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 SEVEN
THE GENIUS OF THE ISLAND—
ERASMUS' CHRISTIAN PRINCE (1516)

With More and Erasmus, after 1505-6, a recurrent theme is that while good kings are a theoretical possibility, tyrants are an ever-present danger. Again and again their satire exposes the maleducation of future kings— the customary process by which the young prince is corrupted and brought up to be either irresponsible or a potential tyrant.

Clearly, to the English humanists, the education of the prince was crucial, for by it inevitably a good life in the commonwealth would be either enhanced or ruined. The results of their reflections emerged in reformed programs for education, first of the prince himself, then more broadly of the leaders under him. 1 In the great criticisms in the Adages Erasmus bitterly attacked abuses of power, particularly in the form of needless and unchristian wars. Since he attributed to the princes the power to make or avoid war, in a sense Erasmus had attacked the results of vile education among princes. This much was destructive criticism.

In his famous Education of the Christian Prince—the Institutio principis Christiani ( Basel, May, 1516)—Erasmus turned to a positive approach. He had the treatise "in hand" by May 15, 1515, after his return to London (EE, 334.170). In January, 1516, he was appointed Councillor to Charles, the sixteen-year-old prince who had just succeeded to the throne of Spain, and it was to Prince Charles that he dedicated the book after his return to Basel by March (EE, II, 161n., 205-8). The Christian Prince, written in England and a part of English humanist literature, was presented to Charles after Erasmus' appointment. 2 It is a distinguished and (in comparison to Machiavelli's Prince, also done by 1516) curiously neglected element in what Chambers (p. 121) happily termed "the wonderful year of Erasmian reform," although he dismissed Erasmus' book in one sentence as "a passionate plea for peace, arbitration, mercy to the poor, the fostering of learning—but, above all, for peace."

Not infrequently Erasmus' Christian Prince receives rather short criti

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