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Desiderius Erasmus

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Desiderius Erasmus
Desiderius Erasmus
(Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532)

Desiderius Erasmus (AKA Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus or Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (1466 - 1536) was a Dutch philosopher and theologian of the Renaissance. He is best known as an early Humanist (sometimes known as "Prince of the Humanists" or "the crowning glory of the Christian Humanists"), and the intellectual father of the Reformation. He was instrumental in rescuing Christian theology from the pedantries of the Scholastics.

He was a very learned classical scholar, and was especially interested in the study of ancient languages. Although his Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament earned him enemies among both Catholics and Protestant Reformers, his works were hugely popular and influential, both during his life and afterward (in the 1530’s, his writings accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales).


Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, on 27 October 1466 (or possibly 1469). He was born with the Dutch name Gerrit Gerritszoon but adopted the name Erasmus after the early Christian saint of that name. He was almost certainly illegitimate, his father, Gerard Rogers, later becoming a priest, and his mother Margaretha being the daughter of a physician. He lived his first four years in Rotterdam, before moving to his parents' hometown of Gouda.

Despite being illegitimate, his parents looked after and educated him. At nine years of age, he went to the school of the celebrated Humanist Alexander Hegius (1433 - 1498) in Deventer, run by the Brethren of the Common Life, where he soon exhibited a brilliant intellect, a wonderful memory and extraordinarily quick powers of comprehension. When both his parents suffered early deaths from the plague in 1483, his guardians forced him into in a series of monastic schools, including, in 1486, the Augustinian college of Stein (near Gouda), where he spent almost six years and had a first-hand taste of monastic life which forever coloured his views.

In 1491, a fortunate accident allowed Erasmus to leave the monastery for the post of secretary to Henry of Bergen (the Bishop of Cambray), on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. In 1492, the Bishop ordained him to the Catholic priesthood, although he never actively worked as a priest, and throughout his life he regularly attacked the monasticism of the time and the Church's excesses in general. In 1495, with the bishop's consent, he went on to study and also teach at the University of Paris, specifically at the Collège de Montaigu, under the strict direction of the ascetic Jan Standonck. The college was known as a center of reforming zeal, and the University, although still the chief seat of Scholastic learning (which Erasmus found repugnant), was already coming under the influence of Humanism.

He made his first visit to England in 1498, where he lived chiefly at Oxford, before returning to Paris in 1500 where he spent the next six years, and started his early writings. In 1506, he made another short visit to England, and then carried out a long-desired journey to Italy, staying at Padua and Rome and at a publishing house in Venice. With the accession of King Henry VIII in 1509, Erasmus' old student Lord Mountjoy induced him once more to make England (more specifically, Cambridge) his home, where he was granted the position of Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity and stayed for some time at Queens' College. During this time, he was particularly impressed by the old-style Bible teaching of the English Humanist and theologian John Colet (1467 - 1519). After 1514, he lived alternately in England and Basel, Switzerland, and from 1517 to 1521 at Louvain in Flemish Belgium. After this, with the exception of six years in Freiburg, Switzerland, he spent the rest of his life at Basel.

While in England in 1515, Erasmus had begun a search for available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament with the goal of meeting the demand for a printed edition before the Polyglot Bible project could be finished. Inspired by Colet, and despite his continuing poverty, he rapidly mastered the Greek language and set about preparing a new edition of St. Jerome's 4th Century Bible translation. This resulted in his "Textus Receptus", of which he produced several versions over the subsequent years.

At that time, Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) was making public his criticisms of the Church, and although Erasmus was generally sympathetic with many of them, he declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame throughout Europe, was inevitably called upon to take sides and, when he hesitated to support him, Luther felt that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or lack of purpose, and he gradually withdrew his early admiration for Erasmus. The Catholic Church, however, and especially the Catholic Counter-Reformation after his death, accused him of being instrumental in the whole Protestant movement, and all of his works were later placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV in 1557. By remaining firmly neutral, both sides accused him of siding with the other.

Throughout his life, Erasmus was offered many positions of honor and profit in the academic world, but declined them all, preferring to retain his freedom of intellect and literary expression. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval Scholastic traditions, and as a theologian he pursued a purification of the Christian doctrine by returning to the historic documents and original languages of scripture, and by an appeal to reason without fear of the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic church). He corresponded with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought (even if not always followed).

Erasmus died of a sudden attack of dysentery on 12 July 1536 in Basel, and was buried there in the cathedral.

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Erasmus wrote mainly on ecclesiastic subjects but also on those of general human interest (although he regarded these as trifling, a leisure activity). In 1500, he produced a collection of adages, commonly called the "Adagia", including several of his own (e.g. he is credited with the adage "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king", and with the origin of the English phrase "Pandora's box"). In his first serious work, the "Enchiridion militis Christiani" ("Handbook of the Christian Soldier") of 1503, he first outlined his essential view that the chief evil of the day was formalism (going through the motions of tradition, without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ), and as examples he mentioned monasticism, saint worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society".

His best-known work is "Moriae encomium" or "Laus stultitiae" ("The Praise of Folly"), a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509, published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More. The "Sileni Alcibiadis" of 1515 continues in this vein, criticizing those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. His "Institutio principis Christiani" ("Education of a Christian Prince"), written as advice to the young King Charles of Spain, was published in 1516, sixteen years before Niccolò Machiavelli’s "The Prince". Contrary to Machiavelli's advice, Erasmus suggested a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression. His often reprinted "Colloquia Familiaria", first published in 1518, was a kind of Humanist textbook for the study of Latin.

It was only comparatively late in his life, when he had fully mastered Latin, that Erasmus' real literary productivity began. His output was prodigious, and he translated, edited or annotated many of the greatest names of the classical and patristic world, including Aristotle, Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome.

While in England in 1515, Erasmus had begun a search for available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and, although he did not have access to a single complete manuscript, he nevertheless quickly put together what became the first published Greek New Testament (with a Latin translation and annotations) in 1516, using several Greek manuscript sources. This "Textus Receptus" (and his later 1519 and 1522 editions) was subsequently used as the main source material by the reformers Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) and William Tyndale (1494 - 1536), and for the Church of England's authoritative King James Version (1611) of the Bible.

He continued to produce ever more definitive editions of his Bible translations in 1527 and 1535, as well as his popular "Paraphrases of the New Testament", and the "Ecclesiastes" (or "Gospel Preacher") of 1536, in which he comments on the function of preaching.

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