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Erasmus, Desiderius (1466/1469–1536) - BIOGRAPHY,  , CRITICAL RECEPTION

published erasmus’ life cwe

Erasmus was born in Rotterdam on 28 October of either 1466 or 1469. About his early life we know nothing save what we are told in A Brief Account of the Life of Erasmus of Rotterdam , a short biographical compendium almost certainly written by Erasmus himself and sent to Conradus Glocenius on 2 April 1524, according to which his father, Gerard, “lay with Margaret [his mother] secretly, in the expectation of marrying her. Some say they were already betrothed” ( Collected Works of Erasmus [ CWE ] 4, 403). Meeting with the intense disapproval of his family, who wanted him to become a priest, Gerard ran off to Rome, where he earned his living as a copyist until his family wrote that Margaret had died. “In his grief he became a priest, and devoted his whole mind to religion. Upon returning home, he discovered this was a fraud. But she was never after willing to marry, nor did he ever touch her.” Erasmus’ account does not mention his older brother Pieter, born three years earlier and, while conceding his unfortunate illegitimacy, carefully places his birth before his father became a priest. Had his father already been a priest at the time of his conception, Erasmus would have been forbidden entry into the priesthood unless he had first taken monastic vows; since Erasmus had gone to some lengths to get a papal dispensation from his monastic vows and from wearing the robes of his order under condition that he always wore his priestly garb, he may have felt that this version of his conception and birth made his life less complicated than otherwise.

Erasmus (and his brother) were sent by their parents to be educated by the Brothers of the Common Life at Deventer, an education about which Erasmus later said that “the school there was at that time in a state of barbarism… except that Alexander Hegius and Synthen had begun to introduce something of a higher standard of literature” ( CWE 4, 404–5). However, his schooling was interrupted by the plague, which carried off first his mother and then his father. Erasmus, who was then thirteen, wanted to go to the university at ‘sHertogenbosch, but his guardians “had already decided to bring the boy up for the life of a religious” ( CWE 4, 405) and sent him to spend (“or rather waste” [ CWE 4, 406]) three years in a house of the brothers. Following another outbreak of the plague, Erasmus, ill, returned home, where he found one of his three guardians dead, and the other two, eager to end their responsibilities (and having “not managed their [fiscal] responsibilities very skillfully” [ CWE 4, 406]), pressured him to enter “a monastery of regular canons.” As Erasmus described it, he was betrayed by a friend, who painted a picture of life in his monastery at Steyn as “a very saintly way of life, with plenty of books, leisure, tranquillity, and a society like that of the angels…. The young man was lured on by some people and driven forward by others; the fever lay heavy on him. So he chose this place…and of the moment all was made pleasant for him, until he should take the habit…. Though he made preparations to leave before his profession, he was restrained partly by natural shyness, partly by threats, and partly by necessity” ( CWE 4, 407). Although the young Erasmus had come to realize “how far the place was from true religion,” he notes nonetheless that “he inspired the whole community to study harder” ( CWE 4, 407).

Erasmus’ account of his early years takes up more space than the next thirty years of his life and clearly suggests that he became the great scholar he had come to be not because of his schooling but despite it and that it was not hatred of true religion but love of it that made him flee it (with the consent of his superiors) when the opportunity came to serve as secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, who was hoping for a cardinal’s hat (“and would have had one had he not been short of ready money” [ CWE 4, 408–9]) and “needed a good Latin scholar” ( CWE 4, 409). The notion that piety is not to be found in a place but by one’s inner efforts, beginning with a good Latin education, can easily be found in many of Erasmus’ works, including most especially his Life of Saint Jerome (1516). In this work, he holds up St. Jerome’s life and early upbringing—in many ways so drastically opposed to the picture he paints of his own in his Brief Account —as a model: “He was carefully educated at home by his parents, and in an atmosphere of parental love and domestic affection…he drank in the knowledge of Christ from the very beginning. Then imbued with the rudiments of Christian piety and at the same time with a liberal education commensurate with his age, while still a child he was sent to Rome, the most distinguished teacher, as it were, in that era of both religious and secular learning, to be instructed in the liberal arts” ( CWE 61, 25). Unlike the moderns— at least those who had his education in their charge—the ancients were conscious that “Christian piety and…a liberal education” were the foundation of the ideal Christian life: “The wisest parents, it seems, understood that it was very important among whom and by whom a child was first taught…. And so just as if they already understood at that time that this child of theirs had been born not for themselves but for the world at large, they saw to it that he was educated for the service of mankind and not for their own private concerns” ( CWE 61, 25).

Unlike St. Jerome, however, Erasmus was sent by the bishop to Paris to study theology. Although the bishop had promised an annual subvention, nothing was sent (as Erasmus observed, “Great men are like that” [ CWE 4, 408]); sick, in poverty, “repelled” by modern theology, “for he felt himself not disposed to undermine all its foundations with the prospect of being branded as a heretic” ( CWE 4, 408), Erasmus accepted an invitation to England from Lord Mountjoy, “who was at that time his pupil and later his Maecenas, though more of a friend than a benefactor.” During 1499–1500, Erasmus spent time in England with Thomas More* and John Colet,* beginning lifelong friendships with both. On his return, English customs seized all of the gold he had been given by his English friends, and he arrived home as poor as when he left. In 1500 he published the first versions of the Adages ; in 1501, he published an edition of Cicero’s De Officiis . These two works attracted the attention of European humanists, and Erasmus’ reputation as one devoted to, and expert in, bonae litterae began to grow. In 1504 Erasmus responded to an invitation to become a counselor to Philip with his Panegyric for Archduke Philip of Austria , which he described in the preface to the printed edition of 1504 as less a eulogy than an admonition, urging peace rather than war upon Philip; he also published the first edition of his Enchiridion (The Handbook of the Christian Soldier) . In 1505, he returned to England, where he became friendly with William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, to whom he would dedicate translations of two plays of Euripides in 1506 and his edition of St. Jerome in 1516. The years 1506–8 found him in Italy, where he received his doctorate in theology, became fluent in Greek, and published a second enlarged edition of the Adages in 1508 while staying at the home of Aldus Manutius in Venice. Apparently, forthcoming preferment in Rome was put off by the death of Henry VII, the ascension of Henry VIII to the English throne, and Erasmus’ summons to return to England yet again. The Praise of Folly (first published in 1511) was conceived on his journey across the Alps and written at the house of Thomas More, to whom Erasmus dedicated it.

From 1509 to 1514 Erasmus was based in England and published a number of educational treatises and textbooks at the request of John Colet, the dean of St. Paul’s, who had reendowed the St. Paul’s Cathedral School in 1510; the most famous of these, the Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style (written in 1512, dedicated to Colet, and first published in Paris in 1514), went through more than fifty editions during Erasmus’ lifetime. During these years he also wrote the De ratione studii for Colet’s school, revised the Adages , collaborated with Thomas More on Latin translations of Lucian’s dialogues, translated works by Plutarch, and prepared editions of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. Except for financial insecurity, this stay was one of his happiest times; as he tells us in the Brief Account , “In England he had decided to spend the rest of his life” (409), but when the generous promises of his friends were not fulfilled, he traveled to Brabant, having been named one of the counselors of the future emperor Charles V, but hoping rather for funds to consider his editing and publishing enterprises; in The Education of a Christian Prince (published 1516) and, though less openly, in the Julius Exclusis (written c. 1513, published c. 1517 after circulating widely in manuscript), Erasmus continued to enlarge upon his picture of the ideal and far-from-ideal rulers. The war-making Pope Julius is refused entry to heaven by St. Peter; the ideal king must learn that he holds authority from the Prince of Peace. The unsuitability of war as an activity for Christians is developed at some length in a number of essays in the third edition of the Adages , culminating in the adage Dulce bellum inexpertis (War is sweet to those who have not experienced it) and published by Johann Froben of Basel in 1515.

In 1514, the new prior of Erasmus’ monastery at Steyn, his old friend Servatius Rogerus, demanded that Erasmus return to his monastery. Instead, Erasmus began efforts to receive a papal dispensation of his monastic vows, which would call him back to England in 1516 and 1517 to press for, and finally to receive, his desired dispensation from Pope Leo X’s agent, Andrea Ammonio. Erasmus’ refusal to return to Steyn coincided with the beginning of a series of attacks upon his life and work, first by Martin Dorp, a former friend who attacked Erasmus on the behalf of the theology faculty at Louvain, who professed to regard his attacks upon theologians in The Praise of Folly as directed at them and who regarded his intention to produce a Greek edition of the New Testament as an attack upon the founding text of Christianity, the Vulgate Bible. Happily joining in the subsequent fray were Edward Lee, afterward archbishop of York, and an anonymous English monk. Erasmus wrote a lengthy apologia to Dorp (1515) and published (1520) a bitter attack on Lee; Thomas More wrote an even lengthier response to Dorp (1516) and savage attacks on Lee and the monk, the latter two published at Antwerp in 1520 as part of a volume defending Erasmus, Epistolae aliquot eruditorum . Dorp repented, conditioned on the promise that More’s attack not be published, and later published an Erasmian lecture on the Pauline epistles in 1519, complete with laudatory comments from More. But the rising swell of attacks on Erasmus both from conservative Catholic theologians deeply suspicious of his Greek New Testament, his Latin Paraphrases of the New Testament (both dedicated to Pope Leo X), and his edition of the works of St. Jerome (all 1516) and later from Lutherans deeply resentful that Erasmus would not openly endorse Luther’s program continued. To make things worse, Erasmus, who agreed with many of Luther’s criticisms of Catholic ritual and the cult of ceremonies, was also attacked by the conservatives for not openly attacking Luther. Not even a letter of papal approval published with the second edition of the New Testament (1518) could silence the attacks of Catholic conservatives; and only the death of Erasmus’ former friend, Ulrich von Hutten, who had become a fervent Lutheran and attacked Erasmus for his fearfulness in not publicly acknowledging Luther, could even slightly stem the attacks from the left upon one whom many had regarded as their inspiration.

The Louvain theologians, angered anew that Erasmus had undertaken to find masters in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin for a new Collegium Trilingue at the University of Louvain created by a bequest from Jerome Busleiden, recently deceased counselor of Prince Charles, still angered by his jests at “modern” theology, and rightly seeing in the new college an attempt to create an alternative kind of theology similar to that for which Erasmus had praised St. Jerome and to that which Erasmus had prayed in the Paraclesis , took advantage of the controversies raised by Luther’s attacks on the abuses of the church to damn Erasmus as Luther’s inspiration (if not indeed his ghostwriter!). Soon Erasmus was lamenting that instead of studying the philosophy of Christ, all too many found themselves disputing “about instances, relations, quiddities, and formalities with an obscure and irksome confusion of words” ( Paraclesis , 101). Even when Erasmus initially supported Luther’s gospel-based theology and his attacks on worldly corruption in the church, he lamented their intemperateness and feared that they would draw down the wrath of those who already hated “human studies—for which they have a burning hatred, as likely to stand in the way of her majesty queen Theology, whom they value much more than they do Christ— and myself at the same time…. As for me, I keep myself uncommitted, so far as I can, in hopes of being able to do more for the revival of good literature. And I think that one goes further by courtesy and moderation than by clamour” (Letter to Luther, 30 May 1519, CWE 6, 391). In a letter to Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, Erasmus again blamed the quarrel on those who, “for gain and despotic power, deliberately ensnare the consciences of men,” those who would weigh the world “with ordinances made by man,” burden it with “the opinion and dogmas of the schools,” and allow it to be oppressed by “the tyranny of mendicant friars” who preach, “to the exclusion of Christ, nothing save their own new and increasingly more shameless dogmas” (15 October 1919, CWE 7, 112). Although Erasmus insists that he neither defends Luther nor is answerable for him, it is clear that the rhetorical weight of Erasmus’ condemnation falls far more heavily on those whom Luther opposes than on Luther.

In November 1520, after the coronation of Charles as emperor and the issuance of the papal bull Exsurge Domine excommunicating Luther, Erasmus was asked by Elector Frederick the Wise how to respond to the papal official who conveyed the bull. Erasmus prepared a list of points in favor of defending Luther, which, though meant to be private, were almost immediately published under Erasmus’ name in Leipzig. The Axiomata or the Brief Notes of Erasmus of Rotterdam for the Cause of the Theologian Martin Luther begin with the statement that the “matter has sprung from a tainted source, the hatred of literature and the claim for spiritual domination” and assert that the “means by which it has been pursued are in keeping with this source—wrangling, conspiracies, bitter passions and poisonous libels.” Noting that the “persons by whom it is being pursued are suspect,” Erasmus insists that “the best authorities and those closest to the doctrine of the Gospels are least offended by Luther” and that the “world is thirsting for the gospel truth, and it seems to be borne on its way by some supernatural desire.” He concludes his brief notes by suggesting that this desire “should perhaps not be resisted by such hateful means” ( CWE 71, 106–7). Although Erasmus notes that Luther has said he is willing to submit to “a public disputation before unbiased arbitrators,” his enemies’ refusal to agree casts their insistence upon using “arguments which no Christian audience can tolerate” into doubt that they are “trying to forward their own interests” rather than those of Christ or Christendom.

By 1522, Erasmus, who had earlier evaded a request from Pope Leo X to controvert Luther, was being pressed by his old friend Pope Adrian VI to write against Luther, to “employ in an attack on these new heresies the literary skill with which a generous providence has endowed you so effectually…. You have great intellectual powers, extensive learning, and a readiness in writing such as in living memory has fallen to the lot of few or none, and in addition the greatest influence and popularity among those nations whence this evil took its rise” (Halkin, 151), but Erasmus resisted, and not until 1524, provoked by Luther’s attack on free will in his Assertio (1520), did Erasmus respond with his On the Freedom of the Will . Although, as late as 1523, when Erasmus wrote his Inquisitio de Fide (published in March 1524), he finds that Luther, though already excommunicated, believes in the same things that all Christians do, as expressed by Luther’s assent in the colloquy to the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, there were matters of substance as well as of style to which he objected in Luther’s works. When Erasmus finally did break his public neutrality and write against Luther, the eyes of Europe were upon him, and the issue upon which he chose to focus was, at least for him, essential. The will’s freedom is almost the sine qua non for anyone who has adopted an aesthetic based upon rhetorical persuasion, for there is hardly any point in trying to persuade readers to change their minds if, in fact, either they cannot or it is irrelevant even if they do.

Although the Freedom of the Will plunged Erasmus into a prolonged controversy with Luther, who responded with his De servo arbitrio (1525), to which in turn Erasmus responded in 1528 with his massive Hyperaspistes (published in two volumes in 1526 and 1527), it neither freed him from attacks by Catholics nor kept him from continuing both to attack the abuses of the modern theologians and to try to find a formula that would appease both Catholics and Lutherans and heal the widening schism. In Concerning the Immense Mercy of God (1524), Erasmus had argued that there are “two main evils…of which the pious soul must beware if he wants to share in God’s happiness. They are self-reliance and despair” ( The Essential Works of Erasmus [ EE ], 227). The cure for the first, clearly aimed at those whose confidence in human wisdom made all else superfluous, was to remind them that “we are called by faith, that is to say by readiness, to believe” and that “faith is a free gift of God” (239); the cure for the second, clearly aimed at those who believe that there is no place left for human efforts and whose consciousness of their sins outweighs their faith in God’s promises, is to remember that God’s mercy is always available: “Mention has been made of prayers, tears, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. These things do indeed obtain His mercy for us: but kindness for our neighbor actually, if I may use the expression, wrests it from Him” ( EE , 265). Erasmus envisioned a middle way between the arrogance of the theologians so forward in their attacks on the Gospels and the philosophy of Christ and the Lutherans, left totally dependent upon the will of God for salvation and helpless to do anything but wait for it.

Again, in On Mending the Peace of the Church (1533), Erasmus tried to bring the opposing sides together. Speaking to those who embrace “the wisdom of this world, which rejects faith and investigates the things of God with human reasoning” ( EE , 349), Erasmus paints a picture of how failure can turn into success: “Since…the entire man…is not capable of receiving heavenly gifts, what is left except that he becomes entirely deficient in himself and falls (to the point) whence, renewed and raised up by the spirit of God, he sees by faith the greatness of the gifts bestowed upon us by the goodness of God through his Son and worthily draws near his tabernacles” ( EE , 350). While Lutherans would reject the notion of desert that Erasmus’ “worthily” implies, they could be happy with his description of the rhythms of a Christian life: “Thus, to fail is to advance; thus, to lose one’s life is to be vivified; to fail oneself is to be returned to oneself; to fall is to be raised up; to lose one’s strength is to become strong in Christ; to die is to be transformed into God. For unless that which is animal dies, that which is spiritual does not begin to live” ( EE , 350). Yet it is hardly a peace offering to conservatives, and when, later, Erasmus turns to the question of the freedom of the will, his offered compromise will satisfy neither of the warring parties: “Let us agree that we are justified by faith, i.e., the hearts of the faithful are thereby purified, provided we admit that the works of charity are necessary for salvation” ( EE , 379). Though for Erasmus both of these are essentials, Catholic conservatives and Lutherans would insist upon their mutual irreconcilability: the peace of the church was not to be mended.

Despite the controversies raging around him and his active role in them, Erasmus kept busy on works more to his liking as well. In the years following the publication of the first edition of the Greek New Testament, Erasmus published Paraphrases on Romans (1517), Galatians and Corinthians (1519), Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon (1520), and Hebrews (1521). He completed the set with Paraphrases of Matthew (1522), Mark, Luke, and John (1523), dedicated respectively to Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII, and Ferdinand, adding a Paraphrase of Acts dedicated to Pope Clement VII in 1524. The 1520s also saw the publication of a series of educational works: Colloquies and De conscribendis epistolis (1522), Ciceronianus and De recta latini graecique sermonis pronuntiatione dialogus (1528), and De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis (based primarily on Plutarch’s On the Education of Children and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria ) and De civilitate morum puerilium in 1529. During the 1520s, Erasmus also saw his editions of the works of St. Augustine and other church fathers published by Johann Froben at his press in Basel, but the winds of change were blowing too strong for him. In 1528, the University of Basel closed, and, after rioting, the mass was abolished, and evangelical services were made compulsory. In 1529 Erasmus accepted King Ferdinand’s invitation to settle in Catholic Freiberg, where he stayed until 1535. He returned to Basel, completed On Preaching , and died on the night of 11 or 12 July 1536, the prince of humanists in a world where they were no longer welcome.



The story of the rise, decline, fall, and recovery of Erasmus’ critical reception is an immense one and has been told elsewhere (see Mansfield and Devereux). Beatus Rhenanus’ Life of Erasmus (1540), commissioned to introduce Froben’s nine-volume Opera Omnia (1538–40), dedicated to Charles V, attributes to him a revival of learning and theology: “In Germany and France letters lay cold and lifeless; hardly anyone knew Latin, no one Greek. And behold, immediately when the Adagiorum chiliades and the De copia verborum et rerum were published, the knowledge of languages began to come forth, like the sun breaking through the clouds.” To the Council of Trent, however, Erasmus’ works were too dangerous to be read. In the 1559 Index of Forbidden Books , all of Erasmus’ works were banned, and in the revised version of 1564, some were to be allowed in expurgated form, but others (including The Praise of Folly and The Colloquies ) were forbidden. This did not stop either the printing or the reading of Erasmus’ works, and hundreds of editions poured off the presses (John Milton remarked that everyone was reading The Praise of Folly while he was a student at Cambridge University, and Sir Philip Sidney* and Shakespeare’s* Hamlet have been suggested as careful readers of it as well), but it did mean that Erasmus was more likely to be found chained in the Protestant churches of England than he was in the libraries of the church to whose reform he had dedicated so much of his life. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Erasmus can again be seen as he was in the sixteenth, when Rabelais enthusiastically hailed him as one who had “so nurtured me with the pure breasts of your holy teaching that whatever I am and can do, if I do not owe to you alone what I have received, I should be the most ungrateful of all men today and in times to come. Therefore keep well perpetually, most beloved father, father and honour of your homeland, defender of literature, invincible champion of truth.” Looking back over the nearly 500 years separating us from the beginnings of Erasmus’ career, it is impossible to imagine what the sixteenth century would have been like had Erasmus never emerged from his monastery.

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