The winds that buffeted Erasmus of Rotterdam blew from more than one direction. One form of intolerance he might have withstood, but two were too many. That was the tragedy of Europe’s first liberal….
Erasmus is more than any other man the symbol of humanism. This powerful movement which had begun in the Renaissance, culminated in Erasmus. His personality was formed by it, and for a lifetime he expressed humanism for all men. He was born about 1466 in Holland, but his mind was cosmopolitan, and it dominated intellectual Europe in his age as the mind of Voltaire was to dominate a later age.
The movement of humanism which Erasmus personified was a basically a liberal movement, an expression of the wider love for man and nature, some of the same bases that Spinoza was to touch upon, connecting a line from hustling after the Golden Bough and Diana at the grove at Alba through to the romantic age. Its history and defeat therefore, have a special interest down to our present situation. The life of Erasmus has a modern moral when looked at within the context of secular polarized politics. Its easy to make light of the kind of bourgeois pacifism that he inculcated and was in contradiction to the thought of Macchiavelli, yet there is something hopeful and dreamy there, like John Lennon’s Imagine. He had the respect of thoughtful men, and like his friend Sir Thomas More, for a time he had the ear of princes. Then, in 1517, the Reformation divided Europe into two religious camps, and before long, each side was competing to outdo the other in dogmatic bitterness. Erasmus was helpless between two forms of intolerance, and the last years of his life was a despondent ebbing of time, marked with waves of a personal sense of failure.
Thomas More had lived the tragedy of an individual martyr. Erasmus lived the tragedy of a whole generation of intellectuals, and of later generations too. His rise showed that a movement of tolerance, such as humanism was, can inspire people only so long as it confronts a single intolerance. And his decline showed that tolerance as an ideal no longer moves people when two opposing intolerances clamor for their loyalties. This has been the dilemma of the liberal spirit in every age since Erasmus.
What Erasmus wanted from both sides was moderation. At the same time he wanted Luther to be moderate, and Erasmus knew that Luther was a less moderate man, indeed less a humanist, than many church dignitaries. What made Erasmus helpless was that he believed Luther’s criticisms of the church to be just, but he knew that that they would merely entrench in the church the uncompromising men, the monkish bigots whom the humanists had worked so hard to displace. If Luther was defeated, then the reactionaries would also sweep away all that the humanists had gained. The churchmen accused Erasmus of double dealing. The church was making it clear whoever was not against Luther was for him. Therefore when the churched pressed Erasmus to speak out against Luther he chose an issue, Free Will, on which he was intellectually opposed to Luther and to the rising shadow of Calvinism. Luther replied by writing “The Bondage of the Will”, and left no doubt that there was no longer common ground between them. Subsequent history reveals that Erasmus was on the right side on the issue of free will and pre-destination and Luther and Calvin to be wrong. Erasmus and Calvin found no common ground. Read More:http://latter-rain.com/eccle/erasmus.htm …
…He believed that thoughtful men would become good men. Part of that struggle was national: Luther was very German, and the reformation of Henry VIII was very English. In this also Erasmus was out of place; he had hoped to make Christian humanism a movement of universal peace from one end of Europe to another, secular humanism was to take its place as an aberration. Protestantism was for a couple of centuries all but sterile in the field of study, criticism and philosophy. In the words of Erasmus: “Where Luther enters, civilization disappears.” But this very sterility helped the new religion to attain popular penetration in contrast to the more robust Renaissance, which always remained a movement of elite circles. ( ibid.)