Erasmus of rotterdam

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Rev. Ernest G. Rupp

Reformation Historian

(published 1971)
DESIDERIUS ERASMUS, (c. 1466 1536), humanist and the greatest figure in the northern Renaissance, was born at Rotterdam or possibly Gouda in the Low Countries, Oct. 26 27, in about 1466. He was the second child of Margaret, a physician’s daughter, and Roger Gerard, priest. The romantic story woven by Erasmus round these facts is suspect, but the legal impediments of illegitimacy haunted his later career. He went first to school at Gouda where Peter Winckel (later one of his three guardians) was his rather obtuse usher, and spent the years 1475 83 till his father’s death at the school of St. Lebwin’s, Deventer (with a short spell as choir boy at Utrecht). There, though he could have had little contact with them, such teachers as John Sintheim (Sinthius) and Alexander Hegius, members of the Brethren of the Common Life (q.v.), were opening the school to humanist ideas. In this part of Holland the influence of the devotio moderns was strong, and Erasmus owed more than he knew to its practical Christocentric piety, as he was repelled by the obscurantism and austerities of its latter end. When the guardians sent Erasmus and his elder brother Peter to the school at Hertogunbosch, Erasmus found the shades of a coming claustral discipline irksome. But they were in no position to withstand their guardians’ plans, and Peter entered a monastery at Sion near Delft, while Erasmus became an Augustinian canon at Steyn. There he made or renewed friendships with William Herman, Cornelius Aurelius and Servatius Roger. He was ordained priest on April 25, 1492.

Though he now had an opportunity to study the classics and the poets, he felt the constraint of monastic life, which bred in him a passion for personal freedom and an irritation with restraint which became a trait of his complex character. He grasped eagerly the opportunity to leave, probably in 1494, and became Latin secretary to Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai. But he did not take kindly to the sort of diplomatic career which suited many scholars of the age, and was glad when his friend James Batt secured permission for him to study theology at the University of Paris. There he entered the college of Montaigu at the time when the rector, the formidable Jan Standonck, was attempting to graft onto Paris the piety of the devotio moderna in its most austere form. It was too much for Erasmus, whose health gave way, nor did his heart lie in the scholastic theology or in preaching, in which he dabbled at this time. Like other humanists, he was affronted by the dogmatic theologians, especially of the religious orders, with their party cries and intolerance and their violence and wooden hostility toward new methods. In Paris, however, he made acquaintance with the humanists, and a commendatory epistle in Robert Gaguin’s De Origine et gestis Francorum compendium (1495) was his first writing to attract public attention. He returned to Paris from a convalescence in Holland and took pupils, first Christian and Henry Northoff from Lubeck, and then the Englishmen Thomas Grey and Robert Fisher. He wrote manuals for their instruction, De conscribendis epistolis, De copia verborum, De ratione studii and another Familiarum colloquorum formulae (“Familiar colloquies”), which underwent many revisions and became one of his most famous works.

First Visit to England.

What Erasmus really wanted was to be allowed to study in reasonable comfort, and his employments were of value only to that end. He had gradually to build up a precarious income, which always lagged behind his reputation, from pensions, gifts and dedications which in these early years involved fulsome touting and which caused William Tyndale to say that Erasmus was one “whose tongue maketh of little gnats great elephants and laudeth up above the skies, whosoever giveth him a little exhibition.” His tutorial adventures introduced him to William Blount Lord Mountjoy, who proved a steadier patron than most, and whose invitation to England Erasmus accepted in 1499. Despite his often acid criticisms of England and the English, their barbarism, their weather, their beer, the country fascinated him and drew him back again and again. One reason no doubt was the patronage of Archbishop William Warham and John Fisher, and even more the congenial friendship of such scholars as William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, William Latimer and, above all, John Colet and Thomas More. Of these last he has left verbal portraits which have the vivid detail of a Holbein painting. On him Colet made an early vivid impression, while his more intimate friendship with More ripened through the years. Though Colet was not the first to turn his thoughts from “good letters” to “sacred letters,” he did challenge Erasmus to join him at Oxford in the battle against the obscurantists and in the exposition of a more directly biblical theology. Erasmus rightly saw that he had not the technical equipment for such intervention, but he was now evidently more deeply concerned for “sacred letters.” “I wished,” he wrote, “that good letters should find that Christian character which they have lacked in Italy, and which, as you know, ended in glorifying pagan morality.” Erasmus’ new concern did not diminish his interest in the classical authors, for he stood for a combination of “good” with “sacred letters.” He had long been acquainted with such poetic models as Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Statius, Martial, Claudian, Persius, Tibullus and Propertius, and in prose with Cicero, Quintillian, Sallust and Terence. Throughout his life he edited works by Latin authors (e.g., Pliny, Seneca), and produced translations of Greek classical writings (e.g., Lucian).

The Wandering Scholar.

In 1500 he left England, horrified at having to relinquish his earnings to the customs at Dover, and, in June, worked off some of his disgust by producing a collection of proverbs, the germ of his great Adagia. He spent the next months between France and Holland, and in this unexciting period began arduously to gain that mastery of Greek which was the foundation of his later pre eminence. His thoughts began to turn toward a great edition of Jerome, the archetype of his own ideal combination of good and sacred letters. At St. Omer he learned to know and admire the saintly Franciscan Jean Vitrier, who may have deepened in him a genuine strain of. Pauline piety not to be overlooked. One result was the little Enchiridion militis Christiani (1501), which reflects some of the most attractive elements in his religion, at the close of which he wrote, Make the prophets, Christ and the Apostles your friends. Above all, choose Paul . . . it has long been my cherished wish to cleanse the Lord’s temple of barbarous ignorance and to adorn it with treasures from afar, such as may kindle in generous hearts a warm love for the scriptures.

He continued to produce edifying discourses at intervals, though none of them attained the quality of the Enchiridion. Thus followed his De interdicto esu carnium (1522), Exomologesis (1524), a Modus orandi Deum (1533), and Institutio Christiani matrimonii dedicated to Catherine of Aragon. He commented on certain Psalms in 1528 and at the end of his life discussed preaching in a comment on the book of Ecclesiastes.

In the summer of 1504 Erasmus found in the library of the Premonstratensians at Parc, near Louvain, a manuscript of Lorenzo Valla’s Annotationes on the New Testament which criticized the Vulgate and advocated a critical method giving priority to exact, philological exegesis. The encounter was momentous for Erasmus, who published his own edition of this manuscript through Josse Badius (1505). He returned to England (1505 06), where he made his own copy of the Greek New Testament from such manuscripts as he could borrow. But a half promised benefice did not materialize, and he seized an opportunity to visit Italy as tutor of the sons of Giovanni Battista Boerio, physician of Henry VII. He took his D.D. at Turin (Sept. 4, 1506) and in the next months saw at first hand the splendour and secularization of the church in Italy, and those bloody consequences of papal diplomacy which much offended his temper and his conscience. He moved to Bologna and to Venice, where he collaborated with the great publisher Aldus Manutius. There, in the house of Andrea Asolani, he shared lodgings with the phenomenal young scholar Jerome Aleander (later, turned diplomat, to be what A. Renaudet calls “his most intimate enemy”). At Venice in Sept. 1508 was published a great edition of his Adagia swollen to over 3,000 proverbs collected from the classical authors, a work which established his reputation as the foremost scholar in northern Europe. He became tutor to the young archbishop of St. Andrews, Alexander Stewart, and went with him to Padua and Siena. He visited Rome, but though he found friends at the papal court England drew him back. He returned there to stay with Sir Thomas More, and there he wrote (1509) the Encomium moriae (“Praise of Folly”) in that Lucianic vein which was congenial to both him and More.

Erasmus and More had exercised themselves in turning Lucian into Latin, so that the Encomium moriae drew upon ancient and medieval inspiration but most deeply from Erasmus’ own wit; it justifies J. Huizinga’s comment that “only when humour illuminated that mind did it become truly profound,” for the sharp satire became one of the most popular and enduring of his writings. He moved to Cambridge university where he lectured on Greek and on the epistles of Jerome. Archbishop Warham gave him the benefice of Aldington in Kent, which he commuted into a pension of £20. But Erasmus could not settle anywhere for very long and was off again in 1514 to Basel, to a new fruitful partnership with the publishing house of Johann Froben. About this time there appeared a scurrilous satire against the late pope—the Julius exclusus. The balance of probability is slightly in favour of Erasmian authorship, tipped by the curiously evasive character of Erasmus’ denials.

A shock came in June 1514: his old friend Servatius Roger, now prior of Steyn, wrote recalling him to the monastic life. His reply was a passionate plea for freedom, a defence of his own evident vocation for letters. It now became urgent for him to find authoritative support for his way of life, and he drew up an appeal to the papal chancery in which he put his case under the name of an imaginary Florentius. (This appeal, addressed to “Lambertus Grunnius,” together with the letter to Roger and his own Compendium Vitae, compiled in 1524, are primary sources of the life of Erasmus.) In Jan. 1517 he received two dispensations from Pope Leo X, the one allowing him to live in the world, and the other dispensing him from the dress of his order. On his return to England he received these dispensations formally on April 9, 1517, at the hands of his friend Ammonius Andreas, the papal legate.

The New Testament.

In 1516 he had published his most immediately influential work, the edition of the New Testament which gave priority to the Greek text. He compared such manuscripts as were available to him, and various readings of the Fathers, while other scholars, N. Gerbelius, J. Oecolampadius and W. F. Capito, assisted with the philological apparatus, especially with Hebrew. Although he did not have access to the earliest manuscripts, he provided a much more accurate text than that of the Vulgate. For instance, he omitted the reference to the Trinity interpolated into 1 John v, 7 8 by most Latin manuscripts (though he was forced to put it back in later editions). Alongside the Greek text he placed his own elegant Latin version, which greatly attracted scholars, and he appended critical notes, some of which were far from academic, many being as biting as the glosses of later Reformers. His prefatory essay was a noble plea for the study of the Scriptures, including the famous lines:

I could wish that every woman might read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul. Would that these were translated into each and every language so that they might be read and understood not only by Scots and Irishmen, but also by Turks and Saracens . . . Would that the farmer might sing snatches of Scripture at his plough, that the weaver might hum phrases of Scripture to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveller might lighten with stories from Scripture the weariness of his journey.

The work was dedicated to Pope Leo X, who accepted the dedication. Nonetheless, it was strongly attacked, not least by the Englishman Edward Lee, by the Fleming J. Latomus, and by the Spaniard S. Zufiiga. There were indeed obvious inaccuracies in the work, many of which were corrected in later editions. But this, the work of one man, could vie with the great Spanish team of Alcala and had a deeper influence on contemporaries than did their Complutensian Polyglot. To forward looking scholars (like Vadianus of St. Gall, Luther and A. Karlstadt in Wittenberg, Thomas Bilney and Robert Barnes in Cambridge) the new version offered a more attractive, truer text, while its prefaces amounted to a manifesto of the new learning, expounding the new critical method, and at the same time transmitting important gleanings from Erasmus’ reading of the Fathers. Important too were his paraphrases, first of the Epistles, then of the Gospels, the English translation of which had an important and official vogue in the reign of Edward VI.

At Louvain.

Erasmus spent the years 1517 21 at Louvain, where he took great interest in the new college for the study of the sacred languages founded by Jerome Busleiden. During this period his correspondence greatly increased and he became one of the most prolific letter writers among the humanists for whom semiprivate correspondence of this kind afforded a prime means of learned conversation. A high proportion of the letters of Erasmus are distinguished from the bulk of humanist correspondence only by their more polished Latin, but every now and again, writing to some intimate, B. Rhenanus or Ammonius Andreas, something new appears, pictures of contemporary life wittily observed, that Brueghel like quality which in his Encomium moriae and in his Colloquia familiaria anticipated the writing of a new age.

At Basel.

In Nov. 1521 he settled at Basel, perhaps the most satisfying to him of his many abiding places. From there he published a great series of works, and became a central figure among those scholars for whom the return to the Fathers of the Church was an integral part of the renewal of sacred letters. His edition of Jerome in nine volumes (1516) was a great achievement, but others followed: Cyprian (1520), Pseudo Arnobius (1522), Hilary (1523), Irenaeus (Latin, 1526), Ambrose (1527), Augustine (1528), Chrysostom (Latin, 1530), Basil (1532), Origen (Latin, 1536), though in some of the later editions Erasmus took little direct personal share. In Basel, too, he revised and extended the range of the Colloquia familiaria into which he contrived to pack an amazing amount of comment on contemporary manners, some of it “replete with malice spiteful.”

The outbreak of the Reformation ended the Erasmian dream of a golden age of letters. His own criticism of the church had been formidable enough for Aleander to denounce him as the real author of schism, and worse than Luther. To Erasmus, however, Luther must have seemed a typical dogmatic theologian, violent, aggressive. Luther in his first literary contacts (they never met) was polite, though he soon diagnosed a deep divergence of which the Erasmian preference for Jerome against Augustine was symptomatic.

As the church struggle widened, both sides appealed to Erasmus, who was at one time hailed as the author both of Luther’s De Babylonica captivitate (1520) and of Henry VIII’s reply. Yet it counted for Luther that in critical months during 1519 21 Erasmus did not come out against him, and indeed offered his services and mediation, while in an interview with Frederick the Wise of Saxony Erasmus himself may have stiffened the resolve of the prince that Luther should not be refused a hearing at the Diet of Worms. In the next years Erasmus was more and more alienated from the Reformers, though some of them, including Huldreich Zwingli, John Oecolampadius, Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon, had been among his fervent admirers. A long wrangle with J. Lefevre d’Etaples had shown him to be hypersensitive to criticism, and in 1523 a bitter polemic with Ulrich von Hutter resulted in Spongia Erasmi . . . adversus aspergines Hutteni (“Erasmus’ sponge against Hutten’s mire”), the least creditable of all his writings. Then, in 1524, Erasmus yielded at last to the prompting of his patrons and in great haste attacked Luther in De libero arbitrio. The work incensed his opponents without much satisfying his friends, and, though an able enough essay in Erasmian moderation, it exposed too his theological limitations. Luther’s reply, the De servo arbitrio (1525), violent and perverse, is in a more profound dimension. Erasmus worked off his resentment in the tiresome Hyperaspistes (1526), but he much improved a second edition which contains some of his finest mature utterances.

Last Years.

Though the triumph of the Reformation in Basel under Oecolampadius in 1529 was less violent than elsewhere, Erasmus with other humanists left and went to Freiburg in Breisgau. There he stayed until 1536 when, aging and unwell, he returned to Basel. Although an imperial councillor, who from the time of writing his Institutio principis Christiani (1516) had sought to advise the secular powers, he did not attend the Diet of Augsburg. But his interest in the peace of the empire and of the church brought from him in 1533 De amabili ecclesiae concordia, and among those who were trying to heal the breach there were moderate men who were his disciples. A new pope, Paul III, nominated him as dean of Deventer, and at last there was talk of a cardinal’s hat. But it was all too late in the day, for Erasmus had outlived his preoccupation with dignities, and turned instead to paraphrase a psalm for a humbler but loyal friend, Christopher Eschenfelder, the customs officer at Boppard, to set his affairs in order (he had sold his library in 1534 to the Polish nobleman Johannes a Lasco) and to prepare for an end which could not be far off. He died in Basel on July 12, 1536. That he died without the sacraments shocked Luther, but Boniface Amerbach, his heir, who was with him to the end, wrote of his death, “As was his life, so was the death of this most upright of men. Most holy was his living, most holy his dying.” Poignantly the last words of the great cosmopolitan, Lieve God (“Dear God”), were in Dutch.

Character and Teachings.

It is unlikely that Erasmus had any integrated, doctrinaire program of a Christian renaissance, and it is to read too much into the famous “I will put up with this Church until I shall see a better” to suppose that he had serious thoughts of a third church, neither Roman nor Protestant. Of his practical obedience to church authority there is no doubt, as he expressed it to Luther: “I always freely submit my judgment to the decisions of the Church whether I grasp or not the reasons which she prescribes.” Nor was he much preoccupied with Renaissance notions of human dignity or with the individual, but his deep concerns for freedom and peace, personal and temperamentally conditioned as they were, became ruling convictions about how human affairs should be ordered, not less significant because they ran counter to the stormy temper of the new age.

His satire, like that of other Catholic humanists, was directed especially at the religious orders and their theologians, at an element of legalism and superstition in contemporary religion which Gilbert Burnet later called “superannuated Judaism.” But these witty commentaries were perhaps a too acid ferment which bit corrosively, deepening the intense anticlericalism of the age.

His humour, easily mistaken for levity, and his love of Lucianic satire, gave his enemies a ground for asserting him to be more sceptical than he dared appear, and certainly some of the new radical notions put forward by C. Hoen, M. Servetus and L. Hetzer came from men who had studied his writings. His own stress on practical piety, on the “philosophy of Christ,” was an oversimplification which failed to comprehend the dogmatic theology of Augustine, of the schoolmen, even of Luther. Yet his distinction between matters central to the Christian religion and things peripheral, which influenced the emperor Charles V and his advisers, was fruitful in a later age, not least in the tradition of Richard Hooker and of William Chillingworth. It was not perhaps lack of energy alone which prevented him from mastering Hebrew, but that he was as instinctively repelled by it as he was drawn by Greek, and his general distaste for the Old Testament led him nearer than he knew to a gnosticism in which the moralists of the classical world supplied the place of the Old Testament.

Beatus Rhenanus has left a vivid portrait of him: “. . . his figure compact and elegant. His constitution was extremely delicate and easily affected by trifling changes, as of wine or food or climate . . . his complexion was fair, with hair that in his younger days had a touch of red, bluish grey eyes and a lively expression of face.” The paintings by Metsys, Holbein and Durer bring vividly to mind the little Dutchman with the frosty twinkle in the clear eyes, the sensitive hands and fingers.

The range of Erasmus’ knowledge, his wit and style and his use of Greek brought him fame as a scholar. As an editor and expositor of classical texts and the writings of the Fathers he was surpassed perhaps by other humanists, by Budaeus, Lefevre d’Etaples and possibly Rhenanus, but none of them could have produced the later editions of Erasmus’ Adagio with its immense flair for wide-ranging, apposite allusions. Nor could they have achieved the attractive satire of the Praise of Folly and the Colloquies. In his combination of textual criticism and a theology based directly on the New Testament rather than on the categories of the systematic theologians, he has some claim to be regarded as the first modern New Testament scholar, and in this lies his importance as a theologian, scholar and divine.

As a scholar he had obvious limitations. He was bred in the rhetorical tradition of literary humanism, which had little care for the artistic achievements or the scientific premonitions of the age. His imagination could run away with him, well out of sight of facts, and the editions of his letters with more than half the dates misplaced show how far removed he was from modern views of exact scholarship.

But if he could be hasty and slipshod, if like Luther he wrote too much and too fast, it was because he, also like Luther, wrote to the new, speedier rhythm of the age of printing. The older humanism was always in peril of dilettantism, a study for study’s sake which handed round manuscripts and gossiped learnedly about them within a closed circle. Erasmus knew it was important to get the books out into the world, to make the humanist tools available for the new widening audience of lettered laymen.

His limitations of character, too, are evident. Finicky, peevish, spiteful, in his early years sycophantic to a nauseating degree, almost pathologically thin skinned, he was saved by his humour from pomposity and from undue preoccupation with the impor­tance of being Erasmus. But the judgment of P. S. Allen remains true: Erasmus was truly great, and the clue to his greatness lay in the combination of brilliant intellectual gifts with absolute sin­cerity and enduring purpose.

The many sided character of his influence is the best testimony to the reality of Erasmian moderation. In England Robert Barnes and Thomas Bilney among the first Reformers, and their opponents Stephen Gardiner and Sir Thomas More, were among his disciples. He was the friend of Bucer and Melanchthon, and the teacher of the mediating Catholic theologians A. Pighius and J. Gropper in their endeavours to bridge the gulf, before the Council of Trent. He had enemies among the Protestants, and among them must be counted Luther. But he had always Catholic opponents in the Low Countries, Spain and Rome, who after his death placed his works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Yet he had real influence in Catholic piety, especially in Italy and Spain.
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