In northern countries the Renaissance began later than in Italy, and soon became entangled with the Reformation. But there was a brief period, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, during which the new learning was being vigorously disseminated in France, England, and Germany, without having become involved in theological controversy. This northern Renaissance was in many ways very different from that of Italy. It was not anarchic or amoral; on the contrary, it was associated with piety and public virtue. It was much interested in applying standards of scholarship to the Bible, and in obtaining a more accurate text than that of the Vulgate. It was less brilliant and more solid than its Italian progenitor, less concerned with personal display of learning, and more anxious to spread learning as widely as possible.
Two men, Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, will serve as exemplars of the northern Renaissance. They were close friends, and had much in common. Both were learned, though More less so than Erasmus; both despised the scholastic philosophy; both aimed at ecclesiastical reform from within, but deplored the Protestant schism when it came; both were witty, humorous, and highly skilled writers. Before Luther's revolt, they were leaders of thought, but after it the world was too violent, on both sides, for men of their type. More suffered martyrdom, and Erasmus sank into ineffectiveness.
Neither Erasmus nor More was a philosopher in the strict sense of the word. My reason for speaking of them is that they illustrate the temper of a pre-revolutionary age, when there is a widespread demand for moderate reform, and timid men have not yet been frightened into reaction by extremists. They exemplify also the dislike of everything systematic in theology or philosophy which characterized the reactions against scholasticism.
Erasmus (1466–1536) was born at Rotterdam.1 He was illegitimate and invented a romantically untrue account of the circumstances of his birth. In fact, his father was a priest, a man of some learning, with a knowledge of Greek. His parents died before he was grown up, and his guardians (apparently because they had embezzled his money) cajoled him into becoming a monk at the monastery of Steyr, a step which he regretted all the rest of his life. One of his guardians was a schoolmaster, but knew less Latin than Erasmus already knew as a schoolboy; in reply to a Latin epistle from the boy, the schoolmaster wrote: 'If you should write again so elegantly, please to add a commentary.'
In 1493, he became secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, who was Chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece. This gave him the opportunity to leave the monastery and travel, though not to Italy, as he had hoped. His knowledge of Greek was as yet very slight, but he was a highly accomplished Latinist; he particularly admired Lorenzo Valla, on account of his book on the elegancies of the Latin language. He considered latinity quite compatible with true devotion, and instanced Augustine and Jerome—forgetting, apparently, the dream in which Our Lord denounced the latter for reading Cicero.
He was for a time at the University of Paris, but found nothing there that was of profit to himself. The university had had its great days, from the beginning of scholasticism to Gerson and the conciliar movement, but now the old disputes had become arid. Thomists and Scotists, who jointly were called the Ancients, disputed against Occamists, who were called the Terminists, or Moderns. At last, in 1482, they were reconciled, and made common cause against the humanists, who were making headway in Paris outside university circles. Erasmus hated the scholastics, whom he regarded as superannuated and antiquated. He mentioned in a letter that, as he wanted to obtain the doctor's degree, he tried to say nothing either graceful or witty. He did not really like any philosophy, not even Plato and Aristotle, though they, being ancients, had to be spoken of with respect.
In 1499 he made his first visit to England, where he liked the fashion of kissing girls. In England he made friends with Colet and More, who encouraged him to undertake serious work rather than literary trifles. Colet lectured on the Bible without knowing Greek; Erasmus, feeling that he would like to do work on the Bible, considered that a knowledge of Greek was essential. After leaving England at the beginning of 1500, he set to work to learn Greek, though he was too poor to afford a teacher; by the autumn of 1502 he was proficient, and when in 1506 he went to Italy, he found that the Italians had nothing to teach him. He determined to edit St Jerome, and to bring out a Greek Testament with a new Latin translation; both were achieved in 1516.
The discovery of inaccuracies in the Vulgate was subsequently of use to the Protestants in controversy. He tried to learn Hebrew, but gave it up.
The only book by Erasmus that is still read is The Praise of Folly. The conception of this book came to him in 1509, while he was crossing the Alps on the way from Italy to England. He wrote it quickly in London, at the house of Sir Thomas More, to whom it is dedicated, with a playful suggestion of appropriateness since 'moros' means 'fool'. The book is spoken by Folly in her own person; she sings her own praises with great gusto, and her text is enlivened still further with illustrations by Holbein. She covers all parts of human life, and all classes and professions. But for her, the human race would die out, for who can marry without folly? She counsels, as an antidote to wisdom, 'taking a wife, a creature so harmless and silly, and yet so useful and convenient, as might mollify and make pliable the stiffness and morose humour of men'. Who can be happy without flattery or without self-love? Yet such happiness is folly. The happiest men are those who are nearest the brutes and divest themselves of reason. The best happiness is that which is based on delusion, since it costs least: it is easier to imagine oneself a king than to make oneself a king in reality. Erasmus proceeds to make fun of national pride and of professional conceit: almost all professors of the arts and sciences are egregiously conceited, and derive their happiness from their conceit.
There are passages where the satire gives way to invective, and Folly utters the serious opinions of Erasmus; these are concerned with ecclesiastical abuses. Pardons and indulgences, by which priests 'compute the time of each soul's residence in purgatory'; the worship of saints, even of the Virgin, 'whose blind devotees think it manners to place the mother before the Son'; the disputes of theologians as to the Trinity and the Incarnation; the doctrine of transubstantiation; the scholastic sects; popes, cardinals, and bishops—all are fiercely ridiculed. Particularly fierce is the attack on the monastic orders: they are 'brainsick fools', who have very little religion in them, yet are 'highly in love with themselves, and fond admirers of their own happiness'. They behave as if all religion consisted in minute punctilio: 'The precise number of knots to the tying on of their sandals; what distinct colours their respective habits, and what stuff made of; how broad and long their girdles,' and so on. 'It will be pretty to hear their pleas before the great tribunal: one will brag how he mortified his carnal appetite by feeding only upon fish: another will urge that he spent most of his time on earth in the divine exercise of singing psalms: … another, that in threescore years he never so much as touched a piece of money, except he fingered it through a thick pair of gloves.' But Christ will interrupt: 'Woe unto you, scribes and pharisees, … I left you but one precept, of loving another, which I do not hear any one plead that he has faithfully discharged.' Yet on earth these men are feared, for they know many secrets from the confessional, and often blab them when they are drunk.
Popes are not spared. They should imitate their Master by humility and poverty. 'Their only weapons ought to be those of the Spirit; and of these indeed they are mightily liberal, as of their interdicts, their suspensions, their denunciations, their aggravations, their greater and lesser excommunications, and their roaring bulls, that fight whomever they are thundered against; and these most holy fathers never issue them out more frequently than against those who, at the instigation of the devil, and not having the fear of God before their eyes, do feloniously and maliciously attempt to lessen and impair St Peter's patrimony.'
It might be supposed, from such passages, that Erasmus would have welcomed the Reformation, but it proved otherwise.
The book ends with the serious suggestion that true religion is a form of Folly. There are, throughout, two kinds of Folly, one praised ironically, the other seriously; the kind praised seriously is that which is displayed in Christian simplicity. This praise is of a piece with Erasmus's dislike of scholastic philosophy and of learned doctors whose Latin was unclassical. But it has also a deeper aspect. It is the first appearance in literature, so far as I know, of the view set forth in Rousseau's Savoyard Vicar, according to which true religion comes from the heart, not the head, and all elaborate theology is superfluous. This point of view has become increasingly common, and is now pretty generally accepted among Protestants. It is, essentially, a rejection of Hellenic intellectualism by the sentimentalism of the North.
Erasmus, on his second visit to England, remained for five years (1509–14), partly in London, partly at Cambridge. He had a considerable influence in stimulating English humanism. The education at English public schools remained, until recently, almost exactly what he would have wished: a thorough grounding in Greek and Latin, involving not only translation, but verse and prose composition. Science, although intellectually dominant since the seventeenth century, was thought unworthy the attention of a gentleman or a divine; Plato should be studied, but not the subjects which Plato thought worth studying. All this is in line with the influence of Erasmus.
The men of the Renaissance had an immense curiosity; 'these minds', says Huizinga, 'never had their desired share of striking incidents, curious details, rarities and anomalies'. But at first they sought these things, not in the world, but in old books. Erasmus was interested in the world, but could not digest it in the raw: it had to be dished up in Latin or Greek before he could assimilate it. Travellers' tales were discounted, but any marvel in Pliny was believed. Gradually, however, curiosity became transferred from books to the real world; men became interested in the savages and strange animals that were actually discovered, rather than in those described by classical authors. Caliban comes from Montaigne, and Montaigne's cannibals come from travellers. 'The anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders' had been seen by Othello, not derived from antiquity.
And so the curiosity of the Renaissance, from having been literary, gradually became scientific. Such a cataract of new facts overwhelmed men that they could, at first, only be swept along with the current. The old systems were evidently wrong; Aristotle's physics and Ptolemy's astronomy and Galen's medicine could not be stretched to include the discoveries that had been made. Montaigne and Shakespeare are content with confusion: discovery is delightful, and system is its enemy. It was not till the seventeenth century that the system-building faculty caught up with the new knowledge of matters of fact. All this, however, has taken us far from Erasmus, to whom Columbus was less interesting than the Argonauts.
Erasmus was incurably and unashamedly literary. He wrote a book, Enchiridion militis christiani, giving advice to illiterate soldiers: they were to read the Bible, but also Plato, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. He made a vast collection of Latin proverbs, to which, in later editions, he added many in Greek; his original purpose was to enable people to write Latin idiomatically. He wrote an immensely successful book of Colloquies, to teach people how to talk in Latin about every-day matters, such as a game of bowls. This was, perhaps, more useful than it seems now. Latin was the only international language, and students at the University of Paris came from all over Western Europe. It may have often happened that Latin was the only language in which two students could converse.
After the Reformation, Erasmus lived first in Louvain, which maintained perfect Catholic orthodoxy, then in Basel, which became Protestant. Each side tried to enlist him, but for a long time in vain. He had, as we have seen, expressed himself strongly about ecclesiastical abuses and the wickedness of popes; in 1518, the very year of Luther's revolt, he published a satire, called Julius exclusus, describing the failure of Julius II to get to heaven. But Luther's violence repelled him, and he hated war. At last he came down on the Catholic side. In 1524 he wrote a work defending free will, which Luther, following and exaggerating Augustine, rejected. Luther replied savagely, and Erasmus was driven further into reaction. From this time until his death, he became increasingly unimportant. He had always been timid, and the times were no longer suited to timid people. For honest men, the only honourable alternatives were martyrdom or victory. His friend Sir Thomas More was compelled to choose martyrdom, and Erasmus commented: 'Would More had never meddled with that dangerous business, and left the theological cause to the theologians.' Erasmus lived too long, into an age of new virtues and new vices—heroism and intolerance—neither of which he could acquire.
Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) was, as a man, much more admirable than Erasmus, but much less important as an influence. He was a humanist, but also a man of profound piety. At Oxford, he set to work to learn Greek, which was then unusual, and was thought to show a sympathy with Italian infidels. The authorities and his father objected, and he was removed from the university. Thereupon he was attracted to the Carthusians, practised extreme austerities, and contemplated joining the order. He was deterred from doing so, apparently by the influence of Erasmus, whom he first met at this time. His father was a lawyer, and he decided to follow his father's profession. In 1504 he was a Member of Parliament, and led the opposition to Henry VII's demand for new taxes. In this he was successful, but the king was furious; he sent More's father to the Tower, releasing him, however, on payment of £100. On the king's death in 1509, More returned to the practice of the law, and won the favour of Henry VIII. He was knighted in 1514, and employed on various embassies. The king kept inviting him to court, but More would not come; at last the king came uninvited to dine with him at his house in Chelsea. More had no illusions as to Henry VIII; when complimented on the king's favourable disposition, he replied: 'If my head should win him a castle in France it should not fail to go.'
When Wolsey fell, the king appointed More chancellor in his stead. Contrary to the usual practice, he refused all gifts from litigants. He soon fell into disfavour, because the king was determined to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, and More was unalterably opposed to the divorce. He therefore resigned in 1532. His incorruptibility when in office is shown by the fact that after his resignation he had only £100 a year. In spite of his opinions, the king invited him to his wedding with Anne Boleyn, but More refused the invitation. In 1534, the king got Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy, declaring him, not the Pope, the head of the Church of England. Under this act an Oath of Supremacy was exacted, which More refused to take; this was only misprision of treason, which did not involve the death penalty. It was proved, however, by very dubious testimony, that he had said Parliament could not make Henry head of the Church; on this evidence he was convicted of high treason, and beheaded. His property was given to Princess Elizabeth, who kept it to the day of her death.
More is remembered almost solely on account of his Utopia (1518). Utopia is an island in the southern hemisphere, where everything is done in the best possible way. It has been visited accidentally by a sailor named Raphael Hythloday, who spent five years there, and only returned to Europe to make its wise institutions known.
In Utopia, as in Plato's Republic, all things are held in common, for the public good cannot flourish where there is private property, and without communism there can be no equality. More, in the dialogue, objects that communism would make men idle, and destroy respect for magistrates; to this Raphael replies that no one would say this who had lived in Utopia.
There are in Utopia fifty-four towns, all on the same plan, except that one is the capital. All the streets are twenty feet broad, and all the private houses are exactly alike, with one door onto the street and one onto the garden. There are no locks on the doors, and everyone may enter any house. The roofs are flat. Every tenth year people change houses—apparently to prevent any feeling of ownership. In the country, there are farms, each containing not fewer than forty persons, including two bondmen; each farm is under the rule of a master and mistress, who are old and wise. The chickens are not hatched by hens, but in incubators (which did not exist in More's time). All are dressed alike, except that there is a difference between the dress of men and women, and of married and unmarried. The fashions never change, and no difference is made between summer and winter clothing. At work, leather or skins are worn; a suit will last seven years. When they stop work, they throw a woollen cloak over their working clothes. All these cloaks are alike, and are the natural colour of wool. Each family makes its own clothes.
Everybody—men and women alike—works six hours a day, three before dinner and three after. All go to bed at eight, and sleep eight hours. In the early morning there are lectures, to which multitudes go, although they are not compulsory. After supper an hour is devoted to play. Six hours' work is enough, because there are no idlers and there is no useless work; with us, it is said, women, priests, rich people, servants, and beggars, mostly do nothing useful, and owing to the existence of the rich much labour is spent in producing unnecessary luxuries; all this is avoided in Utopia. Sometimes it is found that there is a surplus, and the magistrates proclaim a shorter working day for a time.
Some men are elected to become men of learning, and are exempted from other work while they are found satisfactory. All who are concerned with government are chosen from the learned. The government is a representative democracy, with a system of indirect election; at the head is a prince who is elected for life, but can be deposed for tyranny.
Family life is patriarchal; married sons live in their father's house, and are governed by him, unless he is in his dotage. If any family grows too large, the surplus children are moved into another family. If a town grows too large, some of the inhabitants are moved into another town. If all the towns are too large, a new town is built on waste land. Nothing is said as to what is to be done when all the waste land is used up. All killing of beasts for food is done by bondmen, lest free citizens should learn cruelty. There are hospitals for the sick, which are so excellent that people who are ill prefer them. Eating at home is permitted, but most people eat in common halls. Here the 'vile service' is done by bondmen, but the cooking is done by women and the waiting by the older children. Men sit at one bench, women at another; nursing mothers, with children under five, are in a separate parlour. All women nurse their own children. Children over five, if too young to be waiters, 'stand by with marvellous silence', while their elders eat; they have no separate dinner, but must be content with such scraps as are given them from the table.
As for marriage, both men and women are sharply punished if not virgin when they marry; and the householder of any house in which misconduct has occurred is liable to incur infamy for carelessness. Before marriage, bride and groom see each other naked; no one would buy a horse without first taking off the saddle and bridle, and similar considerations should apply in marriage. There is divorce for adultery or 'intolerable waywardness' of either party, but the guilty party cannot remarry. Sometimes divorce is granted solely because both parties desire it. Breakers of wedlock are punished by bondage.
There is foreign trade, chiefly for the purpose of getting iron, of which there is none in the island. Trade is used also for purposes connected with war. The Utopians think nothing of martial glory, though all learn how to fight, women as well as men. They resort to war for three purposes: to defend their own territory when invaded; to deliver the territory of an ally from invaders; and to free an oppressed nation from tyranny. But whenever they can, they get mercenaries to fight their wars for them. They aim at getting other nations into their debt, and letting them work off the debt by supplying mercenaries. For war purposes also they find a store of gold and silver useful, since they can use it to pay foreign mercenaries. For themselves, they have no money, and they teach contempt for gold by using it for chamberpots and the chains of bondmen. Pearls and diamonds are used as ornaments for infants, but never for adults. When they are at war, they offer large rewards to anyone who will kill the prince of the enemy country, and still larger rewards to anyone who will bring him alive, or to himself if he yields himself up. They pity the common people among their enemies, 'knowing that they be driven and enforced to war against their wills by the furious madness of their princes and heads'. Women fight as well as men, but no one is compelled to fight. 'Engines for war they devise and invent wondrous wittily.' It will be seen that their attitude to war is more sensible than heroic, though they display great courage when necessary.
As for ethics, we are told that they are too much inclined to think that felicity consists in pleasure. This view, however, has no bad consequences, because they think that in the next life the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. They are not ascetic, and consider fasting silly. There are many religions among them, all of which are tolerated. Almost all believe in God and immortality; the few who do not are not accounted citizens, and have no part in political life, but are otherwise unmolested. Some holy men eschew meat and matrimony; they are thought holy, but not wise. Women can be priests, if they are old and widowed. The priests are few; they have honour, but no power.
Bondmen are people condemned for heinous offences, or foreigners who have been condemned to death in their own countries, but whom the Utopians have agreed to take as bondmen.
In the case of a painful incurable disease, the patient is advised to commit suicide, but is carefully tended if he refuses to do so.
Raphael Hythloday relates that he preached Christianity to the Utopians, and that many were converted when they learnt that Christ was opposed to private property. The importance of communism is constantly stressed; almost at the end we are told that in all other nations 'I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the common wealth.'
More's Utopia was in many ways astonishingly liberal. I am not thinking so much of the preaching of communism, which was in the tradition of many religious movements. I am thinking rather of what is said about war, about religion and religious toleration, against the wanton killing of animals (there is a most eloquent passage against hunting), and in favour of a mild criminal law. (The book opens with an argument against the death penalty for theft.) It must be admitted, however, that life in More's Utopia, as in most others, would be intolerably dull. Diversity is essential to happiness, and in Utopia there is hardly any. This is a defect of all planned social systems, actual as well as imaginary.