Two Roadside Abductions
From ethics to “enlightenment” — and back again?

From a portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger


Somewhere in the voluminous works of that witty, orthodox Christian-humanist scholar-satirist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) there is an edifying tale (a kind reader will remind me exactly where it may be found) about a roadside abduction. A medical doctor and his learned young assistant and understudy are driving a wagon through wild countryside distant from their town, returning from medical business in a remote castle. Along the same road some hours before has come a “wandering scholar,” a foreigner, down on his luck, drably clad, weak, and poorly fed.

In the Middle Ages (and much later) many such scholars (non-tenured professors, in modern parlance) wandered the roads of Europe, looking for employment as tutor to some middle-class worthy in his comfortable urban house or some aristocrat in his castle or palace; they would teach Latin and the other elements of a basic education to the young bourgeois or aristocratic children in return for room, board, and a small stipend. Like teaching in humanistic fields today, it was not a way to make much of a living — they had little security and low pay — but there were too many students who had studied what they loved in the university (with or without taking a degree) and far too few permanent teaching posts. The bastard child Erasmus was himself such a wandering scholar in his youth, though he later became the most famous humanist of his day and, sometimes under pseudonyms, an influential writer. His The Praise of Folly (1509) was one of the best-selling and most influential books of the European Renaissance, written and read in Latin from Ireland to Sicily and from Spain to Poland.

But only the powerful top tenth of the social triangle could read or write at all, and what they usually read, and often spoke, was Latin (it is likely that the restless, mobile Erasmus himself, despite living and studying in Italy, never spoke Italian). Latin was the lingua franca of the “res publica christiana” and “the republic of letters” that was Europe in the era before the establishment of the national languages that went hand in hand with the vernacular translations of the Bible, which in the long term had so much to do with creating, during and after the Protestant Reformation, mass literacy, the nation-state, and modern nationalism itself, for good and ill.

Thus, in Erasmus’s tale, the medical men in the wagon had Latin, though they might speak it only in professional contexts or when they wished to impress, deceive, or elude vernacular auditors (rather like Eastern European Jews speaking Yiddish among Germans or Poles). So too did the wandering scholar speak and understand Latin, though nothing in his shabby, threadbare dress would indicate this fact, or that he was a scholar at all. In fact, the scholar was so far down on his luck that he was starving and had passed out in a ditch by the side of the road. His small bag, with a piece of identification, a few small scripts, and a few coins, had already been stolen by a passerby. He was far from home, unknown to anyone, exhausted, and near death from hunger and exposure.

The medical men (whose tribe was often suspected in the Middle Ages of being atheists) spotted him lying there and stopped to examine him. His mumbled replies to the doctor’s questions were in a language they did not know. The doctor said delightedly to his assistant, in a Latin they assumed the poor wretch could not understand, “What a piece of luck to find him!” They unceremoniously loaded the battered, inert scholar into the back of their wagon and proceeded to drive home to their town, conversing in Latin along the way. Their conversation took the following course: “This utterly worthless bastard is known by no one hereabouts — he doesn’t even speak our language and is probably a criminal on the run. By the look of him he has little time left. If we keep him for a bit, without nourishment, we can get an experimental cadaver.”

Now, the scholar, cold, hungry, and exhausted, was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he overheard enough of these whispered remarks and he was a good enough Latinist to understand them. He knew that he had not the energy either to escape or to fight, but he summoned all his strength to say something when the wagon reached the town and the drivers began to unload him.

As they did so, he summoned all his remaining force and said in good Latin, “Would you call any person whom God created ‘utterly worthless’?”

In Erasmus’s edifying tale, the doctor and his assistant immediately feel ashamed of their denial of the status of the “res sacra homo” — the sacred human object — to the poor scholar. They reassure him, gently carry him into the house, put him on a bed, cover him with a blanket, prepare hot soup for him, and gradually nurse him back to health. “Habeo conscientiam ergo humanus sum” — I have a conscience, therefore I am a human being.

Fast-forward about 300 years to another “philosophical” writer, one who has become a cult figure to “advanced” radical/libertine thinkers in France and all over the highly educated literary West, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814). Sade truly understood the implications of the naturalistic French “Enlightenment” of the 18th century, which had logically terminated in what the modern scholar Lester Crocker called “the nihilist dissolution” — the annihilation of all metaphysical, supernatural claims for reason, ethics, or the human person (Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment, 1963). Sade’s own obscene transgressions were driven by this logic, in which he was far from alone, as Aldous Huxley (“Ethics,” in Ends and Means, 1937), Louis Bredvold (The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, 1961), Robert Darnton (The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, 1995), Roger Shattuck (Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, 1996), and many other scholars have shown.


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