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GSRE-art - 11/18/96


"Great Scholars of Renaissance Europe" by Lady Isabelle de Foix.


NOTE: See also the files: languages-msg, literacy-msg, universities-msg, cl-academic-msg, Art-of-Arith-art, Med-Math-Sci-bib.





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                              Thank you,

                                   Mark S. Harris

                                   AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                        stefan at florilegium.org




                  by Lady Isabelle de Foix


                 I. A PAGEANT OF SCHOLARS


    In the early fourteenth century, a major change in European thought began to take place. It originated in Italy, which was the most prosperous country in Europe during this period. Prosperity meant plenty of surplus wealth to finance the endeavors of scholars, artists, poets, and other intelligent and creative Italians. The banking houses of the Medici joined with the hereditary aristocracy to patronize these people  We call this change in European thought the Renaissance (French, "rebirth"). The Renaissance was an urban phenomenon in Italy, since the aristocracy and the wealthy bankers lived in the cities. Feudalism, a product of the Germanic tribes who overran the western part of the

Roman Empire in the fifth century, did not develop in Italy to the extent it did in lands north of the Alps due to the tenacity of traditions from antiquity. Feudalism was a rural, land-based economic system in which the aristocracy dwelt in manors far from any towns. The Italian aristocracy, by contrast, lived in the cities, which had survived the Germanic invasions. Italy was divided into city-states, each of which had its own government.


    The philosophical basis of the Renaissance was a philosophy called humanism There are two definitions of this philosophy. One was civic humanism, which was the outlook of families new to wealth and power, such as the Medici. They glorified the autonomy of their city-states and the individuals of these city-states, and it was this brand of humanism that motivated the Medici to glorify their city-state, Florence, by supporting learning and the arts. Another form of humanism was intellectual humanism, which emphasized the study of the individual as opposed to the dense and otherworldly Scholasticism of the Middle Ages.  Scholars of the Renaissance came to be known as "humanists" because they studied and taught on matters pertaining to the importance of individuals, and their studies were known as the "humanities."  These scholars operated outside of the universities, which had a narrow focus on training individuals in the professions--theology, medicine, and law.  


    The instigator of Renaissance scholarship was Francesco Petracco (1304--1374), commonly called Petrarch in English-speaking lands. He was born in Arezzo, the son of an exiled Florentine notary. A few years later the family moved to Avignon, then the home of the papacy. Francesco started his schooling at nearby Carpentras. At an early age, he was exposed to the writings of Cicero. Cicero's writings were commonly used as Latin textbooks during this period. This began Petrarch's lifelong obsession with classical literature. He was sent to the University of Bologna to study law, but he abandoned these studies at the age of twenty. He loved Bologna; he was indifferent to a career in law. He did develop a keen interest in the history of Roman law, and this inspired him to start looking for lost Roman classics. He became a member of a Cardinal's retinue in 1330, and traveled with the cardinal all over Italy. At every stop he had a chance to examine yet another cathedral's library. One day he was examining documents in the cathedral library in Verona and discovered the first volume of Cicero's long-lost correspondence, dating from the first century B.C.E. Petrarch also made a major innovation in the standardization of the style in which script was written on the pages of books. His books had wide margins and spaced text, in contrast to the cramped style of earlier books


    Petrarch is often referred to as the "Father or the Renaissance," and rightfully so. Because of his influence on the intellectual life of fourteenth century, Renaissance scholarship was based on the classics, an understanding of the past, the importance of original texts, and character development. Medieval scholars had studied the classics, but they had looked upon them as products of an alien, "pagan," world, different from their Christian environment. The scholars of the Renaissance, on the other hand, felt a sense of community with the authors of these classics.  History was important, Petrarch felt, because of the role it played in teaching values and character. It praised the deeds of the virtuous, and condemned the deeds of the wicked. This philosophy of history had been held by great Roman historians like Titus livius, known as Livy in English-speaking lands. Livy had been mainly motivated by ethics. Livy discussed the virtues of the Roman aristocracy, and had nothing to say about the masses. This was a theme that the Renaissance followed as well; education was for the aristocracy, not the masses.. Petrarch's historical methodology was crude; he never understood that all past events are part of history. To Petrarch, history was comprised of several great periods of times past. Nonetheless, he illustrated the value of knowledge of the past, and paved the way for later historians. Petrarch believed that along with history a good education consisted of philosophy and poetry. Petrarch proclaimed himself a follower of the Platonic traditional in philosophy, although his own knowledge of Platonism was limited. After all, Plato was Greek, and Petrarch thought of the classical revival as a revival of Latin literature. The study of the Greek classics would have to wait.


    The Florentine republic voted to establish a university in 1321, the Studio Florentino, but had great difficulty attracting students due to competition from established schools. In 1387 a prominent Florentine statesman, Coluccio Salutari, (1331--1406) issued standards for the school in an attempt to make it more attractive to students. In 1396 he persuaded a distinguished Byzantine scholar, Manuel Chrysoloras, to accept a  position at the school as a professor of Greek. He attracted many students, and helped make the Studio Florentino one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in Italy. Chrysoloras left Florence in 1400; it is believed that he moved to Pavia to teach at its university. Thus the seeds of Greek scholarship in Renaissance Italy were sown; many picked the harvest.


    Character development was very important to the upper classes in Italy during this period. For a young man of high birth, the proper social values and means of expression were the important things in life. This was in the sphere of civic humanism. He needed the social skills and passionate devotion to his city-state This increased the importance of ethics. Ethics was the most important branch of philosophy in Renaissance education. They were the proper preparation for a career in statesmanship. Not surprisingly, many of the upper classes were also patrons of humanist scholars. One such was Cosimo de Medici. Born in Florence in 1389, Cosimo acquired a thoroughly humanistic education. In 1428 he inherited the largest fortune in Florence. In his own way, Cosimo was a genius. He was a shrewd, farseeing politician, and an intellectual in his own right. He acquired many classical texts, and hired scribes to copy the books he was unable to purchase. He then commissioned an architect to design a building to house the books. This was finished in 1444 and became Europe's first public library.  It was in this library that he met the son of his personal physician, Marsilio Ficino. Marsilio was eagerly seeking knowledge of Greek. Cosimo recognized the boy's potential and financed his studies in Greek and medicine. Ficino lived up to Cosimo's expectations. He spent twenty years translating Plato's works from Greek to Latin. This translation of Plato, first printed in 1484, was used in European educational institutions until the eighteenth century.

    At the Medici villa at Carregi, people interested in Plato gathered to form the Platonic Academy of Florence. Academies in the Renaissance were simply groups of people sharing a common interest; they had no corporate structure. The members simply met on November 7 of each year because it was believed that November 7 was Plato's birthday. Not all members of the Academy were scholars; in fact, the majority were painters and poets.  They carefully preserved Greek manuscripts and made Florence a center of learning.  


    Ficino tried to synthesize Christianity and Platonism, as had Augustine. The main difference between Ficino's approach and Augustine's approach to this synthesis was that while Augustine had only accepted teachings of Plato that did not conflict with Christian doctrine, Ficino rejected any doctrines of Christianity that conflicted with Platonism. He was deeply impressed with the many virtuous non-Christians he had read about in history books, and came to the conclusion that Plato, too, was divinely inspired. The Academy used an old philosophical tool, that of taking quotes from classical sources and proving that they anticipated Christian teachings. For example, they traced the doctrine of the Trinity back to Plotinus, a Platonist of the second century C.E, Zoroastrianism, the state religion of ancient Persia, and the book of Jewish mysticism, the Cabala.


    Plato had taught that the universe is perfectly ordered by a perfect being, God. Ficino argued that the mind is constantly in motion, seeking its place in the order of the universe By universe Ficino meant infinity. Furthermore, the mind is constantly seeking knowledge of all truths. It is moving toward the light of God; when it reaches its destination, the soul breaks free of the bonds of the flesh which imprisoned it. At this point the soul has gained immortality. This philosophy became quite popular in learned circles in Italy, who appreciated the notion of security they found in it.  The Academy's most famous member, Pico della Mirandola, (1463--1494) was in large part responsible for the spread of Ficino's interpretation of Platonism.


    Books were prohibitively expensive in the days before the introduction of the printing press into Europe. This was because book--making was very labor-intensive. It took a scribe a year to transcribe a single volume of the Bible Someone purchased one of these Bibles for $10,000 in modern currency. By the early fourteenth century, block-printing had spread to Europe from China, Paper gradually took the place of parchment in the manufacturing of books. Toward the middle of the fifteenth century, movable type began to be used in Europe. The first book to be printed by movable type in Italy appeared in 1470.This accomplishment was overshadowed by the greatest publisher in Renaissance Italy, Aldus Manutius (1450--1515). Aldus received education in both Latin and Greek, and he met several members of the Florentine Academy. For awhile he lectured at Ferrarra on the classics. He moved to Venice to undertake the venture that would make him famous. He opened a printing and publishing firm with the ambition of publishing every Greek and Latin classic ever written, and make them available to the public at low prices. It was a risky undertaking as many of the classical manuscripts were in poor condition. The scholars who worked with Manutius had to become textual critics, comparing the manuscripts with each other to get the most possible accuracy. He gathered Greek scholars in his home, where they edited Greek manuscripts for publication; he also invented a Greek font for this purpose. He published every Greek and Latin classical text that he could obtain texts of. Manutius also invented the pocket-sized book, the vade mecum.(Latin, "take me with you"). Up until this time, books had been quite large and were often read on tables and lecterns. The pocket-book made it possible for people to take their books with them on their travels. This helped spread study of the classics into lands as far away as Poland and Sweden. Manutius' focus on his work was so intense that he neglected everything else in his life and died impoverished. However, he was immensely successful in his campaign to make the classics more accessible, and he thoroughly enjoyed his life in the service of the educational ideas of the Renaissance.


    Italian humanism began to spread north of the Alps during the fifteenth century. One scholar who attempted to introduce humanism into Germany was Peter Luder (c. 1415--c.1474).  Luder was educated in Padua and Rome, and returned to Germany to teach the classics at Heidelberg. He was disappointed that he was not able to attract a following and he returned to Italy. A scholar who was much more successful in his attempt to introduce humanism into Germany was Rudolph Agricola (c.1442--c. 1485). After ten years of studying Greek in Italy, he introduced the study of Greek and the Greek classics into Germany. But by far Germany's greatest humanist was Johannes Reuchlin.(1455--1522) He started his schooling in Germany, and then studied at Paris, Orleans, and Basle. He mastered Greek, and became a professor of Greek at the newly-founded University of Tubington. He journeyed to Italy as a member of the retinue of the Count of Wurttemberg, who was his patron. He met Pico della Mirandola while in Italy and became an enthusiastic humanist. Reuchlin developed an intense interest in the original texts of the classics and of the Bible. He learned Hebrew for the purposes of examining the original Hebrew text of the Hebrew Scriptures. Reuchlin's career illustrates the difference between Italian humanism and the humanism of northern Europe. The northern humanists took Christianity much more seriously than the Italian ones did; we have seen Ficino forcing Christianity to accommodate Platonism. The northern humanists learned Hebrew to support biblical accuracy for the Church; the Italian humanists learned Hebrew for secular reasons Reuchlin wrote a Hebrew grammar book which was published by Aldus Manutius.


    Another noteworthy German humanist was Conrad Celtes (1459--1508). Celtes spent much of his life on the road, stopping at various libraries to look for lost classical manuscripts. He made his way to Italy, where he met members of the Florentine Platonic Academy; he also met Aldus Manutius. He was horrified at Germany's reputation in Italy. Germans had a negative stereotype in Italy; they were widely regarded as drunken, ignorant, lazy boors. In 1492 he made an impassioned speech at the University of Ingolstadt, urging his fellow Germans to start an intellectual revolution with humanism as its basis:


...do away with that old disrepute of the Germans in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew writers who ascribe to us drunkenness, cruelty, savagery and every other vice bordering on bestiality and excess


    Celtes pointed out that this stereotype was 1500 years old; it dated from books that had been written about Germanic tribes by Greek and Roman authors, especially Tacitus. The Germans had accomplished much since, he pointed out. To show the rest of Europe that they were not all drunken barbarians, Celtes called for both educational reform and the creation of a national literature. He founded a group modeled on the Italian academies, the Danubian Sodality (from the Latin "sodalis", comrade) to promote humanistic studies, mostly Latin versification. Celtes promoted patriotic literature by forming a concept of a massive historical and geographical volume about his country, which he planned to call "Germanis illustrata." This dream was never realized, but it gave German humanists had a new interest, that of national topography. This consisted of a complete description of a country: its physical features, landscape, and relationships with other countries.  






    Desiderius Erasmus (c.1466--1536) was born in Rotterdam, the son of unwed parents, a priest and the daughter of a local physician. He started his schooling at Gouda at the age of four   Five years later he was sent to a school at Deventer, which was run by the Brethren of the Common Life, a loosely-knit group of devout people who practiced what was called the "devotio modern." This was an increased emphasis on individual devotion and Biblical study and a  lack of real interest in sacraments and monasticism. The "devotio moderna" had a lasting influence on Erasmus.  So did the patron saint of the Brethren, St. Jerome, author of the Vulgate. In 1484 Deventer was ravaged by the plague, which claimed both of his parents, as well as twenty of Erasmus' schoolmates. He went to Steyn, where he entered an Augustinian monastery, where he took vows in 1487. He found life in the monastery stifling and uncongenial. He had inherited some books from his father, Latin classics and works by earlier humanists. His fellow monks were hostile to humanism. Nevertheless Erasmus wrote his first works in this monastery; they showed much of the brilliantly chatty, idiomatic Latin that he was to become famous for. In 1492 he was ordained a priest, and obtained permission to leave the monastery to enter the service of Henrick van Bergen as his Latin secretary. Van Bergen, an aristocratic bishop from Flanders, aspired to become a cardinal. In anticipation of his elevation to the cardinalate, Van Bergen had plans to go to Italy, which Erasmus wished to visit. The monastic vows he had taken were still in force; he was expected to return to the monastery after his service. Van Bergen never become a cardinal; this ruined any possibility of Erasmus accompanying him to Italy. At this point Erasmus, with the permission of his Order, went to Paris to study theology at the Sorbonne, the University pf Paris' prestigious theology school.


    In the late fifteenth century the University of Paris was rife with various kinds of academic disputes and student rowdiness, which often resulted in ugly confrontations between the students and the citizens of Paris.  The universities' narrow focus on the teaching of professions--theology, law, and medicine--excluded humanism. The University stubbornly held onto Scholastic teaching methods and philosophy, which had seen their heyday in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Scholastics imparted all of their knowledge in the framework of a system of logic called dialectic, which had been originated by Aristotle. Following this system of logic, first a philosophical concept is stated. Then an argument against this very concept is stated. Ultimately, a compromise is reached between these two conflicting viewpoints.  This rigid system made no room for the classical literature the scholars of the Renaissance promoted; they thought of it as dated cobweb--spinning.  Erasmus gave up his dream of becoming a member of the theology faculty at Paris as soon as he realized how antagonistic the University was toward humanism. His destiny was intertwined with the destiny of northern European humanism, which can be rightfully called "Christian humanism." The northern European humanists took Petrarch's notion of finding and examining original manuscripts and applied this to a quest  for Christian truth in the original texts of their religion's scriptures. It was precisely this brand of humanism that became the heart and soul of Erasmus' plan for educational reform in Europe.


    . At the University of Paris, Erasmus first lodged in a college. Colleges were basically hospices for poor scholars, and the college Erasmus lived in was called La College de Montaigu. Life in these colleges was strictly regimented, and the College de Montaigu was under the supervision of an ascetic cleric, Jan Standock,  who expected the residents of the college to adopt to his lifestyle of extreme abstinence and austerity. He enforced the rules by chastising any student for minute infraction of these rules The rooms were dirty, and the food was bad. Even worse, Standock imposed a Scholastic orthodoxy among the students. After only six months at the College, Erasmus took ill and went back to the Netherlands. He returned in 1496 to pursue his literary endeavors, attempting to support himself by teaching young aristocrats. No one in this period could make a living as an author. Only well-known authors were paid for their work, and there were no copyright laws. The author lucky enough to get his works published usually received several copies of his book and nothing more. Scholars were obliged to either find rich patrons or to get a benefice. Most, if not all, of Erasmus' students in Paris were also foreigners One of Erasmus' students in Paris was a young English aristocrat, William Blount, fourth Baron Mountjoy. In 1499 Mountjoy invited him to visit England. In England, Erasmus met two other men who would greatly influence his life and work. One of these was Sir Thomas More, who would become his best friend. The other was John Colet, a very learned theologian. Colet and Erasmus carried on many a friendly debate that facilitated Erasmus' growth as a scholar. Colet wished Erasmus to lecture on the Bible at Oxford; Erasmus did not think he could do this, so he refused. Colet was content to lecture on the Bible without studying it in its original Greek and Hebrew texts; Erasmus was not. His goal in life at this point had become to edit Jerome's Vulgate, using the original Hebrew and Greek texts  Like other humanists, he wanted to go to the textural core of the documents he was studying. He developed a feeling of scholarly and personal kinsmanship with Jerome. Both were adept at ancient languages; both dedicated themselves to work on the Bible; and neither one of them could stand criticism, no matter how much they themselves criticized others.  


    Erasmus returned to France in the summer of 1500. His English friends had given him twenty pounds, which was about $2,000 in modern currency  This was to give him some financial security amidst the uncertainty of life as a scholar. Unfortunately, a fourteenth-century statute forbade anyone to take either silver or gold out of England. More and Mountjoy had told him that he could get around this law by exchanging English money for foreign currency; they had been mistaken. The customs officials at Dover confiscated nearly all of the money, leaving Erasmus nearly penniless.


    Erasmus was devastated and embittered by this trauma. He was left to suffer the lot of many a scholar, destitution. ." The wound received in England begins to smart only now that it has become inveterate, and that the more as I cannot have my revenge in any way", he wrote to his old schoolmaster and friend, James Batt.  He had to be careful about the way he controlled his emotions following the disaster; he could not afford to alienate any of his patrons in England. Ironically, this incident was the indirect cause of Erasmus' first major work. He wished to show the English people that he had no hard feelings toward them over the incident, since news of the disaster had spread around the country. He therefore resolved to write a book and dedicate it to Mountjoy.


    The book, the Adagiorum Collectanea, was a collection of about 800 quotes from classical authors,  which Erasmus rewrote for stylistic purposes Aside from the dedication to Mountjoy, the book was meant as a tool for the teaching of Latin. Erasmus' greatness was in his incomparable mastery of the Latin language and extraordinary knowledge of the classics, the Church Fathers, and the Bible. No other humanist wrote in Latin in such a natural, spontaneous style; it was almost as if Latin was his first, rather than his second, language. Had he not been such a brilliant Latinist, he would have never become a successful writer. No other humanist reached as many people as did Erasmus.  The book became very popular and made Erasmus famous as a scholar and educator. Needless to say, he benefited enormously by the printing press; in fact, he was the first European author to write strictly for the printing press. He later expanded the book to over three thousand entries, and this was published by Aldus Manutius in 1508.. Many of the expressions in modern speech are derived from this book. They include


    A necessary evil, to leave no stone unturned, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, putting the cart before the horse, to have one foot in the grave, to call a spade a spade, to break the ice, to look a gift horse in the mouth, like father, like son...      



    In 1504 Erasmus left Paris, dodging an outbreak of the plague in the city. He went to Louvain, in what is now Belgium, where there was a prestigious university. One day in the summer in 1504, he discovered a manuscript that had been written by an Italian scholar, Lorenzo Valla (1406--1457). This work, "Adnotationes ad novum testamentum" ("Notes of the New Testament") had pointed out many linguistic errors in the text of the Vulgate and recommended that scholars submit the Vulgate to rigorous philological examination.  He went to Switzerland to get Valla's work published, and then, in 1505, he returned to England to write his own copy of the New Testament in Greek from documents he was able to borrow. While there he and Colet made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Their guide was offended when Colet commented that some of the money used to maintain the shrine could be better used in helping the poor in Canterbury. The guide then showed the two humanists some milk which had allegedly come from the Virgin Mary's breasts, as well as bones which had been Becket's. These were to be kissed reverently. Colet refused to kiss an ancient shoe that had belonged to Becket. The guide then produced a cloth that Becket had supposedly used as a handkerchief. The humanists winced and promptly left.


    In London Erasmus met with good fortune. Henry VII's Italian physician was sending his sons to study in northern Italian universities, and he offered Erasmus the job of being their chaperone. Erasmus grabbed the opportunity, and he and his charges set off for Bologna. While in Bologna Erasmus saw Pope Julius II enter the city in an ornate chariot after conquering it, a revival of an ancien Roman ceremony in which the conquering general rode through the streets followed by his captives. Erasmus was horrified. Was this Pope Julius, he asked, or Julius Caesar? He complained that the pope's continued bellicose policies were damaging Italian scholarship, and that the taxes imposed on the conquered cities were particularly burdensome to the poor.   In Rome he was offered a Curial appointment but turned it down for fear that it would impede his freedom. He was also disappointed in the state of the Roman Curia because it had taken on the appearance of "pagan" Rome rather than the capital of the Roman Catholic Church, which was what he had expected to see. The cardinals lived in palaces reminescent of those of the Roman magnates of antiquity , not like the Apostles. In 1508 he went to Venice to work with Aldus Manutius. Then in 1509 he received two letters from England. One was from Mountjoy, who was excited by the accession of Henry VIII. England's new King had received a thoroughly humanist education, and he himself wrote to Erasmus inviting him to England.  Erasmus envisioned this humanist ruler as a patron, so he accepted the King's invitation. While he traveled, he reflected upon his experiences of contact with other human beings. He had seen strife, greed, cruelty, hypocrisy, and a myriad of other human failings. These reflections led to the spark of inspiration to write his best-known book, the deceptively light-hearted "Praise of Folly"


    Arriving in England, he stayed with More. He later claimed that he had only needed seven days to write "Praise of Folly". Its Greek name, "Morias enkomion", was a pun on More's name; it meant both "Praise of Folly" and "Praise of More"." In his introduction, or "prefatory letter, which was directly addressed to More, Erasmus wrote "...it was your own family name of More, which is as near to the Greek word for folly, moria, as you are far from it" . The book was a paradox; while it was presented as a light-hearted satire, it was, in fact, both serious social commentary and an advocacy of Erasmus' educational ideas, which were a real threat to the prevalent Scholasticism taught by schoolmasters.  More specifically, "Praise of Folly" exhibited Erasmus' desire to base Christianity on the Bible, which, of course, he believed was divine revelation, rather than human authorities like popes and councils. In the allegorical tradition of the Middle Ages, folly was represented as a goddess, Stultitia.. To Erasmus, the word "morias" not only meant folly and stupidity, but also emotion and impulse as opposed to reason and deliberation. To illustrate this, Stultitia introduces her attendants, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Madness, Sensuality, Idleness, Pleasure, Revelry, and Sound Sleep.  We owe our lives to her, Stultitia tells us, owes its existence to her; what man using his rational thinking faculty would enter upon the constraints of the married life? What woman would take a husband if she thought about the pain and risks of childbirth? They were motivated by her attendant, Madness. Isn't childhood, the most ignorant part of our lives, also the happiest?   No relationship is possible without folly. And what about self-respect? "Remove me," says Stultitia, "and no one could put up with his neighbor, indeed, he'd stink in his own nostrils and find everything about himself loathsome and disgusting". The narrative gets  more intense when Erasmus considers the schoolmaster, whom he considers the biggest fools of all. He refers to their schools as "torture chambers"  They pride themselves on knowledge of useless nonsense.  Stultitia claims that the  man whose philosophy of education was very popular in the Middle Ages, the Roman educator Quintilian, wrote "a chapter on laughter that is longer than the Iliad"   Likewise he attacks corruption in the Church. With Stultitia's help, a man can stop worrying about his "perjury, lust, drunkenness, quarrels, killings, frauds, perfidy, and treachery" by giving up a coin for an indulgence or a particular favor from a saint. Deceit gives this fool peace of mind.  The cardinals, supposedly the successors of the apostles, live and act like kings. They think their red hats and purple cloaks entitle them to this. They do not use their reason and therefore don't comprehend that they bear very little resemblance to Jesus' apostles, who were poor and never wore extravagant purple robes. The book ends with an affirmation of Platonism which was derived from that of Marsilio Ficino, .  Like Ficino, Erasmus believed that souls were always moving toward God. Like Ficino's greatest student, Pico della Mirandola, he believed that man had moral self-determination. Pico had written


Confined within no bounds, you shall fix the limits of your own nature according to the free choice in whose power I have placed you. We have made you neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom and honor you should be your own sculptor and maker, to fashion your form as you choose. You can fall away into the lower natures which are the animals. You can be reborn by the decision of your soul into the higher natures which are divine.



    The use of "pagan" philosophers in Christian theology sparked a dispute over the possibility of salvation of non-Christians.  The dispute had started with the Scholastics, who realized many of the pre-Christian philosophers had possessed very moral characters, but denied that they could be saved because of their lack of "grace" because grace was based on faith. To them, morality had to take the back seat in a Christian life; faith was too important for it to be otherwise. On the other hand, the northern Europen humanists seriously pondered the possibility of the salvation of the wise,  moral  writers of the Greek and Roman classics.. Erasmus himself admitted that he could not resist praying to "Saint Socrates" after reading a letter Ficino had written on the "sanctity" of Socrates. . This view of Erasmus' was in large part due to his emphasis on the importance of morality. After reading a work of Cicero's in 1523, he claimed that reading Cicero had improved his own moral character. He went so far as to charge that many of the Church fathers had weaker moral characters than did Cicero.             


     In 1514 Erasmus went again to Basel, in Switzerland, with his manuscript of his new translation of the New Testament. The Greek text of the Gospels he used was a poor translation which had been done by a fourteenth-century scholar unknown to history.  The rest of the texts also dated from the fourteenth century, with the exception of the Apocalypse, which dated from the eighth century C.E. Erasmus mistakenly believed that this text was apostolic. Furthermore, Erasmus' knowledge of Greek was incomplete. Alongside the Greek text in Erasmus' edition of the Bible there was a Latin translation as well as commentary. This translation was not the improvement on the Vulgate that Erasmus had hoped for, but he did open the door to later scholars who did textual analysis of the Vulgate.  


    By 1516 Erasmus was regarded as the greatest scholar in Europe. He was hailed as the "ornament of Europe." In 1516 Uldrich Zwingli, the future Reformer of Switzerland, after visiting Erasmus in 1515, called him the "greatest philosopher and theologian". Another scholar wrote that "  Praise of Folly' is embraced as the highest wisdom".   When rumor spread that one of his works was about to be banned by the Sorbonne, a Parisian printer quickly ran off 24,000 copies that sold like hotcakes.  In that year the university at Louvain made him a member of their faculty. Erasmus had high hopes for the future of his plan for educational and Church reform.  


    Erasmus believed that corruption in the Church could be ended with his program of educational reform. First and foremost, harmony in the Church was necessary. As a neo-Platonist, Erasmus viewed the universe as a well-ordered, harmonious entity; nothing must be allowed to disturb this order. Without concord, he believed, the Holy Spirit could not communicate with the Church. The function of theology was that of a tool that helped people develop morally. The study of the classics enables scholars to teach using that familiar tool of medieval writers, allegory, which was part of the study of grammar in the late Middle Ages. Wisdom and knowledge, Erasmus believed, would improve from generation to generation through increasing knowledge of the original texts of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. To obtain this knowledge and wisdom, a knowledge of Greek, the language of the New Testament, was necessary. Needless to say, this reform program was conceived to evolve slowly over time. Just when he believed he was planting the seeds of this reform program, a development of monumental proportions buried it along with the rest of the Renaissance. This development was the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation is outside of the scope of this article, but its relationship to the Renaissance calls for an explanation. It ended the Renaissance because the Reformers stopped the exaltation of mankind and returned to the early medieval emphasis on man's sinfulness. Where the humanists had emphasized man's ability to choose between right and wrong actions, the Reformers held that man had no control over his destiny. The Reformers scorned reason as much as the humanists had respected it. Although many humanists supported the Reformation in its embryonic phase because they too were disgusted with corruption in the Church, many of them, including Erasmus, also became disgusted with the confrontationist, dogmatic nature of the Reformation. In truth, Erasmus did not understand the social, religious, or political nature of sixteenth-century Europe; he was the archetypical "ivory-tower academic". Martin Luther, a miner's son from the eastern German territories, did understand the society in which he lived. He did only what he needed to do to take on the most powerful institution in Europe and win his campaign for Church reform. This required a will of steel, the courage of a warrior, and convictions set in stone, and Luther had these character traits. The sixteenth century was to belong to the Reformers and their Catholic opponents, the Counter-Reformers.


    Erasmus was blamed by many Catholics as the instigator of the dispute, because he had criticized corruption in the Church so relentlessly. In 1521 he was dismissed from his post at Louvain as an alleged heretic. Other condemnations came from Paris, Milan, and Spain. Meanwhile he infuriated the Reformers for refusing to join them. He continued to hold to his "middle ground" of gradual Church reform, which irritated both Catholic authorities and the Reformers. Officially, he never left the Catholic Church, in part because of his neo-Platonic conviction that discord in the Church harmed its relationship to God, and because he never ceased to hold the medieval view of the Church as one corporate structure requiring unity to exist.  This cost him the respect he had had from European scholars, most of whom took sides in the dispute. Nevertheless, he never strayed from his "middle way" of advocating gradual rather than revolutionary reform in the Church. His motto was "Cado nulli"--"I yield to no one" He continued to blast corruption in the Church as well as Luther's intense and often bellicose methods of reform until his death in 1536.


    Erasmus' educational ideas shaped education for four hundred years  The concept of being able to use knowledge and wisdom as a moral force and the necessity of much study to acquire this knowledge was part of his legacy. However, his most important educational accomplishment was to elevate academic standards to a new level. He was the greatest of the humanists.




                     PRIMARY SOURCE


Erasmus, "Praise of Folly", translation, Betty Radice, 1971, Penguin Books

Limited, reprinted with introduction by A.H.T. Levi, 1993, Penguin Books

Limited, London


                SECONDARY SOURCES


Cantor, Norman, Civilation of the Middle Ages, HarperCollins, 1993.

Bowen, James, A History of Western Education, volume II, St. Martin's Press,



Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation, Penguin Books, 1964.


McConica, James, (chapter on Erasmus) Renaissance Thinkers, Oxford University

Press, 1993.


Levi, A. H. T. Levi, introduction to "Praise of Folly", Penguin Books Limited,



Huizanga, Johan, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, translated from the Dutch

by F. Hopman, First Harper Torchbook edition, 1957; translation first published

under the title "Erasmus of Rotterdam" by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924

Le Goff, Jaques, Medieval Civilization 400--1500, translated by Julia Barrow,

Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988


Durant, Will, Age of Faith, Simon & Schuster, 1950


Durant, Will, The Reformation, Simon & Schuster, 1957


Encyclopedia Brittanica, Fifteenth Edition, 1990


Various Authors, The Age of Discovery, Time-Frame, Time-life Books


Various Authors, The Renaissance: Maker of Modern Man, National Geographic

Society, 1970


Copyright 1996, Patricia M. Hefner. Permission is given to use these articles in any educational publication as long as you credit me for the authorship of the article and send me a copy of the publication.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

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