Despite its militaristic title, the ‘Enchiridion’ of Erasmus is actually a book of lofty – and peaceful – ideals.
The Latin title is ambiguous, as it can mean ‘dagger’ or ‘handbook’. Erasmus intended it as a handy little book of virtue that could be kept in the pocket and drawn out in order to do battle with temptation (hence the military metaphors).
First published in 1503, the Enchiridion was a huge success in its time. It is perhaps the clearest statement of Erasmus’ Christian Humanism as it relates to individual morality. The particular focus is on avoiding vice, and there are 22 tips on how to do this.
‘enter upon the road of salvation […] with resolute purpose’ (from the 2nd rule)
‘place Christ before you as the only goal of your life’ (4th rule)
‘attempt to progress always from visible things, which are usually imperfect or indifferent, to invisible’ (5th rule)
The problem is that Erasmus draws too sharp a distinction between the physical and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible. In emphasising the purity of the Spirit, he denigrates the body. This process reaches its worst excesses in his discussion of lust and pride.
In a section entitled ‘Remedies against certain special vices, and first against lust’, he talks about kissing ‘the stinking flesh of a harlot’ and handling ‘loathsome filth’ (p. 116). I cannot help but compare the attitude of Jesus, who treated prostitutes with respect and allowed his feet to be washed with the tears of a sex-worker.
‘Against haughtiness and arrogance of mind’, Erasmus writes that one of the principal deterrents to pride is ‘the thought of what you are of yourself, putrefaction in your birth, a mere bubble in your lifetime, the food of worms in your death’ (p. 123). Surely this is going too far?