The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535

By Robert P. Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
A WORLD FALLEN IN A WILDNESS (1527-29)

As our Renaissance play of men and ideas draws toward its close in the early 1530's, More, Vives, and Erasmus increasingly have parts as choral commentators upon a tragic process as wide as their world. In some ways they resemble Shakespeare's Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, one who but too well understands that enormous catastrophe is expanding around him but also that he cannot avert it or even save himself from the general wreck. When a world order collapses, there is no place to hide. One cannot escape mankind in volcanic eruption. Trapped in the machinery of English court life, More and Vives were caught up in its calamities. From his personal magic mountain in Basel, Erasmus sent out occasional discourses upon tyranny, war, and the débacle of the age. Lucky to escape from England, even in dire poverty, Vives spoke from the Low Countries.

Essential clarity of vision, when what it reveals is a wilderness of glorious lost opportunities, is a tragic burden. In their last years, all three men stand as ever more lonely figures. To them was denied the warm, crazy joy of the returned trooper in Erasmus' colloquy, The Soldier and the Carthusianthe pleasure of being mad with so many of mankind, or, more crucially, with so many great and noble princes in state and church alike.

Although the latest humanist criticisms on man and society are profoundly pessimistic—and with intensely realistic warrant— More and his friends stubbornly refused to "hang up philosophy," in Romeo's wild phrase. They refused, heroically, to embrace misanthropic cynicism and despair for mankind, present and to come. Evidently the long-sustained struggle to induce Henry VIII and Wolsey to use their talents and powers to bring about peaceful reform and progress toward a good life for their England had failed. The most obvious prospect was that their world of Christendom, fallen in a wildness of anarchy and tyranny of man

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