The adages of Erasmus often provide philosophical and religious insight with social and political commentary. It is stunning how relevant many of the adages are to our own time.

The Adages of Erasmus, compiled by William Barker (University of Toronto Press, 2001, 384 pages)

Reading wisdom literature in any age is wise. Reading wise sayings in a foolish age will mark one quickly as a contrarian, but being wise where folly is as pervasive as oxygen is essential for survival. Of all the gifts that Desiderius Erasmus passed on to western civilization, his collection of adages (The Adages of Erasmus), useful sayings, ranks among his least known, but most esteemed in his day. While not all adages are wise sayings, there is much wisdom in his labor. Even in Erasmus’s day, Niccolo Sagundino, wrote about them, “I can hardly say what a sweet nectar as honey I sip from your delightful Adages, rich source of nectar as they are. What lovely flowers of every mind I gather thence like a honey-bee….to their perusal I have devoted two hours a day.”

The Adages can be enjoyed along with Erasmus’s Praise of Folly and Colloquies. The work demonstrates the unique genius of this prince of the Christian humanists. It demonstrates his scholarship and imaginative wit as he reflects on a range of Greek and Roman sources. An additional value of the adages is that Erasmus often provides philosophical and religious insight with social and political commentary. It is stunning how relevant many of the adages are to our own time. Maybe it should not surprise us that this is true because human nature, being what it is, will produce scenarios where leaders and citizens are acting out the same comedy of errors as our human ancestors. Here are just a handful of the more than 4,000.

  • To drive out one nail with another (on how solving problems may occur when placed next to similar problems)
  • So many men, so many opinions (think “know it all pundits” and this one has modern application)
  • You write in water (before there was a Tweet, which gave new meaning to wasting time, this adage conveyed that very notion)
  • You are building on the sand (the call to seriously consider where we place our hope and confidence)
  • The blind leading the blind (take virtually any political issue and this proverb comes alive)
  • One swallow does not a summer make (a rousing call for character formation)
  • To exact tribute from the dead (before the “death tax,” an indictment against usury and taxation)
  • Time reveals all things (offering hope that even the follies of our moment will one day be revealed)

Erasmus says that there are a number of things knowledge of proverbs provides but he highlights four things that knowledge of the adages may contribute to those who read and meditate on these maxims: “philosophy, persuasion, grace and charm in speaking, and understanding the best authors.” To make the case that anyone seeking wisdom would indeed benefit from reading this work, here are just a few things that Erasmus says about two of the wisest words ever uttered, “Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess.” In the various contexts of the phrase “know thyself,” Erasmus infers this saying as a recommendation for “moderation and the middle state, and bids us not to pursue objects either too great for us or beneath us…to recognize our own blessings.” Regarding “Nothing in Excess,” Erasmus concludes that “there is nothing in the whole world in which one cannot go wrong by excess, except love of God, as Aristotle too admits in different words, putting wisdom in the place of God.”

Republished with gracious permission from Musings of a Christian Humanist.

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*All quotations taken from The Adages of Erasmus Selected by William Barker. University of Toronto Press, 2001.

The featured image is a portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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