Desiderius Erasmus

The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was the dominant figure of the early-16th-century humanist movement. The intellectual arbiter during the last years of Christian unity, he remains one of European culture's most controversial giants.

The evidence about the youth and adolescence of Erasmus is hard to evaluate. A major source of knowledge is autobiographical, a product of his middle age when international fame made him most sensitive about his illegitimate birth at Rotterdam, probably in October 1466, the second son of a priest, Roger Gerard, and a physician's daughter. School life, rather than a household environment, shaped Erasmus from his fifth year onward. He later disparaged the effort of his teachers and the guardians established after the parents' deaths about 1484; in fact, his father provided Erasmus a solid education with the Brethren of the Common Life from 1475 to 1484. From this religious community, which for a century had deflected education in the Low Countries from scholastic rigidity and had relieved its discipline of the strictest monastic severity, Erasmus obtained a firm grounding in classical Latin and an appreciation of a spirit of Christianity beyond its doctrinal basis.

From Steyn to Cambridge

His unpromising birth and his guardians' business sense gave the monastic cloister an obvious, if grim, place in Erasmus' future. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Steyn in 1487 and took monastic vows in 1488; he was ordained a priest in 1492. His reading in classical literature and Christian sources matured, but Erasmus found Steyn crude and rustic. Scholarship offered the first step out, when the bishop of Cambrai employed Erasmus as his secretary in 1493 and rewarded his work with a stipend for study at Paris in 1495.

Paris provided a diverse environment which Erasmus cultivated between recalls to the Low Countries in the late 1490s. He moved in literary circles, writing poetry and dedications and experimenting with styles of educational writing which bore fruit in the later publications Adagia and Colloquia. He sought students and patrons until, in 1499, his student Lord Mountjoy took him to England.

The visit was decisive to Erasmus. English humanists were studying Scripture and the early Church fathers and advocating reform of the Church and the educational process that served it. Friendships with John Colet, Sir Thomas More, and others restored Erasmus' interest in devotional studies and turned him to the Greek language as the key for his research. Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Militant Christian, published 1503, though begun a decade before) outlined conduct which would foster man's spiritual capacities and usher in the ethics and piety of what Erasmus' group called the "philosophy of Christ." It gave these scholars an international audience and steady patronage among educated laymen.

In 1506 Erasmus fulfilled a long-standing ambition by traveling to Italy. He watched Pope Julius II conquer Bologna that year; the sharpest edge of his wit can be discerned in a tract, Julius exclusus (published anonymously in 1517; he never admitted authorship), in which St. Peter bars Julius from heaven and scathingly damns his wars and treasure. Erasmus polished his Greek in Italy and formed, with Aldus Manutius's press in Venice, the first of the crucial links to publishing enterprises that secured his financial and professional independence.

Back in England by 1509, disillusioned with the Church's wars and its clergy's shortcomings, Erasmus wrote Encomium moriae (The Praise of Folly), a satiric exposition of the obstacles restricting the fulfillment of Christ's teaching. Though not formally released from monastic vows until 1517, Erasmus was now effectively freed of Steyn by his mounting reputation. He held a professorship at Cambridge (1511-1514) and settled into the vocation for which his study and travel had prepared him.

Major Publications

Erasmus' Novum instrumentum, a heavily annotated edition of the New Testament placing texts in Greek and revised Latin side by side, appeared in 1516 from the Basel press of Johannes Froben. As the first published Greek text and a basis for further clarification of the New Testament, it was a landmark for scholars and reformers. It attuned educated Europeans more closely to Erasmus' early works, which were now widely translated from the Latin of his originals, and paved the way for the literary and educational classics of the Christian humanist fellowship.

Erasmus had now returned to the Continent to the manuscripts and printing houses on which his massive efforts relied. Froben published his nine-volume edition of St. Jerome in 1516 and in the next 2 decades issued Erasmus' comprehensive editions of early Christian authors, including St. Cyprian (1520), St. Ambrose (1527), and St. Augustine (1529); he also circulated commentaries and treatises on divinity and revised editions of the literary works.

Another dimension to Erasmus' writing appeared in 1516, while he briefly served the future emperor Charles V as councilor. Following current humanist practice, he prepared a guide for educating princes to rule justly, Institutio principis Christiani, and in 1517 composed Querela pacis (The Complaint of Peace), condemning war as an instrument of tyranny and warning temporal rulers to fulfil their obligation to preserve Christian harmony. Erasmus thus demonstrated, before Luther's impact was clear, his sensitivity to Europe's impending fragmentation.

Erasmus and Reformation Europe

Erasmus' influence could not realize the vision of Christian renovation expressed in his New Testament dedication and preface, which urged Pope Leo X to make Rome the center of reform and to make Christ's words available to every plowboy in the field. Following Luther's lead, many intellectuals, impatient for action, rejected humanism's "halfway house" and used presses and pulpits to move Europe's masses as Erasmus never had. The Erasmians' style of persuasion was countered by simpler, vernacular tracts on theology, the Sacraments, and Church structure, sometimes linked with social and political issues. In 1516 Erasmus had foreseen a golden age, but by 1521, dismayed by the partisan tone and substance of the reformers' appeals, he was calling his own times the worst since Christianity began.

Erasmus' eventual response, after an important exchange with Luther in 1524-1525 about the role of human will in salvation to which he contributed De libero arbitrio (On the Freedom of the Will), was a gradual disengagement from the disputing theologians and their secular sponsors. He avoided Europe's major courts and capitals, and he left congenial intellectual homes in Catholic Louvain in 1521 and Protestant Basel in 1529, when denominational advocacy invaded their scholarship and governance. Printing presses continued to hold his audience: they were the lifelines of this complex man, rootless at birth, whose temperament, circumstances, and dislike of permanent commitments consistently separated him from friends and institutions eager to harness his talents.

He died on July 12, 1536. The embattled Catholic Church, which he never left, condemned some of Erasmus' work for its critical attitude and moderation against heretics, while much modern opinion based on Protestant, nationalist viewpoints has judged him harshly. But there is, with the ecumenical mood of current commentary, a revival of interest in, and sympathy for, Erasmus and his conviction that tolerance and rational persuasion must prevail through discordant times.

Further Reading on Desiderius Erasmus

John P. Dolan, The Essential Erasmus (1964), offers an excellent selection of Erasmus' works with commentary, while Roland H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (1969), is a fine biography which lists modern editions, translations, and critical scholarship. Important modern biographies are Margaret M. Phillips, Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance (1949), and Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (1957). For the context of Erasmian ideas recent works include Eugene F. Rice, The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (1958); Robert Pardee Adams, The Better Part of Valor (1962); and Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (1963). For historical background see Myron P. Gilmore, The World of Humanism, 1453-1517 (1952), and Geoffrey R. Elton, Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (1963).

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