Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Russell's History of Western Philosophy

"Two men, Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, will serve as exemplars of the northern Renaissance. They were close friends, and had much in common. Both were learned, though More less so than Erasmus; both despised the scholastic philosophy;... Neither Erasmus nor More was a philosopher in the strict sense of the word"
He was for a time at the University of Paris, but found nothing there that was of profit to himself. The university had had its great days, from the beginning of scholasticism to Gerson and the conciliar movement, but now the old disputes had become arid. Thomists and Scotists, who jointly were called the Ancients, disputed against Occamists, who were called the Terminists, or Moderns. At last, in 1482, they were reconciled, and made common cause against the humanists, who were making headway in Paris outside university circles. Erasmus hated the scholastics, whom he regarded as superannuated and antiquated. He mentioned in a letter that, as he wanted to obtain the doctor's degree, he tried to say nothing either graceful or witty. He did not really like any philosophy, not even Plato and Aristotle, though they, being ancients, had to be spoken of with respect....

The men of the Renaissance had an immense curiosity; "these minds," says Huizinga, "never had their desired share of striking incidents, curious details, rarities and anomalies." But at first they sought these things, not in the world, but in old books. Erasmus was interested in the world, but could not digest it in the raw: it had to be dished up in Latin or Greek before he could assimilate it. Travellers' tales were discounted, but any marvel in Pliny was believed. Gradually, however, curiosity became transferred from books to the real world; men became interested in the savages and strange animals that were actually discovered, rather than in those described by classical authors. Caliban comes from Montaigne, and Montaigne's cannibals come from travellers. "The anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders" had been seen by Othello, not derived from antiquity....

And so the curiosity of the Renaissance, from having been literary, gradually became scientific. Such a cataract of new facts overwhelmed men that they could, at first, only be swept along with the current. The old systems were evidently wrong; Aristotle's physics and Ptolemy's astronomy and Galen's medicine could not be stretched to include the discoveries that had been made. Montaigne and Shakespeare are content with confusion: discovery is delightful, and system is its enemy. It was not till the seventeenth century that the system building faculty caught up with the new knowledge of matters of fact. All this, however, has taken us far from Erasmus, to whom Columbus was less interesting than the Argonauts.

Erasmus was incurably and unashamedly literary. He wrote a book, Enchiridion militis christiani, giving advice to illiterate soldiers: they were to read the Bible, but also Plato, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. He made a vast collection of Latin proverbs, to which, in later editions, he added many in Greek; his original purpose was to enable people to write Latin idiomatically. He wrote an immensely successful book of Colloquies, to teach people how to talk in Latin about every-day matters, such as a game of bowls. This was, perhaps, more useful than it seems now. Latin was the only international language, and students at the University of Paris came from all over Western Europe. It may have often happened that Latin was the only language in which two students could converse.
And in a footnote: “As regards the life of Erasmus, I have mainly followed the excellent biography by Huizinga.”

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