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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Erasmus of Rotterdam

A friend is someone who forces you to buy a book and compels you to read it. Kumar Ketkar is one such friend. He was here in Toronto recently (with his wife Sharada). We shopped for books at the Toronto Reference Library’s used books section, and he made me buy Bertrand Russell’s Wisdom of the West. It’s a coffee table book that succinctly describes the history of Western thought in a few hundred pages. It’s not a book to be read from start to finish. It’s a sort of book that one browses through, reads a few passages, skips a few pages, and then reads some more. Here’s a passage that I found particularly interesting:

Erasmus of Rotterdam

The greatest of the northern humanists was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). Both his parents died before he was twenty, and this, it seems, prevented him from going straight on to a university. His guardian sent him to a monastic school instead, and in due course he joined an Augustinian monastery at Steyn. The result of these early experiences engendered in him a lasting hatred for the severe and unimaginative scholasticism which had been inflicted on him. In 1494, the bishop of Cambrai appointed Erasmus as his secretary and thus helped him break away from the monkish seclusion of Steyn. Several visits to Paris followed, but the philosophic atmosphere at the Sorbonne was no longer conducive to furthering the new learning. For, in the face of the revival, the Thomist and Occamist factions had buried their hatchets and were now making common cause against the humanists.

At the end of 1499, he went for a short visit to England where he met Colet and above all More. Upon his return to the continent he took up Greek to good effect. When he visited Italy in 1506 he took his doctorate at Turin but found no one to excel him in Greek. In 1516 he published the first edition of the New Testament in Greek to appear in print. Of his books, the best remembered is ‘The Praise of Folly’, a satire composed at More’s house in London in 1509. The Greek title is a pun on More’s name. In this book, besides much ridicule on the failings of mankind, there are bitter attacks on the degradations of religious institutions and their ministers. In spite of his outspoken criticisms he did not, when the time came, declare openly for the reformation. He held the essentially protestant view that man stands in direct relation with God and that theology was superfluous. But at the same time he would not be drawn into religious controversies arising in the wake of the reformation movement. He was more interested in his scholarly pursuits and his publishing, and felt in any case that the schism was unfortunate. While in some measure it is true enough that controversies of this kind are a nuisance, these issues could not be ignored. In the end, Erasmus declared for Catholicism, but at the same time became less important. The stage was held by men of stronger mettle.

It is in education that the influence of Erasmus came to leave its most lasting impression. The humanist learning which, until recently, was the core of secondary education wherever Western European views prevailed, owes much to his literary and teaching activities. In his work as a publisher he was not always concerned with exhaustive critical examination of texts. He aimed at a wider reading public rather than at academic specialists. At the same time he did not write in the vulgar tongue. He was on the contrary intent on strengthening the position of Latin.

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