Erasmus, Desiderius (1466?–1536)

views updated


Desiderius Erasmus, the great Renaissance humanist and scholar, was born at either Rotterdam or Gouda in Holland, the illegitimate son of a priest. As a child he studied at Gouda, and from 1475 to 1483 he studied at Deventer with the Brethren of the Common Life, a pious, modernist-humanist order. Next, he studied at Hertogenbosch, became an Augustinian friar at St. Gregory's (near Gouda), and, in 1492, was ordained a priest. Disliking monastic life, in 1494 he became the Latin secretary to the bishop of Cambrai. The next year he went to the University of Paris to study theology, but he found both the life and the scholastic philosophy distasteful. In 1499 he went to England, where he became a close friend of the humanists John Colet and Thomas More and devoted himself to the study of the classics and sacred literature, desiring to combine the new humanistic spirit, based on the revival of interest in the classics, with Christian learning. In 1500 he returned to the Continent and devoted himself to the study of Greek. One of his first famous works was published in this period, the Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Handbook of a Christian soldier; 1501), an appeal for a return to the simple spirit of early Christianity.

In Belgium, in 1504, Erasmus came across a manuscript of Lorenzo Valla's Annotationes on the New Testament, in which Valla criticized the Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible and set forth a critical method for arriving at a correct text of scripture. Erasmus was tremendously impressed and published an edition of Valla's work in 1505, after which he returned to England and copied the Greek New Testament from the manuscripts available to him there. He then went to Italy as a tutor to the sons of Henry VIII's doctor and took his doctorate of divinity at Turin in 1506. He lived in various Italian cities for the next three years and began publishing the famous edition of his Adagia, a collection of 3,000 proverbs from classical writers, at Venice in 1508. As a result of this work, he was soon recognized as the foremost scholar of northern Europe. In 1509 he returned to England and stayed with Thomas More. There, he wrote the Moriae Encomium (In praise of folly), a witty satire on worldly learning and activities and a presentation of simple, pious, nontheological Christianity. While in England he lectured at Cambridge on Greek and on St. Jerome's [c. 347419] epistles. In 1514 he went to Basel, Switzerland, to assist the publisher Johann Froben (c.14601527) in preparing an edition of his works. While there he received a summons to return to monastic life, which he resisted strongly, and finally Pope Leo X (14751521) granted him a dispensation allowing him to live in the world.

In 1516 he published one of his most influential works, the Greek edition of the New Testament. Comparing various manuscripts and citations from the church fathers, he presented a more accurate text than the Vulgate, along with his own elegant Latin version and many learned and critical notes. This edition became a model and inspiration for the new learning and for critical scholarship. Theologically, its omission of an interpolated passage in I John 5:78, stating the doctrine of the Trinity, greatly influenced liberal reformers like Michael Servetus, and its emphasis on St. Paul and the Greek fathers strongly affected those early reformers and those who antedated the Reformation who were anxious to turn from the opulence of the Church of Rome and from the intricacies of late Scholasticism to the spirit of primitive and early Christianity.

From 1517 to 1521 Erasmus stayed chiefly in Louvain, where he was involved with the new college for the study of the sacred languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. He corresponded with humanistic scholars all over the world and became, perhaps, the leading figure of the northern Renaissance. His influence was great in all Europe, especially in southern France and Spain (where he was offered a chair at the new University of Alcalá). Liberal and reformist theologians and classical scholars looked to him for inspiration. In 1521 he went back to Basel, where, with Froben, he published a long series of works on the church fathers (editions on St. Jerome, St. Cyprian [third century], Pseudo-Arnobius [fifth century], St. Hilary [c. 315c. 367], St. Irenaeus [c. 120 to 140c. 200 to 203], Ambrose [339397], St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom [c. 347407], St. Basil [c. 329379], and St. Origen [185??254]), all of which helped center attention on the theology of the early fathers rather than on that of the medieval Scholastics. His Colloquies, first published after 1518 and in many revised and expanded editions thereafter, is an excellent example of the revived and revitalized Latin style of the Renaissance; the several editions include biting and satirical attacks on various human institutions and beliefs, especially those connected with the church and with popular superstition.

Erasmus's merciless and witty critiques of church practices, monastic activities, Scholasticism, popular religion, and so on, as well as his scholarly efforts toward establishing the Greek text and the meaning of the New Testament and the doctrines of the early church fathers, had made him outstanding in the movement for church reform. As the reform movement became more revolutionary, however, Erasmus tried to stay aloof from the struggles. Both orthodox and reformist theologians pressed him to take a stand, while he sought means for mediation and reconciliation. When Martin Luther became more aggressive and violent in his words and actions, and when various early reformers criticized Erasmus for his refusal to join them, he, always hypersensitive to criticism, withdrew more and more.

Finally, in 1524 Erasmus spoke out against Luther in his work De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), in which he tried to show that Luther had dogmatically decided that man had no free will, even though (1) the issue was so complex that no human could really find a satisfactory solution to the problem and (2) the biblical texts were so obscure that no one could really tell what they asserted. Erasmus maintained that he preferred to recognize the inability of man to discover adequate answers to such theological problems and to rest content with the decisions of the church on such matters. Luther's furious reply, De Servo Arbitrio (The bondage of will; 1525), cried out against Erasmus's gentle humanistic skepticism and his willingness to accept church teachings uncritically. Christianity, Luther insisted, requires certainties, not opinions or probabilities. Salvation cannot be based on doubts. He concluded that if Erasmus wished to remain a skeptic, he should remember that Spiritus sanctus non est scepticus (the Holy Spirit is not a skeptic) and that judgment day is coming.

Erasmus wrote another answer, the Hyperaspistes (1526), and to a great extent broke with his former reform-minded friends. When the reformers took control at Basel in 1529, Erasmus left for Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, where he stayed almost until his death (which occurred in Basel seven years later as he was preparing to return to Holland). During his last years he continued to use his vast scholarship, his pen, and his influence to bring about religious and political peace. Attacked by both the radical reformers and the conservative churchmen, he tried to find a moderate solution before both sides became so rigid that a compromise maintaining the unity of Christendom was impossible. He advocated making sufficient internal reforms within the church to satisfy the less extreme reformers. Various popes and some Reformation leaders took him seriously (Pope Paul III [14681549] is supposed to have wanted to make him a cardinal), while the Sorbonne theologians condemned some of his works and views. The Spanish Inquisition stamped out the influence of his followers in Iberia, and the leading reformers attacked him both as a petty, self-serving person and as a heretical religious thinker.


Erasmus's ambiguous position in the religious struggles was probably the result of his peculiar nondogmatic point of view and his cautious attitude toward developments in human affairs. He claimed to advocate the "philosophy of Christ," in contrast with the various kinds of Scholastic theories put forth by the Thomists, the Scotists, the Ockhamites, and others. Their technical discussions about the nature of baptism, grace, and the freedom of the will left him entirely unmoved. Rather than take their arguments and analyses seriously and present refutations, Erasmus attempted to undermine the whole Scholastic approach with the force of his ridicule.

In place of the philosophical and theological systems of the time Erasmus set forth his "philosophy of Christ," to be arrived at by pious study rather than by disputations. This "philosophy" was supposed to represent the simple and essential message of Christianity in its spirit rather than its letter; it was a message to be lived, not to be formulated in abstract systems. It was a nondoctrinal religion, a religion without a theology, that could be approached through the early church fathers and the morality of the New Testament but not through the morass of distinctions, terminology, and theory built up in the Middle Ages. This outlook had a great impact on the most liberal reformers and the nondoctrinal mystics.

Erasmus, who was so fully aware of the foibles of man, was also extremely cautious about the genuine possibilities for reform or constructive improvement in man and his institutions. This may account for his refusal to leave the Church of Rome (although he died without receiving the sacraments). Some have interpreted this refusal as due to personal fears, but it seems more probable that Erasmus remained within the church because he believed that it was better to preserve and improve what already existed than to risk the even greater abuses that might follow the destruction of the current order. Erasmus saw the Church of Rome as fossilized, in much the same manner that he portrayed the Jewish synagogue. On the contrary, he saw the reformers as revolutionists who, intentionally or not, were destroying the very fabric of human existence. He told Luther, "I always freely submit my judgment to the decisions of the Church whether I grasp or not the reasons which she prescribes."

He also declared, in the midst of the early Reformation struggles, "I will put up with this Church until I shall see a better." He apparently felt that, given the human condition, it was important to retain the (far from ideal) way that Christ's message had been institutionalized; at the same time he urged a revival of concern for the substance of this message and a revitalization of the church through the correction of as many abuses as possible and the encouragement of scholarly and moral efforts to recapture the original Christian spirit. Otherwise, he feared, the frail human world might be torn entirely asunder. But, for better of worse, the course of events carried the division of Christendom to a complete rupture; each side became more and more rigid and dogmatic rather than compromising on a vague or undefined Erasmian position.


Although Erasmus can hardly be classified as a professional philosopher, he influenced the course of philosophy in many ways. His humanistic scholarship greatly affected the European educational system and, both personally and through his many writings, Erasmus greatly encouraged the teaching and study of Greek, Latin, and Hebrewthe languages that were most important to intellectual achievement. The upheavals in the curricula that occurred in most of the major institutions of higher learning at that time were in large measure due to Erasmus's influence and spirit, and the study of the hitherto unknown or neglected classics of both the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian worlds (many in the editions prepared by Erasmus himself) that resulted from this was the source of many new ideas and theories that became part of the intellectual revolutions of the Renaissance.

Erasmus's ridicule of Scholasticism, although hardly a philosophical refutation of either its methods or its doctrines, created the generally accepted view that the medieval approach to philosophical questions was trivial and useless. He made it difficult for many intellectuals to take seriously the views of St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and such later Scholastics as Francisco Suárez.

Besides teaching future generations to scoff at the achievements of the school philosophers, Erasmus also had a major role in creating the critical spirit that culminated in the Enlightenment. Through his satire, his critical scholarship, and his undogmatic spirit Erasmus popularized a critical and questioning attitude toward accepted mores, institutions, opinions, and texts that was to flourish in many forms in the next centuries, undermining confidence in almost every area of traditional achievement.

Thus, Erasmus, who was essentially conservative by nature and who shunned almost all theoretical or philosophical discussion, not even wishing systematically to oppose dogmatism with skepticism, as Michel Eyquem de Montaigne later did, was one of the most influential figures of the sixteenth century in changing the entire intellectual climate of opinion and in establishing the direction in which modern thought developed.

See also Augustine, St.; Colet, John; Duns Scotus, John; Luther, Martin; Medieval Philosophy; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem De; More, Thomas; Ockhamism; Origen; Patristic Philosophy; Reformation; Renaissance; Scotism; Servetus, Michael; Suárez, Francisco; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thomism; Valla, Lorenzo; William of Ockham.


works by erasmus

Omnia Opera. 9 vols., edited by Beatus Rhenanus. Basel, Switzerland: N.p., 15401541.

Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera Omnia, Emendatiora et avctiora. 10 vols., edited by Jean Le Clerc. Leiden, Netherlands: Petri Vander, 17031704.

The Epistles of Erasmus. 3 vols., edited and translated by Francis Morgan Nichols. New York: Longmans, Greene, 19011918.

Opus Epistolarum. 12 vols., edited by P. S. Allen. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 19061958.

The Praise of Folly, edited and translated by Leonard F. Dean. Chicago: Packard, 1946.

Inquisitio de Fide, edited and translated by Ernst F. Winter. New York: N.p., 1961.

The "Adages" of Erasmus: A Study with Translations, edited by Margaret Mann Philipps. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

The Colloquies of Erasmus. Translated by Craig R. Thompson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

La correspondance d'Érasme: Édition intégrale traduite et annotée d'apres l'Opus epistolarum. 12 vols., edited by P. S. Allen, H. M. Allen, and H. W. Garrod. Brussels, Belgium: Presses Académiques Européennes, 19671984.

The Collected Works of Erasmus. 86 vols. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 19742003.

works about erasmus

Allen, Percy Stafford. The Age of Erasmus. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1914.

Allen, Percy Stafford. Erasmus: Lectures and Wayfaring Sketches. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1934.

Bataillon, M. Érasme et l'Espagne. Paris: E. Droz, 1937. A two-volume Spanish-language edition translated by Antonio Alatorre was published by Fondo de Cultura Económica (Mexico City, Mexico) in 1950.

Bouyer, Louis. Autour d'Érasme: Études sur le christianisme des humanistes catholiques. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1955.

Feugère, Gaston. Érasme: Étude sur sa vie et ses ouvrages. Paris: L. Hachette et cie, 1874.

Froude, James Anthony. Life and Letters of Erasmus: Lectures Delivered at Oxford 18934. London: Scribner, 1894.

Haeghen, Ferdinand van der. Biblitheca Erasmiana: Bibliographie des oeuvres d'Érasme. 12 vols. Ghent, Belgium: C. Vyt, 1897.

Huizinga, Johan. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. Translated by F. Hopman and Barbara Flower. New York: Harper, 1957.

Kaiser, Walter J. Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Kunze, Johannes. Erasmus und Luther: Der Einfluss des Erasmus auf die Kommentierung des Galaterbriefes und der Psalmen durch Luther, 15191521. Hamburg, Germany: Lit, 2000.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Renaudet, Augustin. Érasme: Sa pensée religieuse et son action d'après sa correspondance (15181521). Paris: F. Alcan, 1926.

Renaudet, Augustin. Érasme et l'Italie. Geneva: E. Droz, 1954.

Torzini, Roberto. I labirinti del libero arbitrio: La discussione tra Erasmo e Lutero. Florence, Italy: L.S. Olschki, 2000.

Richard Popkin (1967, 2005)