According to accounts attributed to Desiderius Erasmus, he was born 12 October 1466, the illegitimate son of Gerhard (or Geert, last name unknown) and a woman named Margaret.
Desiderius Erasmus’s early religious education in Holland was with the Brothers of the Common Life (a lay religious order) where he learned that to love God was more important than to know God, and this would guide his later thinking on religion. He enrolled in Paris among the Poor Students at the College of Montaigu. After graduating from Paris with a degree in theology, Erasmus traveled to England and met Thomas More and Dean Colet who both mentored him toward a path of serious religious study.
(The painting here of Erasmus, Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster, is by Hans Holbein the Younger. Click to enlarge)
The Greatest Scholar
From England, Desiderius Erasmus was sent to Italy to supervise the tutoring of the sons of Henry VII’s physician. Here he learned classical Greek and classical Roman literature from humanist scholars in Florence. Within a few years, he was known as the greatest scholar of his age and could count among his friends popes, cardinals, kings, and princes. He was well established in the meritocracy of the times, and enjoyed the status as one of the intellectual elite. It was rumored that in Erasmus’s later years, Pope Paul III offered him the money necessary to become a cardinal of the Church, an offer he declined.
In Praise of Folly (1508) is the work for which Desiderius Erasmus is most widely known, in which he explores the term “folly” as both a personification in its theater form and as a mode of behavior which includes, as examples, endeavors of humans in all stages of life, the role of the intellectual in society, and finally and, for him, most praiseworthy, Christian piety through what he terms the “foolishness of Christ on the Cross”.
In his Adages and other works, Erasmus endeavored to eradicate abuses of the clergy and to return the Roman Catholic Church to the simpler, more Christ-like belief system of Apostolic times.
Erasmus published an edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516 and, using the most ancient sources of the New Testament available, was critical of the Latin Vulgate Bible which by now had become error-ridden as a result of constant recopying throughout the Middle Ages and up to his own day.
“So Much Dung”
In 1524, Desiderius Erasmus wrote a treatise, On the Freedom of the Will, which challenged Martin Luther‘s understanding of salvation by grace alone. In this work, he tried to persuade Luther to come back into the Catholic Church with the argument that Baptism removes Original Sin and makes possible for there to be some minor human effort which God can then reward with the grace of salvation. Luther replied in On the Bondage of the Will that Erasmus’s arguments were “trivial, worthless and…so much dung” because they were against the Word of God in Scripture.
Although Erasmus is considered to have had an important influence on some Reformation thinkers (especially Huldreich Zwingli and some of the Radical Reformers), his works and dialogues provided a major counterpoint to classical reformers such as Luther and John Calvin.
Desiderius Erasmus died, aged 69, 12 July 1536.