I have been thinking much about Erasmus lately. Not reading him, really. But thinking about his place in his time--how what we call his humanism, his learning, made him a respected figure, and initially gave his approach to Church reform weight and influence. And how, in the end, it all seemed to come to nothing: Luther declared war and was outlawed; More and Fisher were executed; Europe sank into a century of religious wars.
Erasmus is of course one of the involuntary godfathers of this blog. Its name has been hijacked from his most popular work. And, as I said in one of the very first posts, his Christian humanism is one of my personal touchstones. Maybe here I should say a word or two more about that.
I came back to thinking about Erasmus from a train of thought from the Italian Renaissance, triggered by a son's summer work in Italy, and a spell with Burckhardt during a minor illness. I know the Renaissance first-hand mostly through the painters and those who wrote about manners and politics in the early 16th century--Castiglione and Macchiavelli. From the actual quattrocento I've read only an abridgement of Pius II's Commentaries--undoubtedly the work of an Italian humanist, but primarily a courtier, a churchman and a statesman. Of the Italian scholars whose primary work was to revive the classical Latin of Rome I really know nothing first hand.
But Erasmus, in spite of his Northern birth, came to be considered the classicist par excellance, whose advocacy of returning to the pure sources of classical learning extended to the Christian scriptures. Thus, (using our terms, not theirs) the Renaissance gave birth to the Reformation. The Enchiridian promotes a simple, direct lay spirituality, centered in the scriptures. The Moriae Encomium is considerably more savage in its satire, but is still asserted with a smile. The work on a printed text of the Greek New Testament, of an improved Vulgate, of better editions of Fathers such as Jerome and Augustine, presume a salutory effect from the clearing away of scholastic cobwebs. It is a literature presupposing a hopeful optimism.
But the center couldn't hold. Erasmus supported so much of what Luther stood for, but could not war on the Church--even the Church of the Borgia and Medici popes. He wouldn't, at first, directly confront Luther, and later turned down the offer of a cardinal's hat. But when he did, at last, agree to publicly disagree, it was on a topic he thought far from the center of daily Christian life, one that Christian thinkers could discuss, and charitably disagree on: the freedom of the will. Luther responded with a vengance, paying Erasmus the unwelcome compliment that he alone had hit on the one, vital, uncompromisable issue--the utter bondage of the human will. The die was cast.
So I think, lately, of Erasmus, and of his failure. We live in a time of violent contention (like most times, I suppose). The ratchetting up of controversy in the sixteenth century with the use of the printing press seems trivial comparted with our 24/7 news coverage, our social media, and the continuous struggles over the next election. We are very well-informed, if we want to be, and bombarded with controversy in any case, even if we don't want to be. The techniques of mass advertising, which used to be focused on making us want things that we didn't need, now are used to make us hate the people we disagree with.
So maybe Erasmus is a refuge from some of that, an ivory tower in a make-believe, Latin-speaking land. But I also would like to suggest that the social failure was not a personal one. It did not make the man happy, but he himself remained, largely, incorrupt, hopeful, not devoid of Christian charity, seeking to bring his contemporaries to that Christian philosophy that he truly believed to be within the grasp of each individual. And it is perhaps only at that level that an approach such as his can be successful. But that's surely not something to disparage.