Erasmus, Desiderius

(ca. 1467-1536)
   The most famous Northern European humanist, probably the greatest classical, biblical, and patristic scholar of the early 16th century, also important for his sharp criticism of religious corruption and for his efforts to bring about a moderate and peaceful reform of the church. His mastery of classical languages and sharp wit enabled this illegitimate son of a priest to become an internationally famous scholar whom popes, kings, bishops, and great nobles were eager to attract into their service. He received a sound classical education at St. Lebwin's school at Deventer in the Netherlands. After the death of both parents, he and his elder brother, probably with some reluctance, agreed to enter a monastery. Erasmus was ordained as a priest in 1492. He never adapted comfortably to monastic life, and eventually, having been permitted to live outside the monastery in order to pursue his education and to serve as secretary to an aristocratic bishop, he was able to get a papal dispensation granting permission to live independently and to dress as an ordinary secular priest.
   In 1495 his patron, the bishop of Cambrai, sent Erasmus to Paris to study theology. This experience did not lead to a degree but did give him a lifelong aversion to the traditional scholastic theology taught there. His patron lost interest in him, and he earned his way by tutoring well-to-do youths. Some of his earliest works on Latin style, as well as his Familiar Colloquies, had their beginning in handbooks that he prepared for his own pupils. One of these pupils, a young English nobleman, invited him to visit England in 1499, and this introduction into the lifestyle of wealthy and educated Englishmen strengthened his determination to pursue a literary career.
   On this first trip to England, he laid the foundations for lifelong friendships with Englishmen of high rank and great intellectual ability, including the humanists John Colet and Thomas More, the arch-bishop of Canterbury, and two future bishops. Colet encouraged Erasmus to stay at Oxford as lecturer on the New Testament, but Erasmus declined, convinced that without a mastery of Greek (a need that Colet did not understand), he could make little progress in understanding the New Testament. After his return to Paris, Erasmus worked hard to improve his command of Greek. Through his connections at the English court, he got the opportunity to travel to Italy in 1506 as tutor to the sons of the Italian-born physician to King Henry VII. He was able to travel widely in Italy, spending time at Rome, where he met many of the humanists associated with the papal curia, and at Venice, where he became one of the humanists gathered at the press of the great Renaissance publisher Aldus Manutius. This group included a number of exiled Greek scholars and other specialists on the editing of classical and patristic texts. This experience deepened Erasmus' knowledge of Greek language and literature. An outstanding example is the new edition of his collection of ancient maxims, the Adagia / Adages, which was greatly increased in size but, more important, enriched by the infusion of Greek maxims and literary references. His visit to Italy gave him a mature appreciation of his own talents and the self-confidence to press ahead with his commitment to the study of the New Testament and the Greek Church Fathers.
   In 1509, learning of the accession of the young Henry VIII to the throne, he hurried to England in anticipation of a great increase in royal patronage for humanists. These hopes were not fulfilled, since Henry was far too involved in wars and diplomacy to give much help to foreign scholars. Nevertheless, Erasmus stayed in England until 1514. For much of this period he worked as lecturer in theology and Greek language at Cambridge University. In 1514 he returned to the Netherlands, where his growing literary reputation won him an appointaient as honorary councillor to the future Emperor Charles V.
   In 1517, after Charles had departed for Spain to establish his rule as king of Spain, Erasmus settled in Louvain, site of the region's only university. His type of textually based biblical scholarship, requiring mastery of Greek and implicitly critical of traditional medieval scholasticism, was not welcome among the Louvain theologians, who regarded his famous edition of the Greek New Testament (1516) as a challenge to the authenticity of the biblical text on which medieval Catholic doctrine and practice were based. His role in encouraging and organizing a new institute devoted to humanistic studies, the Trilingual College (which taught classical Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), was resented. Worst of all, the emergence of the early Reformation in Germany stirred up charges that Erasmus' frank criticisms of corruption in the church were the source of Martin Luther's heresies.
   Erasmus' editorial work had already brought him into contact with the Basel publisher Johannes Froben, and he travelled to Basel twice in order to supervise editions being published there, including two of his greatest editorial achievements, the complete works of St. Jerome and the first edition of the Greek text of the New Testament (both published in 1516). In 1521 he moved permanently to Basel. He found Basel a congenial environment, with a flourishing printing industry and a large community of humanistic scholars. As a new member of the Swiss Confederation, the city was somewhat sheltered from the bitter controversies generated by the Reformation in Germany. Erasmus stayed in Basel until the city adhered to the Reformation in 1529. Then he moved to the small and safely Catholic university town of Freiburg-im-Breisgau. His close ties to friends at Basel and to the Froben press eventually drew him back to Basel, where he spent the last few months of his life and died in July 1536.
   Erasmus' scholarly achievement included not only his work on ancient Greek and Latin patristic authors (St. Jerome above all, but also Origen and Saints Ambrose, Basil, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Hilary, and Irenaeus) and several editions of his epoch-making Greek New Testament, but also important editions of classical Latin authors. These editions, plus the vastly expanded 1508 edition of the Adages (which continued to grow larger and richer with each succeeding edition), formed the basis of his reputation as the greatest scholar of his time. His early works included a number of books that long remained standard textbooks for youths who wanted to master the art of speaking and writing good classical Latin, such as De copia / On Style (1512), De conscribendis epistolis/On Letter-Writing (1522), and especially the Colloquia / Colloquies, a collection of dialogues that originated as a simple manual of Latin conversation but evolved into a lively set of dialogues that functioned like essays to discuss controversial topics of great concern to Erasmus and his contemporaries (first published in a pirated edition of 1518; first authorized edition, 1519). Erasmus also published (1529) an abridgment of the Elegances of the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla, a useful guide to classical Latin style; a collection of Parabolae sive similia / Similes (1514), and a collection of literary anecdotes or apothegms (1531), all of them intended to help authors to develop a good Latin style and to provide a stock of stories and examples that authors could draw on for their own compositions.
   Many of Erasmus' works dealt with current religious questions, expressing a characteristic Erasmian conception of religion. They appealed greatly to many educated people of his time but later became the basis for accusations that he was the source of Luther's heresies. Although all of his published works were written in Latin and hence were addressed to an educated rather than a mass audience, within the limits imposed by language they became popular and influential. His most famous satire was Encomium Moriae / The Praise of Folly (first edition 1511; revised editions in 1514 and 1521), a sophisticated and satirical monologue that addresses many contemporary problems but focuses heavily on the faults of the church and the clergy. His Colloquies set forth in dialogue form many of the same ideas about the need for reform of spiritual life and the institutional church. Erasmus also produced religious works more serious in tone.
   His own ideal of a Christian faith focused on personal spiritual experience and on a morality of love and concern for other people, which he called "the philosophy of Christ," found its most influential expression in Enchiridion militis Christiani / Handbook of the Christian Soldier, which first appeared in 1503. It became a best-seller and was frequently reprinted, not only in Latin but in translations into English, Czech, German, Dutch, Spanish, and French. Also treating religion in a serious vein were his Paraclesis, a short and simple presentation of his concept of true Christian piety, prefaced to the first edition of his Greek New Testament in 1516, and his Methodus sive ratio theologiae / Method or Form of Theology, originally published as the preface to the second edition of the New Testament in 1519 but soon separately printed. Erasmus also wrote tracts discussing practical issues of church life, such as De esu carnium / On Eating Meat (1522), which discussed mandatory fasting, and Exomologesis (1524), a discussion of confession.
   His initial reaction to Martin Luther's theology and defiance of church authority was guarded. Erasmus recognized that some of Luther's teachings would eliminate abuses that he himself had criticized, but from a very early date, he feared that others of Luther's ideas threatened the unity of the church and created a danger of social upheaval. He finally concluded that he must speak out against Luther, and his De libero arbitrio / On Free Will (1524) challenged Luther's belief that human dependence on divine grace was incompatible with freedom of the will. This open criticism of Luther disappointed many humanists who had become Lutherans, but it did not silence the criticisms from conservative Catholics, who were offended both by Erasmus' continued assertions that some of Luther's doctrines were correct and by his continuing criticisms of the old church.
   Erasmus remained deeply concerned by the split in the church and longed to see it ended, not by a victory of one faction over another but by emphasis on the many beliefs that all Christians held in common and by peaceful negotiation rather than violence. His De sarcienda ecclesiae concordia / On Mending the Peace of the Church (1533) pleaded for a peaceful resolution of the religious crisis. Erasmus was a consistent defender of the value of peace, advancing pacifist ideas in Querela pacis / The Complaint of Peace (1517), in a famous and lengthy essay called Dulce bellum inexpertis / War Is Sweet to Those Who Have Not Experienced It (1515), and in a work on war against the Turks. Erasmus was interested in a pastoral, practical type of Christianity, and for that ideal he wrote works of practical advice like Institutio Christiani matrimonii / Foundations of Christian Marriage (1526) and De vidua Christiana / The Christian Widow (1529). His Paraphrases on nearly all books of the New Testament attempted to restate the central meaning of the sacred texts in terms comprehensible to ordinary people.
   This sort of moderate, reformist Catholicism exposed Erasmus to attacks by both sides of the religious conflict, with Catholics accusing him of conceding too many points to the Protestants, while Protestants accused him of being too cowardly to face the consequences of his own best principles. In the end, however, his reputation fared better among Protestants, even though he firmly refused to join them. Luther's humanist colleague Philipp Melanchthon acknowledged Erasmus' great learning and his sincerity. In the Catholic world, as the leadership of the church turned increasingly conservative, he came to be viewed with hostility because of his open criticisms, his insistence that many of Luther's early proposals were valid, and his contention that much of the blame for the religious schism fell on the church's worldly, unspiritual leaders. He always retained a following among Catholics, but in many Catholic regions, such as Spain, by 1550 the possession of Erasmus' books or favorable mention of his name and ideas came to be treated as evidence of heresy.
   Erasmus travelled widely throughout western and central Europe, lived for extended periods in various places, and hence conducted an active correspondence. Several thousand of his letters survive and constitute a valuable documentary source not only for his own development but also for the political and religious history of his time.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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