Histories of the United States give a significant place to the explorations and settlements of North America by Europeans. The European Renaissance and Reformation helped shape the heart and soul of America, its academic curricula and its churches. One of the best ways to understand the momentous events of the 16th century that shook Europe out of its medieval assumptions is to study the figures who contributed to these powerful waves of change. Few continental figures stand as firm in the gale force winds of change as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/7-1536).
Erika Rummel, who previously composed six books on Erasmus, among them Erasmus on Women (Toronto, 1996), introduces the reader to the complete Erasmus in an erudite, compact, critical retrieval of this prolific Christian humanist. To begin with her "epilogue", among those who have studied Erasmus, Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural historian, ascribed the gentleness, kindliness, and moderation portrayed by Erasmus as qualities of his own Dutch people. More recently Ralf Dahrendorf attributed the virtues embodied by Erasmus "'a humane and peaceful attitude, civility, liberty, equality, stability, tolerance, and respect for the rights of the individual,'" to the English psyche. Rummel adds "...it is devoutly to be hoped that reading Erasmus's works will inspire such virtues and make Erasmians of us all." Readers of Rummel will be inspired to read Erasmus.
This book is divided into six succinct chapters: 1. Erasmus constructs his life, 2. Erasmus's educational philosophy, 3. Pietas in public and private life, 4. The social order, 5. Erasmus as biblical humanists, and 6. Why Erasmus was no Lutheran. Each chapter, in chronological order, has a subtitle that points to the controversial issues which framed the life and writings of Eramus. Rummel is faithful to representative words and ideas of Erasmus's from his opera omnia CWE, that reach volume 76 in the "Notes."
Chapter one explains how in his autobiographical writings, Erasmus reconstructs his past. Eramus was born out of marriage and orphaned at 13. As a teen "Erasmus was in love with the Muses." With a friend he joined the Augustinian canons of Steyn at 19 with whom he lived, studied, prayed and was ordained a priest (not mentioned). At the call of the Bishop of Cambrai in 1493, he left the community and provided secretarial and rhetorical advice and advanced his studies at Paris (1495-99). After almost 30 years he received a papal dispensation from his vows of religion in 1516.
In Paris Eramus deepened his study of the humanities beyond what he had learned in the "monastery". He disliked the scholastic theology at Paris due to its method that emphasized rules of logic and dialectical disputations. Eramus eventually obtained a doctorate in theology from the university of Turin in "fifteen days" according to a recent pundit. Eramus supported himself as a tutor. One of his Paris students, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited him to England. There Eramus met Thomas More, a scholar and kindred spirit, and John Colet, a biblical scholar. Eramus believed "human beings [could] improve themselves through education... success depended on...nature, instruction, and practice" —not omitting parental concern and good teachers.
One reason Erasmus in not better known may be due to the fact that works like his Colloquies were placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, and remained there for over 450 years. Rummel frequently analyzes Eramus's methods. She says he did not simply practice learning by imitation of classical sources, but employed "a process of creative appropriation."
Chapter two treats Eramus's educational philosophy. Erasmus believed that Jerusalem and Rome can be reconciled with Athens and Alexandria. His plan of study humanized the classical master works, the great books of the past, by infusing them with a Christian spirit to "turn them to a Christian purpose." In 16th century Europe about 1/3 of males and 12% females were literate. 1% of women received humanistic (Latin) training. Girls read the Bible, lives of the saints, and devotional material in school. Erasmus was concerned with conventional studies for the education of boys, but he knew Thomas More had well educated daughters as well as a son in his household. Peter Ackroyd's book on Thomas More (1998) cites Erasmus almost as frequently as Henry the VIII.
For Eramus, the educated Christian must read Greek, Latin, and Hebrew if he reads the Old Testament. In this he is closer to the ideals of the new learning among 15th century Italian humanists. E's reading list of classics includes the early fathers of the church. Eramus provided sample translations of the classics. Bible study was more important for theologians than the stylized scholastic debate. E's plan of studies was criticized by theologians at Louvain and Paris. They maintained classical language study was not essential for theology. On preaching Eramus added to the ancient model of instruct, move, and entertain, the unction of a "mystical idea," that the inspired word would change the hearer, produce piety, and prepare the soul for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
A key to understand Erasmus may be in Rummel's chapter on his concept of piety. Piety is "the correct attitude of an individual toward God and society;...an internal quality...independent of external observance of rites; it requires detachment from the world, and it engenders intellectual humility and an awareness of the limits of human wisdom." This could appear as Confucian wisdom, but for Erasmus it is the educated Christian's spiritual response to divine love. The feudal image of E had Christ at the center with society divided and drawn in concentric circles around the Christ center. Piety has public-political roles and private-spiritual duties with degrees of obligations for each in an ordered moral universe. E warned that piety may or may not exist in monastic and ecclesial life. He was criticized for this view. He selected St. Jerome as a model of pietas, because he combined intellectual and moral virtue in the life of Christian scholarship. "Christ is the only goal of life," E wrote; scholarship is a help to "more closely discern Christ..." to know and love him and so better communicate and delight in "the study of letters." Drawing from his major works, Rummel says secular learning has a sacred purpose. Even humor can teach virtue, illustrated from E's satires. Rummel says E's Colloquies were placed on the index because E's pietas seems to exist "independently of the...institutional church."
Erasmus held for a hierarchical order in church and state as long as the ruler governed by wisdom for the good of peace and order, not by tyranny or oppression. E. challenged conventional marriage assumptions through the words of his characters in his dialogues. He was deeply traditional so that innovations were presented as politically incorrect. On war and peace E advocated consensus, consultation, arbitration and temporary suspension of judgment to hear both sides of issues before going to war among Christians or against the Turk. E was not a pacifist. He called war "judicial retribution" thus implying a just cause. On church and state issues E employed the two sword metaphor and insisted that cooperation and consensus should govern relationships. "In the poisonous atmosphere of the religious debate" by the 1530s, E's centrist advocacy for accommodation among the disputants fell on deaf ears.
Erasmus may be best known for his biblical translations as symbolic of where the goals of Renaissance and Reformation met. Jerome appears as the early witness to this kind of achievement. E's approach to translation was based on language skills, understanding the literal sense of the text, and knowledge of the historical context, before turning to allegorical and spiritual interpretations. His aim was to produce a reliable critical text of the Greek and Latin New Testament, aware of scribal errors, textual variants, and peculiar usages. His obstacle was the "professional envy, fear...and resistance to change" of theologians. By the late 1520s his Paris critics detected "Luthernisms" in E's Paraphrases of the New Testament, which led to the Parisian censure of his writings in 1531. E did not consistently translate the NT Greek mysterion following the Vulgate sacramentum, so he was accused of undermining the church's sacramental beliefs. Strong rejoinders were exchanged in this age of extreme anxiety. Erasmus put his own "arrogance and aggressiveness" into satirical lampoons of his critics views.
Rummel makes it clear Erasmus was no Lutheran, despite the clichés that impugned their similarities. As John O'Malley has recently said in his study of Four Cultures Of The West (2004), Luther and Erasmus spoke two distinct languages from two or three very different cultural worlds. Rummel focuses on epistemological principles that distinguish E's method from Luther's. For Eramus, one must establish the doctrinal truth of scripture by first collecting the evidence on both sides of the issue, then analyze and compare the evidence. "If the evidence was clear, it allowed a decision based on the rules of logic; if it was ambiguous, the decision must be based on the authoritative teaching of the Church." The steps of this method which appear to be diplomatic, Rummel thinks had "relativism and a skeptical epistemology" as a subtext. E was asked by popes and others to abandon his neutral position and respond to Luther. After exchange of a few letters, E finally composed a work on free will (1524), a topic "that separated Catholics from reformers..." E noted "hermeneutics were 'almost more to the point than the disputation itself...'" Luther replied with The Bondage of the Will in 1525.
Erasmus's method is to withhold judgment on scriptural evidence which is not clear on this issue and accept the teaching of the church. Luther wishes to establish doctrine sola scriptura, on the basis of "scripture alone." The debate is not about scripture itself, but its meaning and secondarily about methods. Luther says he does and will continue to make assertions and he criticizes E's skeptical approach with the assertion, "the Holy Spirit is no sceptic." E wanted discussion, not debate. Luther believed skepticism leads to atheism. Rummel claims the scholastic sic et non method used by E, a remnant of methods from Plato and Aristotle, was skepticism camouflaged by dialogue. Eramus tried to legitimize its usage in Christian contexts. E says he used it when the scriptural text was open, not when the church had decided on an issue as it had regarding free will. E's view is that the sceptic avoids "rash definitions", not assertions. The problem is not with humanists but with theologians who pronounce a verdict with certainty on everyone's slightest question.
Rummel claims E was dependent on "the language of relativism" when he makes allowances for precedents, customary usage, circumstances, credibility of witnesses, time and authority or tradition of the church. Similar principles shape E's model for preaching: "audience, time, and mode of speaking." Luther criticized E's relativism as too politically correct. Rummel concludes, "neither skepticism nor rhetorical stratagems were popular in a time characterized by a partisan spirit, when absolute loyalty to the cause was demanded, and unvarnished language was the chosen means to demonstrate commitment." Rummel could be speaking for the U.S. political milieu at the beginning of the 21st century. The book has a "Select Bibliography" and "Index". To read Rummel is to meet the living Erasmus.