Sunday, 28 September 2014

How to develop self-confidence by identifying promising opportunities

If you want to guarantee your personal safety, and that of your family and friends, the best you can do is to look for inspiration in the writings of a man who turned self-protection into his life purpose, a man who wrote thousands of pages explaining how people can avoid physical and intellectual predators. His name was Desiderius Erasmus, but he is better known as Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).

In the first year of college, philosophy students are presented with the Latin citation “Homo hominis lupus,” which means “man is a wolf to other men.” This citation, which is commonly attributed to the English author Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), was actually first formulated by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the early 16th century. 

A compilation of effective principles

The theme of self-protection against all kinds of predators permeated Erasmus' work and life from beginning to end. In fact, one could summarise Erasmus' writings as an attempt to compile and formulate the principles of effective self-defence. 

Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a priest living in Gouda, a town located in the centre of Holland, and his mother the priest's housekeeper. After becoming pregnant, she left Gouda and retired to her parents' home in Rotterdam, where she gave birth to Erasmus in 1466.

Later on, she returned to the priest's house in Gouda, carrying the baby in her arms. Despite the fact of being an illegitimate child, Erasmus was then raised and educated by his parents. At an early age, he was taught by his father how to read, as well as the rudiments of Latin, but that was as much knowledge as he could receive at home.

When Erasmus turned nine years old, his father found him a place in a Latin school in Deventer, a Dutch town located a hundred kilometres east from Gouda, close to the German border. At the Latin school, Erasmus followed the classical curriculum in grammar, rhetoric, history, and arithmetic.

Rationality is the way to happiness  
Identify your most useful asset

From all the things he learned at school, Latin was by far the most useful. At that time in history, Latin was the lingua franca in Europe, the language written and spoken by cultivated individuals in all European countries, used in all public records and official correspondence.

Learned individuals in England, Italy, Germany, and France were all able to read Latin, and compose letters, although in relatively simple sentences. Bishops, priests, and even lowly monks and clerics, all possessed a reasonably good command of the language inherited from ancient Rome. 

Erasmus made a very good use of the years he spent in the Latin school. All in all, his education had consisted of learning Latin grammar, repeating aloud what Roman writers had composed a thousand years earlier, and translating paragraphs for their books.

Indeed, the methodology of Latin schools was based on learning by rote, however boring and suffocating that may sound. Nonetheless, the dispirited methodology did not prevent Erasmus from attaining excellence in writing and speaking Latin.

After he finished school, he spent five years as a private teacher, but after realizing that the only way to secure a steady income was to become a priest, he opted for pursuing a religious ordination. For this reason alone, Erasmus became a priest in 1492, shortly after his 26th birthday.
Escape unworkable situations

Nonetheless, it only took him four years to develop a profound abhorrence of the priestly condition, and return to a scholarly life. In 1496, Erasmus convinced his bishop to grant him a scholarship to study in Paris, where he happily settled down as a theology and philosophy student.

By that time, Erasmus had already managed to read a large number of books in Latin, and was familiar with most titles available in bishopric and monastic libraries in southern Holland. After his arrival in Paris, he expanded his reach thanks to the Sorbonne library, which housed the latest theological treatises written in France, Italy, and Spain. 

It had not taken long for Erasmus to realize that it was much more interesting to spend his life reading books and philosophizing than working as a priest in the Dutch countryside. In Paris, he met students from all over Europe, exchanged ideas with them, and conceived a plan for earning a living as an independent scholar. 

When Erasmus reflected about his possibilities of earning an income outside the Catholic Church, he came to the conclusion that his best asset was his knowledge of Latin. Unsurprisingly, since he had devoted fifteen years of his life to learning and practising Latin, orally and in writing, he regarded his linguistic skills as his most promising source of income.

Facing an enormous challenge

Nonetheless, his plan to earn an independent living represented a major leap of faith, since you have to realize that, in the late 15th century, most teachers and professors were appointed directly by the Catholic Church. Despite Erasmus' optimism, it was actually very difficult to earn a living as a self-standing scholar. 
Undaunted by the enormous challenge, Erasmus came up with a brilliant idea in his early thirties, an idea that would allow him to earn money as a writer, at the same time that he continued his higher education. 
During his studies, Erasmus had realized that most people's interest in Latin was limited to memorizing a few citations to add weight to their arguments, impress their colleagues, and mystify their friends. 
Even Catholic priests, who were supposed to know Latin fairly well, were often unable to understand complex sentences, even if they were always trying to show off by citing ancient Roman authors in front of ignorant peasants.

Rational living, rational working   
Take advantage of the trend

Realizing the popularity of Latin quotations, Erasmus conceived the project of compiling several hundred of them them in a volume. And since he had access to the Sorbonne library, one of the best in Europe, he rightly concluded that finding Latin citations was not going to be a problem.

All he had to do was to avail himself of paper, ink, and a feather, and copy Latin citations one after the other. And that's exactly what he did. Erasmus sat for two months in the Sorbonne library, copying as many Latin proverbs and citations as he could find. By the time he had finished, he had compiled eight hundred classical quotations, more than enough to fill a hundred-page book.

A year later, precisely at the turn of the 16th century, Erasmus succeeded in having his collection published under the title “Adages.” The volume quickly attained great success, and became a standard textbook in Latin schools and universities across Europe. 

The “Adages” went thorough three editions in Erasmus' lifetime. In the second one, published in 1508, he amplified the collection to three thousand citations, which he continued to expand until they reached four thousand in the third edition, published in 1536. The “Adages” quickly became a classic of European literature, even if the book was nothing but a list of citations without much order or explanation.

 A clear list of priorities

All his life, Erasmus was a lover and collector of books. His passion reached such an extent that, on many occasions, he would confess to his friends that books constituted his most treasured possession, and that if he had to choose between purchasing new clothes or new books, his mind was already made in favour of the latter.

The “Adages” provide intelligent, entertaining, and often paradoxical advice on various fields of human activity, but the major theme that dominates the collection is the theme of self-protection. If I was asked to summarize Erasmus' entire collection of proverbs in one sentence, I would say that the best way to protect your life, family, and possessions against predators of all kinds is to learn the principles of effective self-defence.

In a sense, Erasmus Latin citations are nothing but a summary of lessons drawn from other people's mistakes compiled for the purpose of teaching readers how to behave. The “Adages” refer in particular to mistakes made by individuals in ancient Rome and Greece, but the conclusions remain universally valid. 

I regard the “Adages” as a masterpiece of self-protection advice because its usefulness, broadness, and beautiful language. Indeed, not all recommendations made by Erasmus are consistent, but they have the advantage of covering many different situations, and providing profound insights about human nature. 

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book The 10 Principles of Rational Living

[Image by aplha du centaure under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]

Consistency: The key to permanent stress relief