We see not a few mortals who, striving to emulate this divine virtue with more zeal than success, fall into a feeble and disjointed loquacity, obscuring the subject and burdening the wretched ears of their hearers with a vacant mass of words and sentences crowded together beyond all possibility of enjoyment. And writers who have tried to lay down the principles of this art have gained no other result than to display their own poverty while expounding abundance.
—Erasmus on “Preaching”
Erasmus was born in Fourteen Hundred Sixty-six, and died in Fifteen Hundred Thirty-six. No thinker of his time influenced the world more. He stood at a pivotal point, and some say he himself was the intellectual pivot of the Renaissance.
The critics of the times were unanimous in denouncing him–which fact recommends him to us.
Several Churchmen, high in power, live in letters for no other reason than because they coupled their names with that of Erasmus by reviling him. Let the critics take courage–they may outwit oblivion yet, even though they do nothing but carp. Only let them be wise, and carp, croak, cough, cat-call and sneeze at some one who is hitching his wagon to a star. This way immortality lies. Erasmus was a monk who flocked by himself, and found diversion in ridiculing monkery. Also, he was the wisest man of his day. Wisdom is the distilled essence of intuition, corroborated by experience. Learning is something else. Usually, the learned man is he who has delved deep and soared high. But few there be who dive, that fish the murex up. Among those who soar, the ones who come back and tell us of what they have seen, are few. Like Lazarus, they say nothing.
Erasmus had a sense of humor. Humor is a life-preserver and saves you from drowning when you jump off into a sea of sermons. A theologian who can not laugh is apt to explode–he is very dangerous. Erasmus, Luther, Beecher, Theodore Parker, Roger Williams, Joseph Parker–all could laugh. Calvin, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards never gurgled in glee, nor chortled softly at their own witticisms–or those of others.
Erasmus smiled. He has been called the Voltaire of his day. What Rousseau was to Voltaire, Luther was to Erasmus. Well did Diderot say that Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched. Erasmus wrote for the educated, the refined, the learned–Luther made his appeal to the plain and common mind.
Luther split the power of the Pope. Erasmus thought it a calamity to do so, because he believed that strife of sects tended to make men lose sight of the one essential in religion–harmony–and cause them simply to struggle for victory. Erasmus wanted to trim the wings of the papal office and file its claws–Luther would have destroyed it. Erasmus considered the Church a very useful and needful organization–for social reasons. It tended to regulate life and conduct and made men “decentable.” It should be a school of ethics, and take a leading part in every human betterment. Man being a gregarious animal, the congregation is in the line of natural desire. The excuse for gathering together is religion–let them gather. The Catholic Church is not two thousand years old–it is ten thousand years old and goes back to Egypt. The birth of Jesus formed merely a psychosis in the Church’s existence.
Here he parted company with Luther, who was a dogmatist and wanted to debate his ninety-five theses. Erasmus laughed at all religious disputations and called them mazes that led to cloudland. Very naturally, people said he was not sincere, since the mediocre mind never knows that only the paradox is true. Hence Erasmus was hated by Catholics and denounced by Protestants.
The marvel is that the men with fetters and fagots did not follow him with a purpose. Fifty years later he would have been snuffed out. But at that time Rome was so astonished to think that any one should criticize her that she lost breath. Besides, it was an age of laughter, of revolt, of contests of wit, of love-bouts and love-scrapes, and the monks who lapsed were too many to discipline. Everybody was busy with his own affairs. Happy time!