Desiderius Erasmus - Sileni Alcibiadis (1515)

Sileni Alcibiadis (1515)

Erasmus’s Sileni Alcibiadis ("The Sileni of Alcibiades") is one of his most direct assessments of the need for Church reform. It was seen first in Johann Froben’s revised edition of the Adagia published in Basel in 1515. Then, it was published separately by Froben in 1517. This essay compares to John Colet’s Convocation Sermon, though the styles differ.
Sileni is the plural (Latin) form of Silenus, a creature often related to the Roman wine god, Bacchus, thus represented in pictorial art as inebriated, merry revellers, who are mounted on donkeys, singing, dancing, playing flutes etc. Alcibiades is a historical figure from fifth century BC Athens, a politician and a general in the Peloponnesian War. But he figures here more as a character written into some of Plato's dialogues, a young, debauched playboy, whom Socrates tries to convince to seek truth instead of pleasure, wisdom instead of pomp and splendeur.
The term Sileni - especially when juxtaposed with the character of Alcibiades - can therefore be understood as an evocation of the notion that something on the inside is more expressive of a person's character than what one sees on the outside. For instance, something or someone ugly on the outside can be beautiful on the inside, which is one of the main points of Plato's dialogue, Alcibiades, and the Symposion, in which Alcibiades also appears.
In support of this, Erasmus states: “Anyone who looks closely at the inward nature and essence will find that nobody is further from true wisdom than those people with their grand titles, learned bonnets, splendid sashes and bejeweled rings, who profess to be wisdom’s peak”. Erasmus lists several Sileni and then questions whether Christ is the most noticeable Silenus of them all. The Apostles were Sileni since they were ridiculed by others. He believes that the things which are the least ostentatious can be the most significant. For instance, one cannot see the most special aspects of humans. The Scriptures also have Sileni. Erasmus believes that the Church constitutes all of the Christian people. People call priests, bishops, and popes the Church, but they only serve the Church. He criticizes those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. Riches should not be held above everything else. The true point of the Church is to help people lead Christian lives. Priests are supposed to be pure, though when they stray away, no one condemns them. He criticizes the riches of the popes, believing that it would be better for the Gospel to be most important. Furthermore, the Word of God should be most important for people.

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