Trevor-Roper, Hugh: Erasmus
DESIDERIUS ERASMUS was a scholar who in the early days of printing, sought to give his contemporaries clear and accurate texts of certain neglected works. He retranslated the Bible and edited the Christian Fathers.
He also wrote, in his clear, elegant Latin, colloquies, satires, and works of evangelical piety; and he carried on, mainly with scholars, a gigantic correspondence. Offered opportunities of practical responsibility, he consistently evaded them, and in the crisis of his time he appeared to many a timorous neuter. He was neither a courtier in the age of courts, nor a revolutionary in an age of revolution. Though a friend of kings, his ideal society was the republican city-state. In religion, Luther and Rome alike accused him of tepidity. He was not even an admirer of fashionable classical culture: ancient Rome displeased him both by its paganism and by its empire. His personal character was not heroic. He was valetudinarian, comfort-loving, timid, and querulous. He lived in his study and died in his bed.
And yet Erasmus is a giant figure in the history of ideas. He is the intellectual hero of the 16th century, and his failure was Europe’s tragedy. For his failure seemed, at the time, immense and final: as immense as his previous success.
Consider his success. Born the illegitimate son of an obscure priest, he rose, merely by his pen, to a position of undisputed supremacy in Europe. Cosmopolitan in an age of awakening nationalism, he was born in Holland, studied in Paris, found his intellectual home in Oxford, took his doctorate in Savoy, travelled to Germany and Italy, published his works impartially in Louvain, Paris, Venice, and Basel, and had disciples throughout Europe. When he travelled, customs-officers treated him as a prince, princes as a friend. The royal bastard or Scotland was his pupil, the King of Poland his correspondent ; the King of Portugal tried to lure him to Coimbra, the King of France wrote twice, and in his own hand, to tempt him to Paris. He was offered professorial chairs in Bavaria and Saxony, bishoprics in Spain and Sicily. The Emperor made him his Privy Councilor, the Pope offered him a cardinal’s hat. His disciples formed a European elite: they included, he once proudly wrote, “the Emperor, the Kings of England, France, and Denmark, Prince Ferdinand of Germany, the Cardinal of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and more princes, more bishops, more learned and honourable men than I can name, not only in England, Flanders, France, and Germany, but even in Poland and Hungary…”. Such was the fame of Erasmus in 1524, when it was almost at its peak. Twelve years later, his failure seemed complete. The great crisis of the Reformation had split his followers and Popes and Princes could not help him. To save his independence, Erasmus had declined their gifts, avoided their courts, and fled to die in a republican city in Switzerland. He died defeated, foreseeing the future. Soon his name and works would be condemned, his disciples persecuted, his patrons unavailing. “If that is a crime,” protested a Spanish thinker whom the Inquisition accused of having corresponded with Erasmus, “it is a crime committed also by many great princes, many men of all conditions in all countries … among whom I see the Pope, our Lord the Emperor, and most Christian princes, as well spiritual as secular. …” It was in vain. By mid-century Erasmus had become a heretic. In Catholic countries it was dangerous even to have known the last great thinker of united Catholic Europe.
How did this great tragedy come about? For it was a real tragedy, not only of one man but of a whole generation. The disciples of Erasmus, in the early 16th century, were the spiritual and intellectual elite of Europe. There is scarcely a great name in those years which is not among them. They were the saints, the humanists, and the reformers who, by their universal diffusion, might have created a new Europe but were in fact swallowed up in the great and widening gulf which they had sought to bridge. To understand this tragedy of a generation it is not enough to study their leader only. We must consider the century which produced both him and them.