“Man holding book, wearing a cloak and a cap. But particularly the cap.” This is what Sandra Langereis has Desiderius Erasmus say about himself when she has the major thinker speak in the voluminous biography she wrote on the philosopher associated with Rotterdam. More than five centuries ago, Erasmus was one of the first scholars who sought to live off his writings. In so doing, he used a lot of branding, as it is called nowadays. Among other things, he had portraits painted and spread among influential persons, such as the well-known portrait by Hans Holbein, which shows us Erasmus as the perfect scholar.

Langereis seeks to get us to look beyond this self-created image of Erasmus as a scholar with inner peace, fully in charge of his own life. She shows us the man behind the image – the man who fled the monastery but didn’t feel at home at universities, either, and who was always looking for an income but nevertheless placed an even greater premium on his intellectual independence. He was the European thinker who wished to teach his contemporaries to study and consider things for themselves but ended up caught up in the theological and political debates of his era, because he refused to choose between the corrupt catholic church and protestant reformers with their dogmas.

Sharp irony and acerbic wit

“A broad type with a broad folded brim. Pitch black. Making that cap mine was a very clever stroke,” Sandra Langereis also has Erasmus say. It’s not common practice to present the subject of your biography like this, speaking words he probably never said in real life, and which are assigned to him by his biographer. And this is not the only respect in which Langereis takes a few liberties. For instance, the cover of this great biography does not present us with the classical portrait of Erasmus, but rather with a recent portrait by Neel Korteweg, which shows us Erasmus as a handsome young man wearing a shirt with poppies on it. The only recognisable aspect is the cap, but it’s enough.

Erasmus’s Adagia, Novum Instrumentum and particularly In Praise of Folly (1511) were true bestsellers. The latter is a biting satire in which Erasmus made fools of people of power and prestige and sought to examine how to tell the truth by telling jokes. Posing as Folly herself, the philosopher taught his readers the rules of the game of literature, where you can use folly to say what cannot be said elsewhere. Langereis goes so far as to call Erasmus the ‘progenitor of Dutch-style cabaret’. He said sharp irony and acerbic wit could be used to tell the truth.

The idealistic image of Erasmus

I do feel somewhat guilty, recommending that all Erasmians read Sandra Langereis’s thick biography – after all, we are all busy and have many demands on our time. Even so, I would advise everyone to read the book, because the life and work of the man who gave our university its name still have the power to inspire us in an era in which we have to determine what role universities are to play in our society, and in which we have to make decisions on how to conduct commissioned research while preserving our academic independence. We must have a discussion on whether universities are a place where all opinions must be able to be heard, or whether there are any values that place constraints on academic freedom.

In her biography, Sandra Langereis gives us the literary representation of ‘Erasmus’ who discusses the ‘true’ Erasmus, in much the same way as Erasmus got Folly herself to discuss folly in In Praise of Folly. The literary representation of Erasmus cries when he sees the portrait by Neel Korteweg, showing himself as a handsome young man wearing a shirt with poppies on it: “It is me, but I am not yet Erasmus. But I’m already wearing my cap.” The iconic image of Erasmus as an independent and humorous spirit is an idealistic image that the master himself sought but never quite managed to realise. It was a worthy pursuit, though. Erasmus’s cap fits all of us.

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Sandra Langereis, Erasmus. Dwarsdenker. A biography (De Bezige Bij, 2021)   

EM is curious about your ideas about Erasmus. What is for you a typical Erasmian wisdom? Send us your thought. We will reward the most beautiful with a copy of Sandra Langereis’ biography.

erasmusmagazine@em.eur.nl, subject Dwarsdenker