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Adages III iv 1 to IV ii 100. Vol. 35 of Collected Works of Erasmus.

Erasmus, Desiderius. Adages III iv 1 to IV ii 100. Vol. 35 of Collected Works of Erasmus.

Ed. John N. Grant. Trans. Denis L. Drysdall. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005. xii + 592 pp. tbls. bibl. $150. ISBN: 0-8020-3643-0.

Erasmus, Desiderius. Expositions of the Psalms. Vol. 64 of Collected Works of Erasmus.

Ed. Dominic Baker-Smith. Trans. Emily Kearns, Caroline White, and Michael J. Heath. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005. xv + 416 pp. index. illus. bibl. $150. ISBN: 0-8020-3584-1.

Both these volumes are continuations of works in a series. Adages III iv 1 to IV ii 100 (CWE 35) is the fifth of seven volumes to be published in a critical English translation based largely on the work of Sir Roger Mynors before his untimely death in 1989. I have reviewed in these pages three of the four volumes published earlier: CWE 32 (RQ 43, no. 2, 1990: 396-97), CWE 33 (RQ 46, no. 2, 1993: 394-95), and CWE 34 (RQ 47, no. 4, 1994: 992-93). Expositions of the Psalms (CWE 64) is the second of three volumes to be published in that project. The first I discussed in an earlier review that also included other volumes: CWE 63 (RQ 54, no. 1, 2001: 246-51 at 249-50). Both these volumes come to us as finely crafted as others in the CWE, and both have had the advantage of the publication of the corresponding volumes in the Amsterdam (ASD) Opera Omnia: for the Adages, 2.7-8 (also discussed in my review in RQ 54, no. 1, 2001: 246-51); and for the Exposition of the Psalms, V.3.

In the volumes under review we see the two critically important sides of Erasmus, the educator in the Adages and the preacher-reformer in the Expositions of the Psalms. The first presents the classical, the other the Christian tradition. In Erasmus, as in Renaissance humanism preceding him, the two were brought together for the last time in Western history. His conviction that they belonged together and his vast project to bring this about led to his vilification in his own time and later; the long path to his rehabilitation began in earnest only in the twentieth century, perhaps in part out of nostalgia for his project, long since (and perhaps permanently) abandoned.

Erasmus published the Adages in three major editions (1500, 1508, 1515). Though he added comments in subsequent editions, the augmentation from 818 to 3,260 to 4,251 adages was achieved by 1515. The difference between the 1500 and 1508 editions is the inclusion of Greek writers (Erasmus had just begun the study of Greek in 1500); the 1515 edition includes nine long essays that have often been published separately and that deal with questions of political and social reform. We could say, in contemporary terms, that the 1500 edition was his tenure book, the 1508 edition his full professor book, and the 1515 edition his distinguished chair book, for by then he had become the most famous intellectual in Europe. Throughout, Erasmus is the educator, but his outreach becomes increasingly extensive. This volume reflects the features of all three editions. Most of his explanations-commentaries are brief, as in the 1500 edition. One extended section in this volume, added in 1508, consists of phrases from Homer that Erasmus says may be regarded as proverbs and were probably treated as such in the ancient world, though they are no longer so regarded. These fill more than a hundred pages (281-383). And two of the longer essays fall in the section of the Adages covered by this volume: "A dung-beetle hunting an eagle" (178-214) and "War is a treat for those who have not tried it" (399-440). In the first of these, present in the 1508 edition but significantly augmented in 1515, Erasmus describes the eagle (rulers, 178-99) and the beetle (the weak but cunning, 199-206), then the cause of enmity between them (206-13). The story teaches that no enemy is to be despised, no matter how humble. The second essay on war was added in the 1515 edition and was often published thereafter as a separate treatise. The major cause of war, Erasmus asserts, is that men believe or pretend that they are doing good while they commit evil (whether intentionally or not). Of course, Erasmus was writing as a Christian, and there has never been a "Christian ruler" as he describes one--indeed, the phrase itself is an oxymoron: "If Christ is merely a story, why do we not frankly spurn it? Why do we glory in his name? If he is really 'the way, the truth and the life' why is there such a difference between this model and our whole way of thinking?" (438).

In the CWE Erasmus's Exposition of the Psalms follows a chronological order rather than the order of the Psalms (which the ASD follows). In CWE 63 Dominic Baker-Smith (the editor of both these volumes) provides a long introduction to Erasmus's exegetical practice related specifically to his Psalms commentaries. In that volume Erasmus's commentaries on the first four Psalms appears in order, as if he perhaps intended a commentary on all the Psalms, a task John Langland, Bishop of Lincoln--to whom the first five of his commentaries are dedicated--urged on him. Only his exposition of Psalm 1 preceded Luther's Reformation (it was published in 1515). His commentaries on Psalms 2-4 appeared between 1522 and 1525. The four Psalms, commentaries on which are published here (85, 22, 28, 33), appeared between August 1528 and February 1531, and make it clear that Erasmus did not intend to write a full commentary on the Psalms (for which, as he says, he would have needed to know Hebrew). The final three commentaries appeared during the last five years of Erasmus's life, the last in 1536, the year of his death. It was during the period of all these commentaries that Erasmus was busy publishing editions of the Church Fathers: Jerome (1516, rev. ed. 1529), Cyprian (1520), Arnobius and Athanasius (1522), Hilary (1523), Irenaeus (1526, editio princeps), Ambrose (1527), Augustine (1528-29), Chrysostom (1530, Latin translation), Basil (1532, editio princeps of Greek edition), and Origen (1536, published posthumously). Their presence is palpable throughout, though Erasmus develops his own positions in relation to all of them.

Erasmus published Hyperaspistes in 1527, his conclusive rejection of Luther's doctrine of the bound will. But his commentaries on Psalms 22 and 33 avoid confrontation and use language that anticipates the double-justification doctrine that became the basis for an attempted theological reconciliation at the Colloquy of Regensberg in 1541. In his commentary on Psalm 22, Erasmus writes: "Righteousness is of two kinds, the first being the innocence to which we are restored through faith and baptism and the second the righteousness of faith working through love" (152; see n. 194 on the same page).

During these years also Europe was threatened with invasion by the Turks. In 1526 Suleiman I (1520-66) defeated King Louis of Hungary in the battle of Mohacs and in 1529 advanced on Vienna, though he abandoned the siege on 16 October. Erasmus's commentary on Psalm 28 is an exposition of the Turkish war, which, however, focuses more on deficiencies in Christian attitudes and practices than it does on the Turks (in keeping with the views he expressed in the two adages discussed above).

Classical scholar, preacher, and theologian: it was a rare accomplishment even during the Renaissance, and almost nonexistent now. Erasmus reminds us of one of the worlds we have lost. But he also connects us to traditions that--however fragmented--are still alive among us, and reading him enables us to rediscover our roots, at the same time renegotiating them.


State University of New York, College at Old Westbury, Emeritus
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Title Annotation:Collected Works of Erasmus: Expositions of the Psalms
Author:Rabil, Albert, Jr.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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