[*This article was originally written for the New College of the Humanities publication The Anchor in 2016. I have made some updates in what follows.]
Sometime in the summer of 1516, just over 500 years ago, the humanist scholar Erasmus seems to have had a very clever thought. He was awaiting the manuscript of a book written by his friend, Thomas More, about an idealistic and impossible far-off land, which More had been calling Nusquama, from the Latin for ‘nowhere’. As a title, it wasn’t bad. But it lacked the subtlety and enigma of the text itself. When the book finally appeared in print in December of that year under Erasmus’s guidance, it had a new title: Utopia.
We can’t know for certain if it was indeed Erasmus who came up with this enduring neologism, it may have been More. Either way, in one word, this title sums up all of the ambiguity inherent in the concept of utopia. As the poem that opens Utopia explains, it could be both ‘U-topos’, the Greek for ‘no place’, and ‘EU-topos’, the Greek for ‘best place’.
Central to the publication of Utopia was Erasmus’s vision of a pan-European Republic of Letters that would transcend borders and push for European peace. He saw that vision fail many times in his lifetime, and he died with it in shreds. In short, not only would he have criticized 'Brexiteers' for their unimaginative moniker, he would have been deeply saddened by their aims.
Erasmus was unquestionably a citizen of Europe. Born out of wedlock in Rotterdam to a priest and a physician’s daughter in the late 1460s, Erasmus spent his early years in the loosely-associated set of city states of The Netherlands. His unmarried parents both succumbed to the outbreak of plague in 1483, forcing Erasmus to take the only option available to him – life in a monastery. Erasmus’s aversion to such confinement drove his subsequent journeying. As soon as he was able, he entered the priesthood and became secretary for the Bishop of Cambrai. He travelled with him to Rome, and from there to Paris and then to England, in 1499.
This trip to England, the first of many for Erasmus, was pivotal. He travelled in the company of William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, a former student, who was well connected in the court of Henry VII. Thus Mountjoy was able to give Erasmus a thorough introduction to the members of the growing humanist circle in England, including the young Thomas More.
It was also a lucrative trip for Erasmus, who so far had been living in relative poverty on the continent. He gave lectures and enjoyed the company of an elite social class in which he, by this point, had rarely been included. Upon leaving England, however, Erasmus lost £20 to customs officials at Dover. To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent of more than £10,000 pounds today, a heavy blow to a scholar who entirely never escaped the threat of poverty.
The experience prompted Erasmus to speed up production of his Adagia, a selection of ‘adages’ or pithy wise sayings, first published in June 1500. Erasmus makes clear in the dedication that this text is offered to his friends in England, a promise that despite his financial loss his friendship had not grown cold.
Erasmus’s unfortunate experience at the hands of English customs officers also almost certainly inspired him to give first place in his collection to the adage: “Between friends all is common” as marking the entire purpose of the Adagia, which he frames as a freely-given contribution to be shared amongst his friends. Adages themselves, unlike most material possessions, have more value the more they widely-held they are. This idea provides the foundation for Erasmus’s vision of a scholarly “Republic of Letters”, joined by common-ownership of knowledge. As he writes in a later Adage:
“in rebuilding the republic of letters [res literaria] one must display the spirit of a second Hercules, and no fear or weariness at the prospect of your own loss should discourage you from serving the common good [communi utilitate].”
The Adagia were revised and reprinted throughout the early 16th century, taking on a more polemical and political edge with each reprinting. Particularly in 1515, Erasmus revised his Adagia in order to attack the martial attitude of Europe’s monarchs, who he considered too inclined to make war against each other. Erasmus was a pacifist, believing that that what held people in common – their Christianity and humanity – was far more important than anything which could be said to differentiate them. He particularly attacked the use of national stereotypes to stir up anger between European nations, or what he knew as ‘Christendom’, which he maintained should be united “under one roof”:
"nation clashes with nation, kingdom with kingdom, city with city, prince with prince, people with people and, as even the heathen admit is wicked, relative with relative, kinsman with kinsman, brother with brother, son with father; finally, worse in my opinion than all of these, Christians with fellow men, and worst of all, I must add reluctantly, Christians with Christians."
And for what? A monarch’s claim to land is a weak one, which is bestowed and can be taken away by the consent of the people. Nations, he adds, are constantly changing hands, so it seems absurd to spill blood over the question of whether a piece of land ought “reckoned to be Ferdinand’s or Sigismund’s, whether it pays tax to Philip or to Louis”. Such land claims should be settled, as they are privately: either in court or through a negotiated settlement. This pacifism drives Erasmus to advise diplomacy and unity amongst European leaders:
“Let us embrace the cause of peace…. It is to this end that popes, princes, and states must take counsel together. There has been enough shedding of Christian blood now.”
The same year that Erasmus published this plea in his revised Adagia, Thomas More found himself as an ambassador on a trade mission to Flanders, a trip that was hopelessly stalled by diplomatic prevarication. As a result, More made his way to Antwerp, to meet with a member of Erasmus’s scholarly Republic, Peter Giles, and the two engaged in an intellectual discussion on the best state of the commonwealth, which More wrote up as his Nusquama, or Utopia.
Like Erasmus’s adage, everything in Utopia is held in common. Because there is no greed, there is little need for war, which the Utopians consider “an activity fit only for beasts.” Whether More was advocating for his utopic vision is a separate question, but more important than the content of the book was its production. Utopia, like the Adagia is a both a gift to, and microcosm of, the Republic of Letters. Utopia is a ‘no-place’ which exists only in ink, a commonwealth literally made up of words. Prefaced by letters from members of the humanist republic, Utopia becomes a lively community, knit together by the shared knowledge contained within.
There is an allusion to the replacement of private property with such shared learning in Utopia itself, which harkens back to Erasmus’s unfortunate encounter with the customs officials. The narrator of Utopia, Hythloday, is speaking of the amazing proficiency of the Utopians for classical learning, especially Greek, and notes that on his fourth voyage there, he ‘put on board, in place of my wares to sell, a fairly large package of books, having made up my mind never to return [to Europe]’. Hythloday abandons material and private interests in his decision to live in peace with the Utopians, replacing his belongings with knowledge to share among them. In the same way, to join the Republic of Letters, one must leave material possessions behind, bringing only knowledge to share freely.
Both Erasmus and More, in the Adagia and Utopia respectively, were protesting what they saw to be the unnecessary divisions within Europe and the warfare that resulted. More considered one of his greatest achievements to have been his participation in peace negotiations in Cambrai, which resulted in a European peace he hoped God would “stablish and make perpetual.” It, of course, did not last long; war in Europe continued more or less uninterrupted for the following 400 years.
The European Union is a far cry from the Republic of Letters, and it’s not exactly ‘EU-topia’ either; undoubtedly both Erasmus and More would have strong criticisms to raise of it. They would, however, be committed to any enterprise which sought and maintained peace within Europe. And Erasmus, especially, would be devastated to learn that he would once again have to pay customs duties on his next visit to England.
William Barker (2001). Introduction to The Adages of Erasmus (Toronto).
Kathy Eden (2001). Friends Hold All Things In Common (Yale).
Paul Oskar Kristeller (1980). ‘Thomas More as a Renaissance Humanist’, Moreana 65-6, pp. 5-22.
Charles Nauert ‘Desiderius Erasmus’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/erasmus/ (accessed 2 June 2016).
Howard J. Savage (1922). ‘The First Visit of Erasmus to England’, PMLA 37.1, 94-112.