(Roughly) Daily

“No Man is wise at all Times, or is without his blind Side”*…

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Martin Luther, circa 1532; Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Erasmus, 1523

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the leading figure of the Northern Renaissance, is widely considered the greatest of early humanists. Five hundred years ago, he faced a populist uprising led by a powerful provocateur, Martin Luther, that resulted in divisions no less explosive than those we see in America and Europe today.

Between 1500 and 1515, Erasmus produced a small library of tracts, textbooks, essays, and dialogues that together offered a blueprint for a new Europe. The old Europe had been dominated by the Roman Church. It emphasized hierarchy, authority, tradition, and the performance of rituals like confession and taking communion. But a new order was emerging, marked by spreading literacy, expanding trade, growing cities, the birth of printing, and the rise of a new middle class intent on becoming not only prosperous but learned, too.

Erasmus became the most articulate spokesman for this class…

Around the same time that the Erasmians were celebrating the dawn of a new enlightened era, a very different movement was gathering in support of Martin Luther. An Augustinian friar then in his early thirties, Luther had developed his own, unique gospel, founded on the principle of faith. Man, he thought, can win divine grace not through doing good works, as the Latin Church taught, but through belief in Christ. No matter how sincerely one confessed, no matter how many alms one gave, without faith in the Savior, he reasoned, no one can be saved. When Luther made this “discovery,” in around 1515, he felt that he had become “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”…

Initially, Luther admired Erasmus and his efforts to reform the Church, but over time Luther’s inflammatory language and his stress on faith instead of good works led to a painful separation. The flashpoint was the debate over whether man has free will. In dueling tracts, Erasmus suggested that he does, while Luther vehemently objected; after that, the two men considered each other mortal enemies.

Beyond that immediate matter of dispute, however, their conflict represented the clash of two contrasting world views—those of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Erasmus was an internationalist who sought to establish a borderless Christian union; Luther was a nationalist who appealed to the patriotism of the German people. Where Erasmus wrote exclusively in Latin, Luther often used the vernacular, the better to reach the common man. Erasmus wanted to educate a learned caste; Luther, to evangelize the masses. For years, they waged a battle of ideas, with each seeking to win over Europe to his side, but Erasmus’s reformist and universalist creed could not match Luther’s more emotional and nationalistic one; even some of Erasmus’s closest disciples eventually defected to Luther’s camp. Erasmus became an increasingly marginal figure, scorned by both Catholics, for being too critical of the Church, and Lutherans, for being too timid. In a turbulent and polarized age, he was the archetypal reasonable liberal…

As Mark Twain is reputed to have observed, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”– the Renaissance vs. the Reformation: “Luther vs. Erasmus: When Populism First Eclipsed the Liberal Elite.”

* Desiderius Erasmus, The Alchymyst, in Colloquies of Erasmus, Volume I

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As we celebrate critical thinking, we might recall that it was on this date in 380 that the three Emperors of the Roman Empire issued the Edict of Thessalonica, ordering all subjects of the Empire to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and of Alexandria, making Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and effectively creating “Christendom.”   It ended a period of religious tolerance that had been formalized in 313 when the emperor Constantine I, together with his eastern counterpart Licinius, had issued the Edict of Milan, which granted religious toleration and freedom for persecuted Christians.

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