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July 2000

A Tolerant Mind: Desiderius Erasmus

Erasmus, a great Renaissance scholar, was a champion of peace and religious toleration.

During the early 16th century, an era of religious persecution and frequent wars, Desiderius Erasmus emerged as the first modern champion of toleration and peace.

“I am a lover of liberty,” he wrote with his only weapon — a quill pen. He denounced persecution by both Catholics and Protestants. He was among the first to say that different religions should flourish peacefully. He urged an end to burning heretics, witches and books. When Martin Luther declared that human beings cannot choose their destiny, Erasmus defended free will. Just two decades after the Spanish established a colony in America, Erasmus came out against colonialism. He declared that “Colonization is nothing but robbery masquerading as the propagation of Christianity.”

He wrote Dulce bellum inexpertis (1515), the first book in European history making a case for peace, and the theme of peace runs throughout his writings. He attacked “the vengeful furies whenever they let loose their snakes and assail the hearts of men with lust for war.” 

He was an outspoken critic of monarchy. A king, Erasmus wrote, is “carnivorous, rapacious, a brigand, a destroyer, solitary, hated by all, a pest to all…”  Ahead of his time, Erasmus urged a “limited monarchy, checked and decreased by an aristocracy and by democracy.”

Individualist Albert Jay Nock hailed the “citizen of the world and native of all countries, the incomparable Erasmus of Rotterdam  .”  Lord Acton called Erasmus “the greatest figure of the Renaissance…He lived in France and Belgium, in England and Italy, in Switzerland and Germany, so that each country contributed to his development, and none set its stamp upon him. He was eminently an international character; and was the first European who lived in intimacy with other ages besides his own, and could appreciate the gradual ripening and enlargement of ideas.” French literary genius Francois Rabelais wrote that Erasmus was his spiritual father. Swiss religious reformer Ulrich Zwingli: “It is impossible not to love Erasmus.”

As historian Paul Johnson noted, “Erasmus made himself into a scholar with high academic standards; he was also a popularizer and a journalist who understood the importance of communication. He wanted his books to be small, handy and cheap, and he was the first writer to grasp the full potentialities of printing. He worked at speed, often in the printing shop itself, writing and correcting his proofs on the spot. He was exhilarated by the smell of printer’s ink, the incense of the Reformation.”  Erasmus himself said, “My home is where I have my library.”

Historian Will Durant remarked that Erasmus “wrote bad French, spoke a little Dutch and English, ‘tasted Hebrew only with the tip of the tongue,’ and knew Greek imperfectly; but he mastered Latin thoroughly, and handled it as a living tongue applicable to the most un-Latin nuances and trivia of his time. A century newly enamored of the classics forgave most of his faults for the lively brilliance of his style, the novel charm of his understatements, the bright dagger of his irony. His letters rival Cicero’s in elegance and urbanity, surpass them in vivacity and wit.” 

Biographer George Faludy: “Erasmus wrote with great speed and ease, occasionally completing thirty to forty pages a day, and even more when writing a polemic. He worked standing behind a lectern to stay alert, and seems to have enjoyed the act of writing, adapting himself in it from this period until the end of his life to the speed of the printing presses. When questioned about the number of books he was turning out, he replied that they were to be attributed to his insomnia.” 

Although Erasmus was a prolific author — some 750,000 copies of his books were sold during his lifetime — he gained immortality for a single work, The Praise of Folly. “It is this folly which produces states,” wrote historian Johann Huizinga, “and through her, empires, religion, law-courts. The state with its posts of honour, patriotism and national pride…the stateliness of ceremonies, the delusion of caste and nobility ‑- what is it but folly?  War, the most foolish thing of all…”

Durant described Erasmus as “short, thin, pale, weak in voice and constitution. He impressed by his sensitive hands, his long, sharp nose, his blue-gray eyes flashing with wit, and his speech — the conversation of the richest and quickest mind of that brilliant age. The greatest artists among his northern contemporaries were eager to paint his portrait, and he consented to sit for them because such portraits were welcomed as gifts by his friends.”

“His faults leaped to the eye,” Durant continued. “He could beg shamelessly, but he could also give, and many a rising spirit expanded in the warmth of his praise…He lacked modesty and gratitude, which came hard to one courted by popes and kings. He was impatient and resentful of criticism, and sometimes answered it in the abusive manner of that polemic age. He shared the anti-Semitism of even the scholars of the Renaissance…He loved flattery, and agreed with it despite frequent disclaimers.” 

Biographer Cornelis Augustijn remarked on “Erasmus’ toughness, his undaunted tenacity, in spite of all obstacles, in holding to the goal he wanted to attain. He did not let himself be held back by poverty. His far from robust health and his numerous illnesses could not keep him from the work he had chosen.”

Many historians, especially German historians, have promoted the view that Erasmus’ rival Martin Luther was a great defender of  liberty, even though Luther defended persecution, tyranny, slavery and mass murder. Observed Ron Schoeffel, Editor of the University of Toronto Press which is publishing the first English language edition of Erasmus’ complete works: “Erasmus is perhaps the least known of the chief architects of modern thought…his intellectual and spiritual legacy is only now, in our own time, beginning to manifest itself fully.” 

Desiderius (“the desired one”) Erasmus was born October 27, either in 1466 or 1469, in Gouda, just northeast of Rotterdam, Holland. He was the second son of a priest whom he referred to as Gerard. His mother was a washerwoman named Margaret. Throughout his life, he was embarrassed by his origins.

Erasmus grew up at the rectory which probably had a slate roof and windows covered with oil paper. Perhaps to get away from scandalized parishioners, Margaret took Erasmus and his older brother Peter east to Deventer, a small town, for schooling. The region was embroiled in wars. When Erasmus was eight, he saw some 200 war prisoners pulled apart on the rack by order of the local bishop.

Around 1484 Erasmus lost both his parents to the bubonic plague. Apparently to get rid of the children, the principal guardian, a schoolmaster, consigned them to monasteries and squandered the family assets. Erasmus ended up at an Augustinian monastery in Steyn. During his six years there, Erasmus spent a lot of time in the library where he read the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) and other Roman authors. Erasmus was ordained as a priest on April 25, 1492, and he was eager to get out of the monastery. He ended up at the Sorbonne, but the rector in charge of the place modelled himself after St. Francis of Paula, an ascetic who ate roots and never bathed. By 1496, he had enough.

He gathered 818 Latin sayings and some commentary into a little volume called Adagia collectanae. Published in June 1500, it was the first of his many efforts to break the monopoly which clergymen had long held on learning. The theme of republican liberty and peace runs through this as so many of Erasmus’ works. For instance: “Do we not see that noble cities are erected by the people and destroyed by princes?  That a state grows rich by the industry of its citizens and is plundered by the rapacity of its rulers?  That good laws are enacted by representatives of the people and violated by kings?  That the commons love peace and the monarchs foment war?”

Erasmus wrote Enchirdion militis christiani [The Handbook of the Christian Soldier], a practical guide to Christianity. He insisted that people save their souls not by performing religious rituals but by cultivating faith and goodness. The book was translated into English (after 1518), Czech (1519), German (1520) and then into French, Italian, Polish, Portugese and Spanish, the Enchirdion helped set the stage for the Reformation.

In May 1509, Erasmus was invited to England, and he stayed in Thomas More’s house, Bucklersbury, London. He began to compose a satire called Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly) — the title a play on his friend’s name. The work was written in a week. It’s an oration by Folly who chronicles the foolishness of contemporary life. Erasmus ridiculed the “merchant, soldier or judge who believes…all his perjury, lust, drunkenness, quarrels, killings, frauds, perfidy and treachery he believes can be somehow paid off…in such a way that he’s now free to start afresh on a new round of sin.”  Erasmus scorned those “whose belief in communism of property goes to such lengths that they pick up anything lying about unguarded, and make off with it without a qualm of conscience as if it had come to them by law.’

Some of Erasmus’ most passionate passages were about war. For instance: “Since the Christian Church was founded on blood, strengthened by blood and increased in blood, they continue to manage its affairs by the sword as if Christ has perished and can no longer protect his own people in his own way. War is something so monstrous that it befits wild beasts rather than men, so crazy that the poets even imagine that it is let loose by Furies, so deadly that it sweeps like a plague through the world, so unjust that it is generally best carried on by the worst type of bandit, so impious that it is quite alien to Christ; and yet they leave everything to devote themselves to war…”

Erasmus arranged for The Praise of Folly to be published in Paris, in 1511, and it was reprinted 39 times during his lifetime. It was translated into Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Icelandic, Italian and Swedish. There was a special edition with 37 illustrations by 18-year-old painter Hans Holbein. The Praise of Folly inspired the great French satirist Francois Rabelais (c.1490-1553), among many others.

In 1513, “Warrier Pope” Julius II died, and Erasmus wrote Julius exclusus, a satire in which the Pope finds the gates of heaven closed. St. Peter says: “You are Julius the Emperor come back from hell…With your treaties and your protocols, your armies and your victories, you had no time to read the Gospels…Fraud, usury, and cunning made you pope…The people ought to rise with paving stones and dash such a wretch’s brains out.”

Erasmus published Familiarium colloquiorum formulae [Forms of Familiar Conversation, 1514], generally referred to as his Colloquies, which offered a racy guide about religion and life. He ridiculed greedy clergymen, phony miracles and meaningless rituals. He declared that married love was better than celibacy. Authorities in France ordered the book burned. Charles V, Emperor of Spain, the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, much of Italy and South America, decreed that anybody using the Colloquies would be executed. Yet some 24,000 copies of the Colloquies were sold during Erasmus’ lifetime — 36 editions from 21 different printers — and according to Lord Acton it was “the most popular book of his age.”  Biographer Faludy remarked that “Neither More’s Utopia, Montaigne’s Essays nor Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel was so widely influential or left such a lasting impression.”

Because of all the errors in the official Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, Erasmus went back to Greek manuscripts — 14th century copies as it turned out — and produced a fresh Latin translation of the New Testament with annotations and commentary. His translation, published in Basel, inspired others to translate the New Testament.  For instance, Martin Luther’s German translation (1522), William Tyndale’s English translation (1525), Benedek Komjati’s Hungarian translation (1533) and Francisco de Enmzinas’ Spanish translation (1543).

Erasmus was disturbed by Il Principe [The Prince], a manuscript written by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who believed that the business of a state is to expand its power and fight wars. In 1516, Erasmus countered with Institutio principis Christiani [Education of a Christian Prince], the very title of which was intended as a contrast with Machiavelli’s The Prince. Erasmus urged a policy of peace and tranquility. Erasmus must have been uneasy about his friend Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1515 or 1516, which described an ideal society where “everything’s under state control.”

Meanwhile, Charles V and Francis I prepared for war, and in 1517, Erasmus wrote Querela pacis [The Complaint of Peace]. “Where is the river that has not been dyed with human blood?” he wrote, “All [the wars] were undertaken at the caprice of princes, to the great detriment of the people, whom these conflicts in no way concerned.”  Thirty-two Latin editions of The Complaint of Peace appeared during the next century and a half, and it was translated into seven languages. Biographer Faludy noted, “When rigid intolerance slowly gained the upper hand throughout Europe in the wake of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, no other book of Erasmus’s was to suffer so much reviling. It was condemned by the Sorbonne in 1525 and publicly burnt. The Spanish translation was banned by the chief inquisitor Juan Valdes, in 1559, and it was burned in the Spanish Netherlands.”  

On March 15, 1517, Pope Leo X, son of the Florentine merchant and politician Lorenzo de’ Medici, announced the biggest of all indulgences which meant the Church would forgive as many sins as believers were willing to pay for. This was to raise money so officials could enjoy lavish living and church monuments. Luther attacked the indulgences in Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum [Disputation for Clarification of the Power of Indulgences] — the famous 95 theses circulated in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. By 1520 the Pope concluded that Luther’s defiance was causing his indulgence revenue to go down, and the Pope’s inquisitor Hieronymo Aleandro had people burned for advocating Luther’s doctrines. Erasmus protesting the killings, and Aleandro vowed to wipe out this “lousy man of letters.”

Meanwhile, Luther made clear that he was an enemy of liberty. “Those who sit in the office of the magistrate,” he wrote, “sit in the place of God, and their judgment is as if God judged from Heaven…”  He believed slaves had no right to rebel against their masters.

In 1524, Erasmus wrote Discussion of Free Will which maintained that God’s grace is meaningless unless individuals have the capacity to make choices. Luther countered with a savage attack, On the Bondage of the Will. He denounced Erasmus as “a piece of filth.” 

In 1525, German peasants rebelled against the princes, robbing and burning hundreds of castles. They expected Luther’s support since he had defied the Church, but he depended on the favor of the princes, and he urged that the peasants be slaughtered. About 100,000 peasants were hanged or impaled. Erasmus protested that “the princes know no remedy but cruelty.”  Historian William Manchester commented, “No other figure on the European stage saw the religious crisis so clearly; if he was vain to suppose that he could impose his solution [tolerance] on it, the fact remains that no other solution made sense.”

Despised by Catholics and Lutherans alike, Erasmus was a discouraged man, but he continued to display prodigious industry. In three works, Against the Theological Faculty of Paris, Refutations of the Errors of the Inquisitor Beda and Against the Holy Inquisition, he renewed his attack on the Inquisition and on the practice of burning books and heretics. In Advice to the Senate of Basle, he warned about coming religious wars and recommended toleration. One of his last works, On the Sweet Concord of the Church, expressed the desperate hope that somehow Catholics and Protestants would find a way to live in peace. He wrote the Duke of Saxony: “Tolerating the sects may appear a great evil to you, but it is still much better than a religious war; if the clergy should succeed in entangling the rulers, it will be a catastrophe for Germany and for the Church.”

Erasmus moved to Basle, Switzlerland which he hoped would be free from religious strife. He stayed in the house of Hieronymus Froben, son of his printer Johannes Froben. Suffering from painful kidney stones, gout, ulcers, pancreatitis and rheumatism, he died a little before midnight on July 11, 1536, after a three-week struggle with dysentery. He was about 67. He was buried in the Basle cathedral.

“Erasmus,” noted William Manchester, “died a martyr to everything he despised in life: fear, malice, excess, ignorance, barbarism.”  The Spanish Inquisition excommunicated him as a heretic, and, Manchester continued, “everything Erasmus had ever published was consigned to the Index Expurgatorius, which meant that any Catholic who read the prose which had once delighted a pontiff would be placing his soul in jeopardy.”  In 1546, the Council of Trent condemned Erasmus’ edition of the New Testament. Pope Paul IV called Erasmus “the leader of all heretics” and urged people to burn his writings.

Then came hideous religious persecutions and wars. In Geneva, ruled by theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), people were burned when their church attendance was considered slack. In 1567, the Spanish Duke of Alva sentenced thousands of Dutch Protestants to death, and Protestants retaliated by destroying 400 Catholic churches. England’s Queen Elizabeth I executed some 800 rebellious Catholics. In 1572, French Catholics seized and slaughtered thousands of French Protestants, triggering a quarter-century of religious conflicts. In Germany, bloodshed over religion climaxed during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which wiped out about a third of the people.

All this carnage brought a renewed appreciation for Erasmus. Denis Diderot, the 18th century French dramatist and encyclopedist, wrote: “we are indebted to him, principally for the rebirth of the sciences, criticism and the taste for antiquity.”  Voltaire’s biographer Alfred Noyes noted that Erasmus’ influence was evident in the Frenchman’s satires.

It was in America that people began to fulfill Erasmus’ vision of tolerance. “Thus for the first time since the Dark Ages,” wrote historian Paul Johnson, “a society came into existence in which institutional Christianity was associated with progress and freedom, rather than against them. The United States was Erasmian in its tolerance, Erasmian in its anti-doctrinal animus, above all Erasmian in its desire to explore, within a Christian context, the uttermost limits of human possibilities.”

During terrible wars, some people remembered Erasmus. In 1813, for instance, amidst the Napoleonic Wars, a selection of his commentary was published as The Plea of Reason, Religion and Humanity Against War. His Complaint of Peace was reprinted in 1917, during World War I. Biographies published in the aftermath of World War I, such as those by Johann Huizinga and Preserved Smith, stressed Erasmus’ commitment to peace. The popular Dutch historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon recalled how, during World War II, the Nazis invaded Holland and destroyed a statue of Erasmus in Rotterdam. Van Loon cried, “Turn me loose in a universe re-created after the Erasmian principles of tolerance, intelligence, wit, and charm of manner and I shall ask for no better.” 

Clarendon Press, of Oxford University, published a 12-volume Latin edition of Erasmus’ correspondence, Opus Epistolarum (1906-1958), which Harvard University historian Myron Gilmore called “the single most important source for the intellectual history of the Renaissance and Reformation.”  In 1969, North Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, began issuing a comprehensive Latin edition of Erasmus’ works, Opera Omnia, and 25 volumes have come out. Also during the 1960s, University of Toronto Press editor Ron Schoeffel wanted to read some of Erasmus’ correspondence on a summer vacation, only to discover there wasn’t any standard edition in English. He arranged financing, contacted about a hundred Erasmus scholars, and in 1974 issued the first of a projected 89 volumes of The Collected Works of Erasmus, which would include 22 volumes of correspondence. Thus far, 44 volumes have appeared.

Erasmus is revered because although he never had much money nor held any political office, he courageously challenged powerful institutions which had dominated Europe for a thousand years. He championed reason over superstition, tolerance over persecution and peace over war. With his mighty quill pen, this frail man, who complained about bad wine and kidney stones, established intellectual foundations for liberty in the modern world.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.