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Erasmus's Ideas

Nothing is more important to Erasmus than education. He criticizes the schools of his day. Erasmus uses the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans to renew education. To him this reform is crucial for society. “Education is the basis of all quality.” “People are not born, but formed.” For this reason, many of his books deal with the teaching of language, of writing, of speaking, of good manners, of praying. Erasmus himself privately tutors several rich boys. For his lessons he composes his own textbooks. These become immensely popular. Even 200 years after his death they were still being used all over Europe.

Erasmus brings new ideas into education: Treat children gently. Encourage rather than punish them. Treat children fairly and respectfully. Thus children will learn better, develop faster, and learn to distinguish between good and evil. Thus children will learn to behave likewise towards others. All of this is important for Erasmus. In his opinion people do not live for themselves alone. They should stand up for each other, be honest and reliable.

The Philosophy of Christ

"A simple eye sees nothing but Christ's glory"

In Erasmus’s day, every European is a Christian. But Erasmus is no ordinary Christian. For several years he lives in a monastery. He even becomes a priest. He also writes many books about the Christian faith. Erasmus criticizes the greed of monks and the lust for power of bishops. To him, the Church should be pure and live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ. For a true believer appearances should be irrelevant. The crucial thing is to have a bond with God. This requires reading the Bible. Erasmus retells in his own words the contents of all books in the New Testament: his Paraphrases. He also writes a Manual on how a good Christian should live.

Like Erasmus, Martin Luther (1483–1546) resented the abuses within the Church. But Luther was much more of a radical. He caused the Church to be split into Catholics and Protestants. Erasmus had very much wanted to prevent this from happening. When it did happen, he chose not to take sides at first, but eventually he remained a Catholic. The process alienated him from both camps.

Classical Antiquity and Christianity

Erasmus is on a constant search for the unspoilt source of a pure religious attitude. As a result the studying and practising of the "bonae litterae" are fully subservient to this aim. He wants to reform Christianity by merging the "bonae litterae" and the "sacrae litterae". A perfect knowledge of Greek and Latin was indispensable to anyone who wished to read the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers of the Church — the theologians of the early Church whom Erasmus highly admired. As to ethics, ancient philosophers such as Socrates and Cicero, too, could serve as moral role models for Christians.


St. Jerome

St. Jerome, 1527, by H. van Roemerswaele. For Erasmus the church father Jerome was the role model for how to be a good Christian and scholar. (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum)


Erasmus is much more of a Christian than everybody seems to think nowadays. Because of his nature and education Erasmus becomes suffused with the attainments of the "Modern Devotion". This is a typically Dutch variant of late-medieval religious life, characterised by an emphasis on internalisation of religious awareness. In this respect Erasmus inclines toward pietism. In the view of Erasmus this emphasis on internalisation does not only imply losing oneself in deeply-felt emotional awareness; first and foremost it implies the pursuit of a maximum degree of learning, required to support and deepen instinctive religious life.


Self-chastisement of St. Jerome

By Joost van Cleve (1485-1540); oil painting (Brussels, Erasmushuis)

In countless passages he turns against externalised religious signs used by many to give additional shape to their faith. To Erasmus all kinds of worldly display are gruesome and he finds fault with all possible forms of external religious experience, such as the worship of saints, relics and images, pilgrimages, ostentatious attendance of masses, or praying to impress. To Erasmus these were instances of meaningless rituals. He did not oppose religious ceremonies and rituals as such, but he stressed that these should be truly meaningful. The sacrament of baptism was highly important to him and he very much valued attending mass. Which is why it is not surprising to find him stating, later in life, that he had come to miss the forms of ecclesiastical ceremony with which he had been so familiar. These had been banished from public life as a result of the iconoclastic fury of 9 February 1529 in Basel and the resulting take-over by the protestants.


Struggle with Luther

"Christ I know. Luther I have never come to know."

Luther's 95 theses

On 31 October 1517 the Augustinian monk and professor of theology Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the church of Wittenberg to arouse public discussion. At this crucial moment in history Erasmus is at the zenith of his career. He has just published his Latin translation of the New Testament and is in great demand as a counsel and intellectual leader in Europe.
Luther's theses were mainly aimed to attack the flourishing trade in papal indulgences which people bought under the illusion that they had now secured themselves a place in heaven. Although this practice had long been an object of criticism, it rejoiced great popularity on the other hand. It was popular among believers as well as among ecclesiastical authorities, who made a pretty penny out of it. The proceeds did not only come to the benefit of churches and special places of worship but they were also considered as a funding source for all kind of enterprises – such as dyke construction in the Netherlands – or the paying-off of debts.

Letter from the ecclesiastical leader of Wittenberg

About one month before Luther's public stand Erasmus had received a letter from the archbishop of Mainz. As this person also was archbishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt he was also in charge of the diocese of Wittenberg. In his letter the prelate expressed his wish to be able to meet Erasmus eye to eye one day and that he hoped that Erasmus would write a number of hagiographies. In his reply Erasmus greatly praised the prelate, partly because next to worrying about his official daily duties he had come to be greatly annoyed with the old wives' tales that went on for hagiographies at the time. They were so badly written that even those who were slightly literate could read them without getting bored. Indeed they had to be cleared of all kinds of falseness. Even more so, the church ordained people to reject all utterances that were not based on the Bible itself or that had not been propagated by eminent people.