       As an expression of the Renaissance love of antiquity and as a work of instruction and reference, the Adages is unsurpassed in its sweep…….There is a close relationship between the Adages and Erasmus’ other widely known works, from The Praise of Folly to the Colloquies.

-William Barker

As a synthesis of classical and Renaissance proverb lore the Adages has never really been superseded.

-Wlliam Barker

There is a way of doing philosophy that is about parsing various arguments, using inductive, deductive and logical arguments to reach reasonable conclusions or a studying the different positions of philosophers across the centuries of time. Such an approach to thinking and being has played a prominent role in shaping how the discipline, understanding and significance of philosophy are practiced. But, there is another approach to philosophy that comes as a check, balance and counter to these rather orthodox tendencies. This approach is more concerned about wisdom and insight, formation and ordering desires and the use of parables, stories, myths and varied folk tales to illuminate the journey. It was such an understanding of philosophy that held Erasmus and his ever growing Adages.

The Adages drew deeply and thoroughly from the Greek and Latin wisdom traditions and the Christian internalization of such an aphoristic and parabolic approach to insight, short stories portals into the larger cathedral of seeing the journey in a fuller and more discerning way and manner. The Adages went through many an edition and grew larger and more expansive as reflections as the compilation developed.

The initial publication of the Adages left the press in 1500, Erasmus still a young man in his early 30s. The turbulence of the emerging reformation was still in the future. The 818 proverbs listed in the 1500 edition were shorter, commentaries on them briefer. But, each of the 818 graphic tales told, each summarizing markings to note on the journey are keepers not to miss. The growing interest in such wisdom tales meant Erasmus was inspired to add to his collection. Erasmus took to Italy in 1508 and, when there, met one of the foremost printers of the time: Aldus Manuzio. Manuzio walked the extra mile to encourage and support Erasmus in his journey with proverbial aphorisms, the “hasten slowly” and symbol of the dolphin and anchor but a pointer to the layered tale of “The Labours of Hercules”.  The 1508 edition of the Adages was much expanded. The 3260 aphorisms now included a growing commentary on them. But, in Erasmus’ sagacious and applied way, he blended the aphorism as a timeless insight to a timely application to the dilemmas and challenges of the early 16th century ethos. In short, the timeless wisdom and myths of the classical tradition could still speak in a timely way to the obvious problems of Erasmus’ historic and troubing context.    

One of the more perennial adages that held both the classical way of thinking (much concealed in the literal and external, much more revealed in the deeper internal probes) was the myth of “The Sileni of Alcibiades”. I supervised an MA thesis that was completed in 2005 called “The Silenus Metaphor: The Inner Spirit Theology of Erasmus. and the Colloquies”.  The external reality of Silenus tends to be offensive, bordering on the grotesque and lacking appeal, whereas the inner reality of Silenus is ripe with beauty, insight and wisdom. Those who only see with the physical eye see not—those who have been trained to see with the inner, searching and spiritual eye see much that the literal and empirical eye sees not. Such is, when understood aright, the purpose the proverb, adage and folk tale.

The third and more engaged social and political commentary of the Adages was published in 1515. Margaret Phillips has called this Erasmus’ “Utopian edition”—gone are the wisdom saying that merely float above time and history—the 1515 edition does have a tendency to apply such insights to the pressing social, political, religious and economic issues of the time. The reformation was heating up in both the Roman Catholic and potential Protestant tribes and Erasmus was alert to such realities—his first revised edition of the New Testament was published in 1516—many were the revisions that questioned the Vulgate and offended the conservative Roman Catholic Sanhedrin.

The Adages continued to grow in size and scope as an eager audience delighted and were charmed by such compact and succinct summaries of insights and longer commentaries on them. Some of the adages grew in length, such is “War is sweet to those who have not tried it” this became a bestselling booklet. Or. The “Twice cooked cabbage is death” meaning something said that is silly can be initially tolerated but when mindlessly repeated again and again tests the patience to the tolerant extreme.

The fourth edition of the Adages was published in 1517-1518, fifth edition in 1520, sixth in 1523, seventh 1526, eighth 1528, , ninth 1533 and the final edition months before Erasmus’ death in 1536. The final total of adages reached a staggering 4151 by the end of Erasmus’ formal publishing journey. After the death of Erasmus, additions were made to the rather large and imposing collection and many were the shorter and more abridged versions.  There can be no doubt, though, that Erasmus used the adage and proverbial approach to formation and wisdom to highlight how the classical world that he has inherited had much wisdom and insight, and by common grace, saw deeply and meaningfully into the substantive issues of our all too human journey.

The publication of The Adages of Erasmus in 2001 (more than 20 years now since its publication) by University of Toronto Press is, in many ways, a tome more than worth the owning—like Sagundino, I would  agree, the nectar is indeed sweet, lovely flowers visited, honey bees of insight carried to the hive of the mind–a daily lingering and inwardly digesting of them essential for a deeper formation of desires and longings to their true home, hearth and end. Even though The Adages of Erasmus does not include all the 4151 adages, there is more than enough in this bounty of book to be a hiking companion until our journey comes to an end.

Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. Eastertide 2022.         I can hardly say what nectar sweet as honey I sip from your most delightful Adages, rich source of nectar as they are, what lovely flowers of every mind I gather thence like a honey-bee, carrying them off to my hive and building them into…

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