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Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) was a Christian, humanist scholar; the first
editor of the New Testament; a classicist; and a leading voice in the
theological debates of the early Reformation in northern Europe. He contended
with the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), emphasizing the importance of free
will in human actions against Luther's belief in the absolute bondage of the
will to sin. In addition, Erasmus sought middle ground in the conflict between
Luther and Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) and tried to reconcile the two.
Erasmus, a Dutchman, was educated at Gouda, Deventer, and Utrecht, Holland.
At Deventer, he studied with a branch of the Brethren of the Common Life under
the tutelage of the humanist Alexander Hegius (1433-1498). When his family forced
him to enter a monastery, Erasmus chose to join the Augustinians at St. Gregory's
at Steyn, near Gouda. He was ordained a priest in 1492 but grew increasingly
dissatisfied with monastic life, especially with the resistance he encountered
to his study of classical literature.
Leaving the monastery, Erasmus traveled and studied throughout Europe. His
studies in Paris persuaded him that Scholasticism was an arid tradition in its
intellectual twilight, and his contact there with groups involved in the new
humanist movement convinced him of the importance of a classical education for
the molding of a good character. During his visits to England he became well
acquainted with Thomas More (1478-1535, a good friend), John Fisher (1459-1535),
and John Colet (1467-1519), who inspired him to study the Bible directly rather
than rely on the interpretations of others. His travels to Italy widened his
humanist contacts but also exposed him to some whose humanism had led them to
doubt the immortality of the soul and other central tenets of Catholic orthodoxy.
Erasmus maintained in The Education of a Christian Prince that the works
of the classical authors and the Christian church fathers were better resources
for the total development of the individual than either Scholastic logic or
the popular new chivalric literature. One of his most lasting contributions
was to lay the groundwork for the critical study of history and biblical works.
He published the first complete edition of the New Testament in Greek
and a revised edition of the New Testament in Latin. Similarly, his work
republishing and correcting the works of the church fathers related directly
to his educational aims. The elegance and rich Christian content of these works
made them important instructional materials for the humanist educational program,
and they were also helpful in directing the moral and spiritual development
of the individual that Erasmus and his fellow humanists sought. It was through
his correcting of textual errors in these works and his call for a return to
patristic theology that his program of reform began to emerge.
Despite the fact that little escaped his critical judgment, Erasmus was a consistent
supporter of a unified Catholic church. Initially, he and Luther agreed on the
necessity of reforming church and clerical practices, opposed the sale of indulgences,
and were highly critical of ecclesiastical and political corruption, especially
in the Vatican. The pope, by behaving as a politician and secular prince, neglected
his ecclesiastical duties and made his office a prime target for the proponents
of reform: "As if the church had any enemies more pestilential than impious
pontiffs who by their silence allow Christ to be forgotten, who enchain Him
by mercenary rules, adulterate His teachings by forced interpretations, and
crucify Him afresh by their scandalous life!"1
Indeed, Erasmus praised Luther, saying that he saw someone with the potential
to be "a great trumpet for proclaiming the gospel truth"2
who had a "rare" ability to "blow the spark of gospel teaching
into flame" and "expound the mysteries of Scripture in the classical
in contrast to current Church practices. Yet, the two ultimately clashed over
Luther's defiance of traditional authority and his theological denial of the
human capacity for self-improvement. Disagreement on this last issue sparked
the famous and insightful debate between the two men that is reflected in Luther's
essay On the Bondage of the Will and Erasmus's On Free Will.
Despite his theological differences with Luther, Erasmus's commitment to reform
and to the unity of the church led him to urge church authorities to compromise
with Luther. Only a few men were brave enough to take on the role of compromiser;
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) was another. His moderate position brought Erasmus
into disfavor with both Protestants and Catholics and led to a neglect of his
work in the centuries of division that followed his death.
 Erasmus, In
Priase of Folly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 100.
 Desiderius Erasmus,
The Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 8 (Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 1988), letter 1139, p. 42.
 Ibid., letter 1167,
p. 112. See also letter 1144 (to Pope Leo X), p. 50.
Works by the Author
The Collected Works of Erasmus. University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Colloquies of Erasmus. Translated by Nathan Bailey. London: Reeves and
The Whole Familiar Colloquies of Desiderius Erasmus. Translated by Nathan
Bailey. London: Hamilton, Adams, & Company, 1877.
The Praise of Folly. Translated by Hoyt Hudson. Princeton: University
The Praise of Folly. Translated by Leonard F. Dean. Chicago: Packard
and Company, 1945.
Moriae Encomium or The Praise of Folly. Translated by Harry Carter.
New York: Heritage Press, 1940.
The Manual of the Christian Knight. London: Methuen and Company.
The Education of a Christian Prince. Translated by Lester K. Born. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1936.
The Complaint of Peace. Translated by Thomas Paynell. New York: Scholars'
Facsimiles and Reprints, 1946.
José Chapiro. Erasmus and Our Struggle for Peace. Boston: Beacon
Ten Colloquies of Erasmus. Translated by Craig R. Thompson. New York:
Liberal Arts Press, 1957.
Works about Erasmus
Adams, Robert P. The Better Part of Valor. Seattle, 1962.
Bainton, Roland H. Erasmus of Christendom. New York, Scribner, 1969.
Dickens, A.G. and Whitney R.D. Jones. Erasmus the Reformer. London,
Reed Books, 1995.
Ferguson, Wallace K. "The Attitude of Erasmus toward Toleration,"pp.
171-81 in Persecution and Liberty. Essays in Honor of G.L. Burr. New
Halkin, Léon-E. Erasmus: A Critical Biography, trans. John
Tonkin. Oxford, Blackwell, 1994.
Jardine, L. Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print.
Princeton University Press, 1993.
Kaiser, Walter. Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare.
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1963.
McConica, James. Erasmus. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Olin, John C. Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Desiderius Erasmus.
Selected Writings. New York, 1987.
Olin, John C. ed. Luther, Erasmus, and the Reformation. New York,
Philipps, Margaret Mann. Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance. London,
English Universities Press, 1949.
Philipps, Margaret Mann. The 'Adage's of Erasmus: A Study with Translations.
Cambridge University Press, 1964.
Tracy, James D. The Politics of Erasmus: A Pacifist Intellectual and his
Political Milieu. University of Toronto Press, 1978.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
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