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  • “Between Friends All is Common”:The Erasmian Adage and Tradition
  • Kathy Eden

In 1508 eager readers received the Aldine edition of Erasmus’s Adages, the Adagiorum chiliades. Replacing the much smaller Paris Collectanea of 1500, the Italian edition included among its many accretions and alterations both a new introduction and a different opening adage. In place of the prefatory letter to William Blount, Lord Mountjoy (Ep. 126, CWE, 1, 255–66), Erasmus substituted a fuller prolegomena or introduction (Ep. 211) that reworked portions of the earlier praefatio.1 Then, following the new introduction, he displayed much more prominently, in first position, the ninety-fourth adage of the Paris edition, which reads in Greek, τὰ τῶν ϕίλων κoινὰ; in Latin, amicorum communia omnia, often translated into English as “friends hold all things in common” or “between friends all is common” (LB, II, 13F–14F; CWE, 31, 29–30). By his own account, moreover, Erasmus begins this vast compilation of ancient sayings in this way so that this particular proverb about friendship may serve as a favorable omen for the work as a whole (LB, II, 13F–14A; CWE, 31, 29).

While Margaret Mann Phillips and others have appreciated the marked relocation of this adage to initial position as evidence of Erasmus’s deep commitment to amicitia—a well-documented feature of his lived experience, a constant [End Page 405] topic throughout his literary works, and the focus of more than a few other adages2 —I will argue that this relocation commits Erasmus to something more than friendship, crucial as that is to his sense of community as the foundation in turn of the best societies. Read in conjunction with the prolegomena, the first adage announces a special alignment between friendship as a social practice and the proverb as a discursive practice. In forging this alliance, I suggest, Erasmus advances his own literary agenda by pursuing three related aims: in the first place, he transfers to this peculiar literary form the esteem that regularly attaches to friendship in the ancient tradition handed down by the Adages; secondly, building on this transfer of esteem, he theorizes proverbial statement as the quintessential instrument of this tradition in particular and of traditionality more generally; and finally, as an almost inevitable consequence of this theory, he invites his readers to understand tradition itself, mutatis mutandis, as a complex, associative relation patterned after the ancient notion of friendship. Whereas in earlier works such as the Antibarbari he follows Augustine and Jerome in figuring the traditionary relationship in terms of one culture despoiling another—the so-called spoiliatum Aegyptorum—here he substitutes the association of friends for the appropriation of enemies.3

Not only moved between 1500 and 1508 but also substantially expanded, the first adage in the Aldine and subsequent Basel editions mentions several ancient authorities, among them Euripides, Terence, and Cicero. More important for my purposes, however, the revised adage features Plato and, even more so, Pythagoras. The Italian philosopher deserves special mention as the father not only of the adage but also of the way of life it engenders. As Erasmus writes at the end of the 1515 version of the adage,

Not only was Pythagoras the author of this saying, but he also instituted a kind of sharing of life and property in this way, the very thing Christ wants to happen among Christians. For all those who were admitted [End Page 406] by Pythagoras into that well-known band who followed his instruction would give to the common fund whatever money and family property they possessed.4

If Pythagoras is worthy of mention for instituting a society founded on common property, Plato too deserves citation as the most passionate spokesman for such a society. Taking its cue from the Pythagoreans in imagining a community innocent of the words “mine” and “not mine,” Plato’s philosophy of common ownership, says Erasmus, most nearly approximates Christ’s own thinking on this issue.5 [End Page 407]

By placing this particular proverb at the head of more than 4000 proverbs and then by identifying it more specifically with Pythagoras and Plato, Erasmus signals the protreptic aim of the entire collection. Issuing a call for communitas in the radical...


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