I’m finding that reading anything by Gregory Wolfe is an expensive proposition. A number of books on my shelves were purchased after reading his thoughts on them the first time I gave Beauty Will Save the World a go. Now I’ve had to add books by Desiderius Erasmus to my list. I imagine I’ll start with The Praise of Folly, then quite likely move on to Discourse on Free Will. We studied Erasmus in college, but just barely, as was the way with nearly everything we studied: just a smidge of this and a touch of that, but never enough time to fully digest anything.
Wolfe wrote about Erasmus and Martin Luther in Beauty Will Save the World, but he dug more deeply for his editorial, “The Erasmus Option,” in Image Journal—the one I received in the mail yesterday and started in on this morning. I recall that I didn’t like Erasmus when we read excerpts from The Praise of Folly for Humanities class. I generally don’t like satire. Bridget doesn’t either. Neither she nor I can think of many books we’d be less inclined to read than Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. The Praise of Folly is satire, so I’m not exactly rushing out to buy the book, but I’ll try to open my mind, then open the cover once I do purchase it.
Erasmus and Luther initially found common ground. Erasmus had long recognized the problems in the Catholic Church and encouraged Luther in his efforts at reforming it. Soon enough, though, Luther grew impatient. Rather than taking baby steps and being content with incremental changes, Luther wanted change now. Suddenly, nothing Erasmus advised was good enough, even though it had been in the past. Wolfe explains:
When Luther had thought of Erasmus as a forerunner of reform, he had little trouble with the humanist’s belief in the importance of reading pagan literature as a means to developing the kind of literary imagination needed to interpret Scripture properly. But in his fury at Erasmus, Luther has accused his former hero of fomenting paganism and unbelief.…
Only with a mind trained by the study of rhetoric and style could one find the living tissue of spirit within the hard shell of the letter.
For Erasmus, Thomas More, and the other humanists of that era, literature and figurative language were the key to preventing people from falling into abstraction, moralism, and incessant warfare.
In other words, Erasmus, More, and the other humanists recognized that beauty could save the world. The part of the editorial that caught my attention, though, deals with tradition and the past. While Erasmus found value in tradition, he did not want to romanticize the past. He wrote, “Eurydice looked back and fell back into hell; Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.” Tradition can and should produce new life.
This is something that few seem to understand. They either want to destroy the past, undermining the traditions that have stabilized humanity for hundreds upon hundreds of years, or they want to cling so tightly to the past, they strangle and suffocate any signs of life that can grow to give and renew hope.
This is what I failed to understand when I wrote my senior thesis on “The Dead” by James Joyce. The setting of the story is the home of the Misses Morkan, two elderly spinsters, who are in a bit of a tizzy because their dearly loved nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife Gretta, have not yet emerged from the snow falling outside to join them and their guests in celebrating the new year, as they have done over and over in the past. The entire story takes place over the course of that one evening (sometime around 1914), and we meet a nice assortment of folk from Dublin and its environs. Nearly all of them have been there before, and they all understand the roles they will play. Even the drunkenness of Freddy Malins is not too much trouble, because he always shows up drunk to the party. The questions are: who in the story respects the past enough to acknowledge what it has contributed to the present, who wants to eradicate the past, and who wants to enshrine it?
Each December, for my first 22 years of life or so, my father would head out to the woods with an axe and a saw to cut a Christmas tree. Quite often, my mom and we three kids were with him. I’ll never forget the year he trudged some distance away from us to cut down the perfect tree, the one we begged him to get, and fell through the snow-covered ice before he reached the tree. Thankfully, the water came up no higher than his waist and he was able to extricate himself rather easily. We headed straight for home so he could thaw and change into dry clothes. Then, we headed back out to try again (but not for that tree). We undoubtedly ended up with one that was far from perfect, a Charlie Brown tree, and Dad probably drilled holes in the trunk so he could fill in blank spaces with branches that would have faced the corner. What was important was that the tree be real. Dad would not stand for an artificial tree, no matter how picturesque.
When I got out on my own, I, too, insisted upon a real Christmas tree, but settled for buying a precut one. Then, one year, because of this or that, we had to shop for our tree a little later than usual, and everything we found was as dry as dust. So we bought an artificial tree and have used it every year since. I don’t miss burrowing through presents to get water in the base; I don’t miss the falling needles; I don’t miss whatever smell may have emanated from less-than-perfect branches. Hanging ornaments and stringing lights while Christmas music plays is the tradition we’ve held onto. It turns out that stringing and hanging them on a real tree was not all that important.