"In the time of Erasmus, you didn't get cancelled, but your head went off"

Markthal Rotterdam
Ronald van Raak in front of the Market Hall in Rotterdam.
Bou Ting Wong

Professor Ronald van Raak (Erasmus School of Philosophy) delivers the nineteenth Rotterdam Lecture this year. The lecture 'Hand in Hand: Erasmus and what binds Rotterdammers' will take place on 15 May at Debatpodium Arminius. Van Raak reflects on the increasing polarisation and stresses the importance of shared values. "In order to live together as Rotterdammers, we need something that we share with each other."

Why did you choose this theme?

"People are worried about increasing polarisation and hardening. You can also see this in opinion surveys. I find it worrying that people trust each other less and less or are afraid of each other. At the same time, people say they need connection and a sense of community. They worry about democracy, but also value it. That means something is at stake and people are afraid of losing something."

Desiderius Erasmus is a key figure in your work and also in the lecture. Why?

"In Rotterdam, you can't ignore Erasmus. The university is named after him, there is a statue of him near the Laurenskerk and the Erasmusburg also reminds us of the philosopher. Everyone knows him, yet many Rotterdammers know little about Erasmus. That is a shame, because he is as relevant to the city as ever. He shows us how to live together in a good way. Erasmus teaches us how to criticise each other and yet continue to learn from each other."

Ronald van Raak at the Hofplein
Bou Ting Wong

You are professor of Erasmian values. What does that entail?

"The university trains critical and transverse thinkers, who all have their own views. Yet we also have values in common, being part of the same academic community. The Erasmian values are the values we share as people at the university. We think about those values and engage in dialogue. As a city, it is also important to look for shared values. To live together as Rotterdammers, you need something that connects and that you share with each other, otherwise you are loose sand."

The Rotterdamlezing
The Rotterdamlezing has been a gift from Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus Trustfonds to the city since 2003. The university actively seeks to connect with the city by investigating what is going on among its residents and contributing to solving social challenges. The lectures always have a keen eye for the most topical questions for Rotterdam. This is the nineteenth time the lecture has been organised.

What appeals to you so much in his thinking?

"Erasmus is terribly critical and rock-hard. He spoke out against everything and everyone with any power and influence. Erasmus did so in a way that people could hardly be offended, namely with a lot of humour, irony and self-criticism. So very different from today's Twitter, where a lot of aggression and wrath resounds. The philosopher played with language and with images. In that, I see important lessons on how to conduct public debate."

Be there before the venue is full!
Ronald van Raak at the Erasmusmonument
Bou Ting Wong

Why is he still relevant five centuries later?

"Erasmus is a humanist. He thinks people should think critically for themselves and never just follow any authority. That is typical of Erasmus and that is why he also suits us modern people. We are articulate and stubborn and don't let values dictate to us. In the lecture, I will show how Erasmus can teach us how to still arrive at common values with all these stubborn individuals."

Erasmus did not have a Twitter account. Didn't he have an easy time talking?

"The early sixteenth century was also a time of new media: the printing press. You shouldn't underestimate the impact of this technology. Books were printed, some of which we still read today, such as ‘Praise of Folly’ by Erasmus. But all kinds of pamphlets and scandals were also printed. You can compare that to what we now encounter on Twitter. It is often said that we live in polarised times and that social media play a major role in this. Erasmus lived in a time of much more extreme polarisation. Religious strife was raging and wars were plentiful. People who were critical not only had to fear for their freedom but also for their lives. Friends of Erasmus were murdered. In those days, you didn't get cancelled, but your head went off."

What does the Rotterdamlezing mean to you?

"I consider it a great honour to have been asked. In the Rotterdamlezing, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to build a bridge between the city and the university. Students, researchers and all other staff are part of the city and the university does a lot of research that is relevant to the city. For me, this lecture symbolises that the university belongs to the city and equally that the city belongs to the university."

More information

Connecting the city with our university by transferring knowledge on social challenges, that is the Rotterdamlezing. Read more about the Rotterdamlezing.

Related content
The 19th Rotterdamlezing will be given by Ronald van Raak, professor of Erasmian Values, on 15 May 2023 at Debatpodium Arminius.
Portrait of professor Ronald van Raak.

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