Rabelais, Erasmus, and the crisis of exemplarity

‘Was Rabelais an atheist?’ That was the question that the Annales historian Lucien Febvre set out to interrogate in his 1942 monograph The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century. His response has become a classic expression of the dangers of applying later conceptions and terminology to earlier historical periods:

‘When dealing with sixteenth-century men and ideas, when dealing with modes of wishing, feeling, thinking, and believing that bear sixteenth-century arms, the problem is to determine what set of precautions to take and what rules to follow in order to avoid the worst of all sins, the sin that cannot be forgiven – anachronism.’

For Febvre, Rabelais exemplified the impossibility of atheism in his historical milieu.

Whatever the case with Rabelais’ (non-)atheism, many historians would be reluctant to rely on so firm a notion of what was historically possible within any given period. Periods, after all, are heuristic tools, and many different historical rhythms can be identified at any one time. We can helpfully pursue these thoughts here by looking at the shifting rhythms of exemplarity in the work of Rabelais himself.

Historians interested in conceptions of the past often present the Renaissance as a decisive turning-point. An increasing sensitivity to anachronism is thought to have led to the collapse of ancient modes of exemplarity based on the idea of an unchanging human nature. According to many accounts, the hold that exemplarity exercised on the early modern imagination proved to be self-defeating. When people actually attempted to put the theoretical model into practice by imitating the ancients (whether in literature, law, or military tactics), the outcome was a much stronger appreciation of their historical distance from antiquity.

A further weakening of the model of exemplarity arose from the profusion and complexity of ancient exempla. Collections of different exempla led to a more nuanced sense of their various historical contexts. They also revealed that some individuals were credited with conflicting character traits ‒ a particular problem given that metonymy was one of the dominant modes of exemplarity: if the very name of an ancient figure such as Alexander was shorthand for particular qualities, what to do when those qualities included drunkenness and lust as well as courage and daring?

The contrast between Christianity and paganism is seen as another important facet of the Renaissance crisis of exemplarity. Important reflections on this religious contrast are found in Rabelais’ comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel (published between 1532 and 1552) as well as in one of Rabelais’ inspirations, the writings of the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Rabelais presents a council scene in which the bad king Picrochole (‘Bitter bile’) is told by his rash advisers that if he pursues wars of aggression he will become ‘the most sprightly and knightly prince there ever has been since the death of Alexander of Macedonia’. Suggesting that he divide his army, the advisers then plot out step by step the conquests he should seek (they even start alluding to those conquests in the past tense, as if anticipating that they have already happened). At one point Picrochole suggests that he should rebuild the temple of Solomon once he has conquered Jerusalem, but his advisers tell him not to rush: ‘Do you know what Octavian Augustus used to say? Hasten slowly. It behoves you first to hold Asia Minor, Caria, Lycia, Cilicia, Lydia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Carrasia, Satalia …’

Charles' V Plus Ultra device, Seville
The Plus Ultra device of Emperor Charles V with the Pillars of Hercules, here displayed on the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento) of Seville, Spain

Thus far Rabelais’ scene seems to show the power of ancient models of military conquest. The allusion to Alexander is a hit at the imperial ambitions of the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. Charles promoted comparisons with Alexander and other ancient models: his device Plus ultra (‘More beyond’) showed two columns, standing for the Pillars of Hercules, which in antiquity were emblems of the limits of the world, but had now been superseded by Charles’ conquests in Mexico and Peru. Rabelais’ satire may also be expressed through imitation of a literary model, the speech in Herodotus (5.49) where Aristagoras of Miletus tries to persuade the Spartans to invade Asia Minor by listing the successive stages of the conquest (Rabelais had translated parts of Herodotus).
The Christian twist to the exemplary model comes after Picrochole’s predictable defeat. The Alexander allusion is recalled as the wise giant-king Grandgousier rebukes an envoy sent by Picrochole:

The time has passed for such conquering of kingdoms to the harm of our Christian brothers and neighbours. Such imitation of ancient heroes – Hercules, Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio, Caesar and so on – is contrary to the teaching of our Gospel, by which we are each commanded to guard, save, rule and manage his own realms and lands, and never aggressively to invade those of others. And what the Saracens and Barbarians once dubbed prowess we now call brigandage and evil-doing.

The sense of change is strengthened by the fact that even the non-Christians Saracens no longer approve of vainglorious dreams of conquest.

Rabelais’ account of Picrochole’s ambitions is a brilliant re-working of themes found in the moral and educational writings of Erasmus. The saying of Augustus to which Picrochole’s counsellors allude ‒ ‘hasten slowly’, festina lente ‒ is the subject of a long discussion in Erasmus’ Adages (a miscellany of discussions of ancient proverbs originally published in 1508); Rabelais seems to expose its dangerous malleability by putting it in the mouth of speakers themselves more intent on haste than caution. Besides the Adages, Rabelais was picking up Erasmus’ 1516 work Institutio Principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince). Erasmus there warns that the ancient historians have to be read ‘forearmed and selectively’ rather than as storehouses of useful advice:

‘Both Herodotus and Xenophon were pagans and very often present the worst type of prince, even if they wrote history for the purpose of … portraying the image of an outstanding leader.’

Erasmus then turns his attention to the characters the historians depict: ‘when you hear of Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius, or Julius, do not let the prestige of a great name seize you: you are hearing of great and raging bandits.’ Rabelais’ re-working of Erasmus is the more pointed because Erasmus’ educational treatise had been dedicated to the young Charles V.

Reading Erasmus and Rabelais should caution us against constructing too strong an antithesis between classical antiquity and the Christian era. Erasmus openly acknowledges that his condemnation of ‘bandits’ is taken from the Stoic author Seneca (De Beneficiis 2.18.6). And Rabelais’ council scene includes an ‘old nobleman’ Echephron (‘Prudent’) who objects to the planned conquests with an argument that is lifted directly from the mouth of the counsellor Cineas in chapter 14 of Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus: when Pyrrhus/Picrochole, prompted to explain his final goal after all the toils of military conquest, replies that they will then rest at their ease, Cineas/Echephron asks why they do not take their rest straightaway without exposing themselves to danger first. There are also classical precedents for Grandgousier’s analysis of the change in the moral evaluation of aggressive warfare from ‘prowess’ to ‘brigandage’: Thucydides, for example, observes that brigandage was not disavowed by characters in the Homeric poems and was still in his own day honoured in remote parts of Greece that clung to the old ways (1.5).

Looking deeper into the rhetoric of exemplarity in the Renaissance unsettles, then, some of the over-simple polarities used in the construction of intellectual history. And as our project progresses, we will be using anachronism to unsettle scholarly complacency further as we explore the temporal schisms that lurk just below the surface of the ancient discourse of exemplarity.