A Man Who Rose Above His Times

The most striking thing about Erasmus is his transcendence beyond the cultural norms of his times. Judged from other cultural frames of reference, Erasmus falls short of many of the greatest of history. There were those who were braver, brighter, more charitable, more honorable, less materialistic, and so on -- but such traits must be judged against the cultural background in which the individual was raised. Can we deride Isaac Newton’s genius because he was deeply religious? If I were to chop off somebody’s hand with a sword, I’d be branded a nut case, but Saint Peter did that when they came to get Christ, and we don’t call him a nut case. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves -- does that make him a monster?

Even today, our moral standards leave much to be desired. How many of us steal office supplies from our place of work? How many of us tell "white" lies to smooth the rough edges of interpersonal interaction? How many of us are absolutely honest on our tax returns? Suppose that you met an individual who rejected these common immoralities -- someone who told the truth even when inconvenient, who paid all his taxes honestly, who behaved at all times as if the world was watching him -- what would you think of such a person? Impossibly virtuous? This, to me, is the greatest kind of hero: the person who takes his moral cues, not from what everybody else is doing, but from his own conscience. We have precious few such people, and they are our heroes, the ones who lead us forward.

Erasmus was such a person. His values were far ahead of his times, even though some of his actions fall short of our expectations of heroic behavior. In future essays in this series, I shall present specifics.