Erasmus of Rotterdam - M. Wilkinson

Friends and Correspondents of Erasmus

Erasmus's early visit to Oxford, 1498, was of importance for the fact that, short though it was, in that town and in London he made his best friends, and acquired an impression which to some extent influenced his whole life. He was absorbing ideas amongst the choicest spirits of the day, a mode of life very different from his strenuous and troubled later years. It is far from clear who were present at the evening meals and discussions, which were presided over by Charnock, Prior of St. Mary's College, where Frewin Hall now stands; our information is confused and fragmentary. Colet and Grocyn were certainly present, More and Linacre perhaps, and Wolsey possibly. We have two specimens of these discussions. One was on the subject of Cain and Abel, and it treated in the new Platonic manner then in vogue at the Florentine Academy. As the discussion waxed warm, Erasmus told them a myth concerning the expulsion from Eden and a device of Cain to obtain good wheat-seed, which in Plato's style he asked them to accept as true. As an improvisation it is remarkable, and we find nothing else like it in any extant writings of Erasmus; at the same time it could hardly have been composed beforehand, for there seems no reason to suppose that Erasmus had any idea that the discussion would turn on Cain.

The other, a far more serious subject, was on the Agony in the Garden. This was disputed between Erasmus and Colet. Erasmus held the common view that it was the dread of the coming tortures which caused Our Lord's Agony; in the sense in which human nature would shrink from such a prospect, especially when the certainty of it was beyond a doubt. In all which individuals may dread, there is a possibility present to the mind, even if very improbable, that the worst may be averted; but Our Lord knew for certain all that was to happen. Colet, on the contrary, considered that it was the fate of the Jews caused by their rejection of Himself that was the primary cause of the Agony. Each maintained his opinion, but Erasmus was somewhat shaken in his certainty. It was at Oxford, too, that Erasmus first got the idea of the revived learning being used to aid Christian scholarship. It was Colet who first showed him how Greek could be put to other uses than the pure scholarship of which the early or Italian Renaissance alone took count. This influence may be easily traced in Erasmus's New Testament and his editions of the Fathers. His best editorial achievements are connected with those subjects, and not with the texts of the classics. His New Testament was a somewhat hurried piece of work, or was it based upon the best MSS., which even then were accessible; but it is remarkable for being the first Greek text which was widely diffused. Moreover, Erasmus, and with him Sadolet and Colet, attempted to give the actual meaning of the words in a philological sense rather than with a view to doctrinal or controversial purposes.

His New Testament would seem a very poor and inaccurate version to-day. Far more noteworthy are his editions of the Fathers. The text of St. Jerome had for some time been exercising men's minds; but it was not until Erasmus undertook it that a successful edition appeared. The texts of many other Fathers, Latin, such as St. Hilary, Augustine, and Ambrose, Greek such as St. Basil, Irenaeus, and Athanasius, were much improved by his criticisms and in his careful editions. Erasmus regarded the study of the Fathers as an absolute necessity; yet, as we have seen, he would not pin his faith to every statement of each and all, for some are contradictory, in the manner in which some divines were wont, he considered, to do. Furthermore, he did not hold St. Thomas in the contempt which was then general in the new world of learning. On the contrary, Erasmus saw that much had been most clearly and truly expounded by him, and that to have formed a consistent system and one capable of answering all difficulties was a great achievement, whatever might be thought of its power to convince. He actually aroused Colet's anger by praising the Aurea Catena, for the excellent dean had a positive hatred of the great Scholastic and his works—a proof how many a good man has been blinded by prejudice or dazzled by a new but not necessarily infallible light.

The Moriae Encomium, perhaps the most popular, and certainly the best known, of Erasmus's writings, was thrown off in a moment of exuberance of spirits, and the author would be surprised to know of the many editions, commentaries and explanatory works which have been written on the subject. It is genuinely humorous and delicate: the trenchant satire, devoid alike of brutality or coarseness, and without malice, render it very unlike other contemporaneous squibs. Leo X was vastly amused by it. As everyone knows, it satirized the scholastic divines and the mendicant orders, as well as the gross ignorance, even of Latin, which characterized some of the theologians. Secular courts do not escape either. It is difficult to regard it as an effort to turn the contemporary theology into ridicule: it attacked, not individuals as individuals, but types of mind, the blank obscurantism, and the attitude of those who refused to see in the revival of letters anything but evil. It was also in praise of More, and it is important to remember that there was no substantial difference between Erasmus's views in the Encomium  and those of More himself, as is very clearly apparent in the letter which Sir Thomas addressed to the University of Oxford. The appearance of Moriae Encomium  had dissipated the regard felt for Erasmus at the universities, more particularly at Oxford, and the outcry was loud and long.

Both universities forbade the students to buy or read any of Erasmus's works, not only the Encomium, and felt themselves confirmed in their belief that Greek learning was the mother of all mischief. Blessed Thomas More censured all this in his letter, which we have already noticed, by remarking that Greek needed no defence; that all the best works of philosophy and theology, including the New Testament, were written in Greek; and that, so far as philosophy was concerned, the Latins were insignificant. Nevertheless, the battle at Oxford between Greeks and Trojans, as they called themselves, probably because the upholders of Latin really believed that the Trojans were the ancestors of the Romans (Vergil in the Middle Ages was regarded as semi-inspired), continued to rage, and Oxford was, it seems, overwhelmingly Trojan in sympathies. Later, in reply to some young theologian, apparently a monk, who wrote attacking Erasmus and warning More against his friendship, he replied very sharply:

"Erasmus does not ridicule your ceremonies, but only the superstitious use of them. There is no fear of the devil getting hold of you if you merely alter your dress: fear rather to lie and commit crimes."

Sir Thomas went on with a concrete instance of crime and superstition, similar to those to which Erasmus alluded in his strictures on pilgrimages. It sounds wholly incredible and from any other source but More we should have great difficulty in believing it. As it is it goes a long way to justify the Moriae. In connection with the unfounded beliefs about the Trojans, we may notice Polydore Vergil, who settled in England and brought his Italian acuteness to bear on some points of our national history. It was he who first exploded the Brute myth and most of Geoffrey of Monmouth's tales and told the truth about Ste. Jeanne Darc. The Julius dialogues further excited the conservative spirits about Erasmus, more especially the famous or notorious Julius Exclusus, which was printed in Paris, and even put on the stage, where for political reasons it enjoyed a marked success. This was after Leo's accession, when peace was restored between France and the Papal States. Its point lies in a discussion—wrangle would be a better word—between Julius II and St. Peter over the Pope's claim to be admitted to heaven: St. Peter rejects him on the ground of his warlike habits and for other more discreditable reasons. Erasmus denied, at least implicitly, the authorship. It has been attributed, without much reason, to T. Andrelini, who had no motive whatever in not claiming to be the author. Certainly Erasmus did not, as a rule, write anonymously, and Leo himself regarded the authorship as unproved. Sir Thomas More accepted Erasmus' denial but thought that in any case, it did not matter much. Campeggio, on the other hand, had no doubt that Erasmus was responsible for it, and expostulated with him. His hatred of war and political intrigues and his dislike of a fighting Pope, which he regarded as unapostolic, to say the least, combined with the style of Latin employed, make the authorship of Erasmus very probable. Mr. Allen and the best modern authorities regard it as almost certain. There is no real harm in it, and it is quite in accordance with the political skits of the day. We should base our objections to it, and to most other contemporary politico-religious lampoons, not so much on the fact that a Pope was caricatured, but on the introduction of sacred matters into a squib which was merely intended to raise a laugh.

The Colloquies  owe their perennial interest to the graphic pictures which they give of the life and manners of the day, portraying the extreme ranges of which human interest is capable. They are entirely personal experiences, and are no doubt substantially accurate; but they were composed over a long period and were written up for publication from notes, or possibly from some sort of diary which Erasmus may have kept. The pictures deal with all countries except Spain, Portugal, and Scandinavia, and with all sorts of folks, from Cardinals and noblemen to innkeepers, condottieri and downright rogues. They are wholly free from the querulous tone which is sometimes to be found in Erasmus's correspondence, and show a whole-hearted sympathy with humanity under every shape and form. Some of his letters, and notably the familiar one which describes in tragi-comical style his journey and sufferings between Basel and Louvain, seem almost as if they were meant to have formed part of the Colloquies.

More controversial than the New Testament which was under the special patronage of the Pope were Erasmus's Paraphrases. These were finished and appeared 1524. These Paraphrases  were a sort of Latin commentary on the different books of the New Testament. They were very variously judged, but were received with enthusiasm by many of the clergy, and in particular made a good impression in England. The praise accorded to them later by Nicholas Udall, Katherine Parr, Edward, and Elizabeth does not tell much in their favour; but Cardinal Grimani, to whom the first paraphase, that of the Epistle to the Romans, was dedicated, was pleased, and it was at the request of Cardinal Schinner that Erasmus went on to the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Erasmus had many meetings with this famous diplomat; their esteem was mutual, and to him was dedicated the Paraphrase of St. James's Epistle. In the end only the Apocalypse was left untouched. The paraphrase of the Galatians was inscribed to Antoine de la Marck, abbot of Beaulieu Verdun. Almost alone of Erasmus's friends this prelate, both as a man and a priest, had a bad reputation. The Paraphrases  were wholly suited for the learned, but less so for the vulgar. At that time there was so much inflammable material lying about that works harmless, and even useful in themselves, were apt to set the whole of it ablaze, and people seemed to lose all sense and moderation when fired with a few texts of the Bible in their newer form.

Erasmus's varied talents and the many sides of his genius can, however, only be completely realized from his correspondence. There, far more than in his actual works, he is revealed to us. There is moderation and common sense, and dislike of violence in controversy, even with those with whom he is least in agreement; there are exceptions to this moderation, but only under circumstances of great annoyance. Some of his letters, more particularly those which were addressed to his influential patrons and to men whom he desired to enlist on his side, were doubtless conceived in a tone of exaggeration and flattery; we have already remarked instances which seem to contradict his love of plain speaking and independence of character. Such was the fashion of the day, and Erasmus, if intellectually in advance of his times, was not so with regard to the foibles and fashions. In most cases, too, this rather irritating style was the result of a real affection and respect for those to whom he was writing. The extraordinary diversity of his correspondents may be gathered from a short list of names. Popes and Cardinals, More, Fisher, Colet, Warham, Tunstall, the Elector of Mainz, the Prince of Carpi, the Duke in Saxony, and, on the other side, Hermann Von Weid, Archbishop and Elector of Cologne, afterwards a Lutheran, Luther himself, Melanchthon, Ulrich von Hutten, Capito, Oecolampadius, Zwingli, Myconius. To all these extraordinarily dissimilar persons, to mention no others, Erasmus wrote freely and without restraint. His correspondents, to many of whom he wrote very frequently, ran into hundreds if we argue from those letters the origin and destination of which are uncertain. All this, too, was quite apart from his editing and other literary work, and gives some idea of the energy which was contained in so frail a body. Death and his own failing powers reduced the number of his correspondents towards the end of his life, and he had dropped all connection with the reformers whose names we have just noticed. Melanchthon alone, who receded further and further from Erasmus's position, he continued to regard with esteem, much as he regretted his openly taking a part, and a leading part, in the schism, from which he in vain endeavoured to dissuade him. Erasmus's correspondence with Johann Caesarius in 1517 is interesting. He was writing of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum:

"The Epistles  greatly displease me. The wit might have amused me, only the precedent was likely to cause such scandal. A good jest is pleasing to me, but not ribaldry." ("Epistolae magnopere mihi displicebant. Delectare potuisset facecia nisi nimium offendisset exemplum. Mihi placent lusus sed citra cujusquam contumeliam.") 

He added that it was bad enough to be suspected of the authorship of Julius Exclusus, without being credited with that of the Epistolae. This Caesarius, who was a native of Julich, had migrated to Paris and was in many ways akin to Erasmus in spirit, and, in spite of being friendly up to a certain point with some of the reformers, like him, remained true to the Church.

We may now turn to a few other friends of Erasmus less famous than those whom we have come across, but still of interest as helping to illustrate Erasmus's nature.

To Martin Lypsius he wrote, 1518, to vindicate his New Testament from the attacks of Edward Lee, afterwards Archbishop of York, perhaps his most determined foe in England. Lypsius was one of Erasmus's most intimate friends. He was a native of Brussels, and a scholar and theologian of repute. He gave Erasmus very considerable help in the Basel edition of St. Augustine and St. Ambrose. He, too, was perfectly orthodox. Another much-favoured correspondent was Johann Turszo, a Hungarian, and Bishop of Breslau. He was a great patron of learning, if somewhat secularly minded for a bishop. Luther hoped to draw him to the side of reform, but, largely through the influence of Erasmus, he never went beyond an interest in classical learning.

With Johann Meyer (Eck) Erasmus's relations were not so good. Eck was in early days wholly on the progressive side, but after the actual outbreak of the Reformation he was the untiring opponent of Luther and others. Erasmus and Eck quarreled, but there was a reconciliation. With so much in common it seems as though they ought to have been in close sympathy; but Eck, whether as a partisan of reform or upholder of the past, was rather too violent for Erasmus's taste.

Johann Wildenauer of Eger was another who for a time was attracted to Luther, but he fiercely attacked the De Servo Arbitrio. He was an admirer and follower of Erasmus as a man and as a thinker.

A very different type of mind was Jonas Kock of Nordhausen (Justus Jonas), a humanist and ardent admirer of Erasmus, but the Wittenberg influence proved too strong. Erasmus in vain strove to hold him back, for they had a mutual affection, by direct appeal to his scholarship and by drawing a picture of the Church reformed in discipline—reform combined with orthodoxy. This was ever the ideal in the mind of Erasmus. Kock, however, married and definitely joined the Evangelical party and finally quarreled with and condemned Erasmus, 1527. This is a good instance of the tragical ending of several of Erasmus's early friendships through the diversity of religion. In every case the breach was made irreparable by his friend, and in no instance was it Erasmus's own act. Of course, the attack on Luther began from his side, but Luther was one of his minor correspondents and in no sense a friend.

A still more tragical end of another friend was that of Louis de Berquin. He was a brilliant scholar and was for long under the protection of Francis I, but he translated into French some of Luther; writings and the parlement  of Paris ordered his arrest. Besides that obvious offence he was accused of translating Erasmus's Querula Pacis, Encomium Matrimoniae, Inquisitio de Fide, and the Modus orandi Deum. These were condemned by the Sorbonne for reasons which are not apparent. Nothing could be less heretical than are these works of Erasmus. The doctors of the Sorbonne then and for long after had peculiarly acute scent for heresy. We can only guess that they had an especial antipathy to marriage, although it sacrament, and, as Frenchmen, a distaste for international peace. Be that as it may, Berquin escaped with difficulty, only to be arrested by the Bishop of Amiens, from whose custody he was released by Marguerite de Valois. Berquin then violently attacked the Sorbonne and all its works in a manner, this time, clearly heretical. In vain Erasmus, who was very fond of him, implored him to be more moderate. Finally, Berquin was rearrested and quickly burned in Paris.

There was also Jean de Pins, the anti-thesis of Berquin in character. He was a scholar of great charm, a diplomatist, and Bishop of Meaux, 1523. Wholly orthodox, Erasmus and Sadolet were among his best friends, and indeed three more pleasant people it is difficult to imagine.

Lastly, we will take Juan Vives. He was a brilliant Spanish scholar and wrote on a variety of subjects, religious, educational, political, and social. Perhaps, of all the intimate friends of Erasmus, he was the one who, after More and Fisher, was nearest the great scholar's heart. The two men of genius were alike protean in form, and Vives was also ardent in the cause of international peace—possibly the only man who in his heart agreed with Erasmus on that subject. Vives enjoyed great favour in England, where he was tutor to the Princess Mary. He fell into a disgrace, which was greatly to his credit, for his support of Katherine of Aragon, and had to leave England. He spent his later years at Bruges, where he was visited by St. Ignatius. Never a cloud dulled the friendship of Vives and Erasmus.

The acquaintance of Johann von Botzheim, 1525, of noble Alsatian birth, was made later in Erasmus's life. Owing to a great similarity of temperament, they became very close friends. Botzheim was a canon of Konstanz, and at the Reformation the chapter moved to Uberlingen. He often visited Erasmus at Freiburg, and died there. Both favoured reform in its earlier stages, both revolted from its subsequent iconoclasm and heresy, and both died out of favour with Catholic and Protestant alike.

The work of Erasmus is often said to have been wholly educational, and that his real desire was for edification and a wish to leave human society better. It would be truer to say that he desired society to be more intellectually honest; but it is doubtful to what extent Erasmus aimed at the improvement of the masses. A moralist he certainly was, though of a negative kind, and equally certainly one of the greatest popularizers of classical literature, whose effects were widespread and lasting. Amongst other things, he is responsible for the pronunciation of Greek which is still in use in this country. His system is doubtless wrong, but the effect has been lasting. He was singularly unattracted by art and the study of antiquity and philosophy, all of which occupied such a large place in the interests of the learned world. At the same time he had the most unbounded admiration for Leo X as the perfect type of Pontiff, his magnificence, kindness, learning, and humanity, his love of peace and of the arts—aims which cause no tears or unhappiness. Erasmus placed him as high above his predecessors as St. Peter's throne is above earthly thrones. Erasmus was thinking not of St. Gregory or earlier Popes but literally of Leo's predecessors, and he was right. It was a true historical judgment, not the device of the flatterer or politician. Politician Erasmus never was; he could not, of course, have understood the word in our sense.

Erasmus had a curious dualism in his nature: a love of the Renaissance in its softer side, a delight in the refinements and comforts of life, and even its artificialities, combined with a love of truth and of practical morality, and over all a scorn of mental laziness and ignorance. A strange dualism is likewise apparent in his religious and ecclesiastical outlook. In his desire to get back to the Fathers and early Councils, in his eagerness to popularize the New Testament, and in his ridicule of much that was associated with pilgrimages and relics, he seems to stand, if not for Protestantism, at least for reform of a very marked kind; but we must do him no injustice. In these matters, as we have seen, he differed but little from the holiest and most orthodox of men. Ignorance was dense, morality was at a low ebb, abuses and corruption were rife, and so long as they dabbled not in heresy he was with the party of reform. An almost Voltairean delight in ridicule caused the offence which many of his writings and letters gave, and his prejudice against the scholastics and his contempt for most of the theology of his day combined to give an almost Protestant aspect to his work. In spite of all this he retained a real reverence for authority. He distinguished very clearly between the authority of Popes (and bishops) and the self-made infallibility which characterised the attitude towards himself of some doctors of theology and of some of the orders. In other words, when the Church spoke in matters of faith he submitted, but in points of scholarship he would admit no superiority of theologians over himself.

Possibly a somewhat proud attitude—and our scholar was not famed for humility—but honest and justified in fact. Erasmus, in scholarship and learning, was a head and shoulders over his enemies, whether of Oxford, Paris, or Louvain. He would take no part in spreading heresy, although in a sense he gave it an intellectual basis, and broke with all his acquaintances who definitely threw in their lot with Luther or other reformers. One of Erasmus's great aims was the reconciliation of Catholicism and antiquity. In spite of his neo-Platonism and Florentine learning had been his direct inspiration—his interest in religion was far more real than in philosophy. Keenly alive to the pharisaism of the day, rightly or wrongly he regarded the Christian religion as in danger of being reduced overmuch to the observance of rites and formulae, and thought that this detracted from the devotion which was due to Our Lord. In some respects in the freedom of his criticism of Scripture, notably in the doubts he expressed as to St. Paul's authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews and as to the identity of the St. John of the Apocalypse with the Evangelist, he went far beyond the reformers, but not beyond some writers of the Early Church. He, however, never persisted in any rash views; as M. Denis well says: "His feeling was less bold than his brain." ("Chez lui le coeur etait moins audacieux que la pensee.")

At one time the arbiter of cultivated Europe, he felt all the bitterness of failure when hostility enveloped him on every side. He was mistaken in looking for a period of light and peace, for a world freed from hatred and barren disputes, and the state of Europe, after 1520, was the measure of his disappointment; but the mistake does not detract from his credit, though his optimism, like that of many a good man, was unwarranted. Reasonableness and light, though not exactly in the sense of Matthew Arnold, were what he greatly desired, and it seemed to him incredible that, in a world so full of interest and delight, people should engage in barren disputes and futile strife.

This attitude was the cause of his antagonism to Luther, whom he felt to be an ignorant barbarian; of his quarrel with Hutten, whom he really liked, but whom he knew to be a firebrand, whilst the reasonableness of Melanchthon prevented any serious differences. Above all, let us remember that Erasmus was intensely human. He lived as a good Catholic, from feeling the innate reasonableness of the position of the Church. Intense convictions, in the Protestant sense, he never felt, and he was wholly unaffected by the logic which gave their strength to some of the new-fangled systems. Erasmus was enormously influenced by those of whom he was fond, and personal affection had more to do with his ultimate beliefs than any process of reason. Newman indeed wrote:

"The heart is commonly not reached through the reason, but through the imagination by means of direct impressions. Persons influence us, voices melt us, deeds inflame us. We are not converted by syllogisms."

His affection for Blessed Thomas More and Blessed John Fisher, for Warham and Colet, his admiration for their learning and the effect of the martyrdom of the first two had as much as anything to do with his rejection of the new religion and his adherence to Catholicism, whilst the rebellion of several for whom he had real affection against the Church, caused him real grief and increased his dislike of the Reformation.

Not many years ago we should have said that the Erasmian spirit, rejected in the early sixteenth century, had returned to bring reasonableness amongst men; but at the present moment we are conscious of distinct reaction. As at the close of Erasmus's life, those who counsel peace, reasonableness, and moderation obtain a poor hearing: Amongst those who hated peace I was pacific. When I spoke to them about it they attacked me without provocation. ("Cum his qui oderunt pacem eram pacificus, cum loquebar illis impugnabant me gratis.")

After all, Erasmus and those like him will never be exactly popular, though commanding genius will always make its influence felt; the Luthers, men not necessarily base but stupid, who shout, "Cursed be concord! Down with it to the bottomless pit!" will always be more loudly cheered.