Erasmus of Rotterdam: biography of this Dutch philosopher

Seen by some as a heretic who paved the way for the Protestant Reformation, by others as a coward who was not actively involved in such a reformation. The figure of Erasmus of Rotterdam is acclaimed and at the same time hated in a chiaroscuro of opinions and beliefs.

Either way, there is no doubt that this Dutch philosopher was a man of humanistic ideas, the son of the Renaissance in which he lived and gave a new interpretation to the Bible and the Catholic faith.

Despite being greatly hated by the two religious sides that “coexisted” in 16th century Europe, the truth (and ironic) is that Erasmus of Rotterdam was a pacifist, loyal to the Church and condemned any struggle for religion. Let us see below his interesting and intense life through a biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

    Brief biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam

    Erasmus of Rotterdam (Dutch: Desiderius Erasmus van Rotterdam and Latin: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus) was born on October 28, 1466 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He grew up in a family involved in religious affairs because his father was a priest, from Gouda, and his mother was a woman of bourgeois origin., Which gave the family some comfort.

    Between 1478 and 1483, he attended the St. Lebwin School in Deventer, where he had the opportunity to meet figures such as Alexander Hegius and to come into contact with humanism. This first contact would be transcendent in the work and life of Erasmus of Rotterdam since, in the long term, would be known as “the prince of the humanists”.

    In 1492 he was ordained a priest by the Order of Saint Augustine and after that decided to travel to France to study at the University of Paris. The French capital had become a bustling city, in which thinkers of all kinds and from all walks of life shared knowledge in the midst of the Renaissance, a movement that France experienced as intensely as in Italy. By accessing all kinds of opinions and new currents, Erasmus began to shape its particular humanist thought at that time.

    The beginnings of his philosophical training

    Rotterdam Erasmus he has always been a traveler. Still interesting, his life in Paris was not interesting enough to stay any longer, deciding to move to England and residing in London between 1499 and 1500, where he would meet John Colet and attend the University of Oxford. Colet taught Erasmus a lot about the life of Saint Paul, leading an intense and deep reading of the Bible in a humanistic and innovative vision.

    It would also be around this time that Erasmus, with the collaboration of Publio Fausto Andrelini, would write his book “Adagis”, which originally consisted of 800 sayings and morals taken from the ancient traditions of Greece and Rome, as well as the author’s comments on its origin and meaning. This proverb would gain in importance at the popular level, since many of them are currently in use. Erasmus will develop throughout his life, having 3400 sayings in 1521 and 5251 at the time of his death.

    While in England he began to hold a chair as a professor of theology at the University of Cambridge., A place where he met great thinkers from the British philosophical and intellectual scene, including Thomas More and Thomas Linacre. In addition, he was offered a lifetime job at Queen’s College at the same university, but Erasmus’s spirit of travel and restlessness caused him to decline. The Dutch philosopher never liked routine, let alone do the same for the rest of his life.

    That is why between 1506 and 1509, he will travel again, this time to the very center of the Renaissance: Italy. He spent most of his time working in a printing press where he was able to establish links with members of different universities and writers who came here to publish his books. His stay in Italy was very enriching, surrounded by people who thought like him, who shared a humanistic and critical perspective with the abuses of members of the Catholic Church.

      Become famous

      In Italy, the philosopher has not gone unnoticed. More and more people knew who Erasmus of Rotterdam was and were interested in his opinions. There were those who were in favor of his ideas, but others were the most ardent detractors, openly rejecting his ideas and criticizing them harshly. This is why, although having acquired a great reputation in Italy, Erasmus he felt that the best thing he could do for this period was to move to a more friendly place, deciding to go to Basel..

      Taking advantage of his stay in the Swiss city, Erasmus was clearer about his disagreement with the institutions and the authorities. It is not known what was the origin of this dissatisfaction, whether it started when he went to elementary school in his youth, during his stay in the Convent of August where he was ordained priest or during his studies in the University of Paris. Anyway, we can deduce that his vision of educational institutions at the time was that of prisons for free thought.

      Erasmus of Rotterdam and his critiques

      Erasmus of Rotterdam was a person who he took considerable risks in sharply criticizing the Catholic Church at a time when this institution used its executive body, the Holy Inquisition., To “convince” people. It was not that he was against the Catholic religion, nor about the institution itself, but about the abuses committed by its members and how the Church was cutting off freedom of thought in schools. and universities. The official academies not having left Christianity, Erasmus decided to seek new ideas in the texts of Greek and Roman thinkers, all pre-Christian.

      The Dutch philosopher became enraged when he thought about how the university had betrayed him. He thought that new ideas would be taught there, but what really happened was that the old-fashioned theories of the first centuries of the Middle Ages were taught and perpetuated, A time that was meant to be over. He criticized the fact that the university of its time, far from moving forward and representing the most advanced institution with the rest of society, was obsolete and seemed immutable.

      Saving oneself from ecclesiastical persecution

      As we have said, Erasmus was very critical of the Catholic Church, but not for its doctrine or its own institution, but for the behavior of those who called themselves men of God. Many of them, especially those who resided in Rome, behaved in a sinful manner, soliciting the service of prostitutes, profiting economically from their devotees, and promising salvation in exchange for a small price. All these abuses and many others were clearly against the ideas of God.

      This is why Erasmus felt that something could be done to change the situation. Taking up the ideas of his friends from the Augustinian monasteries and also those of his friend John Colet, Erasmus began to carefully analyze the most important and representative books of classical antiquity that, although it is older than the Christian era, the Dutch philosopher considered that he could extract ideas there which would help him to modernize the world which was to live for him.

      Thanks to the fact that the city of Basel welcomed him very warmly and allowed him to express himself without religious persecution, at least for that time, Erasmus exposed his criticisms, gaining several followers. In fact, it was in this city that he began to write “seriously” around 1521, at the age of 55, which at the time was considered to be too late a start as a writer. The reason he finally decided to write, albeit belatedly, was that he believed that whoever couldn’t write would always be wrong in trying to get his message across, and he didn’t want to be wrong..

      To make sure he was expressing himself correctly, he wanted to have a thorough mastery of Latin prose before he began to write his thought. He considered Latin the ideal language, clearer and more suitable for conveying his ideas. complex, as well as being the vehicle for the transmission of all scientific and philosophical ideas of the sixteenth century. Like French and English today, Latin was the language of communication at European level and those who did not master it were not sure that their opinion came from their countryside.

      His controversies with the Catholic Church have been repeatedly misinterpreted, leading to believe that he was positioned against Catholicism. Really, and as we mentioned, he was against the abuses of his members, but he clashed with Catholic doctrine and with the very organization of the Church. What bothered her was that it was quite old-fashioned, steeped in routines, superstitions and ignorance, and did not allow open access and interpretation of the Bible.

      Erasmus wanted to use his university education and ideas to clarify Catholic doctrines and make sure that the Catholic Church allows more freedom of thought, Which not all sixteenth-century bishops wanted, much less with the looming threat of Lutheran reform. However, the Dutch philosopher considered that his intellectual work would allow him to free the Church from its intellectual and cultural paralysis, removing it from the Middle Ages where it still stood and bringing it into the Middle Ages.

      What really gave him problems, rather than his criticism of the chaplain lifestyle, was his inability to position himself in the religious conflict that Europe was experiencing at the time. After centuries of abuse and hypocrisy on the part of the Church, the countries of northern Europe began reforms that they would take with or without the permission of the Holy See. Given humanistic ideas and the desire for change in the Catholic Church, few consider Erasmus of Rotterdam to be a threat to the institution.

      This is why he had to give explanations and say publicly that his attacks were not against the institution itself, much less against God as a source of intelligence and justice, but against the misdeeds of many bishops. and monks who made an economic profit from the word. of God and the Bible, enjoying their flock. Thanks to the fact that Erasmus was understood, he was able to avoid the long and dark shadow of the Holy Inquisition, especially through his brilliant work with the Bible which confirmed his faith and devotion to God.

      Relationship with Martin Luther

      In general, Erasmus he agreed with the early ideas of Martin Luther, especially in his critiques of the way the Church was administered. In fact, they both became personal friends, Luther being one of the few people Erasmus of Rotterdam publicly admired. And Luther always defended the ideas of Erasmus, arguing that they were the result of clean work and supreme intellectuality.

      However, this admiration and peaceful situation between the two did not last forever. Luther quickly began to pressure Erasmus to show public support for his reformist proposals., What the Dutchman, who was not in favor of taking a position, firmly refused. In fact, Luther himself insisted even more on asking him to become the visible face of the reformers.

      But the pressures were not coming from just one side. Pope Clement VII pressured him to explicitly attack Protestants, Inviting him to the Vatican library for information. But despite such an invitation, Erasmus of Rotterdam continued to refuse to work on both sides, being seen as a coward and disloyal. Popular is the sentence with which the Church accuses Erasmus of having helped the Protestant cause: “You laid the egg and Luther hatched it”, according to the legend, Erasmus replied with an ironic sentence “Yes., But I expected a hen from a different class “

      Many letters show the relationship of friendship and respect between Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther. In the first letters, the reformer never tires of praising the work of Erasmus in favor of a better and greater Christianity, without mentioning the Reformation which he himself was going to initiate. Over time, Luther began to pray to him and then demand that he abandon Catholicism and join the Protestant side then born.

      Erasmus responded to the letters with understanding, respect and sympathy for the reformist cause when he was not yet secessionist, and kindly refused to adopt a partisan attitude. He explained to Luther that if he became a religious leader, he would destroy his reputation as a scholar and endanger the pure thought he sought to exhibit. in his works, a work that was the result of intense work over decades, a work that Erasmus of Rotterdam saw as the sole purpose of his existence.

      While Protestants defended the idea of ​​individual freedom, Catholicism denied that human beings can at least be free, a debate in which, for a change, if Erasmus of Rotterdam was involved. However, Erasmus of Rotterdam himself acknowledged and attacked Luther’s exaggerations in his book De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524). However, soon after, he analyzed the opposing arguments of the Catholics and ended up concluding, once again, that both positions had parts of the truth.

      Erasmus of Rotterdam said that in fact, Man is born bound to sin, but he also has the appropriate means to ask God to allow him to be loosed.. The right way to ask is offered only by the Catholic Church, and it is up to the sinner to know how to take advantage of it. This was the great contribution to approaching the great dilemma of his time, which he had faced with Protestants and Catholics.

      last years

      Rotterdam Erasmus he spent his last years under siege by both Catholics and Reformers. Catholics saw him as a possible dissident and Protestants as someone who dared not take the step towards further reforms. These times embittered him because of these fierce disputes between men and the two camps, taking advantage of his old age, tried to discredit the figure of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

      In 1529, the city of Basel, where Erasmus still resided, officially joined the Reformation, which again forced the old man through harassment from Swiss Protestants. He established his new residence in the imperial city of Freiburg, populated by many Catholics. There he continued his tireless literary activity, concluding his most important work of this period, the “Ecclésiastique” (1535), a paraphrase of the biblical book of the same name.

      Shortly after the publication of this book, he returned to Basel. at once he associated himself perfectly with a group of scholars who analyzed in detail the Lutheran doctrine. Some say that was when he finally broke with Catholicism, although others also see it as a mere change of opinion within its equidistance. In any case, he will keep this post until the day of his death on July 12, 1536 in the city of Basel, at the age of 69.

      The importance of its philosophical heritage

      Although the figure of Erasmus of Rotterdam was criticized in his time and, in fact, all his works went to the “Index librorum prohibitorum” of the Holy SeeOver time, the European, pacifist and multinational character of this philosopher has been valued, who has had the opportunity to visit several universities and cultural centers alive. It is for this reason that the European Community’s network for academic exchanges is called the Erasmus program in honor of the character and work of this great thinker.


      In the works of Erasmus of Rotterdam shows his interest in the reform, but not in the Lutheran sense, of the Catholic Church, as well as a great interest in the classical world and the humanistic and renaissance ideas so prevalent in his time . Some of his most popular works are listed below:

      • Adagis (1500-1536)
      • Christian Manual (1503)
      • Little interest (1511)
      • Moorish enchomion or praise of madness (1511)
      • The formation of the great Christian (1516)
      • A new instrument (1516)
      • Paraphrase of the New Testament (1516)
      • Conferences (1517),
      • A sponge against Hutteni asparagus (1523)
      • Diatribes of Free Will (1524)
      • First volume of Hyperaspists (1526)
      • Second volume of Hyperaspists (1527)
      • Immediate and free constitution of children (1528)
      • Ciccronianus or on the best form of writing (1528)
      • The most beneficial question of the war of aggression and the Turks (1530)
      • Preacher and preparation for death (1534)

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bejczy, Istvan Pieter (2001). Erasmus and the Middle Ages: the historical consciousness of a Christian humanist. Brill Academic Publishers, Collection of Brill Studies in Intellectual History, London. ISBN 90-04-12218-4.
      • Zweig, Stefan (2005). Erasmus of Rotterdam: triumph and tragedy of a humanist. Edicions Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona. ISBN 84-493-1719-3

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