Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536): Background

I will discuss Erasmus in four parts, the first providing some background. The second contrasts his Christian religious views with those of mainstream Judaism. Given his pedagogical convictions, the third deals with his perception of the behaviour of Jews and his characterization of them. The fourth part deals with his views of the conduct of domestic, defence and foreign policy in comparison to the actions of one of his heroes, King David, and the role of humour in The Praise of Folly in criticizing politicians.

If Niccolò Machiavelli was the leading Renaissance political theorist of Southern Europe, Desiderius Erasmus earned a reputation as the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance. Erasmus and Machiavelli were born in the same year, 1469, though there is some debate about the birth date of Erasmus who was born in Rotterdam when Netherlands was still part of the Spanish Empire. When Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492 in Florence and Machiavelli was preparing to launch his career as a top civil servant, Erasmus was being ordained as a Catholic priest in the city of his birth.

Both Machiavelli and Erasmus were brilliant men and very well read in the classics, but Machiavelli was much more immersed in actual political life and was a realist. Erasmus, dedicated to accurate scholarship, read more broadly and, many would argue, more deeply. He was a humanist who railed against superstition and the elaborate and picayune deliberations of the scholastics. Erasmus was far more prolific than Machiavelli, but the writings of both were infused with irony, though only Erasmus wrote a complete satire, his most famous book, The Praise of Folly. Both men admired the oracular wit and wisdom in the Greek and Roman classics.

Irony infused the positions of each, both with respect to substance as well as the methods each adopted. For both, the Renaissance hero, the man of action, takes full responsibility for his actions. On the other hand, as commentators, as observers of the passing events, they both adopt ironic rhetorical styles, in part to avoid direct responsibility given the censorious character of the times. Content and form, philosophy and techne, logic and rhetoric, are at odds and help conceal the intention of the writer. This is accomplished by saying two totally contradictory things or asserting one thing firmly but meaning the other or arguing logically that opposites constitute a unity or driving a reader to despair through infinite regressions or circular arguments. Serious subjects carry the lightness of being while the comic always appears very weighty. In that way, the writer escapes moral responsibility at the same time as he holds up moral responsibility as the highest form of self-expression.

Though linked with Martin Luther and John Calvin as part of the Reformation in the Catholic Church, Erasmus never initiated a breakaway. He never lauded impetuosity or a resort to violence. Quite the reverse; he lived according to the doctrine of via media, the middle way, and stood for moderation in both thought and action. He was, like Machiavelli, very critical of mediaeval Aristotelian scholasticism. That posture became a central theme of his intellectual life when and after he studied at the University of Paris (1495-6).

How is that a realist like Machiavelli admired Moses, a Jew, but a humanist like Erasmus looked down upon Jews as a people and on their religion but admired King David? After all, Erasmus, like Machiavelli, as well as the vast majority of Jews, strongly held onto the concept of free will versus fate. John Calvin, in contrast, espoused a doctrine of predestination.  Erasmus’ treatise, A Diatribe on Free Will, (1524), was a direct attack against Martin Luther. Because of this debate, Richard Popkin in his authoritative study of the trajectory of scepticism (The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, 1960; 1979), found the roots of its modern expression in the stance Erasmus took against Luther as he demonstrated the impossibility of knowing both God and the world as a whole, a position with which Jews would agree.

As Popkin demonstrated so authoritatively, skeptical arguments were crucial in the attack against traditional scholastic conceptions of science. For sceptics, like Erasmus, attacked the dogmas at the base of scholasticism. As a result of his scepticism, an opening was provided for the development of the new scientific method applied to nature, history and politics. The principle of falsification united the development of objectivity in all disciplines.

Scepticism united Machiavelli and Erasmus. I wrote about Girolamo Savonarola in Florence. The latter had Sextus Empiricus translated into Latin, but not to defend but rather attack the vanity of pagan philosophy. However, Erasmus found in “pagan” writings the confirmation of prophecy; given pagan writings, Christianity authenticated their prophecy. On the other hand, Erasmus denounced the Church for fostering pagan practices. Erasmus depicted a possessed horde of true believers blowing horns and carrying a stag’s head on a spear into St. Paul’s Cathedral and up to the altar. Those Christian believers insisted it was a Christian rite, but Erasmus demonstrated that they could not establish its source in history.

Whatever their overlaps as Renaissance scholars, Erasmus was very unlike Machiavelli in his life style. Machiavelli never really left Florence and always remained preoccupied with its political life. Erasmus, on the other hand, became an independent itinerant scholar who moved and traveled throughout Europe – to France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Britain. Unlike Machiavelli, Erasmus was a Hebraist, but unlike Machiavelli’s mentor, Erasmus’ mastery of the language was limited. And he was often clear – he never loved the language.

Part of the insight into Erasmus requires understanding the education he received from the Devotia Moderna for 12 years at Deventer in The Netherlands and another school, Brethren of the Common Life. Thomas à Kempis also studied at Deventer. However, so did Martin Luther who studied under the Brethren at Magdeburg. John Calvin also spent four years in Paris in the Brethren dormitory of Montaigu.

The school at Deventer was founded a century earlier by the pietist Gerard Groote who was reborn in Christ and preached a life of simple devotion, though he never became a monk. The Brethren also preached a surrender of worldly goods and were universalist in their approach to teaching everyone. Erasmus took as his divine service both scholarship and education. Books and an extensive library were central in the schools of the Brethren. In a time of widespread ignorance and superstition, when even the higher clergy were ignorant of Latin and Greek let alone Hebrew, the Brethren, after the invention of the printing press, began to publish and distribute books on Christian subjects widely.

Further, the Brethren took in pupils who were homeless and friendless. One illustrious example was Erasmus who had become an orphan at an early age. The school employed intellectuals as teachers who were dedicated, not to disciplining the boys, but to winning their love and respect. Like Groote and his predecessor Saint Paul, Erasmus was an itinerant teacher who traveled throughout Europe.

For those interested in literature more than religion, Erasmus is known as a great satirist, but he came nowhere near Lucian of Samosata whom, with Thomas More, he translated from Greek. Lucian ridiculed superstition mercilessly and was completely sarcastic in his depictions of miracles and paranormal communication. His book, A True Story, is, in fact, a pioneering work in science fiction as well as a send up and mockery of writers of tales that had no credibility in fact whatsoever. This was also true of his volume, The Lover of Lies. It seems clear that Lucian had an enormous influence on both the style and substance of Erasmus as well as Thomas More’s Utopia and, later, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

 Two years before Machiavelli wrote his first draft of The Prince (1511), The Praise of Folly was published in 1509. This showed the direct influence of Saint Jerome (347-420). The latter was responsible for translating the Bible, known as the Vulgate, into Latin, and that he eventually corrected. Erasmus published a Critical Greek New Testament (1514) that challenged the accuracy of the Vulgate and Augustine’s version of grace that bracketed free choice.

Jerome was a convert and an ascetic influenced by his friendship with converted Jews in Antioch who taught him Hebrew, and the widespread belief at the time that Hebrew was the original language from which all other languages sprang. He also translated The Gospel of the Hebrews. Ironically, Jerome, who is often regarded as an early antisemite, was criticized for undermining the sacred traditions of the Christian Church and being influenced by the Jews. After all, he had studied with Jews in Palestine, learned to translate text, utilize various methods of exegesis and became acquainted with Midrash or Jewish traditions and tales, which he unequivocally regarded as absurd. He was especially dismissive of the interpretive method that linked otherwise disconnected passages of text, and regarded much of Jewish interpretation as arbitrary and full of “ridiculous fables” and “cunning inventions,” though he himself frequently dabbled in allegorical and symbolic interpretations (a lamp means the law; a flame means the Messiah), but never the historical interpretation of Erasmus.

Erasmus also rooted interpretation in the careful study of language, even when at times his translations were faulty. This approach stood in stark contrast to that of the Louvain theologists, made up in good part of ex-pats from Oxford in flight from British Anglicanism. They were known for their divisive theological disputes rooted in the deep theoretical differences among the various colleges of Louvain before it became famous for its work on jurisprudence. In 1517, Erasmus took up residence at Louvain and initiated a new college distinct from the older ones, each of the latter with its own theological bias. The new college was rooted in the detailed study of ancient languages.
Further, Erasmus spent much of his itinerant life writing texts and developing curricula based on a deep appreciation of history and of classical texts, though he was totally frustrated by the scholarly resistance at Cambridge when he was there from 1511-1514. Nevertheless, interpreting the gospels from a historical perspective eventually revolutionized education in Europe. When Erasmus offered an amended translation of the Vulgate, he set off an intellectual firestorm.

The core of the humanities was always the study of the classical languages and its literature. For Erasmus, the study of classical culture was critical to the character of a Christian society. The absence of this knowledge, for him, was the source of the most important misinterpretations of Christianity. Rooted in history, Christianity becomes a way of life, a life of ethical commitment rather than a set of dogmas. In that sense, this view was close to Judaism which prioritized behaviour even while Erasmus remained virulently critical of Jewish behaviour both in a religious and a secular context. For piety was demonstrated by conversion of the heart, not outward ceremonies. That would in men with a very different temperament lead to Protestantism, but Erasmus never forsook the Catholic Church.

His mission was to reconcile Greco-Roman culture with Christian belief and practices. Hence the Enchiridion in 1504, the Annotationes in Novum Testamentum in 1505, his writings with Thomas More in 1506 where the audacity of both men became totally clear, his Adages in 1508 condensing the wisdom and nobility of the ancient world, and his most famous work, The Praise of Folly, a draft of which he carried with him when he returned to England in 1509. With its publication, he became the most celebrated author in Europe. Nevertheless, his efforts at reconciliation ultimately failed.

The Praise of Folly indicted the corruption of the Papal court in Rome, the sanctimoniousness and irresponsibility of the prelates and the ruthless ambitions of the various popes. But what does it tell us about Erasmus’ view of Jews and, most critical of all, Jewish beliefs in an age when relatively liberal humanism was caught between the fighting armies of Protestantism and Catholicism?

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman


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