Erasmus, from page 32 of The Century of Sir Thomas More by Benjamin Orange Flower, 1896, public domain via the British Library
Desiderius Erasmus (October 27, 1469 – July 12, 1536) was, by his own account, born in Rotterdam, Holland. His father was a priest and his mother the daughter of a physician, who, unsurprisingly, were not married. As a child of an illicit union, he had no apparent prospects for a successful worldly career, so he was initially educated for the life of a cleric. However, he was very unhappy during these early years of his education and training, feeling that the strict, narrowly constrained life didn’t suit him. Though he was ordained a priest, Erasmus later insisted he was pressured into doing so, likely because by that time he had long been an orphan of no means to speak of and so had no apparent alternative means of support.
Erasmus was, however, a very pious man, but in his own way. The Catholic Church, at this time, was seen by Erasmus and others of like mind as a decadent, corrupt, licentious institution in deep need of reform, as it had largely cast aside the pure, simple Christianity of its humble founder. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ reformist instincts did not ally him with those who wished to do away with the Catholic Church altogether: like his friend and protégé Thomas More, he saw the Church as a unified spiritual body that must be preserved. While he was sympathetic to Martin Luther’s impassioned and wholehearted rejection of ecclesiastical corruption, Erasmus rejected his views on the hopelessly sinful nature of humanity, so corrupt that goodness and redemption were dependent entirely on God’s grace. Erasmus contended that human beings had God-given free will, and thus were capable of goodness by exercising that will to choose good and reject evil. Erasmus also rejected Luther’s radical and wholesale rejection of the Church. Erasmus believed, rather, that reform would be achieved within its institutions by its conscientious members and through individual inner spiritual renewal, characterized by a life of love and humility in conjunction with a simple piety unconcerned with convoluted doctrines and earthly show.
Moriæ Encomium, or, In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, page from J. Woodward’s 1709 English translation
The Church, Erasmus believed, would also hugely benefit from a greater focus on secular and classical learning. After all, the human mind was one of God’s greatest creations, so the products of human intelligence deserved attention and reverence second only to sacred writ. Besides, secular scholarship could act as a valuable corrective to theologians’ tendencies to get so wrapped up in fine points of doctrine that their convoluted wranglings served only to confuse and confound the faithful. These convictions, and his long and successful career as a scholar and writer inspired by them, made Erasmus the godfather and patron saint, so to speak, of humanism. Erasmus did not invent that school of thought, but he created so many seminal works in that genre that his name has come to be nearly synonymous with humanism. A brilliant and deeply read scholar, Erasmus’ incredible body of work included annotated translations of classical Greek and Roman works; theological treatises; collections of proverbs and adages; works on aesthetics, style, and writing; voluminous correspondence with the most learned scholars of his time; and much, much more. Erasmus’ most widely known and popular work, however, remains his In Praise of Folly. However brilliant Erasmus was otherwise, he was unsurpassed as a satirist, and he used his cutting wit as a reformist tool, arguably more effective and memorable than his erudition and most eloquent argument.
Despite Erasmus’ disadvantageous start in life in other ways, he made the most of the education he was fortunate to receive. Over the course of his long life, his dissatisfaction with monastic and court life and restless curiosity drove him to create a career as a man of letters on his own terms, seeking patrons that allowed him a career of as much intellectual freedom as the times would allow. Erasmus is often a slippery character, and his motivations and true convictions are hard to pin down, by design. He was least as pragmatic as he was idealistic, and however sharp and potentially dangerous his religious and political satire, he deftly avoided getting himself in trouble in the turbulent and dangerous era he lived in. Not so Erasmus’ friend and protégé More, whose similarly sharp wit and lawyerly skill did not sufficiently counteract his religiosity enough to avoid the chopping block.
Learn more about the brilliant and witty Erasmus by following the links below. I’ve included selections about Erasmus from a variety of religious publication as well which illustrate the mixed admiration and vexation that Erasmus’ idiosyncratic intellect and religiosity still inspire:
Desiderius Erasmus ~ by Erika Rummel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Desiderius Erasmus ~ in New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia
Desiderius Erasmus ~ in Reformation500
Desiderius Erasmus (1468?—1536) ~ by Eric MacPhail for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Desiderius Erasmus: Dutch Humanist and Scholar ~ by James D. Tracy for Encyclopædia Britannica
Erasmus ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Erasmus with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy, and Jill Kraye for In Our Time
In Praise of Folly ~ by Desiderius Erasmus, with an introductory biography, Erasmus’ ‘Epistle to Sir Thomas More’, and illustrations by Hans Holbein at Project Gutenberg
The Praise of Folly ~ Nathan Gilmour, David Grubbs, and Michial Farmer discuss this work for The Christian Humanist Podcast
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