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Desiderius Erasmus - Biography

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus was the illegitimate son of a priest. Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, in 1466. Orphaned at an early age, Erasmus, under the advice of his legal guardians, entered a monastery of Augustinian orientation. Being a student of great promise, Erasmus was ordained a priest before the age of thirty. Later, in 1495, he was sent to Paris to study theology. Showing a hysterical disposition from an early age, Erasmus conflicted with the scholastic method taught and demanded in Paris. The disagreement led to the loss of the financial aid promised him. Needing a way to support himself and his studies, Erasmus then began tutoring well-to-do young men. Beginning in 1499 Erasmus began to travel Europe extensively, including numerous trips to England, where he met lifelong friends Thomas More and John Colet, and future patrons, such as William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and a three-year stay in Italy, from 1506-1509. During his stay in Italy, Erasmus earned a Doctorate in Theology. In 1509 Erasmus returned to England, and in 1515 was appointed a councellor to Prince Charles of Burgundy. By this time, Erasmus, in virtue of his reputation as a scholar, obtained sufficient funds from his patrons to live as an independent scholar. From 1517 until 1521 Erasmus lived in Louvain, where he published a revised edition of the New Testament, on the basis of the Vulgate. This work caused much controversy with Louvain theologians. The controversy quickly spread to France and Spain, and culminated in a formal condemnation by the Paris’ Theology Faculty in 1531. Erasmus’ critics accused him of undermining the Church’s traditions, and providing the underpinning for the Lutheran heresy to come. Erasmus certainly challenged traditional interpretations, yet he was always willing to submit his interpretations before the Church’s verdict. Although sympathetic to the essence and goals of the Reformation, Erasmus was nonetheless critically opposed to the radical methods assumed by the reformers. The conflict between Erasmus and Luther culminated in 1524, with the publication of Erasmus’ Discourse on Free Will. Although the polemic led to a break between the two men, it nonetheless failed to convince his Catholic critics of his orthodoxy. Following his death, in 1536, at the Council of Trent, the Church placed all of Erasmus’ works on the Index of Prohibited Books.

Erasmus’ teaching can be divided into five main headings: educational philosophy, skepticism, political thought, philosophy of language, and philosophia Christi. His philosophy of education articulated in three works, On the Method of Study, The Method of True Theology and On the Education of Children concerns the issues of curriculum, teaching methods, and educational objectives. In essence, his teaching on these issues argued fro a renewed emphasis on history, language studies and moral philosophy, as opposed to the then dominant focus on logic and speculative sciences. In short, he claimed that the objective of education ought not to be merely the development of particular skill sets, and an abstract training of the intellect, but also moral training and the promotion of civility and virtue. The fundamental element of Erasmus’ thinking on the subject of education, is the emphasis he placed on the human capacity of self-improvement, or even self-development, through the arduous labor of education. In fact, Erasmus claimed that men are ‘made human’ through education – a claim who’s echoes we find from as early as Aristotle and into the enlightenment, whose earliest traces are sourced from Descartes’ Discourse on Method, published a full century after Erasmus’ death. For Erasmus learning, or mastering a subject, is not limited to imitation, but included the capacity for analysis, judgment and a process of creative appropriation. Erasmus also meditated on the student-teacher relationship, their different roles and responsibilities, and the question of the proper method of instruction. Lastly, Erasmus believed that the student’s transformation through education in not merely a transformation of him into a learned person, but also into a learned Christian, in other words, transformation by education aims at erudition and piety.

Erasmus’ skepticism is rather problematic in our post-Kantian times. For Erasmus skepticism is not the result of nihilism, or layman relativism. Rather, it is the consequence of human intelligence’s lack of access to absolute truth. There is both knowledge and absolute truth, the first of which mankind possesses, while the latter it necessarily does not. Knowledge, therefore, is always an approximation resulting from investigation and discourse, which must end in epoche – the suspension of judgment. This structural skepticism, however, is not omnipresent for Erasmus. Skepticism, he argued, finds its limit in the religious sphere. Absolute truth, Erasmus claimed, existed through revelation, while recourse to calculation, approximation and probability is appropriate only when the issue could not be settled by the Scriptures, and the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church. Erasmus’ skepticism, consequently stops at faith’s door.

The political thought of Erasmus centers on two primary issues: the figure of the king, and pacifism. The former is discussed in The Education of a Christian Prince, where Erasmus portrays the king as a father figure, who, as the representative of God, is owed unquestionable obedience. The leader, however, also bears the responsibility for the welfare of his people, the institution of justice, and is called to provide his nation with moral leadership. Erasmus also placed great emphasis on consent and consultation. Consent, he saw, as the dominant condition of government, as well as what in fact creates the king, and the very institution of monarchy. Moreover, he saw consensus as the ideal means of ensuing correct decision in general. Consequently, consensus-building, he claimed, was an essential aspect of government, for state and church. Pacifism, for Erasmus, was not only a belief sources from the Christian ideal of universal fellowship, but also a political tool to ensure peace and concord. In On War Against the Turks, Erasmus acknowledges the concept of a ‘just war’, but denies the necessity of military campaign or solution, opting instead for a war fought with spiritual weapons.

Erasmus’ philosophy of language is more aptly termed, philosophy on language. He divides knowledge into two broad categories: of words and of things. This division, however, is not followed through by Erasmus, as his concern is not with philosophy proper, but with rhetoric, or more specifically, with the reasons for learning rhetoric, and the ideal methods of teaching rhetoric. Erasmus claimed that individuals unskilled or under-skilled in language are incapable of forming proper judgments, short-sighted and deluded. Although Erasmus opens us the disjunction between words and things, or we may say, between existence and being, he does not follow through the philosophical implications, instead restricting himself to questions of method, pedagogy and effective communication. The primary texts on this question are On the Abundance of Style, and On the Method of Study. This focus on practical concerns over those of theory is a disposition which cuts right through Erasmus’ teachings, whether political, epistemic, or moral, his words are always oriented towards life as opposed to truth, with one notable exception, the Words of God Himself.

In The Handbook of a Christian Soldier, Erasmus develops the concept of Philosophia Christii, which translates into the philosophy of Christ, and meditates on the life of a Christian, or the Christian life. Erasmus’ relative indifference towards the observance of rites and works, as opposed to his emphasis on faith alone places him close to Saint Paul. The echo of Saint Paul is made more evident in Erasmus’ dichotomy of the path of spirit and the path of flesh, and the superiority of things that are not over those which are. The ceremonial aspects of religion are not completely dismissed, but simply relegated from the realm of truth to that of method, or pedagogy; that is to say, Erasmus sees them as tools to be used in aiding the weak in their development towards a stronger, and more perfect faith. While Erasmus and Saint Paul agree that the essence of the Christian faith cannot be discovered in the debates of scholastic theologians, they conflict on where the essence is to be found. Erasmus claims that its found in Christ’s life and the interpretations of divine words by the early Church father. Saint Paul, on the other hand, claims that the essence of Christianity is to be found in faith, and faith alone – ungrounded faith, which men give fidelity to.

Lastly, Erasmus’ teachings cannot be constructed into a coherent whole, rather, they are a collection of positions which he assumed on particular questions and concerns. A pedagogue, a scholar, perhaps also a heretic, and certainly a forerunner of the Reformation and Enlightenment, he may be, but a systematic philosopher he is not. Perhaps the best way to denote Erasmus really is the most common, he was a Christian Humanist.

There is a consensus that Erasmus never developed a systematic and consistent theory, moreover, there is wide agreement that such a theory cannot be extracted from his work, regardless of their authors intention. Nevertheless, his writings, and their order, undoubtedly expose a specific agenda, namely, education on the prominent questions and situations of his time. His written works include the following: Enchiridion Militis Christiani, 1503 (trans. The Handbook of the Christian Soldier), Encomium moriae, 1511 (trans. In praise of Folly), De Copia, 1512 (trans. On the Abundance of Style), De Ratione Studii, 1512 (trans. On the Method of Study), Dulce bellum Inexpertis, 1515 (trans. War is Sweet to the Inexperienced), Institutio Principis Christiani, 1516 (trans. The education of a Christian Prince), Querela Pacis, 1517 (trans. Complaint of Peace), Ratio Verae Theologiae, 1518 (trans. The Method of True Theology), Erasmus-Luther: Discourse on Free Will, 1524, De Pueris Instituendis, 1529 (trans. On the Education of Children), and De Bello Turcico, 1530 (trans. On War Against the Turks).

Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch Renaissance Humanist and Priest. (October 28, 1466/1469 – July 12, 1536)