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

IN a letter of 1517 to Johann Lang, Luther informs him: “I am reading our Erasmus, but every day my regard for him diminishes. That he should so boldly attack the religious and the clergy for their ignorance pleases me, but I fear he does not sufficiently vindicate the rights of Christ and the grace of God.… How different is the judgment of the man who yields something to free will from one who knows nothing but grace.” The reformer rejoiced on perusing the writings of the humanist to note that “he trounced the religious and the clergy so manfully and so learnedly, and had torn the veil off their out-of-date rubbish.” The attitude of the two men towards the reformation of the Church was at this time not dissimilar. Both desired the revival of the message of Christ, both led theology to its sources, and both encountered the same enemies, the schoolmen and the monks. If Luther thundered against the corruption of the Church, Erasmus exposed the misdeeds of the monks and the pseudo-theologians Both were violently hostile to the pseudo-Dionysian writings. What separated them was their attitude towards dogma. Erasmus was nothing if he was not a humanist, Luther was nothing if he was not a theologian. The overpowering effect of grace was paramount in the mind of the masterful German; all roads led to the determinism of the will. Occam, his master, had insisted on the freedom of God and the freedom of the soul, but the latter he threw to the winds. Therefore, while he conveyed through Spalatin his good wishes for the renown and the progress of Erasmus, yet at the same time he anxiously reminds him how wrong it is to follow the example of the commentators in regarding certain passages where St. Paul condemns “righteousness by works” as referring only to the ceremonial Mosaic law, whereas the condemnation applies to all the works of the Decalogue. If such are performed “outside the faith in Christ,” then though they should make of a man a Fabricius, a Regulus, or a paragon of perfection, yet they have as little in common with righteousness as blackberries with figs. It is not works which justify a man, but rather his righteousness which sanctifies the works. Aristotle, whom everybody follows, knew nothing of righteousness, though St. Paul and St. Austin teach it. Luther praises the latter because he takes a firm stand on the foundation of the earlier Fathers. Hence, he contends, we must fall back on St. Austin, on him rather than on St. Jerome, to whom Erasmus gives the preference, for Jerome keeps too much to the historical side; he recommends St. Austin not merely because he was an Augustinian monk, for formerly he himself did not think him worthy of consideration until he fell in with his books. His admiration of the African Father is characteristic. St. Austin emphasizes the importance of St. Paul at the expense of Jesus, and emphasizes western thought at the expense of eastern. Rarely has mankind suffered more than by the twist St. Austin gave to its thought. John Calvin was held fast in his grip, and he threw all his followers under the same yoke.

Luther had the humanists in his mind when he told Johann Lang that “the times are perilous, and a man may be a great Greek or Hebrew scholar without being a wise Christian.” Abelard changed Anselm’s “credo ut intelligem” into “intelligo ut credam,” but the sympathies of the reformer lay with Anselm. He, however, made more concessions to the Zeitgeist than he probably realized. His spirit of criticism, his independent attitude to the ecclesiastical organization not only of his own day but also to that of antiquity, and his leaning to individualism came from the men who were classical scholars. How one such scholar was using his knowledge is abundantly clear. Erasmus asks the assistance of William Latimer, student of sacred and secular letters, in the New Testament. The first edition was issued under difficulties, and the two persons employed to correct the press were insufficient. He is now engaged in the second edition. Latimer is not to breathe a word of this, as it would spoil the sale of the first. The scholar is glad to see the progress of learning. Fisher indeed wrote to him that no one could take offence at the version of the New Testament, but he found that in the Epistles of St. Paul the printer had made many blunders and omissions in the Greek text.

In Erasmus Luther saw the cynic Lucian and caught never a glimpse of the ardent reformer, though a reformer who was well aware of the limitations of his position. As early as 1517 he protests against the Erasmic habit of “making fun of the faults and miseries of the Church of Christ instead of bewailing them before God with deep sighs.” The humanist, on the other hand, does not condemn Luther simply because he asks for a reformation: he knows that all thoughtful people approve of it: they desire “no more superstition, no more traffic in indulgences, war on monkish cupidity, war on the tyranny of the Holy See, that pest of Christianity.” In 1518 Erasmus read the theses against Indulgences, and Capito told Luther that the scholar admired them. The success Erasmus attained is not undeserved: “as a theologian he insisted on going to the sources.” He saw that the Fathers were to be studied, that men must understand the pure Christianity of the primitive Church. Obviously none but scholars could perform such a task, and no less obviously none but princes could set it in motion: if the latter took it in hand, Erasmus informs Lang, all the world would be at peace. The people are quite unfitted for such a serious business: in their excitement they would be unable to find a solution. “I have never liked clamour,” Erasmus confesses. He hated noise, the unforeseen eddies in the current of popular opinion. Just as Luther was an aristocrat in religion, so was he an aristocrat in mind. He no more believed in a wide diffusion of the spirit of the Renaissance than Luther believed in the spread of religion. Was it not better to correct little by little the old theology than to destroy it? Was it not better to keep it until the peaceable arrival of the new theology? Luther must take care of exaggerations of every kind: he must avoid provoking sedition. He has plainly warned us of many things; would to God he had done so with more moderation!

The benevolent neutrality Erasmus then assumed is indicated in his letter to Cardinal Wolsey. He begins with complimenting his correspondent on what he has done for England, comparing him to Ptolemy Philadelphus for his patronage of learning and his collection of books. He is slandered and attacked for his connexion with Reuchlin and Luther. He went with the former to Frankfort, but has no connexion with him except the friendship of a fellow-countryman. Luther is quite unknown to him. Books on Pontifical remission, confession and penance first came out, the publishing of which he dissuaded, as the friends of Luther can bear witness. He gave no opinion of the subsequent swarm of books. He knows none of the learned Germans by sight except Eoban, Hutten and Beatus. He would think their freedom unbearable, did he not know how they have been provoked. Hutten’s Nemo, which all know is ridiculous, the Febris and the speech of Peter Mosellanus, were ascribed to him. He advises them all to moderate their freedom of speech, and abstain from references to the heads of the Church. He would not have written on these subjects, had not a certain English “negotiator” asserted that all these calumnies were true. Wolsey will always find him faithful to Rome and Leo X.

He tells Œcolampadius that “Luther’s books were near being burnt in England; nor was there a remedy. The remedy came from a very humble friend, who was watchful at the right time. I cannot judge of the writings of Luther, but this tyranny pleases me in no wise.” Of course this friend was the writer. In reply to a friendly letter of the reformer he complains of the attacks made upon him at Louvain as the alleged prime mover in the party of reform. He had replied that Luther was unknown to him, that he had not in fact read his books, and was therefore unable to express either approval or disapproval. As a matter of fact he was better acquainted with them than he allowed to appear. In 1519 he read the Operationes in Psalmos, the following year the Tessaradecas. “I hold myself, as far as is possible, aloof that I may be of greater service to the revival of learning. More is gamed by well-mannered modesty than by storming.” He adds his usual admonitions to peaceableness and prudence, and, after some cautious expressions of praise and thanksgiving for his Commentary on the Psalms, at which he has been able to cast only a cursory glance, finally wishes him “a daily increase of the Spirit of Christ to His honour and the public weal.” This letter, however, did not serve the cause of quietness. To the Lutherans it seemed friendly, but not friendly enough. To their opponents it seemed filled with excessive cordiality.

In order to make his position clear Erasmus wrote several letters, including one to Archbishop Albert of Mayence on November 1, 1519. Although he was barely thirty this Archbishop was an Electoral Prince, Imperial Chancellor and Primate of the German Church. A cultivated scholar, Ulrich von Hutten sang his praises, and he was the friend of Erasmus. Before he fell under humanist influence, Albert took the side of Johann Pfefferkorn in his controversy with Johann Reuchlin. In 1516 and 1517 he endeavoured to organize a league of princes and towns, and its aim was the perpetual banishment of the Jews from Germany. He was as fervent an admirer of art and literature as Leo X himself, and his object was to make his Court of Mayence as much their home as the Court of Rome was. The Cathedral of Mayence was nearly as much to him as St. Peter’s to Leo X. Sculptors and gold artificers gave of their best for its adornment. To music he was devoted, and singers came to Mayence from Rome itself. Artists like Albrecht Dürer and Matthäus Grünewald, miniature-painters like Beham and Glockendon, enriched his palace with their pictures. Archbishop Albert was an ardent admirer of what he termed the divine genius of Erasmus, and Erasmus in turn informed Reuchlin that the Archbishop was the “sole ornament of Germany in our age.” Albert was as fortunate in his early promotion as Leo. At the age of twenty-six he was not only Bishop of Halberstadt and Archbishop of Magdeburg, but he was also Archbishop of Mayence and Primate of Germany.

In the letter of November 1, 1519, Erasmus admits the existence of “certain sparks of an excellent spirit” in Luther, “who is not striving after either honours or riches,” and “at whose writings the best minds take no offence.” Luther should not “be suppressed, but rather brought to a right frame of mind.” He censures those who unfairly and publicly defame an honest man, who had only too just cause for his proceedings in the thousand abuses prevailing in ecclesiastical life and theology. Luther had depreciated indulgences, but had not Tetzel and his school claimed too much for them? He had spoken rashly about the papal power, but had not his opponents written just as rashly of it? He had despised the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, but had they not been placed almost above the Gospels? Here again he is careful to add his customary remark that he has not found time to peruse Luther’s writings. Through Hutten the letter reached the Archbishop, and Luther at once became acquainted with it. He called it an excellent letter which might well be printed. As a matter of fact, before giving it to Albert, Hutten had it printed, and, on his own responsibility, altered the name, “Luther,” to the more significant “our Luther.” The burden of the message of the letter is the insane fear of new ideas. “In former days a heretic was listened to with respect; he was acquitted if he gave satisfaction, he was convicted if he persisted. The severest punishment was not to be admitted to the communion of the Catholic Church. Now the charge of heresy is quite another thing, and yet on any frivolous pretext whatever, they have this charge ready on their lips, ‘It is heresy.’ Formerly that man was considered a heretic who dissented from Evangelical teaching and from the articles of faith, or from those which had equal authority with them.… Whatever they do not like, whatever they do not understand is heresy; to know Greek is heresy; to have a polished style is heresy; to do other than they is heresy.” It is easy for the monks to regard all their enemies as heretics, but is it true? Under this dreadful name they include the men of the new learning, who ardently desire to revive the classical spirit and the example of Christ, who wish to free thought on the one hand from ignorance and on the other from superstition.

Erasmus was not personally acquainted with Luther. Melanchthon approached the leader of the humanists, and by his praise endeavoured to secure a working alliance for his friend Luther. In 1519, before Erasmus had taken the field against him, Luther had written to him, praising him, and, in the hope of obtaining his co-operation, had said, “You are our honour and the hope of our age, with whom I commune daily in the spirit.… Who is there into whose inner being Erasmus has not penetrated, whom does he not instruct, or over whom has he not established his sway? You are displeasing to many, but therein I discern the gifts of our gracious God.… With these words, barbarous as they are, I would fain pay homage to the excellence of your mind to which we, all of us, are indebted.… Please look on me as a humble brother in Christ, who is wholly devoted to you and loves you dearly.”

On April 14, 1519, Erasmus wrote from Antwerp to Frederick, the able Elector of Saxony, saying that of Luther’s writings he had so far read only certain extracts. Every one, he said, who had religion at heart read these books with the greatest sympathy. “All who were conversant with his life approved of it, since he was above every suspicion of ambition. The purity of his character is such that he even wins over the heathen. No one has shown his error or refuted him, and yet they call him a heretic.” Therefore he presses the Elector, the most powerful of the German princes, not to abandon an innocent man to malicious persons. This pressure secured for Luther comparative peace during the critical years of 1519, 1520, and 1521, and he expressed his gratitude in no measured terms. This letter did not weaken the determination of the prince to persist in his protection of Luther. If Frederick protected him, who was to execute either the ban of the Empire or the excommunication which the Church might launch against him?

In an interview on December 5, 1520, the Elector Frederick asked Erasmus if Luther had erred in his preaching or his, writing. Erasmus smiled at first, and then, as Spalatin relates, replied, “Yes, in two things. He has attacked the Pope in his crown and the monks in their bellies.” The scholar favoured the hearing of Luther and the court chaplain, Spalatin, and the electoral councillor begged him to place his views on paper. He returned to his lodgings in Cologne, and wrote the Axiomata Erasmi. The substance of these axioms is:

That the whole fight against Luther sprang from hatred of the classics and from tyrannical ignorance.

That good men and lovers of the Gospel were those who had taken the least offence at Luther.

That they were much disturbed by the cruelty of the Bull so unworthy of the mild and merciful Vicar of Jesus Christ.

That two universities had indeed condemned Luther, but had not confuted him.

That Luther made a very reasonable demand by offering to dispute once more.

That his request to be tried by disinterested judges was very moderate.

That he could not be suspected of evil designs, since he sought for no profit and advantage to himself, and that he was less to be suspected of heresy.

That they who condemned him deserved to be condemned themselves for advancing propositions offensive to pious ears.

That the Pope was more solicitous about his own glory than about the honour of Jesus Christ.

That the treatises hitherto written against Luther were disapproved even by those who dissented from Luther.

That the world was thirsting for evangelical truth, and that such a general disposition was not to be checked and oppressed.

That it was very improper for Charles to begin the exercise of his imperial power with inauspicious acts of severity and violence.

Erasmus put forth his view that Luther ought to be tried by competent and unprejudiced judges, and that the authority of the Church was not the way to settle the matter. There was nothing to be gained by an appeal to the Emperor, for he was surrounded by sophists and papists. Erasmus was afraid that Aleander, the papal legate, might read his Axiomata, and he begged Spalatin to return it. Spalatin did so, but, to the disquietude of the humanist, they shortly afterwards appeared, perhaps with alterations, in print. The hope entertained was that their appearance might compromise the humanist who was standing aloof. The gain of Hutten to the cause of Luther had assisted the cause of the reformer. What might he not anticipate if Erasmus stood as openly on his side as he stood secretly?

Perhaps Erasmus defended Luther more stoutly than is sometimes realized. It may well be, as Kalkoff contends, that he wrote the Acta Academiæ Lovaniensis contra Lutherum. It is certain that he interested himself on the reformer’s behalf in his letters to Albert, Archbishop of Mayence, in 1519 and 1520. Did he not inform the Archbishop that “Luther had admirable insight into the Gospel”? He wrote to Cardinal Campeggio, to the councillors of Charles V, of Leo X, and of Henry VIII. To the Elector Frederick of Saxony he submitted a favourable judgment. In November 1520 he spoke on Luther’s behalf to the Elector at Cologne and sent a letter to Spalatin.

The intervention is the better worth dwelling on when we consider that from the end of 1519 onwards Luther was suspected as the heresiarch. In spite of this attitude Erasmus prescribed the use of moderation and exposed the ignorance, hatred and perfidy of certain of the foremost in the attack. True, Luther is violent, but has he not been provoked by the violence of his enemies? He asks for a discussion and receives insult. In spite of the silence of Rome, he is condemned. His opponents distort his thought, falsify his writings, and, instead of a proper reply, they attack his character. The Mazzolinis and the Alfelds merely oppose their syllogisms to solid proofs taken from the Bible. Monks and doctors try to stifle his voice, to suppress his books, and to suppress their author. “Heretic! Antichrist! Apostate!”—this is their cry. The pulpits, the schools, the public places resound with anathemas. It is the quarrel of Reuchlin over again, with the same proceedings, the same terror. By threatening Luther they simply make him bold, by trying to crush him they raise him. Force accomplishes nothing. The method of striking him down is unreasonable. With reforms, with care, with justice, what would they not have accomplished?

At the end of 1520 Erasmus can still declare that he has only read ten or twelve pages of the writings of the man he saves from persecution. On April 22, 1519, he writes from Louvain to the moderate Melanchthon, the balance-wheel of Luther and Lutheranism, saying that “Luther’s life is approved by every one here: opinions differ concerning his learning.… Luther has rightly found fault with some things. Would that he had done so with a success equal to his courage!” His letters to England are in the same strain. “All are agreed in praise of this man’s life. It is in itself no small matter that his conduct is so blameless that even his enemies can find nothing with which to reproach him.” He is for the present preserving peace, which is ever in Erasmus’s eyes the greatest of blessings. He was preserving peace, and he was also gaining disciples. To the younger men, if not to the older, he was a prophet, revealing their aspirations to themselves, and making them conscious of their position. At Heidelberg Brenz, Bucer and Schnepf; at Mayence Hedio and Capito; and at Augsburg Œcolampadius, Conrad Peutinger and Bernard Adelmann were thus attracted. At Leipzig, Peter Mosellanus finds that “all the studious youths are eager in their pursuit of sacred literature.” The religious enthusiasm of the new movement, and the scorn of the younger humanists for scholasticism, combined with the indignation of the people against the exactions of the Roman See, against the vices of the clergy, and against the degradation of Germany by its submission to Italy. As Hutten in Germany and Berquin in France had understood the function of the pamphlet in creating public opinion, so Luther began to see that booklets in German couched in popular language were admirably calculated to assist his propaganda against Tetzel and his like. Booklets, using satire and abuse, might employ not trains of argument but plain reasons, not heavy discussions but ideas easy to embody in catchwords and formulas.

The fervent convictions of Erasmus are expressed in his letter to Louis Martian, Bishop of Tuy, the counsellor of the Emperor: “The Roman Church I know which I think does not differ from the Catholic. Death will not part me from it unless the Church openly departs from Christ. I always abhor sedition, and I would that Luther and the Germans abhorred it equally.… I have not deviated in what I have written one hair’s-breadth from those who agree with the Catholic Church.… I feared always that revolution would be the end, and I would have done more had I not been afraid that I might be found fighting against the Spirit of Christ.” “I shall join myself to Luther when I shall see him take the part of the Catholic Church.” This attitude never altered. In January 1524 he told a friend in Bohemia who was anxious to see him take the side of the reformer: “I shall be for him if he is for the Church.” Like Savonarola, he places defection from the Catholic Church in the same category with defection from Jesus. Christum agnosco, such was his famous answer, Lutherum non novi.

The material considerations were valuable. “If I consent to refute Luther,” he told Gerard of Nimeguen, “a bishopric is mine.” In November 1520, the Roman curia through Marino Caraccioli and Geronimo Aleander renewed the offer of the bishopric. Aleander was one of the most learned men of his day; and he was an envoy likely to please the fastidious Erasmus. Aleander possessed capacity in conceiving thoughts, and no less ability in communicating them: he was more humanist than theologian. In his lectures at Paris he succeeded in attracting two thousand students of all classes. “Luther is so great,” replied Erasmus, “that I shall not write against him. He is so great that I do not understand him: his value is such that I derive more instruction from a single small page of his than from the whole of St. Thomas.” Of course to Aleander this afforded convincing proof that the humanist was a Lutheran, all the more dangerous since he refused to show himself in his true colours. Erasmus protested eloquently against the harsh measures adopted towards the reformer. Perhaps Luther can be crushed, but can truth? The learned, who alone are able, ought to decide the issue by their books. On the eve of Luther’s break with Rome, Erasmus informs Leo X of the life and work of the reformer, and he tells Cardinal Campeggio that “Luther … has received rare talents from nature, a genius wonderfully adapted to explain the obscurities of the Bible, making the light of the Gospel flash forth.… His life was praised by those who did not share his doctrines.… Therefore I have been favourable to Luther: I say favourable rather less to Luther than to the glory of Christ.”

It is abundantly clear, then, that in the year 1519 Erasmus refuses to commit himself definitely to the Lutheran side. He begins to suspect its effects on humanism. These suspicions were deepened in 1523 and 1524. Another cause of the refusal to come forward is that his own methods had not been unsuccessful. His satire and his learning had cured, or at least mitigated, some of the diseases from which the Church had been suffering. What the Moriæ Encomium had done in one direction his edition of the New Testament and his editions of the Fathers had done in another. Literary culture was the great weapon, and was not its edge being blunted by such extremists as Luther, a man of thirty-six? The moderate man, standing aloof from the controversies of the moment, was the one able to take a wide view, able to compose the differences which Luther exaggerated. Erasmus regretted to note how many young scholars were deserting letters for Lutheranism. The young reformer possessed that enthusiasm of youth which inevitably attracted more promising minds of the humanist party than the cooler zeal of its head. Erasmus could not help knowing that the theological element in Luther’s movement tended to overbear every other. He felt afraid of the fiery earnestness, the burning ardour of soul, the absolute disregard of consequences which are necessary to engineer a revolution in religion. We cannot all be all things. He could not be a master in literature, a king of learning, and at the same time a director of a revolution. He was now in his fifty-third year, an age when a man was much older then than now. The portraits of Henry VII indicate extreme age in the wasted form, yet he was only fifty-two when he died. Francis I died at fifty-three, Charles V at fifty-nine, and Maximilian at sixty. Louis XII was not fifty-four when he passed away an absolute wreck. There was so much crowded into a few years then that the excitement of it all told heavily upon mind and body. The boundlessness and the endlessness of the controversy forcibly impressed itself on the mind of Erasmus. The Church no doubt required reform. Still, it was good enough for him, and he did not want to see such a doctrine as justification added to its creed as de fide.

An additional cause of the result is that the common objects of the humanist and the prophet had been in some measure attained, and now their divergent aims loomed on the horizon. They had jointly attacked the domination of Aristotle and Aquinas. They had asserted the claims of reason against authority. The normal hindrances to humanism and reform had at first more things in common than those in which they differed. Time changed the place of emphasis, and they came to have more in which they differed. The breach was inevitable. Erasmus tells Melanchthon, Cardinal Campeggio, Justus Jonas—who aimed at a complete breach with the past—and Leonard Prichard that he does not belong to the movement for reform, remaining too faithful to the cause of Catholicism to be dragged into any excesses. Many like Eck, Emser and Cochlæus loved sound learning, and yet turned the cold face of neutrality to Luther. Of this attitude of Erasmus Luther is painfully aware. He prefers for the moment to believe that he who was not against him was on his part. The common friends, Melanchthon and Spalatin, would doubtless preserve outwardly courteous relations between the two men. It is plain, however, that in the future the best to be hoped was benevolent neutrality: there was no longer the possibility of an alliance. In the “drama” about to begin, Erasmus means to be simply a “spectator.” “I am neither Luther’s accuser, nor his advocate, nor his judge,” was his cold answer to Archbishop Albert of Mayence.

Much water had flowed under the bridge since Erasmus set out on his mission of reform: it had left him unaltered. “I have always,” he told Joachim Camerarius, “written, have always thought the same things.” There are perhaps some excesses in the Praise of Folly, he writes to Cardinal Wolsey, which he now might put differently. His aim in 1522 is the one he had kept before him all his life: “We must restore the kingdom of God, that is, evangelical doctrine.” To a Bohemian noble who kept pressing him to enter the Lutheran ranks, he merely replies: “If there is anything good in his works, I gather it; if there is anything bad, I pass it by.” He was one of those men, to use Goethe’s words, who draw back in terror at the sight of the spirits they have evoked. If for the moment he was neutral, other humanists assumed an attitude of hostility. The learned lawyer, Ulrich Zasius, had been a warm supporter of Luther, but he was shocked when his leader attacked the divine appointment of the Pope and the infallibility of the Council. Once Conrad Mutianus acclaimed Luther as another Hus, the “morning star of Wittenberg,” yet he came to regard him as one “who had all the fury of a madman.” Mutianus’s pupil, Crotus Rubianus, broke away when Luther bitterly attacked the authority of the Church.

The phase of strife between humanism and reform was in sight, for Luther was beginning to feel strong enough to challenge the supremacy of old conceptions and to declare them incompatible with the new. Luther succeeds Erasmus; La Place, Galileo; Voltaire, Descartes; Danton, Mirabeau; Strauss, Reimarus; and Huxley, Darwin.

The peace, then, between Erasmus and Luther, the two indefatigable workers, was not destined to endure. How could the calm old theologian and the fiery young one remain long in agreement? The one dreamt of a peaceful Renaissance, the other of a religious revolution. They were at one in execrating the monks, in hating the abuses of the Church, in detesting stupidity, and in caring as humanists to return to the authentic texts of the Bible. Both were aristocratic in their tone of thought. Erasmus trusted that some day the light of knowledge might penetrate the minds of the people, but the people were entirely unfitted to discuss the matters at issue: decision was to be the prerogative of the universities. Luther thought so much of the faithful that he bestowed little thought on his ordinary adherents. “Three classes do not belong to the evangel at all, and to them we do not preach.… Away with the dissolute swine.” The three classes put outside the pale were first the “rude hearts” who “will not accept the evangel nor observe its behests”; secondly, “coarse knaves steeped in great vices” who would not allow themselves to fall under the influence of the message; thirdly, “the worst of all, who, in addition to this, even dare to persecute the evangel.” The Gospel is, then, intended only for “simple souls … and to none others have we preached.” Asked in 1540 how to act to those who had never been inside a church for twenty years, he answers, “Let them go to the devil, and, when they die, pitch them on the manure-heap.”

“Piety,” Erasmus thought, “requires that we should sometimes conceal truth, that we should take care not to show it always, as if it did not matter when, where or to whom we show it.… Perhaps we must admit with Plato that lies are useful to the people.” It was simple folly to consult hoi polloi on the points raised. The scholars, the humanists, the theologians were fitted: how could others possibly be? Then the next step was to convince the bishops and the princes step by step through reason and patience.

Erasmus blames the rank and file for the decline of faith in Christianity. They have deformed and lowered religion to their level; they have, on a vigorous and healthy tree, grafted artificial branches which risk the destruction of the sap. In a word, the people have inspired the most dreadful customs of life and thought. He plainly told John Colet that he wrote the Enchiridion “ad hoc solum ut mederer errori vulgo religionem constituentium in ceremoniis et observationibus plusquam Judaicis.” The Colloquies are just as outspoken as the Enchiridion against the vulgar religion introduced by the barbarians of the time or by the coarseness of the mass. The artisan was as far removed from the citizen of Athens as an ordinary man from the citizen of the New Jerusalem. The multitude have the religion of the Saints, Compostella or St. Peter’s, Jerusalem or Christopher, George, Barbara, Apollonia. “What is the difference between these customs and the pagans who vow to Mercury the tenth part of their goods in order to be enriched, or a cock to Æsculapius in order to be healed?” In the worship of the saints, “what becomes of the Divinely appointed Mediator, Christ? To await Him is salvation, is religion: it is simple superstition to await either Saints or Angels.” What have the rites and ceremonies which the multitude esteem so highly, what have external observances, to do with a pure life?

In spite of this measure of agreement, how could the exact scholar approve of the brutality of the language of the reformer? His comprehension of the past, especially the past of antiquity, was as wide as his knowledge of it. To Erasmus, moreover, there were shades and degrees, but to Luther there were none. The former will cite the Fathers: the latter himself. Erasmus will study the Fathers in order to understand the Bible: Luther, like Lefèvre d’Étaples, will believe in his own inspiration. Erasmus would have agreed far more closely than Luther with Lessing that the search for truth was of more value than truth. The one was essentially a teacher: the other was no less essentially a prophet. Luther was aglow with enthusiasm, alive with faith, eloquent in speech, dreaming dreams and seeing visions. Luther had the greater heart while the coldness of the cloister clung to Erasmus. Erasmus had the greater brain. The reformer’s own verdict was that he had matter without words—therein he wronged himself—while Erasmus had words without matter. Erasmus was the mouthpiece of what most men were thinking, and Luther, like Rousseau, was the voice of what others were feeling. The one was a calm philosopher, the other a fiery fanatic. Evolution was the way of Erasmus: revolution proved the way of Luther. The binding tie with the past inspires the one: it makes no appeal to the other. To Erasmus there was no weapon equal to persuasion. At the end of the Directory that man of thought, the Abbé Sieyès, feeling his powerlessness, exclaimed, “I need a sword,” a need Erasmus never experienced. His breadth was his weakness at the time, but his strength with the generations to come. The narrowness of Luther was his strength at the time, but his weakness with the generations to come. He possessed that robust dogmatism, that strong conviction, which is utterly alien to the temperament of the scholar. Erasmus doubtless wished he were as sure of some things as Luther was of everything. It was emphatically by faith that Luther obtained a good report: it was no less emphatically by works that Erasmus trusted to obtain a good report. Luther wished to defend what he had attacked, and attack what he had defended, whereas Erasmus had not altered his position. He still, as he told Pirkheimer, cultivated his field. To the latter the interpretation of the Bible was difficult, and more than one interpretation was possible, but such a point of view was out of the question for a man who had to offer wellnigh infallible guidance to his followers. The moderation of the attitude of Erasmus, the candour of soul combined with the reserves of his mind left him without controlling power over the crowd. Leadership in his case was not forthcoming. The one employed the popularity of the pulpit, the other the seclusion of the study. Erasmus had studied the world of books, but had he studied the book of the world? The history of Erasmus is the history of a mind: the history of Luther is the history of a man. Religious progress is for the one clearness: for the other it is enrichment. The one believes in a revelation perfect and complete: the other believes in a revelation slow and gradual. The light Luther derived from the sacred record must be absolutely pellucid. The summer haze that surrounds all great thought was not for him.

From the very first there have been two tendencies in Christianity. One of them looks inward, surveying the individual soul and its relations with God. The other looks outward ward, fixing its eye on the membership of the individual in the body, regarding the Church as an institution. The one is the Lutheran type just as much as the other is the Erasmian type. According to Luther natural reason, apart from the Holy Spirit, is without knowledge: in divine matters man is in complete darkness. The essence of man’s condition is sin, and man is only sin. Belief meant to Luther the losing of individaulity in God, the submission of man’s liberty to His absolute will, thereby creating in spite of himself a dualism. To Erasmus it meant the realization of all man’s ideals in God, the union of faith and action, the essential oneness of all our intellectual and moral forces. Long before Pascal, Erasmus held with him that there are deux excès: exalter la nature ou la condamner. The humanists tended so much to make reason dictator in religion that Luther desired to banish it entirely from religion. As a Christian Erasmus did not believe in the natural goodness of man, though as a humanist he equally did not believe in his utter corruption. Experience, he thought, is decisively against the view that man’s nature is totally depraved. Erasmus strove towards some better unity of all the facts given by nature, revelation and history. The faith which seizes cannot, he saw, be set in permanent opposition to the reason which verifies: all truth is one, and he endeavoured so to grasp it. There was a passing want of harmony between the conceptions of the past and the knowledge—the knowledge achieved by the Erasmian method—but that was all. The theology of Luther had been formed by a blending of mysticism and Austinianism; that of Erasmus is a blending of Churchmanship and humanity. Luther is a disciple of Jesus. Erasmus is a disciple of Jesus and also of Plato. He does not—nay, he cannot—separate his faith from a general theory of the universe. The mind of Luther embraces God and the justification of man. The mind of Erasmus embraces this and an intellectual system as well. The reformer requires the certainty of his salvation, the humanist the certainty of truth. Luther, like so many reformers, e.g. John Calvin and Calvin’s precursor, Guillaume Farel, attributed his conversion to a sudden revelation. Erasmus believed in progressive, not sudden, revelations.

The attitude of the two men towards human nature was altogether divergent. Each was the counterpart, the supplement of the other. What might not have been the forward step taken by toleration had they been able to combine? Why could not the wisdom of Erasmus be joined to the force of Luther? The one was Hellenic, the other Hebraic. Erasmus was a great humanist, Luther a great human being. To explain God in terms of human thought seemed to Luther the mark of a criminal and diabolical pride. To trust in one’s self, in reason, in knowledge, seemed to him stark presumption. Reason was not a support in our present state of ignorance, but a dangerous seducer. Accordingly Luther humiliated this “harlot of the devil” whom the humanists enthroned as the queen of our conduct. To Luther the sacrifice of the intellect was the condition of feeling the power of God, while to Erasmus its complete blending with the soul was the way to catholic truth. We must distinguish, according to Luther, between our relations with God and our relations with the world. In the first capacity the Holy Spirit reigns, and Reason is only a courtesan (Frau Hulda). In the second capacity Luther recognizes the share taken by reason. In the last he separates nature and grace just as Albrecht Ritschl separated science and theology, for Ritschlianism traces its rise to this separation of Luther. In consequence of this position the reformer regards the witness of the Holy Spirit not as internal, because He does not come from us, but as external because He proceeds from God.

Luther is anxious to offer up to God will, intellect, and activity as a reasonable sacrifice. As for the first we are able to will, thanks to the grace of God. We must destroy our reason in order to be born of the Spirit, in order that we may be in union with God. We regard our activity as the good works our faith has accomplished, subtly suggesting that they are a proof of our own strength. Let God and God alone work in our soul. So, proclaims the mystic, we shall lose ourselves only to find ourselves, we shall die in order to live. We shall be perfect when we realize we are only an instrument, the harp which gives forth divine harmony under the touch of the musician. The dominant thought is that our salvation depends not on us, but on the grace and goodness of God. The narrowness of the conception, its extreme pessimism, the exclusion of man’s participation, is evident. What can man, contends Luther, accomplish when his nature is totally corrupt, and when concupiscence is tyrannous? This position is in part a reaction against the intellectualism of the humanists. Against reason he places mystery, against pride in our powers he insists on the action of Divine grace.

Erasmus believed in the personality of man; the other in the overpowering mastery of the Creator. The one believed in the free will of man: the other believed in the omnipotence of God. The one conceived that man might turn to God, the other that God might turn the heart of man. In the mind of the one there was doubt solved in one form only to come up in another. Erasmus could agree with Socrates that there was only one thing he knew, and that was that he knew nothing. Luther could also agree with Socrates when the sage announced his consciousness of a special divine mission, communicated to him by his dæmon or genius in the shape of prohibitory commands. In the mind of Luther there was complete conviction. His lips spoke knowledge, but was it not inspired by God Himself? He was in the habit of declaring that he had “not merely received his teaching from heaven, but on behalf of one who had more power in his little finger than a thousand popes, kings, princes and doctors.” In his furious reply “Against King Henry of England” he claims his position as a messenger of God. “Christ through me has begun His revelations of the abomination in the Holy Place.” “I am certain that I have my dogmas from heaven.” “I am enlightened by the Spirit: He is my teacher.” With this belief in his inspiration it was almost impossible for him to tolerate differences of opinion. Nor was his conviction in any wise singular. Origen felt he possessed personal illumination. Anselm claimed a direct revelation: “as God disclosed it to me” was his phrase. Joan of Arc believed in divine voices which guided her actions.

How could Erasmus approve of the attempt to bind the cause of humanism to that of the reformation? “They mix the cause of letters,” he told Wolsey, “with the affair of Reuchlin and Luther, but they are also independent of each other.” The attack upon humanism he could forgive, but he could never forget the fact that his opponent was practically denying that the Renaissance was Christian. “These people will not be quiet,” he thought, “until they have succeeded in destroying good literature.” Moreover, the public was ceasing to be interested in Erasmus or in classical studies. Great publishers, like Rynmann at Augsburg, and the brothers Atlansee at Vienna, found there was no demand for scholarly editions. At the same time the dealers in pamphlets were carrying on a larger business than ever. Caricatures and satires were eagerly bought. In Nürnberg, for example, the regular booksellers starved while the shopkeepers prospered by their sale of the fleeting booklet. These the lads in the streets and the hawkers in country districts distributed, and they proved no mean source of power to the Lutherans. The expense of printing daunted Froben from publishing the works of Polydore Vergil, for nothing now sold in Germany except the writings of the reformer. He was no more inclined to print the books of Vives for exactly the same reason, adding that at the fair of Frankfort he had not sold a single copy of Erasmus’s edition of the De Civitate Dei. Vives informed the humanist king that the Lutheran controversy had put a stop to the production of ancient books in Germany. The classical authors, so much studied before the advent of the prophet, had now as few readers as before the Renaissance. Men forsook Homer and Virgil for the Bible, especially for St. Paul. Erfurt had 311 students in 1520: in 1521 there were 120, in 1522 only 72, and in 1527 their number had dwindled to 14. Some betook them to business, which was more profitable than scholarship. At Freiburg in 1523 Ulrich Zasius had only six listeners to his law lectures, and even these were Frenchmen. The Senate of Heidelberg complained that there were at the university more professors than students. In 1540, however, Melanchthon expressed his satisfaction with the state of learning. There were 2000 students at Wittenberg in 1550. The number of students at the University of Leipzig between 1508 and 1522 was 6485, and between 1523 and 1537 only 1935. At Wittenberg the number from 1521 to 1530 fell from 245 to 174, and for the same period from 123 to 33 at the University of Rostock, and at Frankfort from 73 to 32. At Cologne in 1516 there were 370 undergraduates; in 1521, 251, and in 1527, 72.

Hellenists, Latinists and Hebraists bewailed the indifference of the rising generation to the finest works of antiquity. With grave trouble humanism had scattered “the Gothic and more than Cimmerian mist,” but was it to reappear? Scholar after scholar deserted the Muses for Lutheran tracts. Mutianus’s vision of Beata Tranquillitas had vanished. So long as the Reformation increased the emancipation wrought by the Renaissance, Luther aided it with his great authority. Soon, however, he understood that this agreement could not last, that the moment the theological quarrels penetrated the minds of the masses and divided Germany into two camps the seeds of the dissolution of the alliance were sown. Luther ceased to care for knowledge, save in so far as it bore on the love of God. Like St. Paul, he was willing to esteem lightly the wisdom of men as compared with the foolishness of the cross. Pragmatic to the heart, he did not value learning for its own sake. Proclaiming the emptiness of knowledge, apart from theology, he proclaimed at the same moment the divorce of Erasmus from his side. The latter saw his scholars transformed into pamphleteers, appealing to the people in their own tongue. That is, they asked a verdict from a jury unfit to pronounce in the matter. It was the negation of the authority of the specialist, and the soul of the scholar shrank from it. If Lutheranism condemned humanity, then Lutheranism was no religion for him. “Perish the graces of the Latin language, perish the marvels of learning, which obscure the glory of Christ,” so wrote in 1524 the Strassburg reformers, “the word of Christ saves us, the word of others destroys us.” Twice, therefore, Erasmus asserts his deliberate conviction that “where Lutheranism reigns, there letters die.” “Almost all studies,” he sorrowfully points out, “are as ruined as belles-lettres.”

Toleration was an essential with Erasmus: it was opportunism with Luther. Erasmus defended toleration as a Christian philosophy, Luther as a revolutionary code. Princes Erasmus turned from the use of force. Toleration only stopped when sedition began: it was the one limit he imposed on liberty of conscience. To him reform apart from the Church, or from her traditions, intellectual and doctrinal, was impossible: to Luther it proved possible. To Erasmus religion was a unity—the conception of the oneness of the Church dominated his thought: to Luther religion was one of individualism. To Erasmus the value the Church placed on the Sacraments was beyond criticism: such a view as consubstantiation was foreign to his whole mode of thought. With many of the ideas of Luther he thoroughly sympathized, yet by the strange irony of history he spent the larger part of his life in opposing them. If he were what Bayle calls him, the St. John the Baptist of Luther, it was a pity that temperamentally they were not more akin. There was kinship between them, for both desired the change of heart of the individual. Erasmus, however, suspected Luther’s attempt at a dogmatic reformation just as much as he suspected his ability to herald a religious renaissance. Hegel observes that nothing great was ever done without passion. How could a prophet of impassioned soul understand the religious coldness of Erasmus? How could the heroic sympathize with the unheroic? To the one authority formed the paramount consideration, to the other liberty. It is neither popes nor kings, Erasmus dryly reminds the prophet, who are responsible for the misfortunes of Christianity, but those who abuse the authority of either the papal tiara or the imperial crown. Indeed, he declared that if the Church had adopted Arianism or Pelagianism, he would also have adopted it. Some questions have been settled centuries ago, and it is chimerical to reopen them. Peace he unmistakably preferred to truth.

Erasmus failed to see that the days of the Holy Roman Empire were numbered, that on all sides new nations were coming into being. Unlike Luther, he stood apart from all the movements, whether social or political. Isolation had been as much his ideal as combination was that of his great rival. He never grasped the fact that the Reformation was fast becoming a national movement, and he shrank from its assuming this portentous transformation. He boasted that he understood as little of Italy as of Hindostan. Like Turgot, he was not sufficiently a man of the world, and did not allow enough for human nature. No national tongue did he speak with freedom, though he did recommend, in the preface of his Paraphrases to the New Testament, that the Bible should appear in German, in English, in French, and even in “Indian.” Erasmus does not live: he writes. Though Luther writes he does more than Erasmus: he lives. To the end Erasmus entirely used Latin, while Luther largely used German. Luther was too national in his outlook to influence men of other lands. Erasmus was the exact type to move them, but his appeal was to the cultivated. Luther saw his native land as clearly as Zwingli saw his beloved Switzerland. Erasmus saw neither Germany, nor France, nor Spain, nor Italy, nor England, but the whole of Europe. The one is German, the other universal.

Standing aloof, like Fontenelle and Goethe, from the great causes that throbbed through the world of his day, Erasmus looked on not unmoved, but drew aside from the swift-flowing current. When a man stands on the summit of the Wetterhorn the meadows and houses below become unsubstantial mist. Erasmus saw from a height, but—this is the tragedy of it—he saw dimly. He only obtained a glimpse when he required a view. That view he might have caught in the rough and tumble of affairs, but not in the life of a recluse. Was not Gibbon right when he described Boëthius not as stooping, but rather rising, from his life of placid meditation to an active share in the business of the time? “If I had been born a private person,” Frederick the Great wrote to Voltaire in 1759, “I would give up everything for love of peace: but a man is bound to take on the spirit of his position.” This spirit is precisely what Erasmus never assumed.

The antithesis between the man of thought and the man of action is an old one. It not seldom happens that the former, e.g. Sir Walter Scott, wishes he were the latter. Erasmus was, however, content to cultivate his garden. As he told Wimpheling, he was no gladiator in the arena, no leader in the fight. Moral courage he did not lack. Did he not defend Luther at a time when the reformer had scarcely a friend? Unfortunately for men, courage depends not a little on physical qualities, and the health of Erasmus was never robust. A painful disease lowered the vitality which is so indispensable to a leader of men. He knew books: he did not know men as Luther knew them. Like Montesquieu, he studied men in books as Pope studied nature at Twickenham. Gibbon found the life of the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers useful to the historian of the Roman Empire. Erasmus possessed no such practical experience. He loved truth, and he loved learning. His love, however, had not a trace of passion. Did his soul thrill as he caught a new aspect of a problem? Were there hot battles fought out in his breast—battles year long with difficulties solved in one form only to reappear in another? His study in Bâle was so quiet that it is difficult to credit it. He was not veering, he was not vacillating, but at the same time he was not an enthusiast. The fervours of piety, the zeal of Apostolic love, the fanaticism of sacrifice—these things find a place in the Gospels, but they formed no part of Erasmus’s life. Luther raised a storm in order to tear away the fading leaves from the tree, whereas Erasmus imitated nature in a tamer mood, pushing off the old leaf by the action of the bud which contains the leaf of next year. The time was out of joint, and Erasmus was only too pleased to have been born to straighten it—could it be done in a philosophical manner. His desire to obtain peace and unity for the Church—and his desire was most genuine—and at the same time procure a serene atmosphere during the process, constitutes a poignant element in the history of the time. He had many admirers: he had no devotees. Credo in Newmannum was once a watchword which inspired a movement. Credo in Lutherum was once a watchword which inspired a movement of another age. For the German reformer had a genius for action. He united two qualities, and these were religious enthusiasm and that power for action which imposed his views on those with whom he came into contact. His ardent and inflexible soul, inspired by enthusiastic mysticism, gave him an incomparable driving force, whose relentlessness crushed all opposition. Impassioned in his faith, he appeals to the passion of others. Is he not a master of the irony of insult? Did any one ever say Credo in Erasmum? All causes require a formula. What had the humanist to offer? He had a system, a scholarly system, which insisted on the necessity of always consulting the sources in the best available text. What appeal could it make to the peasant? Erasmus had the freest of minds, the broadest of outlooks. On the other hand Luther possessed the power of an “idée fixe.” Erasmus, moreover, had a horror of dogmatism, and dogmatic a leader must be. He had no convenient catchword, no cohesion in doctrine, or precision in formula like “faith without works” or “justification by faith.” He had no gifts for an appeal to boi polloi. He was as incapable of moving the masses as the Scots humanist, Buchanan. Luther was as capable of moving them as Knox himself. Luther is as much the man of the brochure as Erasmus is the man of the book. Erasmus appealed to Reuchlin, Copernicus, Vives, Sir Thomas More and Rabelais. For, in spite of his limitations, he was one of the greatest of the sons of men, greater for succeeding generations than for his own. His many-sided mind diffused seminal ideas which brought forth fruit abundantly. Montaigne consulted his Adages, and who can measure the influence of Montaigne on the cause of freedom of thought? From the Colloquies the politiques of sixteenth-century France learnt those lessons of toleration they put into practice. Even in his own day his work remained in closer contact with Luther than the reformer ever dreamt. The reformer’s friend was Melanchthon, and on Philip Melanchthon there rested the very spirit of Erasmus, making him the most broad-minded of the German reformers. Like Oliver Cromwell, Erasmus’s direct plans for reform, the reform of the Church, failed; his indirect, that is his system, succeeded. What keeps his memory green is the permanent stimulus he gave to life and thought.

Erasmus and Rabelais were men of the Renaissance who were determined not to break with the Church. Rabelais, however, had an interest in natural science and in nature not possessed by Erasmus: his mind was as roving as his life. Both preserved a detached attitude to life, and both thrust martyrdom to the one side. Rabelais cares more for liberty and reason than Erasmus. He desires above all things the complete development of his personality: over the doors of Thelema he inscribes Fais ce que voudras. Free life, free faith, free thought—this is the Rabelaisian ideal. His liberty is ruled by reason, controlled by knowledge and evangelizing precepts. He takes no pains to reconcile his thought with Christianity: nevertheless he believes that they harmonize. The belief is vague. There is a world between the Grand Peut-être of Rabelais, the Que sçais-je? of Montaigne and the certainty which marked the utterance of Luther.

The year 1520 was important for other publications beside Luther’s. That year Gian Francesco Pico published his Examen vanitatis doctrinæ gentium et veritatis Christianæ disciplinæ distinctum in libros sex. Like Erasmus’s Novum Instrumentum, it was dedicated to Leo X. The spirit of the two writers differed by worlds, though the Italian writer, perhaps unconsciously, was akin in his attitude to Luther’s. He attacked the intellectualism of the Renaissance. Six years earlier Cardinal Adrian Castellesi in his De vera philosophia had advocated the dualistic conception of life, opposing reason and faith. He believed in order that he might comprehend, holding that reason cannot prove spiritual matters. Science is a useless acquisition: the Bible teaches us everything. Four years earlier still, Pomponazzi had attacked the view that the soul was immortal. Gian Francesco Pico, elaborating the argument set down by Castellesi, anticipates that of Montaigne. The Renaissance finds a solution for its problems in antiquity. Is there, however, a solution? Plato refutes his predecessors: the Peripatectics refute him. The Stoics refute Aristotle: others refute the Stoics. Epicurus refutes them: the Sceptics in turn refute them all. Clearly classical writers cannot solve the question. They cannot, for example, tell us if the soul lives after death. What is truth? For Protagoras man is the measure of things: there is no universal truth. For Plato truth is in mind which is the principle of all knowledge, in the conformity of changing and perishable realities to the eternal types which constitute our reason. For Aristotle, according to Pico, truth lies in the value of the senses which furnish the intellect with material to be explored. For Carneades truth is not in reason, not in the senses, not in external representations. Man is the dupe, the toy of phenomena, catching glimpses of the truth. Let us admire, Pico asks us, the temple of human wisdom. It is surely well guarded. Pyrrhonism will not open its gates. Is Pyrrhonism true? If it were, it would in its turn be a dogmatism, and, after having shaken everything, it falls a victim to its own arms, reason. Knowledge has closed her doors: reason is bankrupt. Only in religion can man find truth and happiness. Like Luther, he offers up intelligence as a sacrifice on the altar of faith. The reformer was comparatively ignorant, but he thought much and felt more. Like Hobbes, if he had read as much as other people, he would have known as little as they. After all, Pascal, Descartes and Rousseau were not well-read men, but who exerted a greater influence on mankind than they?








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