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§ 71. Erasmus.
I. Erasmus: Opera omnia, ed. by Beatus Rhenanus, Basil. 1540–41; 8 vols. fol.; best ed. by Clericus (Le Clerk), Lugd. Bat. 1703–06; 10 tom. in 11 vols. fol. There are several English translations of his Enchiridion, Encomium, Adagia, Colloquia, and smaller tracts. His most important theological works are his editions of the Greek Test. (1516, ’19,’ 22,’ 27, ’35, exclusive of more than thirty reprints), his Annotations and Paraphrases, his Enchiridion Militis Christiani, his editions of Laur. Valla, Jerome, Augustin, Ambrose, Origen, and other Fathers. His Moriae Encomium, or Panegyric of Folly (composed 1509), was often edited. His letters are very important for the literary history of his age. His most popular book is his Colloquies, which contain the wittiest exposures of the follies and abuses of monkery, fasting, pilgrimages, etc. English transl. by N. Bailey, Lond. 1724; new ed. with notes by Rev. E. Johnson, 1878, 2 vols. After 1514 all his works were published by his friend John Froben in Basel.
Comp. Adalb. Horawitz: Erasmus v. Rotterdam und Martinus Lipsius, Wien, 1882; Erasmiana, several numbers, Wien, 1882–85 (reprinted from the Sitzungsberichte of the Imperial Academy of Vienna; contains extracts from the correspondence of Er., discovered in a Codex at Louvain, and in the Codex Rehdigeranus, 254 of the city library at Breslau, founded by Rehdiger). Horawitz and Hartfelder: Briefwechsel des Beatus Rhenanus, Leipzig, 1886.
II. Biographies of Erasmus by himself and by Beatus Rhenanus, in vol. I. of the ed. of Clericus; by Pierre Bayle, in his "Dictionnaire" (1696); Knight, Cambr. 1726; Jortin, Lond. 1748, 2 vols.; 1808, 3 vols. (chiefly a summary of the letters of Erasmus with critical comments); Burigny, Paris, 1757, 2 vols.; Henke, Halle, 1782, 2 vols.; Hess, Zürich, 1789, 2 vols.; Butler, London, 1825; Ad. Müller, Hamburg, 1828 (Leben des E. v. Rotterdam ... Eine gekrönte Preisschrift; comp. the excellent review of Ullmann in the "Studien und Kritiken," 1829, No. I.); Glasius (prize essay in Dutch), The Hague, 1850; Stichart (Er. v. Rotterd., seine Stellung zur Kirche und zu den Kirchl. Bewegungen seiner Zeit), Leipz. 1870; Durand de Laur (Erasme, précurseur et initiateur de l’esprit moderne), Par. 1873, 2 vols.; R. B. Drummond (Erasmus, his Life and Character), Lond. 1873, 2 vols.; G. Feugère (Er., étude sur sa vie et ses ouvrages), Par. 1874; Pennington, Lond. 1875; Milman (in Savonarola, Erasmus, and other Essays), Lond. 1870; Nisard, Rénaissance et réforme, Paris, 1877.—Also Woker: De Erasmi Rotterodami studiis irenicis. Paderborn, 1872. W. Vischer: Erasmiana. Programm zur Rectoratsfeier der Univers. Basel. Basel, 1876. "Erasmus" in Ersch and Gruber, vol. XXXVI. (by Erhard); in the "Allg. Deutsche Biogr." VI. 160–180 (by Kämmel); in Herzog,1 IV. 114–121 (by Hagenbach), and in Herzog,2 IV. 278–290 (by R. Stähelin); in the "Encycl. Brit.," 9th ed., VIII. 512–518. Schlottmann: Erasmus redivivus, Hal. 1883. Comp. Lit. in § 72.
The quarrel between King Henry and Luther was the occasion of a far more serious controversy and open breach between Erasmus and the Reformation. This involved a separation of humanism from Protestantism.
The Position of Erasmus.
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam499499 His double name is a Latin and Greek translation of his father’s Christian name Gerard (Roger), or Gerhard = Gernhaber or Liebhaber,i.e., Beloved, in mediaeval Latin Desiderius, in Greek Erasmus, or rather Erasmius from Ἐράσμιος Lovely. He found out the mistake when he became familiar with Greek, and accordlingly gave his godson, the son of his publisher Froben, the name John Erasmius (Erasmiolus). In dedicating to him an improved edition of his Colloquies (1524), he calls this book "ἐράσμιον, the delight of the Muses who foster sacred things." " He was equally unfortunate in the additional epithet Roterodamus, instead of Roterodamensis. But he was innocent of both mistakes. (1466–1536) was the king among scholars in the early part of the sixteenth century. He combined native genius, classical and biblical learning, lively imagination, keen wit, and refined taste. He was the most cultivated man of his age, and the admired leader of scholastic Europe from Germany to Italy and Spain, from England to Hungary. The visible unity of the Catholic Church, and the easy interchange of ideas through the medium of one learned language, explain in part his unique position. No man before or since acquired such undisputed sovereignty in the republic of letters. No such sovereignty is possible nowadays when distinguished scholars are far more numerous, and when the Church is divided into hostile camps.500500 Drummond (II. 337) calls Erasmus "the greatest luminary of his age, the greatest scholar of any age." But his learning embraced only the literature in the Greek and Latin languages.
Erasmus shines in the front rank of the humanists and forerunners of the Reformation, on the dividing line between the middle ages and modern times. His great mission was to revive the spirit of classical and Christian antiquity, and to make it a reforming power within the church. He cleared the way for a work of construction which required stronger hands than his. He had no creative and no organizing power. The first period of his life till 1524 was progressive and reformatory; the second, till his death, 1536, was conservative and reactionary.
He did more than any of his contemporaries to prepare the church for the Reformation by the impulse he gave to classical, biblical, and patristic studies, and by his satirical exposures of ecclesiastical abuses and monastic ignorance and bigotry. But he stopped half way, and after a period of, hesitation he openly declared war against Luther, thereby injuring both his own reputation and the progress of the movement among scholars. He was a reformer against reform, and in league with Rome. Thus he lost the respect and confidence of both parties. It would have been better for his fame if he had died in 1516, just after issuing the Greek Testament, a year before the Reformation. To do justice to him, we must look backward. Men of transition, like Staupitz, Reuchlin, and Erasmus, are no less necessary than bold leaders of a new departure. They belong to the class of which John the Baptist is the highest type. Protestants should never forget the immense debt of gratitude which they owe to the first editor of the Greek Testament who enabled Luther and Tyndale to make their translations of the word of life from the original, and to lead men to the very fountain of all that is most valuable and permanent in the Reformation. His edition was hastily prepared, before the art of textual criticism was born; but it anticipated the publication of the ponderous Complutensian Polyglot, and became the basis of the popularly received text. His exegetical opinions still receive and deserve the attention of commentators. To him we owe also the first scholarly editions of the Fathers, especially of Jerome, with whom he was most in sympathy. From these editions the Reformers drew their weapons of patristic controversy with the Romanists, who always appealed to the fathers of the Nicene age rather than to the grandfathers of the apostolic age.
Erasmus was allied to Reuchlin and Ulrich von Hutten, but greater and far more influential than both. All hated monasticism and obscurantism. Reuchlin revived Hebrew, Erasmus Greek learning, so necessary for the cultivation of biblical studies. Reuchlin gave his nephew Melanchthon to Wittenberg, but died a good Catholic. Hutten became a radical ultra-reformer, fell out with Erasmus, who disowned him when he was most in need of a friend, and perished in disgrace. Erasmus survived both, to protest against Protestantism.
And yet he cannot be charged with apostasy or even with inconsistency. He never was a Protestant, and never meant to be one. Division and separation did not enter into his program. From beginning to end he labored for a reformation within the church and within the papacy, not without it. But the new wine burst the old bottles. The reform which he set in motion went beyond him, and left him behind. In some of his opinions, however, he was ahead of his age, and anticipated a more modern stage of Protestantism. He was as much a forerunner of Rationalism as of the Reformation.
Sketch of His Life.
Erasmus was the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest, Gerard, and Margaret, the daughter of a physician,—their last but not their only child.501501 His father was ordained a priest after the birth of Erasmus; for he says that he lived with Margaret "spe conjugii," and became a priest in Rome on learning from his parents, who were opposed to the marriage, the false report that his beloved Margaret was dead. He was born in Rotterdam, Oct. 27, in the year 1466 or 1467.502502 He says in his autobiographical sketch: "Natus Roterodami vigilia Simonis et Judæ circa annum 67, supra millesimum quadringentesimum." His friend and biographer, Beatus Rhenanus, did not know the year of his birth. His epitaph in Basel gives 1466; the inscription on his statue at Rotterdam gives 1467; the historians vary from 1464 to 1469. Bayle, Burigny, Müller, and Drummoud (I. 3 sq.) discuss the chronology. He received his early education in the cathedral school of Utrecht and in a flourishing classical academy at Deventer, where he began to show his brilliant talents, especially a most tenacious memory. Books were his chief delight. Already in his twelfth year he knew Horace and Terence by heart.
After the death of his mother, he was robbed of his inheritance by his guardians, and put against his will into a convent at Herzogenbusch, which he exchanged afterwards for one at Steyn (Emaus), near Gouda, a few miles from Rotterdam.
He spent five unhappy years in monastic seclusion (1486–1491), and conceived an utter disgust for monkery. Ulrich von Hutten passed through the same experience, with the same negative result; while for Luther monastic life was his free choice, and became the cradle of a new religious life. Erasmus found relief in the study of the classics, which he pursued without a guide, by a secret impulse of nature. We have from this period a number of his compositions in poetry and prose, odes to Christ and the holy Virgin, invectives against despisers of eloquence, and an essay on the contempt of the world, in which he describes the corruptions of the world and the vices of the monks.
He was delivered from his prison life in 1491 by the bishop of Cambray, his parsimonious patron, and ordained to the priesthood in 1492. He continued in the clerical profession, and remained unmarried, but never had a parish.
He now gave himself up entirely to study in the University of Paris and at Orleans. His favorite authors were Cicero, Terence, Plutarch, and Lucian among the classics, Jerome among the fathers, and Laurentius Valla the commentator. He led hereafter an independent literary life without a regular charge, supporting himself by teaching, and then supported by rich friends.503503 He calls himself, in his autobiographical sketch, "dignitatum ac divitiarum perpetuus contemptor." In his days of poverty he solicited aid in letters of mingled humility and vanity; when he became famous, he received liberal gifts and pensions from prelates and princes, and left at his death seven thousand ducats. The title of royal counsellor of the King of Spain (Charles V.) brought him an annual income of four hundred guilders after 1516. The smaller pensions were paid irregularly, and sometimes failed in that impecunious age. Authors seldom received copy money or royalty from publishers and printers, but voluntary donations from patrons of learning and persons to whom they dedicated their works. Froben, however, his chief publisher, treated Erasmus very generously. He traveled extensively, like St. Jerome, and made the personal acquaintance of the chief celebrities in church and state.
He paid two important visits to England, first on the invitation of his grateful and generous pupil, Lord Montjoy, between 1498 and 1500, and again in 1510. There he became intimate with the like-minded Sir Thomas More, Dean Colet, Archbishop Warham, Cardinal Wolsey, Bishop Fisher, and was introduced to King Henry VII. and to Prince Henry, afterwards Henry VIII. Colet taught him that theology must return from scholasticism to the Scriptures, and from dry dogmas to practical wisdom.504504 J. H. Lupton: A Life of John Colet, D. D., Dean of St. Paul’s and Founder of St. Paul’s School. London, 1887. For this purpose he devoted more attention to Greek at Oxford, but never attained to the same proficiency in it as in Latin. On his second visit he was appointed Lady Margaret’s professor of divinity, and reader of Greek, in Cambridge. His room in Queen’s College is still shown. The number of his hearers was small, and so was his income. "Still," he wrote to a friend in London, "I am doing my best to promote sound scholarship." He had much to say in praise of England, where he received so much kindness, but also in complaint of bad beer and bad wine, and of his robbery at Dover, where he was relieved of all his money in the custom-house, under a law that no one should take more than a small sum out of the realm.
Between his visits to England he spent three years in Italy (1506–1509), and bathed in the fountain of the renaissance. He took the degree of doctor of divinity at Turin, and remained some time in Venice, Padua, Bologna, and Rome. He edited the classics of Greece and Rome, with specimens of translations, and superintended the press of Manutius Aldus at Venice. He entered into the genius of antiquity, and felt at home there. He calls Venice the most magnificent city of the world. But the lovely scenery of Italy, and the majestic grandeur of the Alps, seem to have made no more impression upon his mind than upon that of Luther; at least, he does not speak of it.
After he returned from his last visit to England, he spent his time alternately at Brussels, Antwerp, and Louvain (1515–1521). He often visited Basel, and made this ancient city of republican Switzerland, on the boundaries between France and Germany, his permanent home in 1521. There he lived several years as editor and adviser of his friend and publisher, John Froben, who raised his press to the first rank in Europe. Basel was neutral till 1529, when the Reformation was introduced. It suited his position and taste. He liked the climate and the society. The bishop of Basel and the magistrate treated him with the greatest consideration. The university was then in its glory. He was not one of the public teachers, but enjoyed the intercourse of Wyttenbach, Capito, Glarean, Pellican, Amerbach. "I am here," he wrote to a friend, "as in the most agreeable museum of many and very eminent scholars. Everybody knows Latin and Greek, most of them also Hebrew. The one excels in history, the other in theology; one is well versed in mathematics, another in antiquities, a third in jurisprudence. You know how rarely we meet with such a combination. I at least never found it before. Besides these literary advantages, what candor, hospitality, and harmony prevail here everywhere! You would swear that all had but one heart and one soul."
The fame of Erasmus brought on an extensive correspondence. His letters and books had the widest circulation. The "Praise of Folly" passed through seven editions in a few months, and through at least twenty-seven editions during his lifetime. Of his "Colloquies," a bookseller in Paris printed twenty-four thousand copies. His journeys were triumphal processions. Deputations received him in the larger cities with addresses of welcome. He was treated like a prince. Scholars, bishops, cardinals, kings, and popes paid him homage, sent him presents, or gave him pensions. He was offered by the Cardinal of Sion, besides a handsome board, the liberal sum of five hundred ducats annually, if he would live with him in Rome. He was in high favor with Pope Julius II. and Leo X., who patronized liberal learning. The former released him from his monastic vows; the latter invited him to Rome, and would have given him any thing if he had consented to remain. Adrian VI. asked his counsel how to deal with the Lutheran heresy (1523). Clement VII., in reply to a letter, sent him a present of two hundred florins. Paul III. offered him a cardinal’s hat to reward him for his attack on Luther (1536), but he declined it on account of old age.
The humanists were loudest in his praise, and almost worshiped him. Eoban Hesse, the prince of Latin poets of the time, called him a "divine being," and made a pilgrimage on foot from Erfurt to Holland to see him face to face. Justus Jonas did the same. Zwingli visited him in Basel, and before going to sleep used to read some pages of his writings. To receive a letter from him was a good fortune, and to have a personal interview with him was an event. A man even less vain than Erasmus could not have escaped the bad effect of such hero-worship. But it was partly neutralized by the detractions of his enemies, who were numerous and unsparing. Among these were Stunica and Caranza of Spain, Edward Lee of England, the Prince of Carpi, Cardinal Aleander, the leaders of scholastic divinity of Louvain and Paris, and the whole crowd of ignorant monks.
His later years were disturbed by the death of his
dearest and kindest friend, John Froben (1527), to whose memory he paid
a most noble tribute in one of his letters; and still more by the
progress of the Reformation in his own neighborhood. The optimism of
his youth and manhood gave way to a gloomy, discontented pessimism. The
Lutheran tragedy, he said, gave him more pain than the stone which
tortured him. "It is part of my unhappy fate, that my old age has
fallen on these evil times when quarrels and riots prevail everywhere."
"This new gospel," he writes in another letter, "is producing a new set
of men so impudent, hypocritical, and abusive, such liars and
sycophants, who agree neither with one another nor with anybody else,
so universally offensive and seditious, such madmen and ranters, and in
short so utterly distasteful to me that if I knew of any city in which
I should be free from them, I would remove there at once." His last
letters are full of such useless lamentations. He had the mortification
to see Protestantism triumph in a tumultuous way in Basel, through the
labors of Oecolampadius, his former friend and associate. It is
pleasant, however, and creditable to him, that his last interview with
the reformer was friendly and cordial. The authorities of the city left
him undisturbed. But he reluctantly moved to the Roman Catholic city of
Freiburg in Baden (1529), wishing that Basel might enjoy every
blessing, and never receive a sadder guest than he.505505 He dictated these lines to his friend Amerbach
"Jam Basilea vale! qua non urbs altera multis
Annis exhibuit gratius hospitium.
Hinc precor omnia laeta tibi, simul illud,
ErasmoHospes uti ne unquam tristior adveniat." He bought a house in Freiburg, lived there six years, and was treated with every demonstration of respect, but did not feel happy, and yielded to the solicitations of the Queen Regent of the Netherlands to return to his native land.
On his way he stopped in Basel in the house of Jerome Froben, August, 1535, and attended to the publication of Origen. It was his last work. He fell sick, and died in his seventieth year, July 12, 1536, of his old enemies, the stone and the gout, to which was added dysentery. He retained his consciousness and genial humor to the last. When his three friends, Amerbach, Froben, and Episcopius, visited him on his death-bed, he reminded them of Job’s three comforters, and playfully asked them about the torn garments, and the ashes that should be sprinkled on their heads. He died without a priest or any ceremonial of the Church (in wretched monastic Latin: "sine crux, sine lux, sine Deus"), but invoking the mercy of Christ. His last words, repeated again and again, were, "O Jesus, have mercy; Lord, deliver me; Lord, make an end; Lord, have mercy upon me!"506506 "O Jesu, misericordia; Domine, libera me; Domine, fac finem; Domine, miserere mei;" and in German or Dutch, Lieber God (Gott)!—Beatus Rhenanus, in Vita Er.
In his will, dated Feb. 12, 1536, he left his valuables to Froben, Rhenanus, and other friends, and the rest to the aged and poor and for the education of young men of promise.507507 Drummond, II. 338-340, gives the document in full. The funeral was attended by distinguished men of both parties. He lies buried in the Protestant cathedral of Basel, where his memory is cherished.
Erasmus was of small stature, but well formed. He had a delicate constitution, an irritable temperament, fair skin, blonde hair, wrinkled forehead, blue eyes, and pleasant voice. His face had an expression of thoughtfulness and quiet studiousness.508508 See the interesting description of his face by Lavater in his Physiognomik, quoted by Ad. Müller, p. 108, and Hagenbach, K. Gesch., III. 50. There are several portraits of him,—by Matsys (1517), Dürer (1523), and, the best, by Holbein who painted him repeatedly at Basel. In his behavior he combined dignity and grace. "His manners and conversation," says Beatus Rhenanus, "were polished, affable, and even charming."
He talked and wrote in Latin, the universal language of scholars in mediaeval Europe. He handled it as a living language, with ease, elegance, and effect, though not with classical correctness. His style was Ciceronian, but modified by the ecclesiastical vocabulary of Jerome. In his dialogue "Ciceronianus," or on the best mode of speaking (1528), he ridicules those pedantic semi-pagans, chiefly Italians, who worshiped and aped Cicero, and avoided Christian themes, or borrowed names and titles from heathen mythology. He had, however, the greatest respect for Cicero, and hoped that "he is now living peacefully in heaven." He learned neither German nor English nor Italian, and had only an imperfect knowledge of French, and even of his native Dutch.
He had a nervous sensibility. The least draught made him feverish. He could not bear the iron stoves of Germany, and required an open fireplace. He could drink no wine but Burgundy. He abhorred intemperance. He could not eat fish on fast days; the mere smell of it made him sick: his heart, he said, was Catholic, but his stomach Lutheran. He never used spectacles either by day or by candle-light, and many wondered that study had not blinded his eyes. He walked firm and erect without a cane. His favorite exercise was horseback-riding.509509 In thanking Archbishop Warham of Canterbury for the present of a horse, he thus humorously describes the animal: "I have received the horse, which is no beauty, but a good creature notwithstanding; for he is free from all the mortal sins, except gluttony and laziness; and he is adorned with all the virtues of a good confessor, being pious, prudent, humble, modest, sober, chaste, and quiet, and neither bites nor kicks." To Polydore Virgil, who sent him money to procure a horse, he replied, "I wish you could give me any thing to cure the rider." ("Dedisti quo paretur equus, utinam dare possis quo reparetur eques." —Op. III. 934.) He usually traveled on horseback with an attendant, and carried his necessaries, including a shirt, a linen nightcap, and a prayer-book, in a knapsack tied to the saddle. He shrank from the mere mention of death, and frankly confessed that he was not born to be a martyr, but would in the hour of trial be tempted to follow St. Peter. He was fond of children, and charitable to the poor.
His Theological Opinions.
Erasmus was, like most of the German and English humanists, a sincere and enlightened believer in Christianity, and differed in this respect from the frivolous and infidel humanists of France and Italy. When charged by Prince Albertus Pius of Carpi, who was in high favor at the papal court, with turning sacred things into ridicule, he answered, "You will much more readily find scoffers at sacred things in Italy among men of your own rank, ay, and in your much-lauded Rome, than with us. I could not endure to sit down at table with such men." He devoted his brilliant genius and classical lore to the service of religion. He revered the Bible as a divine revelation, and zealously promoted its study. He anticipated Luther in the supreme estimate of the word of God as the true source of theology and piety. Oecolampadius confessed that he learned from Erasmus "nihil in sacris scripturis praeter Christum quaerendum."
He had a sharp eye to the abuses of the Church, and endeavored to reform them in a peaceful way. He wished to lead theology back from the unfruitful speculations and frivolous subtleties of scholasticism to Scriptural simplicity, and to promote an inward, spiritual piety. He keenly ridiculed the foolish and frivolous discussions of the schoolmen about formalities and quiddities, and such questions as whether God could have assumed the form of a woman, or an ass, or a cucumber, or a flint-stone; whether the Virgin Mary was learned in the languages; and whether we would eat and drink after the resurrection. He exposed the vices and follies, the ignorance and superstition, of the monks and clergy. He did not spare even the papacy. "I have no desire," he wrote in 1523, that the primacy of the Roman See should be abolished, but I could wish that its discipline were such as to favor every effort to promote the religion of the gospel; for several ages past it has by its example openly taught things that are plainly averse to the doctrines of Christ."
At the same time he lacked a deeper insight into the doctrines of sin and grace, and failed to find a positive remedy for the evils he complained of. In using the dangerous power of ridicule and satire which he shared with Lucian, he sometimes came near the line of profanity. Moreover, he had a decidedly skeptical vein, and in the present century he would probably be a moderate Rationalist.
With his critical faculty he saw the difficulties and differences in the human surroundings and circumstances of the Divine Scriptures. He omitted in his Greek Testament the forgery of the three witnesses, 1 John 5:7, and only inserted it under protest in the third edition (1522), because he had rashly promised to do so if a single Greek MS. could be found to contain it.510510 … "ne cui sit ansa calumniandi. Tametsi suspicor codicem illum ad nostros esse correctum."—Opera, VI. 1080. The Codex Montfortianus, now in Dublin, was probably written between 1519-1522, and the disputed passage interpolated with the purpose of injuring the reputation of Erasmus. See J. R. Harris, The Origin of the Leicester Codex of the N. Test., London and Cambridge, 1887, p. 46 sqq. He doubted the genuineness of the pericope of the adulteress (John 8:1–11), though he retained it in the text. He disputed the orthodox punctuation of Rom. 9:5. He rejected the Pauline origin of Hebrews, and questioned the Johannean authorship of the Apocalypse. He judged Mark to be an abridgment of Matthew. He admitted lapses of memory and errors of judgment in the Apostles. He denied any other punishment in hell except "the perpetual anguish of mind which accompanies habitual sin." As to the Lord’s Supper, he said, when asked his opinion by the magistrate of Basel about the book of Oecolampadius and his figurative interpretation,511511 De genuina verborum Domini: Hoc est corpus meum, etc., juxta vetustissimos auctores expositione liber. Basil., 1525. that it was learned, eloquent, well written, and pious, but contrary to the general belief of the church from which it was dangerous to depart. There is good reason to believe that he doubted transubstantiation. He was also suspected of leaning to Arianism, because he summed up the reaching of Scripture on the Trinity in this sentence: "The Father is very frequently called God, the Son sometimes, the Holy Spirit never;" and he adds: "Many of the fathers who worshiped the Son with the greatest piety, yet scrupled to use the word homoousion, which is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture."512512 .. See the Preface to his edition of St. Hilary on the Trinity, published at Basel, 1523. He moderated the doctrine of hereditary sin, and defended human freedom in his notes on Romans. He emphasized the moral, and depreciated the doctrinal, element in Christianity. He deemed the Apostles’ Creed sufficient, and was willing to allow within this limit freedom for theological opinions. "Reduce the number of dogmas," he advised Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, "to a minimum; you can do it without injury to Christianity; on other points, leave every one free to believe what he pleases; then religion will take hold on life, and you can correct the abuses of which the world justly complains."
He had a high opinion of the morality and piety of the nobler heathen, such as Socrates, Cicero, and Plutarch. "The Scriptures," he says in his Colloquies, "deserve, indeed, the highest authority; but I find also in the writings of the ancient heathen and in the poets so much that is pure, holy and divine, that I must believe that their hearts were divinely moved. The spirit of Christ is perhaps more widely diffused than we imagine, and many will appear among the saints who are not in our catalogue."513513 "Fortasse latius se fundit spiritus Christi quam nos interpretamur, et multi sunt in consortio sanctorum qui non sunt apud nos in catalogo."—Coll., in the conversation entitled Convivium Religiosum. Then, after quoting from Cicero and Socrates, he says, "I can often hardly restrain myself from exclaiming, ’Holy Socrates, pray for us.’ "
The same liberal sentiments we find among the early Greek fathers (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen), and in Zwingli.
Bigoted Catholics hated and feared him, as much as the liberal admired and lauded him. "He laid the egg," they said, "which Luther hatched."514514 He himself alludes to this saying: "Ego peperi ovum, Lutherus exclusit" (Op. III. 840), but adds, "Egoposui ovum gallinaceum, Lutherus exclusit pullum longe dissimillimum." They perverted his name into Errasmus because of his errors, Arasmus because he ploughed up old truths and traditions, Erasinus because he had made himself an ass by his writings. They even called him Behemoth and Antichrist. The Sorbonne condemned thirty-seven articles extracted from his writings in 1527. His books were burned in Spain, and long after his death placed on the Index in Rome.
In his last word to his popish enemies who identified him with Luther to ruin both together, he writes: "For the future I despise them, and I wish I had always done so; for it is no pleasure to drown the croaking of frogs. Let them say, with their stout defiance of divine and human laws, ’We ought to obey God rather than men.’ That was well said by the Apostles, and even on their lips it is not without a certain propriety; only it is not the same God in the two cases. The God of the Apostles was the Maker of heaven and earth: their God is their belly. Fare ye well."515515 Des. Erasmi Epistola ad quosdam impudentissimos Graculos (jackdaws). Op. IX. Pars II. (or vol. X.), p. 1745; Drummond, II. 265 sq.
The literary labors of Erasmus may be divided into three classes: —
I. Works edited. Their number proves his marvellous industry and enterprise.
He published the ancient Latin classics, Cicero, Terence, Seneca, Livy, Pliny; and the Greek classics with Latin translations, Euripides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plutarch, Lucian.
He edited the principal church fathers (some for the first time from MSS.); namely, Jerome (1516–1518; ed. ii., 1526; ed. iii., a year after his death), Cyprian (1520), Athanasius (in a Latin version, 1522), Hilarius (1523), Irenaeus (Latin, 1526, ed. princeps, very defective), Ambrose (1527), Augustin (1529), Epiphanius (1529), Chrysostom on Matthew (1530), Basil (in Greek, 1532; he called him the "Christian Demosthenes"), Origen (in Latin, 1536). He wrote the prefaces and dedications.
He published the Annotations of Laurentius Valla on the New Testament (1505 and 1526), a copy of which he had found by chance on the shelves of an old library.
The most important of his edited works is the Greek New Testament, with a Latin translation.516516 On this see the critical introductions to the New Testament; Scrivener’s Introd. to the Criticism of the N. T., 3d ed., pp. 429-434; Schaff’s Companion to the Greek Test., 3d ed., pp. 229-232; and Drummond, I. 308 sqq.
II. Original works on general literature.
His "Adages" (Adagia), begun at Oxford, dedicated to Lord Mountjoy, first published in Paris in 1500, and much enlarged in subsequent editions,517517 The last edition before me, Adagiorum Chiliades ... ex officina Frobenia, 1536, contains 1087 pages folio, with an alphabetical index of the Proverbs. See vol. II. of the Leiden ed. For extracts see Drummond, I. ch. X. is an anthology of forty-one hundred and fifty-one Greek and Latin proverbs, similitudes, and sentences,—a sort of dictionary and commonplace-book, brimful of learning, illustrations, anecdotes, historical and biographical sketches, attacks on monks, priests, and kings, and about ten thousand quotations from Greek poets, literally translated into the Latin in the metre of the original.
"The Praise of Folly" (Encomium Moriae)518518 Μωρίασ Ἐγκώμιον, id est Stultitiae Laus, first printed 1510 or 1511. Op. IV. 405-507. There is a neat edition of the Encomium and the Colloquia by Tauchnitz, Leipzig, 1829. Drummond (I. 184 sqq.) gives a good summary of the contents. was written on a journey from Italy to England, and finished in the house of his congenial friend, Sir Thomas More (whose name in Greek means "Fool"), as a jeu d’esprit, in the manner of his favorite Lucian. It introduces Folly personified as a goddess, in ironical praise of the merits, and indirect ridicule of the perversities, of different classes of society. It abounds in irony, wit, and humor, in keen observations of men and things, and contains his philosophy of life. The wise man is the most miserable of men, as is proved by the case of Socrates, who only succeeded in making himself ridiculous; while the fool is the happiest man, has no fear of death or hell, no tortures of conscience, tells always the truth, and is indispensable to the greatest of monarchs, who cannot even dine without him. In conclusion Erasmus, rather irreverently, quotes Scripture proofs in praise of folly. Pope Leo X. read and enjoyed the, book from beginning to end. Holbein illustrated it with humorous pictures, which are still preserved in Basel.
In his equally popular "Colloquies" (Colloquia Familiaria), begun in 1519, and enlarged in numerous editions, Erasmus aims to make better scholars and better men, as he says in his dedication to John Erasmius Froben (the son of his friend and publisher).519519 The work which appeared in 1518 under this title, with a preface of Rhenanus, was disclaimed by Erasmus, except some portions which he had dictated more than twenty years previously to a pupil in Paris by way of amusement. He compared it to an ass in a lion’s skin. The Colloquia are printed in Opera, I. 624-908. I have an edition cum notis selectis variorum accurante Corn. Schrevelio. Lugd., Bat. Bailey’s translation, London, 1724, republished 1878, reproduces in racy colloquial English the idiomatic and proverbial Latinisms of the original. He gives instruction for Latin conversation, describes the good and bad manners of the times, and ventilates his views on a variety of interesting topics, such as courtesy in saluting, rash vows a soldier’s life, scholastic studies, the profane feast, a lover and maiden, the virgin opposed to matrimony, the penitent virgin, the uneasy wife, the shipwreck, rich beggars, the alchemist, etc. The "Colloquies" are, next to the "Praise of Folly," his most characteristic work, and, like it, abound in delicate humor, keen irony, biting satire. He pays a glowing tribute to Cicero, and calls him "sanctum illud pectus afflatum coelesti numine;" and in the same conversation occurs the famous passage already referred to, "Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis." He shows his sympathy with the cause of Reuchlin in the dialogue Apotheosis Reuchlini Capnionis, by describing a vision in which the persecuted Hebrew scholar (who died June 22, 1522) was welcomed in heaven by St. Jerome, and, without leave of the Pope, enrolled in the number of saints. But during Reuchlin’s life he had kept neutral in the Dominican quarrel about Reuchlin’s orthodoxy. He is very severe on "the coarse, over-fed monks," and indulges too freely in insinuations which offend modern taste.520520 In the dialogue Virgo μισόγαμος, the maiden Catharine, who had resolved to become a nun, is advised by her lover Eubulus that she may keep her chastity more safely at home; for the monks were by no means all " eunuchs,"but often do all they can to deserve their name " fathers."("Patres vocantur, ac frequenter efficiunt, ut hoc nomen vere competat in ipsos.") She is also told that " all are not virgins who wear the veil, unless there be many in our days who share the pecular privilege of the Virgin Mary, of being a virgin after childbirth."The maiden admits the force of her lover’s arguments, but refuses to be convinced. In the colloquy that follows, entitled Virgo poenitens, she acknowledges the wisdom of the advice when it was too late. She had scarcely been twelve days in the nunnery before she entreated her mother, and then her father, to take her home if they wished to save her life. He attacks war, which he hated even more than monkery; and in his description of a reckless, extravagant, debauched, sick, poor and wretched soldier, he took unchristian revenge of Ulrich von Hutten after his miserable death. In the dialogue, "Unequal Marriage," he paints him in the darkest colors as an abandoned roué. He gives an amusing description of a German inn, which makes one thankful for the progress of modern civilization. The bedrooms, he says, are rightly so called; for they contain nothing but a bed; and the cleanliness is on a par with the rest of the establishment and the adjoining stable. The "Ichthyophagia" is a dialogue between a butcher and a fishmonger, and exposes the Pharisaical tendency to strain out a gnat and to swallow a camel, and to lay heavy burdens on others. "Would they might eat nothing but garlic who imposed these fish-days upon us!" "Would they might starve to death who force the necessity of fasting upon free men!" The form of the dialogue furnished the author a door of escape from the charge of heresy, for he could not be held responsible for the sentiments of fictitious characters; moreover, he said, his object was to teach Latin, not theology. Nevertheless, the Sorbonne condemned the "Colloquies," and the Inquisition placed them in the first class of prohibited books.
The numerous letters of Erasmus and to Erasmus throw much light upon contemporaneous literary and ecclesiastical history, and make us best acquainted with his personality. He corresponded with kings and princes, popes and cardinals, as well as with scholars in all parts of Europe. He tells us that he wrote sometimes forty letters in a day.521521 The Epistolae in Froben’s ed. of 1540, Tom. III. fol. (1213 pp.), with his preface, dated Freiburg, 1529; in Le Clerk’s ed., Tom. III. Pars I. and II. There is also a fine edition of the collected epistles of Erasmus, Melanchthon, Thomas More, and Lud. Vives, London, 1642, 2 vols. fol. 2146 and 116 pages, with a good portrait of Erasmus (a copy in the Union Seminary). Recent additions have been made by Horawitz (Erasmiana, 1883 sqq.). Jortin and Drummond give many extracts from the epistles.
III. Theological works. The edition of the Greek Testament, with a new Latin version and brief annotations, and the independent paraphrases, are the most important contributions of Erasmus to exegesis, and have appeared in very many editions. The paraphrastic form of commenting, which briefly explains the difficulties, and links text and notes in continuous composition, so as to make the writer his own interpreter,522522 Erasmus well defines it in the dedicatory preface ad Card. Grimanum, before the Pauline Epistles: "hiantia committere, abrupta mollire, confusa digerere, evoluta evolvere, nodosa explicare, obscuris lucem addere, hebraismum romana civitate donare ... et ita temperare παράφρασινne fiat παραφρόνησις, h. e. sic aliter dicere ut non dicas alia." was a great benefit to the incipient scholarship of his day, and facilitated a more general spread of the New Testament, which he eloquently defended. He did not penetrate into the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, but he made the surface more intelligible by the moonlight of philology and refined culture. His Paraphrases cover the whole New Testament, except the Apocalypse, and fill the seventh volume of Le Clerk’s edition of his works. A translation was published in two volumes folio, in black-letter, at London, 1551, and appointed, by public authority, to be placed in all the parish churches of England.
His "Method of True Theology" (Ratio verae Theologiae)523523 Opera, vol. V. 57 sqq. was prefixed to his first edition of the Greek Testament, and afterwards expanded and separately published, and dedicated to Cardinal-Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz (1519), in a preface full of complaints over the evil times of violent controversy, which, in his judgment, destroyed charity and the peaceful cultivation of learning and practical piety. He maintains that the first requisite for the study of the Scriptures is a knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Nor are poetry and good letters to be neglected. Christ clothes his teaching in poetic parables; and Paul quotes from the poets, but not from Aristotle.
The Enchiridion Militis Christiani,524524 Usually translated "The Manual of a Christian Soldier;" but ἐγχειρίδιονmeans also a dagger, and he himself explains it, "Enchiridion, hoc est, pugiunculum."Op. V. 1-65. The first English translation (1533) is believed to be by William Tyndale, the translator of the New Testament. Another, with notes, which I have before me, is by Philip Wyatt Crowther, Esq., London, 1816, under the title "The Christian’s Manual," etc. first published at Louvain, 1501 (or 1503),525525 On the disputed date see Drummond, I. 122. and translated into several languages, is a treatise on practical piety in its conflict with the Devil and unruly passions. The author borrows his weapons from the Scriptures, the fathers, and the Greek and Roman philosophers, and shows that the end of all human effort is Christ, and that the way to Christ is faith abounding in good works. In a later edition he added a defense, with a sharp attack on the scholastic theology contrasted with the plain, practical teaching of Christ and the apostles. The book was condemned by the Sorbonne as heretical.
In the tract on the Confessional (1524), he enumerates the advantages and the perils of that institution which may be perverted into a means of propagating vice by suggesting it to young and inexperienced penitents. He leaves, on the whole, the impression that the confessional does more harm than good.
In the book on the Tongue (1525), he eloquently describes, and illustrates with many anecdotes, its use and abuse. After its publication he wrote to his friends, "Erasmus will henceforth be mute, having parted with his tongue."
But a year after appeared his book on the Institution of Christian Matrimony (1526), dedicated to Queen Catherine of England. It contains the views of an unmarried man on the choice of a mate, the duties of parents, and the education of children. He justly blames Tertullian and Jerome (he might have included all the fathers) for their extravagant laudation of celibacy, and suggests doubts on the sacramental character of marriage.
One of his last works was a Catechism on the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue, and the Lord’s Prayer, which he dedicated to the father of the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. For the same nobleman he wrote a short devotional work on preparation for death.
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