Sometime during the period, known in history as the Renaissance, a forgotten woman gave birth to an illegitimate son, who was destined to make a name for himself in the sphere of learning in his day. This nameless thing, the son of a Catholic priest, in later years assumed the name, Erasmus Roterodamus and is consequently referred to in books of history as, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Erasmus Desiderus, or simply Erasmus. The date of his birth is uncertain but it is usually assumed that he was born about 1466 or 1467. He himself is to blame for this obscurity in respect to his birth and childhood for he disliked saying even the least thing about that time of his life. The reason for this silence is not hard to understand in the light of what has been said above. Socially, Erasmus was a “parasite.” History relates that his parents died early and, very naturally, the relatives, who had perceived the burden of caring for the unwanted child, were only too eager to have him reared as cheaply as possible. The Church, on the other hand, was glad to take charge of this child, who, though very young, showed definite promise in the way of learning. At the age of nine years Erasmus was sent to the school at Deventer and later to Hertogenbosch. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Steyn in 1487 and was ordained a priest by the Bishop of Utrecht in 1492. Later he became an Augustinian canon. It is only proper to mention at this time that he entered the Augustinian monastery not so much for religious reasons as for literary ambitions; this monastery possessed the finest library of classical literature in that country at that time. Also the years which he spent in the cloister were passed not in the exercise of religious duties but in studying the fine arts and reading the classics.
Thus began a life of borrowing on the livelihood of others. Erasmus had the Church to thank for all of his education. What was true of his early life was equally true of all his life, for this “social parasite” was forced, even when his hair was grey, to eat the bread of charity. He was a confirmed beggar and made his way through life on the doles of the rich and begging his way as best he might. Someone has written of him as follows, “Endless are his dedications, his flattering epistles which form a major part of his correspondence and could well become the textbook of those who should wish to learn the craft of writing begging letters; subtle and cunning as they are to the verge of a fine art.”
One might assume that a man so disposed would be satisfied with anything that he might receive as long as it would serve the purpose of his existence. But not so Erasmus. He was by nature an Epicurean and therefore had a high regard for his personal well being. He despised all that which was of an inferior grade and could be satisfied with only the best. The following description is very interesting and also gives us, at the same time, a rather good insight into the man’s character. “During the seventy years of his life he was perpetually afflicted by bad health; for what nature had deprived him of in the way of muscle, she had supplied to excess in the matter of nerves. . . . .The protective covering of health was too thin to secure him from assault, so that if he was not plagued with one petty ailment, he was afflicted with another, slight, maybe, but undermining. His digestion gave him unceasing trouble; his limbs were often racked with rheumatic pains or with gout; he ‘suffered from the stone;’ every breath of keen air acted upon his delicate constitution like ice upon a decayed tooth; he was sensitive to the slightest change in climate. In almost every one of his letters he complains of not feeling well. In no place did he feel at ease: heat undid him; fog rendered him melancholy; he detested the wind; he shivered in the cold; stove-heated rooms oppressed him and made his head ache; stuffy air gave him nausea. . . . He needed to be particular as to what he drank and the wines of Burgundy were the only ones capable of whipping up his chilly blood into a semblance of warmth. . . . He fought shy of badly prepared food, his stomach refusing to assimilate indifferent meat, while the smell of fish revolted him. Such constitutional frailty rendered a certain degree of physical comfort indispensable. He needed soft, warm materials for his attire; a clean bed; costly wax candles instead of the usual dip. . . . During his sojourn in Basle he had, day after day, to make a detour in order to avoid a peculiarly evil-smelling street, for every form of stench, of noise, of garbage, of reek, of rudeness, and of tumult afflicted his mind as well as his body and wrought his soul up to the pitch of murderous frenzy. . . . His greatest dread was that he should be attached by the plague, which was raging throughout every land at that time and causing terrible havoc. If he learned that the disease was epidemic in a region one hundred miles away, he shuddered with apprehension and decamped panic-stricken, no matter whether the emperor had summoned him to a council or the most attractive proposal had been made to him. He felt personally humiliated if he found vermin upon him, or pimples, or a boil. . . . he was by no means ashamed of avowing that he trembled at the merest mention of death.”
This regard for personal well-being was by no means limited to the sphere of food, and shelter. It manifested itself also in his relation to all with whom he came into contact. Erasmus was interested solely in himself, in his own safety and security, and he had an utter disregard for the feelings and safety of another. He was guided, in every social relationship, by the animal instinct of self-preservation, so that even when great issues were at stake, whenever an issue became serious, he slipped away out of the danger zone. No one could elicit from him a plain “Yes” or “No,” but would instead be met with such terms as, “If” or “Insofar.” He refused to make any decision, lest he should in some way bind himself. Hence, anyone putting his trust in Erasmus as an ally, would be mercilessly let down, for he could be faithful only to himself. At heart, the man was thoroughly selfish and he did not hesitate to unscrupulously sacrifice his best friend or most liberal benefactor upon the altar of his own selfish interests.
Although Erasmus was an ordained priest in the Church, he consistently refused to act in that capacity and the record of his life and work fails to show any active exercise of that office. Already in the early years of his priesthood, he had by cunning and clever scheming won permission to cast off the official garb and from living in the depressing confines of the cloister. From this bastard son which the Church had dutifully reared at her own expense, she received but little compensation in return for all her labors in the way of positive fruit for the Church. In reviewing the life of Erasmus, one can easily forget this official capacity and it is not difficult to understand that Luther would write to him, “. . . .I pray you, remain content with your own proper gift. Study, adorn, and promote literature and languages, as you have hitherto done, to great advantage. . . . But as to this our cause: to this, God has neither willed, nor given it you, to be equal. . . .” (The Bondage of the Will, p. 392)
Erasmus was more the humanist than the priest. His interests settled in man rather than in God. He was concerned about the peace and security of mankind rather than the honor of the Sovereign God. Like all humanists, Erasmus firmly believed that a realm of peace and happiness, devoid of all fanaticism, hatred and malice was possible upon this earth. Moreover he was convinced that such a state could be realized by means of enlightenment and education. To the realization of this ideal he was given. This utopian philosophy and this desire for conciliation was recognized by his contemporaries when they coined the term, “Erasmism.” In the pursuit of the statement of this humanistic ideal, Erasmus found his life’s mission. Toward the goal of its realization he set himself with great zeal and with all the keen intellectual gifts at his disposal. In this great struggle for the unity and peace of all mankind, to which he had dedicated his life, he used but one means, his pen. In all fairness to Erasmus it must be said that he was a brilliant writer. Although the many books which he wrote are today covered with dust and are regarded as of little value today, they were nevertheless in great demand in his own age and almost every one of them enjoyed worldwide fame for a time. But perhaps an even greater and more lasting achievement than any book which he wrote was that he converted the Latin, the supranational language of his day, into a more literary and flexible tool for the conveying of thought.
There can be no doubt but what Erasmus was a great scholar. He had a keen insight into the weaknesses and evils of the human nature against which he had set himself in his pursuit of the humanistic ideal of a better world. He was not a profound thinker who produced new truths. He was, however a clear thinker, a correct thinker. He did not find his material within himself but in the exterior world and was therefore to be characterized more as a collector, a commentator and a seeker. Also his style of writing differed from the heavy, straight-forward method employed by the majority of his day, which undoubtedly constituted a factor in the great popularity of his books. He wrote in a light vein; humor and satire constituted the garb of every address. It was this feature of his writings that gave his books ready access to the homes of the great as well as the common people. While, at the same time, underneath this external dress, he set before his public the principles of human reform for which he strove. It has been said of him, “Erasmus packed his wares so cunningly that he was able, unbeknownst, to smuggle all the contraband of the Reformation into cloister and court.”
He reached the height of his popularity between the ages of forty to fifty. No other author in his day saw his works published in so many editions. He was called “doctor universalis,” “prince of scientific learning,” “father of study” and the “light of the world.” In fact no praise seemed too high for him. “Emperors and kings, princes and dukes, ministers and professors, popes and prelates, were all of them rivals for Erasmus’ good will. Charles V, ruler of the New World and the Old, offered him a seat in the Aulic Council; Henry VIII wanted him to reside in England; Ferdinand offered him a pension if only he would consent to go to Vienna; Francis I promised him a fine reception in Paris; the most tempting invitations came from Holland, Brabant, Hungary, Poland and Portugal; five universities strove to obtain the honor of placing him on the staff; three popes wrote him letters full of veneration. His room was cluttered with tokens of esteem, free tributes from wealthy admirers. There were golden goblets and silver table-services; casks of finest wines were sent to him; rare and precious books.”
There is no doubt but what for a time the influence of this man was very great and made itself felt upon a world-wide scale. The humanist had gained the favor of all men and seemed to be well on the way toward the realization of his goal, the unity and peace of all mankind in a world devoid of hatred and strife and war. But, as surely it must, this dream was doomed to failure. And this one popular man died a forgotten and forsaken individual.
When we speak of Erasmus as a traitor we do not mean that he was a traitor to himself and his own ideals. He remained true to his humanistic principles to the very last and it was exactly that fact that caused him to be branded a traitor by both the Catholic Church and the Reformers. Actually he was traitor to neither one because he never once championed the cause of either one over against the other. Some seem to think that Erasmus played a major role in the success of the Reformation but we fail to find any proof on that score. He was in sympathy with the Reformation only in as far as he thought that it would serve the purpose of removing from the Church the evils that were present in it. He supported the movement in as far as it could serve as a tool for the attainment of his humanistic ideal. He was not interested in the truth which was at stake nor would he have anything at all to do with the titanic struggle that resulted. He hated the narrow-minded fanaticism of the Catholic Church but he regarded Luther as a fanatic equally well. Hence, since he would be faithful only to himself and his own humanistic philosophy, he had to be a traitor to any cause that trusted in him for support. Erasmus was an advocate of compromise and conciliation. He regarded every schism and revolution as barbaric and withdrew himself from every open strife, no matter what issue might be at stake. At the outset of the great struggle, both sides “could make neither head nor tail of his attitude; he addressed them gently, and each side hoped to win him over.” There is no doubt but what this man could have been a great power for good with a view to the Reformation if he had so desired. But although many opportunities presented themselves for his open and unqualified support, he consistently refused to make use of them. Only once was anyone successful in drawing him out of his peaceful seclusion, so that he could not avoid making a clear statement of his stand in respect to the struggle of that time. When accused by a dying man, whom he had once befriended, of betraying the cause of the Reformation, he gave out the following statement, “In many books, in many letters, in many disputations, I have unfalteringly declared that I refuse to mix myself in the affairs of any party whatsoever. When Hutton rails at me because I have not rallied to Luther’s support, as himself would have me do, he fails to remember how three years ago I explicitly asserted that the Lutheran party was alien to my outlook and that it would always remain so. . . . I love freedom, and I will not and cannot serve any party.” It is not difficult to understand that a man like Luther could not tolerate such an apparently spineless individual who did not have the courage of his convictions to openly take his stand on the side of the truth. Nor is it difficult to understand that a man like Erasmus could have no use for an individual like Luther who was willing to cast the whole world into confusion for the sake of his belief. To Erasmus no truth was worth a split in the Church and surely not worth bloodshed. Erasmus would not be martyr for any cause, no matter what it might be.
Erasmus knew no religion but that of humanism.
That was undoubtedly his greatest weakness.
Note: We wish to acknowledge the book of Stefan Zweig, “Erasmus of Rotterdam” which we have liberally consulted and from which most of the quotations in this article have been taken.