Humanism and its Relation to the Reformation
THE closing period of the medieval Church has introduced us to most of the factors which entered into the preparation for the Reformation. It was seen that the hierarchy had scarcely completed its gigantic structure and organized the inquisitorial enginery which should preserve it intact, before the nemesis which usually follows in the wake of all earthly self-deification began to work. Event after event and movement after movement occurred, tending to undermine the papal autocracy, and to disrupt the system of which it was the central feature.
Among the developments of that fruitful era, humanism, or the classic renaissance, was by no means the least important. It marked not simply an epoch in the progress of culture, but had a noteworthy bearing upon religious history. So close did it lie to the opening stages of the Reformation, that it necessarily comes into the field of vision as we look to that great movement. This fact, as previously indicated, explains the post-ponement of the topic to the present connection.
A uniform effect of humanism cannot be affirmed, inasmuch as it was not a uniform fact. Its representatives in different times and countries, or even within the same time and country, exhibited diverse tendencies. Still, there were characteristic features in humanism, working in nearly all quarters towards common results. It everywhere acted as an offset to the scholastic theology. The taste for elegance and refinement which it beget naturally made men impatient with the dry and ponderous elaborations of the scholastic doctors. At the same time, by exalting the republic of letters, and proclaiming the value of the classic civilizations, it trenched upon the exclusive dominion which had been arrogated by the ecclesiastical. It widened appreciation for purely human interests, the interests of men as members of intellectual society, It worked thus in general toward the transition from the mediæval to the modern world. Evidently in doing this much it made a certain contribution to the Reformation. It prepared an open field for it in proportion as it disengaged the heart and will of Europe from the theocratic system of the middle ages. Within certain limits it rendered a more positive service to the reform movement. Where the philological zeal which it awakened was joined with a hearty appreciation for the Bible, it gave a fresh and powerful stimulus to a thorough study of the Scriptures, thus becoming an ally of the evangelical faith. This was very largely the case among the Germanic nations.
Humanism, it is true, gave rise to tendencies which were less friendly to the Reformation. The unchristian tone of some of its representatives, their virtual paganism in thought and conduct, naturally turned to the prejudice of liberal sentiments, and helped on a reaction in favor of the old ecclesiastical system. It is made abundantly clear that the classic renaissance by itself had no adequate power to regenerate Europe. In energy and propelling force it stood far below the evangelical renaissance. Still, a true insight into the conflicting currents of the age would probably reveal the fact that humanism, on the whole, was rather the ally than the opponent of the Reformation.
Italy, as respects the classic revival, was in advance of the rest of Europe by the breadth of a century. This is explained in part by her position as the more immediate heir to Roman antiquities. It is explained also by the fact that she was specially exposed to the advancing and retreating waves of the crusades, and so took a large share in the schooling which Europe, as a whole, received from those mighty enterprises. It was furthermore due in some degree, as may plausibly be assumed, to the peculiar political status of the country. Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a multitude of political units. The governments of the different cities, whether despotic or republican, had abundant occasion for a diligent cultivation of statecraft. There was very little of the sentiment of loyalty to uphold them. Their tenure of power depended largely upon means of popularity and prestige. One and another successful example of the patronage of art and scholarship suggested that in these departments might be found a most serviceable ornament and support of authority. It became, in fact, a fashion with the Italian magnates and municipalities, to promote their own lustre by patronizing a class of literati. Even the most petty tyrant began to think his personal importance inadequately provided for without this appendage.
The dawn of humanism in Italy may be placed near the middle of the fourteenth century. Its culmination occurred in the latter part of the fifteenth century. In the Italian renaissance the primacy may be said to have been held by the Latin classics. Greek was zealously cultivated for a time, especially after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the consequent sojourn of many fugitive Greeks in Italy; but it failed to hold rank with the Latin. Before the second quarter of the sixteenth century, Greek scholarship had largely faded from Italy, and had taken up its abode in the nations to the north.
The first distinguished representatives of humanism in Italy were the great poets of the fourteenth century. The greatest of these, however, was not the most intimately associated with the rise of the new learning. Dante remained in general within the circle of mediaeval theology and philosophy. His temper was not just that of the typical humanist. While he studied the best of the Latin poets, he was drawn to them not so much by the charm and polish of their verse as by the suggestiveness of their matter. Still, as he brought the classic realm into view, and often employed both a pagan and a Christian illustration of the same fact, his influence was in the direction of the classic revival which found its prophet in the great poet of the next generation, Petrarch.
1 Compare J. Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Period of the Renaissance in Italy, translated from the German by S.G.C. Middlemore; G. Voigt, Der Wiedererlebung des classischen Alterthums; L. Geiger, Renaissance und Humanismus in Italien und Deutschland. In Petrarch, love for Roman antiquity was a passion. He vied with his contemporary Rienzi in zeal for the classic ideal, and in the warmth of his desire for its embodiment in Rome he did not escape altogether the doctrinaire temper of the famous tribune. The leading ambition of Petrarch is seen in his estimate of his own productions. Though his Italian verse has been his chief title to immortality, his own expectation of lasting fame was wholly centred upon his labors in reproducing the types of Latin literature. Boccaccio, though less in genius than his contemporary Petrarch, was also an influential champion of the antique.
Among the later phases of the Italian renaissance, that in which the study of the Platonic philosophy became a dominant factor is worthy of special mention. The Medici at Florence were its patrons; Marsilius Ficinus was one of its most industrious, John Pico of Mirandola one of its ablest, exponents. While not free from speculative aberrations, Pico wins respect on several grounds. He moved within a much broader horizon than the average humanist, with his one-sided regard for the classic model, and understood much better the claims of Christian devotion.
A previous reference to Laurentius Valla has served to indicate that Italian humanism made a noteworthy beginning in the direction of historical criticism. It may be added here that Valla also accomplished somewhat for the critical consideration of the Greek text of the New Testament. His work in this line, if not important in itself, was still fruitful as affording a special stimulus to Erasmus.
A sweeping charge of scepticism against the Italian humanists would savor of untruth. From Petrarch onwards, there was a succession of writers who never forgot their allegiance to Christianity. Still, it is undeniable that scepticism made wide inroads among the humanists of Italy in the fifteenth century, and the beginning of the sixteenth. Very few, indeed, came out into open profession of unbelief; very few wished to die without the sacraments of the Church; but there were many who, in their younger days and in prosperous times, really treated Christianity as an obsolete system, and doubtless looked upon it with a species of inward disdain. As an example of the more ultra and outspoken unbelief, we may mention Gabrielle de Salò, a physician who was arraigned at Bologna in 1497. Like others in that era who discredited Christianity, he was a firm believer in astrology. He taught that Christ was a skilful deceiver, who performed his miracles through the influence of the heavenly bodies. 1 Burckhardt. Scarcely more respectful toward revealed religion was Codrus Urceus, a professor in the University of Bologna. When asked by his hearers about a future life, he said that no one had any knowledge upon the subject, and that all the talk about a life hereafter was only fit to frighten old women. 2 Ibid The historian Guicciardini, who was many years in the service of the popes, expressed the opinion, that, with all the help which theologians and philosophers have assumed to give us, we are completely in the dark respecting the supernatural, and that miracles, as they occur in all religions, prove the truth of none. 1 Burckhardt. Carlo Marsuppini of Arrezzo made no secret of his disdain for Christianity, and his preference for the classic paganism. 2 L. Pastor: Geschichte der Päpste seit dem Ausgang dos Mittelalters. According to John Francis Pico, scepticism was enthroned in the chair of Peter. He credits one pope with disbelieving in God, and another with questioning man's immortality. 3 D'Aubigné, Book I. chap. vii. No doubt some of the popes of the era lived as though both God and immortality were empty fictions; but it would probably be difficult to prove against them explicit charges of unbelief. Naturally, this unloosing from Christian faith, on the part of a class which received a good degree of flattery and worldly success, was not favorable to moral strictness. And, in fact, a pagan morality of the more degenerate type found a shameful list of votaries in Italian society in the fifteenth century. 4 Ranke: Geschichte der romanischen u. germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514. Voigt : Wiedererlebung des classischen Alterthums. The moral pestilence, however, should not be laid wholly to the charge of humanism. Clerical ungodliness and license, with their culminating phases at the papal court, were the more guilty factors in spreading corruption.
The zeal for the new learning, which possessed Italy, touched, more or less, nearly all the countries of Europe. It found admission into Spain, notwithstanding the reaction against liberal tendencies had already been inaugurated in that country before the close of the fifteenth century. Francis Ximenes, Archbishop of Toledo, was its most distinguished supporter. Though himself a patron of the Inquisition, he protected the learned Anthony of Lebrija against that tribunal, and employed his assistance, with that of other scholars, in compiling the valuable Complutensian Polyglot.
In France the influence of the University of Paris stood in the way of humanism, and those who were in favor of it were obliged to proceed with great caution. Francis I., however, was personally inclined to befriend the humanists, and through his patronage they obtained a measure of protection. In Greek scholarship the Parisian William Budaeus won high distinction. Indeed, in this field he probably excelled Erasmus, though not his equal in general learning. In Jacques Lefévre of Étaple (Faber Stapulensis) warm appreciation for the new line of study was joined with an evangelical and reforming temper. He provoked, accordingly, the persecuting zeal of the theological faculty in the Paris University, -- the so-called Sorbonne.
Individuals in England had their attention directed to the claims of the humanistic culture in the early part of the fifteenth century. Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who communicated with Poggio at the Council of Constance, and Adam Mulin, who met Aeneas Sylvius at Basle, caught somewhat of the interest of the Italian scholars. At the end of the century, as Erasmus came to England, he found there a considerable group of congenial spirits, --men like William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, and John Colet, who had studied in Italy and gained a fair introduction to Greek scholarship. Thomas More was also a conspicuous figure in the circle of English humanists. Colet first gave proof of his talents in courses of lectures on the Epistles of St. Paul, which.he began to deliver gratuitously at Oxford in 1496. In these lectures, as also in the sermons which he afterwards preached as dean of St. Paul's, Colet showed himself fo be a man of discriminating mind and devout, evangelical temper, and so free-spoken withal that the more zealous upholders of the old order of things were moved to assign him his portion with the heretics. The interests of practical religion were uppermost in his estimate. Great as was his zeal for learning, he knew how to keep it in proper subordination. The words which he wrote to Erasmus, after receiving the book of Reuchlin on the Cabala, are a good index of his habit of thought: "There is nothing better for this brief life than that we live holily and purely, and daily give heed that we may be cleansed and illuminated, and may attain to that which the Pythagoric and Cabalistic lore of Reuchlin promises, but which, in my judgment, we can acquire in no other way than through ardent love and imitation of Jesus." 1 Erasmi Opera, Epist.ccxlvi.
It was not merely the language of friendly exaggeration, when Erasmus wrote, on hearing of the death of Colet in 1519, "O true theologian! O wonderful preacher of evangelical doctrine! With what earnestness did he drink in the philosophy of Christ! How eagerly did he imbibe the spirit and feelings of St. Paul! How did the purity of his whole life correspond to his heavenly doctrine! " 2 Quoted by F. Seebohm in his Oxford Reformers of 1498. Thomas More, though probably not exerting so deep an influence on Erasmus as did Colet, won equally his affection and esteem. With great warmth he speaks of More's good qualities, his kindly humor, his affability, his beautiful and affectionate management of his home. " If any one desires,'' he writes to Hutten, "a perfect example of real friendship, from no one will he seek it with more propriety than from More." 1 Epist. ccccxlvii. Again he asks, "Whenever did Nature mould a subject more gentle, more sweet, or more happy than Thomas More?" 2 Epist. xiv.
Colet died before his adherence to his liberal principles had fairly been put to the test by the stirring crisis of the Reformation. More was less fortunate, and made a record finally which stands in sharp contrast with the sentiments expressed at an earlier date. In his "Utopia" he plainly intimated that he was opposed to persecution for the sake of religion, to the encouraging of vagabond friars, to the veneration of images, and to the worship of saints; that he considered confession to a priest unnecessary, and celibacy on the part of priests nothing essential or desirable. But in his later years, fearing, perhaps, that the Reformation would lead to fanaticism, he turned apologist for the corrupt Church, and acted the part of an energetic persecutor of the Protestants.
The influence of the Italian humanism upon Germany dates also from the council of Constance. Marked results, however, were not at once realized. Even the residence of Æneas Sylvius in the country, for a considerable interval, was not productive of any extended enthusiasm for classic culture. Germany had too little of friendly feeling toward the Italians to be in haste to borrow their products. Still, near the close of the century, when the printing-press had made books in a
measure a substitute for the teacher, not a few minds began to be touched by the spirit of the classic renaissance. In this number were Alexander Hegius and Rudolf Agricola.
Conspicuous among the German humanists for their connection with public events in the transition era, as well as for their literary achievements, were Reuchlin and Hutten. If we join the Netherlands with Germany, we have in connection with them the still more celebrated Erasmus. These three men held a specially important relation to the inauguration of the Reformation, and our chapter may fitly close with a brief sketch of each.
John Reuchlin was born in 1455, at Pfortzheim. After studying for a time at Freiburg, he found opportunity, at about the age of eighteen, to continue his education at Paris. Here he came into contact with men of cultivated taste, among whom was his own countryman Agricola. A good foundation had already been laid in the classics, as in 1474 he proceeded to Basle. During his four-years stay in this place, he took his academic degrees, and acquired some reputation as a lecturer upon both the Latin and the Greek languages. To perfect himself in the latter, he made another visit to Paris. Though wedded to the scholar's career, he now thought it advisable, in the interests of a livelihood, to turn his attention to the law. Accordingly at Orleans and Poitiers he prepared himself for the legal profession (1488-1491). The equipment thus obtained was utilized for a long period in the employ of the Count of Würtemberg, the German Emperor, and the Swabian Alliance. From the Emperor he received a flattering token of regard in that he was raised to the rank of the nobility. But engrossment in business did not prevent Reuchlin from cultivating his favorite studies. Several visits to Italy, which were occasioned by his official duties, were made tributary to his zeal for learning. There he met those who were famed for scholarship, such as John Pico, and found means of prosecuting the favorite study of his later years, the Hebrew.
Among the literary productions of Reuchlin were some tributes to Latin and Greek scholarship; but his most significant works were connected with Hebrew. His "Rudimenta Hebraica," including both grammar and dictionary, marked an epoch in the cultivation of Hebrew among Christian scholars. What Erasmus did for the study of the New Testament, that Reuchlin accomplished for the study of the Old. In one respect, indeed, he ran into an excess of Hebraism. Imitating the philosophizing of the rabbins, like Pico he imbibed that peculiar Jewish mysticism known as cabalism, and held an altogether exaggerated view of its power to illuminate the problems of religion and philosophy. But this was an appendage which did not seriously interfere with the value of his general contribution. To use the figure of Wieland, it was a comparatively easy task to strip off the rabbinical grave-clothes, when once Hebrew literature had been called from the tomb. And that task was speedily accomplished, for very few followed Reuchlin in his estimate of the Cabala.
It was his love of Hebrew which involved Reuchlin in a stirring and fruitful controversy. A crusade had been started against Jewish literature. The instigator of the crusade was a narrow-minded zealot, a converted Jew by the name of Pfefferkorn,who was baptized about 1506. Finding it no easy task to constrain the Jews to follow his example, he thought to remove a powerful prop of their stubborn reluctance by taking away their religious books. In this project he was seconded by the Cologne Dominicans with the inquisitor general, Jacob Hochstraten, at their head. The Emperor at first countenanced the project, and a beginning was made of the wholesale confiscation of Jewish books which was contemplated. Meanwhile, however, the Emperor called for a judgment, on the proper disposition of the books, from several universities and individuals. Reuchlin, being among those called to pass an opinion, argued that only a very few books of the Jews were of ascanddous character, or prejudicial to Christianity; that the possessors even of these ought not to be deprived of them without regular process; that all other Jewish books should be left undisturbed; that, in place of using a violence sure to defeat its own aim, care should be taken to give thorough instruction in Hebrew at the universities, by which means apologists well equipped to refute Jewish error would be supplied. The judgment of Reuchlin, which was rendered in 1510, seems to have been influential with the Emperor. At any rate, the crusade came to an end, and its agents and abettors charged Reuchlin with the responsibility. A bitter attack was accordingly begun against Reuchlin by Pfefferkorn and his allies. A war of pamphlets ensued. The contest became one of wide-reaching notoriety, so that its echoes were heard in the different countries of Europe. The universities were generally adverse to Reuchlin, but he had his supporters. The humanists engaged actively in his defence; and even at the papal court, where the subject was finally brought for settlement, voices were raised in his favor. Leo X. gave the case into the hands of a commission, whose decision was for the acquittal of Reuchlin and the condemnation of the prosecutors to pay the costs. Thus the result was a great victory for the humanists, and an encouragement to all who were striving for the new order of things, as against a stolid and bigoted conservation of the mediæval system. The victory, it is true, had a qualifying feature. Leo prevented the favorable verdict from being proclaimed, by issuing a mandatum de supersedendo. Some years later (1520), yielding to the rebound which the advancing tide of the Reformation had caused in the circle of conservative Romanism, he issued a sentence adverse to Reuchlin, condemning the treatise (the Augenspiegel) in which he had defended his judgment on the Jewish books, and devolving on him the cost of the prosecution. But at so late a date the sentence attracted little notice, and had little significance. The victory of Reuchlin, rather than his ultimate condemnation, remained in the memory of men. 1 L. Geiger, Johann Reuchlin.
The relation of Reuchlin to the Reformation was not that of conscious favor. While he disapproved the burning of Luther's books, there is no reason to suppose that he had any special sympathy with the doctrines which they contained. To the last he regarded himself as an obedient son of the Roman Catholic Church. Still he wrought for the Reformation an unmistakable service. The Reformers fully acknowledged this. Luther thankfully called him his father, and on one occasion rendered to him this encomium: "The Lord has been at work in you, that the tyrannical rule of sophists might yield in a measure to the true studies of theology, and that renewed life might come to Germany, where, alas ! the teaching of Holy Scripture has been for so many years not only restrained but extinct." 1 Epist, cii., De Wette's edition. Melanchthon was under special obligations to Reuchlin. The master, delighted with the genius of his young pupil and relative, spared no pains in his education. The very name by which the Reformer is known is a memorial of the culture which he received at the hands of Reuchlin. His name was originally Schwartzerd. Reuchlin translated it into the more euphonious Greek equivalent, Melanchthon. The distinguished Swiss reformer, OEcolampadius, was also a pupil of Reuchlin; to say nothing about the large number of less noted scholars who owed to him a fruitful incentive.
Ulrich von Hutten was born in 1488, of a noble Franconian family. Destined by his parents to the priestly rank, he was sent at the age of eleven to the Benedictine cloister of Fulda. But the parental scheme by no means suited the restless temper of Hutten. He fled from the cloister, mingled with men of humanistic tastes, and educated himself in classic studies. After an adventurous life, ranging through Germany, Bohemia, and Italy, he appears at last, sick and poverty-stricken, at Basle. The cautious Erasmus refuses to befriend the proscribed man; hut Zwingli at Zurich provides him an asylum, where he ends (1523) his singularly unquiet and romantic life, leaving, as his only bequest, his pen and his sword.
Hutten was possessed more by the negative than by the positive principles of the Reformation. He wished to batter down monkish superstitions and papal tyranny, and was ready to use his sword to this end, as well as his pen. An enthusiastic love of freedom was his ruling impulse. With the spirit of the humanist he joined the fire of the born knight. While capable of generosity and self-denial, such as were exhibited in his voluntary renunciation of all share in the family property, his life was probably, at least before his closing years, too much in the line of current license. The leading Reformers, though they valued his good intent, felt little assurance respecting the outcome of the methods and the temper which he brought to their cause. Hutten, on his part, while at first he regarded the Lutheran movement with comparative indifference, came at length to recognize in it a mighty engine against the Roman autocracy, and on this account bade it a most hearty God-speed.
If he built for himself no very substantial literary monument, Hutten was still a very effective writer for his own generation. His pen was mostly employed in sarcasm against the dullness and superstition of the monks, or in philippics against the papacy. Reuchlin's controversy naturally fired his zeal. He is supposed to have had part in two works which came forth as a seal upon the victory of the distinguished scholar; namely, "Reuchlin's Triumph" and the "Letters of Obscure Men,"--Triumphus Capnionis and Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum. In these letters (1515-1517) the monks discuss their adventures, the affairs of the day, and questions of casuistry, in barbarous Latin. The moral tone of the work was not of a high order; but it would seem that it was not conspicuously below the plane of a degenerate monasticism, for a considerable portion of the monks received it at first with jubilation as a capital stroke for their party against Reuchlin. In many cases its mimicry of speculative or practical fooleries was carried out with decided piquancy. It cites, for example, this brilliant and edifying example of logical discrimination. A renowned teacher spoke of a certain master as a member of ten universities. This was declared by a sharp-sighted critic to be out of the question, as implying that one member might have several bodies, whereas it pertains to one body to have several members. On the other hand, it would not do, he allowed, to call the said master the body, and to classify the ten universities as his members; for that would involve too great a disparagement of the universities. He therefore concluded, in accordance with the superior insight which he had gained at Louvain, that the master who has matriculated in ten universities is properly described only as he is brought under the plural category, and designated members of ten universities. 1 David Strauss, Ulrich von Hutten. Equally edifying points are made in the line of casuistry. Thus, a monk writes to a superior to consult him on a difficulty. Two Jews were walking in the town, in a dress so like that of monks that he bowed to them by mistake. To have made obeisance to a Jew ! Was this a venial or a mortal sin ? Should he seek absolution from Episcopal authority, or would it require a dispensation from the Pope ? 1 Seebohm, The Oxford Reformers. Another trying case of conscience was involved in the question, whether the eating on Friday of an egg in which a chicken is observable is a violation of the fast-law or not. One party contended for the negative, inasmuch as the incipient fowl is to be compared with the worms which are found in cheese and cherries, and which one swallows down even in fast-time without scruple. The other party denied the validity of the parallel, inasmuch as worms belong to the same class as fishes, which are allowed to be eaten in fast-time, while the unhatched fowl belongs, beyond question, to the order of forbidden meats. 2 Strauss.
Though drollery and caricature make up the body of the work, there is an occasional glimpse of serious thought and feeling. Thus, in response to the declaration of a monk that letters of indulgence are no less true than the gospel, and have equal virtue with the direct sentence of Christ himself, a preacher is made to use these earnest words: " Nothing is to be compared with the gospel, and he who lives rightly will be saved. Though one receives an indulgence a hundred times over, and does not live purely, he will be damned, and the indulgence will not profit him at all. On the other hand, if one lives uprightly, or, in case he sins, repents, and amends his ways, I declare that he, without resort to further expedients, will become a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom." 2 Strauss.
The dialogue was an apt vehicle for Hutten, and a number of treatises in this form came from his pen. One of these published in 1520, and bearing the title "Vadiscus " or the " Roman Trinity," condenses charges which had been repeated more or less since the days of Marsilius of Padua. " Three things," it is said, "uphold Rome in her dignity: the personal consequence of the Pope, the bones of the saints, and the traffic in indulgences. Three things are banished from Rome: simplicity, moderation, and piety. Three things are in demand in Rome: short masses, old gold, and luxurious living. Of three things one wishes to hear nothing in Rome: a general council, reformation of the priestly rank, and that the Germans are becoming keen-minded. In three things the Romans traffic: the grace of Christ, ecclesiastical dignities, and women. Three things Rome brings to naught: the good conscience, the spirit of worship, and the oath. Three things pilgrims usually bring away from Rome: a bad conscience, a disordered stomach, and an empty purse. Three things Rome specially fears: that the princes should be united, that the people should open their eyes, and that her impostures should be uncovered." 1 Strauss
Erasmus was born at Rotterdam in 1467. His father and mother, Gerhard and Margaret, though united by the bond of a faithful affection, were never united in marriage. The promise of a union which they had made to each other was defeated by the relatives of Gerhard, who drove him away from home by ill treatment, and during his absence drove him into the vows of monasticism by falsely reporting that Margaret was dead. Erasmus was made the victim of a similar pressure after the death of his parents. His guardian, in order to secure the patrimony of the boy to the Church, spared no pains to force him into the monastic life. This was utterly contrary to the inclinations of Erasmus; but he fell, nevertheless, into the snare, was entrapped into a monastery, and spent several years in its unwelcome confinement. His escape was due to the good offices of the Bishop of Cambray, who took him into his employ, and finally afforded him the much-coveted opportunity of studying at Paris.
Once out of the cloister, Erasmus was soon known to fame. A brilliant career of authorship was begun. Various countries began to seek the honor of having him as a resident. Influential friends in England gave him their aid, and he made several visits to that country (1498-1517). He studied Greek at Oxford, and filled a professorship for a short time at Cambridge. Henry VIII. would gladly have detained him in England; Basle, however, with its excellent facilities for printing, seems to have claimed his preference, and he spent the latter part of his life mainly in that city. The breaking-out of the Reformation somewhat impaired the reputation of Erasmus: yet few men have received more admiration than, on the whole, was lavished upon him. "As many pilgrimages were made to Erasmus during his lifetime as to the shrines of any of those canonized saints whom the Church of Rome has embalmed with her praises." 1 A. R. Pennington, Life and Character of Erasmus.
Erasmus may be regarded as the most perfect exponent of humanism which his age supplied. With nerves uncommonly sensitive and finely strung, naturally averse to every thing harsh and gross, but at the same time dowered with a keen and active mind, an astonishing memory, an unwearied ambition and spirit of industry, and an inexhaustible fund of humor. Erasmus was just fitted to be the master of literary taste, the monarch of the whole field of classic learning which had been opened in the era of the renaissance, and the effective satirist of the follies and corruptions of the times.
Unless we except his wonderful facility of production, his almost extempore mode of composition, we must, no doubt, pronounce the humor of Erasmus the most prominent factor of his genius. "If we would seek, in Erasmus," says R. B. Drummond, "any faculty, not the result of culture, but simply original, we shall find it, no doubt, in his faculty of humor. ... Erasmus poured out on the vices and superstitions of his day a stream of light pleasantry peculiar to himself, by which he succeeded in making them infinitely ridiculous, without, however, attempting to excite against them the fiercer passions of our nature. ... If he did not wield the terrors of a Juvenal, he was still farther from exhibiting the fierce disgust with all things human which we observe in Swift. Always he preserved his faith in human nature, nor would he have felt any satisfaction in ridiculing folly and superstition apart from this practical object of correcting them." 1 Erasmus, His Life and Character. Coleridge has remarked that it is the merit of the jests of Erasmus that they can all be turned into arguments. Rarely has the weak side of an age received a more vivid and humorous portraiture than appears in the "Praise of Folly." This was first published about 1511, and passed through twenty-seven editions in the lifetime of its author. It is a work which may still be read with great pleasure. 1 It was written in England, in the house of Thomas More, after the return of Erasmus from Italy. Only about a week was occupied in its composition, though doubtless the subject-matter had been pretty well thought out previously. Erasmus says More persuaded him to undertake the task, though, he adds with excess of self-depreciation, if was no more in his way than for a camel to dance (Epist. ccccxlvii.).
The contributions of Erasmus to the Reformation were by no means inconsiderable. In the first place, he helped to perfect the instrument of biblical study. In 1516 appeared his Greek Testament, accompanied by a new Latin translation and numerous annotations from his hand. The work may have exhibited marks of immaturity, but on the whole it was a significant advance in the critical study of the Bible. Scholars at all inclined to liberal views received from if an effectual stimulus.
Kindred with this service was the explicit emphasis which Erasmus placed upon the right and duty of all classes to read the Scriptures. Indeed, it would be difficult to find in literature a more fervent appeal for the universal dissemination of the Bible than the following: "The philosophy of Christ accommodates itself equally to all, condescends to the little, lowers itself to their capacity, nourishing them with milk, cherishing and sustaining, till we grow up into Christ. But while it ministers to the lowest, it is entitled to the admiration of the highest. It excludes no age, no sex, no fortune, no condition. The sun itself is not so common and manifest to all as is the doctrine of Christ. Utterly, therefore, do I dissent from those who are unwilling that the sacred Word should be read by the unlearned, translated into the common speech, just as though the teaching of Christ were so abstruse that it could be understood only by a few theologiana, or the safeguard of the Christian religion had been placed in the ignorance of its votaries. It may be advisable to conceal the mysteries of kings; but Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as openly as possible. I would have every poor woman read the gospel, read the Epistles of Paul. I would have these writings translated into all languages, so that they might be read and understood not only by the Scotch and Irish, but, by Turks also, and Saracens. I would have the husbandman sing portions of them at the plough-handle, the weaver repeat them in tune with his shuttle, the traveler relieve the tedium of his journey with their narratives." 1 Novum Testamentum, Paraclesis.
It was not without its beneficial results, also, that Erasmus laid so much stress upon the practical side of religion, upon the ethical, as opposed to the monastic, the ceremonial, or the theologic ideal. He reprobates the monastic orders for putting Judaic rites in place of Christ, and drawing a dividing line where the truth does not recognize any. "How much more in harmony with the teaching of Christ," he says, "would it be to regard the whole Christian world as one home, and, as it were, one monastery; to esteem all men as canons and brothers; to count the sacrament of baptism the highest religious vow; to care not where we live, but how well we live !" 2 Epist. viii., App. With like openness he blames an intemperate refining on speculative points. It is far more disreputable, he says, to be unacquainted with the decrees of Christ than to be ignorant of the definitions of Aristotle and Scotus. "I would rather be a pious theologian with Chrysostom than to be invincible with Scotus." "He is by far the greatest doctor who teaches Christ purely." 1 Ratio Veræ Theologiæ.
Another contribution and among the most notable which Erasmus made to the Reformation, was his penetrating criticism of Romish abuses. With unsparing hand he laid open the whole list of current follies and corruptions: the worldly ambitions and luxury of the popes, the abuse of the confessional, superstitious dependence upon the Virgin and the saints, jugglery with relics, and traffic in indulgences. Nor was it merely in such a work as the "Praise of Folly," where the barb of criticism was partly sheathed in the silken folds of wit and pleasantry, but in writings manifestly serious in their intent, that he exposed the defects and vices of the existing system." 2 For instance, in a letter to Colet, in 1518, he gives this free expression to his disgust with papal effrontery, worldliness, and falsehood: "The court of Rome clearly has lost all sense of shame; for what could be more shameless than these continued indulgences ? Now a war against the Turks is put forth as a pretext, when the real purpose is to drive the Spaniards from Naples; for Lorenzo, the Pope's nephew, who has married the daughter of the King of Navarre, lays claim to Campania. If these turmoils continue, the rule of the Turks would be easier to bear than that of these Christians " (Epist, cccv., App.). As another example, may be cited the unrestrained way in which, in his treatise on the confessional, published in 1524, he exposes the pernicious tendencies of the institution.
Yet this same Erasmus disowned the Reformation. It is not improbable, indeed, that he felt a measure of satisfaction at Luther's blast against indulgences. But at the same time he feared the consequences of his impetuous temper. A letter which he wrote to the Reformer in 1519 shows much less desire to encourage than to moderate his zeal. 1 Epist. ccccxxvii. About the same time he took pains to notify high dignitaries -- Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Albert, and Pope Leo -- that his name was not in any wise to be associated with the affair of Luther. To Wolsey he wrote, "Luther is an entire stranger to me, nor, have I found time to read more than a page or two of his writings. And yet some persons, as I hear, pretend that he has been assisted by my labor. If he has written correctly, no praise is due to me; if otherwise, I am not to be blamed, since in all his productions there is not a line which was contributed by me. The life of the man is universally commended; and it is no small token in his favor, that his conduct is so blameless that even his enemies can find no ground of reproach." 2 Hominis vita magno omnium consensu probatur: jam id non leve præjudicium est, tantam esse morum integritatem, ut nec hostes reperiant, quod calumnientur (Epist. cccxvii.). This language represents the maximum of support which Erasmus was willing to accord to Luther. He bespoke for him gentle treatment, opposed the rage of those who would destroy him, and conceded that the crime of his rebellion was palliated by the great provocations which had been given. Later, as the aspect of affairs became more serious, he took a position of open hostility; and in 1524, at the solicitation of the Romish party, he published his opposition to the Reformer by issuing a treatise against his doctrine of the will. Still Erasmus was never ready to strike hands with the zealots of the Roman Catholic party. He felt at heart no kinship with them. While professedly adhering to the old Church, and submitting to its authority, he held in fact a kind of mean position, and thus exposed himself to the criticism of all parties. He describes himself as waging a threefold contest: "with those Roman pagans who are wretchedly jealous of me, with certain theologians and monks who leave no stone unturned that they may destroy me, with some rabid Lutherans who rave against rue because I alone, as they say, delay their triumph."1 Epist. dcxcviii.
That Erasmus should have held aloof from the Reformation, is no great mystery. It was not merely a prudent regard for his own personal interests, which kept him from making common cause with Luther. As the leading humanist of the day, he felt jealous for the cause of literature. He regarded the commotions excited by Luther as tending to throw that cause into the shade. In 1521 we find him writing to a friend, "Luther is bringing the greatest odium both upon me and upon liberal studies." 2 Epist. dlxvi. A number of similar expressions indicate that he was unwilling to sacrifice literature on the altar of a movement respecting whose outcome he entertained a very doubtful opinion. Again, he was theologically out of affinity with Luther. Somewhat rationalizing in temper, more at home in the ethical than in the strictly religious domain, he was ill prepared to appreciate a mystical type of piety. He approached theology from a different standpoint front that of Luther. The great shibboleth of the latter was largely foreign to his conception. In place of justification by faith, as taught by the Reformer, he preferred to insist that the way to salvation lies in the strenuous imitation of the graces of Christ. In general, the strong Augustinianism which had such a conspicuous place in Luther's thought, especially at the beginning of his career, was distasteful to Erasmus. Luther, on his side, was very quick to perceive that the theological trend of the literary potentate was diverse from his own. As early as 1516 he is said to have called the attention of Spalatin to the fact that Erasmus was at fault in allowing too little scope to inward grace, and overlooking the necessity of changing the person before the works could be truly reformed. 1 Seckendorf, Comm. de Lutheran., Lib. I. sect. 8; Epist. xxii., in De Wette's edition.
But though there were dogmatic grounds for standing aloof from the Reformation, Erasmus was plainly influenced too much by caution and self-regard, and too little by Christian heroism. As his own words abundantly indicate, his interest in his own reputation and his pleasure in the patronage of the great lay very near to his interest in the truth. 2 A letter of his to Polydore Virgil in the year 1527 may serve as an illustration. " I am," he writes, " in very happy relations with the great.
Clement VII. has already given me two hundred florins, and promises me all things. The Emperor and his chancellor have lately written to me in the most friendly terms. I have drawers full of letters, most deferentially worded, from kings, cardinals, dukes, and bishops. From many of them I receive presents of no ordinary value " (Epist, dcccliv.). One can hardly refrain from thinking that if his gaze had been less upon the former, he would have found less of an obstacle in the latter to espousing openly the cause of evangelical reform. He lacked the self-abandon demanded by the crisis, and leaned to that inferior worldly wisdom which finds in expediency a chief rule of conduct. On one occasion he wrote to a friend engaged in legal affairs, respecting his relation to the Reformation party, as follows: "I beseech you to abstain from all connection with the sectaries. Even if you assent to any of their dogmas, dissemble. Nevertheless, I would not have you contend against them. A lawyer does well to finesse with these people as the dying man did with the devil. The devil asked, What do you believe? The man replied, What the Church believes. The devil demanded, What does the Church believe? What I believe, was the answer. And what do you believe? What the Church believes. What does fhe Church believe? What I believe." 1 Epist. ccclxxiv., App., Vigleo Zuichemo, anno 1523. No doubt a strain like this may be imputed in part to the humor of Erasmus, --his fondness for a piquant turn in discourse. Still, after all allowance is made, it is a poor token of single-minded devotion.
We are not, however, to be too ready with censure. Erasmus had already passed the meridian of life when the Reformation broke out, and old age is naturally conservative. Moreover, in what he had previously done he had accomplished the work for which he was best fitted. His mission was to lead up to the Reformation. So Luther described it in a letter to OEcolampadius in 1523: "Probably, like Moses, he will die in the land of Moab. He has done enough in unveiling the evil. But to show the good and to lead into the land of promise, is not his work, as it appears to me."