Erasmus was weary of the life he had once loved so well. We are shaken profoundly when we read his plaintive prayer, “May God gather me soon unto Himself so that I quit this mad world.” For where had the spirit room to live and to grow, now that fanaticism raged through the land? The sublime realm of humanism which Erasmus had built had been overran by enemy hordes and wellnigh conquered; gone were the days of “eruditio et eloquentia”; men no longer hearkened to the subtle and delicate message of imaginative genius, but turned their ears to listen to the rough and passion-wrought babble of politics. Thought had succumbed to mob-frenzy, it had donned the uniform of Luther or of the Pope; the erudite no longer waged war in elegantly phrased epistles and books, but, like fishwives, hurled gross invectives at each other’s heads; none was willing to understand what his neighbour said, but instead each tried to impose his own pet belief, his particular doctrine, upon all the rest. Woe unto him who stood aside and took no part in the game! Twofold hatred was hurled against those who remained aloof. Those who live for the spirit are lonely indeed at times when passion rages. Who is there left to write for when ears are deafened with political yappings and yelpings?
— Stefan Zweig, Erasmus of Rotterdam
Zweig clearly identified with Erasmus, and it’s even more moving when you consider that he published this book in 1934. Eight years later, he and his wife committed suicide in exile, no longer willing to hope for the return of the cosmopolitan ideal destroyed by the world wars. (Theodore Dalrymple wrote a wonderful essay about him that’s also worth reading.) We are fortunate enough to live in more comfortable and peaceable times, which is why I find it especially hard to forgive those who blow on the embers of ideological conflict out of ignorance, boredom, or both. Today’s political arguments, both professional and amateur, make professional wrestling promos look subtle and subdued. However impractical one might find Zweig’s pacifistic ideal, he was at least willing to die rather than compromise it. The least we can do, in our far more advantageous circumstances, is refuse to dignify today’s clownfights with our participation.