Remembering humanism

Erasmus makes an adequate hero for the adolescent boy. He was mine, for a time, even more than his friend Thomas More, who was forced on our consciousness in the late ‘sixties by Robert Bolt’s play-cum-movie (A Man for All Seasons). We were all herded from the High School to the Cinema, and rolled home in our yellow schoolbus full of something — youthful idealism — that could then be applied to various dubious causes. There was this Penguin with the title, Utopia. Without reading it, even in this pop translation, we became wise in our conceit, which is to say, conceited little wiseacres. I don’t “look back in anger,” however. That was for the ‘fifties. I look back through a fog of marijuana smoke, from the Age of Hippies.

Drugs saved us. Had it not been for them, we might have accomplished worse horrors. By the ‘seventies, when a new nadir was being established for Western Civ, another, visibly duller generation was coming along. Ours was the first to be perpetually schooled (I would not say “educated”). I left high school, home and Canada, in the year of grace 1969, now half a century ago; and when I returned to settle in the 1980s, I found my old schoolmates still in college. To be fair, at least some were homemakers by then, or garage mechanics. It was so long ago that this word, “homemakers,” could still be used without feminist “irony,” if you came from a small town.

But the Erasmus who had appealed to me, as teenager, was the author of the Colloquies, and the Praise of Folly (a keepsake from his friendship with More). I imagined him gentle, humorous, wise, yet full of righteous fire. Too, apparently, a bit of a whiner. I was dazzled by his production of the first printed edition of the Greek Testament, and did not yet realize that it was a slapdash performance, rushed to beat the version of Cardinal Ximenes, already set in type but not yet bound — a proof that there is nothing new under the sun.

Erasmus’ obsessive struggle against the reputation of Saint Jerome, whose central rôle in the history of our Vulgate he tried to deny, and whom he presumptuously corrected on innumerable points — himself straying in and out of heresy — ended in repeated embarrassments for him. But to my adolescent mind, he must always be the hero, beating furiously against the hidebound.

The very image of prestige: the great Humanists of the Renaissance, including that extraordinary Franciscan friar; the Golden Age of Spain; reformers and pedagogues from Vives to Comenius; that cosy circle in England, painted — almost photographed — by Holbien. It was where Erasmus had mixed with More, Fisher, Colet, Mountjoy, Archbishop Warham and the young fellow who would be his successor, one Thomas Cranmer. In my imagination, I saw them gathered in a pub: pewter mugs and a grand blazing hearth.

There was a woman in the background. There always is. She was Catherine of Aragon, exported from Spain as a royal child, and beloved by her English subjects whenas she became their Queen. She’d earned this for her tireless works in poor relief, and for a memorable appeal to English courage before the Battle of Flodden. She was also patroness to the Humanist scholars, herself the impressively learned companion of More and Erasmus and all their kind.

Of course, there is something else she is remembered for: being discarded by her husband, Henry VIII, so he could marry that gorgeous young tart, Anne Boleyn, and incidentally appropriate the resources of the Catholic Church. But she should also be recalled as one of the great women of that or any age, and as the pioneering figure in the Humanist campaign for the education of women.

When we say “Humanism” today we are invariably talking blithering nonsense. The actual Humanist tradition was, like Erasmus himself, a mixed blessing, and finally a disaster. Our modern, atheist, “humanist” creed is, by contrast, unmixed: a contumacious disaster from beginning to end. It carries none of the sincerity and well-intended zeal of the late mediaeval reformers, who were dedicated not to the overthrow of the Church, but to her renovation. They were more, not less, eager to enforce her morals, her faith, her splendour; to exalt her Christ. Only their vanity stood in their way.