'Adages' by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1500-1536)

Although it began as an entry in his compilation of proverbs, Erasmus' essay on the Sileni of Alcibiades was published separately in 1517 and saw a very wide circulation. An English translation appeared in 1543 as A scornful Image or Monstrus Shape of a Marvelous Strange Fygure Called Sileni Alcibiadis Presentyng the State and Condicion of this Present World and Inespeciall of the Spirituallte How Farre They Be from the Perfite Trade and Lyfe of Criste.

In the first place, it's well known that all human affairs are like the figures of Silenus described by Alcibiades and have two completely opposite faces, so that what is death at first sight, as they say, is life if you look within, and vice versa, life is death. The same applies to beauty and ugliness, riches and poverty, obscurity and fame... you'll find everything suddenly reversed if you open the Silenus.

Erasmus, Praise of Folly.

Sileni of Alcibiades: 

The Sileni of Alcibiades, seems to have passed into a proverb among educated people; it is, at any rate, on record as a proverb in the Greek collections. It will have two possible uses, either of some thing which, though on the surface and (as the saying goes) at first sight looks worthless and absurd, is yet admirable on a nearer and less superficial view, or of some man whose face and bearing promise far less than what he hides in his heart. The Sileni are said to have been a kind of small figure of carved wood, so made that they could be divided and opened. Thus, though when closed they looked like a caricature of a hideous flute-player, when opened they suddenly displayed a deity, so that this humorous surprise made the carver's skill all the more admirable. Furthermore, the subject of these images was drawn from the well-known comic figure of Silenus, Bacchus' tutor and the court buffoon of the gods of poetry (for they too have their jesters like the princes of our own day). [...] ...Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium, who is preparing to deliver a panegyric of Socrates, draws a parallel between him and Sileni of this kind, because like them he was very different on close inspection from what he seemed in his outward bearing and appearance.
Anyone who had valued him skin-deep (as they say) would not have given twopence for him. With his peasant face, glaring like a bull, and his snub nose always sniffing, he might have been taken for some blockheaded country bumpkin. The care of his person was neglected, his language simple and homely and smacking of common folk... . [...] Yet, had you opened this absurd Silenus, you would have found, you may be sure, a divine being rather than a man, a great and lofty spirit worthy of a true philosopher, one who despised all the things for which other mortals run their races, sail the seas, toil, go to law, and fight in wars; a man above resenting any injury and over whom fortune had no power at all; so far from any fear that he despised even death, of which all men are afraid-- so much so that he drank the hemlock with the same air with which he would drink wine... . Small wonder then, though the world of those days was full of professional wits, if this buffoon was the only man declared wise by the oracle, and he who knew nothing was judged to know more than those who boasted there was nothing they did not know... .

A Silenus of this sort was Diogenes, commonly regarded as a dog; but in this dog something of the divine must have been detected by Alexander the Great, of all princes (as it seemed) the chief, the alpha, when in admiration of his nobility of mind he declared that he would wish himself, were he not Alexander, to be Diogenes, whereas he ought to have wished for the spirit of Diogenes all the more because he was Alexander. [...] Their excellence they bury in their inmost parts, and hide; they wear what is most contemptible at first glance on the surface, concealing their treasure with a kind of worthless outward shell and not showing it to uninitiated eyes. Vulgar, unsubstantial things have a far different design: their attractions are all on the surface and their beauties are at once displayed to all and sundry, but look inside and you will find that nothing could be less like what was promised by the label and the outward view.
And what of Christ? Was not He too a marvellous Silenus (if one may be allowed to use such language of Him)? [...] Parents of modest means and lowly station, and a humble home; poor Himself and with few and poor disciples, recruited not from noblemen's palaces or the chief sects of the Pharisees or the lecture-rooms of philosophers, but from the publican's office and the nets of fishermen. And then his way of life: what a stranger He was to all physical comforts as He pursued through hunger and weariness, through insults and mockery the way that led to the cross! [...] And now, if one had the good fortune to have a nearer view of this Silenus, open- if, in other words, He shows Himself in His mercy to anyone, the eyes of whose soul have been washed clean- in heaven's name what a treasure you will find, in that cheap setting what a pearl, in that lowliness what grandeur, in that poverty what riches, in that weakness what unimaginable valour, in that disgrace what glory, in all those labours what perfect refreshment, and in that bitter death, in short, a never-failing spring of immortality![...] It would of course have been easy for Christ to have taken over the monarchy of the whole world: to possess what the Roman emperors of old aspired to in vain... . But this was the only system which He chose to set before His disciples and His Friends- before us Christians. This above all was the philosophy of His choice, worlds away from the principles laid down by philosophers and from the reasoning of the world, but the one and only way to achieve the end which others pursue by differing means, that is, true felicity.
Sileni of this sort were in old days the Prophets, wandering in exile in the wilderness, contriving to live among wild beasts, their food the poorest greenstuff and their garments the skin of sheep and goats. But he had seen the inside of these Sileni who said 'of whom the world was not worthy.' A Silenus of this sort was John the Baptist, who was clothed in camelhair with a leather girdle round his loins..., and who lived on locusts... . [...] Sileni of this sort were the Apostles, poor, unkempt, illiterate, of humble birth, weak and rejected, exposed to insults of every kind from every quarter, mocked, hated, cursed, almost the whole world's public target at once for loathing and for laughter. But pray open the Silenus, and what tyrant could enjoy such power as theirs? [...] Aristotle himself would seem a foolish and ignorant dilettante, when compared with these men who have drawn from the true fountain-head that heavenly wisdom, against which all human wisdom is mere folly. In so saying I must ask pardon of those who think it impious and wicked to weaken the authority of Aristotle in any way. He was, I grant you, an exceptionally learned man; but all the same what light can shine so bright that when compared with Christ it is not darkened? In those days the kingdom of heaven really was 'like a grain of mustard-seed,' in appearance tiny and negligible, in power immense; and, as I have said, it differs utterly and what they call diametrically from the system of this world.

Even today there are some good men who are hidden Sileni; but, alas, too few! A goodly number of men reproduce Silenus inside-out. Anyone who looked thoroughly into the driving force of things and their true nature would find none so far removed from real wisdom as those whose honorific titles, learned bonnets, resplendent belts, and bejewelled rings advertise wisdom in perfection. So true is this that you may not seldom find more real and native wisdom in one single ordinary man, who in the world's judgement is an ignoramus and a simple-minded fool, more or less, whose mind has been educated not by the subtle Scotus (as they call him [a renown 13th Century Scholastic]) but by the heavenly spirit of Christ, than in many of our pompous theologians, Professors three and four times over, stuffed with their favourite Aristotle and swollen with a plethora of doctoral definitions, conclusions, and propositions. [...] (With all possible emphasis I beg you, dear reader, not to think that this is said in order to bring discredit on any individual; it is the practice, not the persons, that I criticize. I wish there were no one living whom this cap fits. [...]).

So true is it in things of every sort that what is excellent is least conspicuous. [...] In man, the part which more than the rest is divine and immortal is the one part that cannot be perceived.

...Scripture too has its own Sileni. Pause at the surface, and what you see is sometimes ridiculous; were you to pierce to the heart of the allegory, you would venerate the divine wisdom. [...] ...under these wrappings, in heaven's name, how splendid is the wisdom that lies hidden! the parables in the Gospels, if you judge them by their outward shell, would be thought, surely, by everyone to be the work of an ignoramus. Crack the nutshell and of course you will find that hidden wisdom which is truly divine, something in truth very like Christ Himself. [...] It is in fact the same in nature and in the mysteries of religion: the more excellent a thing is, the more deeply it is hidden, and far removed from uninitiated eyes.
It is the same with knowledge: the real truth of things is always most profoundly concealed, and cannot be detected easily or by many people. The stupid multitude, judging things as they do upside down, and using of course as their criteria for every purpose what is most clearly obvious to the bodily senses, constantly make mistakes and go astray, are misled by phantom images of good and bad, and keep their admiration and respect for any Silenus that is inside out. I am speaking of bad men; the good I will not hurt, nor the bad either, for that matter for, after all, the discussion of faults in general has no connection with attacks on any individual. [...] It may be that you will find even some bishops in whom, if you observe their solemn consecration and run your eye over their new attributes of honour, mitre glittering with jewels and gold and the crozier equally studded with gems-- in a word, from head to foot all that mystic panoply-- you would no doubt expect to find some heavenly character, some man more than human. Turn your Silenus inside out, and you will sometimes find... that all those splendid trappings were just play-acting.

Finally, in every class of mortal men everywhere there are those of whom you would say, were you to inspect their outward bodily form that they are human beings, and distinguished beings too; open the Silenus, and inside you will find maybe a pig or a lion, a bear or a donkey. Your experience will be the converse of what we are told in the fables of the poets about Circe's magic spells. Her victims had the shape of animals but the mind of a human being. Those I speak of conceal something worse than a beast beneath a human shape. There  are, on the other hand, some whom from their outward shape, as I have said, you would judge to be hardly human, while in their inmost hearts they hide an angel. In this therefore we find a difference between the worldly man and the Christian.

...the judgement of the multitude is topsy-turvy: What ought to be put first is, like the Megarians, of no account, and the objects they should have pursued with might and main they think quite contemptible. Thus gold is more valued than sound learning, ancient lineage more than integrity, bodily endowments more than intellectual gifts; true religion takes second place to ceremonies, Christ's commandments to the decrees of men, the mask to the true face; shadow is preferred to substance, artificial to natural, transient to solid, momentary to eternal.
And then these topsy-turvy opinions give rise to topsy-turvy names for things. What is lofty they call lowly, what is bitter they call sweet, what is precious they call worthless, and life they call death.

...they give the name of 'the Church' to priests, bishops and supreme pontiffs, though they are in truth nothing but the Church's servants. No, it is Christian people who are the Church... .

What can we expect the enemies of Christianity to say, when in the Gospel text they have seen Christ urging us to despise riches, to reject pleasure, to take no thought for reputation, and on the other hand have observed even the chief and leading men among those who profess Christianity living in such a way that in the race to acquire wealth, in love of pleasure, in splendour of life, in cruelty of battle and in almost all other forms of wrongdoing they actually outdo the gentiles? [...] What peals of laughter do you suppose they raise when they see that Christ in the Gospel did not distinguish His followers by cult and ceremonies and rules of diet, but wished Christians to be identified by the mark of mutual charity binding them together, and then observe us enjoying so little agreement among ourselves that never did gentiles of any kind indulge in disputes more disgraceful or more destructive?

The Stoics say that no man can be good except him who is free from all infections of the spirit, and they give the name of infections of the spirit to desires or feelings. Much more is it the duty of Christians to be free of them... .

...the glory of the name 'apostle'... outshines all honorific titles, all statues and triumphal arches... . [...] Christ openly denied that His kingdom was of this world, and can you think it proper for Christ's successor not merely to accept an earthly rule but even to seek it as desirable... ?
In this world there are, as it were, two worlds, which fight against each other in every way, one gross and corporeal, the other heavenly and already practising with all its might to become what it one day will be. In one of these, first place is taken by him who is as far as possible removed from what is truly good and burdened with what is falsely so called. A pagan king, for instance, who outdoes all men in lust and luxury, in violence, in pride and pomp, in riches and rapacity, and is accounted first only if the greatest share of this filth has flooded down to him, and as little as can be in the way of wisdom, temperance, self-control, justice, and the other qualities that are truly good. With him who is the greatest it is the opposite: he is the least contaminated by those gross plebeian blessings, and at the same time most richly blessed with those true and heavenly sources of wealth. Why therefore do you wish a Christian prince to be what pagan philosophers too have always condemned and despised? Why locate his majesty in those very attributes which it is most honourable to despise? [...] Why stain his purity with this worlds dirt? [...] Why drag down a man touched with divinity to business barely worthy of a man? Why measure the felicity of Christian priests by these of all things, at which Democritus laughed for their foolishness and Heraclitus wept because they were so pitiable, which Diogenes scorned as frivolous and Crates threw away as burdensome, while saints have always fled from them as pestilential? Why gauge the value of Peter's successors by the wealth which Peter himself boasts that he does not possess? Why wish that princes who follow the apostles should show their greatness by those trappings which the apostles trod under foot, and thus showed how great they were? Why call something 'the patrimony of St Peter' which Peter himself boasted that he did not possess? Why do you think the vicars of Christ should be ensnared in riches which Christ Himself called thorns?

Christ has His own kingdom, and it is too fine a thing to deserve pollution by a gentile kingdom or, to speak more accurately, tyranny; He has His majesty, His wealth, His pleasures. Why do we mingle things that are so much at war with one another? Why do we confound earthly with heavenly, lowest with highest, pagan with Christian, profane with sacred? [...] Why try to join Christ and Mammon, and the spirit of Christ with Belial?

But suppose you are highly pious, and wish to make the Church more glorious by adding all this to her other riches: I would approve did not this programme bring with it, together with small advantages, such a mass of evils.

Are you afraid that Christ with His own resources will have too little power, unless some secular tyrant gives him a share of his own force?

...I wish them [Bishops, Christian princes] to be so adorned with the riches of Christ that whatever else they have acquired out of the glory of this world will be put in the shade by the light of better things, or even seen to be sordid in comparison with them. [...] How indeed did the Church's wealth begin if not from contempt of wealth? Whence came its glory if not from giving glory no thought?

All this turmoil in the world, what other message has it for us, loud and clear, except that God is angry with us all?

But whither has the flood of my language carried me away, so that I, who profess myself a mere compiler of proverbs, begin to be a preacher?

Tempus omnia revelat/ Time reveals all things:

[Editors Note: Robert Greene's romance of 1588 Pandosto is subtitled The Triumph of Time, with the tag 'Temporis filia veritas' (Truth is the daughter of time) on the title page. This work is the source of Shakespeares Winter's Tale in which a daughter, in time, teaches truth to her father]

Tertullian, whom St Cyprian habitually called his teacher, in his Apologeticum against the Gentiles says 'It is just as well that time reveals all things, as your proverbs too and moral maxims testify.' Aulus Gellius in book 12 chapter 12 of his Attic Nights cites to this effect these lines of Sophocles: 'Hide nothing therefore, for all-seeing Time/ and Time all-hearing brings all things to light.' Sophocles again in Ajax with the Scourge: 'All things the uncountable extent of time/ Brings out of hiding, and hides what could be seen.' In the same passage Gellius tells us that some ancient poet called Truth 'the daughter of Time,' because though for a space she may lie hidden, yet with the progress of time she comes forth into the light. There is also a proverbial iambic line to the same effect: 'But time brings out the truth into the light,' and another like it: 'All things revealing time will bring to light.' Pindar thought the same in the Olympians: 'The days that remain are the wisest of witnesses.' And in another passage he calls Time the father of all things, because everything is brought about by the progress of time: 'Even Time father of all things could not undo what is once done and finished.' Pindar makes the same point in several places, and particularly in his tenth Olympian: 'Time that alone reveals the certain truth, and on its forward progress made the whole story clear.' Virgil seems to have had this in mind in book 6: 'And drives them to confess if any in the world above, exulting in some fruitless fraud, has left the burden of his guilt unexpiated till the hour of death, too late.' Nor is there any disagreement between this and the saying in the Gospel, Matthew chapter 10: 'There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed, and hid that shall not be known.' Plutarch in his 'Problems' poses the question why it is that the ancients were accustomed to sacrifice to Saturn with their heads covered; and he thinks the point was that truth as a rule is covered and unknown, but is none the less revealed by time. For Saturn is fabled to be the creator and the god of time, Kronos being his name in Greek and chronos the word for time. Livy holds the same opinion when he says in book 22: 'They say the just cause of truth is too often in difficulties, but is never extinguished.' Seneca in his On Anger, book 2: 'We must always allow time, for day after day brings truth to light.'