Albrecht Dürer, "Erasmus of Rotterdam"
National Gallery of Art 1526 engraving
Erasmus 1464-1536: Man of the Middle

     What we see here is the likeness of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam as rendered by Albrecht Dürer in 1526. (The engraving is now at the National Gallery in Washington.) At this time Erasmus was well on his way to become Europe's foremost man of letters. Prince of humanism, lover of peace, master of paradox, light of learning, pilgrim of the via media (the middle road, or the third way) are some of the titles given to him as the most erudite scholar of his time. This exalted reputation safeguarded his resolve to be an independent scholar able to speak his mind in his own voice. Erasmus was able to act on this resolve since he knew that his intellect derived its power freely from his obedience to the first commandment, his love for God, the fountainhead of all intelligence and goodness. To Erasmus, this fountainhead was identical with the operations of the three persons of the holy trinity who, at the dawn of history, spoke to man through the voice of prophets, poets, priests and proto-scientists, true seekers of the laws set forth by the divine wisdom that is the primary cause of intelligent nature and the entire living universe.These laws proved to Erasmus the moral intention of the cosmos and, as revealed by Moses and by Christ, the goodness and ineffable beauty of the divine rule for our life on earth. To follow these laws and do God's will, gives individuals the power to live in the world without losing their immortal souls. Scripture, as well as the words of the great pagan poets and philosophers, all lead toward an understanding of redemptive truths.

     The Scriptures contain the record of the divine messages in two editions: The original, local version, received by the Hebrews, and a later one, called ‘new', that explicates in detail God's reasonable will for his rule to apply throughout nature and culture. This, roughly, is the interpretation Erasmus gave to the biblical accounts, in particular to Christ's salvific messages in words and deeds. Looking, in the light of his studies, at the sad state of the world at the midpoint of the second millennium, convinced Erasmus that the holy book's message of how people, individually and collectively, ought to live had become gravely distorted. A fresh attempt was called for to connect God's strong, yet subtle, communications with the human capabilities for understanding. He accepted the call and made it his mandate to ready souls, minds, and hearts to flee from the bondage to the world's power idols and start again to walk the middle path the ‘via media', to equality and freedom. Erudition, though a great good in itself, was but a servant in this project of a liberating humanistic education that aimed at social harmony flowing from spiritual revival. Scaling back the distortions the biblical message had suffered over time was the first step to restore the knowledge of the gentle rule of Christ's philosophy. The church, the municipalities and states, the monasteries and the schools, all needed to accomplish a creative turn to the scriptural as well as classical sources of sound learning. Such a truly humanistic turn in education, he felt, held the promise to personal and institutional reform.

     The principles of reform, though conceived in general, have to be applied individually, to each and everyone, with industry and kindness, patience, mildness and persevering hope and faith. To read the pagan authors for one's profit is salutary as long as one remembers that love is better than knowledge and reliance on Christ more efficacious than our best efforts. Yet this is not an excuse for people's willful ignorance, or amathia. (Cf. Plato, Timaeus, Steph. 88-90.) To acquire the essential and salvific knowledge of why God became man (cur deus homo) is well within the ken of everybody. Erasmus joins Plato's dialectic with Cicero's eloquence in his resolve to fight the sicknesses entailed by the widespread stubborn reluctance to learn. Dedicated to helping heal the ills afflicting Christian society, he addresses the general public by sermons filled with precepts and exhortations intermixed with biting wit. His words, in Socratic fashion, may irritate by irony people set on tradition, yet they also may enhance an attentive reader's ability to cultivate flexibility and the discipline of empathy. The freely swirling patterns of his writings often seem inspired by the engaging tone and mocking use of language displayed in Plato's Phaedrus.

     The Erasmian style's bravura, most famously in his satirical Praise of Folly, combines the colloquial with prayers, maxims, epigrams, and thoughtful counsel with critique. This mix of style and substance guarantees him an eager reception by the general public and a following among the learned. Gifted with a moral sensibility that detects beneath externals each human being's potential for equal worth, Erasmus can be read today as an early spokesman for human equality, the modern moral imagination's meaning of justice. Although the language he uses may strike us as a bit arcane, and some of the argumentation from the authority of scripture as embarassing, his words continue to quicken subterranean possibilities for building cosmopolitan, interconnected societies prospering by shrewdly cultivating their mutual advantages.

     In the Manual for a Christian Soldier (Enchiridion Militis Christiani, published by Froben, Basel, 1519) Erasmus diminishes the importance of the social distinction between king, noble, and commoner. Exalted social functions and position do not affect the ontological parity of human beings, and the legitimacy of any king's rule, Erasmus insists, depends on the king's fulfilling his proper role as the people's faithful servant. To make this point Erasmus speaks by analogy: Just as Reason, the king of the human mental faculties, must rule with wisdom's foresight in the long range interest of the whole human being, so must the head of a country exercise his judgment to advance the kingdom's common good. Furthermore, whether king or peasant, man or woman, abbot or monk, priest or lay person, all are equal as God's children and live by the same law. These points are politely and insistently repeated in the Institutio Principis Christiani, where Erasmus goes to great pains to impress strict rules of royal conduct on the young King Charles of Spain (later the emperor Charles V.).

     Speaking to awaken and refine the conscience of people in high places is one thing. To raise society's level of intelligence so that the moral law of the universe would become better understood, quite another. The democratic impulse seems to move in history at a quite unpredictable rhythm of non-linear patterns. Erasmus' perhaps most significant contribution to this rhythm may well have come about concidentally, or by the courtesy of the ‘Butterfly Effect', when he made the decision to restore the comparative adjective ‘better' to the original ‘good'(1). In his epochal translation of the New Testament ( Froben, Basel, 1516) Erasmus uses ‘good' on the authority of the Greek Septuagint, replacing the commonly used form "better", prescribed by the Vulgate, in the well known passage about the two sisters, Martha and Mary, in Luke 10:38-42:

"Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her."

     Meticulous philological scholarship is of course enough to account for Erasmus' decision to make this grammatical change, yet it is not unreasonable to believe that this was also done with an eye on reform. That Mary's role is "better" had been asserted by church-men time and again to legitimize the great status privileges of clergy and monks. This to Erasmus was an abuse of scripture that made a sham of Christ's teachings and had to be countervailed. Rivers of ink had already been spilled over Martha and Mary when Erasmus translated the passage anew. Martha's image, for all practical purposes, had been merged with the ‘good wife' in Proverbs, and all domestic skills and virtues were her attributes; Mary does not have an obvious forerunner in the Old Testament and her contemplative role was linked to"Theoria", Aristotle's summum bonum, by learned interpreters. Church-men adopted Mary's part as an inspiring and coherent paradigm for their personal and professional identities. Yet Erasmus was critical of this custom which fostered the opposition of Theory and Praxis, as well as between leisure (otium) and busy-ness (neg-otium). To him the soul's integrity, or wholeness, was at stake, and he denounced as diabolical the convention that divided Mary's and Martha's roles setting them in sharp conflict.Together, he felt, the sisters depict the human soul's developmental potential, and either potentiality, as soon as it is actualized, renders service of equal worth to God and neighbor.

      Some people develop both faculties evenly and balance them in daily life, a skill the liberal arts are said to foster. Yet, whether the practical or the contemplative faculty will be emphasized in a particular individual's life time is strictly a biographical accident that leaves the individual's worth unchanged. The Erasmian translation of the New Testament, animated by the democratic spirit of his teachers, the Brethren of the Common Life, sets a value shift in motion that promotes, across the European continent and England, a resurgence of a Christ-centered sensibility that counteracts the contempt for work and women. People earning their livelihood in the crafs, the arts, agri-, vini-, and horticulture, all rise in the public's estimation at the very time when public opinion comes to really matter in politics. The "Butterfly Effect" of Erasmus' scholarly scruples for grammatical accuracy has been felt ever since. When in the second half of the seventeenth century, Vermeer painted the encounter of Martha and Mary with Christ, the two are seen as equals and give eloquent testimony to the ineffable, transformative, ongoing power of the word in time.

Johannes Vermeer, "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary"
Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland 160x142 1654-55

(1) Cf. Christine Christ-von Wedel "Die Perikope von Martha und Maria bei Erasmus und der Reformatoren."   Zwingliana XXVII, 2000; pp. 103-115.

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