Letters Archive

Fall 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

“The Best Things in Life are Free”
The Humanities and Money Lessons from Erasmus

By Helmut Walser Smith

The best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees. Money—that’s what I want.” So begins the hit song, first recorded by Barret Strong in 1960, then played by a number of groups, including the Beatles and the Flying Lizards. I remember the version of the Flying Lizards best, mainly because I sang it in a bus full of protesters headed to Washington to demonstrate a U.S intervention in Nicaragua. This was in 1983. I know it was the version by the Flying Lizards because, for the first time, people brought boom boxes to demonstrations.

Why did we need money? I could not answer the question then, but I will try to answer it now—not, of course, for U.S. military policy, which then, as now, receives a great deal of money, but for the humanities, which did not and does not.

That humanists need money is not self-evident. In fact, money and contemplative scholarship have existed in historical tension. Of the three medieval orders—those who fight, those who work, and those who pray—we are closest to the latter, and the latter is supposed to be the farthest from the world and its goods. The humanists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries went some way to rectifying our distance from the world. Machiavelli, Erasmus, More—these men hardly shied away from wealth and power, and, indeed, they sought proximity to it. And power sought their counsel. But this world was buried by the passions of the men who pray, and, in Europe, the principles of religious men rolled over the agendas of the humanists like an avalanche over saplings. This is a simplification, to be sure. Thomas More was a man of principle and a humanist; Philipp Melanchton was a reformer who understood compromise. Yet the catastrophic violence unleashed by the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries put an end to their world.

That world reemerged during the Enlightenment, when humanists again did not shy from the world and its allures. Locke, Hume, Voltaire, and Smith all thought about the world and the place of money in it. As a rule, they did not believe that culture flourished in a cave or in a monastery, but, rather, assumed that it burgeoned most fully in an age of luxury and refinement. Their vision, to be sure, was elitist, and in this sense they inherited assumptions from the humanists who preceded them. It is also true that subsequent eras have sometimes considered the most propitious condition of thinking to be solitude or the experience of persecution. But we cannot take these as counsels for considering the structure of a university. For counsel we can, however, look back to the humanists.

For anyone who needs to know why humanists need money beyond funding for basic research in archives and libraries, it suffices to read the letters of Erasmus to his patrons. Erasmus, of course, needed money to live, “particularly because I am not even at liberty to live meanly, on account of my reputation, such as it is, for learning.” But there were four further reasons he needed money. The first was to buy books—no small expense then. A lavishly illustrated Chronology of the World published in Nuremberg in 1493 cost the equivalent of five oxen, for example. Not all books were as expensive, and Erasmus exchanged much knowledge via the hand-written letter, print still being in its infancy. The second expense was for travel. “It is impossible for a fastidious man to go to Italy without a large sum of money,” he complained. And, indeed, Erasmus traveled constantly, as it was in the exchange of intense conversation that ideas were born, horizons expanded, and reputations secured. Erasmus did not particularly enjoy travel; he complained about “all the time that must needs be spent on horseback in dull and unlettered gossiping.” But at least on one occasion, while crossing the Alps, he amused himself by writing the Moriae Encomium, “In Praise of Folly.” The third reason is that people came to him. Erasmus was the most sought-after man in Europe; to be a correspondent of Erasmus was a great honor, to visit him a still greater one. Even as the book revolutionized the exchange of ideas, those “flying carpets of knowledge” could not completely replace the inspiration, charge, and challenge of actual encounter. This is no different today. Finally, Erasmus needed money to help his publishers, as publishing pathbreaking scholarship could be a publisher’s undoing. In 1482, the immense cost of printing one of the first maps of the world sent its publisher into penury. The map showed Europeans north of the Alps where they were and what the earth supposedly looked like. Even if the maps betrayed a few errors (the Indian Ocean is landlocked, Scotland bends around the northern parts of Germany, and of course there are no Americas), its value as a contribution to knowledge was beyond doubt. But knowledge value is not always the same as commercial value, and this remains true today as well.

So why do humanists need money? Erasmus tells us it is to buy books, to travel, to host, and to publish. He also tells us it is to live, and, by living, he also meant working, and working meant reading and writing books and letters. Has this changed? Not really. Some institutions have favored gigantic, multi-centered, highly funded approaches to the creation of humanistic knowledge. Sometimes this is helpful—one thinks, for example, of the UNESCO project on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This project brings together scholars from four continents, and they have collectively revolutionized our understanding of the duration, scope, and tragedy of that particularly heinous traffic in coerced labor. There are also highly funded interdisciplinary projects. The one I know best concerns the history of the German Bourgeoisie; it involved legions of scholars from history, sociology, and literature investigating the genesis, milieu, and career of a particular class in a particular time. It, too, brought forth remarkable works. But these projects are not the norm, and one must always calculate their opportunity costs—what scholars would have brought forth if left to develop their own paradigms. In any case, most humanists have needs closer akin to Erasmus’s. They have a project—like Erasmus’s translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin—and they pursue it on their own, with some need for supplies (books), and some need to travel to people who can help them, and for those people to travel to the location of the person with the original idea. In cases where there is a disjuncture between the knowledge and the commercial value of a project, humanists also need extra money.

So far, the proposal is modest enough. But it is also the case that scholars now, like Erasmus then, have different needs at different stages of their careers, and any proposal to fund the humanities should reflect this fact.

As a young man, Erasmus often traveled to places like Paris, where he hoped to impress the esteemed Paul Gaguin with a book of his own poetry and his tract Antibarbari; the attempt failed, and this was all the worse for the Paris humanists, as intellectual initiative now shifted away from the Seine and instead traveled up and down the Rhine. But the attempt was important, and we may see its importance mirrored in the support institutions now offered to young scholars who need to travel, both in their own countries as well as to other countries, where the networks are different, the scholarly cultures not the same, and the sense for what counts as an important contribution to scholarship differently understood. Books, “flying carpets of knowledge,” are wonderful to this end, but young scholars need to fly with them. This bringing of the word to different places is crucially important—as important as the more vigorously funded work of interdisciplinary research.

As Erasmus became a famous man, he did not have to travel to impress. People came to him. Basel in the 1520s thus became a vibrant center of intellectual life (and, not coincidentally, of commercial activity). By analogy, senior scholars in the humanities need the resources that will allow them to draw people to where they are. Conferences and workshops designed to create books are crucial ways that they shape their fields of knowledge. Erasmus’s princely patrons knew enough not to dictate how Erasmus should structure his networks. But humanists nowadays are bound down by a series of criteria that often have them more trying to meet guidelines than considering what problems are central and how to solve them. Interdisciplinarity should be encouraged, but it should not be an absolute criteria. Cooperation across schools should be furthered, but not by making it the precondition for funding. In economics, it is axiomatic that less advantage is created when you tell people how to spend their money. In the funding of intellectual life, the same principle pertains, perhaps with greater force. Erasmus still had to make his case to his patrons, and the same ought to hold now; funding should be competitive and decided upon by peer review. In the humanities, the possibility for further funding should not be part of the equation. Important should be the intrinsic quality of the proposal, supported in the case of senior scholars by a record of successful completion of works. Erasmus, after all, did not write to live; he lived to write, and where he wrote became a place of possibilities. Making this happen is what funding for senior scholars should be centrally about, but guiding innovation ends by constraining it.

What, then, would humanities funding look like?

1. Research funds. Modest, perhaps $5,000 per year for the life of a project, with the proposal stating a publication date at the outset. This should be open across levels.

2. Expansive funding, especially for younger scholars, to bring what they have to say to the attention of others in places around the world.

3. Grants to senior scholars who are at that stage where they have a shaping effect on their respective fields of knowledge. These grants should be significant, not because senior scholars should have more money, but because of the considerable costs of bringing the world to them.

4. Publishing subsidies. In our own age, as in the time of Erasmus, publishing in the humanities is precarious business, and close correlation between commercial value and intrinsic value is by no means given. The word has always needed help, and, perhaps now, when the world is not so flat as we sometimes imagine, it needs more help than ever. Finally, because not all the world reads English, translation should be part of the general effort to fund the word.

So yes, “Money. That’s what I want.” And it is in the best humanist tradition not to shy from it—to use it, in fact, to make the world of the humanities more present, international, and permanent. Does it require gigantic investment? No, and nor should it be measured against those fields that require such investments. Here we might reflect that in 1960, John Lee Hooker had already composed a version of our song, and had for a few years been singing it in the blues bars of Detroit—“I need some money,” Hooker more modestly sang.

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