Desiderius Erasmus

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


DESIDERIUS ERASMUS


What is poured into our nature, so to say, in our earliest years becomes an integral part of us. . . . Clay, perhaps may be sometimes made too moist to retain the mould impressed upon it, but I doubt if there be any period of a child's progress when he is too young to learn. . . . It is my conviction that no age is too early, in respect, that is, of that knowledge which Nature has fittingly prescribed for it. . . . Teaching by beating, therefore, is not a liberal education. Nor should the schoolmaster indulge in too strong and too frequent language of blame. Medicine constantly repeated loses its force. . . . Let us see to it that the rod we use is the word of guidance or of rebuke, such as a free man may obey. . . . Shame is the fear of just reproach; by praise a boy is quickened to excel in all he does. Let these, then, be the schoolmaster's weapons today. And I can add another: 'Unwearied pains conquer all things', says the poet. Let us watch, let us encourage, let us press and yet again press, that by learning, by repeating, by diligent listening, the boy may feel himself carried on towards his goal.

De Pueris Instituendis ERASMUS

The Renaissance lit a torch of truth whose bowl was the medieval world view, the fuel for which was provided by the forms and values of the classical world. Its light awakened human consciousness to new modes of creativity and expansive energy, but the shadows it cast were ambiguous. The spirit of exploration cannot be divorced from the ruthless destruction of peoples and civilizations. Interest in things new and previously unknown shifted wealth from land to trading ports, yet also fed growing commercial secularism which supported emerging nationalisms and the bourgeois classes. A rejuvenated desire to know nurtured learning and science, but fostered a reborn sophistry in which style overwhelmed meaning and, eventually, truth itself.

If the Renaissance was a mixed blessing, the Reformation was a double-edged sword. Shattering church power in central and northern Europe, it forced confrontation with the worst abuses in the orders, amongst the clergy and even in the papal court. Both the urge towards Protestant purity and towards Catholic renewal became inextricably bound up with the politics of nations from Scandinavia to Spain. Whilst sincerely advocating a return to the root principles of Jesus and the practices of primitive Christendom, sectarian self-righteousness crept into dogma, and even the hated methods of the Inquisition found new homes in some movements. Protest itself enhanced secular values and made way for the Enlightenment, whose rationalistic values weakened superstitions nurtured by many clerics but also inadvertently opened the door for materialistic philosophies. Kings and bishops, thinkers and writers, alike recognized that, within the confusion and tumult, fundamental and irrevocable changes were occurring. If an age could be labelled 'up for grabs', this period would qualify, and many struggled to affect the outcome, each according to individual perception and commitment. In this mental and moral maelstrom arose an individual whose innate love of harmony and sense of beauty remained untouched by the intense forces shaping European life and thought.

Desiderius Erasmus was probably born on October 28, 1469, although Erasmus gave differing years at different times in his life, and his celebration of the feast day of St. Simon and St. Jude may have been symbolic. His father Gerard, the youngest and most gifted of ten sons, was pushed into the priesthood against his will and inclinations. Before he was ordained, he cultivated a relationship with Margaret, a young widow from a neighbouring village, and she bore him two children, Peter and, three years later, Erasmus. Rotterdam is traditionally the site of the birth of Erasmus, since his mother lived in a modest house in Nieuw-Kerk Street, where it may still be seen. Though Erasmus spent his early years there, he often said that he was born in Gouda, his father's village. After spending several years in Rome thoroughly enjoying its polished dissipation, Gerard returned to Gouda, made provisions for the children but did not live with them.

After some schooling in Gouda, Erasmus was sent to Deventer, the boys' school that trained Nicholas of Cusa and Thomas Kempis, founded by the Brethren of the Common Life. School life was hard in the fifteenth century, when whipping followed the slightest infraction of rules or traditions, and poor schoolboys were the prey of students and teachers alike. Erasmus endured being forced to beg, scoldings and beatings, near starvation and brutal abuse, and his school record was unimpressive. When a teacher tendered false charges against Erasmus in order to beat him, his heart and health almost broke. Perhaps it was at this time that he was sent to the cathedral school at Utrecht as a chorister. Later he returned, and eventually spent eight years at Deventer, the last under the humanist John Sintheim, who prophesied greatness for his apparently dull student. After their parents died of the plague in 148 3-4, both Peter and Erasmus wanted to attend a university, but their guardians, who dissipated the estate within three years, urged the monastic life upon them. Refusal brought a temporary compromise, a second school of the Brethren at 's Hertogenbosch, where Erasmus was encouraged to read ancient authors, including Cicero and Seneca. Here Erasmus came alive.

In 1486 Peter and Erasmus were again pushed towards the monastery, and after violent scenes Peter went to the monastery at Sion in Delft, whilst Erasmus chose Emmaus at Steyn near Gouda, both under the order of Augustinian canons. The brothers most likely did not see one another again, and whilst Erasmus wrote fondly of his brother for a decade, he became embittered at his later indulgences. Nevertheless, even when he wrote De contemptu mundi (On Contempt of the World), arguing that the monastic life was the best for the time, he had no heart for it. Rather than the rituals and routines of the cloister, centres of every variety of hypocrisy and corruption in his day, he looked for a more profound principle of peace and harmony, one that underwrote all the forms they might take. He loved Ovid because "his pen is nowhere dipped in blood", and he was drawn to Jerome's cosmopolitan letters, but he was most deeply moved by Lorenzo Valla, whose treatise on Latin style became a bible for humanists. Anticlerical and undogmatic, Valla's Christianity was moral and humanitarian, and though a master of theology, he was indifferent to creed and ritual and rejected scholastic theology in favour of the Gospels and the earliest fathers of the church. He had grave doubts about the value of monasticism as a cloistered practice rather than a spiritual ideal. Just as Nicholas of Cusa had dared to show that the Decretals of Isidore were fabrications, so Valla demonstrated in 1440 that the Donation of Constantine, giving the bishop of Rome precedence over all others, was a forgery. He held that the early church doctors were bees making honey whilst those in his time were wasps stealing grain. Erasmus discovered in Valla the subtle art whereby delicacy and precision of expression nurture a broader and more tolerant consciousness, and he absorbed Valla's ideas and made them his own.

Erasmus had experience in music at Deventer and tried painting at Steyn, and if the triptych attributed to him is authentic, he showed great promise in that direction. The creative use of words, however, brought Erasmus to life. Disillusioned by a monastic existence he never wanted, Erasmus seized an opportunity to become secretary to Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai, and to experience court life at Groenendael and Burgundy. In 1492, shortly after joining the bishop, he was ordained a priest. Whilst he found ample time in which to read, he found court life no more interesting than the monastery, and he petitioned Henry to allow him to study at the University of Paris. The bishop agreed, providing Erasmus with a small pension, and Erasmus plunged into a university in full debate over the issue of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Though he attained a Baccalaureus ad Biblia, he found such discussions tedious, calling the theologians who pursued them "Theologasters" who are "unsurpassed by any in the murkiness of their brains, in the barbarity of their speech, the stupidity of their manners, the hypocrisy of their lives, the violence of their language, and the blackness of their hearts".

For Erasmus, scholastic theology represented an intolerable corruption of consciousness: by splitting thought from life, the mind is encouraged to sophistry and life becomes hypocritical. Neither the spiritual depth of the teachings of Jesus nor the potentialities of human beings are realized in such activity. Rather than seeking to teach publicly in a university that had just abandoned, in the view of Erasmus, unreadable Aquinas for hair-splitting Duns Scotus, he became a private tutor. His refreshing urbanity and scintillating wit drew like-minded students, including a son of James III of Scotland, who became archbishop of St. Andrews, and William Bount, fourth Baron Mountjoy, later tutor of Henry VIII. Lord Mountjoy invited Erasmus to England in 1499, and he went partly out of a wish to find some stable livelihood. This relationship grew over the years, and the baron granted Erasmus a life pension of £20 yearly. Whilst in England, Erasmus spent several months in Oxford, where he became friends with John Colet, who appreciated his understanding of the Bible and offered him a teaching post at the university. Erasmus, however, wanted to learn to read the Bible in Greek, a language not then taught at Oxford, and so he returned to Paris in 1500. There he slowly grew familiar with the language whilst tutoring students and writing essays and panegyrics for patrons. He made friends with the future Pope Adrian VI and received monetary gifts from Philip of Burgundy. In 1505 Lord Mountjoy again invited Erasmus to England, and in London he made a circle of friends which included the archbishop of Canterbury. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, who was supervising the construction of Christ's College for the Lady Margaret, took him to Cambridge for the king's visit. There the king's physician engaged Erasmus to oversee the education of his sons in Italy.

Arriving in Italy in 1506, Erasmus managed within two years to visit the major universities, see to the training of his students at Bologna, take a doctorate of divinity at Turin, and arrange to publish his Adagiorum chiliades through the great Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius. Consisting of three thousand, two hundred and sixty adages, with rich commentaries quoting classical and contemporary authors, the book moved Erasmus to the forefront of Renaissance scholarship and humanist thought. Altered and expanded with each passing year, the Adages appeared in sixty-five editions in the author's lifetime, and at least seventy-five more in the century after his death, having grown in its final form to embrace four thousand, one hundred and fifty-one sayings and including his famous essays on the evils of war and the deceptiveness of appearances. Deriding meaningless traditions, poking fun at pomposities of every kind, the book at once ridicules and elevates, reasons and laughs. Using a web of humour, irony and satire, Erasmus made the work serve serious purposes. In commenting on the adage "Evil conversation corrupts good manners", Erasmus wrote:

Whilst every form of contact and intercourse has a great effect in reforming or depraving the disposition of mortals, speech is the most influential of all, for it rises from the secret recesses of the soul and carries with it a twofold and mysterious force. . . which it discharges within the mind of the hearer into which it penetrates, an instantaneous poison if it be baneful, an efficacious remedy if it be wholesome.

He added the favourite saying of John Colet to the commentary: "Our character is that of our daily conversation; we grow like what we are accustomed to hear." Though prelates and princes, scholars and sectarians were embarrassed and outraged by numerous satirical barbs and pointed remarks nestled amongst the Adages, each found what was said about the other sufficiently amusing to prevent a coalition from forming to suppress the damning document. One reformist state did condemn the Adages, but so many copies were smuggled into the area that it was compelled to publish an expurgated version in an attempt to dilute the effects.

Erasmus made close friends in the circle of Aldus Manutius and had been especially well received amongst the cardinals in Rome. But he felt that to stay there would be to sell out his basic principles. Already in 1503 he had published his Enchiridion militis Christiani, Manual of the Christian Knight, (playing upon enchiridion, which means both 'handbook' and 'dagger', and taking the term from Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher). In it he had argued that human life is analogous to warfare, in which one must be armed in the manner originally outlined by St. Paul. One must seek to know the difference between true and false wisdom and understand the contrast between the inner and the outer man. Appearances are not reality: fasting, for instance, when undertaken for self-seeking ends, can be more carnal than eating. The cults of the saints often serve selfishness.

One worships St. Roch – but why? Because he thinks to drive away the plague. Another mumbles prayers to Barbara or George, lest he fall into the hand of an enemy. This man vows to Apollonia to fast in order to escape toothache; that one gazes on the image of St. Job to get rid of the itch. . . . The true way to worship the saints is to imitate their virtues, and they care more for this than for a hundred candles. . . . You venerate the bones of St. Paul laid away in a shrine, but not the mind of Paul, enshrined in his writings.

Luther studied the Enchiridion thoroughly and adopted many of its ideas. To remain in the midst of the very practices he abhorred, despite its flattering congeniality, was more than Erasmus could tolerate, and so he accepted an invitation from Lord Mountjoy, whose student had now become Henry VIII, to return to England. The archbishop of Canterbury sent him travelling expenses.

For almost a decade Erasmus flourished in England. Provided with a benefice by the archbishop, receiving payment for his introductions to books, and teaching at Cambridge, Erasmus began to work intensely. Here he wrote a commentary on the New Testament that became the foundation of biblical criticism, and he edited the letters of Jerome and Seneca. Amongst his Cambridge students he counted William Tyndale, who later translated the Bible into English. Whilst in England, Erasmus penned his most enduring work, Moriae encomium (In Praise of Folly), cast in the classical tradition of adoxography, the pseudo-serious treatment of an absurd subject such as In Praise of Baldness by Synesius. Folly parades as one of the gods, offspring of Inebriation and Ignorance, whose faithful companions include Philautia (self-love), Kolakia (flattery), Lethe (oblivion), Misoponia (laziness), Hedone (pleasure), Anoia (thoughtlessness), Tryphe (wantonness), Komos (intemperance) and Eegretos Hypnos (dead sleep). Folly, in a speech before the gods, claims a dominating hand in every kind of human activity, from the business of princes and merchants to churchmen and women, teachers and savants. Momus, the god of primordial wisdom, was thrown from heaven because he made the gods uncomfortable.

Nor since that dares any mortal give him harbour, though I must confess there wanted little but that he had been received into the courts of princes, had not my companion Flattery reigned in chief there.

Nature itself has blended Folly into its architecture.

So provident has that great parent of mankind, Nature, been that there should not be anything without its mixture and seasoning of Folly. . . . Jupiter . . . has confined reason to a narrow corner of the brain and left all the rest of the body to our passions.

Whilst daring to deride every human excess, Erasmus included much to make the serious individual think through the meaning and purpose of human existence.

By the time Erasmus left for Europe to see his more serious works published, he was famous throughout the continent. His Adages, Folly and Colloquies – little dialogues on various subjects – were almost required reading for anyone who considered himself educated. His journey up the Rhine was likened to a triumphal procession, each city sending its most distinguished citizens to receive him. He could now afford to travel freely, visiting England several times in the next few years, and roaming between Switzerland and Holland. Nevertheless, rising tension, polarized in the papacy and in Luther, made life sufficiently ominous for Erasmus to stay within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire – the Inquisition was strong enough elsewhere to deter him. As councillor to young King Charles, he travelled to Brussels, then spent time in Louvain. There he published anonymously his Julius exclusus (Julius Excluded from Heaven), a satirical dialogue in which Pope Julius II argues with St. Peter over his right to enter heaven. When Julius finds the gates of heaven locked, he tries his key. His accompanying Genius suggests, "You don't open this door, you know, with the same key that opens your money-box.... The one you have there is the key to power, not to knowledge." Julius responds: "Well, this is the only one I ever had; and I don't see why I need that other one when I have this one." Soon he is bragging to Peter: "By discovering many new so-called offices, I enlarged the papal treasury in no small way." And when Peter comments on the difficulties the early church faced in filling offices, Julius adds: "No wonder; for in those days the lot and reward of bishops was nothing but hardship, vigils, fasts, study, and often death. Now it is a kingdom and a tyranny. And who wouldn't fight for a kingdom, if he had the chance?"

From the first, many guessed the real author of Julius. Luther found it "so jocund, so learned, and so ingenious, that is, so entirely Erasmian, that it makes the reader laugh at the vices of the church, over which every true Christian ought rather to groan". In Basel, Johann Froben undertook to publish his works, and Erasmus settled there, though he still travelled frequently. Presents flowed to him from every quarter – from Pope Clement VII, from Thomas Cromwell, from Archbishop Cranmer. The Duke of Bavaria offered him a chair without duties if only he would come to the University of Ingolstadt. Archduke Ferdinand offered a large pension if he would reside at Vienna, and handsome promises came from King Francis I and Pope Adrian VI. Declining every gratuitous honour, Erasmus became general editor for Froben, Besides his own works, he saw to it that editions of the early church writers were printed, including the works of Jerome, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Origen. In addition, he wrote as many as forty letters a day, over three thousand of which survive, and took time to be painted and sketched by artists, including Albrecht Durer, whose sketches and woodcuts still exist.

When Froben died in 1527, Basel slipped from the empire and religious zealots seized the city. Erasmus withdrew to Freiburg in the Breisgau, where he was welcomed and given on loan a residence of the former Emperor Maximilian. Erasmus had praised Luther for his advocacy of a 'primitive' Christianity and his emphasis upon moral principle in religious affairs, but the dogmatic fanaticism of the movements growing up around the Reform repelled him. Yet he did not wish to defend the equally dogmatic and depressingly corrupt practices of the church, least of all the monasteries which, he believed, should be suppressed. Luther admired Erasmus and sought to win his support for the Protestant cause. At the same time, the papacy wanted his voice used on its behalf. Pope Paul III nominated him as dean of Deventer and offered him the cardinal's hat. Erasmus declined both, refusing to become cardinal, in an ironic twist of history, for precisely the same reasons that led Nicholas of Cusa to accept. He shied away from identification with Luther because he saw no magnanimity, tolerance or civility emerging from the Reformation. When Luther wrote, "Why should we not attack with all arms these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes... and why should we not wash our hands in their blood?" Erasmus recoiled in horror at the implications of this attitude. "Is it for this", he wrote Melanchthon, "that we have shaken off bishops and popes, that we come under the yoke of madmen?"

Erasmus was caught between two warring forces, neither of which shared his feeling for the Word, Verbum, his respect for human freedom and the depth of learning which leads to the integration and dignity of the human being. The Roman church twisted the idea of freedom, whilst Luther denied it entirely. "I abhor the evangelics," Erasmus concluded, "because it is through them that literature is everywhere declining, and upon the point of perishing." Because he held aloof, both sides attacked him for aiding the opposing party. He stood alone, representing that cool rationality and spiritual dispassion which seeks to understand without bias and live without being driven by ephemeral emotions. With each passing year he withdrew increasingly into a small circle of close friends, stayed within the relative security of the empire's protection, grieved for the degradation of what he stood for and declined in health. At the end of 1535 he was compelled to take to his bed permanently, though he continued to write and edit. Perhaps Thomas More's execution the previous July finally shattered the delicate constitution of Erasmus. "In More I seem to have died," Erasmus wrote to a friend, "so much did we have one soul."

By early summer 1536, Erasmus knew that he was dying. He wrote a few last letters and prepared for a death he did not fear. On the night of July 11 he began to repeat "I will sing the mercy and the judgement of the Lord!" and refused to send for a priest to hear confession and administer extreme unction. With his last breath he uttered, in the language of his childhood, "Lieber Gott" (Dear God). He died neither in the Catholic nor in the Protestant way, as if to signal even at the end that there is a third way between oppositions, a path whose cobblestones are tolerance cemented by charity and laid down on lines of wisdom. He ignored the expected bequests and left his assets in trust for the benefit of the infirm, for young girls who needed dowries and for the education of boys. Though simultaneously sought after and suspected by the warring leaders of the day, he had risen above divisiveness and conflict, standing for the power of harmony, rooted in truth and honesty, that had been his guiding light since childhood. The magistrates of Basel gave him a magnificent funeral, placing his body in the crypt of the cathedral and raising a statue in his honour in a public square. His ideals survived the chaos of the epoch and nurtured the Enlightenment, which cherished the profoundest ideals of the Renaissance.