He was born Geert Geertsen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He (mistakenly) believed that the root Geert derived from begeren (to desire) and translated this into both Latin and Greek. Information as to his family and early life comes mainly from vague references in his writings. He was almost certainly illegitimate. His father was a priest named Gerard. Little is known of his mother other than the fact that her name was Margaret. Despite his illegitimacy, he was cared for by his parents till their early death from the plague in 1483, and then given the best education open to a young man of his day in a series of monastic or semi-monastic schools. He was admitted to the priesthood and took monastic vows at about the age of twenty-five, but he never seems to have worked as a priest, and monasticism was one of the chief objects of his attack in his lifelong assault upon the evils of the Church.
He went on to study at the University of Paris, then the chief seat of scholastic learning, but already under the influence of the revived classical culture of Italy. Erasmus chose to lead the life of an independent scholar, independent of country, of academic ties, of religious allegiance and anything else that might interfere with his freedom of intellect and literary expression. The chief centres of his activity were Paris, Louvain, England, and Basel; yet he never belonged firmly in any one of these. His time in England was fruitful in the making of lifelong friendships with the leaders of English thought in the stirring days of King Henry VIII: John Colet, Thomas More, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. At the University of Cambridge, he was Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity, and had the option of spending the rest of his life as an English professor. He stayed at Queens' College, Cambridge and may have been an alumnus.
He was offered many positions of honour and profit throughout the academic world, but declined them all, preferring the uncertain, but as it proved sufficient rewards of independent literary activity. From 1506 to 1509 he was in Italy. He spent part of the time at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius at Venice, but apart from this he had less active association with Italian scholars than might have been expected.
His residence at Louvain exposed Erasmus to much petty criticism, from those hostile to the principles of literary and religious progress to which he was devoting his life. He represented this lack of sympathy as persecution, and sought refuge in Basel, where under the shelter of Swiss hospitality he could express himself freely and where he was surrounded by devoted friends. Here he was associated for many years with the great publisher Froben, and to him came the multitude of his admirers from all quarters of Europe.
Erasmus's literary productivity began comparatively late in his life. Only when he had mastered Latin did he begin to express himself on major contemporary themes in literature and religion. His revolt against the forms of church life did not result from doubts about the truth of the traditional doctrine, nor from any hostility to the organization of the Church itself. Rather, he felt called upon to use his learning in a purification of the doctrine and in a liberalizing of the institutions of Christianity. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval traditions; but he was not satisfied with this. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness. It was his lifelong conviction that what was needed to regenerate Europe was sound learning applied frankly and fearlessly to the administration of public affairs in Church and State. This conviction gives unity and consistency to a life which might otherwise seem full of contradictions. Erasmus held himself aloof from all entangling obligations; yet he was in a singularly true sense the center of the literary movement of his time. He corresponded with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought, if not always followed.
While in England Erasmus began the systematic examination of manuscripts of the New Testament to prepare for a new edition and Latin translation. This edition was published by Froben of Basel in 1516 and was the basis of most of the scientific study of the Bible during the Reformation period (see Bible Text, II., 2, § 1). He published a critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516 - Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. The edition included a Latin translation and annotations. It used recently rediscovered additional manuscripts. In the second edition the more familiar term Testamentum was used instead of Instrumentum. This edition was used by the translators of the King James Version of the Bible. The text later became known as the textus receptus. Erasmus did three other editions - 1522, 1527 and 1535. It was the first attempt on the part of a competent and liberal-minded scholar to ascertain what the writers of the New Testament had actually said. Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X as a patron of learning, and he regarded this work as his chief service to the cause of Christianity. Immediately afterwards he began the publication of his Paraphrases of the New Testament, a popular presentation of the contents of the several books. These, like all his writings, were in Latin, but were immediately translated into other languages, with his encouragement.
Martin Luther's movement began in the year following the publication of the New Testament, and tested Erasmus's character. The issue between European society and the Roman Church had become so clear that few could escape the summons to join the debate. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and his habits. In all his criticism of clerical follies and abuses he had always protested that he was not attacking church institutions themselves and had no enmity toward churchmen. The world had laughed at his satire, but few had interfered with his activities. He believed that his work so far had commended itself to the best minds and also to the dominant powers in the religious world.
Erasmus was in sympathy with the main points in the Lutheran criticism of the Church. For Martin Luther personally he had the greatest respect, and Luther always spoke with admiration of his superior learning. Luther hoped for his cooperation in a work which seemed only the natural outcome of his own. In their early correspondence Luther expressed boundless admiration for all Erasmus had done in the cause of a sound and reasonable Christianity, and urged him to join the Lutheran party. Erasmus declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which be regarded as his purpose in life. Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion. Luther's work was to provide a new doctrinal basis for the hitherto scattered attempts at reform. In reviving the half-forgotten principles of Augustinian theology Luther had furnished the needed impulse to the personal interest in religion which is the essence of Protestantism. Erasmus, however, dreaded any change in doctrine and believed that there was room within existing formulas for the kind of reform he valued most.
Twice in the course of the great discussion he allowed himself to enter the field of doctrinal controversy, a field foreign alike to his nature and his previous practise. One of the topics he dealt with was the freedom of the will, a crucial point. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he analyzes with great cleverness and good humour the Lutheran exaggeration of the obvious limitations on human freedom. He lays down both sides of the argument impartially. His position was that Man was bound to sin, but had a right to the forgiving mercy of God, if only he would seek this through the means offered him by the Church itself. It was an easy-going Semi-Pelagianism, opening the way to those laxities and perversions which Erasmus and the Reformers were fighting against. The "Diatribe" did not encourage any definite action; this was its merit to the Erasmians and its fault in the eyes of the Lutherans.
When Erasmus hesitated to support him, it seemed to the straightforward Luther an avoidance of responsibility due either to cowardice or lack of purpose. However, the Roman Catholic party was equally eager to retain the services of a man who had so often declared his loyalty to the principles it maintained, and his reluctance to take sides now brought upon him the suspicion of disloyalty to Catholicism. Erasmus's attitude toward the Reformation may nevertheless be seen as consistent. The evils he had combated were either those of form or were evils of a kind curable only by a long slow regeneration in the moral and spiritual life of Europe. The programme of the "Erasmian Reformation" was to use learning to remove the worst excesses. However, it failed to offer any tangible method of applying its principles to the existing church system. When Erasmus was charged with having "laid the egg that Luther hatched" he half admitted the truth of the charge, but said he had expected quite another kind of a bird.
As the popular response to Luther gathered momentum, the social disorders which Erasmus dreaded began to appear. The Peasants' War, the Anabaptist disturbances in Germany and in the Low Countries, iconoclasm and radicalism everywhere, seemed to confirm all his gloomy predictions. If this were the outcome of reform, he was thankful he had kept out of it. Yet he was being ever more bitterly accused of having started the whole "tragedy." In Switzerland he was especially exposed to criticism through his association with men there who were more than suspected of extreme rationalistic doctrines.
The test question was the doctrine of the sacraments, and the crux of this question was the observance of the Eucharist. Partly to clear himself of suspicion, Erasmus published in 1530 a new edition of the orthodox treatise of Algerus against the heretic Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. He added a dedication, affirming his belief in the reality of the body of Christ after consecration in the Eucharist, but admits that the form in which this mystery ought to be expressed is a matter for debate. It was enough for the mass of Christians that the Church should prescribe the doctrine, and speculation might safely be left to the philosophers. Here and there Erasmus lays down the principle that a man may properly have two opinions on religious subjects, one for himself and his intimate friends and another for the public. The anti-sacramentarians, headed by Œcolampadius of Basel, were, as Erasmus says, quoting him as holding views similar to their own. He denies this, but in his denial betrays how he had, in private conversation, gone a long way toward a rational view of the doctrine of the Eucharist. As in the case of free will, he could not expect the approval of the Church.
His best-known work, Praise of Folly, was dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas More. In 1536 he wrote De puritate ecclesiae christianae in which he tried to reconcile the different parties. Many of his writings appeal to a wide audience and deal with matters of general human interest; he seems to have regarded these as trifling, a leisure activity. His more serious writings begin early with the Enchiridion Militis Christiani, the "Manual (or Dagger) of the Christian Gentleman" (1503). In this short work, Erasmus outlines the views of the normal Christian life which he was to spend the rest of his days in elaborating. The chief evil of the day, he says, is formalism, a respect for traditions without consideration for the true teaching of Christ. The remedy is for every man to ask himself at each point: what is the essential thing? and to do this without fear. Forms may hide or quench the spirit. In his examination of the dangers of formalism, Erasmus discusses monasticism, saint-worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of "society", but the Enchiridion is more like a sermon than a satire. Its companion piece, the Institutio Principis Christiani (Basel, 1516), was written as advice to the young king Charles of Spain, later Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Erasmus applies the general principles of honour and sincerity to the special functions of the Prince, whom he represents throughout as the servant of the people.
As a result of his reformatory activities, Erasmus found himself at odds with both the great parties. His last years were embittered by controversies with men toward whom he was sympathetic. Notable among these was Ulrich von Hutten, a brilliant, but erratic genius, who had thrown himself into the Lutheran cause and had declared that Erasmus, if he had a spark of honesty, would do the same. In his reply, Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), Erasmus displays his skill in semantics. He accuses Hutten of having misinterpreted his utterances about reform and reiterates his determination never to take sides. When the city of Basel was definitely and officially "reformed" in 1529, Erasmus gave up his residence there and settled in the imperial town of Freiburg im Breisgau. It would seem that he found it easier to maintain his neutrality under Roman Catholic than under Protestant conditions. His literary activity continued unabated, chiefly on the lines of religious and didactic composition. The most important work of this last period is the Ecclesiastes or "Gospel Preacher" (Basel, 1535), in which he brings out the function of preaching as the most important office of the Christian priest, a Protestant emphasis. His little tract of 1533, "Preparation for Death", in which the emphasis throughout is on the importance of a good life as the essential condition of a happy death, shows another tendency.
Erasmus found himself drawn once more to the happiest of his homes, at Basel, and returned in 1535 after an absence of six years. Here, in the midst of the group of Protestant scholars who had long been his friends, and, so far as is known, without relations of any sort with the Roman Catholic Church, he died. So long as he lived he had never been called to account for his opinions by the dominant Church authorities. The attacks on him were by private persons and his protectors had always been men of the highest standing. After his death, in the seal of the Roman Catholic reaction, his writings were honoured with a distinguished place on the Index of prohibited books.
The extraordinary popularity of his books, however, has been shown in the number of editions and translations that have appeared since the 16th century, and in the undiminished interest excited by his elusive but fascinating personality. Ten columns of the catalogue of the British Library are taken up with the bare enumeration of the works and their subsequent reprints. The greatest names of the classical and patristic world are among those translated, edited or annotated by Erasmus, including as Saint Ambrose, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Chrysostom, Cicero, and Saint Jerome.
See also: Rodolphus Agricola