The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 27 The Reformation’s One Good Man: Erasmus of Rotterdam

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The Reformation’s One Good Man: Erasmus of Rotterdam

For half a millennium (in spite of all the towering thinkers who have come since and all the ones we’re furiously brewing today), when we talk about the humanist, we all picture the same guy: Erasmus of Rotterdam, the man whose arguments for basic decency, thorough scholarship, and general affability tragically sparked a cavalcade of bloodshed he would bitterly repudiate. Through his wit and discerning eye, the Renaissance became the Reformation, and two hundred years of steady progress gave way, inadvertently, to a hundred and fifty of sustained manic horror. Erasmus is proof that great ideas, be they ever so benignly stated and offered with the best of intentions, are rarely unaccompanied by profound grief.

ErasmusThe man who would become the most celebrated scholar of his age had perhaps the fifteenth century-est origin ever. He was the illegitimate son of a priest. His mother died of the plague. Upon the subsequent death of his father (probably also of the plague), he was thrust against his will into a monastery by his shameless guardians. The only thing missing is a subplot involving poisoning at the hands of an Italian named Niccolo Stabieri.

Erasmus later painted his time as a monk in the darkest colors, but in many ways it was the best place for him. There he had the leisure to cultivate his manifold classical geekeries, devouring Latin authors and developing his own immaculate prose style while forging gushing romantic friendships with his fellow monks. At the waning end of the Renaissance, monasteries were often little more than antiquity enthusiast clubs, a fact that infuriated the dour and joyless foot soldiers of the coming Reformation, but that was perfect for the sickly, sensitive, bookish Erasmus.

As much as his later public persona was that of the modest and retiring intellectual, Erasmus was, in fact, all about the fame. When a chance came to ditch the monastery and travel to Paris, he grabbed it and spent the rest of his life resolutely not being a monk. The coming years saw him perpetually broke but leveraging his imposing erudition into a towering intellectual reputation that spanned the continent. When the times grew too lean, or plague threatened, he’d escape to England where the academic scene was more welcoming under the direction of a not-yet-executed Thomas More.

Erasmus was becoming a name. He collected and published the Adagia in 1500, a massive reference of Latin quotes to inspire the pens of the ineloquent. For an emerging publishing market dominated by Latin, it was an indispensable volume and Erasmus would continue releasing expanded editions of it for the rest of his life.

That same love of language pushed him to learn Greek, which brought him up against the cold hard fact that the Vulgate, the Catholic Church’s approved Latin translation of the Bible, was a sticky mess of corruptions and misguided philology. So, he very innocently set about the task of fixing the Bible, and in 1516 came out with the Novum Instrumentum omne, a New Testament with Greek text and extensive commentary pointing out contradictions, linguistic obscurities, and irretrievable corruptions, all in the most open and helpful spirit.

Political astuteness was not then, any more than it is now, the outstanding attribute of the cloistered classicist. What Erasmus took to be a humble academic offering was considered dangerous and borderline heretical by the religious community. Many in the Church did not take at all well to having their central religious text held up as a philologically suspect mass of lost meanings and encrusted but misinformed tradition. When Erasmus said he happily sought original meaning, an increasingly defensive Church heard its textual infallibility and constancy challenged, and the rising generation of reformers took note. When Luther produced his German Bible, it was from Erasmus’s text.

It wasn’t the first time Erasmus’s light intentions were taken amiss by a ponderous and neurotic religious establishment. In 1511, Erasmus had written his masterpiece bestseller, the book that keeps his name alive while all his contemporaries have faded into utter obscurity: In Praise of Folly. It was a lark, tossed off in a few days to amuse his friend, Thomas More. Its silliness is profound, its self-mockery magnificent, and its airy intellectual spaciousness is the last of its kind before Europe got swallowed by the glum and cavernous wailings of Lutheranism. It’s the literary equivalent of a cool breeze through summer leaves in which Folly makes its case as the real basis of everything pleasant in life.

Erasmus argues in the face of all learned tradition for the simple human beauty of self-deception, of purely subjective pleasure-taking. If your wife is beautiful to you, that’s all that matters. If a group of people is enjoying something silly and superficial, let them, because there’s nothing more noxious than a morbid self-seriousness that refuses to bend to the occasion. He takes devastating shots at perpetual academics like himself and at the resplendent absurdities of traditional religious practice and the priesthood. His is a vision of bourgeois mental delight—of simplicity in religion, depth in friendship, and a willingness to let one’s self be goofy and a bit blind if it helps people get along pleasantly with one another. It is the best and last summation of the joyful spirit of antiquity, and within six years it was a spiritual outcast to its times.

For 1517 brought Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and the whole macabre mechanism of shame and sin that was the European Reformation. Catholics and Protestants alike doubled down on the most restrictive and abhorrent of their beliefs about humanity’s nature and purpose, and both sought Erasmus, the most famous intellectual of his day, for support.

Initially sympathetic to Luther’s cause, Erasmus was soon appalled by its excesses, the burning of churches and the waging of wars. In his luscious naiveté, he thought the massive issues at hand could be resolved by a friendly chat, and never understood the real depth of the issues at stake. Himself a first-caliber book nerd, Erasmus couldn’t comprehend that the Reformation was about something more than the role of classicism in religion.

The once master and summit of a continent’s intellectual life, Erasmus became a grasping spectator, his rambling defenses and descent into Catholic conservatism painfully demonstrating his advancing age and disillusionment. He still wrote—religious texts that satisfied nobody in that polarized age, authoritative collections of the Church fathers, and at least one sally back into the laughing spirit of better days, the Colloquia. He was still read and consulted, but his last two decades were a bitter march plagued by a horde of imaginary, and a few quite real, intellectual adversaries over whom he wasted a frankly depressing amount of life and ink.

As much as the elder Erasmus tapered to a bitter end, the frothy author of In Praise of Folly lingered on past his death, influencing the heady climate of intellectual freedom in the Dutch Republic.  He became the benchmark for self-deprecating tolerance in all of Europe and thence for us, inspiring our most dearly held and emotionally sacred national motto: “Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.”


Further Reading

In Praise of Folly is available everywhere, and is one of the prime examples of an author’s most famous book also being their best book. In its adamant refusal to knuckle under to long-standing philosophical prejudices, it’s unlike anything else in the standard European canon. It is also perhaps the single most pleasant book in the Western philosophical tradition. Colloquia is also available here and there, but is more of a specialized dish. It consists of a series of short vignettes composed to demonstrate how to construct different dialogue scenes in Latin, and jumps between humorous shorts, scathing critiques of Erasmus’s personal enemies, and long paragraphs detailing, for example, fifty different ways to say, “We haven’t seen you for a while” in Latin. The rest of Erasmus’s published work is composed of letters—of interest to historians, classical compendia, to linguists, and commentaries on psalms and Church fathers… of interest to, let’s be honest here, essentially nobody. For books about Erasmus, I like Johan Huizinga’s Erasmus and the Age of Civilization (1924) a great deal. It doesn’t shy away from Erasmus’s vanity, indecision, and occasional cruelty to his friends, but also doesn’t fail to give lavish praise where it’s due. For Erasmus and those who influenced him, Humanists and Jurists: Six Studies in the Renaissance (1963) by Myron P. Gilmore is a nice, brisk introduction.