March 13, 2002
The Renaissance was a period of great change, characterized by a revision of many concepts and a return to antique sources. One of the greatest scholars of this time was Desiderius Erasmus. He contributed to the Renaissance by revising ancient works and translating them into Greek and Latin. During his lifetime, Erasmus also contributed to the Reformation by calling for reform in the Church through his various satirical works. He was a prolific writer and exerted such great influence during his time that he was called “The Prince of the Humanists.” 1 Erasmus was a dedicated Christian who advocated reform within the Church, spread the idea of pacifism, and was a subject of controversy and criticism within his own era and in modern times; yet he never lost touch with his Christian convictions.
Although his traditional birthplace is listed as Rotterdam, Erasmus was actually born at Gouda, a city in the Netherlands, on October 27, 1466. [Editor’s note: in truth, the place of Erasmus’ birth is contested: some claim Rotterdam, others Gouda.] He was the illegitimate son of an educated priest, Robert Gerard, and a washwoman known as Margaret. Originally, his name was Gerard Gerhards. Erasmus later changed his name to Desiderius, which means “desired one” in Latin. 2 His mother brought him up at Gouda until he was sent to school at Deventer around the age of nine. 3 Sadly, both of his parents died of the plague when Erasmus was about fifteen. His guardians pressured him into attending the monastery at Emmaus. Erasmus hated his time there and wrote about it as one of the worst periods of his life. 4 He took his monastic vows, but never functioned as a priest. 5
In 1491, Erasmus was freed from the monastery when the Bishop of Cambrai chose Erasmus to accompany him to Italy as his secretary and traveling companion. Cambrai chose Erasmus for his great linguistic ability and because he was bright and had a wonderful memory. Although the trip was never made, the Bishop retained Erasmus in his services, and in 1495 sent Erasmus to Paris to complete his studies. 6
Erasmus was not impressed with Paris. The educational system was based largely on scholasticism, a philosophy that tried to reduce religious belief to logical analysis. Being a devoted Christian, Erasmus did not appreciate this educational method and decided to spend some time traveling through France and the Netherlands. He then traveled to England where he met and formed several lifelong friendships with Thomas More, Colet, and other humanists. Colet showed him how to reconcile the ancient faith with humanism by abandoning the scholastic method and devoting himself to a thorough study of the Scriptures. 7
Beginning in 1499, Erasmus moved from city to city working as a tutor and lecturer, constantly searching out ancient manuscripts and writing. It was through his travels and his association with other humanists that Erasmus was able to spread humanism throughout England.
After his stay in England, Erasmus returned to Paris where he wrote his Chiliades Adagiorum, more commonly known as Adages, a collection of axioms, expressions, and proverbs from classical literature that he published in Latin. The first edition of this work was printed in 1502, and its publication began his scholarly reputation. Erasmus continued adding to the work for the next thirty years. The final version contained over 4,000 sayings, many of which are present in our own expressions today. Adages is one of the few secular works which Erasmus compiled; most of his writings attack scholasticism and church corruption.
One of his best known works is In Praise of Folly. Erasmus dedicated Folly to his friend, Thomas More. This work is a satire in which the personification of Folly praises the foolish activities of the day. Some of the subjects he attacked were superstitious religious practices and the vanity of Church leaders. One such superstition was the sale of Indulgences by the Church, which its leaders sold in order to raise money for building projects. Indulgences were supposed to reduce the time a sinner would spend in purgatory. Erasmus felt that this was an abuse of ecclesiastical power. He also blasted people for praying to the Saints instead of God, because he recognized that salvation came only through Christ. His goal was to promote basic Christian values.
Throughout the work, he continued to satirize other groups, including peasants, poets, rhetoricians, and narrow-minded natural scientists. He especially satirized the monastic orders. He castigated the monks and church leaders for taking vows of poverty and then not honoring them. Pointing out that many bishops lived in wealth, he rebuked them for being more concerned with the pursuit of financial gain than fulfilling the spiritual needs of their flock. 8
Folly was not the only controversial work Erasmus produced by any means. His Greek New Testament was a center of great controversy, especially since Erasmus’s interpretation pointed out errors in Jerome’s Vulgate. Colloquia, better known as Colloquies, gained him even more hostility from the Church. In this work, Erasmus continued to assault erroneous Church practices. Published in 1518, this work caused him to be charged as a Lutheran by Church authorities. Erasmus vehemently denied this allegation, although he was friends with Martin Luther and agreed that the Church needed to have some reform. 9 To counter this accusation, Erasmus then wrote his work On the Freedom of the Will, which challenged Luther’s philosophy. Because Erasmus wrote on spiritual subjects and had friendships with various Reformers, he has often been listed as one of the leaders of the Reformation. Erasmus never considered himself a Reformer. In private letters, in fact, he proclaimed his loyalty to the Church. 10
His other works offer a great deal of insight into Erasmus’s spiritual beliefs. For instance, Erasmus believed that baptism should be by full immersion and should come only after one had accepted Christ as his or her personal Savior. He believed that life began in the womb, “the fetus in the womb of the mother both feels and understands as soon as it begins to grow, which is a sign of life, unless a man in his formation has more souls than one, and afterwards, the rest giving place, the one acts all. So that at first, a man is a plant, then an animal, and lastly a man” [sic]. 11 Erasmus also disagreed with the notion that sexual excitement was a sin. He believed that sexual excitement came from nature, much the same as any other bodily function, and grew exasperated with people who believed it to be shameful. 12
Much concerned with religious humanism, Erasmus deftly wielded his gift of writing as an instrument of peace. In particular, his writings held a tremendous amount of sway in Northern Europe. He was renowned for his pacifist views, which he poignantly enumerates in Against War. He felt that war was senseless since it only caused destruction and death. Those who engaged in war he rebuked as having no greater morality than beasts. Although he scorned human warfare, he excused killing in the animal kingdom. He theorized that animals were created with the necessary means of survival, but that mankind polluted their design by producing instruments with which to kill one other. Animals who needed a means of survival came equipped for such conflict: tough skin, armored plating, claws, fangs, etc. Humans, by contrast, were encased in bodies that had soft flesh and were easily susceptible to wounding. Erasmus was especially adamant that Christians, of all people, should not engage in warfare. He believed God equipped mankind with the capacity for love, empathy, and kindness: virtues which were not displayed during times of war. He felt Christian’s lives should exemplify Christ at all times. 13
Despite his enormous popularity, Erasmus had many critics. Of all his writings, his Greek New Testament translation garnered the most controversy. The accuracy of his translation is especially important to modern Christians because it is the predecessor of the current King James Version of the Bible. Critics have leveled charges that Erasmus’ first translation was “hastily prepared” and “fraught with errors.” Critics fail to realize that Erasmus was working to complete the translation within his publisher’s deadline, a time span of only one short year. Furthermore, this first edition was not the publication used when transcribing the King James Version. Rather, later translations were based on the subsequent four versions that Erasmus wrote, which he spent the next twenty years editing and revising in order to ensure total accuracy. It could also be argued that the timely completion of the first translation proves Erasmus a devoted and learned scholar, well-equipped for the task at hand. 14
Another area of conflict in Erasmus’ life involved his relationship with the great Reformer, Martin Luther. Concerning this friendship, Erasmus found himself “between a rock and hard place.” There is a great deal of evidence citing the high esteem that Luther and Erasmus had for each other. Initially, Erasmus defended Luther’s views, but the latter continued to increase in prominence and political power. As Erasmus watched Luther become more aggressive in his stance, Erasmus realized he could no longer support Luther, even by indirect methods. He felt that continuing to do so would compromise his moral conscience. Yet he never attacked Luther’s character. Instead, he confronted Luther’s core teachings in On the Freedom of the Will. Erasmus further limited his involvement with the struggle between the Reformers and the Catholic Church by refusing to state outright that one was absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. His ability to separate himself from the religious intrigues lends credence to the veracity of his commentaries on both the Reformers and the Church. 15
The most recent controversy involving Erasmus has nothing to do with his scholarly works, his pacifism, or whether or not he was a Reformer or a devout Catholic. It has to do with his sexuality. Several factors sparked a debate over whether or not Erasmus was a homosexual. The most compelling piece of evidence, according to several gay rights groups, is a collection of nine letters he wrote when he was only twenty-one to a fellow monk named Servatius Rogerius. In these letters, Erasmus uses the word “love” to describe his affection for Rogerius. Erasmus’ choice of words can hardly be indicative of a homosexual tendency. It is more probable that the term “love” is used here as a statement of Erasmus’ deep affection and regard for Rogerius—nothing more and nothing less. Erasmus made no effort to hide his letters to Grey. If they did contain homosexual innuendoes, Erasmus would likely have tried to conceal the letters, since they would have contained information that would damage his reputation and everything for which he stood. On the contrary, evidence against Erasmus being a homosexual is found in his own writings, where he condemns homosexuality.
Other incidents that have added fuel to the charge that Erasmus was a homosexual include his sudden dismissal by the guardian of Thomas Grey, a student Erasmus tutored in Paris, and the fact that the bishop who sponsored Erasmus’s studies there abruptly withdrew his financial support. In this instance, the modern supposition is that Erasmus was suspected of being involved in an illicit relationship with Grey. However, the arguments to support such claims are dubious at best. To begin with, no one during his lifetime accused Erasmus of homosexual behavior. Given the fact that he was a public figure, any accusation of homosexual activity would undoubtedly have been recorded. The fact that no such accusation was made during his lifetime constitutes the strongest evidence that Erasmus was not a homosexual. The addition of Erasmus, a member of the clergy, to a list of historical gays would prove beneficial to present-day gay activists. This seems to be the primary motivation behind these allegations which have only been leveled in recent times.
Erasmus was an important personage in history because of the way he lived his life. His travels sent him throughout Europe, teaching pacifism and humanism along the way. He was an advocate of Christian virtue within the Church and his association with Luther, translation of the Greek New Testament, and satirical commentaries about the evils in the Church made him the target of criticism. Throughout his life, Erasmus continued to conduct himself in the manner befitting a true Christian believer. In essence, he lived out his own maxim, “It is vain to gather virtues without humility; for the spirit of God delights to dwell in the hearts of the humble.” 16
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