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Erasmus & Luther: Their Attitude To Toleration -Robert H. Murray Litt.D.

THE aim of this book is to consider the attitude of Erasmus and Luther to the problem of toleration. The history of solutions of this problem has always fascinated me, and is never far from my thoughts. Life in Ireland inevitably suggests its study, for the mainspring of the troubled conditions of her being is the lack of the spirit which makes for the advance of toleration. Since 1902 I have been steadily gathering books on this subject: Lord Acton’s great library naturally was of invaluable aid in forming such a collection. I have commenced my history of the growth of toleration with the year 1492, because it seems to me to mark the dividing-line between the mediæval and the modern world. Part of one of the chapters, entitled “Utopian Toleration,” appeared in the Edinburgh Review, January 1914. As I was pursuing my researches the figures of Erasmus and Luther stood out so prominently that it seemed to me that to devote to them a separate volume would be the only way to give them adequate attention. When one is working at a vast subject, one invariably accumulates ideas and facts outside the main scope. I have, for example, gathered ideas and facts on the large share taken by the conception of natural law in the sixteenth century, the different effects of the Universities on opinion in Germany, France, and England during the same period, the shape that the conception of the Invisible Church assumed in the minds of men from 1510 to 1550, the sixteenth-century growth of scepticism, literary and scientific, and the like. In all these subjects I have tried to supply the background, for one great weakness in histories of thought is that for the most part they have been written, as it were, in vacuo. We must bear in mind the course of the relationship between the thought and the circumstance of the age.

Every one knows that Erasmus, like More, entertained one ideal of reform in 1516, and seemingly quite another ideal in 1526. The change is obvious. I set both ideals forth, and I endeavour to explain the change, so far as there was one, that took place, by considering the influence exercised by the thought of Luther, the action and reaction to which it gave rise, the character and foreign policy of Charles V and Francis I respectively, the alliance of the latter with the German Protestants, the invasions of Suleiman I, and the astronomical and geographical discoveries. The attitude of Luther and Erasmus to the problem of toleration has not been interpreted in a narrow sense. Before toleration was possible a process of criticism had to ensue, and from this point of view the Moriæ Encomium is as valuable a contribution to the growth of toleration as any piece of work Erasmus ever did. Again, the question of authority can never be long out of the mind of a sixteenth-century leader. His attitude to the powers that be, the divine right of their rule or their human right, the justification of armed resistance to them, are all pertinent to the theme. Then, the study of theology and scholarship contributes much matter. The fact that Luther believed in the slavery of his will to the Divine, rendered him one of the greatest forces of the period. He could never have accomplished his work had he not felt that he was inspired by God. His inspiration rendered him intolerant of all who refused to accept his message after 1525: before that year he was tolerant in thought and deed. His own labours led in many respects to intolerance: their results contributed to the growth of toleration.

As I work at the sixteenth century I am constantly impressed by the circumstance that very few, even of its most eminent thinkers, entertained the idea of progress. The possession of this idea cuts at the roots of persecution, which is founded upon the view that a body holds complete truth. If there is a growth in knowledge, persecution, ipso facto, becomes impossible. Erasmus is quite clear that knowledge of the past and knowledge in the past have increased. Is he clear that fresh ideas, which the scholars of old never knew, will come to light? The more I ponder his writings the more I realize how hampered he was in his outlook by his adherence to the ideals of the world of antiquity, which does not grasp the conception of progress. Seneca seems to me to be the solitary classical writer who believed in progress in our modern sense. My appendix deals with this absorbing subject. I am anxious gratefully to acknowledge the assistance the following scholars lavishly gave me in my appendix: Mr. E. Bevan, Professor Grenville Cole, Sir Samuel Dill, Mr. J. D. Duff, Dr. W. Warde Fowler, Mr. T. R. Glover, the Very Rev. W. R. Inge, Mr. W. H. S. Jones, Mr. A. G. Little, Professor R. A. S. Macalister, Professor F. C. Montague, Professor Gilbert Murray, Professor J. S. Phillimore, Dr. L. C. Purser (who kindly read my proof-sheets), Sir William Ridgeway, and Sir J. E. Sandys. I am afraid these names will raise hopes the appendix will not fulfil.

I use with great profit the fine edition of the letters of Erasmus which Mr. P. S. Allen is issuing. My one regret is that the first volume did not appear before 1906, when I had already bought Le Clerc’s edition. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the courtesy and care with which Mr. Allen has answered the questions I sent him. Sir A. W. Ward was good enough to read all my proof-sheets, and I am indebted to him for his valuable co-operation. The late Dr. Gwatkin generously permitted me to draw upon his experience and learning. I am indebted to my publishers for the extreme care they took over the production of my book.

My wife read this volume in all its different stages, corrected errors, and suggested improvements, and to her I owe an obligation which it is impossible to repay.

ROBERT H. MURRAY

11 HARCOURT TERRACE, DUBLIN,

St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1919.








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