- Truth and Irony: Philosophical Meditations on Erasmus by Terence J. Martin
This is a remarkable book on an important theme, namely, knowing ourselves, which the author elaborates in three meditations. The first is devoted to the virtues and vices of the tongue, that is, the relationship between truth and deceit. It is in this chapter that irony, the central concept of the book, is most fully elaborated. The second has war as its central theme and deals first and foremost with the possibility of civilizing war. Is there any sanity in war? In the last meditation, a bunch of related questions are treated that boil down to the role of security, prosperity, happiness, and pleasure in life. Each of the three meditations is a fine and erudite examination wherein the author tries to unravel an aspect of our human existence in an elegant style and with many references to both major and minor thinkers, past and present.
What makes this book so original is that Terence Martin invites us to reflect on the central theme of knowing ourselves in dialogue with Erasmus of Rotterdam, a key European intellectual and author. The famous Dutch humanist is introduced as "absent a partner in conversation" (5). Of course, Martin is fully aware that there are historical differences between Erasmus's time and ours, but, after all, according to Martin, we "face roughly the same difficulties in knowing ourselves. … And, too, we stumble over many of the same quandaries and we aspire to much the same kind of clarity when we pause to reflect on some very basic questions" (11). Although Martin's intention to engage with Erasmus directly to solve contemporary questions—challenging the widespread contention, as famously expressed by, among others, Quentin Skinner, that there are no perennial questions, let alone perennial answers—he merits credit for stating his approach and ambitions so openly. For such a goal, it is legitimate to choose Erasmus as a conversation partner.
Martin sees this conversation as an engagement with the Erasmian manner of thinking (10). Although for the title of the introduction he uses the indefinite article (An Erasmian manner of thinking), he speaks subsequently of the Erasmian manner of thinking. This is problematic, for one may well doubt whether there exists such a thing as the Erasmian manner. As Nicolette Mout, Heribert Smolinsky, and Jan Trapman made clear with Erasmianism: Idea and Reality (1997), it is far from evident that the versatile Dutch thinker can be reduced to a vast set of characteristics. It becomes clear quickly that Martin has a very particular Erasmus in mind, namely, the Erasmus of The Praise of Folly and a couple of possibly related works. No doubt, Erasmus shows himself to be an unconventional author in this grand piece of literature, one who dares to question the best of our beliefs caught in a flood of irony. However, as Martin himself acknowledges, the Laus Stultitiae was a kind of light book written during a journey, whose importance he always downplayed. He presented himself first and foremost as a theologian. As a consequence, the Erasmian manner of thinking is interpreted in a very specific way.
One might argue—and rightly—that this kind of approach could be defended. The problem, however, is that Martin not only wants to make use of a particular interpretation of Erasmus to solve contemporary problems, but also "to recover the intellectual posture and manner of thinking found in the works of Erasmus" (33). Or, as he states elsewhere, he hopes "that the deployment of Erasmian thinking in these meditations might prompt someone to return for a fresh reading of Erasmus" (37, see also 224: "the primary step toward understanding Erasmus"). In other words, besides a better understanding of [End Page 542] ourselves in our own times, the contemporary dialogue with the great humanist must lead to a better understanding of the humanist himself. More precisely, Martin wants a firmer grasp of "the precarious independence of Erasmus" (10). An intellectual historian may doubt the extent to...