Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536)
Bill Long 11/29/05
Leaves from His Early Life
Where does one put an essay on Erasmus on this web site? I don't know, so I am including him under the general category of "reviews." I picked up Erasmus last night after a 20-year hiatus because a seminary student friend told me she had been assigned his humorous Julius Excluded from Heaven (1514) for class. That text is a purported colloquy between the warrior Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and St. Peter after the former has died and seeks admittance into heaven. When Peter doesn't recognize him and forbids his entrance, Julius threatens him with the armies which he had used to reclaim much of Italy for the Papal States. It is a amusing skewering of the papacy. His earlier work, The Praise of Folly, exposing the follies of the church, is made more hilarious by the Catholic Encyclopedia's calling it "a deadly poison."
In any case, Erasmus is usually studied today by people interested in one of three things: Northern Renaissance Humanism, his relationship with Luther and the Reformation, and his text critical work on the Greek New Testament. When studied from these perspectives Erasmus is generally perceived as a "mediating" type of person--one who mediated between the classical and Christian worlds and between nascent Protestantism and traditional Catholicism. In this essay I would like to look at the first three decades of his life (and not his "mature" scholarly work) and focus especially on a point infrequently noted, that Erasmus' most significant shaping experiences were outside of the institutions in which he spent many years. In fact, he criticized the institutions, religous and educational, in which he spent his formative years, but derived his program for humanistic education from from different sources dreamed up by his fertile mind.
Aspects of a Biography
If I were to write a biography of the early days of Erasmus (until about 1505 or 1506, when he first went to Italy), I would emphasize the following items before deciding how each shaped him: (1) his illegitimate birth to a priest (or priest in training) and the daughter of a physician; (2) his parents' death in 1483, when Erasmus was 14, of the plague; (3) his early education (from about ages 7-13) with the Brethren of the Common Life in Deventer; (4) the five or six years after his parents' death in an Augustinian monastery; (5) his education in the 1490s at the University of Paris; (6) his trip to England in 1499-1500 where he heard John Colet lecturing on St. Paul at Oxford and spoke with him at length on a humanitic reading of the Bible; and (7) his publication of the Adagia (or Adages) in 1500, which consisted of more than 800 quotations or maxims derived from Greek and Latin sources, with information about their origin and meaning. By 1521 the collection had grown to more than 3,400 maxims and the book had gone through an amazing 60 or so printings. By the time of his death, Erasmus had collected more than 4,500 maxims.
Before I go on, it might be nice to list a few of these maxims, which can be gleaned from various sources on the Net. The most recent English edition is edited by Margaret Mann Phillips in 1964.
1) "In regione caecorum, rex est luscus." "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."
2) "He's fighting his own shadow."
3) "He has one foot in the grave."
4) "Call a spade a spade."
5) "As many men, as many minds."
6) "To chomp at the bit."
7) "To leave no stone unturned."
8) "Where there is smoke there is fire."
9) "Many hands make light work."
10) "To mix fire and water."
11) "To start from scratch."
12) "A cough for a fart [i.e., to cover up an error]
13) "A flash in the pan."
14) "No sooner said than done."
15) "Shadow not substance."
16) "Eyes in the back of his head."
17) "Stem and stern"
18) "Neither with bad things nor without them" (i.e., the way many men speak about women: 'Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.]
20) "Crocodile Tears."
21) "A necessary evil"
22) "There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip."
23) "One swallow doesn't make a summer."
24) "His heart fell into his boots"
25) "A rare bird."
26) "The mills of the gods grind slowly."
27) "The grass is greener in the next field."
28) "The cart before the horse."
29) "God helps those who help themselves."
30) "I'll sleep on it."
That is enough for now, or this essay will turn into nothing but a listing of maxims...
Erasmus' Antipathy Towards Institutions
The point that was impressive to me about studying Erasmus' early life is that though he spent many years in three significant institutions (the Brethren of the Common Life school in Deventer, from ages 8-13; the Augustinian monastery from about ages 16-22 and the University of Paris in the mid-1590s), he seems to have developed an emotional distance from all institutions and relied on himself to integrate his learnings culled from a number of sources. This is not to say that certain institutions didn't influence him. Indeed, it is easy to believe that the humanistic spirit pervading the Brethren of the Common Life school shaped Erasmus' interest in the subject. But as he recalled that school later in life, all he would mention was the disciplinary focus--to try to "break the will" of the boys.
Again, all he seemed to recall from his experience in the monastery was the undisciplined life and moral laxity of the monks. Finally, his experience at the University of Paris forever turned him against medieval scholasticism--that system of thought that sought to define terms, argue propositions and come to truth through discussion and debate from first principles. When Erasmus looked back at the first 25 or so years of his life, then, it is the institutions which were supposed to shape him that came in for harshest criticism.
But what he was able to do was to forge his own educational method which was partially derived from what he heard with the Brethren, from conversations with Colet in Oxford and from the freedom he had at the Augustinian monastery to search out classical texts to his heart's content. He never, however, wanted to take up a position at Oxford (even though Colet so encouraged him) or other institutions throughout Europe, believing that his independence and insights could best be discovered and explored apart from those pressures. I wonder if his "illegitimacy" and his losing both his parents before his 15th birthday had something to do with his sense of the instability of human institutions or, at least, their irrelevance for him. If those who were most dear to you were taken away, perhaps you feel you have to develop your own approach to things on your own.
After his talks with Colet in 1500, however, his life's work was pretty much set out for him. He already had his classical training and knew he would be a humanist; i.e., he would comb the classics for insights into living. After meeting Colet, he knew he would have to learn Greek and do the same kind of close reading of the New Testament in its original. The only part of his creative ouevre which wasn't foreshadowed by 1500 were his parodies or comedies and theological controversies. Those would arise within the next 25 years. He only reluctantly entered into a theological dispute with Luther in the 1520s and always seemed much more at home with his classical texts and the New Testament than with theological disputation. The life of Erasmus is eloquent testimony to the limitations of institutions for a free-thinking person--both in his day and in ours.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long