Biography of Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus is considered one of the greatest minds in history; he was a humanist scholar, a theologian, a writer, a teacher, and, as he put it, "a citizen of the world." His reputation during his lifetime reached the loftiest heights and sunk to unexpected lows during the Lutheran crisis. His published texts and numerous letters figure among the most seminal works of Western culture. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Erasmus was "the most famous and influential humanist of the Northern Renaissance, a man of great talent and industriousness who rose from obscure beginnings to become the leading intellectual figure of the early sixteenth century, courted by rulers and prelates who wanted to enhance their own reputations by association with the greatest scholar of the age. He was his generation's finest Latin stylist, in a society that revered good Latin, even more impressive for his much rarer mastery of Greek that no contemporary could equal. He was a phenomenally productive writer...and was the first European intellectual to exploit fully the power of the printed word..."

Erasmus was born in 1466 (some say 1467 or even 1469) in Gouda, a city in the Netherlands, to a priest and a laywoman who were unmarried. His early education included time spent at the Brethren of Common Life, a religious community based upon the simple emulation of Christ, not strict religious dogma. After his parents died in 1480 and 1481, Erasmus and his brother were sent to another school run by the Brethren in Hertgoenbosch; their inheritance ran out and Erasmus decided to join the Augustinian monastery at Steyn. He professed his vows in 1487 and became a priest in 1492, spending nearly all his time indulging in a feverish study of the great classics of antiquity. Erasmus's study of the pagan classics aligned him with the growing intellectual movement of Renaissance Humanism, which refuted the Scholastic system that sought to provide answers, based upon metaphysics and logic, to all the mysteries of the world and God himself. He became frustrated with his fellow monks and wrote his first book, The Book Against the Barbarians (unpublished until 1522) attacking members of the religious order. Later in life he would still remain a canon, even though he did not wear a habit or reside in a monastery.

In 1492 Erasmus served briefly as secretary to Henry of Bergen, Bishop of Cambrai, and as a tutor. A few years were spent at the Collège de Montaigu at the University of Paris, but Erasmus grew to hate university life. While offered many appointments, he later only took up one at the University of Cambridge from 1511-1514. His first trip to England was made in 1499; there he met Sir Thomas More and the two became great friends. In 1506 he became the tutor to Alexander Stewart, son of the King of Scotland. Stewart traveled to Italy and brought Erasmus with him; there he joined a circle of scholars, editors, and printers and worked on perfecting his Greek. Erasmus would eventually travel throughout Europe, spending time in Oxford, Paris, Bologna, and Holland.

His first published work was the Adagia in 1500. This collection of Greek and Latin proverbs from the classics proved quite popular and was revised and added to many times by the author. The Praise of Folly was published in 1509 and garnered a great deal of attention, some positive and some vociferously negative. Erasmus was also the first to publish the New Testament in Greek (1519). He never, however, wrote anything in the vernacular- all of his publications were in Greek or Latin. Another influential book, The Enchiridion (1503), was essentially a guide to Christian living, but one with strong Neo-Platonist psychology and a conspicuous debt to the Greek Father Origen. Erasmus also translated many Greek and Latin works and wrote a copious amount of letters, of which over three thousand are extant and have since been compiled into large volumes.

In 1517, Martin Luther, an unknown friar, initiated the Protestant Reformation. Erasmus first believed Luther to be an intellectual compatriot. After all, both men criticized the greedy theologians and fantastical superstitions of the Catholic Church. Erasmus counseled the Church to heed Luther at first, but then became wary once the latter's criticisms became harsher. Luther aimed some of his criticism at Erasmus, writing: "You with your peace-loving theology, you don't care about the truth. The light is not to be put under a bushel, even if the whole world goes to smash." Erasmus finally rejected Luther in his Discourse on Free Will (1524), particularly Luther's emphasis on predestination and human depravity. Despite this disavowal, however, he remained squarely in the middle of the dispute and would not throw his lot in with the Catholic Church. Erasmus's moderate stance angered both sides and he lost his role as the preeminent intellectual and moral leader of European Christendom.

Erasmus died in 1536 in Basel of a sudden attack of dysentery. He is buried in the cathedral there.

Study Guides on Works by Desiderius Erasmus