The Idiot Back From Copenhagen

Just as all Britons can quote Shakespeare, even unintentionally, all Danes and Norwegians know clips from Erasmus Montanus, a play by the 18th-century dramatist Ludvig Holberg, who is by no means part of the heritage of English-speakers. If nothing else, Danes and Norwegians know the bit about his mother being a stone.

For the play is a satire of academic pretensions. Farmer’s son Rasmus Berg goes to study in Copenhagen and comes back with his name translated into Latin, as was indeed common in those days. He is now a total fool in ordinary life, and all he wants to do is to “dispute”, that is, to perpetrate sophistries on the innocent farmers. A stone cannot fly, he says, Mother Nille cannot fly, ergo Mother Nille is a stone. This is the “Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle”, known as a logical howler for more then two thousand years but nevertheless still encountered in political debate every day.

In the play, Mother Nille is so impressed that she starts to lose sensation in her legs, but let us hope that in reality even eighteenth-century farmers could rebut the fallacy in their own words. It makes me wonder, however, what the Berg parents had expected to get out of it all. After all, young Rasmus had not run away to Copenhagen, he had been sent there and paid for. Doubtless they expected he would return as a suitable candidate for official employment very much in the Chinese manner. In the meantime, the parents would garner social status from having Rasmus at university, just like my own did.

I do not know the piece well enough to say whether Holberg regarded these as proper motivations, undone only by the actual nature of the so-called tuition, or whether he thought that the annoying idiot who came home served them jolly well right for their deference.

Posted on August 19, 2011 at 11:24 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

Leave a Reply