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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Erasmus, Desiderius (1466-1536)
"It's the generally accepted privilege of theologians to stretch the heavens, that is the Scriptures, like tanners with a hide."

"They are looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever."

-- Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (also Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (October 27, probably 1466 – July 12, 1536) was a Dutch humanist and theologian. Erasmus was the most important humanist who wrote in a "pure" Latin style. It must be understood that the word "humanist," in Erasmus' day, did not carry with it the connotation of "atheist" as it does today. A humanist, in renaissance times, was anyone who studied the classics, classical literature and education. Erasmus was influential on Martin Luther who admired him and desired his friendship.

Although Erasmus remained a Roman Catholic throughout his lifetime, he harshly criticised what he considered excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and even turned down a Cardinalship when it was offered to him. In his Treatise on Preparation For Death he made clear his position, that faith in the atonement of Christ, and not in the sacraments and rituals of the church, are the only guarantee of eternal life. He prepared new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, and On Civility in Children.

Erasmus was born with the name Gerrit Gerritszoon (Dutch for Gerhard Gerhardson), probably in Rotterdam, although recent discoveries suggest he was actually born in Gouda, the Netherlands. Although much associated with this city, he lived there for only four years, never to return. Information on his family and early life comes mainly from vague references in his writings. He was almost certainly illegitimate. His father later became a priest named Roger Gerard. Little is known of his mother other than the fact that her name was Margaret and she was the daughter of a physician.

Despite being illegitimate, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the plague in 1483, and then given the best education available to a young man of his day in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools. In 1487 Erasmus became deeply attached to a young man, Servatius Rogerus, whom he called "half my soul", writing "I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly".

In 1492, he was admitted to the priesthood and took monastic vows at about the age of twenty-five, but he never seems to have worked as a priest, and monasticism was one of the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon the evils of the Church. Soon after his ordination, he got his chance to leave the monastery when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambray, Henry of Bergen, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters.

In 1495, with the bishop's consent and stipend, he went on to study at the University of Paris, then the chief seat of scholastic learning, but already under the influence of the revived classical culture of Italy. The chief centers of his activity were Paris, Leuven (Louvain), England, and Basel; yet he never belonged firmly in any one of these places. His time in England was fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the stirring days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge he was Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity, and had the option of spending the rest of his life as an English professor. He stayed at Queens' College, Cambridge and may have been an alumnus.

Erasmus preferred to live the life of an independent scholar, and made a conscious effort to avoid any actions or formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression. Throughout his life, he was offered many positions of honour and profit throughout the academic world but declined them all, preferring the uncertain but sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. From 1506 to 1509 he was in Italy. He spent part of the time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius at Venice, but apart from this he had a less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected.

His residence at Leuven exposed Erasmus to much petty criticism, from those hostile to the principles of literary and religious progress to which he was devoting his life. He represented this lack of sympathy as persecution, and sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself freely and where he was surrounded by devoted friends. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Froben, and to him came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.

Erasmus's literary productivity began comparatively late in his life. Only when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on major contemporary themes in literature and religion. His revolt against the forms of church life did not result from doubts about the truth of the traditional doctrine, nor from any hostility to the organization of the Church itself. Rather, he felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of the doctrine and in a liberalizing of the institutions of Christianity. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions; but he was not satisfied with this. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness.

It was this lifelong conviction that guided Erasmus as he regenerated Europe through sound criticism applied frankly and without fear to the Catholic Church. This conviction gives unity and consistency to a life which might otherwise seem full of contradictions. Erasmus held himself aloof from all entangling obligations; yet he was in a singularly true sense the center of the literary movement of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if not always followed.

While in England Erasmus began the systematic examination of manuscripts of the New Testament to prepare for a new edition and Latin translation. This edition was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and was the basis of most of the scientific study of the Bible during the Reformation period (see Bible Text, II., 2, § 1). He published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516 - Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. This edition included a Latin translation and annotations. It used recently rediscovered additional manuscripts.

In the second edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. But it was the third edition that was used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible. The text later became known as the Textus Receptus. Erasmus published three other editions - in 1522, 1527 and 1535. Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning, and he regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterwards he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all of his writings, were published in Latin, but were quickly translated into other languages, with his encouragement.

Martin Luther's movement began in the year following the publication of the New Testament, and tested Erasmus's character. The issue between European society and the Roman Church had become so clear that few could escape the summons to join the debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses he had always protested that he was not attacking church institutions themselves and had no enmity toward churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire, but few had interfered with his activities. He believed that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world.

Erasmus was in sympathy with the main points in the Lutheran criticism of the Church. For Martin Luther personally he had the greatest respect, and Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus's superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. In their early correspondence Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity, and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. When Erasmus hesitated to support him, it seemed to the straightforward Luther an avoidance of responsibility due either to cowardice or lack of purpose. Erasmus, however, dreaded any change in doctrine and believed that there was room within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most.

Twice in the course of the great discussion he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign to both his nature and his previous practice. One of the topics he dealt with was the freedom of the will, a crucial point. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he lampoons the Lutheran view on free will. He lays down both sides of the argument impartially. The "Diatribe" did not encourage any definite action; this was its merit to the Erasmians and its fault in the eyes of the Lutherans. In response Luther wrote his De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) (1525), which viciously attacks the "Diatribe" and Erasmus himself, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian.

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther deemed unavoidable, began to appear. The Peasants' War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and radicalism. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful he had kept out of it. Yet he was being ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy" (as the Roman Catholics dubbed protestantism).

When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.

The test question was the doctrine of the sacraments, and the crux of this question was the observance of the Eucharist. in 1530 Erasmus published a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against the heretic Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. He added a dedication, affirming his belief in the reality of the Body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist. The anti-sacramentarians, headed by Œcolampadius of Basel, were, as Erasmus says, quoting him as holding views similar to their own in order to try to claim him for their schismatic movement.

Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiatic subjects and those of general human interest. He seems to have regarded the latter as trifling, a leisure activity.

His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion Militis Christiani, the "Handbook of the Christian Soldier" (1503). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life, which he was to spend the rest of his days in elaborating. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, going through the motions of tradition without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ. Forms can teach the soul how to worship God or they may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism, saint-worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society", but the Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire.

Erasmus' best-known work was The Praise of Folly, (Greek: Moriae Encomium) a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509 and published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas More.

The Institutio Principis Christiani (Basel, 1516), was written as advice to the young king Charles of Spain, later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Erasmus applies the general principles of honor and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he represents throughout as the servant of the people. The Education of a Christian Prince was published in 1516, 26 years before Machiavelli’s The Prince. A comparison between the two is worth noting. Machiavelli stated that, to maintain control by political force, it is safer for a prince to be feared than loved. Erasmus, on the other hand, preferred for the prince to be loved, and suggested that the prince needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression.

In 1516, Erasmus anonymously published a satiric dialogue, Julius Exclusus, in which Pope Julius II is turned away from the gates of Heaven by St. Peter.

As a result of his reformatory activities, Erasmus found himself at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered by controversies with men toward whom he was sympathetic. Notable among these was Ulrich von Hutten, a brilliant, but erratic genius, who had thrown himself into the Lutheran cause and had declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same. In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), Erasmus displays his skill in semantics. He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never to break with the Church.

The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1535), in which he comments on the function of preaching. In his own words, written in the little tract of 1533, "Preparation for Death", he verifies that, although he remained a Roman Catholic until his death, he was definitely not a a Roman Catholic in his heart, for no true Catholic could possibly have penned the following words:

"I believe there are many not absolved by the priest, not having taken the Eucharist, not having been anointed, not having received Christian burial, who rest in peace. While many who have had all the rites of the Church and have been buried next to the altar, have gone to hell . . . Flee to His wounds and you will be safe." (Erasmus in "Treatise On Preparation For Death."

The extraordinary popularity of his books, however, has been shown in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the 16th century, and in the undiminished interest excited by his elusive but fascinating personality. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the bare enumeration of the works and their subsequent reprints. The greatest names of the classical and patristic world are among those translated, edited or annotated by Erasmus, including as Saint Ambrose, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Cicero, and Saint Jerome.

Today in his home town of Rotterdam, the University has been named in his honour.

However, Erasmus' reputation and interpretations of his work have varied greatly over time. Following his death there was an initial outflow of support and admiration, primarily by his supporters, but also throughout Europe. Moderate Catholics saw in him a leading figure in attempts to reform Church, while Protestants recognized his initial support for Luther's ideas and the groundwork he laid for the future Reformation. By the 1560s, however, there is a marked change in reception.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned Erasmus as having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation." Their critique of him was based principally on his not being strong enough in his criticism of Luther, not seeing the dangers of a vernacular Bible, and dabbling in dangerous scriptural criticism that weakened the church's arguments against Arianism and other doctrines. All of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Paul IV, and some of his works continued to be banned or viewed with caution in the later Index of Pius IV.

Protestant views of Erasmus fluctuate largely depending on region and period, with continuous support in his native Netherlands and in cities of the Upper Rhine area. However, following his death and in the late 16th century Reformation supporters see Erasmus' critiques of Luther and lifelong support for the universal Catholic Church as damning. His reception was particularly cold in the Reformed Protestant groups.

By the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, however, Erasmus was increasingly returning to become a more widely respected cultural symbol and hailed as an important figure by increasingly broad groups.

The information on which this page is based has been drawn from research on the Internet. For example, much use has been made of, to whom we are greatly indebted. Since the information recording process at Wikipedia is prone to changes in the data, please check at Wikipedia for current information. If you find something on this page to be in error, please contact us.
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