- Describe Erasmus and his connection to the Renaissance
- Erasmus was a Dutch Renaissance Humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian known as the “Prince of the Humanists” for his influential scholarship and writings.
- Erasmus lived against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation, but while he was critical of the abuses within the Catholic church and called for reform, he kept his distance from Luther and continued to recognize the authority of the pope.
- In The Handbook of the Christian Soldier, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life and critiques formalism—going through the motions of tradition without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ.
- One of Erasmus’s best-known works is In Praise of Folly, a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society in general and the western church in particular.
Erasmus of Rotterdam, or simply Erasmus, was a Dutch Renaissance Humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian.
Erasmus was a classical scholar and wrote in a pure Latin style. Among Humanists he enjoyed the name “Prince of the Humanists,” and has been called “the crowning glory of the Christian Humanists.” Using Humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament, which raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote On Free Will, The Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, On Civility in Children, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Julius Exclusus, and many other works.
Erasmus lived against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation, but while he was critical of the abuses within the Catholic church and called for reform, he kept his distance from Luther and Melanchthon and continued to recognize the authority of the pope, emphasizing a middle path with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety, and grace, rejecting Luther’s emphasis on faith alone. Erasmus remained a member of the Roman Catholic church all his life, staying committed to reforming the church and its clerics’ abuses from within. He also held to the Catholic doctrine of free will, which some Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. His middle road (“Via Media“) approach disappointed and even angered scholars in both camps.
Approach to Scholarship
Erasmus preferred to live the life of an independent scholar and made a conscious effort to avoid any actions or formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression. Throughout his life, he was offered many positions of honor and profit throughout the academic world but declined them all, preferring the uncertain but sufficient rewards of independent literary activity.
His residence at Leuven, where he lectured at the university, exposed Erasmus to much criticism from those ascetics, academics, and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and the loose norms of the Renaissance adherents to which he was devoting his life.
He tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions, but he was not satisfied with this. His revolt against certain forms of Christian monasticism and scholasticism was not based on doubts about the truth of doctrine, nor from hostility to the organization of the church itself, nor from rejection of celibacy or monastic lifestyles. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness by an appeal to reason, applied frankly and without fear of the magisterium. He always intended to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, and therefore was convinced he could frankly criticize virtually everyone and everything. Aloof from entangling obligations, Erasmus was the center of the literary movement of his time, corresponding with more than 500 men in the worlds of politics and thought.
Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. By the 1530s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for ten to twenty percent of all book sales in Europe.
His serious writings begin early, with the Enchiridion militis Christiani—the Handbook of the Christian Soldier (1503). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life, which he was to spend the rest of his days elaborating. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism—going through the motions of tradition without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ. Forms can teach the soul how to worship God, or they may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism, saint worship, war, the spirit of class, and the foibles of “society.”
One of Erasmus’s best-known works is In Praise of Folly, a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society in general and the western church in particular, written in 1509. In Praise of Folly starts off with Folly praising herself, after the manner of the Greek satirist Lucian, whose work Erasmus and Sir Thomas More had recently translated into Latin, a piece of virtuoso foolery; it then takes a darker tone in a series of orations, as Folly praises self-deception and madness and moves to a satirical examination of pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in parts of the Roman Catholic church—to which Erasmus was ever faithful—and the folly of pedants. Erasmus had recently returned disappointed from Rome, where he had turned down offers of advancement in the curia, and Folly increasingly takes on Erasmus’s own chastising voice. The essay ends with a straightforward statement of Christian ideals.