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Erasmus: Adagia

Adagia is the title of an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, compiled during the Renaissance by Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. Erasmus’ collection of proverbs is believed to be one of the most monumental ever assembled.

The first edition was published in Paris in 1500, in a slim quarto of around eight hundred entries. By 1508, after his stay in Italy, Erasmus had expanded the collection to over 3,000 items, many accompanied by richly annotated commentaries, some of which were brief essays on political and moral topics. The work continued to expand right up to the author’s death in 1536 (to a final total of 4,151 entries), confirming Erasmus’ vast reading in ancient literature.

Erasmus’ annotated collection reflects the Renaissance attitude toward classical texts as expressions of timeless wisdom. However, the adages have become victims of their own popularity, having been repeated so often that they have become part of folk wisdom. Modern authors, who have an obsession with originality and individuality unheard of in previous ages, think of the adages as cliches and usually avoid using them in their written work.

The adages have become commonplace in many European languages. Equivalents in English include:

The blind leading the blind
A rolling stone gathers no moss
Necessity is the mother of invention
One step at a time
To be in the same boat
A rare bird
Even a child can see it
To walk on tiptoe
One to one
I gave as good as I got
To call a spade a spade
Up to his eyeballs
Think before you start
Many hands make light work
Cut to the quick
Time reveals all things
To lift a finger
To walk the tightrope
Kill two birds with one stone
To swallow the hook
The bowels of the earth
Happy in one's own skin
Hanging by a thread
To grind one's teeth
Nowhere near the mark
To throw cold water on
Complete the circle
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
No sooner said than done
Can't teach an old dog new tricks
A necessary evil
God helps those who help themselves
The grass is greener over the fence
The cart before the horse
Dog in the manger
One swallow doesn't make a summer
To break the ice
To have an iron in the fire
To look a gift horse in the mouth
A snail's pace

Source: Phillips, Margaret Mann. Erasmus on His Times: A Shortened Version of the Adages of Erasmus. (Cambridge, 2009). 

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1466–1536) was one of Europe’s most famous and influential scholars. A man of great intellect who rose from meager beginnings to become one of Europe’s greatest thinkers, he defined the humanist movement in Northern Europe. 

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