Happy birthday to an unsung hero of moderation: Erasmus of Rotterdam

Gracious reader,

This week we’ll explore:

  • The legacy of an unsung hero of moderation, Erasmus of Rotterdam

  • Celebrating Erasmus’ birthday today! He was born on this day, 555 years ago on Oct 28, in 1466

  • Premiering NOW—at 10:30 am ET, Oct 28: A walk in footsteps of Erasmus—an overview of his life, and a tour of his one-time home in Brussels, Belgium

  • Win a year of lifelong learning with Wondrium! Read to the end for details

Erasmus of Rotterdam: Unsung hero of moderation

Erasmus of Rotterdam isn’t a flashy figure in history.

Moderates—people who navigate a prudent middle ground in an era of extremes—rarely are.

555 years ago today—on October 28, 1466—an unsung hero of moderation was born. It’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on his life to help us better understand—and perhaps navigate more effectively—our own era of extremes.

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Overview

In his day, Erasmus was something of an intellectual superstar. Berilliant, wise and witty, he was beloved, and a most coveted, guest by virtually every monarch and aristocrat in Europe.

He lived during eras of great social and cultural change: the Renaissance and Reformation. Both movements aimed to reform their present societies by reviving aspects from a “golden age” of a past age.

For the Renaissance, that was Classical Greek and Roman antiquity.

For the Reformation, that was the age of Christ.

As a scholar and a Renaissance humanist, Erasmus revered antiquity. One of his most famous contributions in history was a translation of a Greek New Testament.

As a Christian, his faith informed all the the loved and did. Like St. Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante before him he aimed to synthesize his Christian faith with pagan classical learning. Like those thinkers before him, he was confident of the sanctifying power of beauty, goodness, and truth—regardless of whether it was communicated by Christians or non Christians alike.

Regarding the Catholic Church, he criticized its corruption, nepotism, selling of indulgences, and many other misdeeds within the institution. In fact, his criticisms deeply influenced Martin Luther, who in 1517 nailed is 95 thesis on the door of the church in Wittenberg, would go on to break from the Catholic Church, and change history forever.

Erasmus, however, despite his many criticisms and concerns within the Catholic Church, never broke from it. He never started a theological sect or denomination in his name like Luther, Calvin and other reformers didn't.

Instead of breaking from the church and starting his own movement, he advocated for slow, institutional reform of the Catholic Church through humanistic education over time.

Such a tempered approach to social change certainly wouldn’t persuade en mass in our day of “click-bait” and bumper-sticker rhetoric.

It didn’t find mass appeal in Erasmus’ day, either.

He was not radical enough fo the protestants (and he famously had a falling out with Luther over a debate about the role of free will in salvation).

He was not blindly loyal enough to the Catholic Church to be canonized and celebrated.

Neither camp claimed him.

And as mentioned he didn't start his own church or religious sect to perpetuate his legacy and memory, either.

As a result of his moderate wisdom, he is largely overlooked in history.

On this day of Erasmus’ birth—he was born on October 28, 1466—let us reflect on, and celebrate, the life of an unsung hero of modeation from history.

Erasmus, citizen of the world

Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, a port city in South Holland on October 28th, 1466. His father, pressured by his family, took religious orders instead of marrying Erasmus’ mother. The fact that he was illegitimate, scholars believe, was a point of shame throughout Erasmus’ life. He left Rotterdam when he was young and never returned, instead preferring to travel widely and with near constantly.

He called himself a “citizen of the world,” a phrase he coined. He wrote,

My own wish is to be a citizen of the world, to be a fellow citizen to all men - a pilgrim better still.

He spent his is life traveling anywhere where ideas, civility, and humanism flourished.

He was very much a kindred spirit of Petrarch: devout in his Christian faith, passion about ideas and the classics, an insatiably curious learner and readers—and, also like Petrarch, he was “everywhere a wanderer.”

Both figures cared deeply for the that ideas things could elevate and transform society, which is why we have, and will continue to, spend time reflecting on them here at Civic Renaissance—a project that is dedicated to social, intellectual and cultural renewal.

There are three important insights that we can derive to Erasmus life about how to lead richer lives today, and how to improve society.

  1. His intellectual moderation, openness, and passion for civility

  2. The power of beauty, goodness, truth and lifelong learning to improve our lives

  3. His enthusiasm for the reforming power of the humanistic education—especially in leaders

Intellectual moderation, openness, and passion for civility

Erasmus crossed boarders his whole life—but was eager was crossing intellectual borders and boundaries, too.

Erasmus considered himself to be a Christian and ‘world citizen,’ with loyalties to his fellow man above any particular national or local identity. (His cosmopolitan ethos has caused some to even brand him “the first European”).

The took the same transversing approach to his intellectual life. He was constantly learning, growing, and changing his mind.

The world and human beings were too complex, he understood, to be reduced to monolithic and static ideas.

This humility and openness natural led him to have an uncommon passion for civility, a topic I also care a good deal about, and which I have written a book on (read more about it here!).

Erasmus is the author of one of the first Early Modern etiquette manuals. In 1514, he published A Handbook on Good Manners for Children.

His book was an immediate international bestseller, and was quickly translated into every European language of the day. Erasmus’ book would go on to be among the most influential guides on civility for the next several centuries.

Erasmus framed his manual as instructions toa young man in his life—a Dutch prince— but he also intended it “for all young people.” Those who today lament the decline of common courtesy and manners in today’s youth will find a champion in Erasmus, who was convinced that he was living in the most uncivil era. “There was no one except one old man who greeted me properly, when I passed in the company of some distinguished persons,” Erasmus mourned.

The father of Christian humanism, Erasmus held that piety was the first step in a child’s education. Like many a philosopher before him, he cared first and foremost about cultivating good character and the nobility of the soul through a classical education in the humanistic tradition and in the liberal arts. He was passionate about the humanistic tradition, which involved reading famous works of literature and philosophy, because it rightly “ordered” one’s loves. Our loves were inherently disordered, Erasmus understood, in that we cared about ourselves before others. An education in humanism, however, helped students re-order their loves correctly, which for Erasmus meant putting God first, others second, and ourselves last.

Manners and common courtesy were an important means of practicing that truth—that human beings are inherently valuable and worthy of respect—and are helpful because they require us to put others before ourselves in our everyday interactions. Erasmus knew that basic consideration of others when it came to such ordinary things as body language, hygiene, communication was an important means of living out a good inner character that values others before self.

Like the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers whom he so admired, Erasmus also knew that virtue, and true freedom of the soul, consists in self-governance, controlling one’s baser impulses and passions in the name of a higher principle—namely, friendship and community with others. He referred to manners as “one of the most basic elements of philosophy.”

Erasmus’ Handbook is the only etiquette book I know that organizes recommendations by anatomy, with each chapter addressing a different part of the body and noting the corresponding appropriate and prohibited conduct. Here are some examples, many of which have stood the test of time!

  • “It’s polite to say ‘Christ help you’ to another person when they sneeze,” Erasmus wrote in the section entitled simply The Nose.

  • He advises against laughing to oneself when with others—lest one’s companions think themselves the butt of the joke. Try not to burp in public. Don’t pick your teeth with your knife. Sit up straight at the dinner table. Try not to scratch yourself in public, lest people think you have fleas or lice—more relevant, perhaps, in the 16th century than today, but still an apt reminder!

  • Don’t relieve oneself in front of others; do so privately. Don’t lick your fingers at the table, or lick your plate. Avoid talking with your mouth full. Erasmus was even an early opponent of man-spreading: “Sit with your knees together—not wide open.”

  • Keep your hands on the table at dinner, not hidden in your lap, Erasmus recommends. Social anthropologist Margaret Visser explains the wisdom behind etiquette about proper placement and use of one’s hands at dinner: there is violence and vulnerability inherent in eating a meal with someone. There are sharp utensils and knives and play a major role in eating and are also potential instruments of harm. Doing what one can to communicate trust and transparency while dining with someone—such as making sure your hands are always visible—is another common piece of advice found across cultures.

  • Erasmus is also presciently sanitary. He suggests turning away from others when one must sneeze or wipe one’s nose—and recommends doing so into a handkerchief. His advice in avoiding contagion—physical and emotional—lest one weaken the community, is lovely and timeless: “As you wash your hands, so too, clear troubles from your mind. For it’s not good manners to be gloomy at dinner or to make anyone else miserable.”

  • “Greedy gobbling is the way of ruffians,” he writes, cautioning against stuffing one’s mouth so full that one spews it on others.

  • He has an adamant prohibition against gossip: “Harming the reputation of someone not present is a great offence.”

  • Above all, conduct yourself in a way that promotes trust. Erasmus advises: “It’s disgraceful to bring out into the open, as Horace says, something that someone has revealed unwittingly… I hate a drinking companion with a good memory.”

The power of beauty, goodness, truth and lifelong learning to improve our lives

Erasmus was believed that learning was good for its own sake, but had an instrumental benefit of making us better people.

As a scholar, he was familiar with the tendency for the learned men of his day to be highly educated and informed—having vast libraries and even portfolios of work—but now allowing the ideas they imbibed to transform their lives.

He saw that many prioritized head knowledge over heart knowledge—and that many educated people lacked a joy for learning and a life of the mind.

Erasmus once wrote to a friend, “Do not be guilty of possessing a library of books while lacking in learning yourself,” Erasmus once advised a friend.

Owning books and being familiar with ideas is not enough.

One must actively engage with them, wrestle with them.

Learning—and the life of the mind—was an active, lifelong endeavor.

It could—and must—transform us personally, and as a result transform society for the better.

His enthusiasm for the reforming power of the humanistic education—especially in leaders

Erasmus was keenly aware of, and sympathetic to, the many challenges facing his contemporaries. He was a scholar, but also advised kings. He knew that ideas had real-world implications, and straddled the world of ideas and practice—the vita contemplativa and the vita activa—throughout his life.

As mentioned, he was vocal in his criticisms of the rampant corruption in his beloved Catholic Church. But his response wasn’t to “burn it all down.” He knew that anything worth doing took time, and instead advocated for slow social reform through education. He thought the the best chance at social reform was through the moral education of leaders.

In Erasmus’ day, another classically-educated figure of the Renaissance had made waves in recent decades in advocating for a particularly amoral style of leadership.

Machiavelli’s The Prince had earned condemnation across Europe, but had also started an important discussion about the best way to gain and maintain political power.

Erasmus had a response to that. he wrote his On The Education of a Christian Prince, or the Enchiridion, as a direct, Christian response to Machiavelli.

He criticized machiavelli’s famous argument that leaders must pursue ends and disregard the means—and to divorce statecraft from soul craft, of virtue and morality.

Erasmus rejected that entirely.

He wrote, “The happiest man is not the one who has lived the longest, but the one who has made the most of his life. The span of life should be measured not by years but by our deeds well performed.”

He anticipated criticisms, acknowledging that some might say, “You are making us a philosopher, not a prince.”

He continued,

"I am making a prince," I answer, "although you prefer a worthless sot like yourself instead of a real prince!" You cannot be a prince, if you are not a philosopher; you will be a tyrant.

I do not mean by philosopher, one who is learned in the ways of dialectic or physics, but one who casts aside the false pseudo-realities and with open mind seeks and follows the truth.To be a philosopher and to be a Christian is synonymous in fact.

He believed that if a monarch was good and wise—oriented toward the true, the good and the beautiful—a people would become good and wise, too. The inverse, of course, was also true: a bad leader bred bad citizens.

He wrote,

There is nothing in life better than a wise and good monarch; there is no greater scourge than a foolish or a wicked one. The corruption of an evil prince spreads more swiftly and widely than the scourge of any pestilence. In the same proportion a wholesome life on the part of the prince is, without question, the quickest and shortest way to improve public morals.

The common people  imitate nothing with more pleasure than what they see their prince do. Under a gambler, gambling is rife; under a warrior, everyone is embroiled; under an epicure, all disport in wasteful luxury; under a debauche, license is rampant; under a cruel tyrant+, everyone brings accusations and false witness. Go through your ancient history and you will find the life of the prince mirrored in the morals of his people. 

No comet, no dreadful power affects the progress of human affairs as the life of the prince grips and transforms the morals and character of his subjects.

Whenever you think of yourself as a prince, remember you are a Christian prince! You should be as different from even the noble pagan princes as a Christian is from a pagan.

Final thoughts on the the power of moderation

As noted, Erasmus had many of the same criticisms of the church that Martin Luther did. But he distanced himself from Luther when he became combative and radical.

Erasmus didn’t side with the Protestants, even though he was also sympathetic to their cause.

He was disavowed by both sides. To this day, he’s not claimed by Catholics or Protestants because he took a tempered middle road.

To the end, Erasmus was a pacifist who cared more about pleasing God than any early powers. He cared more about living according to his values and principles than gaining global or historical prestige.

He reminds us of the recipe of a life well lived—a robust intellectual life lived out in community with others. He Loved his friends— especially Thomas—and once wrote, “wealth is where your friends are.”

Erasmus reminds us that the middle way might be lonely, and might not win us fame or popularity—either in our day, or in history—but it is the more noble and productive path.

This is a lesson that, in our own era of extremes, we can take to heart today.

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