Happy Birthday, Erasmus!

Erasmus, from page 32 of The Century of Sir Thomas More by Benjamin Orange Flower, 1896, public domain via the British Library

Desiderius Erasmus (October 27, 1469 – July 12, 1536) was, by his own account, born in Rotterdam, Holland. His father was a priest and his mother the daughter of a physician, who, unsurprisingly, were not married. As a child of an illicit union, he had no apparent prospects for a successful worldly career, so he was initially educated for the life of a cleric. However, he was very unhappy during these early years of his education and training, feeling that the strict, narrowly constrained life didn’t suit him. Though he was ordained a priest, Erasmus later insisted he was pressured into doing so, likely because by that time he had long been an orphan of no means to speak of and so had no apparent alternative means of support.

Erasmus was, however, a very pious man, but in his own way. The Catholic Church, at this time, was seen by Erasmus and others of like mind as a decadent, corrupt, licentious institution in deep need of reform, as it had largely cast aside the pure, simple Christianity of its humble founder. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ reformist instincts did not ally him with those who wished to do away with the Catholic Church altogether: like his friend and protégé Thomas More, he saw the Church as a unified spiritual body that must be preserved. While he was sympathetic to Martin Luther’s impassioned and wholehearted rejection of ecclesiastical corruption, Erasmus rejected his views on the hopelessly sinful nature of humanity, so corrupt that goodness and redemption were dependent entirely on God’s grace. Erasmus contended that human beings had God-given free will, and thus were capable of goodness by exercising that will to choose good and reject evil. Erasmus also rejected Luther’s radical and wholesale rejection of the Church. Erasmus believed, rather, that reform would be achieved within its institutions by its conscientious members and through individual inner spiritual renewal, characterized by a life of love and humility in conjunction with a simple piety unconcerned with convoluted doctrines and earthly show.

Moriæ Encomium, or, In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, page from J. Woodward’s 1709 English translation

The Church, Erasmus believed, would also hugely benefit from a greater focus on secular and classical learning. After all, the human mind was one of God’s greatest creations, so the products of human intelligence deserved attention and reverence second only to sacred writ. Besides, secular scholarship could act as a valuable corrective to theologians’ tendencies to get so wrapped up in fine points of doctrine that their convoluted wranglings served only to confuse and confound the faithful. These convictions, and his long and successful career as a scholar and writer inspired by them, made Erasmus the godfather and patron saint, so to speak, of humanism. Erasmus did not invent that school of thought, but he created so many seminal works in that genre that his name has come to be nearly synonymous with humanism. A brilliant and deeply read scholar, Erasmus’ incredible body of work included annotated translations of classical Greek and Roman works; theological treatises; collections of proverbs and adages; works on aesthetics, style, and writing; voluminous correspondence with the most learned scholars of his time; and much, much more. Erasmus’ most widely known and popular work, however, remains his In Praise of Folly. However brilliant Erasmus was otherwise, he was unsurpassed as a satirist, and he used his cutting wit as a reformist tool, arguably more effective and memorable than his erudition and most eloquent argument.

Despite Erasmus’ disadvantageous start in life in other ways, he made the most of the education he was fortunate to receive. Over the course of his long life, his dissatisfaction with monastic and court life and restless curiosity drove him to create a career as a man of letters on his own terms, seeking patrons that allowed him a career of as much intellectual freedom as the times would allow. Erasmus is often a slippery character, and his motivations and true convictions are hard to pin down, by design. He was least as pragmatic as he was idealistic, and however sharp and potentially dangerous his religious and political satire, he deftly avoided getting himself in trouble in the turbulent and dangerous era he lived in. Not so Erasmus’ friend and protégé More, whose similarly sharp wit and lawyerly skill did not sufficiently counteract his religiosity enough to avoid the chopping block.

Learn more about the brilliant and witty Erasmus by following the links below. I’ve included selections about Erasmus from a variety of religious publication as well which illustrate the mixed admiration and vexation that Erasmus’ idiosyncratic intellect and religiosity still inspire:

Desiderius Erasmus ~ by Erika Rummel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in Reformation500

Desiderius Erasmus (1468?—1536) ~ by Eric MacPhail for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus: Dutch Humanist and Scholar ~ by James D. Tracy for Encyclopædia Britannica

Erasmus ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Erasmus with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy, and Jill Kraye for In Our Time

In Praise of Folly ~ by Desiderius Erasmus, with an introductory biography, Erasmus’ ‘Epistle to Sir Thomas More’, and illustrations by Hans Holbein at Project Gutenberg

The Praise of Folly ~ Nathan Gilmour, David Grubbs, and Michial Farmer discuss this work for The Christian Humanist Podcast

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Free Will and the Self

Free will and the self. What are they? While they are the two most important phenomena to each and every one of us, they’re notoriously hard to describe. Of course, we ‘know’ what they are: respectively, they are the experience, the feeling, of being in control of our own actions, of our thoughts and behaviors, and of having an identity and a personality that exists over time. Without them, our lives seem pointless: if we have no free will, then we are mere automatons, and we can take no credit and no responsibility for anything we do. If we have no self, then there is no we, no ‘I’, at all.

Experiments and scholarship by neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, and others have revealed some starling things about the workings of the brain and how human beings think, behave, and make decisions. The field of neuroscience has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few decades since the advent of technologies that allow us to observe the living brain at work, though we’ve been learning much about the brain over the last few centuries by observing the results of damage to its various parts. These results have, in turn, thrown traditional accounts of the self and free will into question.

Many have gone so far as to say that since we’ve discovered that our actions result from the cause-and-effect processes of a physical brain, then we have no free will: our actions and all our thoughts are determined by the cause-and-effect laws of nature. And since we’ve discovered that the sense of self arises from the confluence of the workings of the parts of the brain, and damage or changes to those parts can cause radical changes to our personalities and the ways we feel about the world and ourselves, that the self is an illusion too.

Yet, how can free will and the self not exist when we experience them throughout our lives? Since we can talk about them to one another, they must exist in some sense, at least. And it’s not that they exist in the way that fictional characters in a story exist, for example, or other artificial creations. We experience these phenomena intimately, from the time we attain consciousness early in life, until the time our brains are so aged or damaged that we are conscious no longer. The concepts of free will and the self are ubiquitous in our language, our culture, the very way we think. Read this paragraph again, review all the thoughts you’ve had in the last hour (and ever had, in fact) and you’ll find that the concepts of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’ (distinct selves in the world), combined with the concept of some action or thought purposely performed by one’s self, are a constant theme. In fact, almost everything we talk and think about would be incoherent without these concepts, and all the purposes that drive us would disappear and render all we do meaningless.

So what gives? How do modern discoveries about the workings of the brain jibe with traditional concepts of free will and the self?

It appears the confusion results from the way we use the terms. There are actually two things we’re referring to. One is the actual experience of the phenomena we call ‘the self’ and ‘free will’. The other is how we account for them, how we define them and explain how they work.

Consider what we mean by other terms, such as ‘disease’. At one time or another, we had various explanations as to what these things are, and how they are caused. One popular explanation that convinced people for hundreds of years: disease is the result of the imbalance of the four humours of the body: blood, black and yellow bile, and phlegm. A physician’s job is to restore the balance and so bring about cure. Other explanations are vitalist (life and health are the result of the interaction between some sort of non-physical spiritual ‘force’ or ‘energy’ and a physical body), such as chiropractic and traditional Chinese medicine. Disease is cause by some sort of disruption in the body, and a physician’s job is to correct the alignment and communication channels of the parts of the body so that the vital force can flow freely and restore health. And the most pervasive and popular explanation of disease throughout human history, of course, is that it’s caused by the vengeance of an angry god or the maleficence of evil spirits (witch-burnings, anyone?).

Over time, human beings invented and developed the scientific method pioneered by Francis Bacon, and began to more carefully examine the correlations of disease symptoms with the circumstances in which they occurred (outbreaks of cholera mapped so that the epidemic was revealed to center on a polluted source of drinking water in 1830’s London; the correlation of damage to a particular parts of the brain to the symptoms of brain damaged patients; the dissection of corpses, comparing diseased organs to healthy ones). With the discoveries of the physical causes of disease, by pathogens and by damage to parts of the body, effective cures were finally able to be developed.

Given that the explanations for the origins of disease are based on the understanding that they’re natural, the result of physical processes, and traditional explanations, does that mean that disease can no longer be said to exist? Does that mean we have to come up with an entirely new terminology? I don’t think it does. The term ‘disease’ refers to instances of the body suffering in some way, not functioning as a healthy body does. What we do when we are confronted with the phenomenon of disease is the same as it ever was: we seek to avoid it, we detest being afflicted by it and seeing others afflicted by it, we seek to understand its causes, and we seek to cure it.

Similarly, the denial of the existence of free will and the self is based on the misguided assumption that understanding the inner workings of a thing, in a way incompatible with traditional explanations, is to deny that the phenomena exist at all. To understand that the mind is the product of a physical brain obeying the laws of nature rather than a sort of spirit or soul inhabiting a machine-body is not to say the mind doesn’t exist. The experience of free will and the self is the same either way, and whether what makes the ‘I’ an ‘I’ is better explained naturally or supernaturally makes no difference. We are still agents, it’s still what’s going on in our brains that cause everything we do, and we still make choices, and it’s still ‘we’ that make them.

In sum, discovering how the phenomena we experience that we’ve dubbed ‘free will’ and the ‘self’ really work doesn’t mean that they don’t exist; it just means we understand more about them now. And to me, as to other lovers of knowledge and understanding, that’s a good thing.

* Also published at Darrow, a forum on the cultural and political debates of today


Sources and inspiration:

Dennett, Daniel. ‘On Free Will Worth Wanting’. Interview on Philosophy Bites by David Edmunds and Nigel Warburton. http://philosophybites.com/2012/08/daniel-dennett-on-free-will-worth-wanting.html

Klein, Jürgen, “Francis Bacon”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/francis-bacon/

‘John Snow’, from BBC History series. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/snow_john.shtml

Kean, Sean. Interview on Inquiring Minds podcast by Indre Viskontes and Chris Mooney, published June 12, 2014 https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/38-sam-kean-these-brains-changed-neuroscience-forever

Metzinger, Thomas. The Ego Tunnel: The Science of Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books, 2009 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5895503-the-ego-tunnel

Sharif, Azim F. and Kathleen D. Vohs. ‘What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will?’ Scientific American, June 2014. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-happens-to-a-society-that-does-not-believe-in-free-will/

 Wikipedia (various authors): ‘Daniel David Palmer’ (founder of chiropractic), ‘Humorism’, and ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’