What made Erasmus the man from whom
his contemporaries expected their salvation, on whose
lips they hung to catch the word of deliverance?
He seemed to them the bearer of a new liberty of the
mind, a new clearness, purity and simplicity of knowledge,
a new harmony of healthy and right living. He
was to them as the possessor of newly discovered, untold
wealth which he had only to distribute.
What was there in the mind of the
great Rotterdamer which promised so much to the world?
The negative aspect of Erasmus’s
mind may be defined as a heartfelt aversion to everything
unreasonable, insipid, purely formal, with which the
undisturbed growth of medieval culture had overburdened
and overcrowded the world of thought. As often
as he thinks of the ridiculous text-books out of which
Latin was taught in his youth, disgust rises in his
mind, and he execrates them Mammetrectus,
Brachylogus, Ebrardus and all the rest as
a heap of rubbish which ought to be cleared away.
But this aversion to the superannuated, which had
become useless and soulless, extended much farther.
He found society, and especially religious life, full
of practices, ceremonies, traditions and conceptions,
from which the spirit seemed to have departed.
He does not reject them offhand and altogether:
what revolts him is that they are so often performed
without understanding and right feeling. But to
his mind, highly susceptible to the foolish and ridiculous
things, and with a delicate need of high decorum and
inward dignity, all that sphere of ceremony and tradition
displays itself as a useless, nay, a hurtful scene
of human stupidity and selfishness. And, intellectualist
as he is, with his contempt for ignorance, he seems
unaware that those religious observances, after all,
may contain valuable sentiments of unexpressed and
Through his treatises, his letters,
his Colloquies especially, there always passes as
if one was looking at a gallery of Brueghel’s
pictures a procession of ignorant and covetous
monks who by their sanctimony and humbug impose upon
the trustful multitude and fare sumptuously themselves.
As a fixed motif (such motifs are numerous with Erasmus)
there always recurs his gibe about the superstition
that a person was saved by dying in the gown of a
Franciscan or a Dominican.
Fasting, prescribed prayers, the observance
of holy days, should not be altogether neglected,
but they become displeasing to God when we repose
our trust in them and forget charity. The same
holds good of confession, indulgence, all sorts of
blessings. Pilgrimages are worthless. The
veneration of the Saints and of their relics is full
of superstition and foolishness. The people think
they will be preserved from disasters during the day
if only they have looked at the painted image of Saint
Christopher in the morning. ’We kiss the
shoes of the saints and their dirty handkerchiefs
and we leave their books, their most holy and efficacious
Erasmus’s dislike of what seemed
antiquated and worn out in his days, went farther
still. It comprised the whole intellectual scheme
of medieval theology and philosophy. In the syllogistic
system he found only subtlety and arid ingenuity.
All symbolism and allegory were fundamentally alien
to him and indifferent, though he occasionally tried
his hand at an allegory; and he never was mystically
Now here it is just as much the deficiencies
of his own mind as the qualities of the system which
made him unable to appreciate it. While he struck
at the abuse of ceremonies and of Church practices
both with noble indignation and well-aimed mockery,
a proud irony to which he was not fully entitled preponderates
in his condemnation of scholastic theology which he
could not quite understand. It was easy always
to talk with a sneer of the conservative divines of
his time as magistri nostri.
His noble indignation hurt only those
who deserved castigation and strengthened what was
valuable, but his mockery hurt the good as well as
the bad in spite of him, assailed both the institution
and persons, and injured without elevating them.
The individualist Erasmus never understood what it
meant to offend the honour of an office, an order,
or an establishment, especially when that institution
is the most sacred of all, the Church itself.
Erasmus’s conception of the
Church was no longer purely Catholic. Of that
glorious structure of medieval-Christian civilization
with its mystic foundation, its strict hierarchic
construction, its splendidly fitting symmetry he saw
hardly anything but its load of outward details and
ornament. Instead of the world which Thomas Aquinas
and Dante had described, according to their vision,
Erasmus saw another world, full of charm and elevated
feeling, and this he held up before his compatriots.
It was the world of Antiquity, but
illuminated throughout by Christian faith. It
was a world that had never existed as such. For
with the historical reality which the times of Constantine
and the great fathers of the Church had manifested that
of declining Latinity and deteriorating Hellenism,
the oncoming barbarism and the oncoming Byzantinism it
had nothing in common. Erasmus’s imagined
world was an amalgamation of pure classicism (this
meant for him, Cicero, Horace, Plutarch; for to the
flourishing period of the Greek mind he remained after
all a stranger) and pure, biblical Christianity.
Could it be a union? Not really. In Erasmus’s
mind the light falls, just as we saw in the history
of his career, alternately on the pagan antique and
on the Christian. But the warp of his mind is
Christian; his classicism only serves him as a form,
and from Antiquity he only chooses those elements
which in ethical tendency are in conformity with his
And because of this, Erasmus, although
he appeared after a century of earlier Humanism, is
yet new to his time. The union of Antiquity and
the Christian spirit which had haunted the mind of
Petrarch, the father of Humanism, which was lost sight
of by his disciples, enchanted as they were by the
irresistible brilliance of the antique beauty of form,
this union was brought about by Erasmus.
What pure Latinity and the classic
spirit meant to Erasmus we cannot feel as he did because
its realization does not mean to us, as to him, a
difficult conquest and a glorious triumph. To
feel it thus one must have acquired, in a hard school,
the hatred of barbarism, which already during his
first years of authorship had suggested the composition
of the Antibarbari. The abusive term for
all that is old and rude is already Gothic, Goths.
The term barbarism as used by Erasmus comprised much
of what we value most in the medieval spirit.
Erasmus’s conception of the great intellectual
crisis of his day was distinctly dualistic. He
saw it as a struggle between old and new, which, to
him, meant evil and good. In the advocates of
tradition he saw only obscurantism, conservatism,
and ignorant opposition to bonae literae, that
is, the good cause for which he and his partisans
battled. Of the rise of that higher culture Erasmus
had already formed the conception which has since
dominated the history of the Renaissance. It was
a revival, begun two or three hundred years before
his time, in which, besides literature, all the plastic
arts shared. Side by side with the terms restitution
and reflorescence the word renascence crops up repeatedly
in his writings. ’The world is coming to
its senses as if awaking out of a deep sleep.
Still there are some left who recalcitrate pertinaciously,
clinging convulsively with hands and feet to their
old ignorance. They fear that if bonae literae
are reborn and the world grows wise, it will come to
light that they have known nothing.’ They
do not know how pious the Ancients could be, what
sanctity characterizes Socrates, Virgil, and Horace,
or Plutarch’s Moralia, how rich the history
of Antiquity is in examples of forgiveness and true
virtue. We should call nothing profane that is
pious and conduces to good morals. No more dignified
view of life was ever found than that which Cicero
propounds in De Senectute.
In order to understand Erasmus’s
mind and the charm which it had for his contemporaries,
one must begin with the ideal of life that was present
before his inward eye as a splendid dream. It
is not his own in particular. The whole Renaissance
cherished that wish of reposeful, blithe, and yet
serious intercourse of good and wise friends in the
cool shade of a house under trees, where serenity
and harmony would dwell. The age yearned for
the realization of simplicity, sincerity, truth and
nature. Their imagination was always steeped in
the essence of Antiquity, though, at heart, it is
more nearly connected with medieval ideals than they
themselves were aware. In the circle of the Medici
it is the idyll of Careggi, in Rabelais it embodies
itself in the fancy of the abbey of Theleme; it finds
voice in More’s Utopia and in the work
of Montaigne. In Erasmus’s writings that
ideal wish ever recurs in the shape of a friendly
walk, followed by a meal in a garden-house. It
is found as an opening scene of the Antibarbari,
in the numerous descriptions of meals with Colet,
and the numerous Convivia of the Colloquies.
Especially in the Convivium religiosum Erasmus
has elaborately pictured his dream, and it would be
worth while to compare it, on the one hand with Theleme,
and on the other with the fantastic design of a pleasure
garden which Bernard Palissy describes. The little
Dutch eighteenth-century country-seats and garden-houses
in which the national spirit took great delight are
the fulfilment of a purely Erasmian ideal. The
host of the Convivium religiosum says:
’To me a simple country-house, a nest, is pleasanter
than any palace, and, if he be king who lives in freedom
and according to his wishes, surely I am king here’.
Life’s true joy is in virtue
and piety. If they are Epicureans who live pleasantly,
then none are more truly Epicureans than they who live
in holiness and piety.
The ideal joy of life is also perfectly
idyllic in so far that it requires an aloofness from
earthly concerns and contempt for all that is sordid.
It is foolish to be interested in all that happens
in the world; to pride oneself on one’s knowledge
of the market, of the King of England’s plans,
the news from Rome, conditions in Denmark. The
sensible old man of the Colloquium Senile has
an easy post of honour, a safe mediocrity, he judges
no one and nothing and smiles upon all the world.
Quiet for oneself, surrounded by books that
is of all things most desirable.
On the outskirts of this ideal of
serenity and harmony numerous flowers of aesthetic
value blow, such as Erasmus’s sense of decorum,
his great need of kindly courtesy, his pleasure in
gentle and obliging treatment, in cultured and easy
manners. Close by are some of his intellectual
peculiarities. He hates the violent and extravagant.
Therefore the choruses of the Greek drama displease
him. The merit of his own poems he sees in the
fact that they pass passion by, they abstain from pathos
altogether ’there is not a single
storm in them, no mountain torrent overflowing its
banks, no exaggeration whatever. There is great
frugality in words. My poetry would rather keep
within bounds than exceed them, rather hug the shore
than cleave the high seas.’ In another
place he says: ’I am always most pleased
by a poem that does not differ too much from prose,
but prose of the best sort, be it understood.
As Philoxenus accounted those the most palatable fishes
that are no true fishes and the most savoury meat
what is no meat, the most pleasant voyage, that along
the shores, and the most agreeable walk, that along
the water’s edge; so I take especial pleasure
in a rhetorical poem and a poetical oration, so that
poetry is tasted in prose and the reverse.’
That is the man of half-tones, of fine shadings, of
the thought that is never completely expressed.
But he adds: ’Farfetched conceits may please
others; to me the chief concern seems to be that we
draw our speech from the matter itself and apply ourselves
less to showing off our invention than to present
the thing.’ That is the realist.
From this conception results his admirable,
simple clarity, the excellent division and presentation
of his argument. But it also causes his lack
of depth and the prolixity by which he is characterized.
His machine runs too smoothly. In the endless
apologiae of his later years, ever new arguments
occur to him; new passages to point, or quotations
to support, his idea. He praises laconism, but
never practises it. Erasmus never coins a sentence
which, rounded off and pithy, becomes a proverb and
in this manner lives. There are no current quotations
from Erasmus. The collector of the Adagia
has created no new ones of his own.
The true occupation for a mind like
his was paraphrasing, in which, indeed, he amply indulged.
Soothing down and unfolding was just the work he liked.
It is characteristic that he paraphrased the whole
New Testament except the Apocalypse.
Erasmus’s mind was neither philosophic
nor historic. His was neither the work of exact,
logical discrimination, nor of grasping the deep sense
of the way of the world in broad historical visions
in which the particulars themselves, in their multiplicity
and variegation, form the image. His mind is
philological in the fullest sense of the word.
But by that alone he would not have conquered and
captivated the world. His mind was at the same
time of a deeply ethical and rather strong aesthetic
trend and those three together have made him great.
The foundation of Erasmus’s
mind is his fervent desire of freedom, clearness,
purity, simplicity and rest. It is an old ideal
of life to which he gave new substance by the wealth
of his mind. Without liberty, life is no life;
and there is no liberty without repose. The fact
that he never took sides definitely resulted from
an urgent need of perfect independence. Each
engagement, even a temporary one, was felt as a fetter
by Erasmus. An interlocutor in the Colloquies,
in which he so often, spontaneously, reveals his own
ideals of life, declares himself determined neither
to marry, nor to take holy orders, nor to enter a
monastery, nor into any connection from which he will
afterwards be unable to free himself at
least not before he knows himself completely.
‘When will that be? Never, perhaps.’
’On no other account do I congratulate myself
more than on the fact that I have never attached myself
to any party,’ Erasmus says towards the end of
Liberty should be spiritual liberty
in the first place. ’But he that is spiritual
judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no
man,’ is the word of Saint Paul. To what
purpose should he require prescriptions who, of his
own accord, does better things than human laws require?
What arrogance it is to bind by institutions a man
who is clearly led by the inspirations of the divine
In Erasmus we already find the beginning
of that optimism which judges upright man good enough
to dispense with fixed forms and rules. As More,
in Utopia, and Rabelais, Erasmus relies already
on the dictates of nature, which produces man as inclined
to good and which we may follow, provided we are imbued
with faith and piety.
In this line of confidence in what
is natural and desire of the simple and reasonable,
Erasmus’s educational and social ideas lie.
Here he is far ahead of his times. It would be
an attractive undertaking to discuss Erasmus’s
educational ideals more fully. They foreshadow
exactly those of the eighteenth century. The
child should learn in playing, by means of things
that are agreeable to its mind, from pictures.
Its faults should be gently corrected. The flogging
and abusive schoolmaster is Erasmus’s abomination;
the office itself is holy and venerable to him.
Education should begin from the moment of birth.
Probably Erasmus attached too much value to classicism,
here as elsewhere: his friend Peter Gilles should
implant the rudiments of the ancient languages in
his two-year-old son, that he may greet his father
with endearing stammerings in Greek and Latin.
But what gentleness and clear good sense shines from
all Erasmus says about instruction and education!
The same holds good of his views about
marriage and woman. In the problem of sexual
relations he distinctly sides with the woman from deep
conviction. There is a great deal of tenderness
and delicate feeling in his conception of the position
of the girl and the woman. Few characters of
the Colloquies have been drawn with so much
sympathy as the girl with the lover and the cultured
woman in the witty conversation with the abbot.
Erasmus’s ideal of marriage is truly social and
hygienic. Let us beget children for the State
and for Christ, says the lover, children endowed by
their upright parents with a good disposition, children
who see the good example at home which is to guide
them. Again and again he reverts to the mother’s
duty to suckle the child herself. He indicates
how the house should be arranged, in a simple and cleanly
manner; he occupies himself with the problem of useful
children’s dress. Who stood up at that
time, as he did, for the fallen girl, and for the prostitute
compelled by necessity? Who saw so clearly the
social danger of marriages of persons infected with
the new scourge of Europe, so violently abhorred by
Erasmus? He would wish that such a marriage should
at once be declared null and void by the Pope.
Erasmus does not hold with the easy social theory,
still quite current in the literature of his time,
which casts upon women all the blame of adultery and
lewdness. With the savages who live in a state
of nature, he says, the adultery of men is punished,
but that of women is forgiven.
Here it appears, at the same time,
that Erasmus knew, be it half in jest, the conception
of natural virtue and happiness of naked islanders
in a savage state. It soon crops up again in Montaigne
and the following centuries develop it into a literary