It is well recognized that Erasmus was one of the most accomplished polemicists of the early sixteenth century, an able apologist and propagandist for his own worldview. Scholars are not in the habit of describing Erasmus as a marketing man, but some of his prefaces read remarkably like other advertising prose we have seen or will examine later in this book.


Erasmus interprets Pseudo-Cato (1538 edition) (click to enlarge - 521 KB JPEG image)

Erasmus interprets Pseudo-Cato (1538 edition) (click to enlarge - 521 KB JPEG image)

The best single example may be his thoughtful and well made revision of Pseudo-Cato which appeared from 1514 onward under the title Cato's Moral Distichs in Latin and Greek with Annotations by Erasmus (Catonis Disticha Moralia Latine et Graece, cum scholiis D. Erasmi Rotterdami). This booklet was one of several textbooks Erasmus published in 1514, probably as a money-making expedient. (103) It is a new package for the Cato, including the familiar distichs with the base text as corrected by Josse Bade, further tweaked by Erasmus, and enhanced by a paraphrase commentary. But, as ad men say, there is also much much more: a medieval translation of the Cato into Greek by Maximus Planudes (ca. 1230-ca. 1310) designed for Byzantine schoolboys and here edited by Erasmus; three other small collections of philosophers' sayings; Erasmus's poem on Christian education; and the Paraenesis of Isocrates, a collection of hortatory commonplaces. This package was offered for relatively young readers; but, since the texts are in both Latin and Greek, it seems likely that Erasmus also intended it for use in schools across several years. Like many other basic schoolbooks, this reading anthology sets up the expectation that it will be a useful moral reference life-long, both because it will be memorized in part and again because it would become a pocket book for future consultation. (104)


This Cato represents, moreover, a small installment in Erasmus's ongoing project of collecting and commenting proverbs, his Sayings (Adagia), which first appeared in 1500 and was continuously revised and enlarged until his death. The Adagia began as a sort of schoolbook too, as did another many-times-revised phrase book, On Abundance of Words and Things (De utraque rerum ac verborum copia). Modern critics have recognized that for Erasmus the proverb or adage was an historically situated literary artifact that could be immensely fruitful both of eloquence and of wisdom. Erasmus's Cato remained an elementary schoolbook, in keeping with its traditional place in the curriculum, while the De copia and the Adagia multiplied beyond their original dimensions into full-fledged monuments of humanist erudition. All three books stood in the tradition of rhetorical study as a pursuit of wisdom. Aphorisms and proverbs especially were closely associated with moral philosophy and with a tradition of prayerful meditation. In humanist hands the ethically succinct proverb could expand almost to a moral infinity. Even a teaching tool of the most elementary sort had this potential, and Erasmus' version of the Cato was already an expanded collection. (105)


Erasmus slams the competition (click to enlarge - 754 KB JPEG image)

Erasmus slams the competition (click to enlarge - 754 KB JPEG image)

There is little doubt that Erasmus himself devised the precise outline of the new Cato, although Lisa Jardine has argued convincingly that it also represents a collaboration with theologian Maarten van Dorp (1485-1525). (106) The preface begins:

Erasmus of Rotterdam to Jan de Neve, greeting. The moral distichs commonly ascribed to Cato, O Nevius glory among theologians, we first purged of their errors by comparing them to the translation of Planudes, even if that little Greek frequently did not follow the sense of the Roman poem. We added also annotations which though very brief are somewhat more useful, if I am not mistaken, than the two commentaries with which certain men have hitherto contaminated this little work. One of those commentators, more idiotic than idiocy itself, pontificates like a fool; the other philosophizes ineptly. But neither says anything to the point. (107)

Any modern ad man would recognize some classic strategies here. Praise the product. Praise the packaging. When possible, slam the competition.

Open Bibliography (330 KB pdf)
(103)   Perraud 1988, 84. An important study of Erasmus and his printers is Vanautgaerden 2008.
(104)   Perraud 1988, 85-86; Thompson and Perraud 1990, 55-58; Jardine 1993, 113-115; Jensen 1996a, 72.
(105)  Erasmus 1978, 280-283; Greene 1986, 8-15; Jardine 1993, 42-45; Cherchi 1998, 53-58; Jeanneret 2001, 207-212, 248-252; Bisello 1998, xii-xix, 33-45.
(106)   Jardine 1993, 113-115.
(107)  Erasmus 1538, 3: Erasmus Roterodamus Ioanni Nevio S. Disticha moralia uulgo Catonis scripta titulo, Neui Theologorum decus, primum diligenter a mendis, repurgauimus, collata Planudis interpretatione tametsi Graeculus ille Romani carminis sententiam saepenumero non assequitur. Addidimus & scholia, perbreuia quidem illa, sed aliquanto commodiora, ni fallor, iis commentariis, quibus duo quidam opusculum hoc contaminaverant, quorum alter insulsissime rhetoricatur, homo ipsa infantior infantia, alter ineptissime philosophatur, uterque [in Greek:] ouden pros epos loquitur.

Posted by admin on September 17, 2008
Tags: Chapter Two

Total comments on this page: 11

How to read/write comments

Comments on specific paragraphs:

Click the icon to the right of a paragraph

  • If there are no prior comments there, a comment entry form will appear automatically
  • If there are already comments, you will see them and the form will be at the bottom of the thread

Comments on the page as a whole:

Click the icon to the right of the page title (works the same as paragraphs)


No comments yet.

Dan Sheerin on paragraph 1:

see also Erasmo de Rotterdam, Los Disticos de Caton comentados: Ed., trans., and notes by Antonio Garcia Masegosa (Vigo: Universidade de Vigo, Servicio de Publicacións, 1997).

May 8, 2009 7:31 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 2:

commenting proverbs] insert on; one can, I think, make a distinction between adagia and proverbs, adagia being, as indicated, “sayings” or “vivid expressions” which may have a moral component, but usually do not (e.g., ouden pros epos [Erasmus, Adagia I v 45: Nihil ad versum] quoted in his dedicatory letter to his ed. of the Disticha, n107), whereas proverbs of the type in Disticha Catonis usually convey an injunction or some advice about good behavior.

May 8, 2009 7:31 pm
Dan Sheerin on paragraph 4:

sententiam saepenumero non assequitur] assequitur should be translated “attain to,” “grasp,” or “get”

more idiotic] better “more wanting in eloquence than speechlessness itself”

rhetoricatur] perhaps “plays the rhetor”; the reference here is surely to Robertus de Evremond who indicates in his dedicatory letter that it is in part a response to a request for instruction in rhetoric.

more idiotic] perhaps something like “less articulate than inarticulateness itself”

philosophizes ineptly] “quite ineptly” or “quite inapproriately”; this is more likely a reference to the anonymous commentary “Summi deus largitor praemii” than to Philippus de Bergamo’s Speculum regiminis. The anonymus begins with an invocation of protreptic to wisdom and philosophy and soon discusses the in terms of their causa materialis, causa finalis, causa efficiens, and causa formalis; the commentary of Philippus de Bergamo, his Speculum Regiminis, begins, after a dedicatory epistle, with an elaborate inventorium.

May 8, 2009 7:31 pm
Paul F. Gehl on paragraph 4:

Thanks for these many, useful clarifications!

May 14, 2009 10:33 am
ChristinaL on paragraph 1:

“…it will be a useful moral reference life-long, both because it will be memorized in part and again because it would become a pocket book for future consultation.”

Would writers of this time have written for their contemporaries only, or would they have expected their work to be consulted by many future generations as well?

September 22, 2009 12:46 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

No question about it, Erasmus was writing for the ages!

September 23, 2009 4:45 pm
Ken Gouwens on paragraph 2:

If “Adagia” as defined usually do not have much of a moral component (as one sees in, e.g., Erasmus’s blushing gloss of “Tussus pro crepitu,” Adagia I vi 63), it may be worth emphasizing that addenda to successive editions of the collection often included moralizing that could be quite heavy-handed.
A fine essay (not mentioned in the bibliography, so far as I can see) that bears directly upon the thinking about ethics that could be inspired by reading the “Adagia” is: Peter Mack, “Rhetoric, ethics and reading in the Renaissance,” _Renaissance Studies_ 19 (2005): 1–21. See esp. pp. 9–11.

September 30, 2009 12:40 pm
Ken Gouwens on paragraph 2:

p.s. — above should of course read “tussis,” not “tussus”; sorry for the typo.

October 1, 2009 7:04 am
Jane Wickersham on paragraph 5:

As insufferably elitist as Erasmus could be, did he not have the skills to back it up? Most humanists probably were not quite up to his standard of textual criticism (if I understand Jardine and Rummel correctly). But, as Paul points out, that did put Erasmus in an inherently ironic, and somewhat hilarious, position; selling his skills to those who he might not have considered worthy of them in order to make a living.

October 4, 2009 6:34 pm
Paul F. Gehl :

You put your finger on the exact point of my “ad man” metaphor, Jane, and its limitations too. Although advertising strategies are clear in the rhetoric of this and many other Erasmian prefaces, it is not always entirely clear whom he was addressing. Certainly he wrote to and for his own circle of humanist friends, but that was preaching to the choir. Effective advertising must also reach a wider audience of book buyers. In this case we have mostly the success of the edition itself (and its frequent reprinting with this exact same preface) as evidence for the wider audience of the advert.

October 12, 2009 5:43 am
Paul Gehl on paragraph 4:

There has been considerable new scholarship on proverbs and proverb collections in recent years. Lorenzo M. Ciolfi summarizes his own contributions and those of others in “‘Quia nihil aliud cupio quam prodesse vobis, studiosi,’ il contributo di Aldo Manuzio alla paremiologia,” in Aldo Manuzio. La costruzione del mito, ed. by Mario Infelise, Venice, Marsilio, 2016, pp. 142-159.

February 16, 2018 10:48 am

You must be login to comment.
Create an account or login