November 7th, 2011 09:01 EST
Curmurring With Andy Rooney
Folly isn`t a word we use often anymore. Few praise folly as Desiderius Erasmus did in his celebrated book, "The Praise of Folly." Even fewer earn a living pointing out and dissenting against human folly. Andy Rooney was one of the few.
Prickly. Witty. Cranky. Grumpy. These are a few of the words used to describe Andy. The most common word used to describe him was curmudgeon. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a curmudgeon is a bad tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. Curmudgeon isn`t a comfortable word when you read it in a newspaper applied to yourself. I know that from personal experience. Somehow, though, I think Andy Rooney liked hearing, "Oh, he`s a curmudgeon." I imagine George Patton and Ernest Hemmingway called him worse.
To some people it will seem odd that I compare Andy to Erasmus. Andy was a writer, a rumpled figure with bushy eyebrows behind a typewriter. He wasn`t really rumpled, though he was like your grandfather with a curmurring stomach. Some people think of his commentaries that way "low rumblings, growlings, or murmurings-full of gas. In contrast, Erasmus was a tutor, writer, and often a wanderer without a fixed home. He was argumentative, though something of a coward who was and is thought of as an intellectual titan of the Renaissance. He had his critics, people who believed he had no personal integrity, was on the side of dissenters regardless of their dogmatic principles. John P. Dolan writes: "There is an almost unanimous agreement in certain circles that he is at most a relativistic skeptic hiding behind a mask of erudition" (The Essential Erasmus," 94). I have seldom heard a reporter referred to as being learned or cultured, though some do have that persona. So why am I comparing rather than contrasting Andy and Erasmus? The answer has everything to do with folly.
"Without me, says Folly, `the world cannot exist for a moment. For is not all that is done at all among mortals, full of folly; is it not performed by fools for fools?`" Erasmus wrote.
Folly is to act foolishly, to play the fool. A fool, according to the Oxford American Dictionary. "Is a person who acts unwisely, one who lacks good sense of judgment." I don`t know about you, but I`ve been noted to act foolishly more than I care to admit.
What Andy and Erasmus had in common was their rejection of deception. They perceived the follies of human beings that clung to the form of the moral rather than the actual ethical. Both were curious and keen observers of the people and events occurring in their respective times. They shared a common impishness that lacked appreciation for deception and the absence of common sense. They both could be disagreeable. Erasmus targeted the Church theologians and secular philosophers; the wise men who forgot "they were born men." In his last years, he would be critical of both the humanists and the Church reformers. Andy knew what he didn`t like from half-empty cereal boxes, college presidents, youthful despair, telephone directories, to two prong plugs. When we were paying close attention, not smiling or chuckling, we realized that his commentaries were about placing business above the moral, or the general social good.
Both Andy and Erasmus knew how to make words work. Words work best when they make us stop to think, open our eyes to see. It can be argued that Andy was more the realist than Erasmus. For all his realism, Erasmus` mind veiled everything in antiquated Latin. Andy spoke plain English that landed him in trouble with blacks, g(a)ys, women (as his inappropriate remarks should), among others.
Neither man cared for flattery. They were proud of their standing, their callings; one as a scholar and the other as a news reporter. They both could be sarcastic. People of wit are permitted that as long as they don`t go to an extreme. "Self-praise," Erasmus observed, "is ridiculous." Andy would probably agree with that.
Those of us who watched Andy Rooney saw a person at work who knew himself. I don`t know how he acted in the cafeteria line. One of the 60 Minutes staff can answer that. I a(s)sume he was polite as long as you didn`t ask for his autograph or to have your photo taken with him.
Agree or disagree with him, he made you think. Erasmus did the same, made you think. Somewhere there is a scholar cringing as she or he reads this commentary. "You are mixing apples and oranges," is being muttered over these pages. Perhaps. But I made you think. And that is what Erasmus and Andy Rooney did best. They made people in different historical periods think.
Note: The author of this article is no longer affiliated with theSOP.