Early Life (§ 1)

Studies and Travels (§ 2).

Basis of Literary Activity (§ 3).

Various Works (§ 4).

Attitude Toward the Reformation (§ 5).

Relations with Luther (§ 6).

Doctrine of the Eucharist (§ 7).

Closing Years (§ 8).

1. Early Life. Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, Dutch humanist and theologian, was born at Rotterdam, Holland, Oct. 27, probably 1466; d. at Basel, Switzerland, July 12, 1536. Information as to his family and early life comes from a few meager accounts written or suggested by himself at a somewhat advanced age and from many but vague references in his writings at all periods of his life. There seems good reason to believe that the tone of self-pity that pervades all these accounts was assumed for purposes at which one may guess, but as to which one can not be certain. He was doubtless born out of wedlock, well cared for by his parents till their early death, and then given the best education open to a young man of his day in a series of monastic or semimonastic schools. All this early education is made by him in the light of later experience to appear like one long conspiracy to force him into the monastic life, but there is no other evidence for this, and recent criticism has suggested ample motives for his desire to give his life-history this peculiar turn. He was admitted to the priesthood and took the monastic vows at about the age of twenty-five, but there is no record that he ever exercised the priestly functions, and monasticism was one of the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon the evils of the Church.


2. Studies and Travels. Almost immediately after his consecration the way was opened to him for study at the University of Paris, then the chief seat of the later scholastic learning, but already beginning to feel the influence of the revived classic culture of Italy. From this time on Erasmus led the life of an independent scholar, independent of country, of academic ties, of religious allegiance, of everything that could interfere with the free development of his intellect and the freedom of his literary expression. The chief centers of his activity were Paris, Louvain, England, and Basel; yet it could never be said that he was identified with any one of these. His residences in England were fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the stirring days of Henry VIII.--John Colet, Thomas More, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. He held at Cambridge an honorable position as Lady Margaret professor of divinity, and there seems to have been no reason except his unconquerable aversion to a routine life, why he should not have spent his days as an English professor. He was offered many positions of honor and profit in the academic world, but declined them all on one or another pretext, preferring the uncertain, but as it proved sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. In Italy he spent three years (1506-09), part of the time in connection with the publishing house of Aldus Manutius at Venice, but otherwise with far less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected. The residence at Louvain exposed Erasmus to the petty criticism of men nearer to him in blood and political connections, but hostile to all the principles of literary and religious progress to which he was devoting his life. From this lack of sympathy, which he always represented as persecution, he sought refuge in the more congenial atmosphere of Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself with freedom and where he was always surrounded by devoted friends. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Froben, and hither came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.


3. Basis of Literary Activity. Erasmus's literary productivity began comparatively late in his life. It was not until he had made himself master of a telling Latin style that he undertook to express himself on all current subjects of literature and religion. His revolt against the forms of Church life did not proceed from any questionings as to the truth of the traditional doctrine, nor from any hostility to the organization of the Church itself. Rather, he felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of the doctrine and in a liberalizing of the institutions of Christianity. He began as a scholar, trying to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions; but he was not satisfied with this. He conceived of himself as, above all else, a preacher of righteousness. It was his lifelong conviction that what was needed to regenerate Europe was sound learning applied frankly and fearlessly to the administration of public affairs in Church and State. It is this conviction that gives unity and consistency to a life which at first sight seems to have been full of fatal contradictions. Erasmus was a marked individual, holding himself aloof from all entangling obligations; yet he was in a singularly true sense the center of the literary movement of his time. In his correspondence he put himself in touch with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if none too readily followed.


4. Various Works. Naturally, Erasmus has been most widely known for his critical and satirical writings, such as the "Praise of Folly" (Paris, 1509) and many of the Colloquia, which appeared at intervals from 1500 on. These appeal to a wider audience and deal with matters of wider human interest. Yet their author seems to have regarded them as the trifles of his intellectual product, the play of his leisure hours. His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion Militis Christiani, the "Manual (or Dagger) of the Christian Gentleman" (1503). In this little volume Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life which he was to spend the rest of his days in elaborating. The key-note of it all is sincerity. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, a respect for traditions, a regard for what other people think essential, but never a thought of what the true teaching of Christ may be. The remedy is for every man to ask himself at each point: what is the essential thing? and to do this without fear. Forms are not in themselves evil. It is only when they hide or quench the spirit that they are to be dreaded. In his examination of the special dangers of formalism, Erasmus pays his respects to monasticism, saint-worship, war, the spirit of class, the foibles of "society," in the fashion which was to make his later reputation as a satirist, but the main impression of the Enchiridion is distinctly that of a sermon. A companion piece to the Enchiridion is the Institutio Principis Christiani (Basel, 1516), written as advice to the young king Charles of Spain, later the emperor Charles V. Here Erasmus applies the same general principles of honor and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he represents throughout as the servant of the people. While in England Erasmus began the systematic examination of manuscripts of the New Testament to prepare for a new edition and Latin translation. This edition was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and was the basis of most of the scientific study of the Bible during the Reformation period (see BIBLE TEXT, II., 2, § 1). It was the first attempt on the part of a competent and liberal-minded scholar to ascertain what the writers of the New Testament had actually said. Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X. as a patron of learning, to whom such an application of scholarship to religion must be welcome, and he justly regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of a sound Christianity. Immediately after he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all the writings of Erasmus, were in Latin, but they were at once translated into the common languages of the European peoples, a process which received the hearty approval of Erasmus himself.


5. Attitude Toward the Reformation. The outbreak of the Lutheran movement in the year following the publication of the New Testament brought the severest test of Erasmus's personal and scholarly character. It made the issue between European society and the Roman Church system so clear that no man could quite escape the summons to range himself on one side or the other of the great debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partizanship in any issue which he was not at liberty himself to define was foreign equally to his nature and his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses he had always carefully hedged himself about with protests that he was not attacking church institutions themselves and had no enmity toward the persons of churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire, but only a few obstinate reactionaries had seriously interfered with his activities. He had a right to believe that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world. There can be no doubt that Erasmus was in sympathy with the main points in the Lutheran criticism of the Church. For Luther personally he had and expressed the greatest respect, and Luther always spoke with admiration of his superior learning. Luther would have gone to great lengths in securing his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. When Erasmus hesitated or refused this seemed to the upright and downright Luther a mean avoidance of responsibility explicable only as cowardice or unsteadiness of purpose, and this has generally been the Protestant judgment of later days. On the other hand the Roman Catholic party was equally desirous of holding on to the services of a man who had so often declared his loyalty to the principles it was trying to maintain, and his half-heartedness in declaring himself now brought upon him naturally the suspicion of disloyalty from this side. Recent judgments of Erasmus, however, have shown how consistent with all his previous practise his attitude toward the Reformation really was. The evils he had combated were either those of form, such as had long been a subject of derision by all sensible men, or they were evils of a kind that could be cured only by a long and slow regeneration in the moral and spiritual life of Europe. Get rid of the absurdities, restore learning to its rights, insist upon a sound practical piety, and all these evils would disappear: this was the programme of the "Erasmian Reformation." No one could question its soundness or its desirability. Its fatal lack was that it failed to offer any tangible method of applying these principles to the existing church system. This kind of reform had been tried long enough, and men were impatient of further delay. When Erasmus was charged and very justly with having "laid the egg that Luther hatched" he half admitted the truth of the charge, but said he had expected quite another kind of a bird.


6. Relations with Luther. In their early correspondence Luther expressed in unmeasured terms his admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity, and exhorted him now to put the seal upon his work by definitely casting in his lot with the Lutheran party. Erasmus replied with many expressions of regard, but declined to commit himself to any party attitude. His argument was that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his real work in life. Only through that position as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. The constructive value of Luther's work was mainly in furnishing a new doctrinal basis for the hitherto scattered attempts at reform. In reviving the half forgotten principle of the Augustinian theology Luther had furnished the needed impulse to that personal interest in religion which is the essence of Protestantism. This was precisely what Erasmus could not approve. He dreaded any change in the doctrine of the Church and believed that there was room enough within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most. Twice in the course of the great discussion he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign alike to his nature and his previous practise. One of the topics formally treated by him was the freedom of the will, the crucial point in the whole Augustinian system. In his De libero arbitrio Διατρίβη sive collatio (1524), he analyzes with great cleverness and in perfect good temper the Lutheran exaggeration, as it seemed to him, of the obvious limitations upon human freedom. As his habit was, he lays down both sides of the argument and shows that each had its element of truth. His position was practically that which the Church had always taken in its dealing with the problem of sin: that Man was bound to sin, but that after all he had a right to the forgiving mercy of God, if only he would seek this through the means offered him by the Church itself. It was an easy-going Semi-Pelagianism, humane in its practise, but opening the way to those very laxities and perversions which Erasmus and the Reformers alike were combating. The "Diatribe," clever as it was, could not lead men to any definite action, and this was precisely its merit to the Erasmians and its offense to the Lutherans.


7. Doctrine of the Eucharist. As the popular response to the Lutheran summons become more marked and more widely spread, the social disorders which Erasmus dreaded began to appear. The Peasants' War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries (see ANABAPTISTS), iconoclasm and radicalism everywhere, seemed to confirm all his gloomy predictions. If this were to be the outcome of reform, he could only be thankful he had kept out of it. On the other hand, he was being ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy." In Switzerland he was especially exposed to criticism through his association with men there who were more than suspected of extreme rationalistic doctrines. On this side the test question was naturally the doctrine of the sacraments, and the crux of this question was the observance of the Eucharist. Partly to clear himself of suspicion and partly in response to demands that he should write something in defense of Catholic doctrine, he published in 1530 a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against the heretic Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century. He added a dedication in which he affirms positively his belief in the reality of the body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist, but admits that the precise form in which this mystery ought to be expressed is a matter on which very diverse opinions have been held by good men. Enough, however, for the mass of Christians that the Church prescribes the doctrine and the usages that embody it, while the refinements of speculation about it may safely be left to the philosophers. Here and there in many vehement utterances on this subject Erasmus lays down the principle, quite unworthy of his genius and his position of influence: that a man may properly have two opinions on religious subjects, one for himself and his intimate friends and another for the public. The anti-sacramentarians, headed by Œcolampadius of Basel, were, as Erasmus says, quoting him as holding views about the Eucharist quite similar to their own. He denies this with great heat, but in his denial betrays the fact that he had in private conversation gone just as far toward a rational view of the doctrine of the Eucharist as he could without a positive formulation in words. Naturally here, as in the case of free will, he could not command the approval of the Church he was trying to placate.


8. Closing Years. Thus, as the visible outcome of his reformatory activities Erasmus found himself at the close of his life at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered by controversies with men toward whom he was drawn by many ties of taste and sympathy. Notable among these was his passage at arms with Ulrich von Hutten (q.v.), a brilliant, but erratic genius, who had thrown himself with all his heart into the Lutheran cause and had declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty about him, would do the same. In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), he display's, better than almost anywhere else, his skill in twisting words and phrases to suit the purpose of the moment. He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never to take sides in the division of parties. When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg-im-Breisgau. It would seem as if he found it easier to maintain his neutrality under Roman Catholic than under Protestant conditions. His literary activity continued without much abatement, chiefly on the lines of religious and didactic composition. The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1535), in which be brings out the function of preaching as the most important office of the Christian priest, an emphasis which shows how essentially Protestant his inner thought of Christianity was. The same impression comes from his little tract of 1533 on "Preparation for Death," in which the emphasis throughout is on the importance of a good life as the essential condition of a happy death. For unknown reasons Erasmus found himself drawn once more to the happiest of his homes, at Basel, and returned thither in 1535 after an absence of six years. Here, in the midst of the group of Protestant scholars who had long been his truest friends, and, so far as is known, without relations of any sort with the Roman Catholic Church, he died. So long as he lived he had never been called to account for his opinions by any official authority of the dominant Church. The attacks upon him were by private persons, and his protectors had always been men of the highest standing. After his death, in the zeal of the Roman Catholic reaction, his writings were honored with a distinguished place on the Index of prohibited books, and his name has generally had an evil sound in Roman Catholic ears. The extraordinary popularity of his books, however, has been shown in the immense number of editions and translations that have appeared from the sixteenth century until now, and in the undiminished interest excited by his elusive but fascinating personality.



[Ten columns of the catalogue of the library in the British Museum are taken up with the bare enumeration of the works translated, edited or annotated by Erasmus, and their subsequent reprints. It is a remarkable showing. The greatest names of the classical and patristic world are included, such as Ambrose, Aristotle, Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom, Cicero, and Jerome.]


Bibliography: The works were edited by Erasmus's friend Beatus Rhenatus, 9 vols., Basel, 1540 and by Le Clerc, 10 vols., Leyden, 1703-06. The best edition of the Epistles is by P. S. Allen, vol. i., Oxford, 1906, with which should be put Briefe an Desiderius Erasmus, ed. L. K. Enthoven, Strasburg, 1906; an Eng. transl. of the Epistles . . . to his Fifty-first Year, Arranged in Order of Time, by F. M. Nichols, appeared, 2 vols., London, 1901-1904. His Colloquies are in Eng. transl. by N. Bailey, ib. 1878; his Praise of Folly, with his Letter to Sir Thomas More and a Life is in a handy ed., ib. 1876; his Enchiridion militia Christiani is in Eng. transl., ib. 1905, cf. The Christian's Manual. Compiled from the Enchiridion, by P. W. Crowther, ib. (1816) the Apothegms of Erasmus Transl. into Eng. by Nicolas Udall, 1564 was reprinted, Boston, England, 1877; there is a school ed. of the Conviviale conloquiis, by V. S. Clark, Boston, 1896. The most complete bibliography is found in Bibliotheca Erasmiana, répertoire des œuvres d'Érasme, Ghent, 1893. Consult also Bibliotheca Erasmiana, Ghent, 1903, J. M. Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, 131. i. 194-196.


On the life consult: F. O. Stichart, Erasmus, Leipsic, 1870; H. Durand de Laur, Érasme précurseur et initiateur de l’ésprit moderne, 2 vols., Paris, 1872; R. B. Drummond, Erasmus, his Life and Character, 2 vols., London, 1873; G. Feugère, Érasmus: étude sur sa vie et ses ouvrages, Paris, 1874; J. Meiklejohn, The Reformers, Glasgow 1885; F. Seebohm, The Oxford Reformers, London, 1887; M. Dods, Erasmus and Other Essays, ib. 1891; J. A. Fronde, Life and Letters of Erasmus, New York, 1896; P. de Nolhac, Érasme en Italie. Étude sur un épisode de ja renaissance, ... douze lettres inéites d'Érasme, Paris, .1898; E. Emerton, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, New York, 1899; A. R. Pennington, The Life and Character of Erasmus, London, 1901; E. F. H. Capey, Erasmus, New York, 1903; W. H. Woodward, Desiderius Erasmus concerning the Aim and Method of Education, Cambridge, 1904; J. A. Faulkner, Erasmus the Scholar, Cincinnati, 1907.