Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam has been credited as being one of the greatest scholars of all-time. In his lifetime, he was so well respected and admired that he was a regular guest to many of his time's greatest leaders including kings, emperors, popes, and university leaders. He was a star among stars. It is believed that on a return trip from Italy, Erasmus wrote one of his best known works the 'Praise of Folly.' Similar to how Machiavelli used 'The Prince, to show the ruling classes true nature, Erasmus's pamphlet was an observation of the behavior of the ruling classes and the powerful church dignitaries. The work was a successful attempt to expose mankind's vanity.
Erasmus has been credited as having been the 'embodiment of Renaissance individualism. It is believed by many today that his beliefs may have been the foundation for Protestantism because of his tenacity against the ritualistic convention of Catholicism. Our nation's very foundation may be credited directly by his great mind. "Unitarianism was to a great extent the religion of the elite, critics joking that its preaching was limited to "the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, and the neighborhood of Boston." Actually, it traced its pedigree not so much to the Pilgrim Fathers as to Erasmus himself, who saw true Christianity in full alliance with the Renaissance." (Johnson)
He has been compared to and appreciated as an equal with Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo and the other great minds throughout the history of mankind. Through his humanistic philosophies, he may even have been the single most influential person to start the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. "Moreover, the Catholic proponents of these ideas often predate Puritanism. They belong to the group known as Christian humanists and it is to them, rather than to the Puritans, that we must look for the roots of the spiritualized household. In fact, it was not until Rome rejected Erasmus at the Council of Trent that the spiritualized household ceased to be associated with Catholicism. Thus, historians who regard what were actually Tridentine innovations as the sixteenth-century Catholic norm are guilty of anachronism: overanxious to discover unique characteristics of the Protestant mind, they have overlooked the fact that the position adopted at Trent represented a shift in Catholic thought." (Todd) Even by today's standards, Erasmus has been considered as an apostle of religious toleration.
Although his early life has eluded historians, Erasmus was born the illegitimate son of a priest in 1469 in Rotterdam around the Burgundian Netherlands. "When Erasmus was born, Holland had for about twenty years formed part of the territory which the dukes of Burgundy had succeeded in uniting under their dominion -- that complexity of lands, half French in population, like Burgundy, Artois, Hainault, Namur; half Dutch like Flanders, Brabant, Zealand, Holland." (Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation)
Historians have discovered that while in school he was influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life who followed the philosophies of classical learning and pious living. Around 1487, Erasmus joined the Augustinian Canons as a monk but it is thought that was not suited to that lifestyle. But, in 1493 was given a prestigious position as a secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai who released Erasmus to study theology at the University of Paris. "Paris remained, even after the designing policy of the Burgundian dukes had founded the University of Louvain in 1425, the centre of doctrine and science for the northern Netherlands." (Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation)
It has been recorded that he did not fully appreciate the philosophy of the time, Scholasticism and so moved on to England around the year 1499. There he found mentors in John Colet and Thomas More. They so influenced Erasmus that he quit his commitment to the church to become a freelance scholar and writer. In the first volume of this biography we followed Erasmus of Rotterdam from his earliest years in Holland to his maturer years in Paris; and we witnessed the publication in 1500 of his first book, Adagiorum Collectanea. That little book of 152 pages may not now seem like a great achievement for an ambitious humanistic scholar of thirty-three, but a good deal of growth can be marked as we moved from the early letters and poems to this stage of his development.(Schoeck) Over time his works made him a living icon for the rich and powerful.
Convinced that a different philosophy was in order, Erasmus took the Humanist passion. One of Erasmus's early journals, 'The Adages,' for example showed the humanist fervor for classical learning. 'The Adages' was most likely the work that helped circulate his name throughout the educated circles of Europe. The work was written while Erasmus was still in Paris around 1500 and was reworked and published in new editions over the course of fifteen years. The journal was a compellation of many classical proverbs and quotes originally from Latin classics. Erasmus added his own opinions through commentaries throughout the work which were thought to have been written with a special eloquence.
The journal was a huge success and he was from that point forward seen as a great thinker and a talented classical author. His fame indefinitely associated his name to humanist scholarship and learning. Although historians can only speculate to his true intentions, it is believed that he intended to convey the wisdom of the ancients so the reader in the present could lead a more fulfilling and pious life.
Erasmus's next work was called the 'Handbook of the Christian Knight (Enchiridion Militis Christiani).' "Under whatever impulses (whether Colet's, Vitrier's, or others') the Dutch humanist deepened his study of Scripture, and during these two years he was working towards a commentary on the Pauline Epistles (Epistle 164, l. 41-2): 'I have been carefully preparing an interpretation of him for some time,' Erasmus wrote to Johann Poppenruyter, a layman who has been identified with a Johann Poppenruyter who came from Nurnberg and had established a gun foundry at Mechlin before 1510; and this letter forms the introduction to the Enchiridion (1503), which Erasmus seems to have written at the earnest request of a pious lady known to both Batt and himself, who felt that her husband was in need of spiritual inspiration and guidance. This immersion in the whole body of Paul's letters provided more than 126 citations from Paul which have been noted in the Enchiridion." (Schoeck)
The work was the precursor to what we would consider today a Christian life. The work was clearly aimed at the literate laity of Christendom and Erasmus seemed to be promoting Christian beliefs and the message of Christ. Erasmus did not actually promote the personal religious thinking of the Protestant church as we know it but he did show the existing issues within that of the contemporary Church. The problems of the church in Erasmus's opinion was the near obsessive attention ritual and ceremony which distracted the true pious individual away from Christ.
Although at a different part of his life, he later used the same argument against the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, he thought, had too much distraction from the word of Christ when they consistently used rituals, ceremony, holy relics, pilgrimages, images, and prayers and even the Mass.
With 'The Praise of Folly' publication in 1511, Erasmus released his most controversial work and his most popular. He became a superstar in his own lifetime. Like the classical Roman satirist, Lucian, Erasmus used satire to boldly criticize the contemporary Christendom. The work was technically a gorilla attack on the superstition and ignorance of the church. "All their riches, all their lionour, their jurisdictions, their Peter's patrimony, their offices, their dispensations, their licences, their indulgences, their long train and attendants (see in how short a compass I have abbreviated all their marketing of religion): in a word, all their perquisites would be forfeited and lost; and in their room would succeed watchings, fastings, tears, prayers, sermons, hard studies, repenting sighs, and a thousand such like severe penalties: nay, what's yet more deplorable, it would then follow, that all their clerks, amanuenses, notaries, advocates, proctors, secretaries, the offices of grooms, ostlers, serving-men, pimps (and somewhat else, which for modesty's sake I shall not mention); in short, all these troops of attendants, which depend on his holiness, would all lose their several employments." (Erasmus)
The words were loud and clear that the Church had lost focus and the corruption and wars in the name of Christ did not promote the pious expectations of Erasmus. "Now as to the popes of Rome, who pretend themselves Christ's vicars, if they would but imitate his exemplary life, in the being employed in an unintermitted course of preaching; in the being attended with poverty, nakedness, hunger, and a contempt of this world; if they did but consider the import of the word pope, which signifies a father; or if they did but practice their surname of most holy, what order or degrees of men would be…