Live as if you were to die tomorrow, work as if you were to live forever
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Sporen van Erasmus

Erasmus' traces
Episode 5: Swiss

Live as if you were to die tomorrow, work as if you were to live forever
Sic vive, tanquam cras moriturus, sic stude, quasi semper victurus

As far as Basle is concerned, although I have very good friends here, the way I did not have them in Freiburg, I would, because of the religious disputes, prefer to end my life somewhere else. Oh, would that Brabant were closer!...
The last letter by Erasmus, dated 28 June 1536, from which the above quotation is taken, is one of the few instances of Erasmus giving voice to his wish to return to his native soil. He spent little time there, and apart from a few exceptions, was always extraordinarily critical. Yet the last words spoken on his deathbed by the man who had communicated in Latin all his life, were in Dutch: Lieve God. Dear God.

In other aspects, too, the last period in Erasmus' life differs from earlier ones. The larger part of his life he spent fighting poverty and he had to more or less beg the great and the rich of this earth for support to make ends meet. But towards the end of his life fame and success made him a wealthy man. Also he stopped travelling, though he always kept making plans for future journeys. From 1521 onwards he lived in Basle, which he left in 1529, not because he felt the urge to go somewhere else, but because he had to escape from the mounting religious quarrels. He did not move away very far, but went to Freiburg by boat, about 60 km north of Basle. And as soon as the coast was clear he returned, at the end of June 1535. A year later, in the night of 11 July 1536, he died in Basle.

The main incentive for Erasmus to settle in Basle was that one of the best printers of that period lived there: Froben. In those days printers were also publishers and their workshops were centres where the intellectual community would meet. Froben's printing office was more important for science than the University of Basle. Since his first stay in Basle in 1514 Erasmus had developed a close friendship with Johannes and Hieronymus Froben, father and son. Also in Basle Erasmus became friends with the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who painted most of Erasmus' portraits and illustrated The Praise of Folly with drawings.

Erasmus was a child of his time, a time of transition between Middle Ages and Renaissance. If letters were the main form of written communication in the Middle Ages, printing was the new medium that heralded the Renaissance. When Erasmus went to school as a child, in Deventer, a printed book was a rarity. During his lifetime the art of printing matured and Erasmus made use of the new medium more than any of his contemporaries. Books were his best friends. At the same time he kept writing letters and he is one of the most prolific letter writers Europe ever produced. He wrote thousands of letters, sometimes thirty or forty a day. Letter writing in those days was a kind of art form, and letters took the place of our newspapers and magazines. People were aware of the fact that other people than the addressees would read the letter. A good Latin letter was a precious possession, envied by others, as Huizinga pointed out, and there were few articles on the book market as coveted as letters by Erasmus. And no wonder. They were models of excellent style, quality Latin, humorous expressions and elegant scholarship.

Erasmus wrote more than 38 million words. He was the most widely read writer of his age and his words can still be found in printed form all over the world. Whether they are still read and to what extent, is another story. Erasmus was a media person avant la lettre.
A hidden talent brings no fame, he once wrote. Erasmus knew how to use the most important medium of his days, the printed word, to bring his talents to the fore, so much so that eternal fame was the inevitable result.

Books and communication are the main themes in this last episode, filmed mostly in Switzerland and Germany. In our times, too, we live in a transition period in which new media are emerging and books, according to some prophets of doom, are going to be supplanted. The art of printing in Erasmus' days is set against the background of the largest book fair in the world, the Frankfurt Buchmesse, which, by the way, already existed in Erasmus' days. Peter Weidhaas, director of the book fair in Frankfurt, tells us that Erasmus visited the fair several times. The Frankfurter Buchmesse is also a an excellent way of showing the emergence of the new media.

The fifth and last episode deals with the last period of Erasmus' life, his death and his legacy. Firstly his material legacy, which is kept in museums and in the special sections of libraries; but far more important is of course his immaterial legacy. The form in which Erasmus disseminated his words, ideas and thoughts leads us to the content, and to the question of what was the main importance of his ideas.

Stefan Zweig drew up the balance as follows in 1934: It will remain the fame of ...Erasmus to have paved the literary road in the world for the concept of humanitas, for this simplest and yet eternal idea that it is the highest task of man to become ever more humane, more spiritual and more understanding. And ten years earlier, Huizinga had written: Erasmus belongs ...to the great who are no longer read. He has become a name. ...Civilised man has reason to keep the memory of Erasmus' name alive, if only because he was the profoundly devoted preacher of the gentleness the world is still so sadly in need of

In our time Erasmus is still the embodiment of tolerance and humanism, and as such an inspiration for many people, among others the Swiss writer Frank Geerk: For decades Erasmus counted as the leader of a kind of humanist republic of scholars that covered all of Europe. For him, humanism was not just a frame of mind, ...for him it was connected with a politico-religious message, whose aim was an ethical renewal of Europe, not introduced with armed force, but with intelligence and tolerance. ...these views are in no way dated ...and very well suited to unleash emancipatory forces in the best sense of the word.
But our present-day humanism still, and perhaps even more so, comes up against the same dilemma that existed in Erasmus' days: how do you reconcile thought and action? What does humanism have to offer as a guiding principle for daily existence, and is it possible to create, with just kind-heartedness and words, a world in which everybody can be his own person?

The adage Festina Lente is an important source of inspiration for the last episode. Make haste slowly. Three words that are a contradiction in terms, one side of the coin, but an important element in the last episode. Erasmus attributed several meanings to the adage:
Look before you leap, but once a decision is taken, carry it out swiftly;
reason should harness the passion of the soul; anger benefits from delay;
things done well are done soon enough; more haste less speed; early fame is not right.

The adage found visual expression in the printer's mark of Aldus Manutius from Venice, who along with Froben was Erasmus' favourite printer/publisher. It consisted of a dolphin, symbol of speed and impetuosity, wrapping itself round an anchor, symbol of inertia, a period of reflection. Froben's printer's mark showed two snakes, rearing up against each other, who symbolise wisdom here, with a dove in between them representing innocence. Both printers are amply discussed by Erasmus in the commentary to the adage.

Snakes and dolphins are thus suitable animals for this episode, because they are so very opposed in character: the wise, but also vicious and devious snake, enemy of man, and the friendly, open, man-loving dolphin.