The customary presentation of Erasmus as the single principal figure in the evangelical renewal of Christianity, the leader of the northern Renaissance and its outstanding humanist in the technical sense, implying textual and linguistic competence, rhetorical skills and educational preoccupations, has led to the overemphasis of the importance for Erasmus of Renaissance Italy and to the contemptuous dismissal of the Parisian scholasticism against which the devotio moderna affirmed and defined itself.
Erasmus had not much enjoyed or profited from his eagerly anticipated journey to Italy, where he spent the period from 1506 to 1509, although he was impressed by the manuscripts, the scholars and the friends he made among the community of ecclesiastical diplomats in Rome. Such spiritual stimulus as he derived from Renaissance Italy had already been absorbed through the mediation of Colet and More, and he was more interested in the Greek scholars of northern Italy, especially Venice, where Aldus had set up his famous press, than in the Florentine neoplatonism that had so impressed Colet. Within a few years of the turn of the century Colet in England, like Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples in France, was to transform essentially neoplatonist spiritualities into a close preoccupation with the Pauline epistles, increasingly the focus of all that was new and exciting in devotional practice on the eve of the Reformation.
In order to understand Erasmus and the huge religious upheaval presaged by the Praise of Folly, it is, however, also indispensable to understand the scholastic intellectual substructure supporting late-medieval piety. The scholastics were not the mere quibblers on whom Folly pours scorn, and their concerns were of fundamental religious importance. In the end, in spite of Folly's derision, virtually all their disputes concerned the elaboration of a rational system of thought that would make intellectually comprehensible individual survival after death and the doctrines of creation, fall and redemption. Paris had been the intellectual centre of the Christian world since the thirteenth century, during which every single scholastic theologian of note either taught or studied at its new university. Even well before the thirteenth century the debate about universal ideas had essentially been a dispute about the immortality of the soul.
The realists stipulated that during the process of cognition the mind `abstracted' some universal essence or quiddity that really existed in the objects of perception, but this analysis seemed to leave the mind's spiritual powers dependent on bodily sense organs that decomposed at death. The realist view allowed more easily for the transmission of the guilt of original sin, since each human being was an individual modification of the universal humanity, which after the fall was sinful, but it also seemed necessarily to imply the incarnation of all three divine Persons, since they shared a single essence. The nominalist position that only individual things existed, allowed for an explanation of knowledge that left human spiritual powers independent of the body that was subject to corruption on death, but it easily led to three separate godheads, and seemed to make God responsible for the creation of guilt when he created each individual soul. What was at stake was simply the attempt to make the Christian revelation rationally intelligible, a problem the Christian theologians inherited from Islam whose theologians, like those in thirteenth-century Paris, regarded the philosophers, in Paris the masters of arts, with distaste and disdain.
In the thirteenth century the full-scale exploitation of Islam's Aristotelianism in the interests of elaborating a rational system capable of supporting the Christian revelation was finally undertaken by Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74). Aquinas was impelled by the old problems in the psychology of cognition raised by the controversy between realists and nominalists, and he provided the basis for a more optimistic understanding of the world and human experience than that inherited from Augustine, whose later writings had emphasized the effects of original sin on man's natural powers. In particular, Aquinas believed in a rationally ordered universe that reflected the rationality of the divine mind in its laws and structure. Since the human intellect was a created derivative of the eternal mind of God, it was itself capable of judging what was and what was not in accordance with `right reason', or the rational norms imprinted on the cosmos by its creator. In other words the human intellect was capable of making moral judgements that necessarily accorded with divine law because both were based on the same rational norms. For Aquinas the norm of morality was the conformity of some particular object with the rationally perceived end of man, and this norm was necessarily in accordance with the divine law and the natural law, which was its reflection.
Aquinas's use of the related concepts of reason and law therefore made it possible for him to regard man's perfection as something towards which his own rational nature necessarily tended, rather than as something to be achieved in accordance with norms discoverable only by recourse to revelation or authority and anyway extrinsic to the internal exigencies of human moral aspiration and rational experience. There were limits to the lengths to which Aquinas took this conclusion. He would not, for instance, concede that, while it was certainly wrong to act against an erroneous judgement of conscience, it was therefore necessarily right to follow it. He argued against the necessity of invincible error in a world in which he thought everyone came into contact with the gospel message. But the implication that man's perfection was by and large to be achieved in accordance with the moral aspirations with which his rational nature endowed him was a clear and important step forward from Augustine towards a more humane moral and theological system.
The Thomist synthesis was too daring and its theological implications too dangerous for Christianity for it to win widespread acceptance in the schools until the sixteenth century, by the end of which Aquinas's Summa Theologica had universally replaced the Sentences of Peter the Lombard as the basis for commentary in the theology schools. A series of condemnations at Paris in 1277 seemed possibly to have pointed to heterodox implications in Thomist psychology, and Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) reacted strongly against Aquinas by restoring in psychology primacy to the will over the intellect. He thereby emphasized both the freedom of the human will at the expense of the rationality of the act of choice and, what was worse, the arbitrary nature of a divine law no longer linked, as in the Thomist psychological system, to the moral aspirations of rational human nature. The link between divine law, natural law and the judgement of conscience was severed, and human perfection was no longer necessarily linked to moral aspiration or fulfilment.
Scotus's emphasis on the freedom of the will might itself have led to heterodox consequences. The heresy of Pelagius, who had come from Britain to Rome in the late fourth century and had been strongly attacked by Augustine, centred on his aristocratic view that the human will could attain to religious perfection, define its own values and reform society. Pelagius held that man could merit his salvation unaided by grace. The `semi-Pelagian' heresy consisted in holding that man, by his unaided efforts, could at least merit the first gratuitous gift of God which, if accepted, could lead towards the subsequent state of justification in the eyes of God. By extension, it was also semi-Pelagian to hold that man by his own unaided efforts had the power even to accept grace that was offered to him, but this was the conclusion to which Scotus's emphasis on the will's freedom seemed naturally destined to lead.
Scotus, however, guarded against any such implication of his psychology by affirming God's `absolute' predestination of the elect, that is without reference to any foreseen merit. God first decides to save Peter and then quasi posterius (as if afterwards) decrees the grace which in fact determines Peter's salvation. Such a system had its difficulties, for while it was orthodox to assume the absolute predestination of the elect, it was a lot less orthodox to assume the absolute reprobation of the damned without reference to their demerits. And it is very difficult to explain how absolute predestination of the elect could be reconciled with reprobation of the damned only after taking account of their sins.
Scotus's theological bulwark against Pelagianism was eroded by the `nominalist' logician and theologian William of Ockham (c. 1285-1341). The nominalists had needed to do away with any distinction between essence and attributes in God. But this understandable desire left no room for the quasi-chronological sequence of divine acts on which Scotus's doctrine of absolute predestination depended. The nominalist tradition was therefore left with a Scotist theory of will, but without the Scotist safeguard against Pelagianism. At least one nominalist, Gregory of Rimini (?-1358) solved the difficulty by accepting the absolute predestination of the elect at the price of accepting also the absolute reprobation of the damned. God, even if he did not directly cause human sin, created souls whom He predestined to an eternity of torture. Other extremely complex safeguards against Pelagianism were invoked by the nominalists, but it seems certain that, from Ockham onwards, and with exceptions like that of Gregory of Rimini whose solution was unacceptable on other grounds, the Pelagian implications of the nominalist theory of the will were in fact not avoided. Behind the great emphasis in late-medieval theology on divine transcendence, the arbitrary nature of the law and the inability of man to fathom the purposes of the divinity except by recourse to the extrinsic norms of revelation, the Pelagian principle of the late fifteenth-century schoolmen looms. Grace was necessarily bestowed on those `who did all that lay within them'. The Pelagian implications of this position were not in fact finally to be overcome until, in 1588, Molina went back on the whole nominalist tradition and reintroduced the quasi-chronological distinction of acts in God, clearly a philosophical absurdity.
The current theology of the late fifteenth century was therefore Pelagian in that it allowed man to earn his salvation by his own efforts, providing they were sufficiently intense. `To those who do what lies within them', ran the great principle of nominalist theology, `God will not deny grace.' On the level of popular religion, in spite of the mystics and the more spiritually inclined religious movements, the result was great moral tension. Since, in the scholastically inspired spirituality of the late fifteenth century, religious perfection was no longer considered to be intrinsic to moral achievement, it was clearly impossible to know whether one had satisfied the requirement of doing all that lay within one. There were no criteria in the realm of experience on which one could rely to know whether or not one was justified. The inevitable consequence was the growth of the religion of `works'. The typical devotional forms created in the late fifteenth century like the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Angelus, all have to do with making possible the performance of repeated acts. The rise at the same period of charity bequests and of indulgences applicable to the dead increased the sense that salvation depended not on moral achievement but on something extrinsic to it, even works or acts performed by another.
The frankly superstitious religious practices attacked by Folly were those of the kind that looked to the Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues for support. The four books are chiefly devoted to miracle stories, to other extraordinary supernatural phenomena and to heroic feats of religious edification. They were intended to reinforce in the faithful the salutary fear of hell. They originated in the very late seventh century and purported to be an account of Gregory's relaxed narration of the stories to the deacon Peter. They were not a mistaken ascription, but a deliberate forgery, with snatches of authentically Gregorian material.
Gregory had died in AD 604. The dialogues are alleged to have been composed in AD 593-4, but there is no reliable evidence for their existence until well after AD 680, when their dissemination was sudden and widespread. They were translated into virtually all known vernaculars and became the best-known single source for the piety, iconography, art, literature and popular culture of the middle ages. They clearly implied that hell was eternal (IV, 44), that the soul, although spiritual, suffered physically from burning (IV, 29), and that absolution could be granted after death through the mediation of alms-giving by the living (II, 23). Commonsense objections are parried, and the relationships carefully explained between purgatory, hell, heaven, the individual judgement of the soul at death, and the general judgement at the end of the world.
Being buried in consecrated ground does not help if you are in hell. The doctrine of purgatory is discussed without reference to what has come to be called the `temporal debt' remaining after the remission of sin which, in later theology, removes the need for supposing that the prayers or alms of the living can affect the moral status of the dead. The resurrection of the body is understood quite literally (IV, 25), as are the grossly realistic depictions of the state of the dead. The efficacy of the prayers, Masses and alms-giving offered by the living for the everlasting fate of those already dead is not so much taken for granted as triumphantly proclaimed. Dante drew extensively on the [Dialogues] and its influence on popular piety was greater than that of any other single work of piety in the history of western Christendom. It obviously distorted popular piety into superstition by its assumption that religious perfection was something extrinsic to moral fulfilment. Pico himself is said by his nephew to have appeared to Savonarola after death, tortured by the flames of purgatory. More's translation of Gianfrancesco's life of his uncle reads,
`Now sith it is so, that he is adjudged to that fire from which he shall undoubtedly depart into glory, and no man is sure how long it shall be first: and may be the shorter time for our intercessions.'
It was precisely against this assumption that the devotio moderna rebelled. Considered as a moral, cultural and educational phenomenon, essentially a value shift that the intellectual apparatus of scholastic theology could not accommodate, the Renaissance in northern Europe was quite different from that in the south. Although they were contemporaneous, the Renaissance in the north was not originally either classically or, in the technical sense, humanistically based to anything like the same extent. The form of the Renaissance south of the Apennines was moulded by the relationship between the papal Curia and Byzantium, and the proximity of Venice and Greece had a similar impact on the Renaissance in Venice and the Po valley. There were also reasons of economic geography for the Alps proving much less of a cultural barrier than the Apennines. Culturally Munich was nearer to Venice and Lyons to Rome than Bologna was to Florence. Partly for political reasons intellectual traffic between Oxford and the Italian peninsula probably flowed more freely than that between Paris and Rome. Nevertheless, by the late fifteenth century the unlettered repudiation of the superstitious popular piety of the late-medieval ages by the devotio moderna had been reinforced by the neoplatonist forms of humanism to be found both in Florence and, in a more eclectic form, north of the Alps. The two streams came together in the Pauline contention that grace, which was earned uniquely by Christ, affected behaviour and experience.
The return to scripture was not uniquely inspired by the humanists, as is testified by the success of the various spiritual movements and of such works as Ludolph the Carthusian's vast folio of meditations on the life of Christ, the Vita Christi, written around 1500. But the evangelical humanist movement, as represented by such figures as John Colet in England, Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples in France and Johannes Reuchlin in Germany, which Erasmus was to lead, is of particular importance in the present context. It bore a special relationship to the Platonist humanism of such fifteenth-century figures as Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) and Marsilio Ficino (1433-99).
Ficino was an ardent Christian apologist, convinced that the neoplatonist authors had provided the most suitable philosophic substructure to mediate an understanding of the Christian revelation. His system is in fact generally based on that of the neoplatonist Greek philosopher Plotinus, and his most famous work, the commentary on Plato's Symposium written in 1469, incorporates the Plotinian theory of the soul's alienation in space and time. The soul, in its quest for reunification, is stimulated by one or more of the four Platonist `furies' (the poetic fury, extended to include the effects of music, the religious, prophetic and erotic furies) and ascends through the four degrees of the universe (matter, nature, soul and mind) to achieve final reunification in the beatifying union with God.
The commentary on the Symposium was an immensely influential work. It gave birth to a whole spate of treatises on love, and its doctrine was exploited by countless sixteenth-century authors. It was the first formal theory of love to allow the compatibility of the love that is spiritually perfective with that which is expressed in physical relationships, and it was Ficino who coined the term `Platonic love' to describe the spiritually perfective affection. But in Ficino's Plotinian account of the soul's ascent to beatitude there is no formal separation of natural and supernatural and, in this system, religious perfection therefore becomes clearly intrinsic to moral fulfilment. This explicit link goes a long way to explain how and why the commentary on the Symposium was so frequently exploited by the humanists of the sixteenth century.
In particular, however, Ficino's doctrine was taken up into the eclectic syncretism of Pico. Pico's direct relevance for Erasmus comes partly from Erasmus's reliance for the Enchiridion on the famous letter from Pico to his nephew (May 1492) and partly from Erasmus's reliance on Pico, and especially the Apologia, for the defence of the third-century Greek Father Origen, who was later condemned on account of his largely neoplatonist heresy. But there is much indirect influence as well, and it is important to note that Pico, slightly modifying the Ficinian tradition, puts forward in his celebrated parable Oration on the Dignity of Man (written in 1486) the view that man is capable of autonomous self-determination to both good and evil. The Oration was written to introduce the 900 theses which Pico offered to defend at Rome in January 1487. In it he gives an account of the creation according to the testimony of `Moses and Timaeus' and puts into the mouth of God these words to man:
Confined within no bounds, you shall fix the limits of your own nature according to the free choice in whose power I have placed you. We have made you neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom and honour you should be your own sculptor and maker, to fashion your form as you choose. You can fall away into the lower natures which are the animals. You can be reborn by the decision of your soul into the higher natures which are divine.
In the evangelical humanism that Erasmus inherited through Colet from Pico, not only was man's perfection intrinsic to his moral achievement but, outside a formal theological context and the difficulties about Pelagianism it imposed, moral selfdetermination was clearly put into man's autonomous power. Erasmus never ceased to hold this view, and it explains his final rejection of Luther.
John Colet probably came to Oxford in 1483. His great friend, the theologian and Greek scholar William Grocyn, had been to Italy, as also had Thomas Linacre, the future physician of Henry VIII. It was probably on their advice that Colet undertook the journey in 1493. He corresponded with Ficino but did not meet him. On his return to Oxford in 1496 he lectured for three years on the text of scripture, probably substituting a series of `free public' lectures, like those of Grocyn on Greek, for the traditional disputations he would otherwise have been obliged to take part in. He was to become Dean o£ St Paul's in 1504 and, in 1510, to found St Paul's School. Some of his Oxford lecture notes have been preserved. He examined the historical and grammatical meaning of the text as a whole, related it to the circumstances of its composition and used strongly Platonist language to illustrate St Paul's points, sometimes almost paraphrasing Ficino and Pico, on whom he drew especially for his commentary on Genesis. Later on, before becoming Dean of St Paul's, Colet substituted in his commentaries examples from St Paul for those from Plato and Plotinus that he had taken from Ficino. His interest in evangelical Christianity had taken him towards Ficinian Platonism before, in the end, he rejected it in favour of a more severe emphasis on the Pauline theology of the redemption.
It was Colet, at the time of his Platonist enthusiasm, who welcomed to Oxford the `young poet' Erasmus, whom he subsequently persuaded to devoted his life to the study of scripture. Erasmus was at first hesitant. He knew better than Colet how much fruitful study of scripture depended on a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. In 1499 he wrote to Colet of his intention to devote himself to scripture as soon as he had acquired the necessary technical knowledge. In 1504 he could write that his whole attention was turned to scriptural studies.
The Enchiridion, published before Easter that year, had not only drawn heavily on Pico. It had also verbally quoted from the Ficino translation of Plato. Its whole background was neoplatonist, from the Socratic exhortation to self-knowledge to the psychology of spiritual progress. But however remarkable the combination of Pauline theology and Platonist spirituality may seem today, it must be remembered that at this date the neoplatonist corpus of `Denis the Areopagite' was commonly considered to have been a primitive elaboration of the theology of St Paul made by Denis, his first convert at Athens (Acts xvii, 33). Erasmus was later to challenge the identification of Denis as the author of this material.
Erasmus's early dependence on the Platonist tradition is important because that tradition contains both the belief in intrinsic human perfectibility, which was the pole of Erasmus's opposition to the scholastics; and the belief in an autonomous power of self-determination, which was to be the pole of Erasmus's opposition to the reformers. It also explains much about Erasmus's preference for Origen, condemned for refusing to admit the eternity of hell, and the more Plotinian works of the early Augustine. The achievement of the evangelical humanists generally, and of Erasmus in particular, was to be the anchoring of the values which were transmitted by the Platonist tradition and might otherwise have seemed heterodox in their implications firmly in the text of the Church's own revelation.
The scholastics regarded themselves as the defenders of a traditional orthodoxy and judged the new attitudes according to rigidly conservative criteria. To their minds, the relevance of the traditional norms of belief and behaviour to moral experience was unimportant. Their training was professional, not pastoral, and they could honestly feel themselves justified in obtaining recantations from heretics by the employment of gross physical torture, because they believed that faith, which they identified with the acceptance of their own orthodoxy, opened the way to eternal salvation. The way to salvation was through the acceptance of norms of belief and behaviour extrinsic to the mind's need to understand its experience and to the moral aspirations of the individual. Against this view, Erasmus cautiously urged a confidence in nature and its highest impulses which he expressed both in the prefatory material to his edition of the Greek text of the New Testament in 1516 and, even more strikingly, in the second Hyperaspistes letter against Luther from which Rabelais later borrowed the famous `Fay ce que voudras' passage on Theleme for Gargantua (chapter 57).
The touchstone in the dispute was the view to be taken about pagan virtue. The scholastics were well aware that the ancient pagans had been capable of the highest moral achievement, but by definition, they did not have `faith' in the sense of Christian belief. Since grace was always dependent on faith, they could not therefore have had grace, been justified or been saved. The identification of the theological virtue of faith with assent to the Creed therefore precluded them from allowing that justification and grace could be intrinsically connected with a moral stature obviously attainable without them. The evangelical humanists, as if to confirm that it was precisely the issue of intrinsic perfectibility which split them from the scholastics, groped towards an exploration of the possibility that the ancient pagans on account of their moral achievements were justified and saved. They were aided by the recent discovery of whole peoples in the new world who had had no opportunity to receive the gospel through no fault of their own, although for centuries more the heroism of Christian missionaries was to be based on the supposition that acceptance of the Christian revelation was an ineluctable precondition of salvation.
In 1512 the French evangelical humanist Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples wrote in his commentary on the Pauline epistles that those who, in ignorance of the gospel, keep the divine and natural law and, with the significant exception of the rites and ceremonies they prescribed, served their neighbours and repented of their faults, would surely be saved. This doctrine represents only a relatively slight advance on that of Aquinas, but was revolutionary in a late fifteenth-century context. Erasmus himself notoriously allowed the term `Saint Socrates' to appear in the 1522 colloquy Convivium religiosum, tentatively borrowing from an important letter of Ficino on the sanctity of Socrates. In the same colloquy `Eusebius' says that he is helped by reading Cicero and Plutarch but that he rises from the reading of Scotus `and others of his sort' `somehow less enthusiastic about true virtue but more contentious'. Between them, the speakers in the colloquy emphasize the conformity of Virgil, Horace, Cicero and Cato to the Christian spirit. In the 1523 preface to his edition of Cicero's Tusculan Disputations Erasmus, now writing clearly in his own name, takes the argument further, asserting that the reading of Cicero has stimulated him to moral progress and improved his ideals. There was in Cicero `something divine', and it is permissible to hope that he is now in heaven. Morally speaking, Erasmus argues, many of the patriarchs were less blameless than Cicero.
The whole controversy about the salvation of the pagans, which merges into an even wider one about the exceedingly vulnerable channels of transmission invented to explain the conformity of their doctrines with the Old and New Testaments, still awaits its definitive historian. But Erasmus's position is clear, and it accounts for his hostility to the Scotists, the pre-eminently moral content of the philosophia Christi, the lack of enthusiasm for mysticism and institutional loyalties and the perpetual primacy of the moral, spiritual and interior whether in theology, education or scholarship. The ultimate source of Erasmus's attitudes in all domains lay in his own discernment of what was and what was not conducive to moral enrichment, undertaken with great imaginative daring and tempered only by a critical scholarship which prevented him going against the evidence, however awkward, but which did allow him to base his conclusions on the technical exegesis of scripture as well as on moral and satirical arguments.
There can no longer be any real doubt that the central feature of Jesuit spirituality, the celebrated `rules for the discernment of spirits' at the heart of Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, derives from Erasmus. Ignatius's personal religious ideal was the related discreta caritas, which implies choice made under the inspiration of grace, and he made an aptitude for the discernment of divinely inspired spiritual movements a presupposition running through the official Jesuit documents, including the Constitutions, felt in the sixteenth century to be dangerously based on direct religious experience. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises existed as a document of some form by 1527, and they are ultimately the result of a mystical experience undergone by Ignatius in the autumn of 1522 by the Cardoner river. On 14 January 1522 Erasmus in Basle had hurriedly written a prefatory letter to fill a blank page in the commentary on Matthew's Gospel for Froben. That letter contains all the major features of Ignatius's spirituality embryonically, including the principle of the discretio spirituum (`the discernment of spirits') and, among much else taken by Ignatius, the idea of imaginatively reconstructing the episodes of Jesus' life for meditative prayer that was to form the body of the Spiritual Exercises. The probability is that Ignatius read Erasmus's text at Alcala early in 1526. He certainly drew on it for the literary expression of his own spirituality.
Erasmus had written in his preface of the difficulty of the discernment of spirits, and of the challenge of distinguishing between the promptings of Christ and those of the world or the devil. The problem had already preoccupied him in the Enchiridion (Rules 9 and 20) and, although there is no reference to the discernment of spirits in Pico's Rules, the subject was mentioned by More in his celebrated letter to Batmanson of 1519-20. Erasmus was also to use the term again when, in a very important letter to Zwingli of 31 August 1523, he concluded, `How rare is the gift of the discernment of spirits.' Rabelais refers to the same spiritual principle at the end of chapter 14 of the Tiers Livre in 1546. His source, too, can only have been Erasmus. It seems probable that historians have attached altogether too much weight to dogmatic disputes as the cause of the Reformation, when the real explanation lies in a clash of spiritual movements between the various reformers and the different schools of scholastics and evangelical humanists.
Erasmus's dependence on the discernment of spirits and the circumstances in which he advocated his view that man's perfection was intrinsic to his moral achievement explain why he so often preferred to make his points satirically and with an apparent lack of directness. To have spoken out would have compromised an orthodoxy he was reluctant to relinquish. The circumstances explain, too, why Erasmus was touchy about criticisms of his orthodoxy, at any rate when they were too important for him to disdain. His view naturally brought him into conflict with the scholastics, and it is a tribute to his patience, ingenuity and forbearance that he escaped serious condemnation. The Colloquies were banned and accusations of heresy, normally from a lunatic fringe, were frequent. But Josse Clichtove of the Sorbonne, Edward Lee the archbishop of York, the Spanish theologian J. L. Zuniga, Pierre Cousturier who had left the Sorbonne to become a Carthusian, to say nothing of the Carmelite Nicholas Baechem and Noel Beda, leaders respectively of the conservative reactions in Louvain and Paris, were serious opponents. Erasmus was compromised by the unfaithful French translations of various of his works by Berquin who was executed in 1529. After his death, various of his works were banned in Spain and burned in Milan. They were all put on the Roman index of prohibited books in 1559. The Praise of Folly in particular was banned in FrancheComte, in Spain, in Rome and by the Council of Trent. But the early Jesuits, at least, came very near to venerating his memory, and the Jesuit St Peter Canisius spoke very highly of him. Most of his educational theory was taken up into their own carefully elaborated educational programme expressed in the Ratio Studiorum which was to be the immensely influential charter for their schools after its elaboration in the late sixteenth century.
What has here been called the spirituality of intrinsic perfectibility not only alienated Erasmus from the scholastics. It also alienated him from Luther. The Wittenberg theses of 1517 were mostly concerned with indulgences and ritual practices and were by no means clearly heretical. Rome took a long time about issuing the condemnatory bull Exsurge Domine (1520) and the Paris faculty hedged until Rome had spoken. Erasmus had agreed with much of what Luther said, but carefully kept his distance from Luther's total position in an important series of letters. His support was solicited by both sides, and pressure was put on him to prove an orthodoxy on which criticism of ecclesiastical practices in the Colloquies had seemed to cast doubt by speaking against Luther. When he did finally and reluctantly take up his pen against Luther, Luther had already attacked five of the traditional seven sacraments and listed many other ways in which the Church had fallen away from its revealed function. Erasmus, however, pinpointed in what was now a mass of material Luther's one departure from orthodoxy which was to provide a doctrinal criterion throughout the century for deciding to which side of the schism any individual by right belonged. At the suggestion of Henry VIII and with startling accuracy he picked on the essence of Luther's spiritual position, the denial of any autonomous power of self-determination in man.
Luther's rebellion against fifteenth-century religion had been less humanistically motivated but more sudden and more radical than that of Erasmus. Above all, he had attacked the Pelagianism of the scholastics and the religious tension which it had bred. For Luther, justification consisted in the non-imputation of guilt. The need for straining to do all that lay within one was thereby removed. Justification had become a clearly gratuitous act of God, and Luther's concept of faith as trust and confidence in God further removed the need for moral tension. It made it possible for the truly devout to be virtually assured of their salvation. In the treatises of 152o, Luther had clearly gone beyond the bounds of orthodoxy in his outright condemnation of works and merit as well as of the sacraments and practices whose importance Erasmus had been careful merely to downgrade. In particular, however, Luther had held in the Heidelberg Disputation of 15 18 that man by his own free will, so far from earning his salvation, necessarily committed mortal sin. This antiPelagian denial of the autonomous power of self-determination to good was confirmed in the Freedom of the Christian Man (1520). No doubt Erasmus misunderstood Luther. But the point of attack he chose was also that which split More from Tyndale, Bude from Melanchthon and Sadoleto from Calvin in their respective controversies. Much more than Eucharistic theology, it was the divisive force behind the schism.
The difficulty was clear. Both humanists and reformers wished to reject the Pelagianism of the scholastics and the deleterious religious extrinsicism which it promoted. But while the humanists as such were dedicated to defending man's intrinsic perfectibility in accordance with his self-determining moral choices, the reformers could find no logical answer to Pelagianism, short of denying to free will any power in the order of grace.
It is not difficult to see how this situation arose. If man's `nature' is capable even of accepting, to say nothing of meriting, grace, the result is at least semi-Pelagian theology and a religion of tension. If, however, it is not, man is necessarily deprived of any power of self-determination to a good which, on any theory, is supernatural, and he is incapable of influencing his own eternal fate. The dilemma is rigid. Erasmus's treatise against Luther, the de libero arbitrio (On Free Will, 1524), accuses Luther of denying free will. Luther's reply, the de servo arbitrio (On Unfree Will, 1525), accuses Erasmus unjustly of scepticism, but also of Pelagianism. Although Erasmus had never made a formally Pelagian utterance, it was true that there was no known way of reconciling the autonomous power of self-determination to good in which Erasmus believed with a non-Pelagian theory of grace. The ultimate solution depended on assuming that justified man was a compound not of pure nature and grace, but of a nature which itself bears in its supernatural aspirations the mark of its redemption and the grace which confers on it formal justification. Once it is accepted that nature itself is affected by the redemption, it becomes possible to allow all men's power of accepting grace, in virtue of a power bestowed on his nature by the redemption, without thereby incurring Pelagian implications. But this avenue of solution was blocked in the early sixteenth century, however near the evangelical humanists edged towards it, because it would have implied allowing grace to the pagans and therefore apparently abandoning faith as a prerequisite for grace. When, at the very end of the sixteenth century, the Jesuit Lessius put forward a theory in which the power of accepting `efficacious' or justifying grace was attributed to human nature as it in fact exists in man, it was suppressed even inside his own order. It was also strongly contested by the faculties of Louvain and Douai, as later by the Jansenist theologians in France.
The rigidity of the dilemma in the early sixteenth century is absolute and immensely important, but it need not further detain us. It is sufficient to see that Luther chose one of its horns and Erasmus the other. Erasmus's religious position is well defined by his stand against the scholastics on one hand and against Luther on the other. But the implications of his position would certainly have been dangerous for him had they been spelled out in a formal theological account of how grace acts in the will. He retained the position of Pico but, with the example of Pico before him, understandably preferred to make his points more in terms of conformity to the scriptures or in terms of ironic comment than in formal scholastic debate. There were other issues, notably his concern for the primacy of rhetoric over dialectic, on which Erasmus took the opposite line from Pico, and in terms of direct influence on his thought, others were more important. But the religious position of the evangelical humanists, elaborated on the basis of scriptural arguments, none the less owes a great deal to the personal and social values which the Florentine neoplatonist tradition not only brought into prominence, but was in a large measure erected to support.
|« NEXT »||« The Praise Of Folly »||« Classical Works »||« Library »|