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"Building a city is much better than destroying one."

"Of all deeds which win praise, isn’t war the seed and source? But what is more foolish than to embark on a struggle of this kind for some reason or other when it does more harm than good to either side?" These are the words of the protagonist in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium or Laus Stultitiae). Since she is Lady Folly herself, we shouldn’t necessarily take her words at face value. Yet like every pacifist Erasmus has argued elsewhere that war generates more pain than gain. Generally, the argument fails to convince bellicose rulers into proceeding peacefully.

Warfare in the Age of Erasmus

What did war look like in the age of Erasmus? The decline of feudalism caused changes also in late-medieval warfare. Gracious, yet hardly effective chivalry in battle disappeared. Standing armies and cannons came to determine the outcome of wars. Cannons quickly turned into an important means of defending a city. Mercenary armies—which usually consisted of many Swiss soldiers—often were quite undisciplined. Other manifestations of martial terror were robbers and gangs. Life was hard especially for all those living outside the walls of a city: farmers, village people, travelers. It was hard to distinguish between robbers and mercenary soldiers. For, if the latter received no pay, they usually started looting the land within days.

The Anti-Pope

A major cause for Erasmus’s disgust of war was the triumphant entry into Bologna of the belligerent Pope Julius II in 1506, during Erasmus’s Italian years. This event triggered the publication of a satirical pamphlet Julius Excluded from Heaven (Iulius exclusus e coelis). It renounces war in general as well as the Pope’s lust for it. The pamphlet caused much debate which continues to this day. Erasmus persistently denied being its author. Yet most scholars now agree that Erasmus uttered his denial merely for fear of papal retaliation. Many years later, when Erasmus was nearly fifty years old, he used a letter to one of his patrons, Anthony of Bergen, for reiterating all his arguments against war.

Erasmus Against War

Christianity and war are absolutely irreconcilable, Erasmus argues. War invariably results in crudelity, whether conducted by pagans or Christians, by common folk or popes and bishops, by the young or the old.

God has given to each animal his own particular weapon, except to man. Man’s body and intellectual faculties indicate that he is destined to live a life of love and friendship.

As a living being, man is unique in being dependent on external support. After all, a baby cannot walk nor eat by itself. Through crying and yelling it asks for help. To Erasmus this indicates that man is destined for friendship, since mutual support fosters friendship above all else.

Some of Erasmus’s arguments against war are rather personal and practical. He sees war as the business of illiterate people. He considers it far beneath himself and other intellectuals. Personal discomforts at times of war also have a part to play—such as more perils on the road and a lack of wine!


Michael Ostendorfer : The Campaign of 1529 against the Turks
(Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum)

Erasmus pacifisme Turkenveldtocht.jpg

This woodcut made by a contemporary of Erasmus tells the story of the first attempt by Charles V at halting the Turkish advance in Austria. At the time the Ottoman Empire was a mighty force succesfully trying to expand its frontiers. Charles’s campaign was fruitful, although he didn’t win a decisive victory. In 1532 followed the battle of Vienna. This woodcut shows Charles’s assembled armies. In the back to the left we see Baden, a town near Vienna.

Nuances to Erasmus’s Pacifism

Erasmus’s indignation of war concerns the conflicts between Christians. His pacifism is by no means absolute. To him a country is justified in fighting foreign agression, Christian or otherwise. (Of course, the term country in the sense of nation state is an anachronism here.) Equally justified is violence used to oppress domestic rebellion. This is why Erasmus had no qualms about the war against the Turks who were militarily threatening the Habsburg rule of Austria, nor did he find fault with the violent oppression of the revolutionary Anabaptists. However, heretics abstaining from violence should be treated mildly, Erasmus pleaded. And even Turks (muslims) should not be converted to Christianity by use of force. If no Turks converted, according to Erasmus the Christians themselves were to blame, since their way of life constituted a bad example to follow. To Erasmus’s mind the killing of Turks was justified only if they were agressors, not because they were muslims.

In this context Erasmus gave a statement that is often misunderstood or misquoted. In his Handbook of the Christian Soldier he writes that a physician must fight the disease, not the patient, and then continues: “One must kill the Turk, not the man.” By this he means that one shouldn’t kill Turkish people, but the thing that makes them Turkish, i.e. their muslim faith. In other words, Erasmus is urging his contemporaries to convert the Turks to Christianity. Obviously, the word Turk had a negative ring for Erasmus (as for all his Christian contemporaries), but he didn’t call for violence to be used against them.

Likewise, in his essay on the proverb The Sileni of Alcibiades Erasmus writes: "I would like pontiffs to be warlike - but against those true enemies of the Church: simony, pride, lust, ambition, anger, impiety. These are the Turks against whom Christians must be always watchful, always on the offensive. This is the sort of warfare in which a bishop should lead and inspire." (Adagia, nr. 2201, tr. R.A.B. Mynors)

Erasmus had no interest in Judaism which, he believed, had been outdated by the birth of Jesus Christ — as the Old Testament had been outdated by the New Testament. Jewish laws reminded him too much of the catholic church laws that oppressed him. These views may be unsatisfactory to us, but we can hardly expect more from Erasmus or his European contemporaries. Several anti-Jewish statements of Erasmus are known. Invariably, these are aimed at specific persons whom he disliked in particular. There is absolutely no evidence of any systematic or political-ideological hatred of the Jews — which we might, then, anachronistically term anti-semitism. For Erasmus, Jews like Muslims ought to be tolerated in society. Nowhere does Erasmus call for the expulsion of Jews, for the expropriation of their possessions, or for setting fire to their synagogues (as Martin Luther did in 1543). Any religion that failed to put Jesus Christ first was by definition unacceptable to Erasmus. Therefore, Jews like Muslims had better convert themselves to Christianity.