Recent ‘In Our Time’ reminded me how much I like Erasmus’ thought and general approach to life. Link to the programme here: Erasmus of Rotterdam
Here are my notes:
Erasmus of Rotterdam
Born to a priest as father and started off in a monastery, but unhappy there. A fabulous scholar, he escaped to become a secy to the Bishop of Cambrai. Trained in a model of inner piety, he became a Greek expert with a desire to bring the Church back to its more simple roots. His rise to scholarship co-incided with the flight of the Greek manuscripts from Constantinople in second half of the 15th Century. He believed passionately in a better model of the church and became a coruscating critic of Church corruption. Open to ideas from all sides eg Socrates, but passionate in his philosophy of Christianity as essentially a religion of the heart, not just the head – ‘follow Christ in his simplicity’. He disliked the material, superstitious Christianity he saw all around. Complex though – hid some of his own real feelings. He paid a formative visit to England where he met John Colet who first put him onto Greek. He became fascinated by the Greek texts and this led to him translating the New Testament – a still flawed but better version than Jerome’s. By printing the Greek opposite the Latin Vulgate, this edition also allowed the scholars of the time to see Jerome’s version as a historical document and to realise that some of its ‘spin’ / mistranslation might have distorted the message.
It is said that he ‘laid the egg that Luther hatched’. as Luther followed Erasmus’ critical insight in establishing his own critique of the Church. However E condemned Luther for putting his own opinions above the Church. Some of his best work, incl. the best seller ‘In Praise of Folly’, uses humour very well. His is a measured Christianity – he praises marriage over celibacy, for example. He found Luther too dogmatic, not nuanced enough, although initially he supported Luther to protect him from the Pope. Essentially his disagreement with Luther was over his view of human nature: he could not accept Luther’s view that humans were essentially flawed. Eventually he came out against Luther over sth. he really believed in: human free will. For Erasmus, free will and grace work together – he paints a picture of a child being supported by his father when first walking – the father supports, and is there if he falls, but the child has to be motivated and try to walk: it made me think of helping a child to learn to ride a bike. He believed that predestination, which came to be such a strong theme in some branches of Protestantism, made God into a monster. For Erasmus God must be good and people must be able to make choices. It cannot just be ‘by faith alone,’ as Luther had said. Erasmus was also a great advocate of peace: war is terrible, and a war between Christians was the worst possible: a betrayal of Christ. After his death the church condemned him and his books were on the banned list. His critique of the way the Church worked, albeit a critique ‘from the inside’ was judged to have opened the way for the Reformation. However his influence in supporting a humane tolerant Christianity can be seen in the later intellectual life in both the Protestant and Catholic faiths.