Who Was This Erasmus Character?

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating characters in all history. He was ordained a priest, but left his cloister and rebuffed all attempts to bring him back. He was an illegitimate child, he had no official position, no title, no power, and no wealth in a rigidly hierarchical society, yet he was one of the most influential men in history. He shattered the iron grip of the Church on Christendom and opened the door for Luther, Calvin, and the English Dissolution. He accomplished all this with the strength of his wit and his pen. Before Erasmus, every person bold enough to challenge the power of the Church was burned at the stake, but Erasmus conquered with humor and playfulness. He did not condemn the excesses of the Church and society; he made fun of them. His _Praise of Folly_ satirized all European society with irreverence and wicked wit; readers howled and the great and powerful squirmed. His Colloquies, Adages, and Apophthegmata continued the good-natured assault on pig-headed authority, and his serious work on religious texts established his standing as the leading Biblical scholar of his age.

Along the way, Erasmus demonstrated an almost spookily modern outlook. In an age that regarded women as subhuman, Erasmus demonstrated a shockingly liberated attitude toward women, urging their education and the fullest development of their minds. He condemned persecution of Jews and urged toleration for minorities. One of the first full-fledged pacifists in Western history, he repeatedly and pointedly roasted the princes of his day for their warmongering. His educational concepts were so far ahead of his times that they were still being studied and implemented well into the twentieth century. And his notions of religious ecstasy sound like something out of the 1960s.

Erasmus was one of the most successful men in history in that he profoundly, subtly, and constructively changed the world for the better centuries into the future. Even today, our lives are affected by this man. Did you read Aesop’s fables as a child? You can thank Erasmus for rescuing them from obscurity and making them part of early education. If you ever read the King James Bible, you can thank Erasmus for championing the notion that the Bible should be translated carefully from the original sources into local languages. If you have ever used the phrases "crocodile tears", "call a spade a spade", or "start from scratch", you can thank Erasmus for digging them out of classical literature and popularizing them. And for every time that you weren’t beaten by your teacher for failing to properly regurgitate memorized material, you owe Erasmus a debt of gratitude: he was the first and most vociferous opponent of such methods in education, and his eloquent condemnations of these brutal methods have been quoted right up to the present day.

Most striking are his notions of the role of play in the life of the mind; I doubt that we fully understand his thinking here. He saw a deep connection between play and the most profound issues of human existence. It is in the interplay between the comic and the profound that Erasmus shines brightest.