- Collected Works of Erasmus
These two attractive volumes, the fifth and the sixth devoted to the Adagia, complete the publication of the English translation of Erasmus's final version of his collection of proverbs. As part of the Collected Works of Erasmus, the University of Toronto Press's distinguished and ambitious series that translates and annotates the chief works of Erasmus, they may return Erasmus to a wide reading public. The meticulous production from the press does justice to the fine and diligent scholarship of the [End Page 234] editors, who have had the daunting example but also the notes of the late Sir Roger Mynors, who annotated volume 31 and annotated and translated the next three volumes. The Latin reader, like the editors of these volumes, now benefits from a well-edited, modern edition of the Amsterdam text. This is a rather remarkable, triple-editing process, fortunate in the concentration of effort and worthy of Erasmus's own time, when in revising the Adagia he had the benefit of other fine humanist editions and translations of collections, e.g., of Greek proverbs, and his own earlier printings. The great beneficiaries of the editorial work of the Dutch and the Toronto editors are, of course, scholars, but also, dare one hope, that elusive or even fictive creature, a general reader.
The notes of the two volumes track the changes in the various printings and indicate Erasmus's use of sources. The imprint of the Greek proverb collectors is thus made manifest in CWE 35. CWE 36 outdoes its predecessor in the wealth and detail of notes on the particular printings Erasmus has used. His reading of Aristophanes especially had produced a significant number of new adages, tacked on to the old ending point. A reader must occasionally be left stranded, given the variety of events, customs, and persons contained in these passages, and all will appreciate the concise explanations and the directions to appropriate editions of Erasmus's sources. The great labour behind some of these notes, e.g., not simply that Erasmus has used Philostratus, but which edition he has read and, where appropriate, notice of emendations by modern editors of readings current in Erasmus's time, impresses, so too the accuracy of the translation and the quality of printing. Quite rightly the commentary points out when Erasmus has got his Greek wrong, misremembered a source, quoted from memory, been corrected later by Estienne, or been led into confusion by a now emended reading. But these corrections are only foam on the ocean of his memory, reading, and knowledge, and are offered with no censorious spirit. Rather the notes help us see the humanist scholar in action – applying a wealth of reading to understand the wisdom of the past and its peculiar idioms. The qualities of that effort are peculiar. The idiomatic, a distinctive way of saying something, presents a puzzle in which truth seems to lie hidden, waiting for the philologist. Thus Erasmus will credit some strange detail from the elder Pliny or Aristotle's History of Animals, but on his understanding, sifting and evaluating the texts, not empirical investigation, leads to truth.
This quest for truth is one of the great appeals of the discursive text, yet the Adagia have probably been more praised than read in the last fifty years. While the devotees of the Adagia hail it as a treasury of anecdote, an epideixis of philological method and explanation, a manual in the use of the classics, and a guide to the extraction and application of wisdom from literature, it is, in fact, a text of vast dimensions and ambition, one that frequently and deliberately seeks out and cites [End Page 235] difficult Greek and Latin words and expressions. Thus the most fundamental fact of...