Read CHAPTER XXI of Erasmus and the Age of Reformation , free online book, by Johan Huizinga, on ReadCentral.com.

CONCLUSION

Looking back on the life of Erasmus the question still arises: why has he remained so great? For ostensibly his endeavours ended in failure. He withdraws in alarm from that tremendous struggle which he rightly calls a tragedy; the sixteenth century, bold and vehement, thunders past him, disdaining his ideal of moderation and tolerance. Latin literary erudition, which to him was the epitome of all true culture, has gone out as such. Erasmus, so far as regards the greater part of his writings, is among the great ones who are no longer read. He has become a name. But why does that name still sound so clear and articulate? Why does he keep regarding us, as if he still knew a little more than he has ever been willing to utter?

What has he been to his age, and what was he to be for later generations? Has he been rightly called a precursor of the modern spirit?

Regarded as a child of the sixteenth century, he does seem to differ from the general tenor of his times. Among those vehemently passionate, drastically energetic and violent natures of the great ones of his day, Erasmus stands as the man of too few prejudices, with a little too much delicacy of taste, with a deficiency, though not, indeed, in every department, of that stultitia which he had praised as a necessary constituent of life. Erasmus is the man who is too sensible and moderate for the heroic.

What a surprising difference there is between the accent of Erasmus and that of Luther, Calvin, and Saint Teresa! What a difference, also, between his accent, that is, the accent of humanism, and that of Albrecht Duerer, of Michelangelo, or of Shakespeare.

Erasmus seems, at times, the man who was not strong enough for his age. In that robust sixteenth century it seems as if the oaken strength of Luther was necessary, the steely edge of Calvin, the white heat of Loyola; not the velvet softness of Erasmus. Not only were their force and their fervour necessary, but also their depth, their unsparing, undaunted consistency, sincerity and outspokenness.

They cannot bear that smile which makes Luther speak of the guileful being looking out of Erasmus’s features. His piety is too even for them, too limp. Loyola has testified that the reading of the Enchiridion militis Christiani relaxed his fervour and made his devotion grow cold. He saw that warrior of Christ differently, in the glowing colours of the Spanish-Christian, medieval ideal of chivalry.

Erasmus had never passed through those depths of self-reprobation and that consciousness of sin which Luther had traversed with toil; he saw no devil to fight with, and tears were not familiar to him. Was he altogether unaware of the deepest mystery? Or did it rest in him too deep for utterance?

Let us not suppose too quickly that we are more nearly allied to Luther or Loyola because their figures appeal to us more. If at present our admiration goes out again to the ardently pious, and to spiritual extremes, it is partly because our unstable time requires strong stimuli. To appreciate Erasmus we should begin by giving up our admiration of the extravagant, and for many this requires a certain effort at present. It is extremely easy to break the staff over Erasmus. His faults lie on the surface, and though he wished to hide many things, he never hid his weaknesses.

He was too much concerned about what people thought, and he could not hold his tongue. His mind was too rich and facile, always suggesting a superfluity of arguments, cases, examples, quotations. He could never let things slide. All his life he grudged himself leisure to rest and collect himself, to see how unimportant after all was the commotion round about him, if only he went his own way courageously. Rest and independence he desired most ardently of all things; there was no more restless and dependent creature. Judge him as one of a too delicate constitution who ventures out in a storm. His will-power was great enough. He worked night and day, amidst the most violent bodily suffering, with a great ideal steadfastly before him, never satisfied with his own achievements. He was not self-sufficient.

As an intellectual type Erasmus was one of a rather small group: the absolute idealists who, at the same time, are thoroughly moderate. They can not bear the world’s imperfections; they feel constrained to oppose. But extremes are uncongenial to them; they shrink back from action, because they know it pulls down as much as it erects, and so they withdraw themselves, and keep calling that everything should be different; but when the crisis comes, they reluctantly side with tradition and conservatism. Here too is a fragment of Erasmus’s life-tragedy: he was the man who saw the new and coming things more clearly than anyone else who must needs quarrel with the old and yet could not accept the new. He tried to remain in the fold of the old Church, after having damaged it seriously, and renounced the Reformation, and to a certain extent even Humanism, after having furthered both with all his strength.

Our final opinion about Erasmus has been concerned with negative qualities, so far. What was his positive importance?

Two facts make it difficult for the modern mind to understand Erasmus’s positive importance: first that his influence was extensive rather than intensive, and therefore less historically discernible at definite points, and second, that his influence has ceased. He has done his work and will speak to the world no more. Like Saint Jerome, his revered model, and Voltaire, with whom he has been occasionally compared, ’he has his reward’. But like them he has been the enlightener of an age from whom a broad stream of culture emanated.

As historic investigation of the French Revolution is becoming more and more aware that the true history of France during that period should be looked for in those groups which as ‘Centre’ or ‘Marais’ seemed for a long time but a drove of supernumeraries, and understands that it should occasionally protect its eyes a little from the lightning flashes of the Gironde and Mountain thunderstorm; so the history of the Reformation period should pay attention and it has done so for a long time to the broad central sphere permeated by the Erasmian spirit. One of his opponents said: ’Luther has drawn a large part of the Church to himself, Zwingli and Oecolampadius also some part, but Erasmus the largest’. Erasmus’s public was numerous and of high culture. He was the only one of the Humanists who really wrote for all the world, that is to say, for all educated people. He accustomed a whole world to another and more fluent mode of expression: he shifted the interest, he influenced by his perfect clarity of exposition, even through the medium of Latin, the style of the vernacular languages, apart from the numberless translations of his works. For his contemporaries Erasmus put on many new stops, one might say, of the great organ of human expression, as Rousseau was to do two centuries later.

He might well think with some complacency of the influence he had exerted on the world. ’From all parts of the world’ he writes towards the close of his life ’I am daily thanked by many, because they have been kindled by my works, whatever may be their merit, into zeal for a good disposition and sacred literature; and they who have never seen Erasmus, yet know and love him from his books.’ He was glad that his translations from the Greek had become superfluous; he had everywhere led many to take up Greek and Holy Scripture, ’which otherwise they would never have read’. He had been an introducer and an initiator. He might leave the stage after having said his say.

His word signified something beyond a classical sense and biblical disposition. It was at the same time the first enunciation of the creed of education and perfectibility, of warm social feeling and of faith in human nature, of peaceful kindliness and toleration. ’Christ dwells everywhere; piety is practised under every garment, if only a kindly disposition is not wanting.’

In all these ideas and convictions Erasmus really heralds a later age. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries those thoughts remained an undercurrent: in the eighteenth Erasmus’s message of deliverance bore fruit. In this respect he has most certainly been a precursor and preparer of the modern mind: of Rousseau, Herder, Pestalozzi and of the English and American thinkers. It is only part of the modern mind which is represented by all this. To a number of its developments Erasmus was wholly a stranger, to the evolution of natural science, of the newer philosophy, of political economy. But in so far as people still believe in the ideal that moral education and general tolerance may make humanity happier, humanity owes much to Erasmus.

This does not imply that Erasmus’s mind did not directly and fruitfully influence his own times. Although Catholics regarded him in the heat of the struggle as the corrupter of the Church, and Protestants as the betrayer of the Gospel, yet his word of moderation and kindliness did not pass by unheard or unheeded on either side. Eventually neither camp finally rejected Erasmus. Rome did not brand him as an arch-heretic, but only warned the faithful to read him with caution. Protestant history has been studious to reckon him as one of the Reformers. Both obeyed in this the pronouncement of a public opinion which was above parties and which continued to admire and revere Erasmus.

To the reconstruction of the Catholic Church and the erection of the evangelical churches not only the names of Luther and Loyola are linked. The moderate, the intellectual, the conciliating have also had their share of the work; figures like Melanchthon here, Sadolet there, both nearly allied to Erasmus and sympathetically disposed towards him. The frequently repeated attempts to arrive at some compromise in the great religious conflict, though they might be doomed to end in failure, emanated from the Erasmian spirit.

Nowhere did that spirit take root so easily as in the country that gave Erasmus birth. A curious detail shows us that it was not the exclusive privilege of either great party. Of his two most favoured pupils of later years, both Netherlanders, whom as the actors of the colloquy Astragalismus (The Game of Knucklebones), he has immortalized together, the one, Quirin Talesius, died for his attachment to the Spanish cause and the Catholic faith: he was hanged in 1572 by the citizens of Haarlem, where he was a burgomaster. The other, Charles Utenhove, was sedulous on the side of the revolt and the Reformed religion. At Ghent, in concert with the Prince of Orange, he turned against the narrow-minded Protestant terrorism of the zealots.

A Dutch historian recently tried to trace back the opposition of the Dutch against the king of Spain to the influence of Erasmus’s political thought in his arraignment of bad princes wrongly as I think. Erasmus’s political diatribes were far too academic and too general for that. The desire of resistance and revolt arose from quite other causes. The ‘Gueux’ were not Erasmus’s progeny. But there is much that is Erasmian in the spirit of their great leader, William of Orange, whose vision ranged so widely beyond the limitations of religious hatred. Thoroughly permeated by the Erasmian spirit, too, was that class of municipal magistrates who were soon to take the lead and to set the fashion in the established Republic. History is wont, as always with an aristocracy, to take their faults very seriously. After all, perhaps no other aristocracy, unless it be that of Venice, has ruled a state so long, so well and with so little violence. If in the seventeenth century the institutions of Holland, in the eyes of foreigners, were the admired models of prosperity, charity and social discipline, and patterns of gentleness and wisdom, however defective they may seem to us then the honour of all this is due to the municipal aristocracy. If in the Dutch patriciate of that time those aspirations lived and were translated into action, it was Erasmus’s spirit of social responsibility which inspired them. The history of Holland is far less bloody and cruel than that of any of the surrounding countries. Not for naught did Erasmus praise as truly Dutch those qualities which we might also call truly Erasmian: gentleness, kindliness, moderation, a generally diffused moderate erudition. Not romantic virtues, if you like; but are they the less salutary?

One more instance. In the Republic of the Seven Provinces the atrocious executions of witches and wizards ceased more than a century before they did in all other countries. This was not owing to the merit of the Reformed pastors. They shared the popular belief which demanded persecution. It was the magistrates whose enlightenment even as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century no longer tolerated these things. Again, we are entitled to say, though Erasmus was not one of those who combated this practice: the spirit which breathes from this is that of Erasmus.

Cultured humanity has cause to hold Erasmus’s memory in esteem, if for no other reason than that he was the fervently sincere preacher of that general kindliness which the world still so urgently needs.