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Implied Ethics in the Adagia of Erasmus:
An Index of Felicitas
William Barker
University of King’s College
Même si, au sein de la masse touff ue des Adages, l’attention est principalement centrée sur
la philologie et la rhétorique, Érasme reste profondément attiré par les thèmes éthiques.
Toutefois, ces thèmes éthiques ou moraux se perdent facilement dans le vaste arsenal de
cette compilation de proverbes. Comme Érasme lui-même et plusieurs de ses lecteurs l’ont
fait remarquer, l’ouvrage se délecte de son propre désordre. Pourtant, les thèmes éthiques
ne sont jamais perdus de vue. Comment, dès lors, aborder la question éthique — dans
le but, par exemple, de dégager une position claire sur le bonheur ou la felicitas — dans
un ouvrage sans ordre apparent, et au moyen d’une forme, le proverbe, qui est surtout un
moyen rhétorique ? Cet article fait valoir qu’il y a moyen de trouver un sens à un thème,
tel celui de la felicitas, à partir des index et des références internes, même si cet ordre n’est
jamais érigé en système. Comme la plupart des autres termes moraux des Adages, celui
de la felicitas surgit ici et là à travers l’ouvrage, et on peut en suivre la trace grâce à une
série de références internes et d’associations d’idées ou de mots qui tout à coup s’ouvrent à
la question. La felicitas apparaît dans le contexte de discussions sur le bien-être matériel,
l’équilibre personnel, l’amitié et la vie collective.
T
he Adagia of Erasmus is more than a straightforward compilation of ancient
proverbs. Th is massive work, the product of many years of Herculean labour,
is often seen as an extension of Erasmus’ program of educational and ethical reform,
and, though largely secular in its material and its themes, even connects comfortably
with his central lifetime concern with the philosophia Christi.
Despite its many connections with theological and philosophical positions,
the Adagia is not intended primarily as a guide to theology and philosophy. It is
above all a work of rhetoric. Nevertheless, because the Adagia is ultimately about
the right use of language, about personal as well as social behaviour, the work has a
strong ethical orientation. There is an interest throughout in proper social relations,
good self-government, the exercise of will and judgement, rational thought affecting
actions, the importance of peaceful relations with others, and what might even be
called a godly behaviour. Yet despite introductory material and a small number of
Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 30.1, Winter/hiver 2006
88 William Barker
longer adage essays that seem to highlight these ethical themes, such themes are
not always obvious or terribly straightforward when we get into the work. Hence
my title, that stresses the “implied” ethics of the Adagia.
The Adagia is not a textbook on moral behaviour, then, but a reference work
that concentrates on some very obscure philological material. In his 4151 essays,
most of them very short, Erasmus identifies adages, looks at alternatives, and cites
a range of passages, never hesitating to emend his sources when necessary. He
explicates obscure references, often grounding them in the lived and documented
practical life of antiquity. He’s clearly interested in the way these proverbs can be
used to convince people to act well. But he is only occasionally forthcoming in
speaking about an adage as a source of truth or as a possible basis for a systematic
way of thinking about anything.
In what follows, I begin with a very close look at the way the majority of the
adage essays are constructed. In a typical essay the project is to place the adage in
some kind of explanatory context—of usage, of customary behaviours, of other
adages. The massiveness of this context—not least the number of adages that radiate
outwards from the one under discussion—can overwhelm the reader. Indexes thus
become an essential part of the system of explanation and exemplification. Th is is an
open work and (as evidenced by marginalia in many early copies) the pathways are
created by the reader, with hints from the author. What happens then, if one opens
the Adagia to ask about a word such as felicitas (happiness, good fortune, etc.)? The
words of Polonius come to mind. We shall “by indirections fi nd directions out.”
Rather than look at the Adagia, as is so often done by many scholars,1 by beginning with the prolegomenous essay or those longer moral essays positioned
strategically in the 1508 and 1515 editions (such as II i 1 Festina Lente or IV i 1 Dulce
bellum inexpertis), what if we just dive randomly into the work? Its disconnected
nature is quickly apparent. If in the end we wish to look at a particular theme—
felicitas—a look at the internal method of the work will prepare us for in the work
that awaits us.
I have chosen three consecutive essays that are numbered IV vi 73 to 75 in the
sequence, all added in the seventh edition of 1528. These essays are typical of 95 per
cent or more of the work. The adages are Extra calcem (Off course), Ex perpendiculo
(From the perpendicular, or to use the recently published translation by John Grant
and Bett y Knott, With a plumb-line), and Acolo, non fico (Morsels, not figs).2
Implied Ethics in the Adagia of Erasmus 89
IV vi 73 Extra calcem / Off course
The same author [Ammianus Marcellinus] in book twenty-one: ‘So that our words
will not bore the future reader, by running Extra calcem “Beyond the mark,” as the
saying goes, let us return to describing the events that had been foreseen.’ I think,
however, that there is a corruption here and that extra callem ‘off the track’ should
be read in the sense of extra viam, which we have spoken of elsewhere, when anyone
wanders from his intended purpose.
IV vi 74 Ex perpendiculo / With a plumb-line
The same author in the same book used the expression ‘With a plumb-line,’ meaning ‘with precise judgment.’ He says, ‘He assigned the offices of the palace with a
plumb-line, as it were, and under him no one who was to hold a loft y position was
brought into the court suddenly or untested.’ Related to this expression are those
which, as well as occurring frequently elsewhere, are to be found in Gellius book two,
chapter one: ad amussim exigere ‘to demand a precise equivalent,’ librili perpendere
‘to weigh in the balance,’ ad aequilibrium aestimare ‘to estimate an exact equivalent.’
Also in Pliny book thirty-six, chapter twenty-five: ad regulam ac libellam exigere
‘to fi nish to rule and level.’ In addition there is Digitis metiri ‘To count up on one’s
fi ngers,’ Trutina pensare ‘To weigh in the scale,’ Ad unguem facere ‘To do something
to the fi nger-nail’ and others, some of which we have pointed out at the appropriate
place. All these expressions have more charm if applied to intellectual matters. The
metaphor is taken from workmen’s plumb-lines, with which they check whether a
floor is level or a wall is perpendicular. An amussis is a string with a piece of lead
att ached to it at the bottom, and is fi xed to the middle of a measuring rule consisting
of two squares. With this they test whether the ground is level. Marcus Tullius in the
third speech against Verres: ‘You, Verres, have nothing to do here unless perhaps
you wish to make sure that the columns are exactly plumb.’ They tell him that there
is scarcely any column that can be exactly plumb. ‘Damn it then,’ he says, ‘let’s do
it. Let us demand that the columns be exactly plumb.’
IV vi 75 Acolo, non fico / Morsels, not figs
Akolô ta cheilê, ou sukô busai, Put your lips on a morsel, not a fig. Suidas points out
that this was said when good health was promised or when someone meant that one
should face circumstances bravely. For in Greek akoloi refers to tiny pieces of food,