Friday, November 11, 2016

Essential Thinkers #15 Desiderius Erasmus: Reformed Theology, But Sided Catholics

Dutch humanist philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was the illegitimate son of a priest and was himself forced into a monastic life by his guardians. It the monastery at Steyr his lifelong passion for Latin began, and he quickly outstripped the ability of his tutors. He escaped the monastic life in his late twenties and proceeded to travel and study widely. He eventually came to England and struck up a friendship with Thomas More [I’ll introduce him on the next list of thinker], which lasted until the latter’s death at the hands of Hendry VIII. It as whilst making his way to England on a subsequent visit from Italy that he conceived his best known work, In The Praise of Folly. Arriving at More’s house in London, he quickly committed it to paper and published it, with More’s support, in 1509.

In The Praise of Folly has a dual purpose. On the one hand, Erasmus uses it as a vehicle for satire against the offices and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, for which he had developed a deep hatred during his time at Steyr. He attacks the monastic orders and their conception of worship as consisting in “the precise number of knots to the tying on their sandals.” With more venom he goes on, “It will be pretty to hear their pleas before the great tribunal: one will brag how he mortified his carnal appetite by feeding only upon fish; another will urge that he spend more of his time on earth in the divine exercise of singing psalms… but Christ will interrupt: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees,… I left you but one precept, of loving one another, which I do not hear anyone plead that he has faithfully discharged.’”

This introduces the central theme of Erasmus’s Folly, namely his concern with religion as a worship “from the heart,” that has no need of the offices and intermediaries supplied by the Church. True religion, Erasmus insists, is a form of Folly, in the sense that it is simplistic and direct, not convoluted with unnecessary sophistications and dogmatic doctrine. For Erasmus, religion is based on a thorough-going humanism, understood in its classical sense, as a confidence in human reason to know and worship God. In similar vein, Erasmus was no friend of scholasticism, nor indeed of the philosophical fathers of his day, Plato and Aristotle, Erasmus’s hero was St Augustine, from whom he took the doctrine that reason must be the servant of faith. Apart from In the Praise of Folly and his later Colloquia much of his work consisted in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible.

Erasmus had enormous influence on ushering in the Reformation, but surprisingly, in the struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants, the latter of who were undoubtedly closer to Erasmus’s religious ideas, he eventually sided with the Catholics. This apparent contradiction reflects his somewhat timid nature. He could not condone the violence of the Lutherans, preferring to attach the Catholics with words rather than actions. When More was executed by Hendy VIII for refusing to accept his supremacy over the Pope as head of the Church of England, Erasmus is quoted as saying, “Would More have never meddled with the dangerous business, and left the theological cause to the theologians”, a quote that brings into sharp relief the difference between his character and the uncompromising, incorruptible nature of More.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Desiderius Erasmus: Short Biography’]  

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