ERASMUS AT BASLE
It is only towards the evening of
life that the picture of Erasmus acquires the features
with which it was to go down to posterity. Only
at Basle delivered from the troublesome
pressure of parties wanting to enlist him, transplanted
from an environment of haters and opponents at Louvain
to a circle of friends, kindred spirits, helpers and
admirers, emancipated from the courts of princes,
independent of the patronage of the great, unremittingly
devoting his tremendous energy to the work that was
dear to him did he become Holbein’s
Erasmus. In those late years he approaches most
closely to the ideal of his personal life.
He did not think that there were still
fifteen years in store for him. Long before,
in fact, since he became forty years old in 1506, Erasmus
had been in an old-age mood. ‘The last act
of the play has begun,’ he keeps saying after
He now felt practically independent
as to money matters. Many years had passed before
he could say that. But peace of mind did not come
with competence. It never came. He never
became truly placid and serene, as Holbein’s
picture seems to represent him. He was always
too much concerned about what people said or thought
of him. Even at Basle he did not feel thoroughly
at home. He still speaks repeatedly of a removal
in the near future to Rome, to France, to England,
or back to the Netherlands. Physical rest, at
any rate, which was not in him, was granted him by
circumstances: for nearly eight years he now remained
at Basle, and then he lived at Freiburg for six.
Erasmus at Basle is a man whose ideals
of the world and society have failed him. What
remains of that happy expectation of a golden age of
peace and light, in which he had believed as late as
1517? What of his trust in good will and rational
insight, in which he wrote the Institutio Principis
Christiani for the youthful Charles V? To
Erasmus all the weal of state and society had always
been merely a matter of personal morality and intellectual
enlightenment. By recommending and spreading
those two he at one time thought he had introduced
the great renovation himself. From the moment
when he saw that the conflict would lead to an exasperated
struggle he refused any longer to be anything but
a spectator. As an actor in the great ecclesiastical
combat Erasmus had voluntarily left the stage.
But he does not give up his ideal.
‘Let us resist,’ he concludes an Epistle
about gospel philosophy, ’not by taunts and threats,
not by force of arms and injustice, but by simple
discretion, by benefits, by gentleness and tolerance.’
Towards the close of his life, he prays: ’If
Thou, O God, deignst to renew that Holy Spirit in the
hearts of all, then also will those external disasters
cease.... Bring order to this chaos, Lord Jesus,
let Thy Spirit spread over these waters of sadly troubled
Concord, peace, sense of duty and
kindliness, were all valued highly by Erasmus; yet
he rarely saw them realized in practical life.
He becomes disillusioned. After the short spell
of political optimism he never speaks of the times
any more but in bitter terms a most criminal
age, he says and again, the most unhappy
and most depraved age imaginable. In vain had
he always written in the cause of peace: Querela
pacis, the complaint of peace, the adage Dulce
bellum inexpertis, war is sweet to those who have
not known it, Oratio de pace et discordia, and
more still. Erasmus thought rather highly of his
pacifistic labours: ’that polygraph, who
never leaves off persecuting war by means of his pen’,
thus he makes a character of the Colloquies
designate himself. According to a tradition noted
by Melanchthon, Pope Julius is said to have called
him before him in connection with his advice about
the war with Venice, and to have remarked to him
angrily that he should stop writing on the concerns
of princes: ’You do not understand those
Erasmus had, in spite of a certain
innate moderation, a wholly non-political mind.
He lived too much outside of practical reality, and
thought too naively of the corrigibility of mankind,
to realize the difficulties and necessities of government.
His ideas about a good administration were extremely
primitive, and, as is often the case with scholars
of a strong ethical bias, very revolutionary at bottom,
though he never dreamed of drawing the practical inferences.
His friendship with political and juridical thinkers,
as More, Budaeus and Zasius, had not changed him.
Questions of forms of government, law or right, did
not exist for him. Economic problems he saw in
idyllic simplicity. The prince should reign gratuitously
and impose as few taxes as possible. ‘The
good prince has all that loving citizens possess.’
The unemployed should be simply driven away.
We feel in closer contact with the world of facts
when he enumerates the works of peace for the prince:
the cleaning of towns, building of bridges, halls,
and streets, draining of pools, shifting of river-beds,
the diking and reclamation of moors. It is the
Netherlander who speaks here, and at the same time
the man in whom the need of cleansing and clearing
away is a fundamental trait of character.
Vague politicians like Erasmus are
prone to judge princes very severely, since they take
them to be responsible for all wrongs. Erasmus
praises them personally, but condemns them in general.
From the kings of his time he had for a long time
expected peace in Church and State. They had
disappointed him. But his severe judgement of
princes he derived rather from classical reading than
from political experience of his own times. In
the later editions of the Adagia he often reverts
to princes, their task and their neglect of duty,
without ever mentioning special princes. ’There
are those who sow the seeds of dissension between their
townships in order to fleece the poor unhindered and
to satisfy their gluttony by the hunger of innocent
citizens.’ In the adage Scarabeus aquilam
quaerit he represents the prince under the image
of the Eagle as the great cruel robber and persecutor.
In another, Aut regem aut fatuum nasci oportere,
and in Dulce bellum inexpertis he utters his
frequently quoted dictum: ’The people found
and develop towns, the folly of princes devastates
them.’ ’The princes conspire with
the Pope, and perhaps with the Turk, against the happiness
of the people,’ he writes to Colet in 1518.
He was an academic critic writing
from his study. A revolutionary purpose was as
foreign to Erasmus as it was to More when writing the
Utopia. ’Bad monarchs should perhaps
be suffered now and then. The remedy should not
be tried.’ It may be doubted whether Erasmus
exercised much real influence on his contemporaries
by means of his diatribes against princes. One
would fain believe that his ardent love of peace and
bitter arraignment of the madness of war had some effect.
They have undoubtedly spread pacific sentiments in
the broad circles of intellectuals who read Erasmus,
but unfortunately the history of the sixteenth century
shows little evidence that such sentiments bore fruit
in actual practice. However this may be, Erasmus’s
strength was not in these political declamations.
He could never be a leader of men with their passions
and their harsh interests.
His life-work lay elsewhere.
Now, at Basle, though tormented more and more frequently
by his painful complaint which he had already carried
for so many years, he could devote himself more fully
than ever before to the great task he had set himself:
the opening up of the pure sources of Christianity,
the exposition of the truth of the Gospel in all the
simple comprehensibility in which he saw it. In
a broad stream flowed the editions of the Fathers,
of classic authors, the new editions of the New Testament,
of the Adagia, of his own Letters, together
with Paraphrases of the New Testament, Commentaries
on Psalms, and a number of new theological, moral
and philological treatises. In 1522 he was ill
for months on end; yet in that year Arnobius and the
third edition of the New Testament succeeded Cyprian,
whom he had already annotated at Louvain and edited
in 1520, closely followed by Hilary in 1523 and next
by a new edition of Jerome in 1524. Later appeared
Irenaeus, 1526; Ambrose, 1527; Augustine, 1528-9,
and a Latin translation of Chrysostom in 1530.
The rapid succession of these comprehensive works proves
that the work was done as Erasmus always worked:
hastily, with an extraordinary power of concentration
and a surprising command of his mnemonic faculty,
but without severe criticism and the painful accuracy
that modern philology requires in such editions.
Neither the polemical Erasmus nor
the witty humorist had been lost in the erudite divine
and the disillusioned reformer. The paper-warrior
we would further gladly have dispensed with, but not
the humorist, for many treasures of literature.
But the two are linked inseparably as the Colloquies
What was said about the Moria
may be repeated here: if in the literature of
the world only the Colloquies and the Moria
have remained alive, that choice of history is right.
Not in the sense that in literature only Erasmus’s
pleasantest, lightest and most readable works were
preserved, whereas the ponderous theological erudition
was silently relegated to the shelves of libraries.
It was indeed Erasmus’s best work that was kept
alive in the Moria and the Colloquies.
With these his sparkling wit has charmed the world.
If only we had space here to assign to the Erasmus
of the Colloquies his just and lofty place in
that brilliant constellation of sixteenth-century followers
of Democritus: Rabelais, Ariosto, Montaigne,
Cervantes, and Ben Jonson!
When Erasmus gave the Colloquies
their definite form at Basle, they had already had
a long and curious genesis. At first they had
been no more than Familiarium colloquiorum formulae,
models of colloquial Latin conversation, written at
Paris before 1500, for the use of his pupils.
Augustine Caminade, the shabby friend who was fond
of living on young Erasmus’s genius, had collected
them and had turned them to advantage within a limited
compass. He had long been dead when one Lambert
Hollonius of Liege sold the manuscript that he had
got from Caminade to Froben at Basle. Beatus
Rhenanus, although then already Erasmus’s trusted
friend, had it printed at once without the latter’s
knowledge. That was in 1518. Erasmus was
justly offended at it, the more so as the book was
full of slovenly blunders and solecisms. So he
at once prepared a better edition himself, published
by Maertensz at Louvain in 1519. At that time
the work really contained but one true dialogue, the
nucleus of the later Convivium profanum.
The rest were formulae of etiquette and short talks.
But already in this form it was, apart from its usefulness
to latinists, so full of happy wit and humorous invention
that it became very popular. Even before 1522
it had appeared in twenty-five editions, mostly reprints,
at Antwerp, Paris, Strassburg, Cologne, Cracow, Deventer,
Leipzig, London, Vienna, Mayence.
At Basle Erasmus himself revised an
edition which was published in March 1522 by Froben,
dedicated to the latter’s six-year-old son, the
author’s godchild, Johannes Erasmius Froben.
Soon after he did more than revise. In 1523 and
1524 first ten new dialogues, afterwards four, and
again six, were added to the Formulae, and
at last in 1526 the title was changed to Familiarium
colloquiorum opus. It remained dedicated to
the boy Froben and went on growing with each new edition:
a rich and motley collection of dialogues, each a
masterpiece of literary form, well-knit, spontaneous,
convincing, unsurpassed in lightness, vivacity and
fluent Latin; each one a finished one-act play.
From that year on, the stream of editions and translations
flowed almost uninterruptedly for two centuries.
Erasmus’s mind had lost nothing
of its acuteness and freshness when, so many years
after the Moria, he again set foot in the field
of satire. As to form, the Colloquies
are less confessedly satirical than the Moria.
With its telling subject, the Praise of Folly,
the latter at once introduces itself as a satire:
whereas, at first sight, the Colloquies might
seem to be mere innocent genre-pieces. But as
to the contents, they are more satirical, at least
more directly so. The Moria, as a satire,
is philosophical and general; the Colloquia
are up to date and special. At the same time
they combine more the positive and negative elements.
In the Moria Erasmus’s own ideal dwells
unexpressed behind the representation; in the Colloquia
he continually and clearly puts it in the foreground.
On this account they form, notwithstanding all the
jests and mockery, a profoundly serious moral treatise
and are closely akin to the Enchiridion militis
Christiani. What Erasmus really demanded
of the world and of mankind, how he pictured to himself
that passionately desired, purified Christian society
of good morals, fervent faith, simplicity and moderation,
kindliness, toleration and peace this we
can nowhere else find so clearly and well-expressed
as in the Colloquia. In these last fifteen
years of his life Erasmus resumes, by means of a series
of moral-dogmatic disquisitions, the topics he broached
in the Enchiridion: the exposition of
simple, general Christian conduct; untrammelled and
natural ethics. That is his message of redemption.
It came to many out of Exomologesis, De
esu carnium, Lingua, Institutio christiani
matrimonii, Vidua christiana, Ecclesiastes.
But, to far larger numbers, the message was contained
in the Colloquies.
The Colloquia gave rise to
much more hatred and contest than the Moria,
and not without reason, for in them Erasmus attacked
persons. He allowed himself the pleasure of ridiculing
his Louvain antagonists. Lee had already been
introduced as a sycophant and braggart into the edition
of 1519, and when the quarrel was assuaged, in 1522,
the reference was expunged. Vincent Dirks was
caricatured in The Funeral (1526) as a covetous
friar, who extorts from the dying testaments in favour
of his order. He remained. Later sarcastic
observations were added about Beda and numbers of
others. The adherents of Oecolampadius took a
figure with a long nose in the Colloquies for
their leader: ‘Oh, no,’ replied Erasmus,
‘it is meant for quite another person.’
Henceforth all those who were at loggerheads with Erasmus,
and they were many, ran the risk of being pilloried
in the Colloquia. It was no wonder that
this work, especially with its scourging mockery of
the monastic orders, became the object of controversy.
Erasmus never emerged from his polemics.
He was, no doubt, serious when he said that, in his
heart, he abhorred and had never desired them; but
his caustic mind often got the better of his heart,
and having once begun to quarrel he undoubtedly enjoyed
giving his mockery the rein and wielding his facile
dialectic pen. For understanding his personality
it is unnecessary here to deal at large with all those
fights on paper. Only the most important ones
need be mentioned.
Since 1516 a pot had been boiling
for Erasmus in Spain. A theologian of the University
at Alcala, Diego Lopez Zuniga, or, in Latin, Stunica,
had been preparing Annotations to the edition of the
New Testament: ’a second Lee’, said
Erasmus. At first Cardinal Ximenes had prohibited
the publication, but in 1520, after his death, the
storm broke. For some years Stunica kept persecuting
Erasmus with his criticism, to the latter’s
great vexation; at last there followed a rapprochement,
probably as Erasmus became more conservative, and a
kindly attitude on the part of Stunica.
No less long and violent was the quarrel
with the syndic of the Sorbonne, Noel Bedier or Beda,
which began in 1522. The Sorbonne was prevailed
upon to condemn several of Erasmus’s dicta as
heretical in 1526. The effort of Beda to implicate
Erasmus in the trial of Louis de Berquin, who had
translated the condemned writings and who was eventually
burned at the stake for faith’s sake in 1529,
made the matter still more disagreeable for Erasmus.
It is clear enough that both at Paris
and at Louvain in the circles of the theological faculties
the chief cause of exasperation was in the Colloquia.
Egmondanus and Vincent Dirks did not forgive Erasmus
for having acridly censured their station and their
More courteous than the aforementioned
polemics was the fight with a high-born Italian, Alberto
Pio, prince of Carpi; acrid and bitter was one with
a group of Spanish monks, who brought the Inquisition
to bear upon him. In Spain ‘Erasmistas’
was the name of those who inclined to more liberal
conceptions of the creed.
In this way the matter accumulated
for the volume of Erasmus’s works which contains,
according to his own arrangement, all his Apologiae:
not ‘excuses’, but ‘vindications’.
’Miserable man that I am; they just fill a volume,’
Two of his polemics merit a somewhat
closer examination: that with Ulrich von Hutten
and that with Luther.
Hutten, knight and humanist, the enthusiastic
herald of a national German uplift, the ardent hater
of papacy and supporter of Luther, was certainly a
hot-head and perhaps somewhat of a muddle-head.
He had applauded Erasmus when the latter still seemed
to be the coming man and had afterwards besought him
to take Luther’s side. Erasmus had soon
discovered that this noisy partisan might compromise
him. Had not one of Hutten’s rash satires
been ascribed to him, Erasmus? There came a time
when Hutten could no longer abide Erasmus. His
knightly instinct reacted on the very weaknesses of
Erasmus’s character: the fear of committing
himself and the inclination to repudiate a supporter
in time of danger. Erasmus knew that weakness
himself: ’Not all have strength enough for
martyrdom,’ he writes to Richard Pace in 1521.
’I fear that I shall, in case it results in
a tumult, follow St. Peter’s example.’
But this acknowledgement does not discharge him from
the burden of Hutten’s reproaches which he flung
at him in fiery language in 1523. In this quarrel
Erasmus’s own fame pays the penalty of his fault.
For nowhere does he show himself so undignified and
puny as in that ’Sponge against Hutten’s
mire’, which the latter did not live to read.
Hutten, disillusioned and forsaken, died at an early
age in 1523, and Erasmus did not scruple to publish
the venomous pamphlet against his former friend after
Hutten, however, was avenged upon
Erasmus living. One of his adherents, Henry of
Eppendorff, inherited Hutten’s bitter disgust
with Erasmus and persecuted him for years. Getting
hold of one of Erasmus’s letters in which he
was denounced, he continually threatened him with an
action for defamation of character. Eppendorff’s
hostility so thoroughly exasperated Erasmus that he
fancied he could detect his machinations and spies
everywhere even after the actual persecution had long