The Fourth Letter to Servatius

This translation is taken from The Collected Works of Erasmus, Volume 1, pages 9 - 11, translated by R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson, published by the University of Toronto Press. I do not know if it falls within the bounds of ’fair use’ as defined by the copyright laws. Should anyone, especially anyone connected with the publisher, have any opinions on the matter, please advise me.

“Considering that my affection for you is and always has been so deep, dearest Servatius, that I value you more than my very eyes and life and, in a word, myself, what is it that makes you so hard-hearted that you not only refuse to love him who loves you so well but do not even regard him with esteem? Are you of so inhuman a disposition as to love those who hate you and hate those who love you? Never was anyone so uncivilized or criminally minded or obstinate as not to entertain some kindly feeling towards friends at least; is it that you and you alone cannot be moved by remonstrances or swayed by entreaties or melted even by the tears of a loving friend? Are you so savage as to be incapable of pity? I have tried upon you all of my appeals and prayers and tears, but you close up your heart and implacably repel me with a harshness like that of the hardest rocks, all the more so the more I continue to plead with you, so that I could with justice apply to you the complaint that we find in Virgil: ’Nor wept o’erborne, nor pitied love’s distress.’

What am I to call it, dear Servatius – harshness or obstinance or pride or arrogance? Can your nature be like that of a young girl so that my torments yield you pleasure, and your comrade’s pain gives you happiness, his tears, laughter? How well might I reproach you in the words that appear in Terence? ’O that I had an equal share and just division of love with you, so that you might either feel this pain as I do, or I might care not what you have done.’ I ask you, what dreadful wickedness or crime or offense have I committed against you to make you shun me thus and be so hostile to me? Indeed I cannot see my sin, unless to love very deeply is itself what you deem a sin. When are you so cruel to one who loves you, what, I ask, would you be like to one who hated you? For you are ever on my lips and in my heart; you are my one hope, the half of my soul, the consolation of my life. When you are away nothing is pleasant to me, and when you are with me nothing is unpleasant. If I see you happy I forget my own grief, while if anything grievous happens to you I swear I suffer keener pain than you do yourself. Is it by acting thus that I have earned such keen disklike at your hands? But in fact, dear Servatius, I know well what reply you will make to me, for it is the reply you often make. You will say ’What then do you want to see happen; what do you require of me? Am I indeed showing dislike for you? What, I repeat, are you claiming?’ If you put the question: I am not asking for expensive presents for myself; only let your attitude to me be the same as mine to you and you will forthwith make me happy. But if your heart is so estranged from me that it cannot be swayed by any entreaty, then tell me so frankly. Why do you mock me? Why do you keep me in uncertaintly? Sometimes you pretend friendship, sometimes again its opposite; and as you vacillate I suffer in mind the tortures of the damnned. So, my sweetest of comrades, if there be still any room in your yeart for my pleading, I beg and beseech of you one thing above all, to declare your feelings clearly to me and not destroy me any further with this cruelly tantalizing behavior.

But why do I pour forth these complaints in vain? For I know you will not lend an ear to them. Why do I uselessly strive to plough the sand or wash a brick; and why do I roll this stone any longer? If, then, you remain forever settled in your attitude. preferring to feel dislike rather than affection, then dislike me as you will; I for my part shall never be able to cease loving you. But I am resolved to do so with greater restraint in order to avoid torturing myself uselessly, since no solace comes from you. Farewell, my heart, and, if there be any human kindness within you, vouchsafe an answering love to him that loves you.”


This letter’s use of classical references is egregious; it would certainly be fair to call it “showing off”. Almost all of the metaphors and felicitous turns of phrase are taken directly from the classics. In this respect, at least, there can be no question that Erasmus is engaging in some sort of literary exercise, along the lines of “betcha I can pack more literary quotations into a letter than you can.”

Certainly the letter teems with expressions of love – but none of them suggest homoerotic love. Indeed, there are several passages that speak against the possibility of a homoerotic intent. One of these is “Indeed I cannot see my sin, unless to love very deeply is itself what you deem a sin.” While a gay Erasmus might have convinced himself that homosexuality was not sinful, such a heretical claim in his letter would surely have drawn a sharp rejoinder from Servatius. Erasmus would not have been so stupid as to trigger a confrontation over a point he would surely lose.

Another telling passage: “You will say ’What then do you want to see happen; what do you require of me?” If this were a homoerotic relationship, Erasmus’ intentions would surely have been clear to Servatius by this point; those intentions are the presumed cause of Servatius’ rejection of Erasmus. If they weren’t clear to Servatius, why would Erasmus imagine him asking such questions?