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Erasmus and the Copius Use of Copius Copia

(I am inserting this piece about Erasmus here to keep my notes altogether — this is one of the “supplemental pieces” I am posting here to keep track of my reading in these areas in general.)


“Indecent words should be utterly unknown to Christian speech, and no attention should be paid to the Cynics, who consider no act shameful to name that is not shameful to perform, and an act that is not shameful to perform in private not shameful to perform in public” (603).


“I really dug the sweet letter you wrote.”

This above quote, taken from the very beginning of Erasmus’s subcategory of “Indecent Words,” demonstrates both the codification of what was considered “indecent” linguistically at the time of this writing, as well as giving information about the counter-example of the Cynics. This sentence offers an insight into the nature of decency versus indecency in the time of Erasmus, the culturally held view of the Cynics, the linguistic codification of these ideas, and the clear separation of acceptable acts between the private and the public spheres. Additionally, Erasmus specifically says, “Indecent words should be utterly unknown to Christian speech and no attention should be paid to the Cynics,” yet is mentioning this in such detail, he does exactly what he advises his readers not to do. In instructing others not to engage in a particular act, he must, to some degree, engage in it himself, both by “paying attention to the Cynics,” and to listing some of the “indecent” words that “should be utterly unknown to Christian speech.”


When looking at the dictionary for the common usage of the word “cynic,” there appears to be some disparity in the current and original uses of this word:



1) A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.

2) A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.

3) Cynic: A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.[1]



Cynics comprised a branch of philosophy that traces its roots back to ancient Greece; one of the first to codify the Cynic principles was a student of Socrates. Originally, their outlook was based in beliefs that human beings, as reasoning creatures, could live in ways that were natural to humans, rather than basing their thoughts, actions, and behaviors upon social conventions, which were culturally and historically situated. They also believed that the world belonged to everyone and that unhappiness arose due to false beliefs that society placed upon the desirability and undesirability of particular states, possessions, values, or customs. Because of this rejection of convention for convention’s sake, Cynics were known to behave in non-normative ways and to eschew many of the culturally-held practices and taboos. Their basic tenants are quite similar to Buddhist philosophy, and their presence in Roman times likely contributed to the early spread of Christianity, with some claiming that Jesus was actually a Jewish cynic[2]. However, because of the socially disruptive nature of their philosophy and the ways that it was enacted, social conservatives disapproved, and their movement was generally disdained by the upper echelons of society.


Clearly, by the time Erasmus is writing, the affiliation between the Cynics and the early Church have been laid to rest, though perhaps because of their previous influence, he feels compelled to mention them. By the time Copia was written, The Church had achieved, and was beginning to lose, its status as the supreme ruling power in Europe. Its early beginnings as an emerging institution were conducive to philosophies that encouraged counter-dominant ideologies, but by the time of Erasmus, such leanings would have been a threat to its power structure and ongoing integrity, thus, perhaps, his admonishment to ignore them.


I am likewise curious about how much the conservative bent that delegitimizes the revolutionary discourse of the Cynics (who by now were not a viable or visible branch of philosophy in the West) also contributes to the regulation of language regarding the decent and indecent. The Cynics, with their disregard for following cultural conventions, did not (apparently) avoid the usage of “indecent” words, nor did they consider things such as “modesty” and “shame” (emotions cited by Erasmus) when fornicating, defecating, or masturbating in public; they not only spoke of these acts, but did them.


The codification of “indecent” words cited by Erasmus follows much the same cultural conventions as those represented by ancient Roman society. Given his wide study and adherence to Latin as the supreme language, it is possible, then, that at least some of his particular classifications regarding “indecent” language arises from Latin sources, as well as from the conventions of his day. Erasmus claims that “‘to piss’ is not an indecent word (though ‘to make water’ is a more decorous expression), but it is immodest to piss in public. On the other hand, ‘shit’ is an improper word, though the action is neutral” (603). Apparently, in ancient Rome, “basic words for ‘urinate’… seem to have been less emotive than that for ‘defecate,'” though both would seem equally neutral (Adams 2[3]). Erasmus also states that “the word ‘vulva’ is respectable, but ‘cunt’ is highly indecent,” which also mirrors conventions from older usages of Latin (Adams 2). It is also interesting to note that the sexual parts Erasmus chooses as his example for acceptable and unacceptable labels may be partially influenced by the Latin texts he has read where “the obscenity for the female parts would probably be considered by most speakers to be coarser and more emotive than any word for the male organ” (Adams 2). Specifically, cunnus, which Erasmus uses to denote a “highly indecent” form of description, “occur[ed] in the speech of all classes when the speaker wishes to create an impact by using a word which has a strong taboo character” (Adams 81). The terms that Erasmus deems “respectable” are likely translations of more medically-oriented discourse rather than the vernacular. In a sense, the “indecent” is the intersection between taboo and vulgarity, as it is the latter usage that perhaps makes it “indecent.”


In this section on “Indecent Words,” Erasmus does also admit that many of these conventions are socially constructed, so while not approving of the Cynics, he at least in this sense shares part of their worldview. He notes, for instance, that “there are certain parts of the body which are not dishonorable in themselves, yet are kept covered because of a sense of decency peculiar to civilized man” (603). He also admits that there is no reliable way to discover what is decent or indecent, and that these categories can be discerned “only from usage, and I do not mean the usage of all and sundry, but of those whose speech is modest” (603). In this somewhat circular argument, Erasmus says that we can judge what is decent because it is the speech that modest people use, but how then do we know a “modest person” if we do not know what constitutes decent speech? Though he does not belabor this point, it is a rather vague and problematic means of assessing whether or not speech is decent, and rather highlights the contingent, vague notion of “decency” that the aforementioned Cynics violate.


The places where Erasmus admits that these conventions are constructed is notable (especially given the shortness of the passage), yet he still seeks to adhere to an underlying sense of decency or morality, despite his inability to clearly define that basis. It is as though he believes this morality to be grounded in an unshakable truth regarding the cosmological principles of the Church, though he is unsure exactly how or why that is. Though he is not comfortable fully disclosing the constructed nature of this moral system, he seems to have a senses that these morals are historically and culturally contingent, and yet somehow embedded in the teachings of the Church. It is easy to see, even in this examination, how these two seemingly conflicting ideas could simultaneously alienate both the conservative members of the Church, as well as the Protestants who were seeking to break with that tradition. In a sense, Erasmus incorporates both of these ideas — the contingent and the absolute — into his philosophy, even as it relates specifically to the use of “indecent” language within that discourse.  In his advice to the reader to “pay not attention to the Cynics,” one wonders if perhaps his attention to him has helped to create this tension in his writings.

[2] Such as scholar Burton Mack.

[3] Adams, JN. The Latin Sexual Vocabulary. Baltimore, MD: Johns  Hopkins UP: 1993.


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