Erasmus the Forerunner



THE greatest of the humanists was born in or near Rotterdam in 1466 or 1469, the second and natural son of Gerard, a clerk in minor orders, and of Margaret, the widowed daughter of a physician. Apparently the father became a priest shortly after thiscontretemps.We do not know how the boy came by the fond name of Desiderius Erasmus, meaning the desired beloved. His first teachers taught him to read and write Dutch, but when he went to study with the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer he was fined for speaking his native tongue; there Latin was the pièce de résistance, and piety was as rigorous as discipline. Nevertheless the Brethren encouraged the study of selected pagan classics, and Erasmus began at Deventer to acquire his astonishing command of the Latin language and literature.

About 1484 both his parents died. The father left a modest estate to his two sons, but their guardians absorbed most of it, and steered the youths into a monastic career as one requiring no patrimony at all. They protested, wishing to go to a university; finally they were persuaded—Erasmus, we are told, by the promise of access to many books. The older son accepted his fate, and rose to be (Erasmus reported) strenuus compotor nec scortator ignavus—“a mighty toper and no mean fornicator.”1 Desiderius took vows as an Augustinian canon in the priory of Emmaus at Steyn. He tried hard to like monastic life, even wrote an essay De contemptu mundi to convince himself that a monastery was just the place for a lad of avid spirit and queasy stomach. But his stomach complained of fasts and turned at the smell of fish; the vow of obedience proved yet more irksome than that of chastity; and perhaps the monastic library ran short on classics. The kindly prior took pity on him, and lent him as secretary to Henry of Bergen, Bishop of Cambrai. Erasmus now (1492) accepted ordination as a priest.

But wherever he was he had one foot elsewhere.2 He envied the young men who had gone on from their local schooling to universities. Paris exuded an aroma of learning and lust that could intoxicate keen senses across great distances. After some years of able service, Desiderius induced the Bishop to send him to the University of Paris, armed with just enough money to survive. He listened impatiently to lectures, but consumed the libraries. He attended plays and parties, and occasionally explored feminine charms;3he remarks, in one of his Colloquies, that the most pleasant way of learning French was from the filles de joie.4 Nevertheless his strongest passion was for literature, the musical magic of words opening the door to a world of imagination and delight. He taught himself Greek; in time the Athens of Plato and Euripides, Zeno and Epicurus became as familiar to him as the Rome of Cicero, Horace, and Seneca; and both cities were almost as real to him as the left bank of the Seine. Seneca seemed to him as good a Christian as St. Paul, and a much better stylist (a point on which, perhaps, his taste was not quite sound). Wandering at will through the centuries, he discovered Lorenzo Valla, the Neapolitan Voltaire; he relished the elegant Latin and reckless audacity with which Valla had flayed the forgery of the “Donation of Constantine,” had noted serious errors in the Vulgate, and had debated whether epicureanism might not be the wisest modus vivendi; Erasmus himself would later startle theologians, and comfort some cardinals, by seeking to reconcile Epicurus and Christ.5 Echoes of Duns Scotus and Ockham still resounded in Paris; nominalism was in the ascendant, and threatened such basic doctrines as transubstantiation and the Trinity. These escapades of thought damaged the young priest’s orthodoxy, leaving him not much more than a profound admiration for the ethics of Christ.

His addiction to books was almost as expensive as a vice. To add to his allowance he gave private instruction to younger students, and went to live with one of them. Even so he had not enough to be comfortable. He importuned the Bishop of Cambrai: “My skin and my purse both need filling—the one with flesh, the other with coins. Act with your usual kindness”;6 to which the Bishop responded with his usual moderation. One pupil, the Lord of Vere, invited him to his castle at Tournehem in Flanders; Erasmus was charmed to find in Lady Anne of Vere a patroness of genius; she recognized this condition in him, and helped him with a gift, which was soon consumed. Another rich pupil, Mount joy, took him to England (1499). There, in the great country houses of the aristocracy, the harassed scholar found a realm of refined pleasure that turned his monastic past into a shuddering memory. He reported his progress to a friend in Paris, in one of those innumerable, inimitable letters that are now his most living monument:

We are getting on. If you are wise you too will fly over here.... If you only knew the blessings of Britain! .... To take one attraction out of many: there are nymphs here with divine features, so gentle and kind.... Moreover, there is a fashion that cannot be commended enough. Wherever you go you are received on all hands with kisses; when you leave you are dismissed with kisses; if you go back your salutes are returned to you.... Wherever a meeting takes place there are salutes in abundance; wherever you turn you are never without them. O Faustus! if you had once tasted how soft and fragrant those lips are, you would wish to be a traveler, not for ten years, like Solon, but for your whole life in England.7

At Mountjoy’s house in Greenwich Erasmus met Thomas More, then only twenty-two, yet distinguished enough to secure the scholar an introduction to the future Henry VIII. At Oxford he was almost as charmed by the informal companionship of students and faculty as he had been by the embraces of country-house divinities. There he learned to love John Colet, who, though “assertor and champion of the old theology,” astonished his time by practicing Christianity. Erasmus was impressed by the progress of humanism in England:

When I hear my Colet I seem to be listening to Plato himself. In Grocyn who does not marvel at such a perfect world of learning? What can be more acute, profound, and delicate than the judgment of Linacre? What has nature ever created more gentle, sweet, and happy than the genius of Thomas More? 8

These men influenced Erasmus profoundly for his betterment. From a vain and flighty youth, drunk with the wine of the classics and the ambrosia of women, he was transformed into an earnest and painstaking scholar, anxious not merely for shillings and renown, but for some lasting and beneficent achievement. When he left England (January 1500) he had formed his resolve to study and edit the Greek text of the New Testament as the distilled essence of that real Christianity which, in the judgment of reformers and humanists alike, had been overlaid and concealed by the dogmas and accretions of centuries.

His pleasant memory of this first visit to England was darkened by the final hour. At Dover, passing through the customs, the money that his English friends had given him, amounting to some £20 ($2,000?), was confiscated by the authorities, as the English law forbade the export of gold or silver. More, not yet a great lawyer, had mistakenly advised him that the prohibition applied only to English currency; and Erasmus had changed the pounds into French coins. Neither his stumbling English nor his prancing Latin availed to deflect the avid orthodoxy of the law; and Erasmus embarked for France practically penniless. “I suffered shipwreck,” he said, “before I went to sea.”9

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