Erasmus and Bernard Mandeville: A Reconsideration

By Primer, Irwin | Philological Quarterly, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview
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Erasmus and Bernard Mandeville: A Reconsideration


Primer, Irwin, Philological Quarterly


In Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711), the controversial Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) is made to symbolize the rebirth of learning following the gothic darkness of the medieval era:

At length, Erasmus, that great injur'd Name,

(The Glory of the Priesthood, and the Shame!)

Stemmed the wild Torrent of a barb'rous Age,

And drove those Holy Vandals off the Stage.

(lines 693-96)

It is somewhat ironic that these lines have been more widely known among readers of English literature than anything ever published by Pope's contemporary, the satirist and physician Dr. Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733), because Mandeville cites Erasmus' works far more often than Pope and shows a continuing Erasmian influence throughout his later career. In fact, his quotations or references to the Adagia, the Colloquies and The Praise of Folly (hereafter called the Moria, referring to its Latin title Moriae Encomium) indicate a deeper involvement with Erasmus than most eighteenth-century writers reveal in their own collected writings. I say "most eighteenth-century writers" because a major exception to this last generalization is Jonathan Swift. Swift's considerable indebtedness to Erasmus has been studied at length by Ronald Paulson, Alan S. Fisher, Eugene R. Hammond, and Jenny Mezciems.(1) Yet the presence of Erasmian echoes and allusions in Mandeville's works, documented by F. B. Kaye in his detailed introduction to The Fable of the Bees (1924), seems to have been silently accepted by virtually all scholars of Mandeville after Kaye. The indexes to books on Mandeville by Richard I. Cook, Hector Monro, Thomas A. Horne, Maria E. Scribano, M. M. Goldsmith, and Louis Schneider contain no references to Erasmus or his works. Paulette Carrive cites him somewhat in her very detailed dissertation on Mandeville, but she avoids pursuing at any length the issue of Mandeville's uses of Erasmus.(2)

Perhaps their most plausible reason for not attending to the impact of Erasmus on Mandeville derives from Kaye's judgment that Mandeville's greatest intellectual debt was to Pierre Bayle, author of the celebrated Dictionnaire Historique et Critique which served as an arsenal not only for the Enlightenment in general, but very much so for Mandeville in particular. Bayle, one of the most prestigious of the learned French Protestant exiles, found a home and a teaching position in Mandeville's city Rotterdam, and Mandeville may even have known him at the Erasmian School there. The documentation of his influence upon Mandeville begins in the writings of some of Mandeville's contemporaries in the 1720s, and in our century this influence is first analyzed in Kaye's introduction and notes.(3) It is my intention not to challenge the primacy of Bayle as the major influence upon Mandeville's thought, but to examine the parallels recorded by Kaye and to extend his findings on Mandeville's debt to Erasmus. Since 1924, the year of Kaye's edition, scholarship on Erasmus has increased enormously, and some of it, as we shall see, is directly relevant to this paper.

During Mandeville's lifetime the European intellectual community witnessed a broad resurgence of interest in Erasmus' ideas and writings. In this period many editions of his works were printed, some for the first time in more than a hundred years. Before he died Erasmus had managed to alienate Luther, the monks and other ecclesiastics in the Roman church. Within a few decades his works were placed on the Catholic Index of forbidden books. Only in the later seventeenth century, after the wars of religion had subsided, was Erasmus revived as a disappointed pacifist, a great satirist, a giant among the scholars of the preceding century. This "revival" was possible only because of the shifts that had occurred in intellectual and religious climates up to the 1660s.(4) During the reigns of Queen Anne and the first two Georges, the booksellers continued to publish works by Erasmus, both in Latin and in English translations, most often the Moria and the Colloquies in translations by John Wilson, White Kennett, Sir Roger L'Estrange, Tom Brown, Nathan Bailey or others.

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