Bridge to the Renaissance and Beyond
By Stephen Broyles. A paper presented in the Florence-Lauderdale Public
Library during Renaissance Month, Oct. 25, 1989.
Hans Holbein. Portrait of Erasmus.
1523. Oil on wood. Louvre, Paris. Image courtesy of Carol Gerten-Jackson.
Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) was a Renaissance scholar who built bridges:
bridges between the past and the present, between the pagan philosopher and the
Christian theologian, between the common man and the teachings of the Bible.
This article looks briefly at Erasmus’s life and three of his major works.
In the night of October 27/28, 1469, Desiderius Erasmus was born in Gouda. He
was the son of a Dutch cleric, who, if he was at the time not quite a priest,
was also not quite married, either. During the years 1475-1484, Erasmus went to
school at Deventer, where he was educated by the Brethren of the Common Life, a
grass-roots movement toward mystical piety that had sprung up outside the
official church a hundred years earlier in the Netherlands. Many influential
religious leaders and humanists emerged from their schools—Erasmus among them.
When his father died, Erasmus entered another school, the Cloister at Steyn.
A year later he took vows as an Augustinian monk, and in 1492 he was ordained a
priest. He escaped the secluded life—a good thing for him and for us—when in the
following year he became secretary to Heinrich von Bergen, the Bishop of Cambrai.
A year or two later the Bishop gave him permission to study in Paris, and
Erasmus entered the Collège de Montaigu in 1495.
One of Erasmus’s pupils (he did private tutoring to support himself) was the
Englishman William Lord Mountjoy. Mountjoy invited Erasmus to go with him to
England in 1499. There he met Thomas More, John Colet, and Prince Henry—later to
become Henry VIII. Thomas More (1478-1535) was twenty-one years old at the time
(Erasmus was thirty) and not yet Sir Thomas, not yet the English lord
chancellor, not yet beheaded by Henry VIII, but already the “supple, humorous,
unassuming and sophisticated person” in Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All
Seasons. John Colet (ca. 1466-1519) was some three years Erasmus’s senior, an
Oxford man, and a lecturer on the letters of Paul. Colet breathed the spirit of
the Renaissance. His lectures on Paul cut behind medieval commentary and
allegorization and sought to return to the original sources. Under Colet’s
influence Erasmus undertook the study of Greek in order to apply his humanist
interests to the study of the Greek Testament and the revival of primitive
In 1500 Erasmus traveled to Paris to publish his first book, the Adagiorum
Collectanea. The book was a collection of 818 proverbs with brief
comments—something like an annotated “Quotable Quotes.” The publication of this
slim volume of 152 pages was Erasmus’s first step in becoming a best-selling
author, the first in the history of printing.
From this point on we have thirty-six years of Erasmus’s life and works and
travels yet to do: to Italy, to England several more times, in and out of Basel,
writing, publishing, editing. We are presently interested in only a selection of
these complex events, and a
table will display them better than a running narrative.
A glance at the table reveals the long-term interests of Erasmus’s career and
their relation to other interests. The Adages were a constant occupation
throughout his life: he produced ever new and expanded editions over a period of
thirty years. The second edition of 1508 enlarged the original 818 adages to
3,260, and the edition of 1533, some three years before his death, contained
His book The Praise of Folly was written quickly in 1509 and did not
invite the kind of long-term revision which Erasmus gave to the Adages.
And yet, like the Adages, it was immensely popular and went through many
Erasmus’s interest in Greek and the text of the Greek Testament was
long-running, although he did not make his biggest splash until 1516. That meant
that by the time he and Basel publisher Johannes Froben produced his edition of
the Greek Testament with new Latin translation and notes, he was famous
throughout Europe for both the Adages and The Praise of Folly. His
public relationship with Luther and the Reformation therefore came at a period
when his reputation in letters and theology was already well established.
In 1529 the Reformation in Basel became too radical for Erasmus’s
conciliatory spirit, so he moved to nearby Freiburg in Breisgau. After six years
he returned to Basel to the Haus zum Luft on Bäumleingasse, the home of Johannes
Froben’s oldest son, Hieronymus. Erasmus’ old friend Johannes had himself now been dead for eight years.
Here Erasmus lived
his final months and died, in the night of July 11/12, 1536.
I wish to turn now to a discussion of three works which illuminate Erasmus’s
humanist spirit and show how he made useful and usable bridges. I will not go
into his relations with Martin Luther and the other Protestants. That would be
to go a bridge too far, and anyway to a bridge that failed. Rather I will limit
my remarks to the Adages, The Praise of Folly, and the work on the
text of the Greek Testament.
In the Adages Erasmus made a bridge from the classical world to the
present. He immersed himself in the literature of Athens and Rome and returned
to the sixteenth century bearing distilled wisdom from the past. In the Adages
he collected proverbs or sayings from the ancient world, traced their
occurrences in the classical literature, explained their origin and meaning, and
made them meaningful for modern life. “The essential aim,” according to Erasmus
scholar Margaret Mann Phillips, “was to recapture, in this handy portmanteau
form, the outlook and way of life of the classical world, through its customs,
legends, and social institutions, and to put within reach of a modern public the
accumulated wisdom of the past” (Erasmus on His Times: A Shortened Version of
the Adages of Erasmus (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. xiii).
Many of the adages are still in common use:
A necessary evil
There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip
To leave no stone unturned
God helps those who help themselves
The mills of the gods grind slowly
The grass is greener in the next field
The cart before the horse
One swallow doesn’t make a summer
His heart fell into his boots
A rare bird
To dirty one’s own nest
Neither fish nor fowl
In wine is truth
To have one foot in the grave
To be in the same boat
I’ll sleep on it
To call a spade a spade
To break the ice
To die laughing
To have an iron in the fire
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth
Like father, like son
Clothes make the man
He blows his own trumpet
Bad company spoils good morals
Make haste slowly
It is a good question whether these sayings have survived to our own time
because they form part of a great common fund which we share with other people
of the west, or because the immense popularity of the Adages rescued them
from oblivion. It may be a little of each.
In the Paris edition of 1500 the adages were each accompanied by a few lines
of commentary. In later editions Erasmus added further adages and commentary.
Some of the adages became take-off points for long essays—some very long indeed
and capable of being printed as separate pamphlets (like the anti-war tractate
Dulce bellum inexpertis: “War Is Sweet to Those Who Have Never
Margaret Phillips cites “Front before back” as typical of Erasmus’s treatment
of the proverbs. Erasmus first gives the adage in its Latin form and Greek
equivalent. Then he briefly explains that it means that the front of a man’s
head is better than the back of it. That is, a man can best watch after his
business by being personally present and attending to it himself rather than by
being absent and giving its care over to others. Then Erasmus tracks down the
saying in classical literature. In this instance he finds it in Cato: the master
will be more successful if he is frequently present on the farm—front before
back (On Farming 4). He finds it also in Pliny: “But the man who will be
a good owner comes often into his field, and the master’s forehead does it more
good then the back of his head,—so they say, and truly” (History of the World
18.5). He finds the idea again in Aristotle (Economics 2) and quotes the
passage in Greek. Then he ranges through the literature finding the same wisdom
in similar images. He reports the story told by Gellius about a fat man who rode
a skinny horse. When asked about it, the fat man said it was not surprising,
since he got up his own meals himself, whereas his horse was looked to by a
slave. Erasmus concludes his treatment of “Front before back” by applying the
wisdom of the past to modern statecraft:
The person who should most take note of this is the prince, if he really has
the mind of a prince and not of a pirate, that is if he has the public good
at heart. But in these days bishops and kings do everything through other
people’s hands, ears and eyes, and think the common good is no affair of
theirs, swollen up as they are with their own possessions or entirely bent
As much as Erasmus admired his classical sources, he was not a slave to them.
He was able to criticize them as well. If there are many points where we do well
to imitate the classical example, there are many others where we do ill.
Commenting on the adage Ignaris semper feriae sunt (we would perhaps say,
“For the lazy every day is Saturday”), Erasmus complains that the Christian holy
days, like the old heathen holidays, have become the occasion for “drinking,
lechery, gambling, quarrelling, and fighting.” He disapproves of all that and
exclaims, “We are never better at imitating the heathen, than at the very times
when we ought to be most Christian!” (Phillips p. 76).
Erasmus was a Renaissance humanist who loved the classics and the wisdom of
the past. He was also a Christian who loved the Scriptures and the teachings of
Christ. In the Adages he sought to bring these two loves together: to
create, quoting Phillips once more, “a synthesis between classical thought and
Christianity” (p. xiii). The old heads of Greece and Rome, he found, often
perceived truth which we also find in the gospel. They perceived it more dimly,
perhaps, but it was truth all the same. And sometimes Erasmus found they were
even more Christian than we are. Therefore we Christians, Erasmus believed, have
much to learn from them. (A fine example of Erasmus’s devotion both to humanism
and to Christ is the long essay Dulce bellum inexpertis (“War is sweet to
those who have never experienced it”). He opposes war as opposed to humanist
principles, and he builds those principles from the teaching of Christ.)
Praise of Folly
In 1509 Erasmus went to England for the third time, on this occasion invited
by Henry VIII. He stayed there five years, during which time he was professor of
Greek at Cambridge University.
In the first year of this stay, at Thomas More’s house in London, Erasmus
wrote his second best-seller, Praise of Folly. He tells us that he wrote
the book in seven days. (George Bernard Shaw said that he made his living by
thinking fifteen minutes a day: Erasmus preferred to make his by thinking all
day long for seven days in a row.) Thomas More figures in the book in at least
two ways. The title of the book was a pun on his friend’s name: Encomium
Moriae (moria is Latinized Greek for “folly”). And in Chapter 2
Erasmus tells a joke on More:
I know a man by my name [Folly says, who is the speaker throughout the
book], a practical joker, who gave his new wife some imitation jewels and
persuaded her that they were genuine and very valuable. Now what difference
did it make to the girl? She was delighted with the glass trinkets and kept
them locked in a secret place. In the meantime, the husband had saved money,
had enjoyed fooling his wife, and had won her devotion as well as he would
have by a more expensive present. (My quotations from Praise of Folly
are from the translation by Leonard F. Dean (Hendricks House Farrar Straus,
This story about how Thomas More became the man of the hour is as a good
place as any to see the controlling idea of the whole work. Under the cold eye
of analytical reason, More’s wife really has no basis for being happy with a
string of glass beads. And, by the way, cold reason would probably also deny her
happiness even with genuine jewels. But in truth she is happy with jewelry, she
is deceived that the jewels are real, and therefore her happiness rests
not upon cold, rational analysis but on the foibles of human and womanly nature,
in a word, on Folly.
I’ll give you other examples. Folly takes credit for all human life itself,
the thing most dear and precious. For what is it that propagates human life? Not
the spear of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Not the shield of
cloud-controlling Jove. No, it is Folly—or rather, to speak openly, “the job is
done by that foolish, even ridiculous part which cannot be named without
laughter.” Even serious, high-minded, rational, and cerebral people will have to
assume the nature of a fool to beget children. “The Stoics,” Folly says,
assert that they are almost god-like. But give me one who is three, four, or
six hundred times a stoic, and if on this occasion he does not remove his
beard, the sign of wisdom (in common with goats), at least he will shed his
gravity, stop frowning, abandon his rock-bound principles and for a while be
a silly fool. In short, the wise man must send for me if he wants to be a
Erasmus knew, like the rest of us, that life can sometimes treat us unkindly.
How is it that people are able to bear up under the sorrow and suffering of
life? By keeping a stiff upper lip? Facing into the wind? Shoulder to the wheel?
Never say die? That is the stoic response, but not the response of Folly. Folly
says, “By a timely mixture of ignorance, thoughtlessness, forgetfulness of evil,
hope of good, and a dash of delight, I bring relief from troubles.”
Consider the aged and the infirm. They enjoy life in their advanced years
because of Folly:
Clearly it is because of my good work [Folly says] that you everywhere see
old fellows of Nestor’s age, scarcely recognizable as members of the human
race, babbling, silly, toothless, whitehaired, bald—or better let me
describe them in the words of Aristophanes: “dirty, stooped, wrinkled, bald,
toothless, and toolless.” And yet they are so in love with life and so eager
to be young that one of them dyes his white hair, another hides his baldness
with a wig, another obtains false teeth from heaven knows where, another is
infatuated with some young girl and is a sillier lover than any adolescent.
Folly describes the corresponding antics of older women as well, and says,
Everyone laughs at all this, and very properly, since it is the greatest
folly in the world; yet the old ladies are well pleased with themselves.
They are perfectly happy solely because of me.
Then Erasmus deals a blow to the stuffed shirts who would condemn these
Those who scorn this kind of behavior might consider whether it is not
better to lead a life of pleasant folly than to look for a rafter and a
I will give a last example, one in which Erasmus laughs at himself. Folly
points out that the arts nearest to common sense are the ones most esteemed and
rewarded by men. The doctors of medicine get applause and good fees, even in the
sixteenth century when, as Erasmus says, medicine was “a branch of the art of
flattery,” even more so than now. The lawyers come next, whom the philosophers
laugh at as so many jackasses. Yet all affairs are arbitrated by these
jackasses, and their lands increase. At the bottom of the heap is the starving
theologian, “who has mastered a trunkful of manuscripts, lives on beans, and
wages a gallant war against lice and fleas.” So common sentiment turns things on
their heads, putting the most serious things on the bottom and flattery and
sophistry on top. Thus is confirmed Folly’s assertion that folly receives the
In the final chapter of the book, Erasmus changes tone. After a good deal of
good-natured satire and buffoonery, he turns to the relationship between Folly
and Christianity. There he is of course able to quote Paul's words that “God has
chosen the foolish things of the world [to confound the wise]” (1 Cor. 1:27),
and “It has pleased God to save the world by foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:21). He can
quote Christ’s words to God, “Thou knowest my foolishness” (Psalm 69:5. Erasmus
does not give the words their historical meaning: on a modern critical reading,
the speaker is the psalmist himself, not Christ). He can quote Christ’s
thanksgiving that God has concealed the mystery of salvation from the wise but
has revealed it to babes, that is, to fools (Matthew 11:25). He can quote God as
saying through the prophet Isaiah, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I
will reject the prudence of the prudent” (Isaiah 29:14; cited in 1 Corinthians
1:19). He can appeal also to the great proportion of Christian believers, among
whom children, old people, women, and fools—more than the wise—take most delight
in God. He can point out that Christian piety gives away property, overlooks
injuries, and treats friends and enemies alike. “What is this,” Folly asks, “if
not to be mad?” The testimony of common believer, of Paul, of Christ, of God
himself confirms that even to please God, one must be a bit of a fool.
One sentence in the Praise of Folly strikes me as summing up all of
Folly’s wisdom. It tells in a few words what a truly good man would be like:
He would be able to please those like himself or nearly everyone; he would
be kind to his wife, a jolly friend, a gay companion, a polished guest;
finally, he would consider nothing human to be alien to him.
The last words are
an echo from the classical world, from Terence: “I am a man: nothing
human do I consider alien to me” (Self Tormentor 1.77). Another bridge.
The Greek Testament
One of the rallying cries of Renaissance scholarship was ad fontes,
“back to the sources.” As humanist scholarship was applied to the Bible, this
meant the mastery of three languages: Hebrew and Greek, because these are the
original languages of Scripture, and Latin, because this is the language of the
Vulgate, whose need for revision was increasingly recognized, as well as the
language of theology, which, as many believed, would be renewed through the
renewal of Latin.
The revival of good Latin was already well underway in Italy in the
mid-fifteenth century, as demonstrated by Valla’s Elegantiae Latini Sermonis
(1444). And throughout the Middle Ages anyone willing to risk raising the
suspicion of the Church could persuade a rabbi to teach him Hebrew. In fact,
modern knowledge of the text of the Hebrew Bible has not progressed so very far
beyond the work of the brilliant medieval Jewish scholars. Today’s standard
edition of the Hebrew Bible is still for all practical purposes a reproduction
of the Leningrad Codex B 19A, which, according to a note in the
manuscript itself, was copied out in a.d.
1008/9 following exemplars corrected by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher.
But in 1500 few scholars in western Europe had a dependable knowledge of
Greek. Few European scholars possessed manuscripts of the Greek Testament, and
none of them had printed copies of it, because no such thing existed. Erasmus
contributed to the improvement of this situation in three ways: he prepared a
printed edition of the Greek Testament, he made a fresh translation of it into
Latin, and he provided notes and commentary on the text.
Erasmus had given thought to a critical printed edition of the Greek
Testament as early as 1507, for he mentioned it in a letter of October 28 to the
Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. While lecturing in Cambridge in 1512, he had
examined Greek and Latin manuscripts and made notes on them. But when the moment
came, it came suddenly, and Erasmus had to act with all haste. Here is how it
In 1514 Erasmus went to Basel and made a proposal to the publisher Johannes
Froben. In the early stages of the negotiations, Erasmus seems to have been
thinking of a commentary on the Vulgate. In letters of that year he tells
friends that he has revised the text (presumably he means a textual revision of
the Vulgate, which he had been comparing with Greek and older Latin manuscripts)
and has made notes on over a thousand passages.
Froben saw an additional possibility. If he knew the trade scuttlebutt, he
knew that two other publishing houses were not far from placing Greek Testaments
on the shelves of Europe’s bookstores.
Already in Spain, Cardinal Ximenes and a group of scholars had prepared a
trilingual edition of the entire Bible in six volumes, with Greek glossary,
Hebrew lexicon, and Hebrew grammar. The printed leaves lay in a warehouse: as
soon as Ximenes received official permission from Pope Leo X, the volumes would
be bound and distributed. (As it happened, sanction only arrived in 1520, two
years after Ximenes had died, and publication was delayed some two years beyond
that. The edition, known as the Complutensian Polyglot (from Complutum, the
Latin name of the Spanish town Alcalá), only ran to six hundred copies, whereas
the first two editions of Erasmus totaled 3,300: Basil Hall, “Biblical
Scholarship: Editions and Commentaries,” in The Cambridge History of the
Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1963), 3:61.)
Already the Aldine Press in Venice had in 1504 published six chapters of the
Gospel of John in Greek, and in 1518/19 it would publish the entire Greek Bible.
(The Septuagint, as it turned out, would be a reissue of Erasmus’s first
The time was clearly ripe for some publisher, some where, to issue a Greek
Testament. Erasmus’s Greek scholarship was equal to the task, and so Froben put
it to him in no uncertain terms: if Erasmus did not edit and publish a Greek
Testament, somebody else soon would (Letter to Erasmus, April 1515).
Erasmus accepted the challenge. For six months he went at the project hammer
and tongs. He had with him his copious notes which he had brought from England,
and these made constant reference to readings in the Greek manuscripts he had
studied. But they were still notes, not a Greek text. That had to be taken from
whatever materials were available locally. In Basel Erasmus located three Greek
manuscripts and borrowed two more from his friend Johannes Reuchlin. From these,
with instructions and emendations written on them in Erasmus’s own hand, the
compositors set the type. (All five of these manuscripts still exist. Four are
still in Basel in the Universitätsbibliothek. They are MS 1 from the twelfth
century, containing the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles; 2e from the
twelfth century, containing the Gospels; 2ap from the twelfth
century, containing the Acts and Epistles; and 817 from the fifteenth century,
containing the Gospels. The fifth, one of those borrowed from Reuchlin, is 1r,
a codex of Revelation from the twelfth century, now in the
Öttingen-Wallersteinische Bibliothek in Schloss Harburg.)
Froben and Erasmus pulled off the publishing coup of the century, and the first
published edition of the Greek Testament saw the light of day, March 1, 1516.
Not that, by modern standards, it was a very good edition. It was full of
printer’s errors, and the manuscripts upon which Erasmus placed most reliance
would nowadays be judged inferior. Erasmus’s single manuscript of Revelation
lacked the last six verses, so Erasmus, alas, produced them by back-translation
from the Vulgate. And yet the publication of this book was a milestone in
Renaissance learning. Now, for the first time, the cry ad fontes—which in this
case amounted to “back to the text”—could truly be heeded by Christian
And the first edition of Erasmus was even more. It contained, in addition to
the text, his own lucid translation into Latin (knowledge of Greek in the West
was still not so widespread that the text could stand altogether on its own).
The translation was not so much intended to replace the Vulgate as to give
clear, contemporary expression to the meaning of the text. And the edition
contained his annotations. We must look briefly at these before we are done.
In his haste to produce his first edition, Erasmus was driven by a more
elegant motive than mere commercial advantage. He wished to make a bridge from
the Greek sources of Christian truth to the men and women of sixteenth-century
Europe. He wished for his edition to facilitate the making of modern
translations of the Bible directly from its sources, not from a secondary Latin
version. His wish is expressed in these words from the preface:
I would have the weakest woman read the Gospels and the Epistles of St.
Paul. I would have those words translated into all languages, so that not
only Scots and Irishman, but Turks and Saracens might read them. I long for
the plowboy to sing them to himself as he follows the plow, the weaver to
hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the
dullness of his journey.
The success of the endeavor is vindicated by history. (See the details in
“Continental Versions to c. 1600” in Cambridge History of the Bible,
3:94-140.) The work of Erasmus can be traced directly or indirectly in many
European versions. The German translation of Martin Luther (1522) was based on
Erasmus’s Greek text and Latin version, taken from his second edition of 1519.
The first important Italian version made not from the Vulgate but from the
original languages appeared in 1530, the work of a Florentine, Antonio Brucioli.
Twenty years later another Florentine, Massimo Teofilo, rendered an Italian
Testament, which in some reprintings was accompanied by Erasmus’s Latin version.
The business of translating made less headway in France and also more: new
translations appeared in a flood, but not from the font. Although not
effectively observed, the Edict of Châteaubriant of 1551 shows the official
attitude of the church in France: translation of any part of the Bible is
forbidden, as well as “the printing or selling of translations, commentaries,
scholia, annotations, tables, indices or epitomes concerning Holy Scripture
written during the preceding fifty years in any language” (R. A. Sayce in
Cambridge History of the Bible 3:113-14). The work of Erasmus is not singled
out but is of course included.
In the sixteenth century a number of new Dutch versions appeared. The Latin
of Erasmus was the basis of two of these, one printed in Amsterdam in 1523, the
other in Delft in 1524. Francisco de Enzina’s Spanish Testament of 1543 was made
from Erasmus’s Greek text, but it was suppressed because of its marginal notes
and because the translator printed in capital letters those verses in Romans 3
supportive of justification by faith. The first Czech version to depart from the
Vulgate was that of Optát Benes and Petr Gzel (1533), made from Erasmus’s Latin
version. Luther’s version, and thus indirectly Erasmus’s, underlay parts of the
first Danish Testament (1524). The Swedish Testament (1526) was also based on
Luther, but with one eye also on the Greek and Latin texts of Erasmus. The first
English Testament made directly from the Greek (1525) was based squarely on an
early edition of Erasmus. It was made by an expatriate Cambridge scholar,
William Tyndale, whose famous words to a die-hard churchman echo the preface of
If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the
plough shall know more scripture than thou dost.
I must not leave the impression that no European possessed vernacular
Scriptures before Erasmus, or that all new versions depended solely on his
edition. The situation was much more complex: it was the dense flowering of
scholarly and religious energy throughout Europe. But among the many voices, one
of the clearest and most authoritative was that of Erasmus.
The annotations which make up the third part of Erasmus’s work were
predominantly philological. They gave objective support for his translation and
choice of variant readings, and without them he believed his newly edited text
would be “cast into the teeth of critics naked and unarmed” (Epistle 1010:3;
cited by Erika Rummel, Erasmus’ Annotations on the New Testament: From
Philologist to Theologian (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986),
But Erasmus’s critical notes were not merely antiquarian: they served a
lively purpose, to lead to the rediscovery of the biblical literature so that
the voice of Scripture could again be heard in the church. For Erasmus, the
message of the Bible could not be understood without hard grammatical study of
the text, and without that message the church would never be renewed.
We will have come full circle when we read Erasmus’s comment on Jesus’ words,
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30):
Truly the yoke of Christ would be sweet and his burden light, if petty
human institutions added nothing to what he himself imposed. He commanded us
nothing save love for one another, and there is nothing so bitter that
charity does not soften and sweeten it. Everything
according to nature is easily borne, and nothing accords better with the
nature of man than the philosophy of Christ, of which almost the sole end is to
give back to fallen nature its innocence and integrity. (Cited by Henry
Preserved Smith, The Age of the Reformation (New York: Henry Holt,
Here is Erasmus’s humanist spirit exactly: to be a Christian is to be at last
a man. Here the Gospel and graeco-roman philosophy speak with a unified voice:
“Nothing human is alien to me.”
The enduring accomplishment of Erasmus is that he made bridges. He made a
bridge for Renaissance people back to the classical period by plunging into the
old texts and bringing up their treasures. He made a bridge between
sixteenth-century Europeans and first-century Christians, between the Christian
Scriptures and the man who drives the plow, by supplying scholars with tools for
making the old texts speak anew. He made a bridge between classical thought and
Christian thought, between the nature of God and the nature of man, by showing
that the teachings of Christ allow man the fullest expression of his humanity.
And (not the least of his accomplishments) he makes a bridge from ourselves to
the Renaissance—and beyond.
Haus zum Luft, Basel, Switzerland, where Erasmus
lived his last days.
Folly speaks to the people. Hans Holbein the Younger made this
drawing in the margin of a copy of Praise of Folly.
MS 1, in the library of the University of Basel.