Philosopher. Also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam, he was the foremost Christian humanist of the Renaissance, and worked for reform of the Roman Catholic Church through his writings. In books such as "The Praise of Folly" (1509) and the "Colloquies" (1518 to 1533), he satirized many in the clergy for their corruption, rote dependence on ceremony, and failure to educate the people. Erasmus asserted that true faith came from within and advocated a belief system, "the Philosophy of Christ", that emphasized personal piety and charity in daily living. He was also one of the earliest intellectuals to recognize the power of the printing press and his ideas were widely disseminated. His work influenced Martin Luther and helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation. Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the illegitimate son of a priest. He entered the Augustinian monastery at Steyn in 1488 and was ordained into the priesthood there in 1492. For his excellence in Latin composition he was granted leave to serve as secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai (1493 to 1495) and never resumed monastic life. He studied theology and the humanities at the University of Paris (1495 to 1499) and gained his doctorate at Turin in 1506. His first important book was an annotated collection of Latin proverbs, "Adages" (1500). Greatly expanded in subsequent editions, it established Erasmus' fame and became a key text for the humanists. Rootless by temperament, he lived in France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy; he taught at Cambridge (1511 to 1514) and Louvain (1517 to 1521), and served as ducal councilor to future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1515 to 1516). In 1521 he settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he had established a vital working relationship with the publisher Froben. Erasmus was initially sympathetic to Martin Luther's attempts to reform the church. But he believed in the unity of Christendom and soon drew away from Luther's extremism, rejecting fundamentals of his doctrine in such works as "The Freedom of the Will" (1524). Catholics and Protestants wanted Erasmus unquestioningly on their side and his pleas for moderation and tolerance were denounced as fence-sitting by both; Luther concluded that "he pointed out the evil but was unable to point out the good and to lead to the promised land". Much of his last decade was spent turning out tracts defending his independent stance. The social and cultural upheavals that accompanied the Reformation, including a Lutheran revolt that forced him to flee Basel in 1529, fostered Erasmus' ultimate view that his era was the worst since Christianity began. Following a period in Freiburg, Switzerland, he returned to Basel in 1535 to oversee the printing of his last book, "Ecclesiastes" (1536), and died there at 69. He was buried in the city's former cathedral. Erasmus is one of the giants of 16th Century religious thought and scholarship. His outlook was a personal blend of early Christian ideals, humanist reason, and a liberal attitude towards human nature, developed and refined through his extensive travels. Of particular importance was his initial visit to England in 1499. There he met Thomas More, William Grocyn, John Colet, John Fisher, and other Christian humanists who encouraged him to learn Greek and study the writings of the old Church Fathers. This advice first bore fruit in "The Handbook of the Christian Soldier" (1503). A peace-loving man, Erasmus was shocked when he witnessed "Warrior Pope" Julius II conquer Bologna in 1506. He commemorated the pontiff's death in 1513 with his wickedest satire, "Julius Excluded from Heaven" (published anonymously in 1517), and expressed pacifist sentiments in "War Is Sweet to Inexperienced Men" (1515), "The Education of a Christian Prince" (1515), and "The Complaint of Peace" (1517). A visit to Rome in early 1509 left him just as angry. He found the environment of the papal curia obscenely luxurious and filled with self-serving "pagan" careerists. Despite invitations from three succeeding popes to settle there, he never returned. Back in England that summer Erasmus vented his disgust by writing "The Praise of Folly" in one week while staying at More's London home; its Latin title "Moriae encomium" was a playful pun on his friend's surname ("The Praise of More"). He considered it a trifle and its lasting popularity irritated him in later years. (It is still in print). As a scholar Erasmus single-handedly created a renaissance in patristic studies. In 1516 he brought out the landmark first edition of the New Testament in Greek, based on ancient texts, along with his new Latin translation and commentaries; his purpose was to rectify the deficiencies of St. Jerome's 4th Century Vulgate version then in use. It was a basis for the Lutheran Bible and the English vernacular Bible of William Tyndale. He followed this with a series of popular "Paraphrases on the New Testament" (1517 to 1524) and editions of the works of St. Jerome (9 volumes, 1516), St. Cyprian (1520), St. Irenaeus (1526), St. Ambrose (1527), St. Augustine (1529), St. Chrysostom (1530), St. Basil (1532), and St. Origen (1536). The "Colloquies" is a collection of dialogues he produced throughout his life, covering a broad range of topics with gentle ironic humor. In an age when religious texts dominated the presses, Erasmus was the publishing world's first "star" author. He wrote in Latin, the common language of educated Europeans, in a style celebrated for its elegance and wit. At his peak in the 1520s his titles alone accounted for approximately 10% of all book sales from England to Poland. (He would have been very wealthy had copyright and royalties existed in those days). In addition to his own prodigious output he maintained an interest in classical literature as an editor and translator, and he supervised the publication of the first two editions (1516, 1518) of More's classic "Utopia". He also regarded correspondence as an art and some 3000 of his letters have been preserved. His collected works, published as "Opera omnia" in 1540, encompassed 9 mammoth volumes. Erasmus always had critics among conservative Catholics, but as a rule the Vatican treated him with great deference, acknowledging his preeminence as a scholar. He was given special papal dispensations legitimizing his birth (1506) and releasing him from his monastic vows (1517), along with non-resident church benefices that assured him financial security after years of poverty. For all his opposition to ecclesiastical abuses he remained faithful to Catholicism. After his death, however, church hierarchs accused him of inciting the Catholic-Protestant schism, a view summed up in the popular saying "Erasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it". The Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) enacted some reforms similar to those Erasmus had urged, but the author himself was branded a heretic and in 1559 his work was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. His reputation did not begin to recover until the Age of Enlightenment some 200 years later.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards