Desiderius Erasmus, the most brilliant and most important leader of German humanism, b. at Rotterdam, Holland, October 28, probably in 1466; d. at Basle, Switzerland, July 12, 1536. He was the illegitimate child of Gerard, a citizen of Gouda, and Margaretha Rogers, and at a later date latinized his name as Desiderius Erasmus.
Eventually his father became a priest. Erasmus and an elder brother were brought up at Gouda by their mother. When nine years old he was sent to the school of the celebrated humanist Hegius at Deventer, where his taste for humanism was awakened and his powers of mind received their bent for life. The most brilliant qualities of his intellect, a wonderful memory and an extraordinarily quick power of comprehension, showed themselves even in this his earliest training. His mother died when he was thirteen years old, and a little later his father also; he was now sent by his guardians for two years, which he afterwards called two lost years, to the monastery school of Hertogenbosch. Then, after wandering aimlessly about for a time, he was forced, through necessity and the insistence of his guardians, to enter in 1486 the monastery of Emaus, near Gouda, a house of Canons Regular.
He felt no true religious vocation for such a step and in later years characterized this act as the greatest misfortune of his life. As a matter of fact the beginnings of his religious indifferentism and of his weakness of character are to be sought in his joyless youth and in the years spent under compulsion in the monastery. He was left free, however, to pursue his studies, and devoted himself mainly to the ancient classics, whose content and formal beauty he passionately admired. His religious training was obtained from the study of St. Jerome and Lorenzo Valla. In 1491 a lucky accident freed him from monastic life.
The Bishop of Cambrai was minded to visit Italy and chose Erasmus as secretary and travelling companion, attracted by the young man's linguistic attainments; he also ordained him priest in 1492. The journey was never made, but Erasmus remained in the service of the bishop, who, in 1496, sent him to Paris to complete his studies, The scholastic method of instruction then prevalent at Paris was so repugnant to him that he spent much of his time travelling through France and the Netherlands, receiving occasionally friendly help; he was also for a while at Orleans, where he worked at his collection of proverbs, the later "Adagia". The money for a trip to England he earned by acting as tutor to three Englishmen, from whom he also obtained valuable letters of introduction.
During his stay in England (1498-99), he made the acquaintance at Oxford of Colet, Thomas More, Latimer, and others, with all of whom acquaintance ripened into lifelong friendship. Colet showed him how to reconcile the ancient faith with humanism by abandoning the scholastic method and devoting himself to a thorough study of the Scriptures. Consequently, on his return to the Continent he took up with ardor the study of Greek at Paris and Louvain. The first publications of Erasmus occurred in this early period. In 1500 was issued the "Adagia", a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, and in 1508 another greatly enlarged edition of the same; in 1502 appeared the "Enchiridion tis christiani", in which he described the nature of true religion and true piety, but with comments that were biting and antagonistic to the Church; in 1505 Lorenzo Valla's "Annotationes" to the New Testament, the manuscript of which he had found in a monastery at Brussels. His introduction to this work is important, for in it occurred his first utterance concerning the Scriptures, laying especial stress on the necessity of a new translation, a return to the original text, and respect for the literal sense.
In 1506 he was finally able, by the aid of his English friends, to attain his greatest desire, a journey to Italy. On his way thither he received at Turin the degree of Doctor of Divinity; At Bologna. Padua, and Venice, the academic centers of Upper Italy, he was greeted with enthusiastic honor by the most distinguished humanists, and he spent some time in each of these cities. At Venice he formed an intimate friendship with the famous printer Aldus Manutius. His reception at Rome was equally flattering; the cardinals, especially Giovanni de' Medici (later Leo X), and Domenico Grimani, were particularly gracious to him. He could not, however, be persuaded to fix his residence at Rome, and refused all offers of ecclesiastical promotion. Henry VIII had just reached the throne of England, and thus awakened in Erasmus the hope of an advantageous appointment in that country, for which he accordingly set out.
On his way out of Italy (1509) he wrote the satire known as "The Praise of Folly" ("Moriae Encomium", or "Laus Stultitiae"), which in a few months went through seven editions. Originally meant for private circulation, it scourges the abuses and follies of the various classes of society, especially of the Church. It is a cold-blooded, deliberate attempt to discredit the Church, and its satire and stinging comment on ecclesiastical conditions are not intended as a healing medicine but a deadly poison.
Erasmus may now be said to have reached the acme of his fame; he was in high repute throughout all Europe, and was regarded as an oracle both by princes and scholars. Every one felt it an honor to enter into correspondence with him. His inborn vanity and self-complacency were thereby increased almost to the point of becoming a disease; at the same time he sought, often by the grossest flattery, to obtain the favor and material support of patrons or to secure the continuance of such benefits. This was also the period of his greatest literary productivity. He wrote at this time works destined to influence profoundly the ecclesiastical revolution that was soon to break out.
The next five years he spent in England, but never accepted a permanent office; it was only for a short time that he held a professorship of Greek at Cambridge. When the hopes he had based on the friendship of Henry VIII proved vain and he realized that Henry's money was all needed in warlike schemes, Erasmus returned to Brabant, where he became one of the royal councillors of Archduke Charles, later Emperor Charles V. This office gave him a fixed salary, and for his princely patron he now wrote the "Institutio principis christiani", a humanistic portrait of the ideal ruler. The archduke thought of making Erasmus a bishop, wherefore, with the aid of the papal legate Ammonius, the famous scholar obtained a papal Brief releasing him from all obligations to his monastery and also from the censures he had incurred by discarding the dress of his order without permission.
No longer obliged to have permanent residence, Erasmus kept up his wandering life, occupied alternately with the composition and the publication of his works. In order to secure absolute freedom Erasmus refused many brilliant offers, among them an invitation from the King of France to reside at Paris, from Archduke Ferdinand to come to Vienna, and from Henry VIII to return to England. He frequently went to Basle to visit the famous printer Froben, who published henceforth nearly all the writings of Erasmus and procured for them a very wide circulation. In this way Erasmus came into closer relations with German humanism, and his influence did much to increase its prestige in southwestern Germany, inasmuch as the followers of the "new learning" in Basle, Constance, Schlettstadt, and Strasburg, looked up to him as their leader. One of his chief works at this period is the "Colloquia Familiaria", first published in 1518, issued in an enlarged form in 1526, and often reprinted. It is a kind of textbook for the study of the Latin language, an introduction to the purely natural formal training of the mind, and a typical example of the frivolous Renaissance spirit.
The defects of ecclesiastical and monastic life are in this work held up to pitiless scorn; moreover, he descends only too often to indecent and cynical descriptions. His edition of the Greek original of the New Testament, "Novum Instrumentum omne" (Basle, 1516), no model of text-critical scholarship, was accompanied by a classical Latin translation destined to replace the Vulgate. Among the notes, partly textual criticism, partly exegetical comments, were inserted sarcasti slurs on the ecclesiastical conditions of the period. In a general introduction he discussed the importance of the Scriptures and the best method of studying them. Although the Complutensian edition offered a better text and was also printed, but not published, at an earlier date, yet the edition of Erasmus remained for a long time authoritative on account of his high reputation, and became the basis of the textus receptus or received text.
No less instrumental in preparing the way for the future Reformation, by setting aside the scholastic method and undermining the traditional authority of the Scriptures, were the "Paraphrases of the New Testament" (1517 and later). This work was dedicated to various princes and prelates, e.g. the paraphrases of the Evangelists, to Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII, and Ferdinand I. In these publications the attitude of Erasmus towards the text of the New Testament is an extremely radical one, even if he did not follow out all its logical consequences. In his opinion the Epistle of St. James shows few signs of the Apostolic spirit; the Epistle to the Ephesians has not the diction of St. Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews he assigns with some hesitation to Clement of Rome.
In exegesis he favored a cold rationalism and treated the Biblical narratives just as he did ancient classical myths, and interpreted them in a subjective and figurative, or, as he called it, allegorical, sense.
The literary works issued by Erasmus up to this time made him the intellectual father of the Reformation. What the Reformation destroyed in the organic life of the Church Erasmus had already openly or covertly subverted in a moral sense in his "Praise of Folly", his "Adagia", and "Colloquia", by his pitiless sarcasm or by his cold scepticism. Like his teacher Lorenzo Valla, he regarded Scholasticism as the greatest perversion of the religious spirit; according to him this degeneration dated from the primitive Christological controversies, which caused the Church to lose its evangelical simplicity and become the victim of hair-splitting philosophy, which culminated in Scholasticism. With the latter there appeared in the Church that Pharisaism which based righteousness on good works and monastic sanctity, and on a ceremonialism beneath whose weight the Christian spirit was stifled. Instead of devoting itself to the eternal salvation of souls, Scholasticism repelled the religiously inclined by its hair-splitting metaphysical speculations and its over-curious discussion of unsolvable mysteries. The religious life, he held, was not furthered by discussions concerning the procession of the Holy Ghost, or the causa formalis efficiens, and the character indelebilis of baptism, or gratia gratis data or acquisita; of just as little consequence was the doctrine of original sin.
Even his concept of the Blessed Eucharist was quite rationalistic and resembled the later teaching of Zwingli. Similarly he rejected the Divine origin of the primacy, of confession, the indissolubility of marriage, and other fundamental principles of Christian life and the ecclesiastical constitution. He would replace these traditiunculoe and constitutiunculoe hominum by the simple words of the Scriptures, the interpretation of which should be left to the individual judgment. The disciplinary ordinances of the Church met with even less consideration; fasts, pilgrimages, veneration of saints and their relics, the prayers of the Breviary, celibacy, and religious orders in general he classed among the perversities of a formalistic Scholasticism. Over against this "holiness of good works" he set the "philosophy of Christ", a purely natural ethical ideal, guided by human sagacity. Of course this natural standard of morals obliterated almost entirely all differences between heathen and Christian morality, so that Erasmus could speak with perfect seriousness of a "Saint" Virgil or a "Saint" Horace. In his edition of the Greek New Testament and in his "Paraphrases" of the same he forestalled the Protestant view of the Scriptures.
Concerning the Scriptures, Luther did not express himself in a more rationalistic manner than Erasmus; nor did he interpret them more rationalistically. The only difference is that Luther said clearly and positively what Erasmus often merely suggested by a doubt, and that the former sought in the Bible, above all other things, the certainty of justification by Christ, while the latter, with an almost Pelagian definiteness, sought therein the model of a moral life. Substantially the same fundamental principles and arguments were put forth by the representatives of eighteenth-century "Enlightenment" to attain exactly the same results. It must be added, however, that the attitude of Erasmus towards the religious questions of his time was conditioned rather by literary interests than by profound interior conviction. His demeanor was apt to be influenced by anxiety for peace and by personal considerations; moreover, in contrast to Luther, it was the refined and scholarly public, not the common people, that he sought to influence by his writings. He, therefore, labored for a reform of the Church that would not be antagonistic to the pope and the bishops, nor productive of a violent rupture, but which, through the dissemination of a larger enlightenment, would eventually but gradually result in the wished-for reorganization.
This was to be the work, however, not of the common people, but of scholars and princes. Hence he tried subsequently to check the Lutheran movement by some kind of peaceful compromise. With a scholar's love of peace, he was from the beginning disinclined to enter deeply into the current religious dispute. For a time his reform ideas seemed to have some prospect of success, especially during the reigns of Adrian VI and Paul III.
As soon, however, as the Lutheran movement was seen to mean definitive separation from the Church, it was clear that a rigorous adherence to the latter was the only logical attitude and the one most capable of defense. In the first years of the Reformation many thought that Luther was only carrying out the program of Erasmus, and this was the opinion of those strict Catholics who from the outset of the great conflict included Erasmus in their attacks on Luther. Given the wavering character of Erasmus, such attacks were to provoke on his part a very equivocal attitude, if not plain double-dealing. He gave Luther clearly to understand that he agreed with him, and urged only a less violent manner and more consideration for the pope and ecclesiastical dignitaries. At the same time he affected in public an attitude of strict neutrality, and as time went on withdrew more and more from Luther. In 1519 he wrote to Luther: "I observe as strict a neutrality as possible, in order to advance scholarship, which is again beginning to flourish, by my modesty rather than by passion or violence."
That close relations between these two fundamentally different characters were maintained as late as the Diet of Worms, though both soon clearly saw the difference in their points of view and their attitudes, was largely due to Melanchthon. Though Erasmus had prepared the way for him, Luther was greatly dissatisfied with him because of his strongly rationalistic concept of original sin and the doctrine of grace. As early as 1517 Luther thus expressed himself concerning Erasmus: "My liking for Erasmus declines from day to day.... The human is of more value to him than the Divine. The times are now dangerous, and I see that a man is not a more sincere or a wiser Christian for all that he is a good Greek or Hebrew scholar." Luther felt hurt, moreover, by the cool and reserved manner in which Erasmus passed judgment on his writings and actions. Nevertheless, Erasmus always opposed any persecution of Luther, and frequently and in no measured terms condemned the Bull of excommunication. At the same time, he declined any association with Luther, and protested his ignorance of the latter's writings and his own complete submission to the highest ecclesiastical authority.
But with all this he took the part of Luther in his correspondence with the Elector Frederick of Saxony. He expressed his views concerning Luther's doctrine in twenty-two "Axiomata" addressed to the Elector's court chaplain, Spalatinus, which, to his disgust, were soon afterwards printed. In this memoir and in other writings addressed to the emperor and to friends at Rome, Erasmus proposed arbitration by a court of scholars; he complained, moreover, of the violent attacks made on himself by the monks, and asserted his absolute neutrality and his fidelity to Rome. The latter assurance was all the more necessary as the papal legate Aleander in his reports to Rome put the authorities on their guard against Erasmus, and accused him of being an accomplice in the religious revolt. "The poison of Erasmus has a much more dangerous effect than that of Luther, who by his notorious satirical and insulting letters has injured his own teaching."
While Erasmus, by his relations with the Roman Curia, was able to checkmate the aforesaid and similar hostile complaints, in Germany he continued to be regarded with distrust and even with hatred, sentiments that acquired new strength when, in spite of repeated entreaties, he refused to appear publicly against Luther. Insinuations and charges of this kind were brought against him, especially by the theologians of Louvain.
Consequently, in 1521, he moved to Basle, where the presence of numerous humanists of the Upper Rhine seemed to assure him a peaceful existence. Even here his attitude continued for a considerable time uncertain. To Duke George of Saxony he expressed himself most favorably concerning Luther and blamed both the Bull of excommunication and the imperial edict against the reformer; yet in his correspondence with the emperor and with Adrian VI he denied all association with Luther, and reverted again to his plan of reconciliation by means of a court of arbitration. He also defended with great earnestness his own orthodoxy against Stunica, who wrote the treatise "Erasmi Rotterdami blasphemiae et impietates" (Rome, 1522), to prove that Lutheran errors were to be found in the aforesaid "Annotationes" to the New Testament. The same year (1522) the fugitive Von Hutten, on his way to Zurich, attempted, but in vain, to meet at Basle his former friend. Von Hutten revenged himself in his "Expostulatio cum Erasmo" (1523), in which he laid bare with passionate violence all the weaknesses, all the parvitas et imbecillitas animi of his former patron. Erasmus replied from Basle with his "Spongia Erasmi adversus adspergines Hutteni", in which, with equal violence, he attacked the character and life of his opponent, and defended himself against the reproach of duplicity. He had endeavored, so he wrote, to hold aloof from all parties; he had, indeed, attacked Roman abuses, but he had never attacked the Apostolic See or its teaching.
All sympathetic association of Erasmus with the Reformers now ceased, though Melanchthon tried to stay the final rupture. One after another, the leaders of the religious anti-Roman movement withdrew from the famous humanist, especially Zwingli and Oecolampadius. This same year Erasmus resolved at last to heed the many appeals made to him, especially by Adrian VI and Henry VIII, to write against Luther. For the first time he took a decided stand, moved, no doubt, by the fear of losing the confidence of both parties. He chose with skill the point on which he would attack Luther.
Erasmus had complained much earlier that the new religious movement begat only commotion, moral disorganization, and the interruption, if not the complete ruin, of learned studies. These abuses he traced to Luther's denial of free will. He wrote, therefore, in defense of the freedom of the will, an attack on Luther, entitled: "Diatribe de libero arbitrio" (1524). The work, it may be said, was couched in a calm and dignified style. Though by no means sufficiently profound in its theological reasoning, the proofs are drawn with skill from the Bible and from reason. Luther's reply was the "De servo arbitrio" (1524), henceforth the official program of the new movement. Starting from the third chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, it teaches the absolute incompetency of man in his fallen state to perform moral acts; no franker antithesis to the humanistic ideal could be imagined. Erasmus replied in a work entitled "Hyperaspistes" (1526), but without effect. Luther ignored this reply, except in private letters, in which he showed much irritation.
Some years later, however, when the "Explanatio Symboli" of Erasmus appeared (1533), Luther attacked him once more in a public letter, to which Erasmus replied in his "Adversus calumniosissimam epistolam Martini Lutheri". These passages at arms brought on Erasmus the violent hatred of the Wittenberg reformer, who now called him nothing but a sceptic and an Epicurean. Catholics, however, considered that Erasmus had somewhat rehabilitated himself, although the more extreme still disbelieved in him. He had not ceased to insist on the need of reforms, though he now spoke more composedly of many matters, such as celibacy. In his later years, it may be said, he held aloof from all religious conflicts, devoted to his humanistic studies and to an intimate circle of such friends as Boniface Amerbach, Beatus Rhenanus, and Glareanus. Nor was he indifferent to contemporary efforts at conciliation; he was in favor of ecclesiastical reunion.
Meantime, the Reformation made rapid progress in Basle, where it took the form, greatly detested by Erasmus, of a violent destruction of images. He removed, therefore (1529), to Freiburg in the Breisgau, not far from Basle, in which city he could still find congenial Catholic surroundings. He did not relax his efforts for religious peace, in favor of which he exerted all his influence, especially at the imperial court. He also wrote, at the request of Melanchthon and Julius von Pflug, his "De sarciendae Ecclesiae concordia" (1533), in which he advocates the removal of ecclesiastical abuses in concord with Rome and without any changes in the ecclesiastical constitution. Notwithstanding his rupture with Luther, an intense distrust of Erasmus was still widespread; as late as 1527 the Paris Sorbonne censured thirty-two of his propositions.
It is a remarkable fact that the attitude of the popes towards Erasmus was never inimical; on the contrary, they exhibited at all times the most complete confidence in him. Paul III even wanted to make him a cardinal, but Erasmus declined the honor, alleging his age and ill-health. Naturally weak and sickly, and suffering all his life from calculi, his strength in the end failed completely. Under these circumstances he decided to accept the invitation of Mary, regent of the Netherlands, to live in Brabant, and was preparing at Basle for the journey when a sudden attack of dysentery caused his death. He died with composure and with all the signs of a devout trust in God; he did not receive the last sacraments, but why cannot now be settled. He was buried with great pomp in the cathedral at Basle. Shortly before his death he heard the sorrowful news of the execution of two of his English friends, Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher.
Editions of the classics and the Fathers of the Church kept Erasmus fully employed during the later period of his life at Basle. In his editions of the Fathers Erasmus formed a means of realizing the theological ideal of Humanism, which was to make accessible the original sources of ecclesiastical and theological development and thus to popularize the historical concept of the Church as against the purely speculative view-point of Scholasticism. As early as 1516-18 Erasmus had published in nine volumes the works of St. Jerome, a theologian to whom he felt especially drawn. In 1523 appeared his edition of St. Hilary of Poitiers; in 1526 that of St. Irenaeus of Lyons; in 1527, St. Ambrose; in 1528, St. Augustine; in 1529 the edition of Epiphanius; in 1530, St. Chrysostom; his edition of Origen he did not live to finish. In the same period he issued the theological and pedagogical treatises: "Ecclesiastes sive Concionator evangelicus" (1535), a greatly admired homiletic work; "Modus confitendi" (1525), a guide to right confession; "Modus orandi Deum"; "Vidua christiana"; "De civilitate morum puerilium"; "De praeparatione ad mortem", etc.
Opinions concerning Erasmus will vary greatly. No one has defended him without reserve, his defects of character being too striking to make this possible. His vanity and egotism were boundless, and to gratify them he was ready to pursue former friends with defamation and invective; his flattery, where favor and material advantages were to be had, was often repulsive, and he lacked straightforward speech and decision in just those moments when both were necessary. His religious ideal was entirely humanistic: reform of the Church on the basis of her traditional constitution, the introduction of humanistic "enlightenment" into ecclesiastical doctrine, without, however, breaking with Rome. By nature a cold, scholarly character, he had no real interest in uncongenial questions and subjects, above all no living affectionate sympathy for the doctrines and destinies of the Church.
Devoid of any power of practical initiative he was constitutionally unfitted for a more active part in the violent religious movements of his day, or even to sacrifice himself for the defense of the Church. His bitter sarcasm had, indeed, done much to prepare the way for the Reformation; it spared neither the most sacred elements of religion nor his former friends. His was an absolutely unspeculative brain, and he lacked entirely all power of acute philosophical definition; we need not wonder, therefore, that on the one hand he was unable to grasp firmly ecclesiastical doctrine or deal justly with its scholastic formulation, while on the other he inveighed with extreme injustice against the institutions of the Church. It must not be forgotten that the grave defects of his character were compensated by brilliant qualities. His splendid gifts explain the universal European fame of the man through several decades, a public esteem and admiration far excelling in degree and extent the lot of any scholar since his day. He had an unequalled talent for form, great journalistic gifts, a surpassing power of expression; for strong and moving discourse, keen irony, and covert sarcasm, he was unsurpassed. In him the world beheld a scholar of comprehensive and many-sided learning, though neither profound nor thorough, a man of universal observation, a writer whose diction was brilliant and elegant in the highest degree. In a word, Erasmus exhibits the quintessence of the Renaissance spirit; in him are faithfully mirrored both its good and bad qualities.
It cannot be denied that Erasmus was a potent factor in the educational movement of his time. As the foremost of the German humanists, he labored constantly and effectually for the spread of the new learning, which imparted to the education of the Renaissance period its content and spirit. By his intercourse with scholars and students, his published satires on existing institutions and methods, and especially his work in editing and translating the Greek and Latin authors, he gave a powerful impulse to the study of the classics. But his more direct contributions to education are marked by the inconsistency which appears in his whole career. Some of his writings, e.g. his "Order of Study" (De ratione Studii, 1516) and his "Liberal Education of Children" (De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis, 1529), contain excellent advice to parents and teachers on the care of children, development of individuality, training in virtue and in the practice of religion, with emphasis on the moral qualifications of the teacher and the judicious selection of subjects of study. In other writings, as in the "Colloquia", the tone and the language are just the opposite, so offensive in fact that even Luther in his "Table Talk" declares: "If I die I will forbid my children to read his Colloquies... See now what poison he scatters in his Colloquies among his made-up people, and goes craftily at our youth to poison them."
It is not surprising that this work was condemned by the Sorbonne (1526) as dangerous to morals, and was eventually placed on the Index. That in most works on the history of education Erasmus occupies so large a place, while others who contributed far more to the development of educational method (e.g. Vives) are not mentioned, is perhaps due to sympathy with the anti-ecclesiastical attitude of Erasmus, rather than to the intrinsic value of his constructive work (see Stöckl, Gesch. d. Pädagogik, Mainz, 1876).