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Most opinions about Erasmus are in fact opinions about The Praise of Folly. But Erasmus wrote much more: His highly varied output amounts to more than a hundred works including treatises, poems, commentaries, and over 1,600 letters. Erasmus also edited the New Testament, classical authors, and Church Fathers. He produced beautiful Latin translations of Greek texts. To reach a meaningful assessment of Erasmus you need at least to leaf through other works besides The Praise of Folly.

The majority of Erasmus’s work is religious. His writings include a prayer book, an art of dying, and the Handbook of the Christian Soldier. A modern scholar called it ‘the most boring book in the history of piety’, but in Erasmus’s time it was very popular. The Handbook taught that the intrinsic and spiritual side of Christianity was more important than ecclesiastical rituals and prescriptions. It apparently had a liberating effect on many.

Erasmus’s correspondence tells us a great deal about himself, or rather about how he liked to be perceived. He reworked some of his letters for publication. These show him as a self-made intellectual without family ties but with a network of friends; as a scholar whose literary studies contributed to the study of Scripture, yet were often met with ingratitude. He did not publish his youthful and overly sensitive letters to Servaas Rogier, a fellow monk from his monastery period. These have provided ample material for psychologists: Was Erasmus gay? Who can say? The letters do not give any clear evidence, but they appear to be stylistic exercises.

If you look for Erasmus in a bookshop, you will be sent to the philosophy section. We have to classify the humanist, reformer, pacifist, educator, philosopher, theologian, man of letters, and all, in some way. As a philosopher, Erasmus was certainly not a systematic thinker. What he referred to as his ‘Christian philosophy’ (philosophia christiana) was no abstract system but a set of rules that everyone could understand.

Erasmus’s ideal was an elegant Latin style far removed from the ‘barbarous’ Middle Ages and the jargon of traditional academics. He imitated the model of classical Antiquity in accordance with the program of the humanists (in the original sense of practitioners of the humanities). Erasmus’s Latin was admired throughout Europe, although some critics thought that it did not sufficiently resemble Cicero’s Latin. Erasmus countered that there were other classical models, too, and that one must develop a personal style.

Everyone believes that his own war is a just war. Generally, the victims are countless innocents, including one’s own people. In Erasmus’s opinion war is so disastrous that it should be avoided at all costs. Even an unjust peace is to be preferred. That Christians bash each other’s brains out while appealing to the same God for victory is especially distasteful. At worst, a country may defend itself against aggression. All this sounds less naive than people expect.

Etiquette is fashionable again. Many young people are concerned with how things should be done. Erasmus wrote a popular book on the subject. Many of his rules will be familiar to us: Don’t cough in someone’s face; don’t help yourself to the best food at the table. That you shouldn’t laugh at obscene words or gestures now seems rather old-fashioned, but his advice that you shouldn’t quarrel when playing sports and games and that you should respect the referee’s decision still have a resonance today. Erasmus concluded that the essence of etiquette is thinking of others and making allowance for their faults.

Erasmus was very much in favor of women’s intellectual development. He believed they were better off marrying than shutting themselves away in a convent. If the marriage was bad, she could still make something of it by being flexible and forgiving. Erasmus wasn’t exactly an early feminist but his views on women were far less traditional than those of his fellow Catholics. He believed that the absolute prohibition of divorce was unfair: A woman given in marriage to a man with syphilis should be able to seek a divorce.

Erasmus is a symbol of tolerance. But not in the modern sense, i.e. as an advocate of a pluralist society. He preferred to think of everyone as a member of a single Christian church which to him guaranteed social cohesion. He regretted that the Reformation had led to a split in the church, but he did not wish to impose unity through violence; he opposed the execution of heretics. He considered coercion in religious matters to be unlawful, also in relation to Jews and Muslims.

Can we still learn anything from Erasmus? First, he was a great writer, so you can simply enjoy reading his work rather than learning anything from it. But he does have things to teach us: An aversion to obscure and inflated jargon; the need for good education; pacifism that is realistic; religion without fundamentalism; tolerance that does not rule out polemics; an ironic view of the world.

Text: Prof. J. Trapman