Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was an influential Dutch Renaissance philosopher. He was both a Catholic Priest and a renowned humanist. His criticisms of church practices lay the seeds of the Protestant Reformation, though Erasmus never subscribed to the direction of Luther’s Reformation and he remained a committed Catholic throughout his life.
“I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.”
Erasmus was a devoted scholar, rejecting many well-paid positions to continue his work as an independent scholar. He wrote influential new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament; he was also a prolific writer in many other fields, becoming the dominant author of his generation.
Early life Erasmus
Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, 1466. He was born out of wedlock to a Catholic priest, Gerard and his mother, Margaretha Rogerius. He was brought up by his parents until they died from the plague in 1483. Little is know about Erasmus’ youth; Erasmus himself was not keen to expand on the topic, somewhat embarrassed by his illegitimate birth.
Erasmus was given a semi-monastic education, learning Latin and Greek at the ‘Brothers of the Common Life’ church school in Deventer.
In 1492, under pressure from his guardians, Erasmus took the consecrated vows of a monk at the canonry of Stein in Holland. By the age of 25, he was ordained as a Catholic Priest.
However, Erasmus was never committed to the rules of the monastery or Priesthood. He disliked life in the monastery and spent the remainder of his life criticising several aspects of the rules of Religious Orders. For Erasmus, the importance of religious faith was founded upon a personal relationship with God, and good individual conduct. He saw outer symbols and rituals of religion as unimportant. In ‘Handbook of the Christian Soldier’ (1502) Erasmus expands this view that a great folly is to merely go through formalistic rituals without understanding the underlying spirituality behind it. In Enchiridion, he writes on the importance of reading scripture to help Christians follow the exemplary life of Christ.
“There are monasteries where there is no discipline, and which are worse than brothels — ut prae his lupanaria sint et magis sobria et magis pudica. There are others where religion is nothing but ritual; and these are worse than the first, for the Spirit of God is not in them, and they are inflated with self-righteousness.”
Letter to Lambertus Grunnius (August 1516),
In Praise of Marriage (1519) He criticised the tendency to moralise about sex.
“I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful and that venereal stimuli have their origin not in nature, but in sin. Nothing is so far from the truth.”
While at Stein in Holland, Erasmus wrote several impassioned letters to a young monk Servatius Rogerus. Even for the standards of the time, the letters were emotional – expressing love for his fellow monk. Whether this relationship was ever consummated is a matter of debate. It may have been a platonic relationship; there is no evidence either way.
Erasmus was a noted scholar. He spent hours reading and writing and became well known for his scholarship. In 1495, he received a stipend for the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. Erasmus received a special dispensation from the Pope to give up his monastic vows. This dispensation was later made permanent by Pope Leo X, a rare privilege for the time.
This new post enabled Erasmus to travel to the University of Paris, which was a centre for a new, humanist, Renaissance thinking. Erasmus became acquainted with the leading thinkers and writers of the age. He also travelled extensively to England, Italy and Basel in Switzerland. In England, he stayed at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Despite suffering from the cold weather, Erasmus had a productive time, becoming friends with leading intellectuals, such as Thomas More, John Colet and Thomas Linacre. Erasmus worked as a lecturer in Greek and was able to spend much time writing.
In England, he gained increased inspiration to concentrate on a closer study of original Bible transcripts. This involved learning Greek so that he could study the Greek New Testament versions.
Erasmus spent an intense three years of learning Greek. He relied much on the generosity of friends; he was so committed to studying, he turned down many positions of influence – although they would give a stable job would, in Erasmus’ view, they would limit his scope as an independent scholar.
“I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.”
Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523
Erasmus was a natural ascetic being devoted to his studies. He endured material simplicity to pursue his studies.
“I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.”
Letter to Jacob Batt (12 April 1500);
Erasmus viewed himself as a committed Catholic. He never intended to reject Catholic theology. However, he believed that a good Catholic was able to criticise aspects of the church’s teachings by an appeal to both reason and a return to the original source of the Biblical scriptures. He rejected the formalism and strictures of medieval Catholicism; he also rejected the power of the Magisterium (Catholic theological court), arguing they were not the final arbiters of righteousness. In Sileni Alcibiades (1515) he made strident criticism of people in positions of power and authority who lead impure lives.
“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. . .”
The Praise of Folly (1509)
He contrasts that with Christ and the apostles, who were often outwardly poor and ridiculed, but inwardly led to pure, devoted lives.
In 1519, he published his Colloquia; this is regarded as his great masterpiece and is full of strident criticism of the abuses of the church. In this regard, it helped to lay the foundations for the subsequent work of Martin Luther.
At many junctions, he sought to retain his independence of thought and would move on, if he felt he was being constrained by any particular school.
One of his most important Biblical works was the publishing of a new Latin and Greek versions of the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament. He included the Greek because according to Erasmus, previous scholars had been inattentive in making poor translations. Erasmus’ work provided a unified Greek and Latin version of the New Testament.
His first version was published by Johann Froben of Basel in 1516. Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. The publisher Froben became a close friend of Erasmus and supported the publishing of many of Erasmus’s writings.
In 1519, a second edition, Testamentum was published. This Bible was used by Martin Luther for his influential German translations.
His third edition of 1522 was the most likely source of William Tyndale’s English Bible translation of 1526.
He also published a Paraphrases of the New Testament, which became translated into many languages.
Reformation and Erasmus
A year after Erasmus’ publication of his Instrumentum, Martin Luther published his famous Ninety-Five Theses criticising many aspects of the Catholic Church. Luther was emphasising many criticisms of Erasmus and they shared many similar beliefs about the need for the reform of the Church. Initially, Erasmus had great respect for Luther, saying he was a “mighty trumpet of gospel truth.”
However, Erasmus could not support Luther’s movement to create a new church. For Erasmus, this was too much. Erasmus was concerned about the growing rebellious nature of the Protestant Reformation. Erasmus argued many who were joining the criticism of the church, were ignoring the importance of personal piety.
He wrote to another Reformation figure Philip Melanchthon in 1524 :
“I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike. The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit – these words are always on their lips; look at their lives and they speak quite another language.”
In other tracts, he criticises the new religious movements for the incitement of anger and rage. He argued that many were turning away from the church, but not to be more holy, but to pursue a life of pleasure.
Erasmus was a figure who straddled both divergent religious movements; he supported aspects of both, whilst at the same time being criticised by both.
“There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect.”
As quoted in Thomas More and Erasmus (1965)
Erasmus supported translating Bibles into local languages, but at the same time, rejected the Luther view that Biblical scripture was the only source of revelation. He feared Luther would want to be the sole arbiter of the Bible. Erasmus also rejected the Reformation idea of predestination, supporting the belief in free will.
Although he defended the church and criticised the growing Protestant movement, he was also criticised by those within the Catholic Church. It was said Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched. Erasmus responded by saying that Luther had hatched a different kind of bird entirely.
In 1529, Basel was officially termed ‘reformed’. Although Basel had long been a shelter for Erasmus’ independence of thought, he decided to move to the Imperial German town of Freiburg I’m Breisgau. This was symbolic of Erasmus’ rejection of the Protestant movement.
In a time of religious strife and intense vitriol between competing sides, Erasmus is held up as an early proponent of religious tolerance. In De libero arbitrio, Erasmus called for temperate language and moderation in debate. Though he stopped well short of full religious tolerance, he was a voice of reason and temperance in a turbulent period.
“That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all.”
In 1536, Erasmus died suddenly from an attack of dysentery during a visit to Basel. His last words were reported to be ‘live God’ – Dear God.
Erasmus has become one of the best-known authors. His reputation after his death was mixed, with both Reformed Protestants and the Catholic Counter-Reformation being critical of Erasmus. However, his reputation was enhanced during the Age of Enlightenment with many seeing Erasmus as a model of humanist reason. Erasmus is now venerated by both Catholics and humanists who admire his appeal to reason and also his independence of thought.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Desiderius Erasmus”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 9th September 2014. Last updated 18 February 2018.
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People of the Protestant Reformation A list of some of the most influential people in the Protestant Reformation, which saw a break from the Catholic Church to create new Protestant Christian religions. Includes John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, Jan Hus and Desiderius Erasmus.
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Great Thinkers – Influential and insightful thinkers, who have made significant contributions in fields of science, philosophy, literature and the humanities.