Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Desiderius Erasmus was an internationally acclaimed celebrity and the greatest European scholar during the 16th century. Despite the polemics of the Protestant Reformation, he could make friends among kings and lords in every land and on all sides of the central questions of his day, and this trait led him to reside in Holland, France, England, Switzerland, and Italy.

His pursuit of Christian humanism and his intellectual curiosity led into a lifetime of travel and writing, seeking to promote the values of the Italian Renaissance in northern Europe.

Erasmus was born in Rotterdam on October 27, 1466, as an illegitimate child. His father was Roger Gerard, who later became a priest, and his mother Margaret, the daughter of a physician. One of the major Catholic renewal groups of the Low Countries, the Brethren of the Common Life, adopted him and no doubt generated in him an unpretentious and broadminded orientation toward spirituality.

For the rest of his life, Erasmus never was enticed by the outward show of formal religion, whether it came from Catholic pomp or Protestant sectarianism. He never held an office in the church, even though he was offered the cardinal’s hat by the pope; he also rejected the pandemonium caused by the likes of Martin Luther, Henry VIII, and Ulrich Zwingli.

At first, he spent time in a religious order, though he probably chafed at requirements that he remain in a monastery under a superior. What attracted him were the disciplined study and fraternal companionship a monastic life afforded. He found an excuse to leave when he took up a position with a local bishop and later obtained permission to study theology in Paris.

It was not theology that interested him as much as the life of intellectual stimulation and possibilities of travel. After leaving the monastery, he never looked back. In the university he gravitated toward literature and humanism of the Renaissance more than toward the theology and philosophy of Scholasticism.

He made friends with Italian scholars in Paris, who kept him informed about the intellectual currents of the Renaissance. His skills at Latin and his need for income led him into contact with English students, who in turn invited him to England. At the age of 33, he accepted their invitation and emigrated there.

Statue of Erasmus of Rotterdam
Statue of Erasmus of Rotterdam

The English intellectuals he met included John Colet, Sir Thomas More, John Fisher, and Archbishop Warham, men of the “New Learning” school who were interested in reviving the Greek and Latin classics instead of the hidebound studies of medieval Europe.

Erasmus began to realize that such a philological methodology could also be applied to the church fathers and the scriptures, the literary pillars of his traditional Catholic faith. His object was not to undermine the established religious doctrines of his time, but simply to make the writings more available and understandable to the broader public.

Erasmus discovered the advantages of travels and friends in high positions. Whereas other scholars had to worry about financial support and institutional approval, Erasmus attracted the favor of benefactors in many countries, especially those who were outside the church hierarchy. This new life afforded him independence of thought, though it meant that he never lived in one place more than eight years.

His celebrity status as an intellectual can only be compared to the likes of Herodotus among the ancient Greek and Persian officials or Voltaire among the Enlightenment thinkers. He was a trendsetter in bringing the ideas of the Renaissance to northern Europe. His book of commonplace wisdom, Adagia, propelled him into the limelight and was published more than 12 times between 1500 and 1535 in several languages.

On the topic of religion he wrote Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of a Christian Knight), a book that found its way throughout Europe. This book attempted to make Christianity practical by teaching about how to choose virtuous life. For Erasmus, this choice did not come through rite or ceremony; nor was it mental speculation or Scholastic dialectic, but it was learned through practice and imitation of Christ.

However, Christ was Savior, as well as supreme teacher, and only Christ and conversion of heart could make Christian life possible. Enchiridion stays within Catholic bounds by stressing the need for the external church as a peaceful and orderly environment where such learning about Christ can occur.

Erasmus’s most lasting contribution lies in the field of biblical studies and patristics. He can only be compared to Origen and Jerome, Christian scholars of the third and fourth centuries. He compiled the manuscripts that led to five new editions of the New Testament.

His historical-critical methodology for studying the Bible laid the groundwork for a new generation of interpretation and modern thinkers. He edited and commented on many writings of the church fathers. These include Jerome (1516), Augustine (1529), John Chrysostom (1530), and Origen—his favorite—(1536), and also Athanasius and Ambrose.

Erasmus died a Catholic in Basel, a Protestant city, without Catholic last rites and was buried under a cathedral that had been converted to a Protestant church. Many of his writings were put on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Council of Trent as supportive of the Protestant critique of the Catholic Church. Protestants maintained that they brought into the light what Erasmus had already hinted at in the dark.

Yet Erasmus never refused to submit to the Catholic Church. He feared that the Protestants’ invectives against the church destroyed the irenic atmosphere so necessary for learning and dialogue. He also believed that the church was in spite of its flaws the necessary environment where virtue could be lived out. He stood in the lonely middle ground, saying that the Apostles Creed held both groups together.

As early as 1516, his opposition to Luther was known. Finally, in 1524 he wrote De libero arbitrio (On free choice) against Luther’s ideas, arguing that the consensus of the church was authoritative for biblical interpretations. By the end of his life, Erasmus had alienated many erstwhile Protestant friends and allies, including Luther, Zwingli, and Henry VIII.

The principles that animated his life and inspired a whole generation of thinkers were his respect for conscience and the rule of reason over coercion and military might. Both of these principles proved to be impossible to live out in the politics of the Reformation. He saw his best friend in England, Thomas More, executed by Henry VIII for these humanist ideals, the year before his own death.