It’s Erasmus Who Prevents Me from Believing in Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories range from explaining, on one end of the spectrum, single events like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK, to, on the other end, unlocking the mysteries to all human power structures and dynamics, as evidenced in the intrigues of globalization, finance, secret societies, and even individual power players who may or may not be coordinated in syndicates of some sort. All conspiracy theories, however, share some assumptions about human potential, control, and intentionality that run counter, I’d argue, to a conception of human agency presented by rhetoricians throughout the ages.

Such were my thoughts as I led my class into a foray of De Copia, the Renaissance textbook on rhetoric by Erasmus of Rotterdam. So I’d like to share a meaty quote from our class textbook,  The Rhetorical Tradition, by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, that provocatively summarizes Erasmus’s influence in a kind of dissoi logoi that certainly leaves us uncertain about a lot of things, including the infallibility of human knowledge and agency:

Erasmus is generally regarded as a key figure in the Renaissance, both as one who brought Italian learning north and as one who made major contributions in his own right. Historian Anthony Grafton and literary scholar Lisa Jardine argue that Erasmus attempted to professionalize humanism as a philological discipline. Applied to sacred texts, such analysis could become a means not only to verbal fluency but also to spiritual insight and piety. On the other hand, rhetorician Thomas O. Sloane sees method in the madness of The Praise of Folly. Sloane argues that Erasmus, through the persona of Folly, identifies himself with the Greek Sophists and their method of exploring arguments through contraries, or dissoi logoi. Sloane maintains that Erasmus saw method as leading ultimately to insight into the fallibility of human knowledge, not to a self-evident world system. If every issue has at least two sides, then one must argue for the most probable. Failing that, one must surrender to folly—that is, give up the idea that reason will provide a definitive answer, and decide on the basis of historically determined constraints and personal circumstances. For most people most of the time, this fallibility of human knowledge requires accepting social conventions, including common beliefs, as the delusions necessary to collective life. For some people at exceptional moments, awareness of this fallibility leads to the rejection of conventional wisdom in favor of a quest for spiritual transcendence that will seem mad to the common folk but that is the only possible antidote to human fallibility. 

The quote on Erasmus sums up my critique of the inadequacy of conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories are rooted in a belief that there is “a self-evident world system”—evident, that is, if you can uncover it. The knowledge and power of that system are in the hands of the few, but the system is knowable by those who can peel back the obfuscations and train their eyes on what is “really” going on.

My problem with conspiracy theories is the grandeur and control they ascribe to human agency. If there’s a hidden agenda operative somewhere that is the “real cause,” there is as well a belief in human control, capacity, talent, coordination, and the like. There’s the belief that these things not only exist, but that they are determinative (and susceptible to discovery and exposure).

None of this rings true to my own understanding of myself as an agent (one who is relatively intelligent and accomplished) or to groups and individuals I’ve come to know directly and indirectly over the span of the decades of my life. When I look at every accomplishment I’ve achieved, I see as much luck and accident and randomness as I see design and intention and agendas. When I look at my own failings as well as those of others, I see incompetence as a bigger factor, overall, than malevolence. True, there is malevolence—both in me and in others—in certain instances. But I can’t see it as the essential component that a conspiracy designation would suggest it is.

At such times, faced with a continuum where both incompetence and malevolence may be seen as possible keys, I turn to Kenneth Burke, our 20th century Erasmus, to tune the judgment:

The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.  When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. (Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, p. 41)

Rule: So much of what’s wrong with the world is the result of simple sloppiness, ignorance, inability—in a word, mistakenness or error or fallibility. Part of my response to conspiracy theorists is, simply, “It’s Occam’s Razor, man.” Don’t over-complicate things. Or: “The banality of evil.” The simplest explanation is best; when things go wrong it’s usually more ridiculous and ordinary than diabolical and architectonic, a point made poignantly by the coiner of the phrase “banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. We needed that book to contextualize one of the most evil episodes of recorded human history as partially on the slope of a “comedy of errors”—i.e., in the complicities of bureaucracies and unthinking individuals and institutions—rather than a cosmic epic tragedy of genuine conspiracy intended and pursued by knowing agents.

This is not to say we should let our guard down and naively deny the cautions that conspiracy theorists provide. The system is rigged in all the ways the critics (not all of whom are conspiracy theorists) have long been identifying. Capitalism, racism, sexism, finance, empire—all operate in both conscious and unconscious ways to consolidate power, subjugate masses, and perpetuate entrenched structures. There are bad actors exploiting privilege and pursuing oppression and dominance. These things operate and thrive in all the contemporary socioeconomic and political structures available to us.

Of course. But if we make the move to accept, as our basic condition and salvation, a submergence into uncertainty, we can (1) forgive a portion of the “intentionality” of the rigged systems, and (2) become persuaded that the whole picture is not controlled by any empowered group or human agent. We can, with Erasmus, come closer to “accepting social conventions, including common beliefs, as the delusions necessary to collective life.” Tempered by the humility implicit in such humanism we can group together and build consensuses with assertions that may not provide definitive answers, but yet enable and support better, newer versions of the common good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *