2.18 Erasmus Picking Fights

We do not have to doubt the sincerity of Erasmus's criticism of his predecessors in order to ascribe a marketing motive to him. Note that the text of Pseudo-Cato had been "contaminated" not by medieval commentators or teachers but rather by scholars still alive and working in Erasmus's day, namely Giacomo Filippo Foresti (called Bergomensis, 1434-1520) and Robert d'Evremond (d. 1480). Their annotated texts were substantial folio volumes, aimed at teachers more than students. These editions were only thirty or forty years old when Erasmus sat down at Louvain in 1513 to work on the Cato, and they had been reprinted several times, as recently and as nearby as Antwerp in 1504. The texts Erasmus complains of, then, had not decayed through centuries of classroom misuse, but had been freshly packaged for the press in the 1470's and were still in current use. Their principal fault, as described in the great humanist's preface, was that they overloaded the little sayings of Pseudo-Cato with too many notes useless to schoolboys. Even in the hands of a talented schoolmaster, they could be pernicious in that they would encourage him to displays of erudition, the last thing his students needed. (108) Erasmus's real animus against these authors was that both of them were monks and that their notes loaded up the little Cato, an ancient and pagan text, with anachronistically Christian notions.

Erasmus turned immediately to the matter of authorship: "Next, I do not contemplate saying definitively who is the author of this work, or whether there was one author or many. I do think it is ascribed to Cato only because it contains sayings worthy of Cato." (109) No matter the uncertainty, for the proper context of the Cato anthology was clear, including other ancient proverbs that Erasmus included in his printed collection. One group, he says, is properly ascribed to Mimus Publianus, even though it had long been falsely entitled "Proverbs of Seneca" and contaminated with sayings taken from Seneca and Aulus Gellius. Although the point of the new textbook was to provide a large and varied collection of ancient proverbs for schoolboys, Erasmus insisted on the integrity of the smaller collections within it, this because they had their own philosophical content, identifiable authorship, and linguistic unity. Ancient proverbs could not be properly understood without taking these diverse historical contexts into account. Mixing up Mimus Publianus (of the first century B.C.E.) with Seneca (of a century later) and Gellius (of the second century C.E.) was bad philology, bad history, and bad pedagogy. Only after they had been properly situated philologically could they conduce to the higher, universal wisdom that is true philosophy. (110)

For Erasmus, even the simple logic of putting together a school book spelled controversy. His preface continued:

But meanwhile some wrangler will call out, "Why do you, O Theologian, attend to such silly nuggets?" Well, first of all, I hold nothing onerous, however humble, that pertains to good letters, much less anything that is as useful for the purity of Latin language as it is conducive to good morals. Moreover, why would I be ashamed to pass a few hours on this task, when many Greek writers, and not bad ones either, were praised for their learning in it? (111)

There is a deliberate irony in Erasmus's calling his imagined adversary a vitilogator (brawler or wrangler); he knew this rare word from a preface of Pliny who ascribes its use to Marcus Portius Cato. But the irony is magnified for us, in that there was hardly any humanist readier than Erasmus to pick a fight. Indeed, this whole preface was a manifesto for a new way of using the proverb collections traditional in Latin pedagogy. Erasmus did not deny their age-old value in educating school boys to good conduct; he insisted upon that. But he insisted as well that they are good models of Latin. Moreover, he said, it is dishonest to teach these proverbs without a philological context that would allow the boys sooner or later to recognize that the morality of the ancients was historically conditioned and distinct from that of the sixteenth Christian century. (112)

Erasmus's anthology had instant and wide success. It quickly became the most commonly used text of Cato and effectively drove other versions from the field. Its two "inept," "insipid," and "idiotic" predecessors were never again printed. Even the many later editions by other editors, who dispensed with Erasmus's careful packaging, took his textual emendations and paraphrases into account.

Erasmus advocated a new kind of pedagogy for collections of moral sayings, one that respected their original non-Christian contexts. His work on improving the texts, however, was more enduring than his careful contextualization. The sixteenth century was an age of anthologizing, and the traditional pedagogy of memorization encouraged students at all levels to learn and recycle pithy phrases or commonplace ones without contextualizing them. Indeed, most teachers worked directly against Erasmus' ideal; they presented moral axioms and proverbs as mere commonplaces, universally or specifically applicable as any given thematic need arose in speaking or writing.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (108) Boas 1938, 281-283 and Boas 1940, 64-68; Perraud 1988, 89-91; Thompson and Perraud 1990, 55-58; Henkel 1995, 219-221. Erasmus conveniently omits mention of the fact that these two scholarly commentaries were intended for university use, not for elementary classrooms.
  • (109) Erasmus 1538, 3: Porro cuius auctoris sit hoc opus, & utrum unius, an plurium, non admodum referre puto. Catonis ob id tantum arbitror dici, quod sententias habeat Catone dignas.
  • (110) Perraud 1988, 90; Cherchi 1998, 55.
  • (111) Erasmus 1538, 3: Sed interim clamabit vitiligator aliquis: hui Theologum tam frivolis versari nugis? Primum ego nichil fastidiendum duco, quantumvis humile, quod ad bonas pertinet literas, nedum hosce versus, tanta Romani sermonis munditie, tamque ad bonos mores conducibiles. Quanquam cur me pudeat in hoc genere paulas horas collocare, in quo non pauci scriptotes Graeci non mediocri cum laude sunt versati?
  • (112) Further on this humanist theme, Chomart 1981, 234-237.
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