Portrait: Erasmus of Rotterdam, Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian

Wednesday, 28 December 2016 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: European Union, Portrait

Erasmus statue in Rotterdam © Frank Versteegen/cc-by-sa-3.0

Erasmus statue in Rotterdam © Frank Versteegen/cc-by-sa-3.0

Erasmus of Rotterdam was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. Erasmus was a classical scholar and wrote in a pure Latin style. Among humanists he enjoyed the sobriquet “Prince of the Humanists”, and has been called “the crowning glory of the Christian humanists”. Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament, which raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote On Free Will, The Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, On Civility in Children, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Julius Exclusus, and many other works. The popularity of his books is reflected in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the sixteenth century. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the enumeration of the works and their subsequent reprints.

Erasmus lived against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation, but while he was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church and called for reform, he kept his distance from Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon and continued to recognise the authority of the pope, emphasizing a middle way with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety and grace, rejecting Luther’s emphasis on faith alone. Erasmus remained a member of the Roman Catholic Church all his life, remaining committed to reforming the Church and its clerics’ abuses from within. He also held to the Catholic doctrine of free will, which some Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. His middle road (“Via Media“) approach disappointed and even angered scholars in both camps. Erasmus died suddenly in Basel in 1536 while preparing to return to Brabant, and was buried in Basel Minster, the former cathedral of the city. A bronze statue of him was erected in his city of birth in 1622, replacing an earlier work in stone.

Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. By the 1530s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales in Europe. He is credited with coining the adage, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” With the collaboration of Publio Fausto Andrelini, he formed a Paremiography (collection) of Latin proverbs and adages, commonly titled Adagia. Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the phrase “Pandora’s box“, arising through an error in his translation of Hesiod‘s Pandora in which he confused pithos (storage jar) with pyxis (box).

Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger Erasmus statue in Rotterdam © Frank Versteegen/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Erasmus statue in Rotterdam © Frank Versteegen/cc-by-sa-3.0
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 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.” The Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire. With it Erasmus challenged common assumptions, painting the clergy as educators who should share the treasury of their knowledge with the laity. He emphasized personal spiritual disciplines, and called for a reformation which he characterized as a collective return to the Fathers and Scripture. Most importantly, he extolled the reading of scripture as vital because of its power to transform and motivate toward love. Much like the Brethren of the Common Life, he wrote that the New Testament is the law of Christ people are called to obey and that Christ is the example they are called to imitate.

According to Ernest Barker, “Besides his work on the New Testament, Erasmus laboured also, and even more arduously, on the early Fathers…Among the Latin Fathers he edited the works of St Jerome, St Hilary, and St Augustine; among the Greeks he worked on Irenaeus, Origen and Chrysostom.” Erasmus also wrote of the legendary Frisian freedom fighter and rebel Pier Gerlofs Donia (Greate Pier), though more often in criticism than in praise of his exploits. Erasmus saw him as a dim, brutal man who preferred physical strength to wisdom. One of Erasmus’s best-known works, inspired by De triumpho stultitiae (written by Italian humanist Faustino Perisauli), is The Praise of Folly, published under the double title Moriae encomium (Greek, Latinised) and Laus stultitiae (Latin). A satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society in general and the western Church in particular, it was written in 1509, published in 1511, and dedicated to Sir Thomas More, whose name the title puns.

The Institutio principis Christiani (Education of a Christian Prince) (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. Education was published in 1516, three years after Niccolò 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 preferred for the prince to be loved, and strongly suggested a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression. 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 declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same. In his reply in 1523, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni, 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 Ciceronianus came out in 1528, attacking the style of Latin that was based exclusively and fanatically on Cicero’s writings. Etienne Dolet wrote a riposte titled Erasmianus in 1535. Erasmus’s last major work, published the year of his death, is the Ecclesiastes or “Gospel Preacher” (Basel, 1536), in which he comments on the function of preaching.

Read more on Erasmus House Museum, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and Wikipedia Erasmus von Rotterdam (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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