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Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536

erasmus.jpg (7988 bytes)The Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, was born at Rotterdam, apparently on October 28, 1466, the illegitimate son of a physician's daughter by a man who afterwards turned monk. He was called Gerrit Gerritszoon (Dutch for Gerard Gerardson) but himself adopted the tautalogical double name by which he is known. He attended the school of the "Brothers of the Common Life" at Deventer. On his parents' death his guardians insisted on his entering a monastery and in the Augustinian college of Stein near Gouda he spent six years -- it was certainly this personal experience of the ways of the monks that made Erasmus their relentless enemy. At length the Bishop of Cambrai made him his private secretary. After taking priest's orders Erasmus went to Paris, where he studied at the Coll�ge Montaigu. He resided in Paris until 1498, gaining a livelihood by teaching. Among his pupils was Lord Mountjoy, on whose invitation probably Erasmus made his first visit to England in 1498. He lived chiefly at Oxford, and through the influence of John Colet his contempt for the Schoolmen was intensified.

In 1500 he was again in France, and for the next six years lived chiefly at Paris. To this period belong his Adagia and Enchiridion Militis Christiani. In 1506 he made a short visit to England, carried out a long-desired journey to Italy, and at Padua acted as tutor to Alexander, Archbishop of St. Andrews, natural son of James IV of Scotland. His visit closed with a short stay in Rome, whence he carried away a far more friendly impression than did Luther when he made his visit.

The accession of Henry VIII, and the invitation of Lord Mountjoy, induced Erasmus once more to make England his home. In his satire, Encomium Moriae (1509), we have him in his happiest vein, as the man of letters and the critic of kings and churchmen. Erasmus resided chiefly at Cambridge, where he acted as Margaret professor of Divinity and professor of Greek. After 1514 he lived alternatively in Basel and England, and from 1517 to 1521 at Louvain. In 1519 appeared the first edition of his Colloquia, usually regarded as his masterpiece. The audacity and incisiveness with which it handles the abuses of the Church prepared men's minds for the subsequent work of Martin Luther.

In 1516 was published his annotated New Testament, virtually the first Greek text, and in 1519 his edition on St. Jerome in nine folio volumes. In both of these works the aim of Erasmus was to introduce a more rational conception of Christian doctrine, and to emancipate men's minds from the frivolous and pedantic methods of the Scholastic theologians. But when the Lutheran revolution came he found himself in the most embarrassing position. Those of the old order fell upon him as the author of all the new troubles. The Lutherans assailed him for his cowardice and inconsistency in refusing to follow up his opinions to their legitimate conclusions. In 1521 he left Louvain, where the champions of the old faith had made his stay unendurable and with the exception of six years in Freiburg, he spent the rest of his life at Basel.

He edited a long succession of classical and patristic writers, and was engaged in continual controversies. The most important of these were with Ulrich von Hutten, Luther, and the Sorbonne, Hutten judged Erasmus harshly for not taking his place by the side of Luther; and with Luther himself Erasmus, after long hesitation, crossed swords in his De Libero Arbitrio (1523). Attacked by men like Hutten on the one side, he was as fiercely assailed on the other by the Sorbonne. By his Ciceroniansus he raised against himself new adversaries -- those humanists, namely, who set style above matter. Yet during his last years Erasmus enjoyed great fame and consideration. He died July 12, 1536.

Erasmus stands as the supreme type of cultivated common sense applied to human affairs. He rescued theology from the pedantries of the Schoolmen, exposed the abuses of the Church, and did more than any other single person to advance the Revival of Learning.

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From The Praise of Folly (1509)

The merchants are the biggest fool of all. They carry on the most sordid business and by the most corrupt methods. Whenever it is necessary, they will lie, perjure themselves, steal, cheat, and mislead the public. Nevertheless, they are highly respected because of their money. There is no lack of flattering friars to kowtow to them, and call them Right Honorable in public. The motive of the friars is clear: they are after some of the loot. . . .

. . . After the lawyers come the philosophers, who are reverenced for their beards and the fur on their gowns. They announce that they alone are wise and that the rest of men are only passing shadows. . . . The fact that they can never explain why they constantly disagree with each other is sufficient proof that they do not know the truth about anything. They know nothing at all, yet profess to know everything. They are ignorant even of themselves, and are often too absent-minded or near-sighted to see the ditch or stone in front of them. . . .

. . . Perhaps it would be wise to pass over the theologians in silence. That short-tempered and supercilious crew is unpleasant to deal with. . . . They will proclaim me a heretic. With this thunderbolt they terrify the people they don't like. Their opinion of themselves is so great that they behave as if they were already in heaven; they look down pityingly on other men as so many worms. A wall of imposing definitions, conclusions, corollaries, and explicit and implicit propositions protects them. They are full of big words and newly-invented terms. . . . 

. . . Next to the theologians in happiness are those who commonly call themselves the religious and monks. Both are complete misnomers, since most of them stay as far away from religion as possible, and no people are seen more often in public. They are so detested that it is considered bad luck if one crosses your path, and yet they are highly pleased with themselves. They cannot read, and so they consider it the height of piety to have no contact with literature.... Most of them capitalize on their dirt and poverty by whining for food from door to door. . . . These smooth fellows simply explain that by their very filth, ignorance, boorishness, and insolence they enact the lives of the apostles for us. It is amusing to see how they do everything by rule, almost mathematically. Any slip is sacrilege. each shoe string must have so many knots and must be of a certain color. . . . They even condemn each other, these professors of apostolic charity, making an extraordinary stir if a habit is belted incorrectly or if its color is a shade too dark. . . . The monks of certain orders recoil in horror from money, as if it were poison, but not from wine or women. They take extreme pains, not in order to be like Christ, but to be unlike each other. Most of them consider one heaven an inadequate reward for their devotion to ceremony and traditional details. They forget that Christ will condemn all of this and will call for a reckoning of that which He has prescribed, namely, charity.

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