Desiderius Erasmus

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Erasmus, Desiderius


(Erasmus Roterodamus, or Erasmus of Rotterdam). Born Oct. 28, 1469, in Rotterdam; died July 12, 1536, in Basel. Dutch humanist scholar, writer, philologist, and theologian; one of the most prominent representatives of the northern Renaissance.

Erasmus studied at the University of Paris from 1495 to 1499. He lived in France, England, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, and he was renowned throughout Europe. He wrote in Latin, then the universal language of educated Europeans.

Erasmus was decisively influenced by Dutch mysticism and humanist education, as well as by the circle of scholars known as the Oxford reformers (of which J. Colet was one) who called for a new, deeper, and scientifically substantiated reading of the holy texts of Christianity. In 1517, Erasmus brought out the first printed edition of the New Testament in the Greek original, with his own wide-ranging commentaries; the 1519 edition was accompanied by his own Latin translation. He created an elegant new system of theology, which he called “the philosophy of Christ.” The system is chiefly concerned with man in his relation to god and with man’s moral responsibilities before god; Erasmus circumvents the questions arising in speculative theology, such as the creation of the world, original sin, and the triadic nature of the deity, which he views as having no vital significance and as being fundamentally insoluble.

Erasmus headed a humanist trend that came to be called Christian humanism. He spoke against the spread of worldly influences in the church, the veneration of relics, monastic parasitism and false piety, and empty religious rituals, and in this sense he was a precursor of the Reformation. However, he was no less consistently opposed to the fanaticism, the rigid dogmatism, and especially the limitless abasement of man before god that characterized Lutheranism; for this reason he broke with Luther, whom he had previously supported. Neither side was satisfied with Erasmus’ position, and he was forced to flee from Louvain and from Basel to escape the religious fanaticism of Louvain’s Catholics (1521) and Basel’s church reformers (1528).

Erasmus left an enormous number of works, the most famous being the Praise of Folly (1509; Russian translation, 1960) and the Colloquies (1519–35; Russian translation, 1969). The former work is a philosophical satire and the second is primarily concerned with morals and manners; they share, however, a common foundation—a strong belief in the contradictory nature of all reality and the instability of the boundary between opposites. Mistress Folly, singing her own praises, turns easily into wisdom, self-satisfied high-mindedness into obtuse baseness, and limitless power into the worst slavery; consequently the most valuable rule in life is “Nothing in excess!” This conviction represents the essence of Erasmus’ ideological position, which his other works reflect as well. His collection of proverbs (Adagia, 1500) includes ancient Greek and Roman sayings and aphorisms with commentaries.

Many of Erasmus’ pedagogical, morally instructive, and theological works were designed to promote a particular point of view—for example, the anti-Lutheran treatise On Free Will (1524) and the Liberal Education of Children (1529). Erasmus was a great master of the epistolary genre, and his voluminous correspondence has been preserved.


Opera omnia, vols. 1–4. Amsterdam, 1971–73.
Opus epistolarum, vols. 1–12. Edited by P. S. Allen. Oxford, 1906–58.


Markish, S. P. Znakomstvo s Erazmom iz Rotterdama. Moscow, 1971.
Smirin, M. M. “O politicheskoi kontseptsii Erazma Rotterdam skogo.” In the collection Ezhegodnik germanskoi istorii 1972. Moscow, 1973.
Smith, P. Erasmus. New York, 1962.
Huizinga, J. Erasmus, 5th ed. Haarlem, 1958.
Tracy, J. Erasmus—the Growth of a Mind. Geneva, 1972.