Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


What is the greatest novel in the English language? This is a hard question, which we shall not attempt to answer. We leave every one of our readers to enjoy his own selection. But the question has been answered, in his own way, by a living novelist. Mr. Walter Besant declares that the greatest novel in the English language is Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth. That it is a great book no one fit to judge will deny, or hesitate to affirm. It is full of adventure and hairbreadth escapes; it exhibits a large variety of life and character; its wit, insight, and pathos show the mind and hand of a master; and a certain vivid actuality is derived from the fact that its pictures and portraits are to a large extent historical. Gerard and Margaret, the hero and heroine of the story, are the father and mother of the great Erasmus; respecting whom Charles Reade closes his book with a noble and pregnant piece of writing.

"First scholar and divine of his epoch, he was also the heaven-born dramatist of his century. Some of the best scenes in this new book are from his mediaeval pen, and illumine the pages whence they come; for the words of a genius, so high as his, are not born to die; their immediate work upon mankind fulfilled, they may seem to lie torpid; but, at each fresh shower of intelligence Time pours upon their students, they prove their immortal race; they revive, they spring from the dust of great libraries; they bud, they flower, they fruit, they seed, from generation to generation, and from age to age."

Erasmus was born at Rotterdam, probably on October 28, 1467. He was a "love child." His father, Gerard of Tergou, being engaged to Margaret, daughter of a physician of Sevenbergen, anticipated the nuptial rites. Gerard's relations drove him from his country by ill usage; when he went to Rome, to earn a living by copying ancient authors, they falsely sent him word that his Margaret had died; upon which he took holy orders, and became a sworn son of the Church. Finding his Margaret alive on his return, he of course lived apart from her, and she did not marry another. They had a common interest in their boy, whose education they superintended. Margaret died of the plague, when Erasmus was thirteen; and Gerard, inconsolable for her loss, soon followed her to the grave. Their boy was left to the guardianship of relatives, who cheated him of his little patrimony, and compelled him to adopt a religious life. Erasmus was thus a priest, though a very uncommon one. How curious that so many great wits and humorists should have worn the clerical garb! To mention only four, there were Rabelais, Erasmus, Swift and Sterne; each of whom has added to the world's gaiety, and also helped to free it from superstition. Christians who prate about the "ridicule" of holy things in which Freethinkers indulge, should be reminded that these four priests of the Christian religion could easily, between them, carry off the palm for profanity; while for downright plain speech, not always avoiding the nastiest of subjects, there is hardly a professed sceptic who could hold a candle to them.

Erasmus divorced himself from religious duties as early as possible. He detested the monks, regarding them for the most part as illiterate, bigoted, persecuting, and parasitical vermin. His life was devoted to literature, and in the course of his travels he contracted a friendship with the most eminent and able men of the age, including our own Sir Thomas More, the author of the famous Utopia. Erasmus died on July 12,1536. The money he had accumulated by the exercise of his pen, after deducting some handsome legacies to personal friends, he left to relieve the sick and poor, to marry young women, and to assist young men of good character. This was in keeping with his professed principles. He always regarded charity as the chief part of useful religion, and thought that men should help each other like brothers, instead of fighting like wild beasts over theology.

Erasmus was a contemporary of Luther, and there is an excellent Essay by Mr. Froude on both these great men. He gives the palm to Luther on account of his courage, and thinks that Erasmus should have joined the Reformation party. But the truth is that Erasmus had far more intellect than Luther; he knew too much to be a fanatic; and while he lashed the vices and follies of the Catholic Church, he never left her fold, partly because he perceived that Luther and the Reformers were as much the slaves of exclusive dogmas as the very Schoolmen themselves. Erasmus believed in freedom of thought, but Luther never did. To sum up the difference between them in a sentence: Luther was a Theologian, and Erasmus a Humanist. "He was brilliantly gifted," says Mr. Froude, "his industry never tired, his intellect was true to itself, and no worldly motives ever tempted him into insincerity."

The great mass of the writings of Erasmus are only of interest to scholars. His two popular books are the Colloquies and the Praise of Folly, both written in Latin, but translated into most of the European tongues. The Colloquies were rendered into fine, nervous English by N. Bailey, the old lexicographer. The Praise of Folly, illustrated with Holbein's drawings, is also to be read in English, in the translation of Sir Roger L'Estrange; a writer who, if he was sometimes coarse and slangy, had a first-rate command of our language, and was never lacking in racy vigor.

Erasmus wrote the Praise of Folly in the house of Sir Thomas More, with whom he lodged on his arrival in England in 1510. It was completed in a week, and written to divert himself and his friend. A copy being sent to France, it was printed there, and in a few months it went through seven editions. Its contents were such, that it is no wonder, in the words of Jortin, that "he was never after this looked upon as a true son of the Church." In the orthodox sense of the term, it would be difficult to look upon the writer of this book as a true Christian.

Folly is made to speak throughout. She pronounces her own panegyric She represents herself as the mainspring of all the business and pleasure of this world, yes, and also of its worship and devotion. Mixed up with capital fooling, there is an abundance of wisdom, and shrewd thrusts are delivered at every species of imposture; nay, religion itself is treated with derision, under the pretence of buffoonery.

Long before Luther began his campaign against the sale of Pardons and Indulgences, they were satirically denounced by Erasmus. He calls them "cheats," for the advantage of the clergy, who promise their dupes in return for their cash a lot of happiness in the next life; though, as to their own share of this happiness, the clergy "care not how long it be deferred." Erasmus anticipated Luther in another point. Speaking of the subtle interpreters of the Bible in his day, who proved from it anything and everything, he says that, "They can deal with any text of scripture as with a nose of wax, and knead it into what shape best suits their interest." Quite as decisively as Luther, though with less passion and scurrility, he condemns the adoration of saints, which he calls a "downright folly." Amidst a comical account of the prayers offered up to their saintships, he mentions the tokens of gratitude to them hung upon the walls and ceilings of churches; and adds, very shrewdly, that he could find "no relics presented as a memorandum of any that were ever cured of Folly, or had been made one dram the wiser." Even the worship of the Virgin Mary is glanced at—her blind devotees being said "to think it manners now to place the mother before the Son."

Erasmus calls the monks "a sort of brainsick fools," who "seem confident of becoming greater proficients in divine mysteries the less they are poisoned with any human learning." Monks, as the name denotes, should live solitary; but they swarm in streets and alleys, and make a profitable trade of beggary, to the detriment of the roadside mendicants. They are full of vice and religious punctilios. Some of them will not touch a piece of money, but they "make no scruple of the sin of drunkenness and the lust of the flesh."

Preachers are satirised likewise. They are little else than stage-players. "Good Lord! how mimical are their gestures! What heights and falls in their voice! What teeming, what bawling, what singing, what squeaking, what grimaces, making of mouths, apes' faces, and distorting of their countenance; and this art of oratory, as a choice mystery, they convey down by tradition to one another." Yes, and the trick of it still lives in our Christian pulpits.

"Good old tun-bellied divines," and others of the species, come in for their share of raillery. They know that ignorance is the mother of devotion. They are great disputants, and all the logic in the world will never drive them into a corner from which they cannot escape by some "easy distinction." They discuss the absurdest and most far-fetched questions, have cats' eyes that see best in the dark, and possess "such a piercing faculty as to see through an inch-board, and spy out what really never had any being." The apostles would not be able to understand their disputes without a special illumination. In a happy phrase, they are said to spend their time in striking "the fire of subtlety out of the flint of obscurity." But woe to the man who meddles with them; for they are generally very hot and passionate. If you differ from them ever so little, they call upon you to recant; it you refuse to do so, they will brand you as a heretic and "thunder out an excommunication."

Popes fare as badly as preachers, monks, and divines. They "pretend themselves vicars of Christ." Reference is made to their "grooms, ostlers, serving men, pimps, and somewhat else which for modesty's sake I shall not mention." They fight with a holy zeal to defend their possessions, and issue their bulls and excommunications most frequently against "those who, at the instigation of the Devil, and not having the fear of God before their eyes, do feloniously and maliciously attempt to lessen and impair St. Peter's patrimony."

Speaking through the mouth of Folly, the biting wit of Erasmus does not spare Christianity itself. "Fools," he says, "for their plainness and sincerity of heart, have always been most acceptable to God Almighty." Princes have ever been jealous of subjects who were too observant and thoughtful; and Jesus Christ, in like manner, condemns the wise and crafty. He solemnly thanks his Father for hiding the mysteries of salvation from the wise, and revealing them to babes; that is, says Erasmus, to fools. "Woe unto you scribes and pharisees" means "Woe unto you wise men."

Jesus seemed "chiefly delighted with women, children, and illiterate fishermen." The blessed souls that in the day of judgment are to be placed on the Savior's right hand "are called sheep, which are the most senseless and stupid of all cattle."

"Nor would he heal those breaches our sins had made by any other method than by the 'foolishness of the cross,' published by the ignorant and unlearned apostles, to whom he frequently recommends the excellence of Folly, cautioning them against the infectiousness of wisdom, by the several examples he proposes them to imitate, such as children, lilies, sparrows, mustard, and such like beings, which are either wholly inanimate, or at least devoid of reason and ingenuity, guided by no other conduct than that of instinct, without care, trouble, or contrivance."

"The Christian religion," Erasmus says, "seems to have some relations to Folly, and no alliance at all to wisdom." In proof of which we are to observe; first, that "children, women, old men, and fools, led as it were by a secret impulse of nature, are always most constant in repairing to church, and most zealous, devout and attentive in the performance of the several parts of divine service "; secondly, that true Christians invite affronts by an easy forgiveness of injuries, suffer themselves like doves to be easily cheated and imposed upon, love their enemies as much as their friends, banish pleasure and court sorrow, and wish themselves out of this world altogether. Nay, the very happiness they look forward to hereafter is "no better than a sort of madness or folly." For those who macerate the body, and long to put on immortality, are only in a kind of dream.

"They speak many things at an abrupt and incoherent rate, as if they were actuated by some possessing demon; they make an inarticulate noise, without any distinguishable sense or meaning. They sometimes screw and distort their faces to uncouth and antic looks; at one time beyond measure cheerful, then as immoderately sullen; now sobbing, then laughing, and soon after sighing, as if they were perfectly distracted, and out of their senses."

But perhaps the worst stroke of all against Christianity is the following sly one. Folly is said to be acceptable, or at least excusable, to the gods, who "easily pass by the heedless failures of fools, while the miscarriages of such as are known to have more wit shall very hardly obtain a pardon."

Did space permit we might give several extracts from the Praise of Folly, showing that Erasmus could speed the shafts of his satire at the very essentials of religion, such as prayer and providence. Were he living now, we may be sure that he would be in the van of the Army of Liberation. Living when he did, he performed a high and useful task. His keen, bright sword played havoc with much superstition and imposture. He made it more difficult for the pious wranglers over what Carlyle would call "inconceivable incredibilities" to practise their holy profession. Certainly he earned, and more than earned, the praise of Pope.

At length Erasmus, that great injur'd name
(The glory of the priesthood and the shame!)
Stemm'd the wild torrent of a barbarous age,
And drove those holy Vandals off the stage.

Erasmus was, in fact, the precursor of Voltaire. Physically, as well as intellectually, these two great men bore a certain resemblance. A glance at the strong, shrewd face of Erasmus is enough to show that he was not a man to be easily imposed upon; and the square chin, and firm mouth, bespeak a determination, which, if it did not run to martyrdom, was sufficient to carry its possessor through hardship and difficulty in the advocacy of his ideals.

Rome, says, the proverb, was not built in a day; and Christianity was not built in a century. It took hundreds of years to complete, as it is taking hundreds of years to dissolve. For this reason it is a very complicated structure. There is something in it for all sorts of taste. Those who like metaphysics will find it in Paul's epistles, and in such dogmas as that of the Trinity. Those who like a stern creed will find it in the texts that formed the basis of Calvinism. And those who like something milder will find it in such texts as "Love one another" and "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."

It must be confessed, however, that the terrible aspects of Christianity have been most in evidence. Religion had its first roots in ignorance and terror, and it must continue to derive sustenance from them or perish. People were never allured by the simple prospect of heaven; they were frightened by the awful prospect of hell. Of course the two things were always more or less mixed. The recipe was brimstone and treacle, but the brimstone predominated, and was the more operative ingredient.

Present-day sermons tell us chiefly of God's goodness; older sermons tell us chiefly of what is called his justice. Puritan discourses, of the seventeenth century, were largely occupied in telling people that most of them would be damned, and explaining to them how just and logical it was that they should be damned. It was a sort of treatment they should really be thankful for; and, instead of protesting against it, they should take it with folded hands and grateful submission.

How many preachers have depicted the torments of the damned! How many have described the fate of lost souls! They positively delighted in the task, as corrupted organs of smell will sometimes delight in abominable stenches. Even the average Christian has regarded damnation—especially the damnation of other people—with remarkable complacency, as a part of the established economy of the universe. But now and then a superior spirit revolted against it instinctively. Thus we hear of Gregory the Great, in an age when it was devoutly believed that the noblest Pagans were all in hell, being deeply impressed with the splendid virtues of the emperor Trajan, and begging for his release; a prayer which (the legend says) was granted, with a caveat that it should never be repeated. Thus, also, we hear of the great Aquinas kneeling all night on the stone floor of his cell, passionately beseeching God to save the Devil.

This revolt against eternal damnation has mightily increased. Civilised men and women will not—positively will not—be damned at the old rate. The clergy are obliged to accommodate their preaching to the altered circumstances; hence we hear of "Eternal Hope," and "Ultimate Salvation," and similar brands on the new bottles in which they seek to pour the diluted old wine of theology.

Archdeacon Farrar is the type of this new school—at least in the Church of England. He is a wealthy pluralist; in addition to which he earns a large income as a writer of sentimental books, that immensely tickle the flabby souls of "respectable" Christians. Not quite illiterate, yet nowise thoughtful, these people are semi-orthodox and temporising. They take the old creed with a faint dash of heresy. Hell, at any rate, they like to see cooled a bit, or at least shortened; and Archdeacon Farrar satisfies them with a Hell which is not everlasting, but only eternal. We believe that Dr. Farrar expressed a faint hope that Charles Bradlaugh had not gone to hell. It was just possible that he might get a gallery seat in the place where the Archdeacon is booked for a stall. Dr. Farrar is not sure that all the people who were thought to go to hell really go there. He entertains a mild doubt upon the subject. Nor does he believe that hell is simply punitive. He thinks it is purgative. After a billion years or so the ladies and gentlemen in the pit may hope to be promoted to the upper circles. Some of them, however, who are desperate and impenitent, and perfectly impervious to the sulphur treatment, will have to remain in hell forever. The door will be closed upon them as incorrigible and irredeemable; and the saints in heaven will go on singing, and harping, and jigging, regardlesss of these obstinate wretches, these ultimate failures, these lost souls, these everlasting inheritors of perdition.

Humanity is growing day by day. So is common sense. Every decently educated person will soon insist on the abolition of hell. The idea of a lost soul will not be tolerated.

A theologian of painful genius (in its way) imagined a lost soul in hell. He had been agonising for ages. At last he asked a gaoler "What hour is it?" and the answer came "Eternity!"

Thoughtful, sensitive men and women, in ever increasing number, loathe such teaching, and turn with disgust from those who offer it to their fellows.

We are not aware that men have souls, but if they have, why should any soul be lost? We are not aware that there is a God, but if there is, why should he let any soul be lost? Sending souls to hell at all is only punishing his own failures. If he is omnipotent he could have made them as he pleased, and if they do not please him it is not their fault, but his own. Let it be distinctly understood that a creator has no right over his creatures; it is the creatures who have a right to the best assistance of their creator. The contrary doctrine comes down to us from the "good old times" when children had no rights, and parents had absolute power of life and death over them.

In the same way, God had absolute power over his creatures; he was the potter and they were the clay; one vessel was made for honor, and one for dishonor; one for heaven, and one for hell. But civilisation has changed our conceptions. We regard the parent as responsible for the child, and God is responsible for the welfare of his creatures. A single "lost soul" would prove the malignity or imbecility of "our father which art in heaven."

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