Thursday, July 21, 2022

Who was Erasmus and why should we care?

 After I stumbled across that quote a few days ago, it struck me that Erasmus might have something relevant to say to people living today.

However, before I discuss the context in which Erasmus made that statement, it might be helpful to provide some relevant background information about him.

The man and his vocation

Erasmus was born around 1467 and died in 1536.  William Barker, the author of a recently published biography, Erasmus of Rotterdam: The Spirit of a Scholar, tells us that Erasmus had become famous by the time he reached his mid-fifties. Erasmus was a prolific author. The rise of the printing press helped him to establish an international reputation during his lifetime. At that time it was possible for a humanist scholar – one steeped in the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome – to have fame equivalent to that of an Einstein or Stephen Hawking in more recent times.

Although Erasmus was a priest, he remained independent of the church hierarchy. Patrons offered gifts and allowances, which he accepted, but he was not dominated by any person or institution. He had an aversion for scholastic theology, believing that the words of the Bible show the message of Jesus more clearly than could any scholastic commentator. He based his famous translation of the New Testament on ancient Greek manuscripts because he believed that some of the original reports written by followers of Jesus had become distorted in the official translation used at that time.

In addition to his Translation of the New Testament, Erasmus’ famous works include The Praise of Folly, and his compilation of Roman and Greek proverbs. The Praise of Folly takes the form of a speech by Folly, seeking to persuade us that she is basic to all our lives. Barker sums up the book as follows:

“The work begins with social criticism, a kind of genial mocking, but it ramps up to direct attacks on various interest groups in the political, intellectual and religious worlds, and, in the amazing final move, suddenly turns inwards, and pulls the reader towards the abyss found in the complete loss of self through a total religious faith.”

As I see it, theological disputes were a particular focus in this book. Erasmus wrote:

I [Folly] am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity … answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed … “Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition.” And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, … at last he explained it thus … . “A heretic must be put to death.” Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological … . “Pray conceive me,” said he, “it is written, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore …”.

Erasmus’ book of proverbs was also a vehicle for social criticism. For example, in his revised version of this book, his commentary on the proverb, “War is a treat for those who have not tried it”, is a passionate essay praising peace and condemning war. Barker notes, however, that Erasmus’ condemnation of war was not unbounded. He approved of war against the Turks during the 1520s when they had reached the outskirts of Vienna.

Context of the quote

The context of the passage quoted at the top of this article is explained by Paul Grendler in his article, ‘In Praise of Erasmus’ (The Wilson Quarterly 7(2) Spring 1983). The plea, “Let us not devour each other like fish” was in response to an attack by his former friend Ulrich von Hutten, who had become an associate of Martin Luther. Erasmus welcomed Luther as a fellow reformer in 1517 when he began to criticize greedy churchmen and the worship of relics. However, as Luther’s criticism of Catholicism became more abusive, Erasmus counselled moderation. Luther would have none of it:

“You with your peace-loving theology, you don’t care about the truth. The light is not to be put under a bushel, even if the whole world goes to smash”.

The papacy was not inclined to stand idly by while Luther “led souls to hell”. So, Europe went to smash!

Erasmus continued to try to mediate between Catholic and Protestant, asserting that he found much to admire in Luther while disagreeing with him about predestination. The Catholic response was that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched”.

Unfortunately, Erasmus was unable to persuade the contending parties to refrain from warfare. If political institutions had provide greater support to Erasmus’ message at that time, perhaps it would have been possible for Europeans to have avoided a few centuries of pointless religious warfare.

Contemporary relevance of Erasmus    

William Barker laments that the old discourse of humanism seems to have been eclipsed:

“Something has happened to the humanities and the old discourse of humanism in our time. The ideal of Erasmian humanism – a cosmopolitan, well-educated Republic of Letters – has moved to the margins of our cultural life. A shift in political, ethnic, gender and ecological values has led to a change in the cultural hierarchy.”

Nevertheless, he still sees Erasmus as relevant to the culture of our times:  

“Despite our hesitations and the new trajectories in our literary culture, there are aspects of Erasmus that still survive for us, that take him outside his historical moment and the programmatic frame of humanist education. We can still turn to him for his irony, laughter, and the free exercise of social criticism.”

I agree with all that, but I also see Erasmus’ message about refraining from war over theology as being highly relevant today. When Erasmus was alive, contending parties engaging in theological disputes were obviously willing to use coercive means to impose their will on their opponents. Today, not much has changed. Extremists among contending parties engaged in ideological disputes are still willing to use coercive power to impose their will on their opponents.

Few people who live in the liberal democracies have any difficulty condemning the authoritarianism of dictatorships which seek to prevent individuals from exercising freedom of conscience in their religious observance. However, there are many people among us who unwittingly engage in similar authoritarianism themselves. I am thinking particularly of politicians who are so certain of the correctness of their ideological beliefs that they struggle with the idea that those with opposing views are entitled to exercise freedom of conscience.

The exercise of freedom of conscience over the status of human embryos is the example that comes most readily to mind. I wrote about his in the preceding post. At one extreme, we have politicians claiming that pharmacists who refuse on conscientious grounds to supply medications that could be used to induce abortion are guilty of some kind of civil rights violation. At the other extreme we have politicians arguing that under no circumstances should it be lawful for a woman to exercise freedom of conscience to terminate a pregnancy.

Will this conflict end in open warfare? The only reason I can see for ideological and theological authoritarianism to result in less violent outcomes today than occurred 500 years ago is the existence of democratic political processes. Unfortunately, in some liberal democracies those processes may no longer be sufficiently robust to provide contending parties with appropriate incentives to moderate their extremist agendas.

at this time, those who regard freedom of conscience as of utmost importance should remember the efforts of Erasmus to promote peace 500 years ago, and endeavor to be more successful than he was. “Blessed are the peacemakers …”.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How is it possible to believe in both right to life and freedom to choose?


The ongoing public debate between “right to life” and “freedom to choose” advocates, seems to be falsely suggesting that a choice must be made between irreconcilable positions. The debate overlooks the legitimate reasons that people have to support both “right to life” and “freedom to choose” in different contexts. I argue in this article that opportunities for human flourishing are likely to be greatest when the political/legal order recognizes the validity of both “right to life” and “freedom to choose” in contexts where those concepts are most relevant.

The article is addressed to people who believe that our main focus in considering the appropriateness of laws relating to termination of pregnancy should be on their implications for human flourishing. I hope that includes all readers.

My starting point is the proposition that opportunities for human flourishing are likely to be greatest within a political/legal order which allows individuals with differing values to flourish in different ways without coming into conflict with each other. The underlying idea here is that individual flourishing is an inherently self-directed process. The advocates of differing values may all think that they have the best recipe for human flourishing, but no-one can flourish if they are forced to live according to values they oppose.

The “live and let live” view presented in the preceding paragraph is not original. It is explained more fully, with references to major contributors to relevant philosophy, in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

The line of reasoning sketched above suggests that people who hold widely differing views about issues such as termination of pregnancy may be able to live in peace and seek to flourish in their own ways, provided they refrain from attempting to coerce one another to modify their behavior. Such attempted coercion usually involves groups of people using their political power to impose their will on others.  

Of course, we may have good reasons to believe that some people are seeking to flourish in ways that are unlikely to succeed. We can try to persuade them to alter their ways but use of coercion to modify their behavior has potential to reduce further their potential to flourish. Putting people into jail does tend to diminish their opportunities to flourish.

When should the legal order recognize the right to life?

To this point I have obviously been writing about behavior that does not infringe the rights of others. When behavior does infringe the rights of others, it is appropriate for it to be subject to legal constraints. Infanticide is the example that is most pertinent to the current discussion.

The proposition that infants have a right to life is not controversial. Even so, legal systems tend to recognize that extenuating circumstances are often associated with the crime of infanticide. In high-income countries, infanticide is often attributed to post-natal depression. In 18th century Britain, when infanticide more commonly occurred for economic reasons (for example, to give other children in a family a better chance of survival) it was apparently common for juries to practice “pious perjury” to avoid convicting offenders for murder. In the 19th century, laws gave explicit recognition to the possibility that extenuating circumstances might exist in cases of infanticide.

There are strong grounds to argue that late term abortion is tantamount to infanticide because the unborn child is at that stage capable of living outside the womb. It makes sense to argue on that basis that in the final weeks of pregnancy the unborn child has a right to life almost equivalent to that of an infant. The “almost” qualification is appropriate because the mother’s life may sometimes to be endangered if an unborn child is accorded the same right to life as an infant.

When should the legal order recognize that women have a right to choose?

In my view the legal order should recognize that a woman has responsibility to decide what status should be accorded the embryo in her womb in the weeks immediately following conception. She is best placed to make such judgements because the embryo is only capable of existing with the life support that she provides it.

The most common alternative is for politicians to assert that they have a right to decide the status of embryos. They may follow the advice of religious authorities, philosophers of various kinds, the majority view of electors, swinging voters, party leaders, their spouses, their best friends etc. or they may rely on their own intuitions and feelings. Some politicians argue that embryos should be sacrificed to achieve their objectives concerning optimal growth of population, or to enable other species to flourish. Others argue that abortion should be illegal because human life is precious from the moment of conception.

Politicians should show some modesty when contemplating laws that over-ride the natural rights of individual pregnant women to make judgements about the status of  the embryos in their wombs and to act according to their consciences. They have a right to seek to persuade pregnant women to adopt their views on the status of the embryo, but there is no good reason why any of their views should constrain the actions of a woman who is not persuaded by them.

There is nothing in human nature that ensures that every woman with an embryo in her womb will view it as having the status of an entity that is worthy of being provided life support, given the opportunity costs that might entail for herself and her family. If the woman does not wish to maintain life support to the embryo, the use of force to require her to do so imposes a form of involuntary servitude upon her.

The authoritarianism involved in denying women the right to choose in the early stages of pregnancy is compounded by the invasion of privacy that is required to ensure compliance with this policy.

The transition

If it is accepted that right to life should prevail at the late stages of pregnancy and that freedom to choose should prevail at the early stages, that leaves the question of what rules should apply between those stages. It makes sense for the option of termination to be progressively restricted as pregnancy proceeds, rather than legal one day and illegal the next.  

A personal view

The views presented above have focused on what should be lawful or unlawful in a society which rejects authoritarianism and recognizes the rights of individuals with differing values to flourish in different ways. The discussion has been about the ethics of alternative legal orders, rather than personal ethics.

In case anyone thinks they can infer my views on the personal ethics of abortion from what I have written above, I will make them clear now. I subscribe to the view that because human embryos have potential to become human persons they should not be lightly discarded. I think the world would be a better place if more people were persuaded to adopt to that view, but it has potential to become a much worse place if governments attempt to impose it.


Opportunities for human flourishing are likely to be greatest in a political/ legal order which allows individuals to flourish in different ways without coming into conflict with each other.

When behavior infringes the rights of others it is appropriate that it should be forbidden. Infanticide obviously falls into that category. It is appropriate to recognize an unborn child as having a right to life almost equivalent to that of an infant in the final weeks of pregnancy.

The issues involved in the early weeks of pregnancy are quite different because the embryo is totally dependent on a woman to provide it with life support. The woman should be recognized to have responsibility to decide the status of the embryo at that stage. If she does not consider it to have a status worthy of being provided ongoing life support, her view should be respected. Laws requiring women to provide life support against their impose a form of involuntary servitude upon them.