How, actually, did he live? At this time (1517) he resided for the most part in Flanders—at Brussels, Antwerp, and Louvain. He dwelt in celibate privacy with one servant, but often accepted the hospitality of the prosperous, who courted his company as a social distinction and an intellectual feast. His tastes were fastidious; his nerves and feelings were refined to the point of frequent suffering from the vigorous vulgarities of life. He drank wine abundantly, and prided himself on his ability to carry it steadily. It may have been part cause of the gout and stones that galled him, but he thought it relieved his pain by dilating his arteries. In 1514, aged forty-five or forty-eight, he described himself as “a gray-headed invalid .... who must drink nothing but wine,” and must “be nice in what he eats.” 68 Fasting disagreed with him, and he fumed against fish; perhaps his bile colored his theology. He slept poorly, like most people whose busy brains recognize no curfew. He consoled himself with friends and books. “I seem deprived of myself when I am shut out from my usual habits of study.... . My home is where I have my library.” 69
It was partly to buy books that he solicited money with all the assiduity of a parish priest. He received regular pensions from Mountjoy and Warham, substantial gifts like the 300 florins ($7,500?) from Jean le Sauvage, Chancellor of Burgundy, and royalties exceeding those earned by any other author of his time. He disclaimed any love of money; he sought it because, as a man without moorings, he feared the insecurity of a lonely old age. Meanwhile he continued to refuse lucrative posts that would have extended his income at the cost of his freedom.
His appearance was at first unimpressive. He was short, thin, pale, weak in voice and constitution. Fie impressed by his sensitive hands, his long, sharp nose, his blue-gray eyes flashing with wit, and his speech—the conversation of the richest and quickest mind of that brilliant age. The greatest artists among his northern contemporaries were eager to paint his portrait, and he consented to sit for them because such portraits were welcomed as gifts by his friends. Quentin Massys pictured him in 1517—absorbed in writing, bundled in a heavy coat as protection against the chilly rooms of those centuries; this was presented to More. Dürer made a charcoal drawing of Erasmus in 1520, and a remarkable engraving in 1526; here the German touch gave the “good European” a thoroughly Dutch physiognomy; “if I look like that,” said the sitter, “I am a great knave.”70 Holbein surpassed all these efforts in the many portraits that he made of Erasmus. One is in Turin, another in England, a third in Basel, the best in the Louvre—all masterly performances by the greatest portrait painter in the north. Here the scholar has become a philosopher, quiet, meditative, somewhat melancholy, reluctantly resigned to the careless neutrality of nature and the mortality of genius. “What our lot brings mustbe borne,” he wrote in 1517, “and I have composed my mind for every event”71—a Stoic ataraxia that he never really achieved. “He loves glory,” he said of an ambitious youth, “but he does not know what a weight glory is”;72 yet Erasmus, like many a noble soul, labored night and day to win that incubus.
His faults leaped to the eye; his virtues were secrets known only to his intimates. He could beg shamelessly, but he could also give, and many a rising spirit expanded in the warmth of his praise. When Reuchlin was assailed by Pfefferkorn, Erasmus wrote to his friends among the cardinals at Rome, and helped to win protection for the harassed Hebraist. He lacked modesty and gratitude, which came hard to one courted by popes and kings. He was impatient and resentful of criticism,73 and sometimes answered it in the abusive manner of that polemic age. He shared the anti-Semitism of even the scholars of the Renaissance. His interests were as narrow as they were intense: he loved literature when it clothed philosophy, and philosophy when it left logic for life, but he almost ignored science, scenery, music, and art. He smiled at the systems of astronomy that then strutted the stage, and the stars smiled with him. In all his multitudinous correspondence there is no appreciation of the Alps, or the architecture of Oxford and Cambridge, or the painting of Raphael or the sculpture of Michelangelo, who were working for Julius II when Erasmus was in Rome (1509); and the lusty singing of the Reformed congregations would later offend his educated ears. His sense of humor was usually subtle and refined, occasionally Rabelaisian, often sarcastic, once inhuman, as when he wrote to a friend, on hearing that some heretics had been burned, “I would pity them the less if they raise the price of fuel now that winter is coming on.”74 He had not only the natural egoism or selfishness of all men, but also that secret and cherished egotism, or selfconceit, without which the writer or artist would be crushed in the ruthless rush of an indifferent world. He loved flattery, and agreed with it despite frequent disclaimers. “Good judges,” he told a friend, “say that I write better than any other man living.”75
It was true, though only in Latin. He wrote bad French, spoke a little Dutch and English, “tasted Hebrew only with the tip of the tongue,”76 and knew Greek imperfectly; but he mastered Latin thoroughly, and handled it as a living tongue applicable to the most un-Latin nuances and trivia of his time. A century newly enamored of the classics forgave most of his faults for the lively brilliance of his style, the novel charm of his understatements, the bright dagger of his irony. His letters rival Cicero’s in elegance and urbanity, surpass them in vivacity and wit. Moreover, his Latin was his own, not imitatively Ciceronian; it was a living, forceful, flexible speech, not an echo 1,500 years old. His letters, like Petrarch’s, were coveted by scholars and princes only next to the stimulus of his conversation. He tells us, perhaps with some literary license, that he received twenty letters a day and wrote forty.77 Several volumes of them were published in his lifetime, carefully edited by their author so conscious of posterity. Leo X, Adrian VI, Queen Marguerite of Navarre, King Sigismund I of Poland, Henry VIII, More, Colet, Pirkheimer, were among his correspondents. The modest More wrote: “I cannot get rid of a prurient feeling of vanity .... when it occurs to my mind that I shall be commended to a distant posterity by the friendship of Erasmus.”78
No other contemporary writer equaled his fame, unless we think of Luther as a writer. One Oxford bookseller reported in 1520 that a third of all his sales were of works by Erasmus. He had many enemies, especially among the theologians of Louvain, but he had disciples in a dozen universities, and humanists throughout Europe hailed him as their exemplar and chief. In the field of literature he was the Renaissance and humanism embodied—their cult of the classics and a polished Latin style, their gentlemen’s agreement not to break with the Church, and not to disturb the inevitable mythology of the masses, provided the Church winked at the intellectual freedom of the educated classes and permitted an orderly, internal reform of ecclesiastical abuses and absurdities. Erasmus, like all humanists, was heartened by the elevation of Leo X to the papacy; their dream had come true—a humanist, a scholar, and a gentleman, the living unification of the Renaissance and Christianity, had mounted the greatest of thrones. Surely now a peaceful cleansing of the Church would come; education would spread; the people would keep their lovely ritual and consolatory faith, but the human mind would be free.79
Almost to the brink of Luther Erasmus kept that hope. But on September 9, 1517, he wrote from Antwerp to Thomas, Cardinal of York, an ominous line: “In this part of the world I am afraid a great revolution is impending.”80 In less than two months it came.