A Gentle Soul: Erasmus of Rotterdam

Desiderius Erasmus (1468-1536) was a leading figure of the European Renaissance and contemporary of Martin Luther. Erasmus was born in the city of Rotterdam, orphaned at an early age, and educated by the Brothers of the Common Life. He became an Augustinian monk in 1486. Eventually, Erasmus moved to Paris, where he met William Blount, who introduced him to his friend, Sir Thomas More (who we will look at after Thanksgiving), a. leader of the English Renaissance. Erasmus was instrumental in creating a new, standard Greek New Testament. [1] Though he admired Luther, he refused to join the Protestant Reformation. During the Reformation, Erasmus engaged in a controversy with Martin Luther concerning free will and predestination, which had negative consequences for their friendship.

At this point, I want to relate a personal experience. In the late 1980’s, our church in Houston went through a divisive vote concerning leaving a mainline denomination. Many people spent a long time reading various study papers on the situation. I began my own thinking by reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Erasmus’ reply. I could never overcome the notion that, as impressive as Luther was in argument, Erasmus might have the better view. In the end (after a lot of study of the issues), Kathy and I formed a group that simply tried to keep our local congregation intact. Years later, we ended up leading a congregation that departed the same mainline denomination, but we did not leave with the kind of anger that characterized many departures. I credit God’s grace for this (not Erasmus), but the figure of Erasmus is one I have long admired and his example one that our society might embrace. His example has been a source of guidance more than once—and may be again.

This blog is not as detailed as some previous blogs. I decided that I would experiment with a different format. This post is largely a dialogue between Erasmus and a figure I have called, “Socrates” in honor of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates plays such an important role.

Erasmus as a Renaissance Humanist

Socrates: My dear Erasmus: It is good to see you, for I have long desired to know more about your teaching. I understand that, like me, many people do not consider you as a technical philosopher, and systematic theologian, but as a brilliant a dilatant with an agreeable personality. In my case, many people thought me a busybody for the trouble I caused! They even put me to death! Yet, I was and am a searcher for truth, not necessarily a possessor of it.

Erasmus: I am so glad to meet you, Founder of Philosophy: My critics are correct. I was not a systematic philosophical thinker. Instead, I was what is sometimes called a “Man of Letters.” I wrote no technical philosophical treatise in either philosophy or theology. I was a Biblical Scholar, monk, moral writer, and wise counselor throughout my active life. Because of my pleasing personality and wit, I made friends easily and was an advisor to many influential people, most particularly Sir. Thomas More, who I understand will be reviewed in a following blog. In other words, like you I was a simple searcher for truth, not necessarily its possessor. Like you and your pupil, Plato, I also felt that living a set of beliefs was just as important as having them.

The Philosopher King

Socrates: I am glad to have learned a bit more about you—and I hope to understand a bit more as our conversation continues. In 1516, you published a work known as “The Education of a Christian Prince,” dedicating the treatise to Charles, King of Spain, who succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor, as Emperor Charles V. [2] I love the book because in it you evoke my most famous student, Plato, and the idea that no government is fortunate unless and until philosophers are kings or their kings embrace philosophy. [3] Tell me more about it!

Erasmus: I certainly will. However, to begin with by “philosophy,” I did not mean the technical disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and the like, that modern people call “philosophy.”  Instead, I meant that a good king should be a lover of wisdom with the practical ability to govern wisely after the model of Christ. The figure of Marcus Aurelius is more what I had in mind than Thomas Aquinas or even my great student Plato.

Socrates: So, my friend, what did you believe was necessary in a good governmental leader?

Erasmus: Like Luther, I was Augustinian in my education. It is not surprising, therefore, that I believed that the state cannot be governed without justice and that a true commonwealth must somehow reflect the will of the people in order to be rightly and justly administered, whether by one monarch, by a few, or by the many. I was also aware, from City of God and other readings, that earthly kingdoms do not approach the perfections of Christ. [4]Nevertheless, I believed that rulers could and should emulate Christ. [5]

Socrates: I suppose you know that this idea that a prince in this world should emulate The Prince of Heaven has caused many to ignore and criticize your writing. How could any earthly ruler, for example, “turn the other cheek” to the invasion of his or her nation? This, and other advice of the New Testament, seems foolish indeed to those with a practical or skeptical frame of mind.

Erasmus: I have heard and pondered this critique. I think I can give two responses in my defense:

  1. First of all, I did not say, nor do I believe, that a Christian Prince inside of human history can perfectly perform all the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament and the Gospels are designed to show human beings that they cannot achieve justice on their own and need a savior. This includes those who have political authority.
  2. Second, to say that something is impossible to achieve is not to say that it should not be attempted. In fact, the greatest virtues of the human soul cannot be fully achieved in this life, but these values, like Justice, continue to drive us towards a better perfection. Princes may not be able to perfectly follow Christ, but they can endeavor to do so.

Socrates: Say more about this.

Erasmus: I was a Christian, and I believed then and now that even a Christian prince should seek to emulate Christ in all things. In this you may also see my background at work and my early education among the Brothers of the Common Life. [6] They were devoted to Christ and to following Christ in all things.

The basic teaching of the New Testament concerning leadership is found in the synoptic gospels in this form:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

I knew this passage well, for I was a student of the Greek and a translator of the New Testament. Our Lord made it clear that the standards of this world would not be the standards of his kingdom, as this passage indicates. Nevertheless, Christians (even leaders) are called to undertake to conform our lives so much as we can to the teachings of the Lord. To give you another example, although perfect peace may not be possible in this world, Christian Princes should be peacemakers.

Consensus and Peace

Socrates: Indeed, one aspect of your thought that many people fail to understand is your devotion to consensus and your opposition to war, if indeed you were opposed to war. This is another area in which those of a more practical mind cannot understand your thinking.

Erasmus: In my writings, I suggest that rulers should set out to rule by discussion and consensus and seek arbitration when disputes could not otherwise be settled. As I ponder the democracies of the modern world, I think that they would do well to set out to limit conflict as much as possible and to dialogue instead of engaging in constant political debate and combat. I hope to see David Bohm in Eternity, who also believed this, and learn more about his ideas. [7]

Socrates: It is easy to see that the world would be a better place if conflict could be avoided and rulers would seek consensus. Nevertheless, I was a soldier in the wars of Athens, and so have many other people been over the years. War, it seems, will always be with us. As my pupil Plato says, “Only the dead will never know war again.” [8] I find it hard to understand your thought in this area. Can enlighten me”

Erasmus:  As you have said, my thought about war was dominated by a vision of universal peace. My pacifism is well-documented in my writings and I even wrote a treatise on the subject. Perhaps it will be easier for you to understand my thinking about war and peace if you remember my life as an Augustinian monk. St. Augustine taught that the goal of all government is peace. The goal of all conflict is peace. Even earthly rulers seek peace even as they engage in war. The Christ is referred to as “The Prince of Peace.” Therefore, it seemed to me that Christian Princes and followers of Christ should seek a kind of universal peace, even though we understand that war is inevitable.

Socrates: Why, therefore, did you not simply endorse a kind of Just War theory, as did Augustine and Aquinas?

Erasmus: My critics often mention my stated belief that some wars are justified. Where there is danger to the state or to freedom of Christian faith, my views were that war was justified. For example, in my day, the Muslim nations were seeking to invade Europe, and I justified those wars to prevent a military conquest of our homeland by a foreign religion. I am not sure how this would be applied to circumstances beyond my times.

I would say that I am something like a “Just War Pacifist.” War is and evil to be avoided if at all possible, and Christian leaders should be willing to take risks to avoid war. However, if the survival of the state and its central institutions is at risk, then war may be justified if all reasonable alternatives to war are exhausted. I know that this position will not satisfy my pacifist critics, but it is the best way to understand my thought, I think.

In my thinking about war, there is a subtle, but important, difference between my thought and that of St. Thomas and Augustine. In my mind, the great division between the kingdoms of this world and the Ruler of Heaven, which Augustine and Luther maintained, was a mistake. You might say that it was my belief that, in the persons of Christians and the Christian Prince, some small part of the heavenly kingdom was to be brought upon the earth.


Socrates: This might be a good place to stop, for our discussion has gone on longer than I imagined. However, I wonder if you might answer one more question: You agreed with much of the critique of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther, yet you were never willing to leave it. Can give us some reason why?

Erasmus: As you know, I was a critic of the church of my day, just as I would be a critic of the church of any period of human history. Some might think my unwillingness to leave the mother church was because I was an orphan and the church was my home, and so it was. More importantly, I was wise enough to see that all human institutions are imperfect. This alone, however, does not mean that good men and women should not work to improve them rather than destroy them. In my mind, my calling was to renew and restore not to tear down and rebuild. This is the best defense I can make of my thinking. Others have felt and acted differently, and I respect them all. In the place where we now dwell, Martin Luther and I have renewed our friendship, for the battles of your world are now long behind us.

Socrates: Thank you for this time we have had together today. Eternity is a big place, but I hope we will see each other again.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] On March 1, 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published the Greek New Testament’s first ever “critical edition”—a version that drew from all available Greek manuscripts to compile a text with wording as close as possible to that of the original inspired authors. That work, which went through four revisions, was the first published Greek text available to the public. It is credited with changing Bible translation, preaching and even the course of church history. David Rouch How Erasmus’ Greek New Testament Changed History” http://westernrecorder.org/825.article Western Recorder (March 22, 2016, downloaded November 17, 2020).

[2] Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince ed. Lisa Jardine, tr. Lisa Jardine (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997).

[3] “Desiderius Erasmus” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://iep.utm.edu/erasmus/#H1 (downloaded November 9, 2020. This section is based upon this article.  See, Plato. Republic. From Book VII.” Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through the Classical Sources. 5th ed. Eds. Robert C. Solomon, Clancy W. Martin, and Wayne Vaught. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009 for further information about the notion of the Philosopher King.

[4] St. Augustine, City of God tr. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. et all, abridged ed. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958)

[5] Avinish, Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince (August 21, 2016) found at http://www.theeducationist.info/erasmus-education-of-christian-prince-summary-and-review/ (Downloaded November 9, 2020).

[6] The Brethren of the Common Life was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, a secular educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. Without taking up irrevocable vows, the Brethren banded together in communities, giving up their worldly goods to live chaste and strictly regulated lives in common houses, devoting every waking hour to attending divine service, reading and preaching of sermons, laboring productively, and taking meals in common that were accompanied by the reading aloud of Scripture. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brethren_of_the_Common_Life(downloaded November 12, 2020).

[7] The thought of David Bohm will be the subject of a later blog. I am much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[8] This quote appears in movies like “Patton” and “Black Hawk Down”. Douglas MacArthur attributed the quote to Plato in his famous “Long Grey Line” speech at West Point. It was used by George Santayana and is found in the British War Museum, all attributed to Plato. However, scholars have difficulty actually finding then quote in Plato.

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