The man behind Erasmus

Erasmus is a name to almost every single one of us. If you are not familiar with the philosopher you are likely to associate those 3 syllables with the EU’s very popular program – Erasmus+ – which is „supporting education, training, youth and sport in Europe “, as stated on their website. Conveniently enough the program is named after mentioned philosopher and theologist Desiderius Erasmus von Rotterdam, who is, even apart from being the origin to the Erasmus+ name, an important historical figure of the 16th Century.

Mike B | Pexels

To be exact, he was very important; he is not only known for paving the way for reformations in the Catholic Church like Martin Luther’s Reformation or playing a role in the Anglican but also as a famous humanist with publications widely recognized then and now. The languages he was writing in were mainly Greek and Latin and he was notorious for his linguistic skills and his intellect described as „the crowning glory of the Christian humanists “(Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity). 

The role he played in both reformations was more of a passive nature; in the Anglican separation from the roman catholic church, he acted as a background figure; being acquainted to young Heinrich VIII from an early age on and later as his friend and advisor during his regency and the actual separation act. In the Protestant separation from the Roman Catholic Church under Martin Luther, Erasmus claims that he laid the egg Luther hatched. This interpretation roots in Erasmus, translating and commenting on the bible from Latin into Greek („Novum Instrumentum“) years before Luther translated the Bible into German. Luther picked up several remarks and critics of his, though Erasmus’ focus laid on containing and reforming the church rather than revolutionizing and separating from it. Edward Fröhlich, Professor at the Philosophical-Theological University Vallendar describes it: „Erasmus had high hopes that the church could be renewed without separating it into individual parties. “

He was born between 1466 and 1469 illegitimately to a priest in Rotterdam. His education was mainly focused on literacy skills and languages, then, he joined an order where he was established a priest in 1492 but later rejected monastic life as he claimed to be unsuited for it. In 1495 he attended College de Montaigu in Paris but left it rather quickly to tutor students. In this time, he published a lot of his later most recognized work like the Adagia, a collection of Latin proverbs which are very popular to this day e.g., manus manum lavat – one Hand washes the other. 1499 he travelled with one of his pupils to England where he made acquaintance with popular humanists like Wiliam Grocyn or Thomas More, and later Lord Chancellor of England. Over the next two decades Erasmus travelled to many different places in Europe like France, England or Italy, then settled in Leuven where he published and revised much of his work. After this, he moved to Basel where he died in 1536. During his last decades of life critics attacked Erasmus as unorthodox and as a supporter of Luther as the public eye saw a clear connection between Luther and Erasmus. Erasmus explicitly denied those claims. 

Important for his standing in today’s society and for the European Union are the principles and beliefs he stood for. Erasmus valued education over almost everything. Claims like: “Man, unless he has experienced the influence of learning and philosophy, is at the mercy of impulses that are worse than those of a wild beast” (CWE 26: 305) showcase his strong opinion – and unlike many of his time he thought of men and women as intellectually equal (e.g., „The Abbot and the Learned Lady“). Additionally, he was strictly against war. He viewed it as the last resource and regards war as fundamentally unchristian and fit for beasts. „The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war “(Adagia). He believed in unity, cultural exchange and in peacemaking as well as keeping.

All those values clearly align with those the EU asserts to the Erasmus+ Program – from the love to languages to education, peacekeeping and international travels. Today’s Erasmus+ Program is a chance for young people to travel to Europe or even further (Erasmus Mundus) and is highly demanded: over 4,4 Million students were or are part of it, making it to the biggest funding program of the world. Erasmus’s way of living can be an inspiration to all of us, we should be grateful for all the opportunities this connection gives to us, use the chance to learn about other cultures, to educate ourselves, to love languages. As „The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth” (Desiderius Erasmus).

Marie Kiel


Deutschlandfunk – Erasmus von Rotterdam ein kosmopolitischer Vordenker

Bartleby – Did Erasmus Lay the Egg Luther Hatched

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Desiderius Erasmus

Wikipedia – Erasmus von Rotterdam

Wikipedia – Erasmus

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