The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535

By Robert P. Adams | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
APPROACH TO A GOLDEN AGE (1500-1509)

Between 1500 and the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, the English humanists made striking progress toward a full-fledged critique of war and social reform. This movement, after his first contacts with Colet and More, can clearly be seen in Erasmus' work before his next English visit ( 1505). Separated for the time, these friends pursued converging courses. Now for the first time in Erasmus' work we begin to find what has lately gained some recognition—"its critical aspect, the grim and disillusioned analysis of disintegrating feudalism and rising military despotism." 1 As their story unfolds, eventually it will indeed be possible to reason that these idealists, Colet, More, Erasmus, and Vives, were capable of a realism greater than Machiavelli's in their social and political criticism. 2

When effort is made to distinguish forms of humanism from each other, it is vital to assess the use made of the classics of antiquity. In 1501 Erasmus annotated an edition of Cicero's De officiis and prefaced it with a critical epistle. It is Cicero's insights into life, not merely literary style, that concerned Erasmus. Through reading Cicero one can perceive how vital it is always to be on guard against defenders of such weapons as those which Vulcan forged, to be on guard against admiring such characters as Homer's Achilles or Vergil's Aeneas. For men are at their worst when strength and viciousness are found together, and the fact is that a man is never better defended than by true virtue. 3 In other words, Erasmus praised the study of Cicero because, for one thing, Cicero did not uphold, as models of manhood, classic archetypes of the soldier. This kind of attack will gradually intensify until, by 1517, Erasmus will compare Achilles with Alexander the Great and will find them alike: both "world-robbers," "drunk with ambition," "disasters to humanity." 4 In 1501 Erasmus fired the modest opening gun of a barrage in which other London Reformers would soon join him: its target was the idealization

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