Desiderius Erasmus: Wikis


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Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523 as depicted by Hans Holbein the Younger
Full name Desiderius Erasmus
Born October 28, 1466/1469
Died July 12, 1536 (aged 70 or 67)
Era Modern philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests Christian philosophy, Renaissance humanism

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (sometimes known as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (October 28,[1] 1466/1469, Rotterdam – July 12, 1536, Basel) was a Dutch Renaissance humanist and a Catholic priest and theologian. His scholarly name Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus comprises the following three elements: the Latin noun desiderium ("longing" or "desire"; the name being a genuine Late Latin name); the Greek adjective ἐράσμιος (erásmios) meaning "desired", and, in the form Erasmus, also the name of a St. Erasmus of Formiae; and the Latinized adjectival form for the city of Rotterdam (Roterodamus = "of Rotterdam").

Erasmus was a classical scholar who wrote in a "pure" Latin style and enjoyed the sobriquet "Prince of the Humanists." He has been called "the crowning glory of the Christian humanists."[2] Using humanist techniques for working on texts, he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament. These raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. He also wrote The Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, On Civility in Children, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, Julius Exclusus, and many other works.

Erasmus lived through the Reformation period and he consistently criticized some contemporary popular Christian beliefs. In relation to clerical abuses in the Church, Erasmus remained committed to reforming the Church from within. He also held to Catholic doctrines such as that of free will, which some Protestant Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. His middle road approach disappointed and even angered many Protestants, such as Martin Luther, as well as conservative Catholics. He died in Basel in 1536 and was buried in the formerly Catholic cathedral there, recently converted to a Reformed church.[3]



Bust by Hildo Krop (1950) at Gouda, where Erasmus spent his youth

Desiderius Erasmus was born Gerrit Gerritszoon (Gerard Gerard's son) or Herasmus Gerritszoon[4] in Gouda, 20 km from Rotterdam, on July 12, in 1466 [5]. The exact year of his birth is debated but some evidence confirming 1466 can be found in Erasmus' own words. Of twenty-three statements Erasmus made about his age, all but one of the first fifteen indicate 1466.[6] It is possible he was christened "Erasmus" after the saint of that name.[7] Although associated closely with Rotterdam, he lived there for only four years, never to return. Information on his family and early life comes mainly from vague references in his writings. His parents almost certainly were not legally married. His father, named Roger Gerard, later became a priest and afterwards curate in Gouda. Little is known of his mother other than that her name was Margaret and she was the daughter of a physician.[8] Although he was born out of wedlock, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the plague in 1483. He was then given the very best education available to a young man of his day, in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools, most notably a school run by the Brethren of the Common Life (inspired by Geert Groote) where he gleaned the importance of a personal relationship with God but eschewed the harsh rules and strict methods of the religious brothers and educators.

While at the Augustinian monastery Steyn near Gouda around 1487, young Erasmus wrote a series of passionate letters to a fellow monk, Servatius Rogerus, whom he called "half my soul", writing, "I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly";[9][10] Whether this is evidence for homosexual desire or simply male-to-male friendship is unclear; nevertheless this correspondence contrasts sharply with the generally detached and much more restrained attitude he showed in his later life. Of similar interest was the sudden dismissal by the guardian of Thomas Grey, a student Erasmus tutored in Paris which could be taken as grounds of an illicit affair [11]. However, no personal denunciation was made of Erasmus during his lifetime, he took pains to condemn sodomy in his works, and instead praised sexual desire in the context of marriage between men and women[12].


Ordination and monastic experience

In 1492, poverty forced Erasmus into the monastery.[13] He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood and took vows as an Augustinian canon at Steyn at about the age of 25, but he never seemed to have actively worked as a priest for a longer time, and certain tenets of monasticism were among the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon Church excesses. Soon after his priestly ordination, he got his chance to leave the monastery when offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambray, Henry of Bergen, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. In order to allow him to accept that post, he was given a temporary dispensation from his monastic vows on the grounds of poor health and love of Humanistic studies, though he remained a "secular priest". Pope Leo X later made the dispensation permanent, a considerable privilege at the time.

Education and scholarship

Bronze statue of Erasmus in Rotterdam. It was created by Hendrick de Keyser in 1622, replacing a stone statue of 1557.

In 1495, with the bishop's consent and stipend, he went on to study at the University of Paris, in the Collège de Montaigu, a centre of reforming zeal, under the direction of the ascetic Jan Standonck, of whose rigours Erasmus complained. The University was then the chief seat of Scholastic learning, but already coming under the influence of Renaissance humanism. For instance, Erasmus became an intimate friend of an Italian Humanist Publio Fausto Andrelini, poet and "professor of humanity" in Paris.

The chief centers of Erasmus's activity were Paris, Leuven (Louvain in Brabant), England, and Basel; yet he never belonged firmly in any one of these places. His time in England was fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the stirring days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge, he was the Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity and had the option of spending the rest of his life as an English professor. He stayed at Queens' College, Cambridge, and may have been an alumnus.

In 1499, while in England, Erasmus was particularly impressed by the Bible teaching of John Colet who pursued a style more akin to the church fathers than the scholastics. This prompted him, upon his return from England, to master the Greek language, which would enable him to study theology on a more profound level and to prepare a new edition of Jerome's Bible translation. On one occasion he wrote Colet:

"I cannot tell you, dear Colet, how I hurry on, with all sails set, to holy literature. How I dislike everything that keeps me back, or retards me."[13]

Despite a chronic shortage of money, he succeeded in learning Greek by an intensive, day-and-night study of three years, continuously begging his friends to send him books and money for teachers in his letters.[14] Discovery in 1506 of Lorenzo Valla's New Testament Notes encouraged Erasmus to continue the study of the New Testament.[15]

Erasmus preferred to live the life of an independent scholar and made a conscious effort to avoid any actions or formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression. Throughout his life, he was offered many positions of honor and profit throughout the academic world but declined them all, preferring the uncertain but sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. From 1506 to 1509, he was in Italy: in 1506 he graduated at the Turin University, and he spent part of the time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius in Venice. According to his letters, he was associated with the Venetian natural philosopher, Giulio Camillo,[16] but, apart from this, he had a less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected.

His residence at Leuven, where he lectured at the Catholic University, exposed Erasmus to much criticism from those ascetics, academicians and clerics hostile to the principles of literary and religious reform and the loose norms of the Renaissance adherents to which he was devoting his life. In 1517, he supported the foundation at the University, by his friend Jeroen van Busleyden, of the Collegium Trilingue for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek - after the model of the College of the Three Languages at the University of Alcalá. However, feeling that this lack of sympathy was actually a form of mental persecution, he sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself freely and where he was surrounded by devoted friends. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Johann Froben, and to him came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.

Only when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on major contemporary themes in literature and religion. He felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of the doctrine by returning to the historic documents and original languages of sacred Scripture. He tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions, but he was not satisfied with this. His revolt against certain forms of Christian monasticism and scholasticism was not based on doubts about the truth of doctrine, nor from hostility to the organization of the Church itself, nor from rejection of celibacy or monastical lifestyles. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness by an appeal to reason, applied frankly and without fear of the magisterium. He always intended to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, and therefore was convinced he could criticize frankly and virtually everyone. Erasmus held himself aloof from entangling obligations, yet he was the center of the literary movement of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men in the worlds of politics and of thought.

Publication of the Greek New Testament

The first New Testament printed in Greek was part of the Complutensian Polyglot. This portion was printed in 1514, but publication was delayed until 1522 by waiting for the Old Testament portion, and the sanction of Pope Leo X.[17] Erasmus had been working for years on two projects: a collation of Greek texts and a fresh Latin New Testament. In 1512, he began his work on this Latin New Testament. He collected all the Vulgate manuscripts he could find to create a critical edition. Then he polished the Latin. He declared, "It is only fair that Paul should address the Romans in somewhat better Latin."[18] In the earlier phases of the project, he never mentioned a Greek text: "My mind is so excited at the thought of emending Jerome’s text, with notes, that I seem to myself inspired by some god. I have already almost finished emending him by collating a large number of ancient manuscripts, and this I am doing at enormous personal expense."[19] While his intentions for publishing a fresh Latin translation are clear, it is less clear why he included the Greek text. Though some speculate that he intended to produce a critical Greek text or that he wanted to beat the Complutensian Polyglot into print, there is no evidence to support this. He wrote, "There remains the New Testament translated by me, with the Greek facing, and notes on it by me."[20] He further demonstrated the reason for the inclusion of the Greek text when defending his work: "But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep."[21] So he included the Greek text to permit qualified readers to verify the quality of his Latin version. But by first calling the final product "Novum Instrumentum omne" ("All of the New Teaching") and later "Novum Testamentum omne" ("All of the New Testament") he also indicated clearly that he considered a consistently parallelized version of both the Greek and the Latin texts as the essential dual core of the church's New Testament tradition. In a way it is legitimate to say that Erasmus "synchronized" or "unified" the Greek and the Latin traditions of the New Testament by producing an updated (he would say: "purified") version of either simultaneously. Both being part of canonical tradition, he clearly found it necessary to ensure that both were actually presenting the same content. In modern terminology, he made the two traditions "compatible". This is clearly evidenced by the fact that his Greek text is not just the basis for his Latin translation, but also the other way round: there are numerous instances where he edits the Greek text to reflect his Latin version. For instance, since the last six verses of Revelation were missing from his Greek manuscript, Erasmus translated the Vulgate's text back into Greek. Erasmus also translated the Latin text into Greek wherever he found that the Greek text and the accompanying commentaries were mixed up, or where he simply preferred the Vulgate’s reading to the Greek text.[22]

Acknowledgement page engraved and published by Johannes Froben, 1516

Erasmus's hurried effort (Erasmus said it was "rushed into print rather than edited"[23]) was published by his friend Johann Froben of Basel in 1516 and thence became the first published Greek New Testament, the Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. Erasmus used several Greek manuscript sources because he did not have access to a single complete manuscript. Most of the manuscripts were, however, late Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine textual family and Erasmus used the oldest manuscript the least because "he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text." [24] He also ignored much older and better manuscripts that were at his disposal.[25]

In the 2nd (1519) edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. This edition was used by Martin Luther in making his German translation of Bible for his own religious movement. Together, the first and second editions sold 3,300 copies. Only 600 copies of the Complutensian Polyglot were even printed. The 1st- and 2nd-edition texts did not include the passage (1 John 5:7–8) that has become known as the Comma Johanneum. Erasmus had been unable to find those verses in any Greek manuscript, but one was supplied to him during production of the 3rd edition. That manuscript is now thought to be a 1520 creation from the Latin Vulgate, which likely got the verses from a fifth-century marginal gloss in a Latin copy of I John. The Roman Catholic Church decreed that the Comma Johanneum was open to dispute (June 2, 1927), and it is rarely included in modern scholarly translations.

The 3rd edition of 1522 was probably used by Tyndale for the first English New Testament (Worms, 1526) and was the basis for the 1550 Robert Stephanus edition used by the translators of the Geneva Bible and King James Version of the English Bible. Erasmus published a definitive 4th edition in 1527 containing parallel columns of Greek, Latin Vulgate and Erasmus's Latin texts. He used the now available Polyglot Bible to improve this version. In this edition Erasmus also supplied the Greek text of the last six verses of Revelation (which he had translated from Latin back into Greek in his first edition) from Cardinal Ximenez's Biblia Complutensis. In 1535 Erasmus published the 5th (and final) edition which dropped the Latin Vulgate column but was otherwise similar to the 4th edition. Subsequent versions of Erasmus's Greek New Testament became known as the Textus Receptus.

Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning and regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterward, he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all of his writings, were published in Latin but were quickly translated into other languages, with his encouragement.

Beginnings of Protestantism

Attempts at impartiality in dispute

Martin Luther's movement began in the year following the publication of the New Testament and tested Erasmus's character. The issue between European society and the Roman Church had become so clear that few could escape the summons to join the debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses, he had always protested that he was not attacking church institutions themselves and had no enmity toward churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire, but few had interfered with his activities. He believed that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world.

Disagreement with Luther

"Free will does not exist", Luther's letter to Erasmus translated into German by Justus Jonas in 1526

Initially Erasmus was sympathetic with the main points in Martin Luther's criticism of the Catholic Church, describing him as "a mighty trumpet of gospel truth" and admitting that, "It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.”[26] He had great respect for Martin Luther, and Luther always spoke with admiration of Erasmus's superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. In their early correspondence, Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. When Erasmus hesitated to support him, the straightforward Luther felt angered that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or a lack of purpose. Erasmus, however, dreaded any change in doctrine and believed that there was room within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most. Also, it is said that Erasmus chose to remain a Roman Catholic because of a lecture he heard from Savonarola, the Dominican friar who ruled Florence for a time.Though he remained firmly neutral, each side accused him of siding with the other, perhaps because of his neutrality. It was not for lack of fidelity with either side but a desire for fidelity with them both:

"I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss."[27]

In his Catechism (entitled Explanation of the Apostles' Creed) (1533), Erasmus took stand against Luther's teaching by asserting the unwritten Sacred Tradition as just as valid a source of revelation as the Bible, by enumerating the Deuterocanonical books in the canon of the Bible and by acknowledging seven sacraments.[28] He called "blasphemers" anyone who questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary and those who defended the need to occasionally restrict the laity from access to the Bible.[29] In a letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, Luther objected to Erasmus’ Catechism and called Erasmus a "viper,", "liar," and "the very mouth and organ of Satan." [30]

Freedom of the will

Twice in the course of the great discussion, he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign to both his nature and his previous practice. One of the topics he dealt with was the freedom of the will, a crucial point. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he lampoons the Lutheran view on free will. He lays down both sides of the argument impartially. The "Diatribe" did not encourage any definite action; this was its merit to the Erasmians and its fault in the eyes of the Lutherans. In response, Luther wrote his De servo arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) (1525), which attacks the "Diatribe" and Erasmus himself, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian. Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes (1526–27). In this controversy Erasmus lets it be seen that he would like to claim more for free will than St. Paul and St. Augustine seem to allow.[31] For Erasmus the essential point is that humans have the freedom of choice.[32]

As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders, which Erasmus dreaded and Luther disassociated himself from, began to appear, including the Peasants' War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and the radicalization of peasants across Europe. If these were the outcomes of reform, he was thankful that he had kept out of it. Yet he was ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy" (as the Roman Catholics dubbed Protestantism).

When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau.

Erasmus by Holbein


A test of the Reformation was the doctrine of the sacraments, and the crux of this question was the observance of the Eucharist. In 1530, Erasmus published a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against the heretic Berengar of Tours in the eleventh century. He added a dedication, affirming his belief in the reality of the Body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist, commonly referred to as transsubstantiation. The anti-sacramentarians, headed by Œcolampadius of Basel, were, as Erasmus says, quoting him as holding views similar to their own in order to try to claim him for their schismatic and "erroneous" movement.

Erasmus died of a sudden attack of dysentery[33] in 1536 in Basel and was buried there in the cathedral. His last words, as recorded by his friend Beatus Rhenanus, were "lieve God",[34] Dutch for Dear God.


Erasmus wrote both on ecclesiastic subjects and those of general human interest. He seems to have regarded the latter as trifling, a leisure activity. By the 1530’s, the writings of Erasmus accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales.[35] He is credited with coining the adage, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." He formed a collection of adages, commonly called Adagia. Erasmus is also generally credited with originating the English phrase "Pandora's box", arising through an error in his translation of Pandora by Hesiod in which he confused "pithos", storage jar, with "pyxis", box.

His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion militis Christiani, the "Handbook of the Christian Soldier" (1503) (translated into English a few years later by the young William Tyndale). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life, which he was to spend the rest of his days elaborating. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, going through the motions of tradition without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ. Forms can teach the soul how to worship God, or they may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism, saint worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society."

The Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire. With it Erasmus challenged common assumptions, painting the clergy as educators who should share the treasury of their knowledge with the laity. He emphasized personal spiritual disciplines rather than institutional sacraments, and called for a reformation which he characterized as a collective return to the Fathers and Scripture. Most importantly, he extolled the reading of scripture as vital because of its power to transform and motivate toward love. Much like the Brethren of the Common Life, he wrote that the New Testament is the law of Christ we are called to obey and Christ is the example we are called to imitate.

Erasmus also wrote of the legendary Frisian freedom fighter and rebel Pier Gerlofs Donia (Greate Pier), though more often criticism than praise of his exploits for Erasmus saw him as dumb brutal man preferring physical strength over wisdom.[36]

Marginal drawing of Folly by Hans Holbein in the first edition of Erasmus' Praise of Folly, 1515

Erasmus's best-known work was The Praise of Folly (published under the triple title Moriae encomium (Greek, Latinised) and Laus stultitiae (Latin)), and Ego sum aliquantulus cattus atque ego amo piscis (Latinised).[37] a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509, published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More.

The Institutio principis Christiani (Basel, 1516) (Education of a Christian Prince) was written as advice to the young king Charles of Spain, later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Erasmus applies the general principles of honor and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he represents throughout as the servant of the people. The Education of a Christian Prince was published in 1516, sixteen years before Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. A comparison between the two is worth noting. Machiavelli stated that, to maintain control by political force, it is safer for a prince to be feared than loved. Erasmus, on the other hand, preferred for the prince to be loved and suggested that the prince needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression.

As a result of his reformatory activities, Erasmus found himself at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered by controversies with men toward whom he was sympathetic. Notable among these was Ulrich von Hutten, a brilliant but erratic genius, who had thrown himself into the Lutheran cause and had declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same. In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), Erasmus displays his skill in semantics. He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never to break with the Church.

The Ciceroniamus came out in 1528, which attacked the style of Latin that was based on Cicero's writing. As Cicero wrote before Christ, Erasmus deemed his Latin pagan, and not suitable for use in the Christian era. Etienne Dolet wrote a reposte titled Erasmiamus in 1535, defending Ciceronian Latin.

The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1536), in which he comments on the function of preaching.

Sileni Alcibiadis (1515)

Erasmus’s Sileni Alcibiadis is one of his most direct assessments of the need for Church reform. It was seen first in Johann Froben’s revised edition of the Adagia published in Basel in 1515. Then, it was published separately by Froben in 1517. This essay compares to John Colet’s Convocation Sermon, though the styles differ. The term Sileni can be understood as something on the inside is more and different than what one sees on the outside. For instance, something ugly on the outside can be beautiful on the inside. In support of this, Erasmus states: “Anyone who looks closely at the inward nature and essence will find that nobody is further from true wisdom than those people with their grand titles, learned bonnets, splendid sashes and bejeweled rings, who profess to be wisdom’s peak”. Erasmus lists several Sileni and then questions whether Christ is the most noticeable Silenus of them all. The Apostles were Sileni since they were ridiculed by others. He believes that the things which are the least ostentatious can be the most significant. For instance, one cannot see the most special aspects of humans. The Scriptures also have Sileni. Erasmus believes that the Church constitutes all of the Christian people. People call priests, bishops, and popes the Church, but they only serve the Church. He criticizes those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. Riches should not be held above everything else. The true point of the Church is to help people lead Christian lives. Priests are supposed to be pure, though when they stray away, no one condemns them. He criticizes the riches of the popes, believing that it would be better for the Gospel to be most important. Furthermore, the Word of God should be most important for people.


Cast of a skull presumed to have been that of Erasmus at the Rotterdam library Erasmus collection

His books' extraordinary popularity has been shown in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the sixteenth century, and in the undiminished interest excited by his elusive but fascinating personality. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the bare enumeration of the works and their subsequent reprints. The greatest names of the classical and patristic world are among those translated, edited or annotated by Erasmus, including Saint Ambrose, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Cicero and Saint Jerome.

Today in his home town of Rotterdam, the University and Gymnasium Erasmianum have been named in his honor. However, Rotterdam has ignored the life of one of its famous citizens for a long time. Research in 2003 showed that most Rotterdammers believe Erasmus was the designer of the "Erasmusbridge" in Rotterdam. This shocking information led to the founding of the Erasmushuis (Erasmushouse), a house dedicated to celebrate the legacy of Erasmus. Nowadays in Rotterdam, three famous moments in the life of Erasmus are celebrated annually. On April 1, the city celebrates the release of his best-known book The Praise of Folly. On October 28, the birthday of Erasmus is celebrated. And, in the summer, the so-called Night of Erasmus celebrates the lasting influence of his work.

However, Erasmus's reputation and the interpretations of his work have varied greatly over time. Following his death, there was a long period of time when the citizens of the land all mourned his death. Moderate Catholics felt that he had been a leading figure in attempts to reform the Church, while Protestants recognized his initial support for Luther's ideas and the groundwork he laid for the future Reformation. By the 1560s, however, there was a marked change in reception.

Erasmus of Rotterdam censored by the Index Librorum Prohibitorum

The Catholic Counter-Reformation movement often condemned Erasmus as having "laid the egg that hatched the Reformation." Their critique of him was based principally on his not being strong enough in his criticism of Luther, not seeing the dangers of a vernacular Bible and dabbling in dangerous scriptural criticism that weakened the Church's arguments against Arianism and other doctrines. All of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Paul IV, and some of his works continued to be banned or viewed with caution in the later Index of Pius IV.

According to Franz Anton Knittel Erasmus in his Novum Instrumentum omne did not incorporate the Comma from Codex Montfortianus, because of grammar differences, but used Complutensian Polyglotta. According to him the Comma was known for Tertullian.[38]

Protestant views of Erasmus fluctuated largely depending on region and period, with continuous support in his native Netherlands and in cities of the Upper Rhine area. However, following his death and in the late sixteenth century, Reformation supporters see Erasmus's critiques of Luther and lifelong support for the universal Catholic Church as damning. His reception was particularly cold by the Reformed Protestant groups.

By the coming of the Age of Enlightenment, however, Erasmus increasingly returned to become a more widely respected cultural symbol and was hailed as an important figure by increasingly broad groups. In a letter to a friend, Erasmus once had written: "That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all."[39]

The 21st century has seen a rise in criticism of Erasmus, particulary among Greek Scholars like Dr. Leslie McFall. McFall's research has demonstrated wilfull changes to the original Greek texts by Erasmus to significantly change the meanings of the Scriptures ( Christian Pastors like Ray McMahon, Stephen Wilcox, and Dr. Joseph Webb have also been critical of Erasmus' insertion of bias into his translations of the New Testament. Modern Greek translations also do not support many of Erasmus' changes to the Scriptures in his New Testament translations (

Several schools, faculties and universities in the Netherlands and Flanders are named after him, and so is Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, New York, USA.


Holbein's studies of Erasmus's hands, in silverpoint and chalks, ca. 1523. (Louvre)
  • Hans Holbein is considered to be the greatest portraitist of Erasmus, having painted him at least three times, and perhaps as many as seven; some only survive in versions by other artists. His three profile portraits of Erasmus, two (nearly identical) profile portraits and one three-quarters view portrait were all painted in the same year, 1523. Erasmus used the Holbein portraits as gifts for his friends in England, such as William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury (as he writes in a letter to Warham regarding the gift portrait, Erasmus quips that "he might have something of Erasmus should God call him from this place.") Erasmus spoke favorably of Holbein as an artist and person, but later criticized Holbein whom he had accused of sponging off of various patrons to whom Erasmus had recommended, for purposes more of monetary gain than artistic endeavor.
  • Albrecht Dürer also produced portraits of Erasmus, whom he met three times, in the form of an engraving of 1526 and a preliminary charcoal sketch. Concerning the former Erasmus was unimpressed, declaring it an unfavorable likeness of him. Nevertheless, Erasmus and Dürer maintained a close friendship, with Dürer going so far as to solicit Erasmus's support for the Lutheran cause, which Erasmus politely declined. Erasmus wrote a glowing encomium about the artist, likening him to famous Greek painter of antiquity Apelles. Erasmus was deeply affected by his death in 1528.
  • Quentin Matsys produced the earliest known portraits of Erasmus, including an oil painting in 1517 and a medallion in 1519.


See also


  1. ^ Gleason, John B. "The Birth Dates of John Colet and Erasmus of Rotterdam: Fresh Documentary Evidence," Renaissance Quarterly, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Renaissance Society of America, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1979), pp.73-76
  2. ^ Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953, p. 661.
  3. ^ “He tried to remain in the fold of the old [Roman] Church, after having damaged it seriously, and renounced the [Protestant] Reformation, and to a certain extent even Humanism, after having furthered both with all his strength.” Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (Tr. F. Hopman and Barbara Flower; New York: Harper and Row, 1924), 190.
  4. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation, p. 98.
  5. ^ Erasmus Roterodamus. Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami de Utraq. Verborum ac rerum copia. Libri II. Osnabrucae, 1715
  6. ^ Smith, Preserved, Erasmus A Study Of His Life Ideals And Place In History. Harper & Brothers, Publishers 1928 pp.445-446
  7. ^ Huizinga, Erasmus, pp. 4 and 6 (Dutch language version)
  8. ^ The famous 19th century novel The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade, is an account of the lives of Erasmus' parents.
  9. ^ Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 1, p. 12 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974)
  10. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch (2003). Reformation: A History. pg. 95. MacCulloch says "he fell in love" and further adds in a footnote "There has been much modern embarrassment and obfuscation on Erasmus and Rogerus, but see the sensible comment in J.Huizinga, Erasmus of Rotterdam (London, 1952), pp. 11-12, and from Geoffrey Nutuall, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 26 (1975), 403".
  11. ^ Forrest Tyler Stevens, essay on 'Erasmus’s ‘Tigress’: The Language of Friendship, Pleasure, and the Renaissance Letter', in Queering the Renaissance, Duke University Press, 1994
  12. ^ Erika Rummel, Erasmus, London, 2004
  13. ^ a b Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, p. 343.
  14. ^ Huizinga, Dutch edition, pp. 52-53.
  15. ^ Anderson, Marvin (1969), "Erasmus the Exegete", Concordia Theeological Monthly 40 (11): 722–746 
  16. ^ Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterdami, Ed. H.M.Allen, (Oxford University Press, 1937), Ep.3032: 219-22; 2682: 8-13.
  17. ^ Metzger, Bruce. The Text of the New Testament, p. 96–103.
  18. ^ "Epistle 695" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 5: Letters 594 to 841, 1517-1518 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by James K. McConica; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 172.
  19. ^ "Epistle 273" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 2: Letters 142 to 297, 1501-1514 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated Wallace K. Ferguson; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 253.
  20. ^ "Epistle 305" in Collected Works of Erasmus. Vol. 3: Letters 298 to 445, 1514-1516 (tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson; annotated by James K. McConica; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 32.
  21. ^ "Epistle 337" in Collected Works of Erasmus Vol. 3, 134.
  22. ^ E.g. at Acts 9:6. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, pp. 99-100; Kurt Aland - Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament. An Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism,Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. 2nd edition, revised and enlarged, 1989, p. 4
  23. ^ "Epistle 694" in Collected Works of Erasmus Volume 5, 167.
  24. ^ Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 102.
  25. ^ Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, Guido Latré (eds) Tyndale's Testament, Brepols 2002, ISBN 2-503-51411-1, p. 28.
  26. ^ Galli, Mark, andm, Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, p. 344.
  27. ^ Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, p 344.
  28. ^ Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, vol. V/1, Amsterdam: North-Holland, pp. 278-290
  29. ^ Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami, vol. V/1, Amsterdam: North-Holland, pp. 245 and 279.
  30. ^ D. Martin Luther. Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel, vol. 7, Weimar: Böhlau, pp. 27-40.
  31. ^ Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Desiderius Erasmus Dutch humanist and scholar, Protestant challenge
  32. ^ Watson, Philip (1969), "Erasmus, Luther and Aquinas", Concordia Theological Monthly 40 (11): 747–758 
  33. ^  "Desiderius Erasmus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  34. ^ Huizinga, Dutch edition, p. 202.
  35. ^ Galli, Mark, and Olsen, Ted. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000, 343.
  36. ^ The Age of Erasmus , Lectures Delivered in the Universities of Oxford and London, by P.S.Allen, Clarendon Press 1914
  37. ^ Early title page
  38. ^ Knittel, Neue Kritiken über den berühmten Sprych: Drey sind, die da zeugen im Himmel, der Vater, das Wort, und der heilige Geist, und diese drei sind eins Braunschweig 1785
  39. ^ Letter 480, to Budé (ed. Allen)

Further reading

  • Winters, Adam. Erasmus' Doctrine of Free Will. Jackson, TN: Union University Press, 2005.
  • Furey, Constance M. Erasmus, Contarini, and the Religious Republic of Letters. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

External links

Wikisource has the original Latin text of Praise of Folly.


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

In the country of the blind the one eyed man is king.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus [Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam] (27 October probably 1466 – 12 July 1536) was a Dutch humanist and theologian; born Gerrit Gerritszoon.



Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.
What is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?
I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.
I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.
  • I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults.
    • Letter to an unidentified friend (1489), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • A constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies, so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery, for no activity can be continued for long if it does not to some extent afford pleasure to the participant.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 115
  • Ad Graecas literas totum animum applicui; statimque, ut pecuniam acceptero, Graecus primum autores, deinde vestes emam.
    • I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.
    • Letter to Jacob Batt (12 April 1500); Collected Works of Erasmus Vol 1 (1974)
    • Variant translation: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.
  • In regione caecorum rex est luscus.
    • In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
    • Adagia (first published 1500, with numerous expanded editions through 1536), III, IV, 96
    • Also in the same passage of the Adagia is a variant: Inter caecos regnat strabus (Among the blind, the squinter rules).
  • The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.
    • Adagia (1508)
  • For what is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?
  • This type of man who is devoted to the study of wisdom is always most unlucky in everything, and particularly when it comes to procreating children; I imagine this is because Nature wants to ensure that the evils of wisdom shall not spread further throughout mankind.
    • The Praise of Folly (1511)
  • I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful and that venereal stimuli have their origin not in nature, but in sin. Nothing is so far from the truth. As if marriage, whose function cannot be fulfilled without these incitements, did not rise above blame. In other living creatures, where do these incitements come from? From nature or from sin? From nature, of course. It must borne in mind that in the apetites of the body there is very little difference between man and other living creatures. Finally, we defile by our imagination what of its own nature is fair and holy. If we were willing to evaluate things not according to the opinion of the crowd, but according to nature itself, how is it less repulsive to eat, chew, digest, evacuate, and sleep after the fashion of dumb animals, than to enjoy lawful and permitted carnal relations?
    • In Praise of Marriage (1519), in Erasmus on Women (1996) Erika Rummel
  • I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.
    • Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), § 176, As quoted in Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1900) by Ephraim Emerton, p. 377
    • Variant: I am a lover of liberty. I cannot and will not serve parties.
  • There is no doubt about Martin Luther's marriage, but the rumour about his wife's early confinement is false; she is said however to be pregnant now. If there is truth in the popular legend, that Antichrist will be born from a monk and a nun (which is the story these people keep putting about), how many thousands of Antichrists the world must have already!
    • Responding to rumours prompted by the marriage of Martin Luther, in a letter to François Dubois (13 March 1526), as translated in The Correspondence of Erasmus : Letters 1658 to 1801, January 1526-March 1527 (1974) edited by Charles Garfield Nauert and Alexander Dalzell, p. 79
    • Paraphrased variant: They say that the Antichrist will be born of a monk and a nun. If so, there must already be thousands of Antichrists.
  • Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.
    • As quoted in Erasmus of Rotterdam‎ (1934) by Stefan Zweig, Eden Paul, and Cedar Paul, p. 91; also in Erasmus — The Right to Heresy (2008) by Staffan Z. Weig, p. 62
  • There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect.
    • As quoted in Thomas More and Erasmus (1965) by Ernest Edwin Reynolds, p. 248
  • I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.
    • As quoted in Erasmus (1970) by György Faludy, p. 197


  • Believe that you have it, and you have it!
  • Education is of far greater importance than heredity in forming character.
  • It is the friendship of books that has made me perfectly happy.
  • The rules of grammar are crabbed things to many persons... it is important early to instil a taste for the best things into the minds of children, and I cannot see that anything is learned with greater success than what is learned by playing, and this is, in truth, a very harmless kind of fraud, to trick a person into his own profit.
  • To know nothing is the happiest life
  • Fortune favors the audacious.


  • Dulce bellum inexpertis.
    • War is sweet to them that know it not.
      • Though Erasmus quoted this proverb in Latin at the start of his essay Bellum [War], and it is sometimes attributed to him, it originates with the Greek poet Pindar.
    • Variant translations:
    • War is sweet to those not acquainted with it
    • War is Sweet to Those Who Do Not Know It
    • War is sweet to those That never have experienced it.
    • War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.

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Simple English

This article is about Erasmus, the humanist. For other meanings, see Erasmus (disambiguation).

[[File:|thumb|Desiderius Erasmus in 1523]] Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (sometimes known as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (October 27, probably 1466July 12, 1536) was a Dutch humanist, theologian and philosopher.

Erasmus was a classical scholar who wrote in a "pure" Latin style. Although he was a Catholic, he was critical of the Roman Catholic Church and wrote satires of them. He stood at the beginning of the reformation.

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Wikisource has the original Latin text of Praise of Folly.


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