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Erasmus is a classical humanist: Someone who studies language, literature, history, and moral philosophy. To these humanists education is crucially important. Their ideas are founded on the books of the ancient Romans and they see Latin as the language of civilization. For classical humanists man takes center stage. They ask such questions as: What is good and what is evil? How does one live well? How should children be raised?

For all classical humanists—including Erasmus—the Christian faith is what water is to a fish: Source of life, naturally present, and taken for granted. Knowledge of Christian doctrine is the ultimate goal of their education. Studying the non-Christian literature of Antiquity is the first step required in the education of every Christian. To Erasmus the Bible is the most important book. Since he is dissatisfied with the existing Latin translation of the New Testament, he provides his own translation. A revolutionary deed! The Church considered the old translation to be sacred. No surprise, then, that Erasmus was heavily criticized.



Saint Jerome In His Study
by Antonello da Messina
(The National Gallery, London)

The Church Father Jerome (c. 347–420) was Erasmus’s role model, not only because of his interests as a theologian and a scholar, but also for the way in which he was portrayed. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Jerome’s portraits came to signify the ideal scholar. There is much speculation about the frequent use of animals in portraits of Jerome. The peacock may signify immortality. Because of its habit of stealing other birds’ eggs the partridge may symbolize the devil. The empty basin to the right may emphasize that this particular Jerome is beardless, whereas he was mostly portrayed with a beard. Another possible meaning is the emptiness of all worldly affairs. The cat on the platform is merely a symbol of everyday life for some, while others take it to signify heresy.


Antiquity Rules

The rise of independent civic communities and cities protected by walls signalled a new era: the Renaissance. Urban citizens start gaining more liberties, while the powers of the Church and the Emperor are in decline. Calls for emancipation increase. The notion of equality before the law gains weight. Secular authorities start taking care of the poor. Humanists begin relaying the foundations of education, focusing on man and two elementary aspects of his everyday life: language and behavior (ethics). Their creed is the five so-called studia humanitatis, i.e. the five subjects of humanity/ civilization—the concept that eventually gave the humanists their name. Language is represented by three subjects: Latin (grammar), rhetoric (communication), and poetry (writing). Behavior is studied through moral philosophy (theory) and historiography (practice). For all these matters classical Antiquity provides the knowledge. The ancient Greek and Roman authors (Christians included) become the authorities, and ancient Latin the vehicle of authoritative expression. In the Low Countries, Rudolph Agricola (1444–1485) is the first leader of the new intellectual movement. All his life Erasmus expressed nothing but the highest regard for this Phrisian. In 1476 Agricola inaugurated the new academic year in the University of Ferrara with his Speech in Praise of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts. It contains these characteristically humanist words:

“Socrates, too, is famous primarily for having been the first to lower Philosophy down from the heavens and place it in the cities, among man.”

Back to Basics

Classical humanism flourished during the Renaissance. It originated in northern Italy during the 13th century. Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) was an important and inspiring pioneer. He advocated passionately the refined and elegant Latin written by his idol, the Roman orator/lawyer/politician/ statesman/philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. Petrarch became aware of the historical gap between his era and Antiquity while reading the works of classical authors. This awareness inaugurated the newly intensified study of ancient Greek and Roman culture as a tool for improving contemporary education and its medium, the Latin language. Such studies required a return to classical texts. Hence the humanist rallying cry Ad fontes! Back to the sources! As a result, many classical texts that had been neglected or lost during the Middle Ages—a phrase coined by humanists to name the gap between their age and Antiquity—were rediscovered and preserved for posterity. Classical Latin (vocabulary, syntax, and all) was analyzed and re-established as the lingua franca of the intellectual world.

The world of classical humanism is a world of scribes and scholars, texts and books, philosophy and literature—and the Christian faith. Erasmus represents learning, and especially learning in the service of the Book of Books, the Bible. Other key ingredients of humanism are civility, benevolence, manners, the art of conversation, as well as tolerance, self-development, and dignity. Besides Petrarch, Agricola and Erasmus, main representatives were Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444), Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457), Thomas More (1478–1535), and Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592).

At school in Deventer Erasmus first acquainted himself more intimately with many Greek and Roman authors. He also started writing poetry in the classical vein. Alexander Hegius (c.1433–1498), one of his teachers and himself a pupil of Agricola, further stimulated his interest in the classics. During his long years as a monk in the convent at Stein near Gouda, Erasmus really turned into a humanist scholar. He even uses classical authors for evoking Christ. He also writes his book Antibarbari which pleads for exclusively using the classics in school.

The Restoration of Latin

Several classical Latin texts were well known in the Middle Ages. Yet only a select few were used frequently. Greek texts were read hardly at all. Translations, anthologies, summaries, and commentaries were more popular than their sources, especially in schools and universities. Humanists abhorred this. They advocated returning to the sources and studying these in order to gain intricate knowledge of every detail of the Latin language. A landmark was Lorenzo Valla’s Elegantiae linguae Latinae or Refinements of the Latin Language. Objective: the restoration of ancient Latin. To Valla historical-philological research was indispensable for achieving this objective. This meant analyzing vocabulary and syntax of ancient texts. Thus was born the academic discipline of philology.

The New Testament Renewed

Editing texts was a humanist’s core business. This mainly concerned the bonae litterae, i.e. the works of ancient literary writers and philosophers, both pagan and Christian. In this way humanists hoped to acquaint more people with Antiquity’s masterpieces and thus promote the knowledge and use of its language and wisdom. For, humanists believed in the wholesome effects of a thorough literary education. When rumor had it that Erasmus had died, his friend Beatus Rheanus (1485–1547) spoke of "our Erasmus of Rotterdam ... the best of the masters of the bonae litterae." Erasmus edited many ancient writers and the high point of his career (to himself anyway) was his edition of the New Testament in 1516. Both Valla and Erasmus assigned an important role to historical-philological research in order to purify the text of the Bible. Next to Valla, it was John Colet who inspired Erasmus’s new translation of the New Testament. Valla had written annotations to the New Testament (which Erasmus was also to do). Colet had urged Erasmus to take up Greek, since it would enable him to read the New Testament in the original words. The Novum Instrumentum of 1516 contains a Greek source text, Erasmus’s own translation into Latin (i.e. a vigorous adaptation of Jerome’s translation commonly known as the Vulgate), and numerous annotations in which Erasmus clarifies and justifies his choices as editor and translator.

Today’s Humanism

“Humanism ... is but the conviction that the mental strength indispensable for living life to the full can be gained by associating with people from the past and the present having that strength.” (H.J. Pos)

Modern humanism is typefied by its non-religious, or anti-religious, character. This is the main difference between classical humanism and its modern counterpart. Erasmus would have felt ill at ease with modern humanism, since it has no use for the Christian faith. Humanist estrangement from religion began in the 19th century under the influence of the Enlightenment and its ideals of self-determination, autonomy and, above all, rationality. It posited man in the center of the universe instead of God whom Nietzsche (1844–1900) pronounced dead. Yet modern and classical humanism also have common denominators. For, both advocate freedom, equality, tolerance, compassion, and fairness as basic human needs and rights. Both oppose religious fundamentalism, too.