Politics & Policy

Two Roadside Abductions

From a portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger
From ethics to “enlightenment” — and back again?

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.

#page#Like Erasmus, Sade used narrative to teach philosophical lessons. “Philosophical literature” in 18th-century France came to mean obscenity, blasphemy, and transgression with an alluring spice of rationalizing immoralism, a bad tradition now flourishing everywhere in our pornotopian print and audio-visual culture. He too tells an abduction story (which another kind reader will help me to locate).

After a day’s work in the fields for her uncle, a pretty teenaged girl is late in leaving her relatives’ house in the countryside to walk back to her own home in the tiny nearby village. As the sun is near setting, her aunt and uncle offer her a bed for the night, but she prefers to get home to her parents: There is some daylight left, it is not a long way, and in any case she knows the unlighted road by heart. It is less than an hour’s walk. She sets off.

After 20 minutes, along the road from the town comes an elegant coach-and-six with grand lanterns; there are boisterous voices coming from within. One of the aristocratic passengers is sitting by the driver, drinking from a bottle of wine and enjoying the sunset. He spies the girl and immediately orders the driver and postillion to stop the horses. Hailing his aristocratic friends inside, he jumps down and addresses them: “Look what we have found!”

Gleefully abducting the girl, binding and gagging her, the six noblemen return to their remote castle (the lurid but boring novelist Sade loves remote castles, with lock and key). They order and consume a grand dinner, then dismiss the servants, lock the doors, drag forth the terrified girl, and then proceed to gang-rape her. After having their pleasure, they leave her lying on the floor in the corner, bleeding and with her clothes in rags. They proceed to drink and sing at the well-lit and well-furnished table, regaling each other with stories and jokes, paying little attention to the wounded girl, except to keep her distant from the locked doors. Her future is ominous.

Finally there is a lull in their hilarity, and the girl, now leaning her bruised body against the wall, says in a clear voice: “Just tell me this: How could you do this to a fellow creature? Why would you do this to a fellow creature?”

Rising from the table with his wine glass in hand, the aristocrat who had first seen her on the road and then led the way in abducting her advances to the battered figure. Reflectively he asks: “How could we do this to a fellow creature? We are many and strong; you are one and weak. Why would we do this? It pleased us very much. Do you have any other questions?” Utterly exhausted and demoralized, the girl remains silently sobbing.

Erasmus had worried about what his contemporary Rabelais called “science sans conscience,” science (or even just knowledge) without conscience or ethics, as the dehumanizing “ruin of the soul.” Erasmus’s fable is an edifying homily.

Sade has understood the logical terminus ad quem of modern “enlightened” naturalism, and he does not disapprove of it: A “rational” person has no grounds for disapproving of it and would be a fool to do so. Indicative statements of fact and assertions of personal appetite are valid; moral statements are merely subjective, foolish, and superstitious, “mere words.” Nature is “red in tooth and claw,” and so is the “trousered ape” who is its offspring. “Natura devorans,” nature is a devourer; “Homo homini lupus,” man is the wolfish devourer of other men. The “force or fraud” that Dante abhorred are the criminal implications. Machiavelli’s cynical choice — “Will you be wolf or sheep? fox or chicken?” — was regarded as a marginal and criminal view in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and for a long time thereafter. Authorities far beyond the Church at least paid lip-service and often sincerely engaged in literary and artistic celebrations of ethics, the Good (summum bonum), and God. Architects, painters, sculptors, and writers from Dante to Shakespeare, and even from Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Dickens to Tennyson and Longfellow, were first and foremost moralists. Chaucer’s Oxford scholar is lovingly described:

      The tone of moral virtue filled his speech;

      And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.

Even if he is a bit fonder of his Aristotle than of his Psalter, Chaucer’s poor scholar loves both and sees them as continuous and harmonious: truth and goodness as both real; prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude (the classical virtues) and faith, hope, and loving-kindness (the Christian virtues) as authoritative. “We see and approve the good,” and although weakness of will often makes us “follow the bad” (deteriora sequor), we do not doubt that the Good is real and should be praised and followed. As Samuel Johnson and C. S. Lewis (and the writers of The Federalist) said, we ought not to be so grossly ignorant of human nature as to take its delinquency and weakness as discrediting ethics and civilization themselves. That way lies “the ruin of the soul” — and of the state.

Sade’s world is very different, his legacy prophetic and nihilistic and now part of the toxic cultural climate of opinion. The worst applications of Darwinism have augmented Sade’s rock-bottom cynicism and that of Max Stirner (“Ego Deus mihi” — I am God to myself) and Nietzsche. Is it any wonder that the noble renegade Darwinian paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), following Thomas Henry Huxley’s late moral recantation in Evolution and Ethics (1893),  “hated sociobiology” and scientific hubris (Kim Sterelny)? Gould believed in and argued for the authority of the traditional dualism of two “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), scientific and moral-religious, and he ended his oddly pro-Catholic book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999) with a nonsectarian but moving invocation of the “Word” of St. John’s Gospel.

As the distinguished anti-materialistic Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has recently written, “Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of Enron, a corporation noted for its greed and predatory behavior, said that his favorite book was [Richard Dawkins’s] The Selfish Gene, and the selfish-gene theory was a major part of Enron’s corporate culture until the company collapsed in 2001. Skilling, who is serving a long jail sentence, interpreted neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good even for its victims, because it weeded out losers and forced survivors to become strong.” In this regard, at least, the thinking of Nazis and Ayn Rand is in the same dismal swamp.

In Rocks of Ages, the evolutionist Gould gave an ambivalent portrait of the noble democratic reformer William Jennings Bryan’s last battle, against the teaching of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Far from mocking Bryan, he described him not only as having an ambiguous religious “passion,” but (like Richard Hofstadter) also credited him with admirable “compassion” for democracy, ethics, and civilization itself in their titanic struggle with scientific reductionism, intellectual snobbery, elite self-interest, eugenics, and Social Darwinism. A great evolutionary scientist himself, Gould hated “science worshippers” (Kim Sterelny) like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, with their brutal, reductive fantasies about “selfish genes.” The contrast and point of the two abduction stories would not have been lost on Gould. Nor should they be on us. We may hope, as the English political philosopher John Gray recently wrote, that “the neo-Darwinian theories that proliferate at the present time will surely prove to be as misguided as those that flourished in late Victorian times.”

— M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) is professor emeritus of education at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, and a widely published writer. His previously published essays “C. S. Lewis on Mere Science” and “C. S. Lewis, Scientism, and the Battle of the Books” were reprinted in The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West (Discovery Institute, 2012).



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