The Small Crucifixion

Painting of the day:

Matthias Grunewald
The Small Crucifixion
~ 1511-1520
National Gallery of Art

Published in: on August 14, 2012 at 10:12 am  Comments (1)  

On Erasmus

by César Tort

While writing my entry about Kenneth Clark’s chapter on “Protest and Communication” I promised to say something about Erasmus.

When I was a boy I heard of Erasmus and imagined that his book was about something altogether different, like praising so-called “mad” people in a world gone mad. Later, still before reading him, I imagined Erasmus was a great humanist who saw the madness of the religious wars of his time.

I was not prepared in the slightest to find out that Erasmus himself was pretty much part of civilizational madness. When in 1996 I hit Clark’s page 146 of Civilisation I was moved to purchase the excellent 1993 Penguin edition of Praise of Folly totally unsuspecting of what the contents really were. A few days after I wrote on the book’s cover that Erasmus disappointed me; that, contrary to what I had expected, he did not see the folly of his age but was a fool himself.

This said, A.H.T. Levi’s Penguin introduction to Praise of Folly is worth reading, and precisely on page xlii of Levi’s introduction I was shocked to learn that no one in the whole Middle Ages had questioned Christian “truths.”

Instead of challenging the accepted wisdom, I found in Erasmus’ other works scholastic discussions about whether or not the ancient Greeks and Romans would be saved… from eternal torment! Gruenwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece painting in the times when Erasmus published his book depicts the spirit of those still dark ages far better than any scholastic treatise.

Erasmus is truly an Alien for the people of our time. The problems he struggled with in his soul—he never considered his Praise of Folly his most important book—are infinitely distant from the problems that overwhelm us today. His worldview is dead except for those who, like me, were tormented by our parents with doctrines of eternal punishment.

Erasmus was the most famous humanist of the so-called “Northern Renaissance,” a man in touch with all leading princes and scholars of the time. Many consider him the central figure of the intellectual world of what, to my mind, was a pseudo-Renaissance (the real intellectual Renaissance would only begin with Montaigne). How could the “Northern Renaissance” be compared to the Italian Renaissance when its most emblematic intellectual, like Thomas à Kempis, was an Augustinian canon that took Pauline folly as a panegyric to Christian piety? Erasmus, who was deeply shocked before the pagan atmosphere of Julius II’s Rome, probably decided to publish Praise of Folly precisely to support the growing opposition to Julius in France. When the art of Michelangelo and Raphael were conquering the soul of Rome, Erasmus went as far as recommending a return to scripture and the so-called “Fathers”: Origen, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, and his Greek New Testament was in fact more feared by the Church than his Praise of Folly.

Do you remember the image that Clark chose to depict St Francis in a previous entry: Jacquemart de Hesdin’s The Fool? In Erasmus’ most famous book, women, “admittedly stupid and foolish creatures,” are Folly’s pride. Erasmus takes a surprisingly modern, “liberal” position about the role of women in society. Since Folly praises ignorance and lunacy, Erasmus reasons, women must be instrumental for the Christian cause. In his book Folly is only interested in following the example of Jesus, the exemplar of charitable simplicity against the budding intellectualism of the sixteenth century. The fact that Erasmus took St Paul’s “praise of folly” against the best minds St Paul encountered in Athens speaks for itself and needs no further comment.

It doesn’t take a great intellectual effort to recognize that the so-called Northern Renaissance was set against the real Renaissance of Italy, which had fallen in love with our genuine, Greco-Roman roots. Erasmus et al’s “optimist” discussions around the subject of the predestination of both the elect and the damned represent a clear regression to the world of Dante of two hundred years before. How could Erasmus’ work that discusses whether or not a personal God “predestined” some of us to an eternity of torture be called “Renaissance” by any stretch of imagination? It is true that, in Erasmus’ century, the current theology was Pelagian rather than Augustinian, in the sense that we were supposed to be allowed to earn salvation by our own efforts. But this is altogether medieval, not modern, thinking.

To understand Erasmus one must remember the bestsellers of his time. The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues, composed in 680 C.E. and translated to all known vernaculars, reinforced in the faithful what priests used to call “a salutary fear of hell.” The book clearly implied that hell was eternal and that the soul, though spiritual, suffered physically from burning. Dante himself drew heavily from the Dialogues “and its influence on popular piety was greater that that of any other single work of piety in the history of western Christendom.”

See the above detail of Gruenwald’s painting, a blond girl praying. Visualize yourself one moment living under the sky of Erasmus’ age. Visualize yourself trapped in the Church dogma and struggling with the terrible discussion about whether the ancient Greeks could possibly be “justified”—a nasty Lutheran word inspired in Augustine—and thus saved.

For the so-called humanists of Erasmus’ time this dilemma was all too serious theological business, and they rationalized their wishes to save the “pagans” after the recent discoveries of Indian “souls” in America, who had no opportunity to receive the gospel through no fault of their own. That such doctrines represented a slight advance from Augustine’s “pessimism” (cf. Erasmus’ treatise against Luther, On Free Will and Luther’s reply, On Unfree Will) will never refute the fact that Erasmus and his ilk were chained in the trappings of medieval thought.

I was moved to write this entry because all westerners, including white nationalists, have forgotten what was living under Christendom like. With the exception of the final section of my Hojas Susurrantes, no contemporary writer that I know—no one—has said something real about the horrors of the infinitely nut doctrine of eternal damnation, and how the fear of perdition was so central for the medieval mind. On the contrary, modern westerners seem to retroproject their own healthy mental states and never wonder about the subjective horrors that millions upon millions of whites endured during the Dark Ages as a result of such doctrine. (See how the fourth section of my book prepares the reader’s mind for the horrible subject of damnation discussed in my 5th.)

In his antichristian interview of Alex Linder, Guessedworker stated that Christianity was not chosen but imposed on the white race, and that this is fairly relevant to understand the whys of our current mad world.

I believe that Guessedworker is spot on, and that sooner or later conservative nationalists will have to give up Christianity in our endeavors to save our race not from hell, which doesn’t exist, but from extinction.


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