In the Land of the Blind

When I arrived home, Matthew Zell and the peasant named Fedor were standing in the door, chatting like boon companions. 

It seems Matthew’s satchel had been thieved, and this Fedor had shot down the alley, caught the rascal, cuffed his ears, and returned the bag to Matthew, who began rummaging in it for a coin to reward the peasant. 

Matthew, perpetually disorganized, gave the fellow a book to hold while he searched out the money.  The first surprise was when this Fedor opened the book and said, “Is this Latin?”

“Yes,” Matthew said.  “It’s Erasmus’ translation into Latin of the Greek Adagia.”

The peasant studied the page.  His hair stood up in tufts like miniature sheaves among scabby bald patches, and the scar on his face looked like a giant white leech.  “Why write Latin and Greek?  German says all that needs to be said.” 

I would have given the fellow his coin and moved on.  But Matthew loves all people.  He pushed up the sleeves of his scholar’s robe and looked as if he might give this Fedor a Latin lesson.  “It’s like this: the writings of the ancient civilizations were lost to us for centuries.  But the eastern scholars, fleeing the Turks, brought these old writings with them.  So now we have manuscripts from Greece and Rome.”

“Rome!”  The peasant appeared about to spit, then thought better.

“Not Rome now,” Matthew said.  “Ancient Rome.”

“Like Plato.”

Matthew’s eyes, the color of mink, shone.  “Yes!  You know Plato?”

“If one has made a mistake,” the peasant quoted, “and fails to correct it, one has made a greater mistake.”

“By the Muses!  That’s very good.”

But the peasant dropped his head.  “Just a man reading in an ale house.  It stuck in my mind.

“But you see,” Matthew said, excited by his passion for the subject, “the wisdom of the ancients.  From them, one can learn also grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy, poetry, history.  It’s called ‘good letters.’  The studia humanitatis.”


Matthew leaned against the door frame.  “Humanists believe the greatest civilizations were the ancient ones and that, when the Germanic invaders conquered Rome in the fifth century, the world was plunged into intellectual darkness.  They say Europe continues to live in ruins.  Of course, many scholastics rail against valuing anything not strictly ‘Christian.'” 

Fedor scratched under his arm.  “Well, wouldn’t it threaten some to think that there is truth outside the Church?”

“But if man is in God’s image,” Matthew said, “shouldn’t he be able to reach some truth on his own?  Humanists believe man can improve himself by returning ad fontes–to the sources–to reclaim his ancient knowledge.  So they search everywhere for these old texts.  But few know Greek.  So scholars like Erasmus translate the Greek texts into Latin–that more people may read them.”

“If he wished more people to read them,” Fedor said, ‘he should translate them into German.”

“That’s true.  Another truth is that scholars often write in Latin when they want to have discussions among themselves without making their thoughts public to the populace.

“So they can keep us ignorant,” the peasant said.

Matthew looked startled.  Then he said, “Do you read, Friend?”

“No.  But I always listen in the ale houses or on the street.”  Fedor looked at the book in Matthew’s hand and said softly, “Tell me one thing in this book.”

Matthew opened it at random.  “In regione caecorum rex est luscus.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

And a smart peasant, I thought, is a dangerous thing.


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