Desiderius Erasmus: A Brief Biographical Sketch

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Desiderius Erasmus is one of the most influential Catholic theologians in the entire history of the faith. He is remembered not only as a prominent member of the Church but also as a great Humanist. He took a middle path approach to resolving conflicts between religion and rationalism. He was despised by both sides for his preference for compromise over conflict. But his positions and views were based on pragmatism and not cowardice. The proper way, for Erasmus, was to never resort to fanaticism even if one is right. He understood well the nature of evil and he too hoped to see truth replace error and right triumph over wrong. But

“he showed discretion in his choice of tactics. If you wish to bring about peacefully true and lasting reforms, you do not, like the fanatics, indiscriminately attack not only the ideas you oppose but also the honesty, integrity, and sincerity of those who hold them. If you wish to convince a person he should change his ways, for instance, you do not hit him on the head with a bat.” (Thornton, 2005)

Even though Erasmus’ reputation was somewhat diminished by his pragmatist attitudes his legacy is growing in retrospect. This is in large part due to the growing popularity and interpretive richness of some of his books. These famous books include Handbook of a Christian Knight, On Civility in Children, The Praise of Folly, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, On Free Will, Julius Exclusus, etc. As this partial list of his oeuvre illustrates, Erasmus was a true polymath. His body of work is informed but not limited by the spirit of Christianity. For instance, nowhere else is this best exemplified than in his Colloquies, which is full of “nonchalant erudition, eloquence and profundity. Almost nothing, from war and peace to alchemy and salt herring, falls outside his purview. It is a treasure house of theological wisdom dressed in the finest verbal ornament of the age.” (Bauman, 1999, p. 536) In this sense, he truly remains a luminous pioneer of Humanism.

Although Erasmus was a contemporary of Martin Luther they disagreed on several critical issues. Despite the comprehensive and persuasive arguments that Luther presented in his Ninety-Nine Thesis, Erasmus was not easily willing to concede the moral failings of the then existing Roman Catholic order. Conservative in nature and skeptical of the emotional appeal of radical revolution, Erasmus was to remain indifferent to Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation that was beginning to spread across Europe. Instead Erasmus preferred slow and gradual reform in the Church without dismantling its power structure. To Erasmus, religion meant “purity and justice and mercy, with the keeping of moral commandments, and to him these Graces were not the privilege of any particular creed.” (Thornton, 2005) In hindsight, some of his apprehensions about the Protestant Reformation were proved correct when several European societies fell into disorder. Some of the most glaring collapses of social cohesion was the German Peasants’ War and the Anabaptist disturbances. Soon what began as rebellions within the Church would snowball into a class conflict.

Desiderius Erasmus created controversy through his refusal to discard certain primitive Christian doctrines. The idea of ‘free will’ is one which he held on to even as his contemporaries both within and without the faith was moving toward accepting the doctrine of ‘predestination’. Although the Catholic Church itself had at times viewed Erasmus with suspicion and blamed him for the growth of Protestant faction, he was at heart and deed a man of religious toleration. (Olin, 1979) This is best exemplified in his work De Libero Arbitrio. Though meant to be a polemic to Martin Luther’s dominant views the tone and temperament of his arguments and language were admirable. It illustrated Erasmus’s belief that even disputes of faith should be conducted in an orderly, respectful and courtly manner. Erasmus declared that “courtesy rather than invective is a better way to win over an opponent. He who accuses another of heresy ought to exhibit charity in admonition, kindness in correcting, candor in judging, latitude in pronouncing. Why do we prefer to conquer rather than to cure?” (Thornton, 2005) The bipartisan intellectualism of Erasmus is also evident in the fact that “the exegetical methods, philosophical concepts, and theological doctrines by him and Martin Luther creatively synthesized characteristics of bodi scholasticism and humanism.” (Brashler, 2009) Erasmus also promoted the study of classical Latin and Greek for being able to comprehend, interpret and comment on religious texts.

Works Cited

Bauman, Michael. “Colloquies: The Collected Works of Erasmus.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society3 (1999): 536.
Brashler, James. “From Erasmus to Calvin: Exploring the Roots of Reformed Hermeneutics.” Interpretation2 (2009): 154+.
Olin, John C., and Desiderius Erasmus. Six Essays on Erasmus and a Translation of Erasmus’ Letter to Carondelet, 1523. New York: Fordham UP, 1979.
Thornton, Robert M. “Erasmus.” Modern AgeFall 2005: 367+.

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