V. THE PHILOSOPHER

Returning to Brussels, he found himself further seduced to caution by cordial welcome at the royal court. He took his privy councilorship seriously, forgetting that brilliant authors are rarely equipped for statesmanship. In the busy year 1516 he composed in haste an Institutio principis Christiani (Education of a Christian Prince), rich in pre-Machiavellian platitudes of how a king should behave. In the dedication to Charles he wrote with bold directness: “You owe it to Providence that your realm has been acquired without injury to any; your wisdom will be best shown if you can keep it in peace and tranquillity.”44 Like most philosophers, Erasmus reckoned monarchy the least evil form of government; he feared the people as a “fickle, many-headed monster,” deprecated the popular discussion of laws and politics, and judged the chaos of revolution worse than the tyranny of kings.45 But he counseled his Christian prince to guard against the concentration of wealth. Taxes should fall only upon luxuries. There should be fewer monasteries, more schools. Above all, there should be no war among Christian states—nor even against the Turks. “We shall better overcome the Turks by the piety of our lives than by arms; the empire of Christianity will thus be defended by the same means by which it was originally established.”46 “What does war beget except war?—but civility invites civility, justice invites justice.”47

As Charles and Francis edged toward hostilities, Erasmus made appeal after appeal for peace. He complimented the French King on a passing mood of conciliation, and asked how anyone could think of waging war with France, “the purest and most flourishing part of Christendom.” 48 In Querela pacis (The Complaint of Peace, 1517) he reached his peak of passionate eloquence:

I pass silently over the tragedies of ancient wars. I will stress only those which have taken place in the course of these last years. Where is the land or sea where people have not fought in the most cruel manner? Where is the river that has not been dyed with human blood... with Christian blood? O supreme shame! They behave more cruelly in battle than non-Christians, more savagely than wild beasts.... All [these wars] were undertaken at the caprice of princes, to the great detriment of the people, whom these conflicts in no way concerned.... . Bishops, cardinals, popes who are vicars of Christ—none among them is ashamed to start the war that Jesus so execrated. What is there in common between the helmet and the miter?... Bishops, how dare you, who hold the place of the Apostles, teach people things that touch on war at the same time that you teach the precepts of the Apostles?... There is no peace, even unjust, which is not preferable to the most just of wars.49

Princes and generals may profit from war, but the masses bear the tragedies and the costs.50 It may sometimes be necessary to fight a war of self-defense, but even in such cases it may be wiser to buy off the enemy than to wage war.51 Let the kings submit their disputes to the pope. This would have been impracticable under Julius II, himself a warrior; but Leo X, “a learned, honest, and pious pontiff,” might arbitrate with justice, and preside effectively over an international court.52 Erasmus called nationalism a curse tohumanity, and challenged statesmen to forge a universal state. “I wish,” he said, “to be called a citizen of the world.”53 He forgave Budé for loving France, but “in my opinion it is more philosophical to put our relations with things and men on such a footing as to treat the world as the common country of us all.”54 Erasmus was the least national spirit in the rising nationalism of the Reformation age. “The most sublime thing,” he wrote, “is to deserve well of the human race.”55

We must not look to Erasmus for any realistic conception of human nature, or of the causes of war, or of the behavior of states. He never faced the problem that Machiavelli was dealing with in those same years—whether a state can survive if it practices the morality that it preaches to its citizens. The function of Erasmus was to cut dead branches from the tree of life rather than to construct a positive and consistent philosophy. He was not even sure that he was a Christian. He frequently professed to accept the Apostles’ Creed; yet he must have doubted hell, for he wrote that “they are not as impious who deny the existence of God as are those who picture Him as inexorable.” 56 He could hardly have believed in the divine authorship of the Old Testament, for he averred his willingness to “see the whole Old Testament abolished” if that would quiet the furore raised over Reuchlin.57 He smiled at the traditions that Minos and Numa persuaded their peoples to obey uncongenial legislation by fathering it upon the gods,58 and probably suspected Moses of similar statesmanship. He expressed surprise that More was satisfied with the arguments for personal immortality.59 He thought of the Eucharist as a symbol rather than a miracle;60 he obviously doubted the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Virgin Birth; and More had to defend him from a correspondent who declared that Erasmus had privately confessed his unbelief.61 He called in question one after another of the Christian usages of his time—indulgences, fasting, pilgrimages, auricular confession, monasticism, clerical celibacy, relic worship, prayers to the saints, the burning of heretics. He gave allegorical or rational explanations of many Biblical passages; he compared the story of Adam and Eve with that of Prometheus, and advised “the least literal” interpretation of the Scriptures.62 He resolved the pains of hell into “the perpetual anguish of mind that accompanies habitual sin.”63 He did not broadcast his doubts among the people, for he had no comforting or deterrent myths to offer in place of the old ones. “Piety,” he wrote, “requires that we should sometimes conceal truth, that we should take care not to show it always, as if it did not matter when, where, or to whom we show it.... Perhaps we must admit with Plato that lies are useful to the people.”64

Despite this strong bent toward rationalism, Erasmus remained externally orthodox. He never lost his affection for Christ, for the Gospels, and for the symbolic ceremonies with which the Church promoted piety. He made a character in the Colloquies say: “If anything is in common use with Christians that is not repugnant to the Holy Scriptures, I observe it for this reason, that I may not offend other people.” 65 He dreamed of replacing theology with “the philosophy of Christ,” and strove to harmonize this with the thought of the greater pagans. He applied to Plato, Cicero, and Seneca the phrase, “divinely inspired”;66 he would not admit that such men were excluded from salvation; and he could “scarce forbear” praying to “Saint Socrates.” He asked the Church to reduce the essential dogmas of Christianity to as “few as possible, leaving opinion free on the rest.” 67 He did not advocate the full tolerance of all opinions (who does?), but he favored a lenient attitude toward religious heresy. His ideal of religion was the imitation of Christ; we must admit, however, that his own practice was less than evangelical.

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