IV. ERASMUS APPENDIX: 1517–36

The reaction of Erasmus to the Reformation provides a living debate among historians and philosoohers. Which method was the better for mankind—Luther’s direct attack upon the Church, or Erasmus’ policy of peaceful compromise and piecemeal reform? The answers almost define two types of personality: “tough-minded” warriors of action and will, “tenderminded” compromisers given to feeling and thought. Luther was basically a man of action; his thoughts were decisions, his books were deeds. His thinking was early medieval in content, early modern in result; his courage and decisiveness, rather than his theology, co-operated with nationalism to establish the modern age. Luther spoke in masculinely vigorous German to the German people, and aroused a nation to overthrow an international power; Erasmus wrote in femininely graceful Latin for an international audience, a cosmopolitan elite of university graduates. He was too sensitive to be a man of action; he praised and longed for peace while Luther waged and relished war. He was a master of moderation, deprecating intemperance and extravagance. He fled from action into thought, from rash certainties into cautious doubt. He knew too much to see truth or error all on one side; he saw both sides, tried to bring them together, and was crushed in between.

He applauded Luther’s Theses. In March 1518, he sent copies of them to Colet and More, and wrote to Colet: “The Roman Curia has cast aside all shame. What is more impudent than these indulgences?”85 In October he wrote to another friend:

I hear that Luther is approved by all good men, but it is said that his writings are unequal. I think his Theses will please all, except a few about purgatory, which they who make their living from it don’t want taken from them.... I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest (as that see now is) is the plague of Christendom, though it is praised through thick and thin by shameless preachers. Yet I hardly know whether it is expedient to touch this open sore, for that is the duty of princes; but I fear that they conspire with the pontiff for part of the spoils.86

For the most part Erasmus lived now in Louvain. He shared in founding at the university the Collegium Trilingue, with professorships in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1519 Charles V gave him a pension. Erasmus made it a condition of acceptance that he was to keep his independence of body and mind; but if he was human this pension, added to those that he was receiving from Archbishop Warham and Lord Mountjoy, must have played some part in molding his attitude toward the Reformation.

As Luther’s revolt passed from criticism of indulgences to rejection of papacy and councils, Erasmus hesitated. He had hoped that Church reform could be advanced by appealing to the good will of the humanist pope. He still revered the Church as (it seemed to him) an irreplaceable foundation of social order and individual morality; and though he believed that the orthodox theology was shot through with nonsense, he had no trust in the wisdom of private or popular judgment to develop a more beneficent ritual or creed; the progress of reason could come only through the percolation of enlightenment from the instructed few to the emulous many. He acknowledged his share in opening a path for Luther; his own Praise of Folly was at that moment circulating by the thousands throughout Europe, pointing scorn at monks and theologians, and giving sharp point to Luther’s blunt tirades. When the monks and theologians charged him with laying the egg that Luther hatched, he answered, wryly: “Yes, but the egg I laid was a hen, whereas Luther has hatched a gamecock.”87 Luther himself had read the Praise of Folly, and nearly everything else published by Erasmus, and he told his friends that he was merely giving more direct form to what the famous humanist had said or hinted for many years past. On March 18, 1519, he wrote to Erasmus humbly and reverently, soliciting his friendship and, by implication, his support.

Erasmus had now to make one of the pivotal decisions of his life, and either horn of the dilemma seemed fatal. If he renounced Luther he would be called a coward. If he associated himself with Luther in rejecting the Roman Church he would not merely forfeit three pensions and the protection that Leo X had given him against obscurantist theologians; he would have to abandon his own plan and strategy of Church reform through the improvement of minds and morals in influential men. Already he had (he thought) made real progress on this line with the Pope, Archbishop Warham, Bishop Fisher, Dean Colet, Thomas More, Francis I, Charles V. These men, of course, would never consent to renounce the Church; they would shrink from disrupting an institution which in their view was inextricably allied with princely government in maintaining social stability; but they could be enlisted in a campaign to reduce the superstitions and horrors in the prevailing cult, to cleanse and educate the clergy, to control and subordinate the monks, and to protect intellectual freedom for the progress of the mind. To exchange that program for a violent division of Christendom into warring halves, and for a theology of predestination and the unimportance of good works, would seem to these men, and seemed to Erasmus, the way to madness.

He hoped that peace might still be restored if all parties would lower their voices. In February 1519, he advised Froben to publish no more of Luther’s works, as being too inflammatory.88 In April he wrote to Elector Frederick encouraging him to protect Luther as more sinned against than sinning.89 Finally (May 30) he answered Luther:

Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keenness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me.

I cannot tell you what a commotion your books are raising here. These men cannot by any means be disabused of the suspicion that your works are written by my aid, and that I am, as they call it, the standard-bearer of your party.... I have testified to them that you are entirely unknown to me, that I have not read your books, and neither approve nor disapprove of your writings, but that they should read them before they speak so loudly. I suggested, too, that the subjects on which you have written are not of a sort to be declaimed from pulpits, and that as your character was admitted to be spotless, denouncing and cursing were not precisely in place. It was of no use; they are as mad as ever.... I am myself the chief object of animosity. The bishops generally are on my side.....

For yourself, you have good friends in England, even among the greatest persons there. You have friends here too—me in particular. As to me, my business is with literature. I confine myself to it as far as I can, and keep aloof from other quarrels; but generally I think courtesy to opponents is more effective than violence.... It might be wiser of you to denounce those who misuse the Pope’s authority than to censure the Pope himself. So also with kings and princes. Old institutions cannot be rooted up in an instant. Quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Avoid all appearance of sedition. Keep cool. Do not get angry. Do not hate anybody. Do not be excited over the noise you have made. I have looked into your Commentary on the Psalms, and am much pleased with it.... . Christ give you His spirit, for His own glory and the world’s good.90

Despite this cautious ambivalence the theologians of Louvain continued to attack Erasmus as the fountainhead of the Lutheran flood. On October 8, 1520, Aleander arrived, posted the papal bull excommunicating Luther, and scored Erasmus as a secret fomenter of the revolt. The pundits accepted Aleander’s lead, and expelled Erasmus from the Louvain faculty (October 9,1520). He moved to Cologne, and there, as we have seen, defended Luther in conference with Frederick of Saxony (November 5). On December 5 he sent to the Elector a statement known as the Axiomata Erasmi, to the effect that Luther’s request to be tried by impartial judges was reasonable; that good men and lovers of the Gospel were those who had taken least offense at Luther; that the world was thirsting for evangelical truth (i.e., truth based solely on the Gospel); and that such a mood, so widely spread, could not be suppressed.91 With the Dominican Johann Faber he composed a memorial to Charles V, recommending that Charles, Henry VIII, and Louis II of Hungary should appoint an impartial tribunal to try Luther’s case. In a letter to Cardinal Campeggio (December 6) he urged justice for Luther:

I perceived that the better a man was, the less he was Luther’s enemy.... A few persons only were clamoring at him in alarm for their own pockets.... No one has yet answered him or pointed out his faults.... How, while there are persons calling themselves bishops .... whose moral character is abominable, can it be right to persecute a man of unblemished life, in whose writings distinguished and excellent persons have found so much to admire? The object has been simply to destroy him and his books out of mind and memory, and it can only be done when he is proved wrong.....

If we want truth, every man ought to be free to say what he thinks without fear. If the advocates of one side are to be rewarded with miters, and the advocates on the other with rope or stake, truth will not be heard.... Nothing could have been more invidious or unwise than the Pope’s bull. It was unlike Leo X, and those who were sent to publish it only made things worse. It is dangerous, however, for secular princes to oppose the papacy, and I am not likely to be braver than princes, especially when I can do nothing. The corruption of the Roman court may require reform extensive and immediate, but I and the like of me are not called on to take a work like that upon themselves. I would rather see things left as they are than see a revolution that may lead to one knows not what.... You may assure yourself that Erasmus has been, and always will be, a faithful subject of the Roman See. But I think, and many will think with me, that there would be a better chance of a settlement if there were less ferocity, if the management should be placed in the hands of men of weight and learning, if the Pope would follow his own disposition and would not let himself be influenced by others.92

Luther made it more and more difficult for Erasmus to intercede for him, since with each month the violence of his speech increased, until in July 1520, he invited his readers to wash their hands in the blood of bishops and cardinals. When news came that Luther had publicly burned Leo’s bull of excommunication, Erasmus confessed himself shocked. On January 15,1521, the Pope sent him a letter expressing pleasure in his loyalty; at the same time Leo sent instructions to Aleander to treat the humanist with every courtesy. As the Diet of Worms approached, a German prince asked Erasmus to come to Luther’s help, but he replied that it was too late. He regretted Luther’s refusal to submit; such submission, he thought, would have furthered the movement for reform; now he feared civil war. In February 1521, he wrote to a friend:

Everyone confessed that the Church suffered under the tyranny of certain men, and many were taking counsel to remedy this state of affairs. Now this man has arisen to treat the matter in such a way... that no one dares to defend even what he has said well. Six months ago I warned him to beware of hatred. The Babylonian Captivity has alienated many from him, and he daily puts forth more atrocious things.93

Luther now abandoned hope of Erasmus’ support, and put him aside as a cowardly pacifist who “thinks that all can be accomplished with civility and benevolence.”94 At the same time, and despite Leo’s instructions, Aleander and the Louvain theologians continued to attack Erasmus as a secret Lutheran. Disgusted, he moved to Basel (November 15, 1521), where he hoped to forget the young Reformation in the old Renaissance. Basel was the citadel of Swiss humanism. Here labored Beatus Rhenanus, who edited Tacitus and Pliny the Younger, discovered Velleius Paterculus, and superintended the printing of Erasmus’ New Testament. Here were printers and publishers who were also scholars, like Hans Amerbach and that saint among publishers, Johann Froben(ius), who wore himself out over his presses and texts, and (said Erasmus) “left his family more honor than fortune.” 95 Here Dürer lived for years; here Holbein made breath-taking portraits of Froben and Bonifacius Amerbach—who gathered the art collection now in the Basel Museum. Seven years before, on an earlier visit, Erasmus had described the circle with fond exaggeration:

I seem to be living in some charming sanctuary of the Muses, where a multitude of learned persons .. . appears as a matter of course. No one is ignorant of Latin, none of Greek; most of them know Hebrew. This one excels in the study of history, that one is deeply versed in theology, one is skilled in mathematics, another is a student of antiquity, another is learned in the law. Certainly up to this time it has never been my good fortune to live in such an accomplished society.... What a sincere friendship prevails among them all, what cheerfulness, what concord! 96

Living with Froben, Erasmus acted as literary adviser, wrote prefaces, edited the Fathers. Holbein made famous portraits of him at Basel (1523—24). One is still there; another was sent to Archbishop Warham, and is now in the Earl of Radnor’s collection; the third, in the Louvre, is Holbein’s masterpiece. Standing at a table writing, wrapped in a heavy fur-trimmed coat, hooded with a beret covering half of each ear, the greatest of the humanists betrays in his premature age (he was now fifty-seven) the toll taken by ill health, a peripatetic life of controversy, and the spiritual loneliness and grief brought on by his attempt to be fair to both sides in the dogmatic conflicts of his time. Disheveled strays of white hair emerge from the beret. Grim, thin lips; features refined but strong; a sharp, ferreting nose; heavy eyelids almost closed on tired eyes; here, in one of the greatest of all portraits, is the Renaissance slain by the Reformation.

On December 1, 1522, the new pope, Adrian VI, wrote to Erasmus in terms suggestive of the extraordinary influence with which both sides credited him:

It lies with you, God helping, to recover those who have been seduced by Luther from the right road, and to hold up those who still stand.... I need not tell you with what joy I shall receive back these heretics without need to smite them with the rod of the Imperial law. You know how far are such rough methods from my own nature. I am still as you knew me when we were students together. Come to me in Rome. You will find here the books which you will need. You will have myself and other learned men to consult with; and if you will do what I ask you shall have no cause for regret.97

After a preliminary exchange of letters pledging each other to secrecy, Erasmus opened his heart to the Pope:

Your Holiness requires my advice, and you wish to see me. I would go to you with pleasure if my health allowed.... As to writing against Luther, I have not learning enough. You think my words will have authority. Alas, my popularity, such as I had, is turned to hatred. Once I was Prince of Letters, Star of Germany .... High Priest of Learning, Champion of a Purer Theology. The note is altered now. One party says I agree with Luther because I do not oppose him; the other finds fault with me because I oppose him.... At Rome and in Brabant I am called heretic, heresiarch, schismatic. I entirely disagree with Luther. They quote this and that to show we are alike. I could find a hundred passages where St. Paul seems to teach the doctrines which they condemn in Luther.....

Those counsel you best who advise gentle measures. The monks Atlases they call themselves of a tottering Church—estrange those who would be its supporters.... Some think there is no remedy but force. That is not my opinion... there would be frightful bloodshed. The question is not what heresy deserves, but how to deal with it wisely.... For myself, I should say, discover the roots of the disease. Clean out those to begin with. Punish no one. Let what has taken place be regarded as a chastisement sent by Providence, and grant a general amnesty. If God forgives my sins, God’s vicar may forgive. The magistrates may prevent revolutionary violence. If possible, there should be a check on the printing presses. Then let the world know and see that you mean in earnest to reform the abuses which are justly cried out against. If your Holiness desires to know what are the roots to which I refer, send persons whom you can trust to every part of Latin Christendom. Let them consult the wisest men they can find in the different countries; and you will soon know.98

Poor Adrian, whose good intentions outran his powers, died brokenhearted in 1523. His successor, Clement VII. continued to urge Erasmus to enter the lists against Luther. When finally the scholar yielded, it was with no personal attack on Luther, no general indictment of the Reformation, but by an objective and mannerly discussion of free will (De libero arbitrio, 1524). He admitted that he could not fathom the mystery of moral freedom, nor reconcile it with divine omniscience and omnipotence. But no humanist could accept the doctrines of predestination and determinism without sacrificing the dignity and value of man or of human life: here was another basic cleavage between the Reformation and the Renaissance. To Erasmus it seemed obvious that a God who punished sins that His creatures as made by Him could not help committing, was an immoral monster unworthy of worship or praise; and to ascribe such conduct to Christ’s “Father in heaven” would be the direst blasphemy. On Luther’s assumptions the worst criminal would be an innocent martyr, fated to sin by an act of God, and then condemned by divine vengeance to eternal suffering. How could a believer in predestination make any creative effort, or labor to improve the condition of mankind? Erasmus confessed that a man’s moral choice is fettered by a thousand circumstances over which he has had no control; yet man’s consciousness persists in affirming some measure of freedom, without which he would be a meaningless automaton. In any case, Erasmus concluded, let us admit our ignorance, our incapacity to reconcile moral freedom with divine prescience or omnipresent causality; let us postpone the solution to the Last Judgment; but meanwhile let us shun any hypothesis that makes man a puppet, and God a tyrant crueler than any in history.

Clement VII sent Erasmus 200 florins ($5,000?) on receiving the treatise. Most Catholics were disappointed by the conciliatory and philosophical tone of the book; they had hoped for an exhilarating declaration of war. Melanchthon, who had expressed predestinarian views in his Loci communes, was favorably impressed by Erasmus’ argument, and omitted the doctrine in later editions; 99 he, too, still hoped for peace. But Luther, in a delayed response entitled De servo arbitrio (1525), defended predestination uncompromisingly:

The human will is like a beast of burden. If God mounts it, it wishes and goes as God wills; if Satan mounts it, it wishes and goes as Satan wills. Nor can it choose its rider.... The riders contend for its possession.... God foresees, foreordains, and accomplishes all things by an unchanging, eternal, and efficacious will. By this thunderbolt free will sinks shattered in the dust.100

It is significant of the sixteenth-century mood that Luther rejected free will not, as some eighteenth-century thinkers would do, because it ran counter to a universal reign of law and causality, nor, as many in the nineteenth century would do, because heredity, environment, and circumstance seemed to determine, like another trinity, the desires that seem to determine the will. He rejected free will on the ground that God’s omnipotence makes Him the real cause of all events and all actions, and that consequently it is He, and not our virtue or our sins, Who decides our salvation or damnation. Luther faces the bitterness of his logic manfully:

Common sense and natural reason are highly offended that God by His mere will deserts, hardens, and damns, as if He delighted in sin and in such eternal torments, He Who is said to be of such mercy and goodness. Such a concept of God seems wicked, cruel, and intolerable, and by it many men have bee revolted in all ages. I myself was once offended to the very depth of the abyss of desperation, so that I wished that I had never been created. There is no use trying to get away from this by ingenious distinctions. Natural reason, however much it is offended, must admit the consequences of the omniscience and omnipotence of God.... If it is difficult to believe in God’s mercy and goodness when He damns those who do not deserve it, we must recall that if God’s justice could be recognized as just by human comprehension, it would not be divine.101

Typical again of the age was the wide sale that this treatise On the Slave Will had in the seven Latin and two vernacular editions that were called for within a year. In the sequel this proved the great source book of Protestant theology; here Calvin found the doctrine of predestination, election, and reprobation which he transmitted to France, Holland, Scotland, England, and America. Erasmus answered Luther in two minor tracts, Hyperaspistes (The Defender) I and II (1526–27), but contemporary opinion gave the Reformer the better of the argument.

Even at this stage Erasmus continued his efforts for peace. To his correspondents he recommended tolerance and courtesy. He thought that the Church should permit clerical marriage and communion in both kinds; that she should yield some of her vast properties to lay authorities and uses; and that such divisive questions as predestination, free will, and the Real Presence should be left undefined, open to diverse interpretations.102 He advised Duke George of Saxony to treat the Anabaptists humanely; “it is not just to punish with fire any error whatever, unless there be joined to it sedition or some other crime such as the laws punish with death.” 103 This was in 1524; in 1533, however, moved by friendship or senility, he defended the imprisonment of heretics by Thomas More.104 In Spain, where some humanists had become Erasmians, the monks of the Inquisition began a systematic scrutiny of Erasmus’ works, with a view to having him condemned as a heretic (1527). Nevertheless he continued his criticism of monastic immorality andtheological dogmatism as main provocatives of the Reformation. In 1528 he repeated the charge that “many convents, both of men and women, are public brothels,” and “in many monasteries the last virtue to be found is chastity.” 105 In 1532 he condemned the monks as importunate beggars, seducers of women, hounders of heretics, hunters of legacies, forgers of testimonials.106 He was all for reforming the Church while deprecating the Reformation. He could not bring himself to leave the Church, or to see her torn in half. “I endure the Church till the day I shall see a better one.” 107

He was dismayed when he heard of the sack of Rome by Protestant and Catholic troops in the service of the Emperor (1527); he had hoped that Charles would encourage Clement to compromise with Luther; now Pope and Emperor were at each other’s throats. A closer shock came when, in a pious riot, the reformers at Basel destroyed the images in the churches (1529). Only a year before, he himself had denounced the worship of images: “the people should be taught that these are no more than signs; it would be better if there were none at all, and prayer were addressed only to Christ. But in all things let there be moderation”108: this was precisely, on this point, the position of Luther. But the incensed and senseless denudation of churches seemed to him an illiberal and barbarous reaction. He left Basel and moved to Freiburg-im-Breisgau, in Catholic Austrian territory. The city authorities received him with honors, and gave him the unfinished palace of Maximilian I for a residence. When the Imperial pension came too irregularly the Fuggers sent him whatever funds he needed. But the monks and theologians of Freiburg attacked him as a secret skeptic, and as the real cause of the turmoil in Germany. In 1535 he returned to Basel. A delegation of university professors went out to welcome him, and Jerome Froben, son of Johann, gave him rooms in his home.

He was now sixty-nine, thin, with features drawn taut with age. He suffered from ulcers, diarrhea, pancreatitis, gout, stone, and frequent colds; note the swollen hands in Dürer’s drawing. In his final year he was confined to his rooms, often to his bed. Harassed with pain, and hearing almost daily of fresh attacks made upon him by Protestants and Catholics, he lost the habitual good cheer that had endeared him to his friends, and became morose. Yet, almost daily, letters of homage came to him from kings, prelates, statesmen, scholars, or financiers, and his dwelling was a goal of literary pilgrimage. On June 6, 1536, he was stricken with acute dysentery. He knew himself to be dying, but he did not ask for a priest or confessor, and passed away (June 12) without the sacraments of the Church, repeatedly invoking the names of Mary and Christ. Basel gave him a princely funeral and a tomb in the cathedral. The humanists, the printers, and the bishop of the city joined in erecting over his remains a stone slab, still in place, commemorating his “incomparable erudition in every branch of learning” His will left no legacy for religious purposes, but assigned sums for the care of the sick or the old, for providing dowries for poor girls, and for the education of promising youths.

His standing with posterity fluctuated with the prestige of the Renaissance. Almost all parties, in the fever of religious revolution, called him a trimmer and a coward. The Reformers charged him with having led them to the brink, inspired them to jump, and then taken to his heels. At the Council of Trent he was branded as an impious heretic, and his works were forbidden to Catholic readers. As late as 1758 Horace Walpole termed him “a begging parasite, who had parts enough to discover the truth, and not courage enough to profess it.”109 Late in the nineteenth century, as the smoke of battle cleared, a learned and judicious Protestant historian mourned that the Erasmian conception of reform, “a scholar’s conception .... was soon interrupted and set aside by ruder and more drastic methods. Yet it may be questioned whether, after all, the slow way is not in the long run the surest, and whether any other agent of human progress can permanently be substituted for culture. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was Luther’s work; but if any fresh Reformation is .... coming, it can only be based on the principles of Erasmus.”110 And a Catholic historian adds an almost rationalistic appreciation: “Erasmus belonged, intellectually, to a later and more scientific and rational age. The work which he had initiated, and which was interrupted by the Reformation troubles, was resumed at a more acceptable time by the scholarship of the seventeenth century.”111 Luther had to be; but when his work was done, and passion cooled, men would try again to catch the spirit of Erasmus and the Renaissance, and renew in patience and mutual tolerance the long, slow labor of enlightenment.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!