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Definition: Erasmus from Collins English Dictionary


1 Desiderius (ˌdɛzɪˈdɪərɪəs), real name Gerhard Gerhards. ?1466–1536, Dutch humanist, the leading scholar of the Renaissance in northern Europe. He published the first Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516; his other works include the satirical Encomium Moriae (1509); Colloquia (1519), a series of dialogues; and an attack on the theology of Luther, De Libero Arbitrio (1524)

Summary Article: Erasmus, Desiderius
From The Classical Tradition

Dutch Humanist, scholar, and author (1466 or 1469-1536). Born in Rotterdam but determined to become a "citizen of the world," Erasmus earned that citizenship and with it a reputation as the chief intellectual of the European Renaissance. During three and a half decades he wrote as a scholar, advocate, and popularizer of ancient Greek and Latin. While focusing on the languages and literature of antiquity, however, he avoided the calling of the antiquarian, instead regarding the activity of reading the ancients, including the early Christians, as part of a fuller program of living the philosophy of Christ.

Erasmus was schooled too far to the north—at Deventer, then at Steyn, and finally at Paris—to benefit from the latest educational reforms in Italy that featured the classical tradition. As a teenager and a young man, he had to introduce himself to the new curriculum of Latin poets, orators, historians, and philosophers recently made available to larger audiences through the infant technology of printing. On more than one occasion he recalled in letters to friends the powerful early impression that these classical authors made on him, the contempt he felt, under their spell, for the literary deficiencies of more recent, especially Scholastic writing, and his growing sense of personal mission to bring Humanistic studies to Northern Europe (Epistles 152, 1110, 1183).

But returning to classical Latin was not enough. "For whereas we Latins have a few small streams, a few muddy pools," he pronounced with the overstatement of the enthusiast, "the Greeks possess crystal-clear springs and rivers that run with gold" (Ep. 149). Consequently, after repeated failures to find a suitable teacher, Erasmus undertook (when he was about 30) to teach himself Greek. From this undertaking came a few of his earliest publications and the start of an accomplished and eventually controversial career as a translator. "There is," he insisted, "no more daring feat than to try to make good Latin out of good Greek" (Ep. 197). In keeping with the translation theory of the Italian Humanists, Erasmus followed Ciceronian method in safeguarding the sense of the original at the expense of strict literality, even though he admitted to striving for greater accuracy.

In 1506 in Paris Erasmus published translations from two Greek authors: a couple of plays by Euripides and some dialogues by Lucian (in collaboration with his dear friend Thomas More). In 1514 in Basel he followed with selected essays from Plutarch's Moralia. This publication launched Erasmus' long and productive partnership with Johann Froben, whose plans for his printing house conveniently coincided with Erasmus' mission regarding the classics. (Before Froben, Erasmus had collaborated successfully with the other major publisher of ancient, especially Greek texts, Aldus Manutius.)

Over time, with all the energy of a missionary, Erasmus added Isocrates (1516), Galen (1526), and Xenophon (1530) to his list of published translations. But because "we can do nothing in any field of literature without a knowledge of Greek" and because "it is one thing to guess, another to judge; one thing to trust your own eyes, and another again to trust those of others" (Ep. 181), Erasmus also translated the best of the Greek grammars, that of the émigré Theodore Gaza (1516, 1518), to assist those who might be inspired, as he had been, to drink on their own from the "crystal-clear springs." And to what Greek literature he neither edited nor translated, such as Aristotle (1531), Demosthenes (1532), and Ptolemy (1533), he lent high-profile prefaces designed to increase sales and broaden readership. If at the turn of the century he had lamented the sorry state of Greek studies in Northern Europe, a generation later—and with no small thanks to his own efforts—he could "see Greek coming to life again everywhere" (Ep. 428).

Totally immersed after 1500 in reading, translating, and publishing Greek literature, Erasmus continued his scholarship on his favorite Latin authors. In 1501 he produced his first Latin edition, Cicero's De officiis (On Duties), which he reedited in 1520. In 1515 and again, more carefully, in 1529, he joined with Froben to bring out his editions of Seneca. In these and other editorial efforts, Erasmus furthered the scholarly practices of his Italian predecessors, especially Lorenzo Valla. Very early in his career (1489) Erasmus prepared an epitome of Valla's groundbreaking study of the Roman language, which he later paraphrased. In 1504-1505 he found and saw through publication Valla's controversial notes on the New Testament. Under the influence of Italian scholarship, including Valla's, he advocated collating available manuscripts and grounding editorial conjectures on the elements of a writer's style. Even faulty manuscripts, he insisted, could provide valuable clues to an emended reading. In the interest of emendation, he pioneered a principle, still in use today, that directs the editor to prefer the more obscure reading (the difficilior lectio) on the grounds that it is less likely to represent a scribal alteration. In addition he inaugurated the practice in his own editions of separating out attributed works that he considered spurious.

In the meantime, Erasmus was also revolutionizing the training of young writers of classical Latin with a number of his most highly acclaimed works. Some of these, including De ratione studii (On the Method of Study) and De recta pronuntiatione (The Right Way of Speaking Latin and Greek), served as teaching manuals. Together they set the course in Northern Europe for what to teach, how to teach it, and even how to pronounce it. Other works were intended as aids for the student: among these, De conscribendis epistolis (On the Writing of Letters) and De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (Copia: Foundations of Abundant Style) were bestsellers and became standard textbooks, used widely by beginning and advanced students alike in the schools all over Europe dedicated to the revival of classical learning. No less successful were two other works designed as reading and writing aids: the Adagiorum chiliades, or Adages, a vast collection of more than 4,000 Greek and Latin proverbs that introduced its readers to the wisdom of the ancients, and the Colloquies, a collection of brief dialogues, often satiric in tone, at once illustrating good spoken (that is, Classical) Latin and exhorting good Christian living.

Although designed principally for pedagogy, these hugely popular works also served Erasmus' polemical aims. Targeting "prospective readers … who dislike the current jargon and are searching for greater elegance and a more refined style" (Ep. 126), they made the case for the ancients over the moderns. For guidance on method they recommended Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. For stylistic models they featured Cicero, without taking the part of the more inflexible Ciceronians of the day (discussed below), who excluded altogether other writers of distinction. Indeed, Erasmus' own Latin style, a model throughout the next century for other writers not only in Latin but also in the vernaculars, intentionally avoided the flourishes of Ciceronian phrasing in favor of a more colloquial, appropriately Christian expression. Erasmus himself characterized this preferred style as "more genuine, more concise, more forceful, less ornate, and more masculine" (Ep. 1885). On both his own report and that of others, Erasmian Latin achieved distinction without the high polish of the Ciceronian.

But not all distinguished writing—not even all distinguished ancient writing—was suitable for teaching. "The Book of Psalms may be more holy than the Odes of Horace," argues one of the two principal interlocutors in Erasmus' dialogue on speaking proper Latin and Greek, "but for all that Horace is better to learn Latin from." Offered here as pedagogical advice, this comparison between the Horatian ode and the Hebrew psalm in the Vulgate's Latin signals Erasmus' investment in another major issue dividing Humanists of the 16th century: the relation between classical and Christian literature. (Unable to make much progress in Hebrew, Erasmus tended to exclude this ancient language from his discussions, sometimes even derogating both its literature and the "Pharisaical" types who read it.)

Taking on a religious establishment committed to the view that "the whole business of classical languages and the humanities … are the springs from which heresies flow" (Ep. 948), Erasmus rarely missed an opportunity to advance a position to the contrary. Throughout his writings, educational and otherwise, he did not merely encourage the good Christian's familiarity with the ancient world, he insisted on it. He believed that understanding the New Testament as the cornerstone of Christianity depended on an understanding of both ancient Greek and the cultures in which it flourished (Ep. 108, 149). To this end, he considered the writers of pagan Greece and Rome indispensable.

Thus in sacred no less than in secular literature Erasmus championed the priority of the original, the fons et origo. Indeed, his own motivation to master a difficult ancient language at a relatively late age was grounded in an intense desire not only to read for himself the words of Scripture as they were actually written but also, through his experience as editor, interpreter, and translator, to share his scriptural as well as his classical readings with the rest of Europe. He feared that the academic theology of the experts had become "too deeply sunk in the quibbling discussion of worthless minor problems" and needed to be recalled "to its sources" (Ep. 1183). Meanwhile, the general population, ignorant of Latin as well as Greek, was utterly denied access to the very texts that structured their lives and shaped their beliefs.

Addressing this ignorance head-on in Paraclesis (1516), a manifesto of popular religion appended to his first edition of the New Testament, Erasmus wondered pointedly if "he [could be] a theologian, let alone a Christian, who has not read the book of Christ?" As early as 1506, in fact, he had turned his attention to the scholarly project that would over the course of the rest of his life generate multiple editions of the New Testament (1516, 1519, 1522, 1527, 1535), including translation and annotations, as well as a running commentary in narrative form intended for easier reading, the so-called Paraphrases (1517-1524). All together this scholarly output, despite being written in Latin, supported a populist's vision of spirituality expressed most forcefully in the Paraclesis: a Christendom in which all men, women, and children go about their daily occupations reciting the words of a vernacular Scripture that they both comprehend fully and love wholeheartedly.

By his own account the centerpiece of his intellectual career, Erasmus' biblical scholarship, clearly modeled on his classical scholarship, plunged him into controversies with divines on both sides of the theological divide, from which he never disengaged. Although criticized and ultimately condemned by both parties, Erasmus nevertheless found confirmation for his views in the earliest Fathers of the Church, including Jerome, Augustine, Origen, Basil, and John Chrysostom, who, he assured his critics, not only were deeply learned in Greek and Latin literature but also recognized their debt to its cultural and linguistic richness.

In The Antibarbarians (1520), Erasmus' most extensive and outspoken defense of the classical tradition in the form of a dialogue, the principal spokesman, Jacob Batt, invokes the authority of Jerome and Augustine to justify "transfer[ring] heathen literature to the adornment of our faith." Passing lightly over the sensitive issue of the salvation of select classical authors, Batt makes no bones about Christianity's debt to them, saved or otherwise. "[We] Christians have nothing," he claims, "that we have not inherited from the pagans." And in his religious writings he softened but by no means retracted this position.

A handbook for the Christian soul in its battle against temptation, the Enchiridion (1503) recommends studying the classical tradition as a preparation for studying Scripture. The best preparation, moreover, is Plato and his followers, "because in much of their thinking as well as in their mode of expression, they are the closest to the spirit of the prophets and the Gospel." Indeed, Scripture itself resembles the Silenus that Alcibiades compares to Socrates in Plato's Symposium: crude and even ridiculous on the outside, but on the inside inexpressibly deep and holy. It stands to reason, then, that the Church Fathers most able to understand the mysteries of Scripture were those trained to read Plato.

Like the Enchiridion in this regard, the Paraclesis issues a call to reading Scripture that features the commonalities between the word of God and the classics. After all, how different from the teachings of Socrates, Diogenes, and Epictetus is the philosophy of Christ? "If there are things that belong particularly to Christianity in these ancient writers," Erasmus proclaims, "let us follow them"—a proclamation that also echoes loudly throughout his educational works.

In both the introduction to the Adages and in some of the explanatory essays accompanying individual adages, including "Silenus of Alcibiades," Erasmus singles out Christ and Plato as the two undisputed masters of proverbial wisdom. In the colloquy entitled Convivium religiosum (Godly Feast), modeled on Plato's Phaedrus, the group of friends assembled for a communal meal and a reading of Scripture not only invokes the prayers of "Saint Socrates" but also speculates playfully on the sanctification of several other pagan authors, including Virgil, Horace, and Cicero. So moving are the philosophical works of the Roman orator that those assembled agree that they would rather lose the whole of Duns Scotus than even a single Ciceronian fragment. Included in this treasured corpus is Cicero's On Duties, which Erasmus, as noted above, edited twice. In the preface to his second edition he contrasts Cicero with the "modern authors of our own country" (Ep. 1013). Though reading them leaves him cold, reading Cicero "fires my whole self with a zeal for honor and virtue." Here as elsewhere Erasmus holds to the view that reading literature, whether classical or Christian, is an ethical activity that culminates in virtuous action.

Also here as elsewhere he summons an esteemed Church Father to bolster his cause. "Never before," he admits, "have I more clearly felt the truth of what Augustine writes: that the virtuous acts of pagans are a sharper spur toward goodness in ourselves than those of our own people, when we reflect what a disgrace it is that a heart illuminated by the light of the Gospel should not see what was seen clearly by them with only nature's candle to show them the way." For Erasmus, in other words, Christians hold no monopoly on good "Christian" living. A classical tradition that embraces such worthies as Plato and Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca, provides invaluable models not only for eloquent expression but also for ethical action. And Erasmus routinely observes just how many Church Fathers appreciated this value.

But these frequently invoked patristic authorities do more than testify to an antiquity worthy of attention and even emulation. Like the New Testament, they belong to this antiquity, requiring no less than Cicero or Plutarch the efforts of the editor, translator, and interpreter. Erasmus began this effort with his monumental work on Jerome's letters, contemplated as early as 1500 (Ep. 139, 141) but not completed, like his New Testament, until 1516. Thereafter he added to his scholarly credits a long list of editions of other early Greek and Latin Fathers, including Cyprian (1520), Hilary (1523), Ambrose (1527), Augustine (1528-1529), Lactantius (1529), John Chrysostom (1530), Basil (1532), and Origen (1536). Freed from "the entanglements introduced by the modern school" and restored by Erasmus' best efforts to their original condition, these writings revealed "that ancient, true theology" (Ep. 108); at the same time they "cast light on the ancient world" (Ep. 1139).

Thus for nearly four decades Erasmus gave his considerable talents as a reader and a writer to explaining, promoting, and popularizing classical literature, especially the parts of it he deemed most compatible with Christianity. At regular intervals, moreover, he reaffirmed his service to the classical tradition as serving a higher calling to sacred literature. Compatibility, after all, differs from identity. Though sacred literature and classical literature share much, they are not the same. As a translator of Euripides, Erasmus explained, he could make a mistake "to the cost of my intellectual reputation alone," but as a translator of the New Testament, he could do real "harm to Holy Writ" (Ep. 188). Even those works, like his own Paraclesis, that advance the cause of classical literature consider it "wicked madness to wish to compare Christ with Zeno or Aristotle and His teaching with, to put it mildly, the paltry precepts of those men." Like the Paraclesis, these works address the dangers of idolizing secular writing and thereby substituting it for the only literature worthy of veneration. Most controversial among these works is Erasmus' Ciceronian (1528).

Responding to the excessive cultivation of Ciceronian style fashionable in Italy and France, Erasmus entered (inadvertently, it seems) a long-standing debate over the proper method of imitation. Before him, this debate had embroiled, among others, his favorite Italian Humanist, Lorenzo Valla. Afterward it would continue to exercise the argumentative skills of many others, including Peter Ramus in France and Gabriel Harvey in England.

In Erasmus' Ciceronian this debate takes the form of a satiric dialogue not unlike those of the Colloquies. The target of this satire, a strict Ciceronian named Nosoponus, labors to write like Cicero by copying the master to the letter, that is, by reproducing Cicero's vocabulary, his turns of phrase, his sentence structure. His partner in conversation, Bulephorus (presumably speaking for Erasmus), argues for a less rigid method, one that imitates the spirit, instead of the letter, of Ciceronian writing. This method, in contrast, is grounded in the fundamental rhetorical principle of decorum.

In keeping with all the best classical authorities, including Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, Bulephorus understands decorum as the art of accommodating one's style to the subject matter, the speaker, and, most urgently, the audience. According to this principle, a writer like Nosoponus, who insists on imitating Cicero exactly, will inevitably fail to accommodate his audience—no longer the Romans of the late Republic but rather the Christians of early modern Europe—and therefore fail to qualify as Ciceronian in the true sense of the term. The real Ciceronian writing in Erasmus' day would thus handle Christian topics in a Christian way, even though Cicero himself never addressed these topics or used such language. Paradoxically, then, the writing that most exactly imitates Cicero is least Ciceronian. The real Ciceronian (i.e., Bulephorus rather than Nosoponus) is simultaneously a good Christian. Challenging at this point in his career not the anti-classical reader but rather the hyperclassical writer, Erasmus nevertheless upholds the fundamental compatibility between Christian and classical literature. Alive today, he insists, Cicero would surely not write as he did then but as the best writers do now. In his own writing, moreover, Erasmus practiced what he preached, regularly accommodating classical forms to a Christian agenda. His work best known to present-day readers, The Praise of Folly (1511), brilliantly adapts ancient sophistic encomium to Pauline theology.

As part of his case in The Antibarbarians against those defenders of ignorance who reject the study of classical literature, Erasmus offers an invidious (and provocative) comparison between scholarship and martyrdom, and he does so on the basis of influence. Whereas the martyr diminishes the number of the faithful by one, the scholar increases it by many. Indeed, the martyr's act of heroism remains unknown and inconsequential without the scholar to record it. For "where there is learned scholarship, nothing stops it from spreading out to all humanity." Without question, Erasmus entered the Renaissance world of classical scholarship intending to have such an effect. Arguably, he succeeded. At the very least, as one scholar of the Renaissance, Craig R. Thompson, puts it, "In [Erasmus'] lifetime no one did more to advance the intelligent study of classical languages and literatures and to explain their value for Christians."

  • O'Rourke Boyle, Marjorie, Christening Pagan Mysteries: Erasmus in Pursuit of Wisdom (Toronto1981). Collected Works of Erasmus ed. Mynors, R. A B. et al. (Toronto1974--).
  • Eden, Kathy, Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property, and the "Adages" of Erasmus (New Haven2001).
  • Fantham, Elaine, "Erasmus and the Latin Classics," in Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto1989) 29:xxxiv-l.
  • Olin, John C., ed., Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus (New York1987).
  • Pfeiffer, Rudolf, History of Classical Scholarship, 1300--1850 (Oxford1976) 71-81.
  • Mann Phillips, Margaret, "Erasmus and the Classics," in Erasmus ed. Dorey, T. A. (Albuquerque1970) 1-30.
  • Rummel, Erika, Erasmus as a Translator of the Classics (Toronto1985).
K. E.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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