Erasmus and Christian Humanism

By MacDonald, Stewart | History Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Erasmus and Christian Humanism


MacDonald, Stewart, History Review


Stewart MacDonald introduces the humanist scholar whose writings made him one of the most significant figures of 16th-century Europe.

In exploring the lives and works of historical personalities there is a natural tendency for historians to accentuate those aspects of an individual's legacy which they deem to be important from their own particular perspective. Great figures like Erasmus of Rotterdam therefore face regular reappraisal, as the historical vantage point changes. Erasmus has been seen, for example, as an embodiment of Renaissance individualism and both as a precursor of Protestantism and as a champion of liberal Catholicism. Others have viewed him as a forerunner of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. In our own century he has been claimed as an apostle of religious toleration and even as a founding father of European integration. However, it is always important to evaluate historical figures, as far as possible, in the historical circumstances of their own day.

Erasmus and the Church

There is some uncertainty about Erasmus's early life, but it is likely that he was born in Rotterdam, in the Burgundian Netherlands, in 1469. He was the illegitimate son of a priest. During his schooling he came under the influence of the lay confraternity, the Brethren of the Common Life, who encouraged classical learning and pious living. In 1487 he became a monk of the Augustinian Canons. He was not well-suited to monastic life, however, and in 1493 was released in order to act as secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. The bishop subsequently gave him leave of absence to study theology at the University of Paris. In Paris he was exposed to the received theological system of the day, Scholasticism. This, again, was not to his liking. After nearly four years of fruitless study he visited England in 1499. Much inspired by John Colet and Thomas More, he abandoned his career in the service of the Church and lived for the remainder of his life as a freelance scholar and writer, achieving considerable celebrity throughout Christendom.

Erasmus was hardly unique in finding his needs largely unsatisfied within the Church. During the later Middle Ages there was a rising tide of disenchantment both inside and outside the Church. A popular anticlericalism was certainly widespread. But critics of the Church often sought a positive reorientation of Christian life away from the `external' rites of the Church and towards an inner faith, emphasising the individual's direct relationship with God and the importance of a pious and moral Christian life. Such movements of Church reform and religious renewal assumed various forms. Some embraced a mystical theology centred on prayer and contemplation. In the universities the followers of nominalism cultivated reason and inner faith. The adherents of lay devotion (the devitio moderna) formed lay confraternities and dedicated themselves to lives of faith and piety. (The Brethren of the Common Life was a notable example.) There is also evidence of a widespread desire to seek spiritual regeneration through the experience of the `Word of God' in the Bible, and through revivalist preaching. Erasmus can be regarded as a part of this wave of religious revival which preceded, and contributed to, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in the sixteenth century.

Humanism

Erasmus's great achievement was to harness the vitality of a current intellectual fashion, namely humanism, to the cause of religious renewal. Humanism was a diverse intellectual movement - indeed to describe it as a movement undoubtedly exaggerates its coherence. It is commonly asserted that the essential nature of humanism was a desire to revive the thought and literature of classical Greece and Rome. This is partly true. But the humanists were not only interested in promoting classical learning, but in reinterpreting and re-evaluating it. In doing so they sought, as best as they could, to ascertain the original meaning of classical texts, and this involved locating them within their historical context. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Erasmus and Christian Humanism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.