Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Erasmus: One of Europe's Greatest Thinkers


Portrait of Erasmus

Jesse Butterworth, Grade 8

Desiderius Erasmus was born on October 27, 1469 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His father, Roger Gerard, was a priest and his mother, Margaret, was the daughter of a physician. He was christened with the name Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus of Rotterdam was a famous and influential scholar, and one of Europe's greatest thinkers. Erasmus was the main figure of the early Christian humanist movement. Much of his life's work went into improving the understanding and translations of Biblical and early Christian texts.

During the Renaissance, humanism took various expressions. Some deeply religious humanists, such as Erasmus, stressed the dignity of man and both heavenly and earthly rewards. Other humanists were scoffers of religion who resisted Church authority. Erasmus was unusual in that he opposed corruption in the Church and yet stayed loyal to Catholicism.

Erasmus rose to be a leading intellectual figure of the early Northern Renaissance. His sayings became famous. "The Adages of Erasmus" is a compendium of wisdom sayings. Niccolo Sagundino wrote about the Adages:
“I can hardly say what a sweet nectar as honey I sip from your delightful Adages, rich source of nectar as they are. What lovely flowers of every mind I gather thence like a honey-bee….to their perusal I have devoted two hours a day.”
Erasmus read and wrote in Dutch, German, English, classical Greek, and Latin. He used his ability for language to advance education. Erasmus wrote books of spiritual counsel in Latin. Several were translated and reprinted in other languages.

Erasmus's interpretation guides that appeared as prefaces to the 1516 and 1518 editions of the New Testament are his most significant contribution to the Church. His translation of the New Testament in Greek clarified the meaning of many texts.

Erasmus was a man of action and a moderate temperament. He said, "If you keep thinking about what you want to do or what you hope will happen, you don't do it, and it won't happen.” He also wrote, "There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”

Erasmus challenged Luther's doctrine of total depravity, saying that it robs humanity of the dignity that remains even after the Fall. That dignity comes from the image of God (Imago Dei) that cannot be completely erased from human nature.

While Luther's theology started with the depravity of man, Erasmus started with the goodness of the teacher and the student, making Christ’s teachings the objective of all learning. Luther held that since the Fall of Adam and Eve man’s will is not free to choose or even desire God, and that we lost our humanity. Luther believed that it is only through Christ that people regain their full humanity and he thought that Erasmus made too little of this point. Luther wrote, “I am afraid, however, that he [Erasmus] does not advance the cause of Christ and the grace of God sufficiently.... Human things weight more with him than the divine.”

For Erasmus, the Bible and the many aspects of Classical culture were necessary for a person to be educated or refined. This is reflected in Erasmus’ definition of education: "The task of fashioning the young is made up of many parts, the first and consequently the most important part of which consists of implanting the seeds of piety in the tender heart; the second in instilling a love for, and thorough knowledge of, the liberal arts; the third in giving instructions in the duties of life; the fourth in training in good manners right from the very earliest years.”

Erasmus believed that classical antiquity showed the best method for teaching. He wrote, “I would not want you to imbibe pagan morals together with pagan writings. On the other hand, you will find many things there which are conducive to a holy life, and the good precepts of a pagan author should not be rejected...”

To Erasmus, “a man without education has no humanity at all; that man’s life is a fleeting thing; that youth is an easy prey to sin; that adulthood is afflicted with numerous cares; and that old age, which few are permitted to reach, is barren and sterile...”

He believed that teachers cultivate the soil in which the seeds for a good life are sown by nature. He wrote: “The seeds that nature has implanted in us to attain this goal are bursting with life; the only thing that is required, in addition to this natural inclination, is the effort of a dedicated teacher.”



Erasmus died on July 12, 1536 in Basel, Switzerland. He was buried at the Basel M√ľnster Cathedral.

Related reading: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus; Erasmus: A Moderate Voice in a Turbulent Time

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