Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (sometimes known as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (October 27, 1466/1469 – July 12, 1536) was a Dutch Renaissance humanist and Catholic Christian 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 εράσμιος (erasmios) meaning "beloved", and, in the form Erasmus, also the name of a saint; 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. Using humanist techniques he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament which 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 during a time when many learned people were critical of various clerical abuses in the Church. Some such critics ultimately rejected the authority of the Pope and developed new theological systems. Erasmus numbered among those reformers who consistently criticized certain contemporaneous Christian (popular) beliefs, abuses and practices. He also remained committed to a Catholic notion of free will, which many Protestant Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. This middle road disappointed, even angered, leading Protestants, such as Martin Luther, and more fervid papalists. While rejecting and attacking abuses of the Papal Court and abuse of power and lack of discipline among the clergy, Erasmus never sided with Protestantism and remained a faithful Catholic. Ironically, he died in Basel in 1536 and was buried in the formerly Catholic cathedral which had been recently converted to a Reformed church.
Desiderius Erasmus, whose Dutch name was Gerrit Gerritszoon, was born in Rotterdam on October 27, in either 1466 or 1469. The exact year of his birth is unknown; according to historian Johan Huizinga, Erasmus was born in the night of the 27th or 28th and celebrated his birthday on October 28. It is possible he was christened "Erasmus" after the saint of that name. 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. He was almost certainly illegitimate. 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. Despite being illegitimate, Erasmus was cared for by his parents until their early deaths from the plague in 1483 and 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 passionate letters of friendship to a fellow monk, Servatius Rogerus, whom he called "half my soul", writing, "I have wooed you both unhappily and relentlessly"; this correspondence contrasts sharply with the generally detached and much more restrained attitude he showed in his later life.
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."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.
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, but, apart from this, he had a less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected.
His residence at Leuven 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. 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.
Erasmus's literary productivity began comparatively late in his life. Only when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on major contemporary themes in literature and religion. His revolt against certain forms of Christian monasticism and scholasticism did not result from doubts about the truth of traditional doctrine nor from any hostility to the organization of the Church itself nor from a total rejection of celibacy or monastical lifestyles. Rather, 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. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions, but he was not satisfied with this. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness by an appeal to reason. It was this lifelong conviction that guided Erasmus as he regenerated Europe through sound criticism applied frankly and without fear of the magisterium. This conviction gives unity and consistency to a life which might otherwise seem full of contradictions. 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 all entangling obligations, yet he was, in a singularly true sense, the center of the literary movement of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if not always followed.
Erasmus's hurried effort (Erasmus said it was "rushed into print rather than edited) was published by 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. The manuscripts were, however, late Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine textual family and Erasmus used the best manuscript the least because "he was afraid of its supposedly erratic text." He also ignored much older and better manuscripts that were at disposal for him. 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.
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.
"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.
In his Catechism (entitled Explanation of the Apostles' Creed) (1533), Erasmus took stand against Luther's teaching by asserting the unwritten Sacred Tradition as valid source of revelation besides the Bible, by enumerating the Deuterocanonical books in the canon of the Bible and by acknowledging seven sacraments. 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. In a letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf Luther objected to Erasmus’ Catechism and called Erasmus a "viper," a "liar," and "the very mouth and organ of Satan."
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).
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 in 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 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.
Erasmus's best-known work was The Praise of Folly (published under the double title Moriae encomium (Greek, Latinised) and Laus stultitiae (Latin)), 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, 16 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 most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1536), in which he comments on the function of preaching.
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.
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.
Protestant views of Erasmus fluctuate 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.
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