Erasmus produced new translations of the New Testament into Latin and Greek, designed for Christian readers to educate themselves rather than rely on the interpretations of others. In this way, and through his methods of textual analysis, he contributed to the Reformation, even though he himself was opposed to radical changes in the Church. Erasmus also believed in the importance of studying classical literature and what it means to be a human being. As such, Erasmus is considered one of the founders of the philosophical movement known as Renaissance humanism. Finally, it is for all these reasons that the extremely popular student exchange program, which today operates throughout Europe, bears his name.
Desiderius Erasmus (Didier Erasmus) was born in Rotterdam on October 27, 1469. His parents were unmarried, his father, Roger Gerard, being a priest and his mother, Margaret, the daughter of a doctor. He was educated at an institution in Deventer, the Netherlands, run by the German humanist Alexander Hegius (c. 1433-1498). Hegius encouraged the study of classical texts in their original language and did not limit himself, as was then common, to reading their commentaries. After the death of both his parents around 1484, Didier was sent to another less expensive school, at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, still in the Netherlands, but this time a religious institution run by the Brothers of the Common Life. This Catholic school prepared boys for monastic life and Erasmus did not was therefore unable to continue his studies at the university level. Therefore, around 1487, Didier joined the monastery of the Augustinian monastic order at Steyn, and he remained there until 1492.
The talents of Erasmus allowed him to obtain positions in universities and to land lucrative jobs with sovereigns.
Ordained a priest in April 1492, Erasmus moved to northern France and worked as secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, Hendrik van Bergen. In 1495, he was sent to study theology at the University of Paris, and it was there that his passion for classical literature could be exercised and his career began to change direction. Although religious studies and the way of life were not really to his liking, Erasmus at least had the opportunity to teach private students and study ancient authors in his spare time.
The talents of Erasmus allowed him to obtain positions in universities and to land lucrative jobs with sovereigns. He went to England in 1499, where he met the scholar Thomas More (1478-1535), then stayed in Italy from 1506 to 1509. It was in Venice, in 1508, that Erasmus expanded his 1500 Adagiorum Collectanea , a collection annotated with Greek and Latin adages or sayings. It is this work that allowed Erasmus to become known to the European community of researchers. He revised and reprinted the work in 1515.
Erasmus returned to England, where he spent five years from 1509. Not much is known of this period except that he worked on his edition of the New Testament (see below) and gave lectures at the University of Cambridge. However, for most of his career he was able to write as a freelance writer. He was able to do this thanks to the recent invention of the printing press. Erasmus cultivated friendships with great thinkers all over Europe, distributed medals bearing his likeness to his friends, and wrote an abundant quantity of letters, but it was through print that his reputation really spread, as notes historian W. Blockmans:
He could often be found in the offices and workshops of the Swiss and Italian printers who published his works, and without ever having held a prominent public office, Erasmus attained the status of a successful writer and cultural megastar. At the height of his glory, around 1515, his name was on the lips of all the important intellectuals in Europe.
The New Testament
Besides his numerous translations of works by ancient authors, Erasmus studied the history of the Christian Church, its founding fathers and the texts of the New Testament. In 1516 he published his Latin and Greek translation of the New Testament ( Novum instrumentum ), together with commentary notes. It will be revised and reprinted five times. Erasmus had researched and studied the ancient and medieval Greek and Latin biblical manuscripts, and he came to the conclusion that some parts had been inserted into the standard editions in the 4th century. He discovered in particular that the verse says Comma Johanneum(I John 5:7-8), which supports the doctrine of the Trinity, did not exist in texts prior to the 4th century CE and that it must have been added after the Council of Nicaea of 325 (a hypothesis which has since been demonstrated by modern scholars).
Besides these textual improvements in accuracy, Erasmus believed that the Bible, and especially the New Testament, was the best way for ordinary (educated) people to know God and salvation. Erasmus hoped that by reading for themselves, Christians would distance themselves from what he considered the more vulgar aspects of the medieval church, such as relics, crusades, and illiterate country clergy. Furthermore, Erasmus sought to alter the Church’s approach to its very heart: the biblical text. His translations and editions modified certain concepts to reflect his humanistic views. For example, in his edition he translated the Greek metanoete into resipiscite, a meaning of the word “repentance” closer to “returning to one’s true meanings” rather than the older poenitentiam agite , which meant formal, public acts of penance. Naturally, the conservative elements of the Church did not accept these interpretations.
The Netherlands and Charles V
From around 1517, Erasmus returned to the Netherlands. In Brabant, he became the adviser to the Archduke Charles, the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1519-1556). His Institutio principis Christiani ( Education of a Christian Prince ) and his Querela pacis ( Complaint of Peace ) were intended to guide Charles and others in their statesmanship and promote the benefits of peace and not war. This last text states:
Sit down before drawing the sword, weigh every article, omit none, and calculate the expenditure of blood as well as of treasure which war requires, and the evils which it necessarily brings with it; and then see at the bottom of the account if, after the greatest success, there will be a balance in your favor.
The following year, Erasmus joined the University of Louvain and worked at the faculty of theology. Convinced that the knowledge of languages was the key to a better understanding of theology, he wrote in 1518 his Ratio verae theologiae to defend his point of view, but he again came up against reactionary scholars.
Martin Luther and religious texts
Erasmus believed that the best way to solve the problems of the Church was a gentler rebirth through the purifying benefits of education, knowledge and prayer. These ideas were revealed in his Enchiridion Militis Christiani ( Handbook for the Christian Soldier ), published around 1504. Other religious works, such as the Paraphrases of the Four Gospels (1522-24), which provided helpful guides and summaries, assured Erasmus growing popularity.
Initially Erasmus had sympathized with the criticisms of the Church made by the radical reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), but in 1524 he published De Libero Animo , his famous essay on free will, against Luther’s position – that people did not freely choose their salvation but were the subjects of predestination. The work was written while Erasmus was in Basel, Switzerland, but while he had lived there since 1521, the city proved to be a hotbed of radical reformers, and Catholic worship was banned. Erasmus moved to Freiburg in 1529, where he worked at the Catholic University, but he returned to Basle in 1535. It is curious, for a man who traveled so much, that in his printed works he was always referred to as “
Erasmus considered the flourishing Reformation movement (as it later came to be known) to be the wrong target. He did not think it was divisions over doctrine that needed to be healed (nor that people with different opinions should be persecuted), but that ordinary people needed to regain their faith in the Church as institution and in priests as spiritual guides. In the satirical Moriae Encomium ( Praise of Folly) of 1511, Erasmus had poked fun at the more absurd elements of Catholicism, especially its tendency towards theatrical spectacle. The book also criticizes what it saw as corruption and disproportionate power within monastic communities. Erasmus sought to clean out the more morally questionable corners of the Church rather than carry out the radical reform proposed by thinkers such as Martin Luther. Ironically, however, the critical and pointed examination of the basic texts in the original language and the textual analysis of current versions of Erasmus were to fuel the Reformation when his methods of philology were adopted by later thinkers.
The humanist heritage
Erasmus died on July 12, 1536 in Basel. While he failed to find common ground between traditional Catholics and Reformers, the greatest legacy of his scholarship and long career as a writer is his contribution to the philosophical movement known as Humanism. Humanism is a term coined in the 19th century to refer to Renaissance thinkers who advocated an education focused on direct access to and understanding of classical literature. However, the term “humanism” has since accumulated so much baggage that it has become largely superfluous. Many modern scholars prefer to assert that thinkers like Erasmus were interested in the studia humanitatis, that is, to studies that focused on what it was like to be human and, more specifically, what a virtuous individual was. Furthermore, the humanists, even in the time of Erasmus, were a diverse group of thinkers who were far from reaching a consensus of opinion on all subjects. Erasmus was certainly not always in agreement with certain Renaissance humanist thinkers; his Ciceronianus , published in 1528, was an attack on scholars overly preoccupied with imitating the Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) – although Erasmus himself published many of his own letters, the form of scholarship for which Cicero was particularly famous.
Nevertheless, there was a movement to change education and make it focus more on classical texts. In these texts one could find material relevant to Latin grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy. It was also considered important to study the ancient idea of virtue in public and private life. Of course, this does not mean that Erasmus and the other humanists neglected religious texts, but it is the beginning of a slow and irreversible evolution of the concept of education, which will eventually lead to scholars being able to study subjects entirely seculars throughout their careers.
Erasmus had another, more immediate and tangible effect on education through his writings. He produced guides for those wishing to start a school, examples of recommended curricula ( De ratione Studii , 1511) and numerous manuals, such as his work On Copia (1512), which went through several editions and who taught students how to argue, revise texts and produce new ones. His book La correspondence(1521) taught how to write letters, target specific audiences, and use a variety of expressions. Even the most advanced scholars continued to use the works of Erasmus. His Greek New Testament was used as the basis for further translations by Martin Luther (German, 1522), William Tyndale (English, 1526), and by the scholars who produced the so-called King James Bible in 1611.
Another legacy is the Erasmus program, a student exchange program that operates today in all European countries. Launched in 1987, this program allows students to study in another country, encouraging the ideas of cultural sharing, tolerance and understanding. As a scholar who himself studied in different countries and a firm believer in the power of education, one cannot help but think that Erasmus would have been extremely happy to have his name associated with such a project.