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LIFE OF ERASMUS.
(July, 1859.) ALMOST all remarkable events, wonderful discoveries, mighty revolutions, have had their heralds, their harbingers, their prophets. The catastrophe, seemingly the most sudden, has been long in silent preparation. The earthquake has been nursing its fires, its low and sullen murmurs have been heard by the sagacious and observant ear, the throes of its awful coming have made themselves felt; significant and menacing movements are remembered as having preceded its outburst. The marked, if we may so say, the epochal man is rarely without his intellectual ancestors : Shakespeare did not create the English Drama ; how long and noble a line, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, foreshowed Newton! The Reformation, above all, had been long pre-shadowed in its inevitable advent. It was anticipated by the prophetic fears and the prophetic hopes of men; the fears of those who would have arrested or mitigated its shock, the hopes of those who would have precipitated a premature and, it might be, unsuccessful collision with the established order of things. More than one book has been written, and written with ability and much useful research, on the “Reformers before the Reformation ;' but we will pass over the more remote, more obscure, or at least less successful, precursors of the great German, the English, and the French antagonists of the mediæval superstitions and the Papal
Leben des Erasmus von Rotterdam. Von Adolf Müller. Hamburg, 1828. Nouvelle Biographic universelle. Tome xvi. Art. Erasme. Paris, 1856.
Despotism. We will leave at present unnamed those who would have evoked a pure, lofty, spiritual, personal religion from the gloom and oppression of what we persist in calling the Dark Ages. There are two names, however, of surpassing dignity and interest, the more immediate and acknowledged harbingers of that awful crisis which broke up the august but effete Absolutism dominant over Western Christendom, and at once severed, and for ever, Northern and Southern, Latin and Teutonic Christianity. These two were Savonarola and Erasmus.
We have but recently directed the attention of our readers to the life and influence of Savonarola. Since that time we have been informed, some important documents have been brought to light, and a life is announced by an Italian, who has devoted many years to researches among archives either neglected or unexhausted; and hopes are entertained, among some of his more intelligent countrymen, that, in this work, even more full and ample justice will be done to the great Florentine Preacher. Still, however interesting it may be to behold Savonarola in a more clear and distinct light, our verdict on his character and his influence as a Reformer is not likely to be materially changed. With all his holiness, with all his zeal, with all his eloquence, with all his power over the devout affections of men, with all his aspirations after freedom, with all his genial fondness for art, with all his love of man, and still higher love of God, Savonarola was a Monk. His ideal of Christianity was not that of the Gospel; he would have made Florence, Italy, the world, one vast cloister. The monastic virtues would still have been the highest Christian graces; a more holy, more self-sacrificing, but hardly more gentle, more humble, less domineering sacerdotalism would have ruled the mind of man. Even if Savonarola had escaped the martyr stake, to which he was devoted by Alexander VI. (Savonarola and Alexander VI.!!), it would have been left for Luther and the English Reformers to reinstate the primitive Christian family as the pure type, the unapproachable model of Christianity, the scene and prolific seedplot of the true Christian virtues.
Erasmus was fatally betrayed in his early youth into the trammels of monkhood, on which he revenged himself by his keen and exquisite satire. A deep and for a long time indelible hatred of the whole system, of which he was never the votary, and refused to be the slave, though in a certain sense the victim, had sunk into his soul; and monkhood at that time, with some splendid exceptions, as of his friend Vitrarius, of whom he has drawn so noble a character, was at its lowest ebb as to immorality, obstinate ignorance, dull scholasticism, grovelling superstition. The Monks and the Begging Friars were alike degenerate; the Jesuits as yet were not. But both Monks and Friars were sagacious enough to see the dangerous enemy which they had raised; their implacable hostility to Erasmus during life, and to the fame of his writings after death, is the best testimony to the effect of those writings, and of their common inextinguishable hostility.
Erasmus has not been fortunate in his biographers; much has been written about him ; nothing, we think, quite worthy of his fame. His is a character to which it is difficult to be calmly just, and the difficulty, we think, has not been entirely overcome. He is of all men a man of his time; but that time is sharply divided into two distinct periods, on either side of which line Erasmus is the same but seemingly altogether different; a memorable instance how the same man may exercise commanding power, and yet be the slave of his age. The earlier lives, to one of which Erasmus furnished materials, are of course brief, and strictly personal. Le Clerc is learned, ingenious, candid, but neither agreeable nor always careful : Bayle, as usual, amusing, desultory, malicious, unsatisfactory. Knight is most useful as to the visits and connections of Erasmus in England, to which he almost entirely confines himself. It is impossible not to respect, almost as impossible to read, the laborious Burigny; of which the late Charles Butler's miniature work is a neat and terse, but meagre and unsatisfac
tory, abstract. If we could have designated the modern scholar, whose congenial mind would best have appreciated, and entered most fully into the whole life of Erasmus, it would have been Jortin. Jortin had wit, and a kindred quiet sarcasm. From no book (except perhaps the · Lettres provinciales') has Gibbon drawn so much of his subtle scorn, his covert sneer, as from Jortin's · Remarks on Ecclesiastical History. In Jortin lived the inextinguishable hatred of Romanism, which most of the descendants of the Exiles, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, cherished in their inmost hearts, and carried with them to every part of Europe; that hatred which in Bayle, Le Clerc, and many others, had an influence not yet adequately traced on the literature, and, through the literature, on the politics and religion of Christendom. It was this feeling which gave its bitterness to so much of Jortin's views of every event and dispute in Church history. In these he read the nascent and initiatory bigotry which in later days shed the blood of his ancestors. He detected in the fourth or fifth century the spirit which animated the Dragonnades. Jortin was an excellent and an elegant scholar; his Latinity, hardly surpassed by any modern writer, must have caused him to revel in the pages of Erasmus; he was a liberal divine, of calm but sincere piety, to whose sympathies the passionless moderation of Erasmus must have been congenial; nor was there one of his day who would feel more sincere gratitude to Erasmus for his invaluable services to classical learning and to biblical criticism. We cannot altogether assent to the brief review of Jortin's book growled out by the stern old Dictator of the last century, "Sir, it is a dull book.' It is not a dull book; it contains much lively and pleasant remark, much amusing anecdote, many observations of excellent sense, conveyed in a style singularly terse, clever, and sometimes of the finest cutting sarcasm. But never was a book so ill composed : it consists of many rambling parts, without arrangement, without order, without proportion ; it is no more than an abstract and summary of the letters of Erasmus, interspersed with explanatory or critical comments, and copious patches from other books. It is in fact · Remarks on the Life of Erasmus ;' no more a biography than the “Remarks on Ecclesiastical History' are a history of the Church. Of the later writers there is a laborious but heavy work by Hess, in two volumes, Zürich, 1790; a shorter by Adolf Müller, Hamburg, 1828, with a long, wearisome, and very German preface on the development of mankind, and of the individual man. The life, however, has considerable merit; but Müller labours so hard not to be partial to Erasmus, as to fall into the opposite extreme. Perhaps the best appreciation, on the whole, of the great Scholar is in an article in Ersch and Gruber's Cyclopædia. M. Nisard has a lively and clever sketch, which originally appeared in the · Revue des Deux Mondes,' and was reprinted in his Études sur la Renaissance, but, as is M. Nisard's wont, too showy, and wanting in grave and earnest appreciation of a character like Erasmus.
Erasmus was born in the city of Rotterdam, October 28, 1467. Even before his birth he was the victim of that irreligious and merciless system which showed too plainly the decay and degeneracy of the monastic spirit. It blighted him with the shame of bastardy, with which he was taunted by ungenerous adversaries. His father before him was trepanned against his inclinations, against his natural disposition and temperament, into that holy function, of which it is difficult enough to maintain the sanctity with the most intense devotion of mind and heart. If we did not daily witness the extraordinary influence of a strong corporate spirit, we might imagine that it was the delight of the monks of those days, and their revenge upon mankind, to make others as miserable as they found themselves. In the words applied by Erasmus himself, they might seem to compass heaven and earth to make proselytes, such proselytes usually fulfilling the words of the Scripture. That strange passion for what might be called, in a coarse phrase, crimping for ecclesiastical recruits,-a phrase, unless kidnapping be better, often used by Erasmus,—without