A Plea for Erasmians


IN 1521, the year of the Diet of Worms, Albrecht Dürer wrote in his diary: —

’O Erasmus of Rotterdam, where art thou delaying? Behold what the unrighteous tyranny of the power of this world, what the might of darkness can do! Hear, thou knight of Christ! Defend the truth! Attain the martyr’s crown! ’

In the same year, Erasmus, writing to an English friend, explains why he cannot support Luther: —

’Even if everything he wrote had been right, I had no intention of putting my head in danger for the sake of the truth. It is n’t every one that has the strength for martyrdom, and I sadly fear that if any tumult should arise, I should follow the example of Peter. I obey the decrees of emperor and pope, when they are right, because that is my duty; when they are wrong I bear it, because that is the safe plan. This I believe to be permitted to good men, if there is no hope of improvement.’

Now, it must be admitted that this is not exactly a knightly utterance. A ‘soul-animating’ strain it can hardly be called. Indeed, this Ritter Christi seems a pitiful figure enough in the pages of certain of his biographers, — a poseur, if not an instinctive and elaborate liar; an inveterate trimmer, unluckily born into an age that demanded honest and determined men; a fussy valetudinarian, maundering about his stomach and his need of Burgundy wine, the inconveniences of inns, and the hard lot of a wandering scholar; so skillful a juggler with words that in reading his letters and treatises, one must exercise constant vigilance to disentangle from what he said he was doing and what he thought he was doing, what he was really doing. If this were the whole story, Erasmus, as a ’hero of the Reformation,’ would be but a pinchbeck hero after all. There is, however, an obvious interpretation of his character and career which quite justifies the admiration in which he has always been held by a respectable minority of the reading world. While the categories of Lutheran and Erasmian are probably not so inclusive as those of Platonist and Aristotelian, yet they mark a fundamental distinction of temper among thinking men. Erasmus, in fact, is the patron, if not the founder, of an intellectual order; and it is to an apology for that order, which is not always understood or esteemed according to its merit, that these pages are addressed.

When Luther defied Empire and Papacy at Worms, Erasmus was already a famous and influential man. He had made all Europe ring with laughter at the vices and absurdities of the monastic orders. He had squarely taken the position that the Church needed reform, but that reform must come through the men of light and leading within the Church. Ignorance and an uncritical habit were the chief sources of the existing evils, and an enlightened scholarship would cure them.

A fine, critical sense must be developed; the habit must be formed of clearing away mere conventions, however solemn, and of seeing things as they are. It was necessary that existing institutions and doctrines should be tried by the New Testament and the teachings of the Fathers. To this end, Erasmus had prepared his critical edition of the New Testament, which should in the first place open the eyes of clerics and scholars, and in the second place be a basis for vernacular translations which should find their way into the home of every peasant in Europe. ‘Teach your boys carefully,’he wrote to an ardent young scholar, ‘edit the writings of the Fathers, and irreligious religion and unlearned learning will pass away in due time.'

It is not surprising that Erasmus should have had such faith in the power of learning. He had seen in England a learned and cultivated prince whose purpose it was to foster scholarship for the sake of its effect upon religion. He had seen the wise and generous Warham made Archbishop of Canterbury; Colet, the learned and pious, Dean of St. Paul’s; and Thomas More a councilor of the king. Could any state of things be more hopeful for the Church? If this could be in England, why not on the continent? He foresaw, therefore, a peaceful reformation of the Church from within, produced partly by genial satire of existing absurdities, but chiefly by the combination of exalted piety with sound scholarship in men of high place. Gradually health should descend from the head to the extremities of the body ecclesiastical, the monks should be shamed out of their ignorance and idleness, the laity, under better instruction, be restored to primitive piety and devotion to pure religion. The Church should slowly cast off the burden of the merely speculative dogmas that she had imposed upon herself, and should once more know the perfect freedom of her early days. And all this should be done without anger or violence, without laying profane hands upon any sacred thing, without giving an opening to anarchy, without disturbing the basis of faith in any honest man.

An attractive picture, was it not? Surely, far more attractive than what actually happened. It may be true that the time was past for any such Arcadian visions, that the state of religion demanded a violent upheaval, in which the good and the bad should be cleared away to make room for a new heaven and earth. Erasmus’s plan of reform was, perhaps, impracticable, but his ideal, at least, was eminently sane and reasonable. In any case, it is unfair to judge him too severely. Doubtless our views of the real issues of his time and their inevitable outcome are enlightened and philosophic, but we do well to remember Burke’s remark that ‘men are wise with but little reflection, and good with but little self-denial, in the business of all times except their own.’

But, in fact, it is not perfectly clear that Erasmus was wrong. It may be pious, it is certainly practical, to accept any actual state of things as ideal, or, at any rate, to behave as if it were. But the philosophically minded can hardly refrain from asking, ‘Might not the same result, or, conceivably, a better result, have been brought about by other and less destructive means?’ An unwavering faith in ‘manifest destiny’ is, no doubt, very comfortable, but it is not possible to all minds.

At all events, Erasmus was doomed to disappointment. He saw the peaceful progress of internal reform interrupted by the violence of an obscure monk. He saw not only the excrescences of Catholicism attacked, but the very foundation of the Church. He saw the doctrine of authority defied, and the right of private judgment, a right which he had always upheld, imposed upon the foolish and headstrong, as well as upon the prudent. He saw the natural result of this in outbursts of social and political anarchy, and, what was worse, in the instinctive reaction of bigotry and intolerance within the shaken Church. He saw, moreover, himself, Erasmus, held up by churchmen and revolutionists alike as the instigator of the rebellion. ‘This,’ cried the monks, ‘ is what comes of teaching the people to laugh at us.’ ‘Come out like a man,’cried the Lutherans. ‘ You have always been one of us in spirit. Give us now, give the cause of sound religion the immense weight of your scholarship, your sanity, your piety! This is your opportunity!’

It is easy enough to accuse Erasmus, at this crisis, of cowardice and shuffling, easy enough to inveigh against his fatuous temporizing at a time when only actions counted. But it is to be remembered that on the one hand, he saw methods which he disapproved resulting in measures which he hated; he saw good and bad, essential and non-essential, confounded and swept away together. On the other hand, he saw that Luther’s cause was really the one for which he, himself, had fought for many years, — deformed, monstrously perverted, but still his cause. Surely, if ever man’s soul was tried, Erasmus was the man. For a time, he tried, with vain but sensible appeals, to moderate the frenzy of both sides. To churchmen he wrote urging toleration and gentle measures with Luther. To Luther he wrote: ‘Old institutions cannot be rooted up in an instant. Quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Avoid all appearance of sedition. Keep cool; do not get angry; do not hate anybody. Do not be excited over the noise which you have made.’ The attitude which he had maintained from the beginning is, perhaps, best set forth in a letter of 1520. He knows that many things are in need of reform, but he is fearful that more harm may be done by violently taking from the unlearned precious half-truths than by allowing them to work out their own emancipation. ‘ We must bear almost anything,’ the letter runs, ‘ rather than throw the world into confusion. ... For myself, I prefer to be silent and introduce no novelties into religion. ... I recommended Luther to publish nothing revolutionary. I feared always that revolution would be the end, and I would have done more had I not been afraid that I might be found fighting against the Spirit of God.’

But the end was inevitable. More and more shocked by the excesses of the reformers, believing more and more firmly that they were merely setting up a new tyranny in place of the old, the tyranny of the mob, he threw his influence on the papal side, and died distrusted by extreme Catholics and Protestants, alike. He bears the proud title of ‘ the humanist of the Reformation, but to the moralizing historian he is a terrible example of one who made ‘the great refusal,’who, through cowardice and time-serving, lost the prouder title of one of the great emancipators of the human spirit.


Which things are an allegory. Erasmus is an inexhaustibly interesting historical personage, because he is more than that; he is a type as old as civilization. He is not to be confounded with the Hamlets and Amiels, whom he superficially resembles. Their disease is impotence of will; their weakness, the lack of ‘the courage of imperfection,’the courage to do their best, however inadquate the means, however uncertain the issue. The difficulty of Erasmus and the Erasmians is an intellectual one. They are blinded by excess of light. They see too clearly both sides of every question to commit themselves to either. They lack the sublime abandon with which simpler and usually less enlightened spirits throw themselves into causes which they only half comprehend. Naturally, the practical world cannot do away with such hairsplitting. The Erasmians are adjured to act, without too much regard for past causes or future results. They are said to lack faith, and, in truth, they are essentially skeptics. To them, only an adumbration of truth is within the reach of finite minds, and they are unable to become violently energetic for an adumbration. They have the penetration of Disraeli, without drawing his practical inference. In one of his novels a son complains to his father that at college they taught him only words, and he wished to know ideas. The father replies, evidently voicing the belief of the great political phrasemaker, ‘Few ideas are correct ones, and what are correct no one can ascertain; but with words we govern men.’

The Erasmians decline to govern or be governed by words. They prefer to delay and reflect and compare, in the hope that at last one idea may become so clear, so compelling, so comparatively certain that it may result in an act. The process is long and very trying to active spirits; but the Erasmians have infinite patience. It is a glorious thing to wear the martyr’s crown. But is there no difference between martyrdom in a good cause and martyrdom in a doubtful one? The Erasmians think there is. ‘The greatest obstacle to being heroic,’ writes Hawthorne, ‘is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool. The truest heroism is to resist the doubt, and the profoundest wisdom is to know when it ought to be resisted and when to be obeyed.’

Well, the Erasmians would agree to that. ‘A certain partiality, a headiness and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like, — but you do it at your peril.’ Such is Emerson’s warning. The Erasmians prefer to reduce the peril to the lowest possible terms. To them, a certain headiness and loss of balance are, at all costs, to be avoided.

Now, the result of such views, inactivity, is precisely the result of reactionary conservatism. Whether a man declines to act because he is weighing ideas, or because he is a slave to tradition and the established order, makes very little difference to the world; but there is a difference, for all that. The Erasmians, like most sensible men, agree that there is a presumption in favor of antiquity. It seems to them little like economy, considering the number of things of which the world is full, to begin all discussions of all subjects ah ovo. They do not wake every morning with the idea that everything is an open question, for they see clearly enough whither this leads. They have no mind to enroll themselves in the inglorious register of the revivers of venerable political blunders and the preachers of forgotten and exploded heresies. Yet, they distinctly do not propose to be deluded by mere words, however sacrosanct. To t em, as to their great exemplar, every ancient absurdity that claims the reverence due to age is fair game.

They make a clear distinction between essentials and non-essentials, between ideas which have received the stamp of time and those which have merely received the stamp of convention. And the latter it is their way to cover with inextinguishable laughter. Like the third Lord Shaftesbury, they believe ‘in the freedom of wit and humor.’ They think that ridicule is a criterion of true and false enthusiasm, and that ‘opinions which claim to be exempted from raillery and discussion afford presumptive evidence of their falsity.’ While the method is open to obvious dangers, and is certain to be condemned by persons who take themselves with undue seriousness, yet it is precisely the method by which Addison and Steele reformed, in a measure, the society of their time. It is a method of warfare that demands no violence, that attacks measures, not men, and that often, by its intrinsic charm, half heals the wounds it makes. At any rate, it is the only method possible to the Erasmian. He hates and fears violence almost as much as he hates and fears evil. He knows that violent remedial measures frequently destroy an institution that needs only reformation. ‘What does war breed, but war?’ cries Erasmus, ‘while gentleness calls forth gentleness, and equity invites equity.’ The Erasmian consistently maintains that there are few evils so bad as war, so harmful in themselves, so destructive in all their relations — an inglorious doctrine in these militant days, a doctrine that will always be an abomination to the children of this world, but a doctrine ever to be expected on the lips of the children of light.

The Erasmian is not wholly faithless. He has faith in the power of thought. He may believe that the hope of attaining absolute and ultimate truth on any subject, most of all the highest, is an idle dream; therefore he dislikes dogmatism. But, on the other hand, ‘discourse of reason,’ the power to ’look before and after,’ he knows to be, however inadequate, man’s only instrument for acquiring truth and for making it prevail. In other words, he has faith in the supremacy of ideas.

He believes that in the long run they will prevail, and he sees the danger of attempting to supersede them by any other agent. He knows that this can be done, that something quite the reverse of ideas may for a time be made to prevail, and that men will accept the inferior thing in utter ignorance that it is not the highest. Hence, the compelling impulse that drives the Erasmian to criticism. He may not, himself, be constructive; it may not be the moment for construction; but at any rate, he is determined that no false and shoddy edifice shall cumber the ground and prevent the fair, ideal structure which he foresees.

He is not apologetic under the sneers or arguments of believers in a secondbest. He will not be diverted from his critical office by appeals to his pride or to his patriotism. It may be admitted, perhaps, that patriotism, in its narrow sense, is not one of his governing motives. He is inclined to be that superior and disagreeable thing, a cosmopolitan. Like Erasmus himself, his home is the place where he has most freedom of thought. Even though, like that great scholar, he may not spend his life in wandering from city to city and forget the very place of his birth, yet he maintains a detached, critical attitude toward his native land that greatly irritates his neighbors.

He cannot see that a thing is right because it is ‘our national way.’ He tells us, his compatriots, the plainest of truths, classifies us under various opprobrious categories, and compares us with neighboring rivals to our great disadvantage. But we must do him the justice to confess that no land seems to suit him altogether, and that he tells our rivals the same disagreeable truths he has told us. The fact, is, he is testing all civilizations by his standards of ideas, and if we blame him for lacking the patriotic weakness, we must praise him for bringing to all his national studies the same high seriousness, the same exacting criterion.

It is a compliment to be criticized by such a man. Surely, in our right minds, we find it a welcome relief from the monotony of contemplating our virtues. Such criticism is usually entertaining to a candid mind, and always wholesome. The Erasmian, under these circumstances, is really an inspiring sight. He speaks as the citizen of a commonwealth of which all human societies are more or less successful imitations, — the commonwealth of ideas, where philosophers are kings.

His independence of national ties naturally extends to parties. He has no shibboleths. He alternately ridicules and reviles ‘the machine.’ He finds it difficult to comprehend that men of humor — much more, men of intelligence and piety — should take political organization seriously. With Lord Morley he declares: ‘Politics are a field where action is one long second-best, and where the choice constantly lies between two blunders.’ Choices of that sort, as we have seen, he is loath to make. He is accused by practical politicians of being a hopeless visionary, making impossible demands; but all he really asks is the application of ideas and rudimentary morals to political affairs.

He is as slow to commit himself unreservedly to individuals as to parties, for he knows how fatally seductive enthusiasm for a great personality may become. He is frequently found scourging his prophets for their soul’s health; and in dealing with false political gods, he not seldom forgets to be urbane. To be rigidly just, I must confess that he sometimes forgets to attend the primaries, and he has been known not to vote at a presidential election. This, however, is not due to carelessness, but to a temporary spasm of despair, to which his kind is subject.

In religion it is as difficult for him to be a partisan as in politics. It should be said at the outset that, he is a fundamentally religious man — not devout, precisely, but essentially religious. He holds with Erasmus himself that ’the sum of religion is peace, which can only be when definitions are as few as possible, and opinion is left free on many subjects.’ He is, therefore, rather likely to ally himself with no ecclesiastical party or sect, to sit ‘as God, holding no form of creed, but contemplating all.’ He is, however, equally consistent if he gives a limited allegiance to some great historic faith for the sake of the principle of authority, in which he believes. But, he is no more comfortable neighbor ecclesiastically than he is politically. He is usually regarded by the foes of religion as a hypocrite and a coward, and by its friends as a very doubtful ally; both sides relegate him to Dante’s ‘sect, of those displeasing to God and to his enemies.’ He is, unquestionably, open to Mr. Gladstone’s criticism of Matthew Arnold as a theologian: ‘He combined a sincere devotion to the Christian religion with a faculty for presenting it in such a form as to be recognizable neither by friend nor foe.’

Ethically he is often accused of laxity, and he is certainly not austere. He is genuinely humane, and believes that whatever makes human life happier, gentler, more refined, more tolerant, is a moral agent. He finds that intellectual shuffling and the uncritical acceptance of venerable fictions are quite as immoral as more easily recognized vices. He maintains the unpopular theory that severe intellectual discipline is itself moralizing. Always, to the Erasmian, the emphasis lies on the human and the tentative in religion, never on the superhuman and the dogmatic. Toward the pathos of human striving he is tender; toward its illjudged attempts at fixity and exclusiveness he is genially severe.


The Erasmian is not useless to society. He performs a function, ungrateful, indeed, but in the highest degree necessary. The history of human institutions entirely confirms Burke’s dictum that all men possessed of an uncontrolled discretionary power leading to the aggrandizement and profit of their own body have always abused it.’ Hence, in parliaments and churches and society in general, the need of an opposition, enlightened, incorruptible, eternally vigilant. This the Erasmian is. He has at least one resemblance to the righteous — he is the salt of human society, and he is not the worse for being Attic salt. Happy the land or the age in which the Erasmians are in numbers respectably proportionate to their self-satisfied neighbors; but they are usually too few to be practically effective — vox et prœterea nihil.

They are the adherents of unpopular causes and, not seldom, of unsuccessful ones. Like Frederick Denison Maurice, in Arnold’s witty characterization, they spend their lives ‘ beating the bush with deep emotion, but never starting the hare.’ But that is distinctly not to say that they are useless. Usually, in the long run, the world comes round to them, but if it does not, they often profoundly modify its course. In vain, like Burke, they may attempt, at a critical epoch, to induce their countrymen to bring ideas to bear upon politics; but, like him, after a hundred years, their opinions may be lauded by practical statesmen as a very vade mecum of political theory and practice.

While Burke was, in most respects, very far from illustrating the type of mind that I am describing, yet it was of him, at a certain moment of his career, that Arnold wrote this highly Erasmian sentence; ‘When one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam engine and can imagine no other — still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth — that is what I call living by ideas.’

Arnold, himself, is an obvious example of the Erasmian in all his manifold relations to society. In his irony, his disinterestedness, his pursuance of the Aristotelian mean, his faith in culture, and, not least, in his immediate ineffectiveness, he reminds us of the great humanist. ‘I do not profess to be a politician,’ he writes, ‘ but simply one of a class of disinterested observers, who, with no organized and embodied set of supporters to please, set themselves to observe honestly and to report faithfully the state and prospects of our civilization.’ When we read in Mr. Russell’s admirable little book on Arnold that the young Liberals of 1869 declined to learn from him ‘to undervalue personal liberty, or to stand aloof from the practical work of citizenship, or to despise Parliamentary effort and its bearing on the better life of England,’ we recognize the immediate ineffectiveness of the Erasmian; but when we read, further, that he permanently modified all their thinking on political and social matters, we perceive that ‘ineffective’ is perhaps not the best term to apply to an influence so profound and so salutary. This is the ordinary attitude of the political Erasmian, the detached attitude of the spectator and critic.

But English political life a few years ago afforded us the unusual spectacle of an Erasmian in office. Mr. Balfour’s speeches, writings, and behavior, alike stamp him as ’sealed of the tribe.’ When a newspaper editor cruelly remarks that ‘Mr. Balfour’s mind is so hospitable that he can harbor contradictory ideas,’ what is it but an accusation of extreme Erasmianism?

But we need not confine ourselves to modern times for our examples. There were Erasmians before Erasmus, and he, himself, canonized the patron saint of the order. ‘Saint Socrates, pray for us,’ he exclaimed on reading the Phœdo, and in Socrates we find the first and best of all Erasmians. His function was to sting and goad men, if not into virtue, at any rate into an apprehension of their ignorance and vice. To which end, the best means was to force them, by a relentless logic, to bring ideas to bear upon life, and to abandon forthwith all irrational, and hence immoral positions. His fundamental assumption, like that of Erasmus, was that evil conduct is the result of ignorance, and that, therefore, the first remedial measure is to let in the light. Like Erasmus, too, he was loath to dogmatize.

As I have already intimated, it would not be difficult to convict the Erasmian of basal skepticism, and it is one of the ironies of philosophy that skeptics and Platonic transcendentalists alike called Socrates master. His Erasmian character extends even to details of method. The Socratic dialectic, urbane, ironical, sweetly reasonable, is the most formidable weapon in the Erasmian armory. The humane and tolerant sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men is not the least valuable aspect of the Socratic and the Erasmian temper. Like a true Erasmian, Socrates was regarded by the unregenerate and unenlightened of his contemporaries as a wearisome faultfinder, because of the ‘damnable iteration’ with which he pointed out their follies. And if the cup of hemlock, in one form or another, be the inevitable end of both, there is surely compensation in the approval of the inward ‘dæmon’ that prevents ill-considered action, and in the veneration of a school of disciples who are fit, though few.