What could we still learn from the insights of a long-dead thinker? I had no idea. But after travelling to 12 cities that were also visited by humanist Desiderius Erasmus more than 500 years ago, I have found the man behind the name. In dozens of fragments, actually, spread across the Europe like a gauze of stories. In my search to uncover the legacy of the man who is often referred to as the ‘first European’, I spoke with people who, often unintentionally, embodied the story of Erasmus and modern-day Europe. In my fifth story, ‘At the end of the trail’, I describe three remarkable meetings: in Rome I listen to a Syrian refugee’s life story, in Cambridge I talk to a professor who discovered a piece of Erasmus and in Basel a young anthropologist questions my world vision.

Haven’t read the other stories of the In Search of Erasmus series yet? Find Job’s stories here. 

About In Search of Erasmus: Over the next few weeks, you can join Job Zomerplaag in the footsteps of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers. After having lived and studied in Erasmus’ birthplace Rotterdam, he became fascinated by the man and his legacy. In 12 cities across 7 European countries, he collected stories of modern-day Europe with the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus as a travel guide.

 

Valleys of isolation

The train rumbles through the landscape, passing a succession of valleys of isolation and hilltops of intense happiness. The carriages being pulled along the track by the engine feel safe and familiar. It is there, on the soft plush upholstery of a train seat, that I started to appreciate solo travelling.

Before I left, I’d never considered for a moment how lonely Erasmus must have felt during his travels. Erasmus believed that the less he engages with others, the more purely he could express his deepest thoughts. I find it impossible to isolate myself completely. Precisely where the trail stops, I decide to continue my journey. This is when I discovered the piece of Erasmus in the minds of Philippe, Professor Rex and Marta.

 

Refugee in Rome: travelling against the flow

34-year-old Philippe left his homeland Syria in 2011 to study psychology in Italy. After the Syrian civil war broke out, he travelled against the flow of refugees back to Aleppo to care for his sick father. After his father’s death, he brought his mother and sister to Rome, the city where I meet Philippe giving a guest lecture to a primary school class.

Philippe shares his life story with Italian primary school children

During the talk, I notice how little the children know about the war in Syria. In fluent Italian, Philippe explains what the conflict is all about and that his compatriots are fleeing Syria to escape the bullets of both Assad and so-called Islamic State. At the end, I approach Philippe and ask him whether he isn’t surprised by the ignorance of the schoolchildren. He looks at me and unfolds his hands; they seem to hold an invisible edition of ‘In Praise of Folly’: “As long as they keep asking questions, I know that we’re not forgotten.”

 

Professor in Cambridge: a piece of Erasmus in our time

An historic edition of Erasmus’ best-known book lies on the solid wooden desk in Professor Richard Rex’ office. In 2015, the head of theology studies at Queen’s College, the Cambridge University college where Erasmus spent many years teaching, discovered a lost verse in the margins of a book that is attributed to Erasmus.

“Unlike scientists, scholars of philosophy rarely make discoveries: the discovery of a ‘piece of Erasmus’ is something that only happens once in a hundred years,” the professor explains with modest pride.

Professor Richard Rex

Professor Rex browses through old manuscripts almost daily. One day, his eye fell on a couple of lines written in the margins of a book. After extensive research – including some Googling – “That’s obviously not a source, but a useful indication” – it proved to be an as yet unknown epitaph by Erasmus. In the verse, Erasmus writes about the death of the English King Henry VII: he confuses the reader as to whether he is criticising the King or the English people. “This discovery won’t change the world, but it’s amazing to be the one to discover a piece of Erasmus at ‘his’ college!”

Student in Basel: the world is too big to be a world citizen

About changing the world: I had intense discussions with 25-year-old Marta Rudnicka. After growing up and studying in Poland, the self-proclaimed world citizen moved to Switzerland to do a PhD in social anthropology at the University of Basel. A stone’s throw from Erasmus’ grave, I talk to her about my inner, call it Erasmian, urge to change the world.

“You’re very naive if you think that you can change the world. Although I do feel it’s important that you continue to believe you can.” Marta’s comment stops me in my tracks and encourages me to ask her the same question: “Do you believe that you can make the world a better place?” “No, I can’t do that,” she answers honestly: she believes that she’d be better helping people understand what’s happening in the world.

Marta with Erasmus

But isn’t it possible at all, without losing sight of your own interest, to strive towards a higher goal? “I don’t believe so. People can only come together temporarily to serve a common goal.”

Her opinion surprises me: Marta feels a world citizen, but doesn’t seem to want to take any responsibility for changing ‘her’ world: “Yes, I feel like a citizen of the world, but the world is simply too big and too diverse for us to be able to strive for a higher goal like world peace.” I think I hear something rumbling in the distance: was that Erasmus, the man who appealed for world peace, turning in his grave?

In Search of Erasmus was originally written for Erasmus Magazine, the independent magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam. You can read the original articles here.

Job Zomerplaag
Job Zomerplaag is an independent journalist based in Rotterdam. For AWE he chronicles life in Europe's cities.