Desiderius Erasmus Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Desiderius Erasmus 1469?-1536

(Born Geert Geerts; also known as Gerhard Gerhards; adopted name Desiderius Erasmus Rotterdammensis; also known as Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus) Dutch essayist, grammarian, satirist, and theologian.

The following entry presents recent criticism on Erasmus.

The leading figure in northern humanism, Erasmus is recognized as one of the greatest intellectuals of the sixteenth century. He left behind a large and wide-ranging body of work; however, his greatest contribution to literature is not a particular text but a way of thinking about texts that literally changed the Western world. Viewing religion as a matter of morality and piety rather than of ceremony and doctrine, Erasmus attempted to syncretize the secular, critical, and rational nature of classical antiquity with devout religiosity. His ideas on religious reform brought him into contact—and eventually open conflict—with Martin Luther, placing him in the center of the Protestant Reformation. His love of both classical and scriptural study, his consistent efforts toward conciliation and peace, and his dedication to sharing the wealth of his learning through education are at the center of his substantial legacy.

Biographical Information

Erasmus's illustrious reputation after his death stands in marked contrast to the obscurity of his birth. Erasmus himself wrote in his autobiography that he was born the illegitimate son of lovers, Gerard and Margaret, who were not allowed to marry. Gerard eventually entered the priesthood. Erasmus later maintained his birthday was October 27, 1466—prior to his father's ordination, implying that he was not the son of an ordained priest and, therefore, not the product of incest in the eyes of the Church. Other accounts give Margaret the role of the mistress to a priest in Gouda—perhaps named Gerald or Roger—with whom she lived openly in the rectory, bearing him two sons, Peter first, then Erasmus in 1467. Still others date Erasmus's birth in 1469. (The church restrictions on priests of illegitimate birth were eventually waived for Erasmus through the influence of a contact with Pope Julius II in 1506.) Erasmus and his brother went to school in Gouda, and then to the Cathedral School of St. Lebwin in Deventer, under the auspices of the Brethren of the Common Life. Erasmus stayed at Deventer until he was eighteen, gaining a reputation as a scholar and studying poetry and literature under the humanists Alexander Hegius and Rudolf Agricola. Deventer played a crucial role in Erasmus's intellectual formation, putting him in contact not only with the wave of Renaissance humanism coming from Italy but also with the spiritual movement termed devotio moderna, characterized in Thomas á Kempis's work Imitation of Christ (1425).

Erasmus's mother died of the plague in 1484, as did his father soon afterwards. His father had appointed three men to be the guardians of Erasmus and his brother; they placed the boys in another Brethren's school at Hertogenbosch, by all accounts a nonintellectual place where the brothers regularly beat their students. The Brethren were enthusiastic in inviting Erasmus to join their order, and he acceded, though with great reluctance. He entered the monastery at Steyne around 1487 and was ordained in 1492. The strict asceticism of monastery life did not suit Erasmus well—though he began work on an essay praising monastic life, De contemptu mundi (1519; On Contempt of the World)—and he seized every opportunity to be free of it. Shortly after his ordination he became the Latin secretary for the bishop of Cambrai, and the larger society he enjoyed with that post soon helped him to another position more to his liking, as a theology student at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was disappointed with the medieval approach to learning he encountered and left the college in 1496 without having obtained his doctorate, but the experience nonetheless proved fruitful. While supporting himself as a tutor, he developed several of the influential pedagogical works that he would later publish to great acclaim, including De duplici copia verborum (1512; On Abundance of Words and Ideas), De ratione studii (1511; On the Method of Study), Familiorum Colloquiorum Formulae, (1519; Familiar Discourses or Colloquies), and Libellus de conscribendis epistolis (1522; On Writing Letters).

In 1499 one of his English students, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited Erasmus to England, which resulted in an ongoing exchange between Erasmus and the English literary culture that would transform each party. Among those Englishmen with whom Erasmus associated were the humanists Thomas Grey, John Colet, and Thomas More; the last would become one of his closest friends, a frequent correspondent, and the dedicatee for his masterwork Moriae encomium (1511; Praise of Folly). He also courted the patronage of major church figures, including Richard Foxe and William Warham. It was a unique opportunity for intellectual growth unhindered by either the dogmatism of his monastic order or the cares of poverty. After his return to Paris in 1500, however, Erasmus no longer enjoyed such freedom. He rushed the publication of his first book, the Adagiorum collectanea (1500; Collection of Adages), in order to support himself. The Adages became popular throughout Europe, promoting both the value of humanist learning and the reputation of Erasmus. He began traveling again, relieving his recurring poverty through the occasional discovery of a new patron, and pursued his increasing interest in religion and church history. In 1503 he published Enchiridion militis christiani (The Handbook of the Christian Soldier), a reflection of his debt to his studies with Colet in England as well as Erasmus's own theological emphasis on simplicity and morality. After some time in Holland and England, he went in 1506 to the Italian University of Turin, where he earned a master's and doctoral degree in divinity. He stayed in Italy until 1509, enjoying previously unknown access to the works of Plato, Plutarch, Homer, and other classical masters—allowing him to expand the Adages for a 1508 edition. In 1509 Erasmus returned to England at Mountjoy's request. While there he wrote the Praise of Folly, lectured at Cambridge, and completed some of the pedagogical works he had begun at the Sorbonne. He also worked on his Latin translation of the Greek New Testament. When he published it in 1516 as the Novum instrumentum he was perhaps the best-known scholar in Europe, both as a classical humanist and as a biblical scholar.

The Novum instrumentum and the philosophy behind it eventually led to conflict and controversy for Erasmus. Erasmus's philological approach to the Bible and his emphasis on individual spirituality would ally him, however briefly, with the most powerful voices of what became the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and his followers used Erasmus's writings to advocate reform of the Church, and Luther himself contacted Erasmus in 1519 to ask for his support. Erasmus, by then a devout pacifist, hoped to stay out of the conflict, but his attempt to find a middle ground—reforming the Church without creating factions and schism—failed. Forced to choose sides, Erasmus eventually denounced Luther in De libero arbitrio, Diatribe seu collatio (1524; Discourse on Free Will), but his support of the “new learning” in such works as Antibarbari (1520; Against the Barbarians) kept him from allying fully with the conservative elements of the Church. In 1529 he left Basel, Switzerland, where he had lived for eight years, and moved to Freiburg, Germany, to distance himself from the increasing hostilities. Throughout this time he wrote for peace and reconciliation, in addition to his work on a treatise on the art of preaching, his Ecclesiastes, sive De ratione concionandi (1535). The urgings of friends in Basel and his desire to publish his manual on preaching drove him to return to Basel in May 1536. He died July 12, while living at the home of publisher Jerome Froben. He was buried at the cathedral in Basel, having remained a loyal supporter of the Catholic church to the end; he was nonetheless declared a heretic at the 1559 Council of Trent.

Major Works

If Erasmus's influence in Western culture extends well beyond his written corpus, particular works nonetheless stand out as essential to his enduring reputation. Chief among these is the Praise of Folly, a mock oration in praise of foolishness, delivered by the feminine figure Folly. At one level the work is a celebration of the art and power of rhetoric—of which Erasmus was a master—applying the highest arts of persuasion to one of the lowest sorts of subjects. But the Praise of Folly is also a work of social criticism, addressing general social ills such as pride, greed, and excessive ambition. While it covertly critiques specific instances of corruption and abuse within the Church, the playful and ironic nature of the text, with its highly suspect narrator, protected Erasmus from any serious charges of attacking the Church. The work's use of humor also reflects Erasmus's consistent unwillingness to attack or join a conflict. Known as a pacifist, he preferred to use his words to encourage and to teach playfully. A prominent theme of the Praise of Folly is that of right Christian living, challenging the so-called learned to recognize that God's plan for the redemption of humankind confounds the wisdom of the world. This challenge makes notions of foolishness and wisdom ambiguous, creating a paradox that lies at the heart of work and contributes to its lasting interest. The rhetorical skills displayed in the Praise of Folly are echoed in the several pedagogical and grammatical works Erasmus published in his lifetime. Though these works are not widely read by any other than serious scholars of humanism, their influence is considerable. The Adages, his collection of Latin and Greek proverbs, enjoyed a tremendous popularity into the eighteenth century. Similar collections of classical wisdom include the 1514 Parabolae and the 1531 Apophthegmata. Works including the 1512 De copia verborum and De civilitate morum puerilium (1530; On Manners for Children) became a part of humanist schooling throughout Europe. Among his religious writings, the early work Enchiridion (1503) is a critical text that outlines Erasmus's philological approach to scripture—one that would be manifest in his later translations—and that introduces his philosophia Christi, a view of Christianity emphasizing simplicity and individual piety.

Critical Reception

Even during his withdrawal from conflict in the later years of his life, Erasmus maintained a reputation as one of the leading minds of Europe, a reputation that was not substantially changed by the posthumous charge of heresy. In her study of the continuing influence of Erasmus, Erika Rummel observes that the popularity of Erasmus as an author and thinker of interest has continued unabated. If specific aspects of Erasmus's thought, she suggests, are no longer in mainstream use—his rhetorical style, his emphasis on teaching with the classics, his theology—his works continue to be read and admired widely. In his study of neoclassical rhetoric, Brian Vickers counters that the Erasmian ideal of true rhetoric still has value and importance in modern oratory. The author's role in the Reformation and the difficult yoking of Christian values and humanist learning has long been a subject of study and debate. His insistence on finding positions outside of conflict has made him difficult to pin down. Although he was a leading Christian humanist, his approach to the seeming paradoxes of humanism sometimes differed from those of his peers. As Katy O'Brien Weintraub points out, while humanism is often associated with natural reason, Erasmus rejected this notion and took a more spiritual view of the source of classical wisdom. Since the mid-twentieth century critics have taken a greater interest in Erasmus's writings on sexuality and gender, another area in which the author's view is difficult to characterize. While scholars have long observed in Erasmus's works a sexism characteristic of his age, many have noted that his philosophy and theology tend to support the individual worth of women in the eyes of God. More recently, such critics as Barbara Correll have revisited Erasmus's writings about women to consider what they might reveal about cultural politics more generally. Similarly, while some biographers have questioned whether Erasmus was homosexual, based on apparently amatory letters to male friends, Forrest Stevens has turned from the question of Erasmus's own sexual preference to more broadly examine how his letters speak to the construction of gender and sexuality. If the school of thought once termed Erasmianism is no longer an identifiable, viable force in modern humanist culture, as Rummel proposes, the often-quoted assessment of his good friend Colet nonetheless continues to be apt: the “name of Erasmus shall never perish.”