Courtesy in Discourse By Desiderius Erasmus: Reading and Meditation

October 26, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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What people choose to claim for themselves is their own affair. We are gifted with the power of choice, however reasoned and with whatever deliberative processes we choose to pursue. We hold our convictions, but when do our convictions lead us astray? The great Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus was no stranger to turbulent public debate. But, ever the humanist, he attends not only to the content of the dispute, but also to its form and intent. In this selection, drawn from his debate with Luther on free will, Erasmus’ starting point is humility. He aims to call things as he sees them, to “merely put forward with simple diligence those considerations which move my mind.” His convictions are born of self-questioning and a desire to learn. “If anybody shall try to teach me better, I will not knowingly withstand the truth.” Erasmus’ appeal is to courtesy in discourse, rather than invective in dispute. Doesn’t the spirit of inquiry require a mutual assumption of learning, of an open exploration of the considerations which move our minds? How often do we repel others who may desire to learn? When are we disinclined to suspend our judgment until we listen more? What spirit to we bring to our discourse, especially with those with whom at first and second glance we may disagree? It is rare to possess both a powerful mind and a gentle heart. 

Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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