Erasmus’ Number One Adage: ‘Friends have all things in common.’

Prompt: The world is powered by passionate people, powerful ideas, and fearless action. What’s one strong belief you possess that isn’t shared by your closest friends or family? What inspires this belief, and what have you done to actively live it?

One of the great achievements of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was his magisterial work The Adages, a remarkable attempt to collect all the extant proverbs of ancient Greek and Roman culture. In my work as an historian I have opened his book again and again and marveled at his scholarship and erudition. Here–interestingly in light of thoughts of Emerson bloggers vis-à-vis The Domino Project–is the first man to make his living by writing printed books, protected from plagiarism by the new European laws of intellectual property. One proverb in particular has always stood out as the most memorable, and it is first in the collection: Friends have all things in common. This is a proverb of Pythagoras that Plato quotes in Phaedrus. Whatever the Greek philosophers meant by this is not as important as what Erasmus made of it with regard to his own cultural situation. It was what Erasmus thought it meant, and how he used it that influenced my philosophy of life in a way that has brought both the joy of simplicity and the ridicule of my wonderful friends.

As a Renaissance humanist, Erasmus was dedicated to convincing sixteenth-century rulers to adopt a “philosophy of Christ” that considered warfare, the traditional medieval solution to solving problems between countries, to be irrational. Erasmus says that if these bellicose princes were motivated by enlightened friendship they would want to share their wisdom with anyone who might benefit from it. Friendship, as Plato inferred, is the real basis of satisfying community. Wisdom is its bread. What a contrast to the unenlightened ruler who constantly flexes his military muscles, perhaps dreaming of empire and glory, but dies without a true friend in the world! The most precious gifts of life should be offered freely rather than withheld out of revenge, mistrust, or greed.

I have believed for years that Erasmus was on to something, but the prevailing view of those around me (even friends and family) is that this philosophy is naïve at best. Something like Erasmus’ ideal was termed availability by French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). The latter meant by this a readiness to offer the good things I have for others at a moment’s notice based on a just demand of their claims upon me. Like the apostles Peter and John in the New Testament, I may not have silver and gold, but what I have is available to the one who has a need. One might object, “Isn’t that a dangerous proposition? Won’t someone take advantage of you and leave you with nothing?” Of course there is a risk to living with an open hand, and others have indeed taken advantage of me: my research and conclusions were stolen and published once, my car was vandalized in England by neighbors my friends trusted, and damage was done to my reputation by someone to whom I made a liberal loan–which was never repaid. But most of the time I have made friends by means of whatever assets I had–particularly money. I didn’t buy friends; I used money for the sake of friendship: a cup of coffee at a morning meeting, a clever card to delight another, a proffered feast to rival that of the praiseworthy Babette. Jesus spoke of just this sort of thing when he said, “Make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness.”

This is not as profoundly absurd as you might think. It is actually both fun, and a relief. I often tip servers above the prevailing rate, and I most enjoy it when I am able to reach hilarious levels. I lend my books, dishes, and tools without dwelling continually on the date of their return. I got rid of my watch in part so I could be less concerned about the time I spend with people and leisurely enjoy their company. My life on the internet is an open book. I guess I am inviting a wide swath of humanity to ask me questions, read my paucity of wisdom, and copy and paste whatever they find useful. I do this, as Erasmus suggests, for the sake of friendship. It is not because I trust my would-be friends, but because I trust in divine justice and eternal advocacy. You see, I own nothing. It all belongs to God. I am not arguing against private property; I am simply offering a sketch of the conscience of a fool.

Erasmus was essentially saying the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans embodied in their proverbs was public domain, a wealth shared by all. We are able to share this because the people of the past who passed on their traditions are friendly toward us, having given us the best of what they had: wisdom to live well. What a surprise to me to discover that living well is not a matter of how much I accumulate but how lightly I hold even what little I really possess.