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Erasmus Adages ☼

To make proverbs of some Erasmus adages, you could replace "You're . . ." by "It's unwise to . . ." or "Better not" and see what you end up with.

1. A lawsuit doesn't catch flies.

A monkey is a monkey, even if it's wearing gold medals. (1.7.11)

An eagle doesn't catch flies. (3.2.65)

You're making a lawsuit out of the peeping of a donkey. (1.3.64)

You're trying to milk a billy-goat. (1.3.51)

2. A good shepherd makes an effort.

By making an effort, the Greeks reached Troy. (2.2.37)

If you don't have an ox you can drive, drive a donkey. (2.8.4)

It's the task of a good shepherd to shear his flock, not to flay them. (3.7.12)

Not even Jupiter can please everybody. (2.7.55)

Each man's habits make his own Fortune. (2.4.30) [4]

It takes one Cretan to best another. (1.2.26)

Load less on the old horse. (2.8.52)

More changeable than a chameleon. (3.4.1)

One beast knows another. (4.7.57)

The wolf may change his coat, but not his character. (3.3.19)

There's no way you'll be able to make crabs walk straight. (3.7.38)

3. A dolphin does not make lyres.

As much as a turtle worries about a fly. (2.8.100)

It's not for every man to make a trip to Corinth. (1.4.1)

The dog gets angry at the stone. (4.2.22)

Lead the ox when it is willing. (4.1.27) ✪

One cricket loves another; one ant loves another. (1.2.24)

One swallow does not make a summer. (1.7.94)

Puppies smell one way, and pigs another way entirely. (1.8.77)

The Indian elephant doesn't worry about a gnat. (1.10.66)

The vows of Venus are not enforced. (2.4.90)

The whole hedgehog is prickly. (2.9.59)

You know the bird by its song. (4.2.21)

You're teaching a dolphin to swim. (1.4.97)

When you're offered turtle meat, either eat or do not eat. (1.10.60)

One donkey thinks another is lovely, as one pig does another. (4.10.64) [7]

One mule scratches another. (1.7.96)

The donkey prefers straw to gold. (4.8.38)

The fox has many a trick, but the hedgehog has just one big trick. (1.5.18)

The Lydian man had no troubles, so he went out and got some for himself. (2.7.72)

The rabbit is hunted for his meat. (2.1.80)

The rooster can do much as he pleases on his own dungheap. (4.4.25)

The sow that was washed goes back to her mud wallow. (4.3.62)

When the bear is right there, you're still looking for tracks. (1.10.34)

When the jackdaws fall silent, the swans will sing. (3.3.97)

You're trying to shear a donkey. (1.4.80)

The fox is not caught in the snare a second time. (2.5.22) [8]

The jackdaw has nothing to do with a lyre. (1.4.37) ✪ 


"Eagles make efforts, but not at making lyres." — The value of very terse sayings lies to a great extent in how they are applied, to whom and what, and when. By apt juxtapositions they may aquire significance and be telling - serving as metaphorical devices.


From Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Hans Holbein. Modified
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, known as Erasmus and Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, was called Geert Geertsen (same as Gerrit Gerritszoon). Born in 1466 or 1469, he was a Dutch/Netherlandish Renaissance humanist and theologian. He died in Basel, Switzerland, in 1536.


These and other well-known adages and proverbs are handed over by Erasmus too:

To call a spade a spade.

Think before you start.

We cannot all do everything.

Many hands make light work.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Let the cobbler stick to his last (Stick to your knitting).

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was a great Dutch Renaissance humanist, a classical scholar, and a Catholic priest and theologian. He went by the name Gerrit Gerritszoon, but was baptised Erasmus, Desiderius was his self-adopted additional name, and Roterodamus in his scholarly name means "from Rotterdam". His full name was Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus.

Exposing and censuring the debaucheries and crimes of the monks and the clergy, Erasmus did not have what it took to leave the Catholic Church and its abuses, but felt committed to reforming it from within. Yet he preferred to live the life of an independent scholar to avoid any actions or formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression.

With the collaboration of Publio Fausto Andrelini, he formed a collection of Latin proverbs and adages, commonly called Adagia. It is an annotated collection of Greek and Latin adages. The first edition contained around eight hundred proverbs. The book was later expanded to include three thousand items with explanatory essays, and the title was changed to "The Thousand Proverbs," Adagiorum Chiliades. The final edition contained 4,658 adages.

In the work the adages are written in Latin, with commenting essays to each. In these commenting essays is a series of related and quite proverbial sayings annexed to the often cryptical Latin adages. The essays aim at helping the readers's understanding of what wisdom the terse, often cryptical Latin is supposed to carry. The whole work reflects the Reformation attitude that classical texts contain much sensible insight that allow for being enlarged on, to the end of fostering and educating people.

About three decades after Erasmus died, the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement took to condemned him as having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation." Further, all of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV. But since they had been much popular and were spread in countries the Catholic Church did not influence that much, they are extant.

From The Praise of Folly by Erasmus

It is said that Erasmus stands as the supreme type of cultivated common sense - If so, here are titbits of it:


[Merchants:] The merchants are the biggest fool[s] of all. They carry on the most sordid business and by the most corrupt methods. Whenever it is necessary, they will lie, perjure themselves, steal, cheat, and mislead the public. Nevertheless, they are highly respected because of their money. There is no lack of flattering friars to kowtow to them, and call them Right Honorable in public. The motive of the friars is clear: they are after some of the loot.

[Philosophers:] The philosophers . . . are reverenced for their beards and the fur on their gowns. They announce that they alone are wise and that the rest of men are only passing shadows. . . . The fact that they can never explain why they constantly disagree with each other is sufficient proof that they do not know the truth about anything. They know nothing at all, yet profess to know everything. They are ignorant even of themselves, and are often too absent-minded or near-sighted to see the ditch or stone in front of them.

[Monks:] These smooth fellows simply explain that by their very filth, ignorance, boorishness, and insolence they enact the lives of the apostles for us. It is amusing to see how they do everything by rule, almost mathematically. . . . The monks of certain orders recoil in horror from money, as if it were poison, but not from wine or women.


A Few Erasmus Proverbs in Latin and English

The Erasmus adages in Latin are expressions, ways of wording. As such they are a mixture of hints (innunendos), referrals to ancient Greek and Roman beliefs and tales, fixed phrase fragments, and proverbs proper. Further, many of his adages are so terse that they are quite impossible to make much out of unless you know Latin. And even if you do, explanations may be needed too, to see what medieval revivers of this old source of Humanism put into them by use of traditional understanding coupled with their interpretations.

Many European proverbs in French, English, and other languages take off from these adages, the Erasmus heritage: there may be an "Adage root" in some of the proverbs you are familiar with. A few Erasmus proverbs in Latin and approxiate translations with a few comments are offered below.

The books at bottom of the page can help us understand more of what is traditionally implied; what these often cryptical expressions address, refer to or stand for, so to speak.


Amicorum communia omnia – Among friends all things should be in common. (1.1.1)

Amicitia aequalitas. Amicus alter ipse – Friendship is equality. A friend is another self. (1.1.2)

Non bene imperat, nisi qui paruerit imperio – Men are rarely fit to command, who have not been accustomed to obey. (1.1.3)

Inter malleum et incudem – Between the hammer and anvil. I.e. [I am] between the hammer and the anvil, [I am] so surrounded with evils that there is perhaps no way of escaping. (1.1.16)

Qui quae vult dicit, quae non vult audiet – He who says what he wills, which will hear does not wish to. (1.1.27)

Malo accepto stultus sapit – Trouble experienced makes a fool wise. (1.1.31)

Aliquid mali propter vicinum malum – Misfortune caused by a bad neighbour, or: Harm because of an evil neighbour. (It often happens that harm comes to neighbours of evil neighbours, just because they are neighbours. Conversely: living in a solid, decent neighbourhood is a good thing.) (1.1.32)

Manus manum fricat – One hand rubs another (Added to it: Give something andtake something). (1.1.33)

Gratia gratiam parit – One favour gives birth to another. (1.1.34)

Par pari referre. – To return like for like. Cf. "One good turn deserves another. Roll my log and I will roll yours." (1.1.35)

Annus producit, non ager – The year brings the yield, not the field. (A wider perspective – but it is both nature with its seasons, climate, over-all conditions and all else and the field who do so.) (1.1.44)

Suo iumento sibi malum accersere – To fetch trouble for oneself on one's own beast. E.g. Some people cause their own misfortunes by their own stupid efforts, (1.1.50)

Incidit in foveam quam fecit – He fell into a pit that he had dug. (1.1.52)

Ignavis semper feriae sunt – For sluggards it's always holiday. (2.6.12)


Erasmus adages, Erasmus proverbs, Erasmus thought, Literature  

Bland, Robert. Proverbs, Chiefly Taken from the Adagia of Erasmus, with Explanations; and further Illustrated by Corresponding Examples from the Spanish, Italian, French and English Languages. Vols 1 and 2. London: T. Egerton, 1814. ⍽▢⍽ Online at

Erasmus, Desiderius, William Watson Barker. The Adages of Erasmus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. ⍽▢⍽ A selection. Online at Google Books.

Erasmus, Desiderius, John N. Grant, Denis L. Drysdall. Collected Works of Erasmus: (The) Adages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. ⍽▢⍽ Seven volumes among several dozen others contain the adages.

Erasmus, Desiderius, The Praise of Folly. Tr. John Wilson. Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, 2008. ⍽▢⍽Google Books, full view.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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