Part IV: Political Theory and the Role of Humour

What was Erasmus’ sense of good governance? Erasmus admired Plato’s supposed doctrine of philosopher kings. (I write “supposed” because, in my reading, The Republic is about the impossibility of a polity run by philosopher kings.) In particular, as a poet king (the “humble psalmist”), Erasmus put forth King David (in contrast to the leadership of Moses) as a model, even though David did not live up to his ideal Christian prince. In his own historical period, as philosopher kings, Erasmus admired Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria from 1503 to 1564 and the designated successor to his brother, King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556, and also, co-monarch with his mother of Spain. King Sigismund of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1506 to 1548 was another esteemed philosopher king.

Both Ferdinand and Sigismund, in the interpretation of Erasmus, aspired to free themselves from prejudice and error. That is the connection to humanism. But both men were part of imperial systems. Erasmus, in fact, admired both men as imperialists. It is not surprising that in modernity, with the rise of liberalism and the nation-state system over the last 500 years, in spite of recent retreats, Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince  (1516), which stands in stark contrast to Machiavelli’s The Prince, has largely been forgotten.

But why? Did not Ferdinand using judicial and administrative reforms transform the countries over which he had jurisdiction into model polities? Did he not end the religious conflict in Germany in the Peace of Augsburg by allowing the German princes to determine the religion of their subjects? Though favouring reform, like Erasmus, he was hostile to Protestantism. But he made peace with the Protestants after decades of war, and peace was the highest accomplishment of any statesman.

Sigismund also secured his nation’s wealth, culture and power while expanding the territories under his authority by introducing fiscal and monetary reforms. He too was a man of peace who compromised with Albert, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, when Albert defected from the Holy Roman Empire and made Lutheran Protestantism the religion of Prussia in 1525. Most interesting of all, Sigismund, though a devout Roman Catholic, accorded religious protection, not only to Greek Orthodox Christians, but to Jews. Poland would become the heart of the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

Thus, unlike Machiavelli, Erasmus lauded absolutist monarchies, even if they engaged in activities with which he disagreed, but only as long as they were enlightened and only as long as they expanded their empires by treaties and marriages and not by war. They had to be men that reformed their state, delivered good governance while advancing the cause of peace. Though accepting imperialism, Erasmus, like Machiavelli, insisted that the prince and his consort should live in close contact with their subjects and become part of the people rather than living like a god above them. Even as absolute monarchs, they had to be both enlightened and live in accord with the rule of law and advance such rule, the law serving to benefit all subjects. Erasmus opposed class privileges; that, however, was an aspirational goal not realizable in his time. Humour was timeless; other than being a man of peace, a ruler had to have a good sense of humour.

Why King David then? He was a warrior king who began his career by organizing a militia and renting out its services. In addition to being a mercenary, he was lascivious and definitely not pious; he sent a man to his death just to bed his wife. But he was intimate with God. Further, he was a poet-prince. Finally, he knew how to govern on behalf of his people.

I now need to write something that I should have written at the beginning. But you would not have recognized how absurd it is. For there is no simple set of generalizations that one can list about Christianity, Judaism, the views of Erasmus or even characterizing a Jewish political philosophy, buy especially a Jewish sense of humour. That is certainly true. On the other hand, I would also insist that generalizations on these subjects are revealing and valuable. But, you can argue that both of these statements are contradictory and cannot be true at the same time. If one is right, the other is misleading.  And I would say, in a traditional vein of Jewish humour, that you too are right.

Given these contradictory generalizations, I want to turn to the sense of humour of Erasmus comparing it with the Jewish sense of humour; both are a means of poking fun at the powerful. First, Erasmus was a punster who played on the meaning of a word. His book, The Praise of Folly, was dedicated to Thomas More, not simply because More was his best friend, but because More reminded him of the Greek word, moria. Moria means folly, and no one was further from folly for Erasmus than Thomas More. In Hebrew, the word for teacher is מוֹרֶה (moré) and Erasmus in the book is concerned with teaching mores. As he says, humour entails jest with a touch of learning and a dash of wit. Thus, he mocked foolosophers, superfools who want to look like wise men.

Jewish humour is generally substantive as well, but it often uses the mundane for illustrations – noshing is sacred. The puns employed are less obvious, more subtle and less intellectual. But also less witty. For wit is the ability to connect disparate subjects for the purpose of amusement. But Jewish humour, instead of bringing the disparate together, walks a tightrope between the absurd and the logical, trying to keep them separate while they throw light on one another. In contrast, Erasmus joins the two sources of criticism of him, those who assert his humour is too focused on trifles and beneath the concerns of a famous theologian versus others who insist it is too sharp.

The Marx brothers may do slapstick, but Jewish humour does not usually depend on slapstick, that is, on physically slipping on a banana peel and deriving laughter from the humiliation of others. Neither is Erasmus’ humour. Both generally offer humour directed at the mind. Both are generally sarcastic even while engaged with the frivolous and the absurd precisely to reveal that the emperor wears no clothes, that is, to strip naked the pomposity of those in power who occupy positions of authority. 

Thus, Jewish humour and the comedy of Erasmus are both used to undercut those in authority, ridiculing grandiosity, hypocrisy and self-indulgence. Both esteem the worth of common people. Erasmus holds up to ridicule the foolish fellow who pretentiously cites philosophers. Woody Allen, on the other hand, is fascinated by philosophy, but by espousing and referring to philosophical precepts himself, holds philosophy up to ridicule. He does so by making himself the butt of his jokes.

Erasmus’ jokes are mostly aimed at the Other, at humiliating the other rather than revealing himself as a shlob and a schlemiel. Erasmus insists, “Consider in addition on how many score I attack my own self.” This is the joke; he rarely does. For the one that makes this claim is Folly. His targets are fools who claim to predict the future or settle a very subtle or difficult issue that, in the end, is revealed as trivial. He plays the fool as a disguise to make fun of others. In contrast, Woody Allen reveals himself as speaking about the loftiest matters but simply exposing himself as a navel gazer preoccupied with himself and minutiae.

Both Erasmus and Jewish humour discomfort the listeners or readers. The humour of Erasmus is never savage or cruel, a characteristic of most Jewish comedians. They are both gentle. But look at how the two different realms work. Erasmus may not be cruel, but he is biting. Unlike Saint Jerome, Erasmus never named his targets for his objective is diversion, not insulting another individual even when the other responsible for vice. Vice in general was his target, not the failures of individuals. But he mocks the other, not himself.

The language of humour makes a difference. Isaac Bashevis Singer once gave a lecture at York University on Yiddish humour in a packed hall with over 600 people. He started by saying that many in the audience had asked him to lecture in Yiddish. But, of course, he said, “I cannot.” Most people in the audience did not speak Yiddish. He regretted that he could not lecture in Yiddish for Yiddish was a much richer language than English even though English had a vocabulary of a million words and Yiddish only 20,000. The talk was 90% in Yiddish.

How was that possible? He asked the audience how many words can one say in English to mean buffoon. In my recollection, the most we got up to was ten words. Singer then asked how many words were there in Yiddish? Between the audience shouting out words and Singer responding, we got to almost a hundred words as members of the audience were rolling in the aisles as each new word was shouted out. Those laughing the hardest included those who had believed that they never before had heard a word of Yiddish. That was the talk. It took 50 minutes and was the most hilarious evening that I have ever spent.

In the vein of Singer, Erasmus would not stoop to insult, especially himself. But he was quite prepared to play the buffoon like a street-performer with ears like a rabbit and a sophist style in his rhetoric as he praised himself – that is, Folly, for Folly is the writer and performer and pleasure is her elixir (and a condiment as well, the ketchup he puts on his Big Mac). Erasmus as the Fool acts like Donald Trump. Instead of playing the schlemiel, he lauds himself. And everyone there is asked to acknowledge his superiority, to be yeah-sayers. The more pretentious they are, the more they smile wisely and applaud by “wiggling their ears.”

Folly poses as a god. Folly laps up adulation. Folly knows himself better than anyone and recognizes that he knows more than the generals, more than the intelligence services, more about drones, technology, taxes, campaign financing, the environment, the courts, trade, transportation, infrastructure, and, of course, golf, even more than Tiger Woods. Is that not better than mock modesty? If you are going to lie, why hire a servile rhetorician? Do it yourself. After all, a man is entitled to praise himself, or get his lackeys to do so if no one else will.

And who is Folly’s parent? The father of Potus was Plutus, the god of riches. Potus was conceived because his father bedded “the lustiest of maidens.” Potus was suckled by two other maidens, Methe (Tipsy) and Apaedia (Ninny), and Potus henceforth surrounded himself with beautiful women: Philautia (Self-love) with her supercilious air, Kolakia (flattery) with laughing eyes and clapping hands, Lethe (Forgetfulness) with eyes half shut as she was about to doze off, Hedone (Pleasure) who is drenched in perfume, and last, but far from least, the one with the restless eyes, Anoia (Imbecility). Watch Imbecility to see how indebted everyone is to Potus and why.

Potus seduced her because she was unable to calculate the perils and pains of childbirth, to be followed by all the troubles of rearing a child, not the baby, but Potus himself. Potus would remain a lifelong infant, for infants are kissed, infants are coddled, infants are cuddled. Potus learned one thing and one thing only at a very early age – it does not pay to grow older and one should remain an infant one’s entire life.

For Potus, “At the mere nod of his head, all institutions, both sacred and profane, are turned upside down.” His Christian followers could support a leader who would not recognize Humility if it spat in his face. Most economic conservatives support a leader who went bankrupt five times and saved his companies in the end by a cash infusion from an unknown source when he could not get a loan from any respectable American bank.

Potus, nevertheless, controls wars, truces, trade deals, legal decisions, political alliances, international treaties, and on and on. All other gods, the chair of the Senate, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State and the rest of them that live atop Mount Olympus or Capitol Hill, without his support, would “eat in the kitchen” or be forced into early retirement. He bestows benefits on others, not only men but even gods at will. His sacred powers know no bounds.

Further, he is honest because his speeches are extemporaneous and unlaboured. He says whatever pops into his head because there is nothing in his head; there has been no preparation. Thus, everything seems simple for him because it is. He is totally transparent. He says he wants to make money from his Washington Hotel. He does not wear a pretended expression. Rather, he is always exactly like himself. But Erasmus never names who he is. He is an ideal type.

In many cases, Jewish comedians are not afraid to name others. Harvey Weinstein for his assaults on women is called an alter noyef, an old pig who is clearly not kosher, but is also called a chazer, a fraud who tries to appear kosher. If a male, who is noxious, physically or in his attitude, and tries to hit on you as a female, brand him as a farshtunkener, the very sound of the word revealing his character. Or if he tries to charm you into bed, call him a fanferer, guilty of double-speak. The list goes on.

The biggest difference between the humour of Erasmus and Jews is that Erasmus put spirituality off limits, put transcendence and the ecstatic out of bounds. Erasmus had a deep feeling for and even identification with Christ. Christ was the source of his inner consolation and was there to save all humans from unrest and dissatisfaction. He was so devoted to God that even at the end of his life he did not ask for a priest to whom he could make a final confession.

His kind are the butt of the most hilarious scene in the movie Long Shot. Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron take an ecstasy trip by each swallowing a Molly to seek self abandonment in the quest for transcendence and to reach a supernatural and super human state of rapture, to get outside of their socially formed selves. Ecstasy is derived from the Greek, ek, “outside” their static or frozen selves. Evidently, when taken, they experience their lives as full of happiness and joy without a care in the world, while, unlike the effects of acid or magic mushrooms, they retain a definite hold on reality. Though not a religious action in this context, the goal seemed to be the same as that of Erasmus, having an ecstatic consciousness to achieve union with the divine.

However, for Jews, God is not off limits as a target for humour. Look at the book of Jonah which is a satire of the authoritarianism of God, a big fish tale in which God commands the typically reluctant prophet to go out and not simply save Israel from its self-destructive ways, but save the people of Nineveh, a huge city that took three days to cross and was the Las Vegas of its time. Jonah arrives in Nineveh, passes on God’s warning of fire and brimstone and immediately all the citizens throw ashes on themselves and accept God for saving them from their evil propensities. Even the animals prostrate themselves and throw ashes over their heads. Finally, Jonah never ends up accepting his role as a prophet, but sulks even as his merciful God forces a large broad-leaf plant that was shading him from the hot sun to wilt. Jonah is as hilarious a satire as The Praise of Folly, but the funniest part is that the rabbis make it compulsory reading on Yom Kippur.

You may have been puzzled about why I made The Praise of Folly the reference text for my discussion of Erasmus and Jews when, to the best of my knowledge, there is no reference to Jews in the book. I hope this blog provides an explanation.

If Erasmus had known Jews and if he could have put aside his piety, I believe he would have loved them.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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