Who Cares About Erasmus?

Interestingly enough, I care about Erasmus. After lots of research on Christian humanism, I have learned that Erasmus was a fascinating and complicated figure. For starters, in my research and reading so far, I have discovered that humanism was an important cultural phenomenon during the renaissance, but there were many variations of it, especially when considering the role of Christianity. Humanists focused on studying classic literature and philosophy to gain greater insight on human nature. Yet as humanist ideals progressed, many scholars synthesized both Christian and humanist views to create a harmonized view regarding many aspects of life such as communication, leadership, and community membership (McKay, 416). I found it interesting that humanism and Christianity were both accepted together as a single worldview, and synthesized together without discord for the most part. After learning about Erasmus though, I realized that in fact there was quite a bit of discord for some people.

Through my supplemental reading on the Christian humanist and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, I learned that although he was a devout Catholic man, and even an ordained monk, he was critical of the church. Furthermore, he believed that many aspects of the church were too focused on an outward show of religion and formalism (“Wikipedia”). Link to wikipedia article. Reading this got me interested in whether or not Erasmus really was a radical or outspoken person during his time. Thus as a supplemental reading, I read excerpts from a book called Encounters With a Radical Erasmus, by Peter Beitenholz in order to see how radical Erasmus really was.  Beitenholz argues that though in retrospect Erasmus’s views seem quite radical, he would not have been considered one during his time because there were numerous other radical reformers like Beza, Calvin, and Luther, who Erasmus was opposed to (Bietenholz). To read more about Bietenholz, follow this link here.

Though he was never part of the reformation movement, Erasmus wanted to reform the church from within and make the religion more about the study and inner appreciation of the life of Christ (McKay, 418). In his satirical book Praise of Folly (picture of cover below), he noted how Christians were too focused on rituals and certain superstitions, and did not have a deep enough understanding of the true religion itself (Nauert). It was this piece of literature, along with Erasmus’ Greek-Latin version of the New Testament that sparked the Protestant reformation (“Wikipedia”). As a primary source, I read John Wilson’s 1688 translation of Praise of Folly, and was shocked at what he said. For example, Erasmus stated, “To speak briefly, all Christian religion seems to have an alliance with folly and in no respect to have any accord with wisdom” (60). He continued to say followers of Christianity “seem senseless to common understanding, as if their minds lived elsewhere and not in their own bodies; which, what else is it than to be mad?” (60). Despite all these criticisms, Erasmus remained a Christian and an important part of the Christian community, which is absurd, and made me wonder if he truly realized the meaning of what he wrote in Praise of Folly.

Picture Source: http://www.booksshouldbefree.com/book/the-praise-of-folly-by-erasmus

Although it is hard to say looking back whether Erasmus was a radical, an outspoken community member, or a plain lunatic, it is evident that he was an important figure in the Renaissance and his legacy is still alive in today’s society.

Works Cited

McKay, John. A History of Western Society. 9. B. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. 407- 418.

“Desiderius Erasmus.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Feb 2012.     <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderius_Erasmus&gt;

Nauert, Charles, Desiderius Erasmus, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),                                                        <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/erasmus/&gt;.

Bietenholz, Peter. Encounters With a Radical Erasmus. N.p.: n.p., 2009. Web. 13 Feb.   2012.<http://books.google.com/books?id=1cxY0mm2ZwMC&pg=PA26&dq=        erasmus+radical+christianity&hl=en&sa=X&ei=LIswT6zPDsfq2AX00ci-            Bw&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=erasmus%20radical%20christianity&f=false>.

Erasmus, Desiderius. Praise of Folly. Trans. John Wilson. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/erasmus/folly.pdf&gt;.

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13 comments

  1. mollyageofreason

    Even though Erasmus never really became a part of the reformation, and was Catholic, it sounds like his words triggered part of that transition. Did you find any of his reactions to what he’d started?

  2. natalie518

    Hey Vinay, nice job on your blog post. Do you think that someone like Erasmus – a person who questions the Church and presents new, “radical” ideas – would be accepted as a large part of the Church today? Is the Church still open to this sort of reformation and criticism or do you think a person such as Erasmus would be seen as a radical and not a serious Christian philosopher?
    ~Natalie

  3. vinay1496

    Hi Molly, thanks for your comment. The protestant reformation occurred mainly because of efforts on the part of Martin Luther and John Calvin who strongly disagreed with Roman Catholic doctrine. Though Erasmus disagreed with some parts of the Catholic church, he was fully opposed to the goals of reformers such as Luther and Calvin who wanted to tear apart the foundation of the Catholic church. More specifically, Erasmus’ words in Praise of Folly, were not quite what triggered this reformation, and it was more due to his arguments with reformers such as Luther, especially that on free will, which you can read about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Bondage_of_the_Will
    To address your question more directly, I think Erasmus was completely aware of what he was writing in Praise of Folly, and was simply letting his viewpoint be known. Nonetheless, this idea of Erasmus expressing himself in such a complicated and confusing manner is something that has puzzled historians for years, and is something this blog post was simply pointing out as a interesting fact about Christian humanism and the Renaissance. Hope this helps,

    Sincerely,

    Vinay Iyengar

  4. vinay1496

    Hi Natalie, great question. I’m not an expert on current practices in the Roman Catholic church or on the other branches of the church, but I will try my best to answer. In general, I think in today’s age, the idea of people raising new viewpoints and questioning authority and religious ideals that have been accepted for years, is something we see often. The response on the other hand would vary quite a bit based on the specific views of each branch of the church. For example, Erasmus had certain views on free will that opposed the Lutheran church, but on the other hand, many of his anti-dogma, anti-Roman Catholic views would be accepted by some branches. I think Erasmus wouldn’t be considered a serious Christian philosopher nowadays because his views are too “radical” and the current norm is that people who hold these radical views can’t possibly be devout to the church. So to answer your question directly, I think Erasmus would not be taken seriously in this age, mainly because when what he writes and what he does are juxtaposed to one another, he seems to appear like a very enigmatic and confused character. Then again it is hard to look in retrospect and judge the way he would be treated if he were alive today. You bring up a very interesting point though, and I hope I have answered your question well. Thanks so much,

    Vinay

  5. josh1818

    Hello Vinay Iyengar.
    Is Christian humanism one of the many types of humanism, or does humanism generally have Christian connotations?

    Sincerely,
    Josh Yuan

    • vinay1496

      Hello Josh Yuan.
      Back in the renaissance, humanism was regarded as simply a study of human nature through the classics. It was during this time also that Christianity became an intricate part of humanist philosophies, especially because of scholars such as Thomas More. Nowadays though, I believe humanism is a philosophy of its own. Hope this helps,

      Sincerely,
      Vinay S. Iyengar

  6. harry242424

    Hey Vinay,
    I found your blog very interesting and informative. You don’t seem to take a very strong opinion on Erasmus in this blog. In your opinion do you agree with every action Erasmus took or do you think some of his actions were questionable? If you were in his position and time, would you have done the same thing or would you have taken a different course?

    • vinay1496

      Hello Mr. Hiraki,
      Thank you for your kind words. I wrote this blog simply to inform the reader about my experience learning about humanism and my curiosity about the philosophies of Erasmus. If I were Erasmus, I would have acted in a more analytical sense and would have made concrete views regarding Christianity and humanism, rather than his views which are hard to interpret based on his actions and words. Thanks,

      VSI

  7. noah4024

    Good Evening Vinay S. Iyengar,

    I was intrigued by this in-depth scholarly analysis of Desiderius Erasmus’ philosophies and understandings of the Christian Humanist ideas. I noticed that this article was quite informative and packed full of great facts and interpretations, but was written with a very neutral voice towards these philosophies developed by Erasmus. I was curious, how do you feel about Erasmus’ words, ideas, and actions towards Christian Humanism, and if you were him, what would you have done differently? Similarily?

    • vinay1496

      I feel like Eramsus’ views were quite confusing, and he showed indifference towards Christianity. In a way I respect Erasmus’ decision to remain a Christian and a Humanist and be a critic to the church. He felt entitled to criticize the church because he was a devout member and believer. So to answer your question, I would not have done much differently, because he has had a profound effect on the world.

  8. Gary

    Mr. Vinay S. Iyengar:

    Again, thanks for sharing Erasmus’ view of Christian humanism again. I personally think that the boundary between Religion(Mostly Christian) and Humanism can sometimes be really ambiguous; Since some people believe they are Christian and act humanistically and some people believe in Humanism and they thus think they should be Atheist. I’ve read an article about the origin of Humanism and it describes that the idea of early Humanism was actually derived from Christianity.
    This is my question, what would you think the ideal Humanism should be? Is there a middle point where it satisfies both sides?

    Sincerely

    – Gary G.H. Lai

    • vinay1496

      Hello Mr. Guan-Hung “Gary” Lai,
      Your question is very intriguing. I think many Christians believe more in dogma, and a strict hierarchical structure of the religion, unlike humanists. The ideal humanist would be much like Erasmus. He was a true example of somebody who was in the middle point and in a way, satisfied both his Christian and Humanist side. Thanks again,

  9. Gary

    Mr. Vinay S. Iyengar:

    Again, thanks for sharing Erasmus’ view of Christian humanism again. I personally think that the boundary between Religion(Mostly Christian) and Humanism can sometimes be really ambiguous; Since some people believe they are Christian and act humanistically and some people believe in Humanism and they thus think they should be Atheist. I’ve read an article about the origin of Humanism and it describes that the idea of early Humanism was actually derived from Christianity.
    This is my question, what would you think the ideal Humanism should be? Is there a middle point where it satisfies both sides?

    Sincerely

    – Gary G.H. Lai

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