PICTURE THE OLD HUMANIST standing at his desk. The year is 1533. Desiderius Erasmus is living in Freiburg, as he says to a friend, “like a snail in its shell.” It’s another temporary stop on his long, peripatetic march through northern Europe, as he seeks to avoid persecution at the hands of Reformers and Catholics alike. He may be the most eminent scholar and writer of his generation, but the political and ecclesiastical situation in Europe is constantly shifting and dangerous.
It’s true that he could head south to Rome, where Pope Paul III has offered him shelter and support in a bid to make Erasmus an official spokesman for the Catholic cause. The pope will, in fact, offer him the cardinal’s red hat in two years’ time, but Erasmus will turn it down, ostensibly for reasons of poor health and poverty (cardinals then being required to have an income of three thousand ducats a year).
The truth is that Erasmus has never been a team player: the one thing he has guarded most jealously over the years is his independence.
Erasmus’s health is indeed poor. He has gout, kidney stones, and something he simply calls a “paralysis.” His rooms in Freiburg are infested with fleas, which manage to get in at his ankles and collar. Money is in short supply. He has offers from would-be patrons in Brussels and Besançon—Erasmus, after all, would be an asset to any court or civic community—but he decides to stay put. For now.
He stands at the desk, his writing hand poised over a blank sheet of paper. This hand had once mesmerized the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, perhaps the greatest portraitist of his generation and the leading representative of humanism in the visual arts. Holbein had drawn and painted that hand incessantly, as if he could discern in it some sort of occult power, the power to alchemically turn the base element of raw words into the gold of wisdom and eloquence.
Erasmus writes down the title of the work: De sarcienda ecclesiae concordia, “On Mending the Peace of the Church.” There is, of course, no peace in the church. It is the dawn of the Reformation, and both Protestants and Catholics have fractured into a hydra-headed beast at war with itself. When one head appears cut off, two spring up in its place.
Erasmus has been bitten by most of them. From the outset of his literary career, he has been a critic and a satirist. He has decried the tendency of his age to substitute the observance of exterior forms for genuine, interior devotion and virtue. He’s been hell on the monks and priests who have preyed upon the superstitions and pieties of the common folk, peddling indulgences and dubious relics, reducing true religion to magic and formalism. He’s also mocked the third-rate scholasticism of his day—which had steadily degenerated from the time of Thomas Aquinas—for its tendency to devolve into intellectual abstractions and trivial moral conundrums. In his great comic masterpiece, The Praise of Folly, Erasmus depicts the scholastics as starving theologians nibbling on dry beans.
These principles have awakened the ire of the theology faculties at the great universities—Paris, Louvain, and Salamanca—which have pronounced their condemnations of Erasmus.
They also provided inspiration to many of the Reformers, including, initially, Martin Luther, who saw in Erasmus a champion and mentor. Erasmus for his part began by encouraging Luther, while at the same time cautioning him to restrain the violence of his rhetoric. “I think one gets further by courtesy and moderation than by clamor. That was how Christ brought the world under his sway.”
But Luther has long since lost patience with Erasmus and his desire to work toward the slow, steady reform of the Catholic Church. Luther has hurled at him a variety of epithets, including “enraged reptile,” but his primary accusations against him are timidity, weakness, and, oddly, ignorance.
Erasmus eventually and with great reluctance broke with Luther publicly, writing On the Freedom of the Will to refute Luther’s position. The German responded in kind, with On the Bondage of the Will. When Luther had thought of Erasmus as a forerunner of reform, he had little trouble with the humanist’s belief in the importance of reading pagan literature as a means to developing the kind of literary imagination needed to interpret scripture properly. But in his fury at Erasmus, Luther has accused his former hero of fomenting paganism and unbelief.
And so it had been going. As the pamphlet wars heated up, some of Erasmus’s friends urged him not to get drawn in—not to lower himself by writing apologiae defending his positions. But he had on a few occasions given in. Sometimes his responses were marked by the trademark wit and lightness of touch that had characterized The Praise of Folly and the witty dialogues collected in his Colloquies. (Nothing proved more infuriating to his enemies than his penchant for irony and humor.)
At other times Erasmus turned waspish, in part because he had been hurt by those who had turned against him, those who had put faction and warfare above friendship and goodwill.
It was one thing to be wounded by those who had turned on him, but another thing entirely to see the basis of the humanist cause being trampled and forgotten in the melee. Luther had said: “Erasmus, that king of amphibology, sitting on his amphibological throne, cheats us with his ambiguous language….”
This was to strike at the heart of the humanist belief in the importance of literature and rhetoric as a mediating force, capable of taking political and theological concepts and incarnating them in concrete language, drama, metaphor. Only with a mind trained by the study of rhetoric and style could one find the living tissue of spirit within the hard shell of the letter.
For Erasmus, Thomas More, and the other humanists of that era, literature and figurative language were the key to preventing people from falling into abstraction, moralism, and incessant warfare. Pagan literature, the humanists held, could be read with profit by Christians because it is possible to absorb and be enriched by the artistry without embracing false religious beliefs. In an early work, the Enchiridion, Erasmus said this classical literary heritage had the capacity to “mature us.” By grounding ideas in concrete experience, literature enabled us to perceive the ambiguity of human motives, not the ambiguity of truth.
What made the current state of affairs so poignant was that the first two decades of the sixteenth century had seen a series of victories for the humanist cause, including widespread educational reform, especially at the secondary level. Erasmus and his circle believed that the next step would be the reform of the church. But the rise of nationalism and the fracturing and hardening of religious reform movements had cast a pall over the humanist cause. By the time Erasmus stood at his desk in 1533, he had long since written to one of his antagonists: “I seem to see a cruel and bloody century ahead….”
But as he opens “On Mending the Peace of the Church,” he does not engage in another apologia. He does not write ferocious refutations of his enemies. Instead, he opens with an exposition of Psalm 84, which begins: “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!”
The exposition that follows is typically Erasmian, providing his readers with historical and cultural context. He points out the puzzling notation at the beginning of the psalm—“For the winepresses”—and explains that the reference is to the fall grape harvest and the Feast of Tabernacles, when the Jews gather to offer thanks for God’s provision.
He takes a special interest in the playing of games during the feast. These contests of skill—a tradition that he says continued into the early Christian era—were not acrimonious competitions. Rather, the winners remained humble—recognizing that all they have is a gift from God—while the losers praised their competitors. Games may seem to mimic war, but they are really the opposite: creatures of imagination and play.
The Feast of Tabernacles, Erasmus continues, is a celebration of unity, of the possibility of people living in peace. Yet there will always be those who threaten unity. The worst thing about sectarianism is that it is a type of lie, a distortion of the truth of our common humanity. Erasmus denies that one can separate the church into visible and invisible components—the visible church is the unity of the people of God. The temptation to withdraw into a private sphere of greater “purity,” away from the messiness of the public square, is a refusal to participate in the community God calls us to attend.
Turning to a form of life that seems to be founded on withdrawal—monasticism—Erasmus insists that it was founded as a path toward holiness, not of pulling away from the social order. No romantic, he is quick to point out the dangers inherent in monastic life. Living in a monastery is not an escape from one’s humanity. “But here you are in exile wherever you hide. Seek and look for whatever hidden places you want, you still go to men as a man, and fleeing all consort with men, you take man with you….” Erasmus cites several early bishops who recalled monks from the wilderness because they had lost their way and become haughty and uncharitable. “They sought outside themselves what they should have looked for within themselves.”
Nor should we believe that everything was better in some golden age. Erasmus has no time for the narrative of decline. “In the business of piety we must never go back but must forget those whom we have left behind and tend ever to the more perfect. Eurydice looked back and fell back into hell; Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.” This is not the same as turning one’s back on tradition: for Erasmus, the narrative of decline is a form of despair, a failure to believe that the tradition can and will generate new life. “One faction is unwilling to accept changes, while the other wishes nothing of the old to remain. Thus an interminable storm arises and a tug of war ensues, with both parties falling to the ground when the rope breaks.”
Nor should we give in to despair about—and Gnostic alienation from—the world. God put us in a valley after we lost Eden so that we might work our way back home along paths that he lays out for us. “There is no reason for us to dislike this valley: the son of God himself deigned to come down to it….”
God is our king, Erasmus writes, but he is also our “gamemaster,” who bids us enter the contest. He wants us to participate in the great game of life with joy, not fear.
An old humanist stands at his desk, aware that an interminable storm is rising, that the gale force winds are howling around him. He is writing his last will and testament, an option for how to live out one’s faith in a contentious world—a world that wants to reduce everything to power struggles over abstract ideas, that invokes apocalypse instead of living in freedom. Erasmus calls us to humility and hope and a belief in the mercy of God. The temple of the Lord, he says, is located on Mount Zion. Zion means “mirror.” He bids us climb the mountain to see God and thus, in the end, come to see ourselves as we truly are.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.