A good politician has authority and character, according to Erasmus. In his time, that meant: a study of Latin and Greek, a classical education. Today we all go to school and a quite different approach is required to ruthlessly confront our leaders with virtuousness.
Imagine Desiderius Erasmus looking at our current political system with 21st century eyes and wondering how to prepare future politicians for their official duties. He’d write a very different book than the one he wrote in 1515 and which became famous under the title The Education of a Christian Prince. Erasmus wrote this book for Prince Charles, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The chancellor of Brabant, Jean le Sauvage, had hit upon the idea of appointing Erasmus to be a counsellor to the young Charles, and it was with this book that Erasmus courted the favour of this future Christian prince. The result is an interesting and wise book in which Erasmus sets out his humanist ideas and provides an inspiring description of the character development which a future leader must embrace to become a good prince.
But what type of book would Erasmus write today if he had to curry favour with future politicians? How would his humanist ideas about upbringing translate to today’s society? What character development would he want to see in our future leaders? And how would he expect that character development to be achieved?
I considered these questions recently on a long walk through Rotterdam. And the longer I walked through those streets, the more convinced I became that Erasmus would want to live on the street and would have wanted to write his 21st century book on upbringing in the language of the street.
So what do I mean?
To us Erasmus was a teacher avant la lettre, a philosopher who was convinced that all the qualities of all people (and thus those of the prince) were the result of education, upbringing, schooling. We thus know him as the champion of the study of Latin and Greek, with which Erasmus felt that children couldn’t start early enough.
Why? Because our thinking and our character need to be shaped and because we therefore need a form, shape or structure which can accommodate that thinking and that character. In his time, Erasmus found that form exclusively and particularly in the belle-lettres, in the written word. This was the reason behind Erasmus’ plea for schooling, for classical education, for the founding of gymnasiums, where children would become familiar with the writings of Diomedes, Lucian, Aristophanes, Valla, Aristotle, and many more.
Erasmus would have become a rapper, I expect, gone to the snack bar in Zuid in his dressing gown, like Jordy Dijkshoorn from De Likt
But today, Erasmus would undoubtedly have reacted very differently. In his time, no one, or very few people, went to school. Now everyone goes! In his time, people just did whatever they could: they slaved away and randomly worked themselves and others into the ground. But nowadays it’s all about school discipline, instrumental efficiency, constant testing, in small manageable pieces.
In his time, children needed classical literature to learn how to think outside the obvious frameworks, to be confronted with virtue as a human ideal. But nowadays, you need something quite different to learn to think out of the box, to discover that human virtuousness is something quite different from obedience at school.
Today Erasmus would have been particularly concerned about the vitality of our young people, about their intrinsic enthusiasm. As an independent thinker, he would probably have been kicked out of school long ago, or even stayed away. He’d have become a rapper, I expect, gone to the snack bar in Zuid in his dressing gown, like Jordy Dijkshoorn from De Likt, or start creating his own sound among his loyal fans in the Schollebos, like Ronnie Flex, or be like Raw Roets and not care about anything, working from morning till night until he had so much shit to share that everyone would want to connect.
This all sounds rather macho and absurd, but it also sounds so improbable and so incompatible with what Erasmus wrote in The Education of a Christian Prince that I definitely need to explain and defend this further.
To start with, we must realise that Erasmus does not give advice about upbringing in the way we associate it today with Ouders Online [Parents Online], for example. His text is predominantly a political treatise, written in the form of personal advice to the future emperor, but in fact addressing all his right-minded fellow citizens.
Erasmus explores the contours of a completely new way for ordinary folk to be able to exert influence over the political powers that be. Because Charles is the Crown Prince and will be given power over an enormous empire thanks to various family connections, Erasmus notes that the population may not be able to choose this prince, but can choose something else, equally important: namely this prince’s education. That’s where the real power lies, because every person, and thus every prince, develops all his or her qualities under the influence of others. How does that translate to today?
We can ostensibly choose our politicians, but that’s not the crucial choice. It really doesn’t matter who we choose unless we seriously address the question of which education we ought to offer those future politicians. And that question must not be about the education that everyone receives, or about the profiles you can choose, or about the university where everyone now goes. No. That’s not at all distinguishing.
For our future politicians, it mustn’t be about an education programme that everyone follows. So no embellished CV, with all those compulsory components: an honours degree, a year on a committee, a journey round the world and a cum laude certificate. Such a predictable, pre-arranged, excellent programme doesn’t give any future politician a particularly noble character.
And according to Erasmus, it’s all about character forming. That needs hard training. It requires work, from an early age. For this, contrast is required, a huge contrast, a big push out of your own comfort zone.
For the young crown prince in the early Renaissance, that means an in-depth introduction to the classics. Charles needs the confrontation. To start with, he needs to know every detail of the differences between, on the one hand, the customs and tendencies of a tyrant – the absolute ruler which Charles is accustomed to at that time – and the virtuous orientation of a wise and good ruler on the other. For the latter, Charles can learn from studying the works of Plato and Aristotle. That won’t be easy, but a noble character doesn’t just happen. You don’t become a good and wise ruler in a day. You have to work at it!
Back seat generation
Today, such a big push out of our comfort zone looks very different. For the necessary contrast, the future politician needs to be kicked out of school. I expect that Erasmus will have preceded him in this. Not in studying the classics, but in the hard school of the city jungle.
Our politician must learn to feel the contrast in every fibre of their being and understand what Erasmus means by the importance of pure survival. Because that’s the origin of the details of the differences which concern us today.
Erasmus will point the way, as a literary guide, just as in the early sixteenth century
These are the differences between, on the one hand, the customs and tendencies of the back seat generation, the spoiled, well behaved princes and princesses who get everything in life as long as they do what is expected of them, and on the other hand the all too human vitality of the homeless dropouts, the rappers, who have made it on the street, who have to develop their own language, fight their own battles, who have managed to establish their own name, from nothing.
Erasmus will point the way, as a literary guide, just as in the early sixteenth century. With comparisons, aphorisms, smart, hard images. With words which rap at the door of every good citizen.
Popularity and gloss
Erasmus continuously tries to trip up the Crown Prince, but particularly also his followers, his court and his whole people. Erasmus consistently tinkers with the deeply accepted traditions which keep the prince and his people in what is for both an unfortunate grip. It is not power, Erasmus makes clear, which characterises the relationship between people and prince. Power is for the tyrant, authority for the ruler. Power is only outward appearance, an outward appearance which has no value if the prince who has that power does not have a regal, wise and noble character.
In a lovely passage, Erasmus makes clear that a ruler totally declasses himself if he needs the outward signs of power. A chain, a sceptre, purple robes, sculptures and portraits – they mean nothing because we can adorn an actor with them too. That actor might resemble a prince, but is obviously not. (By the way, how Erasmus would have been ashamed for Ronald Reagan, an actor who was elevated to a throne.) The only praise concealed in such outward appearances is owed to the artist, according to Erasmus, who displays his talent in the pomp with which a tyrant surrounds himself.
The current politicians mainly show how gifted and talented their spin doctors are, but also how weak their own character is
In that respect, the current politicians mainly show how gifted and talented their spin doctors are, but also how weak their own character is. Because they only have ears for the masses, strive above all to boost their own popularity and think that their political quality can be measured on the basis of their electoral effect. The greater that effect, the more popular the politician, but in fact also the more talented the spin doctor. That does not concern a prince, a sovereign who is good to his people. Popularity undermines the loyalty of the people, according to Erasmus, because it stirs up greed and ultimately leaves everyone dissatisfied.
Of course you can apply these words in a humanist appeal for culture and for virtuousness, as happened with Erasmus’ legacy for hundreds of years. But if you try to understand these words in their context, you can see how radical they are and how innovative.
From nothing, in the presence of the whole European community, Erasmus addresses a fifteen year old boy, a prince growing up surrounded by the pomp of state, who stands at the heart of powerful royal families which, through calculated scheming, have obtained absolute, tyrannical power over a gigantic kingdom.
Within that context, Erasmus appeals to Christian servitude. Within that context, he states that a prince can understand himself best as the heart in a human body, giving life to the whole that they are part of, the person who, with wisdom and common sense, takes care of the interests of his subjects. Such an appeal to a future emperor is brave if not brazen, is totally controversial in its pioneering, moral assertion.
Erasmus looked for the latent humanity in relationships distorted by power, a humanity which needs to be developed
If we want to do justice to Erasmus’ radical, innovative, critical attitude in this 21st century, it is crucial that we read between the lines of his appeal. Although Erasmus appealed for a school-style, gymnasium-style study of Latin and Greek, but in this thoroughly well behaved, schooled and middle class culture, he wouldn’t do that today.
Erasmus looked for the latent humanity in relationships distorted by power, a humanity which needs to be developed. He was a pedagogue and philosopher who took people out of their comfort zone. Today, Erasmus seeks the latent humanity distorted by schoolification. He would remain a pedagogue and philosopher: that humanity must still be developed.
Our future politicians must learn to discover what drives them, what moves deeply. They must develop their own vitality, and to do so they will have to be brought out of their languid comfort zone. They must be kicked onto the street, learn to survive, create their own voice. For inspiration, they can go to Erasmus, the new rapper, critical, radical, innovative, a new star in the firmament forming in the gutter of Middellandstraat. Check, for example, the rhymes of his last piece of shizzle:
Brave jochies protesteren
Wat een armoe, in de goot
Zot, verward, en dom
Ze zien ons niet als
Ik lust ze rauw[*]
Good lads protest
What poverty in the gutter
Mad, confused and stupid
They don’t see us as
I like them raw
[*] Praise of Folly, 32: “Now I believe I can hear the philosophers protesting that it can only be misery to live in folly, illusion, deception, and ignorance. But it isn’t — it’s human!”
A co-operation between Erasmus Magazine and Vers Beton.
In 2016 Rotterdam celebrates the 550th birth date of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. In this series, Vers Beton explores the meaning of Erasmus’ thinking for the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Vers Beton is a journal for people in Rotterdam who like to reflect on their city.
This series has been made possible by a financial contribution by the city of Rotterdam.