(What follows is a post I wrote this morning for one of my class blogs, which are private.)
Erasmus is sometimes referred to as Erasmus of Rotterdam, but that’s primarily to distinguish him from his namesake, St. Erasmus of Formia, also known as St. Elmo, patron saint of sailors. (That Wikipedia page also says he’s the patron saint of abdominal pain, whatever that means.) But our Erasmus really wasn’t of Rotterdam at all, even if he was born there. He considered himself to belong to that international group of scholars and writers that would later come to be called the Republic of Letters. His “countrymen” were Thomas More, who happened to live in England, and Aldus Manutius, who happened to live in Venice, and Johannes Frobenius, who happened to live in Switzerland.
Centuries later, as World War II was breaking out, the poet W. H. Auden would write of that same sense of connection with people separated by citizenship in the modern nation-states:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
In contrast to this highly cosmopolitan vision, we should be aware that Machiavelli is much more aware of himself as a citizen of one particular city, Florence, whose greatness he wishes to restore. He is as local and particular as Erasmus is universal and general.
And yet, when Machiavelli was in exile from Florence he wrote of how central to his life was his reading of, his conversation with, the great writers of the past. Here he sounds like the truest possible humanist:
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me.
Machiavelli was a complicated guy.