Monday, April 6, 2015
E IS FOR DESIDERIUS ERASMUS
Born in Rotterdam, Erasmus was raised, and was provided an excellent education which included the study of Greek, by his parents (unmarried - his father was a Catholic priest), who both died of the plague in 1483. His guardians then insisted on his entering a Dutch monastery, where he spent the next six years and was ordained a priest at about the age of 25. Erasmus had already achieved a reputation as a brilliant scholar, and this was his ticket out of the canonical life: he was offered a post as secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, France, whom he served for several years. In 1495, with the Bishop's approval, he moved to Paris, where he studied at the University and became acquainted with the scholarly new wave of Renaissance humanism, and supported himself by teaching until 1498. He moved to England for a short time after that, but was back in France by 1500 and remained there for the next six years. From 1506 to 1509 he was at Turin University in Italy. Another stint at Queens College in Cambridge, England as a professor of Divinity followed, and then a residency at Leuven, the Netherlands. After 1514 he lived alternately between England and Basel, Switzerland. He didn't seem to ever be able to select any one place as a home base. Throughout his life, he was offered many permanent and prestigious academic posts, and he turned all of them down. Rightly or wrongly, he believed that getting himself enmeshed with any one institution would hamper his intellectual freedom. Instead, he chose to wander from place to place, chronically short of money and always asking his friends for loans. Am I the only one reminded here of another great philosopher, Janis Joplin? "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose..." (Yes, I know Joplin didn't write "Me and Bobby McGee," but she embodied it.)
In 1512 Erasmus embarked on a massive project, which he completed and published in 1516: a translation of the entire New Testament into both Latin and Greek (which also constituted the first published Greek translation). He produced a second edition in 1519, a third in 1522, a fourth in 1527, and a fifth and final one in 1535, the year before his death. While these were his most widely distributed works, Erasmus wrote numerous other books, many of them bitingly sarcastic criticisms of all classes of society, but in particular of abuses he perceived within the Church.
Meanwhile, in 1517, Martin Luther had published his Ninety-FiveTheses, thus officially kicking off the Protestant Reformation. Luther and his followers were delighted with Erasmus's harsh words about the Church and tried to persuade him to join their cause, but (no surprise, perhaps, knowing what we know about his stubborn independence) he refused to break with the Church and attempted to walk an impossible line by supporting both the Church and the Reformation; as he said, "I detest dissention because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss." Needless to say, this studied neutrality did not go over well with either party, both of which adopted the view that if Erasmus wasn't with them, he must be against them. Finally, in 1524, Erasmus directly attacked Luther (or at least, Luther's views about the nonexistence of free will) in his writings, and Luther enthusiastically returned the favor. The split between them was never healed. Nonetheless, until the end of his life, Erasmus was deeply distrusted by the Church and suspected of being a heretic.
Long before the phrase came into existence, Erasmus was the classic polarizing figure. He had multitudes of intellectual friends from all over Europe, and corresponded with more than 500 of them. But his public reputation was extremely mixed until the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century, when he rose again in the world's estimation. Not everyone saw him in a positive light even then, however. And the current Catholic Encyclopedia says both that Erasmus was "the most brilliant and most important leader of German humanism," and that "his vanity and egotism were boundless, and to gratify them he was ready to pursue former friends with defamation and invective.... His was an absolutely unspeculative brain, and he lacked entirely all power of acute philosophical definition." They weren't holding back, were they? The Church, at least, remains unwilling to forgive and forget; it still blames Erasmus for the Reformation. On the other hand, can you guess after whom the modern-day European Union student exchange program is named? A profoundly gifted writer, a fierce proponent of education, a theologian, a humanist philosopher... Erasmus was all these things, and more.
I'll end this post with a few quotes from this most quotable of Renaissance thinkers (he would have aced Twitter):
- It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is.
- In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
- When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.