Where it is good, there is my country
Sporen van Erasmus

Erasmus' traces
Episode 4: Belgium

Where it is good, there is my country
Ubi bene, ibi patria

...Erasmus is rightly seen as the great, and perhaps the last, personification of European integrity. He travelled all over Europe, addressed all of Europe, was weighed down by the problems of all of Europe, and was honoured and consulted all over Europe. The approaching conflict that threatened Europe oppressed him more than most of his contemporaries. Face to face with this conflict he tried, unsuccessfully, to preserve and rescue the European spirit, the European consciousness and European tradition.... Those were Vaclav Havel's words with which he praised Erasmus in a speech of thanks after he had been awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1986.

The first European Erasmus has been called, he himself aspired to world citizenship. What people had in common was more important to Erasmus than what distinguished them, European dimensions were more important than national, and what was universally human should count for more than patriotic sentiments. Europe as a moral concept, as a totally un-egocentric and spiritual claim. This is how Stefan Zweig described Erasmus' concept of Europe in the biography published in 1934. Humanism was the cause of the fact that Europe, for the first time in its history, derived its importance and it mission from the spiritual; it wanted to create a Western civilisation that could serve as an example to the rest of the world, and Europe had chosen Erasmus as its flag-bearer. A flag-bearer who was a favourite of the great and the powerful of this earth, Zweig continues: ....Emperors and kings, princes and dukes, ministers and scholars, popes and prelates vied with each other for Erasmus' goodwill: Emperor Charles, lord of both worlds, offered him a place on his Council, Henry VIII wanted him to live in England, Ferdinand of Austria in Vienna, and Francois I in Paris.....

But Erasmus appreciated his moral independence, and to him politics was subservient to ethics. He was prepared to work as a political adviser at the Brussels court in the service of Charles V. It was for him that he wrote The Education of a Christian Prince and to whom he was to dedicate, later on, his Lament of Peace. But at the same time he wanted to keep a certain distance, so he went to live in Louvain and not in Brussels. Nor was he prepared to curry favour with his patrons, in fact he flattered none of the world leaders...., as one of his biographers puts it. Huizinga saw Erasmus as politically naïve, a totally a-political spirit. He stood too much outside reality, and his ideas about the possibilities of improving people were too naïve to realise what the problems and the demands of government might be.
The question is whether Huizinga was right. Many other people have claimed the opposite: that Erasmus was perfectly well aware of the political realities of his time. He had a sharp eye for the social injustice with which he was confronted on his frequent travels, and he regularly pronounced political views that were remarkably progressive for his day and age. Some of those were not to become reality until the twentieth century: education for all, strongly progressive tax rates, institutional care for the needy, and violent opposition against colonialism: ....Colonialism was nothing else but theft under the guise of Christianity....

Zweig showed much more intuitive understanding for Erasmus' dilemma, and it was with good reason that he wrote a book about him in 1934. He sensed that Europe was heading for a great tragedy, and knew that no matter how clearly he saw what was going on, there was nothing he could do about it.
...it is always the one who is destined by fate to be the loser who appeals to me in my biographies; not the person who is successful in reality, but he who turns out to be right in a moral sense... wrote Zweig in Yesterday's World and in doing so he touched on the essence of Erasmus' relationship to politics. Erasmus, too, was fully aware of the political tragedies of his time, such as the imminent schism in the Church, a Church that was closely interwoven with politics. But he was not after political power himself, that was not in his character. He lacked the toughness that it takes and it would go against the gentleness of his mental make-up, that preferred harmony to conflict. He devoted himself to his task with all his talents. With great eloquence, in spoken and written form, he addressed the powers that be in his time. And perhaps because they took so little notice of his words, Erasmus took care like no one else, that his writings could reach as many people as possible. Erasmus believed in the power of words.

Words had to be presented with style and elegance to be all the more effective. He is sensitive to the magic of words ...quotations are with him never a pretext or padding, but a deliberate choice to elucidate and strengthen the argument. His prose is elegant and melodious. He juggles with assonance and alliterations and makes use of sound repetitions... He achieves unexpected effects by the accumulation or juxtaposition of words, by using diminutives, by the balanced composition of his clauses, and sentences that complement each other, thus wrote Erasmus' biographer Halkin about his literary style. But Erasmus was first and foremost concerned with content. In the Dialogus Ciceronianus, published in 1528, Bulephorus or Erasmus' alter ego, says: Let us first take care of what we want to say, and only then of how we are going to say it, let us fit the words to the case, and not the other way round, and when we speak, let us never lose sight of what befits the subject. A discourse only comes to life if it comes from the heart and not flows from the lips... To hide your inner self, your motives is dishonest, like a painting that represents a person not as he is, but as he would like to be, is totally ridiculous

This fourth episode highlights Erasmus' relationship with politics, his cosmopolitanism which has little time for national identities, and his particular idea of European unity, a res publica of letters, and Christianity. Letters, the bonae litterae, as Erasmus called them, had a much wider meaning then; they included all of human culture with its aesthetic, ethical, intellectual and moral values. The links with the present are obvious. The area of tension between European unity, national identity, and rapidly spreading nationalism is one of the main and most difficult problems of our times. The newspapers make daily mention of the lack of moral stature of politicians and the pomp and circumstance of political power. The Europe that is being shaped, is an economic Europe with the Euro as its shining symbol. A Europe in which human values and cultural aspects are the binding factors, is as yet no subject of discussion.