Erasmus on Teachings of Christ, Plato, and the Prince

“Before all else the story of Christ must be firmly rooted in the mind of the prince.  He should drink deeply of His teachings, gathered in handy texts, and then later from those very fountains themselves, whence he may drink more purely and effectively.  He should be taught that the teachings of Christ apply to no one more than to the prince.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, trans. Lester K. Born. (New York: Columbia, 1936), p. 148.

This statement reflects Erasmus’ idealistic understanding of politics as the greatest writer among the Christian humanists.  Erasmus taught that a prince could rule most justly by following the teachings of Christ.  The next paragraph in this very text demonstrates how Christian humanists combined Christian and classical ideas:

“The great mass of people are swayed by false opinions and are no different from those in Plato’s cave, who took the empty shadows as the real things.  It is the part of a good prince to admire none of the things that the common people consider of great consequence, but to judge all things on their own merits as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  But nothing is truly ‘bad’ unless joined with base infamy.  Nothing is really ‘good’ unless associated with moral integrity.” Ibid.

Similar to Plato’s philosopher-kings, the virtuous prince must see beyond what the common people understand as important.  Simply put, Moral integrity is the most significant characteristic of a leader.  As we read in the following paragraph:

“Therefore, the tutor should first see that his pupil loves and honors virtue as the finest quality of all, the most felicitous, the most fitting of a prince; and that he loathes and shuns moral turpitude as the foulest and most terrible of things.  Lest the young prince be accustomed to regard riches as an indispensable necessity, to be gained by right or wrong, he should learn that those are not true honors which are commonly acclaimed as such.  True honor is that which follows on virtue and right action of its own will.  The less affected it is, the more it redounds to fame.  The low pleasures of the people are so far beneath a prince, especially a Christian prince, that they hardly become any man.”Ibid.

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