Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Erasmus of Rotterdam by Roland H. Bainton
Erasmus at the end of his life felt that his lamps had been blown out by the Lutheran gust. Not that Luther was altogether to blame. The incredible ineptitude of the papacy bore a heavier responsibility. Nor was Luther to be held responsible for the excesses of his followers. On that score Erasmus was open to even greater reproach, for the Sacramentarians and iconoclasts claimed to be implementing his ideas.
But blame apart, there was no gain-saying the debacle of the Erasmian program. His followers on both sides of the confessional struggle were being sent by the Catholics to the stake and by the Protestants to the block. His spirit was extinguished and his hopes belied. The universities were being emptied and the studies by which he hoped to refashion the mind of Europe were falling into desuetude. He could do no more that hope that God in His providence would cause the wrath of men to praise Him and that Christ, as Master of the play, would give the tragedy a happy ending. His mood was that of Elijah: "It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life...the people of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thy alters, slain Thy prophets with the sword."
The Lord might have answered Erasmus, as He did Elijah, that there were yet in Israel seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal....the situation varied country by country and century by century. In some lands by the time of his death he was already in eclipse, in others at the very peak of his influence. In Spain by 1533 his vogue was spent. As the century advanced all traces of Catholic liberalism were extinguished. In Italy the great turning point was the year 1542 which saw the establishment of the Roman inquisition. Among the Italians the vogue of Erasmus was perpetuated only by exiles, such as the Socinians, and such champions of religious liberty as Curio, Mino Celso and Acontio. Poland, well into the sixties, was the land of refuge for those cast out by Catholics and Protestants. Hungary, too, for a time was hospitable. France was divided. The Sorbonne had long since been hostile.
In Germany Melanchthon, in accord with the spirit of Erasmus, established a pattern of humanist education which prevailed in revived universities and continued to dominate until, late in the 19th century, the natural sciences encroached upon the humanities and the vernaculars displaced Latin. In the age of Enlightenment Voltaire loved the satire of Erasmus. Herder, Goethe and Lessing found the sprit of Erasmus congenial.
England was the land where the influence of Erasmus was paramount at his death. The entire English Reformation has been characterized as Erasmian, and with justice, if it be remembered that the vogue of his ideas is not necessarily to be attributed solely to his personal impact, since other men of influence in England were of like mind. The Elizabethan settlement breathed the spirit of the Erasmian attempt to achieve comprehension through minimal doctrinal demands. During this period the devotional meditations of Erasmus were not neglected... A survey of the English translations of his works during the succeeding centuries discloses that the 17th preferred the educational works- the Colloquies were used as a school book- the 18th the satirical, notably the Praise of Folly, the 19th the pacifist treatises.
The Low Countries were presumably the area where Erasmus had the most unbroken influence. The reason may be that the temper of the land had long since been formed by that tradition in which Erasmus himself stood, the piety of the Devotio Moderna.
The twentieth century, particularly in its third decade, saw a brief resurgance of interest in Erasmus. Two causes may be assigned. The first was the ecumenical movement. After four hundred and fifty years Catholics and Protestants resumed the dialogue which was possible in the early years of Luther's revolt and which Erasmus endeavored to keep open. The second reason is that the 20th century was- like the Age of Reformation- an age of revolution. Once again the liberals, who desire to bring about social change without violence, were caught between the upper and the nether millstone, and were not ground to flour but to dust! Is drastic reform possible without violence?