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But the conies are a feeble folk. * Erasmus had found great spoil. He had found a religion at once rational and spiritual, and which, to his now languid affections, gave a certain seriousness and tenderness. And he had also found a treasury of thought, sublime and beautiful, which, for his remaining years, might furnish pleasant pastime, as well as honourable occupation. Philosophy and faith, intelligence and piety, sound sense and Christian sanctity, he deemed were helps meet for one another; and the partners which God had joined together, he grudged that man should put asunder.
After his cautious fashion he began to experiment, and published books which were at once pleasing and edifying, and not the less Christian for being classical. They found great favour. Men's eyes began to open. Soldiers were becoming scholars; and even monks were growing studious. Preachers, like his friend Colet, and Fisher of Rochester, were addressing to crowded audiences sermons full of Scripture and full of earnestness. It almost looked as if a reign of good sense and reality were about to arise, in which the superstitions and follies of Popery would gradually pass away, and Europe would one morning awake and find itself peaceful and moral, refined and religious. Merry as a marriage bell, it was advancing so nicely, when, all of a sudden, there came rolling and roaring from the heart of Saxony that terrible earthquake. Bells jangled, convents tumbled, and, in the horrible hurly-burly, what could the conies do but scamper off, heels over head, back to their hiding-places in the rock?
* From the use of the word “rodent" in the context, it may be as well to warn the reader that the " coney” of the Bible is, according to Cuvier, a pachyderm ; still, his habits will always suggest to English readers the rat, the rabbit, and such other furtive and absconding rodents.
The temperament of Erasmus was cautious and timid, and we must not forget that he was fifty years old when Luther first published his “ Theses :" and although our own Saunders and Latimer, and many besides, are examples of men nobly renouncing the errors of a long life, and still more nobly surrendering that life in allegiance to newly-discovered truth, good feeling will not always ascribe to want of principle what may be mainly want of ardour. When his reforming friends urged Erasmus to turn out of his lurking place and take the consequences, he answered with some irony and equal candour, but perhaps with too much levity, “It is not every one who receives the grace which makes a martyr, and in the day of trial I fear that I should repeat St. Peter.”
Still more important is it to remember that Erasmus was not a professed theologian. He was THE SCHOLAR and THE SAGE of Rotterdam, wishing to lead a studious life, and, like most men of critical conformation, keenly alive to the faults on both sides. Luther he admired for his intellectual vigour and gigantic honesty, but he owed him a secret grudge for his embroilment of Christendom, and for that universal overturn which had rendered impossible Erasmus' scheme of a gradual and gentle self-reformation; and it need be no secret that he looked with disfavour on noisy controversies which seemed to call off men's minds from the duties of practical piety, and which threatened to postpone indefinitely that golden age of general culture and brotherly kindness which he had once dared to dream as the future of Europe. To this must be added, that although on many points he had anticipated the Reformers, he seems never to have dreamed of seceding from the Church of Rome. He laughed at the monks-he proclaimed the crimes of Pope Julius—he advocated the translation of the Scriptures into the modern vernaculars—in his last illness he would confess to no other priest but Jesus Christ, and
he died without absolution ; and yet, having lived for half a century in the belief, implicit and undisturbed, that there was only one Church on earth, we can well understand how, with a nature like his, and so late in the day, it would have required no ordinary grace to cut himself off from the ancient communion, besides incurring the too probable results of bonds and martyrdom.
The industry of Erasmus was enormous; and besides works of his own which fill many folios, he was the first, or among the first, who gave to the world the printed works of Demosthenes, Galen, Aristotle, Quintus Curtius, and other Greek and Roman classics; besides fathers of the Church, such as Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Cyprian, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianzen, Jerome. But undoubtedly his greatest benefaction was first his Greek Testament, and then his Paraphrase; and although he missed the opportunity of becoming a more brilliant Melanchthon, it must never be forgotten that amongst the scholars of Europe, beyond all other men, he was the means of breaking the spell of superstition, and that he gave, even in Papal lands, a freedom and independence to intellect which it has never since surrendered.
But, after all, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man.” His solicitude for letters made Erasmus half-hearted towards the religious Reformation; the event has proved, that for emancipating or ennobling mind there is no power comparable to the truth as it is in Jesus. Could Erasmus revisit the scene, he would find that in Italy no second Petrarch or Dante has sung; that in France the Muses have a terrible time of it in the perpetual see-saw betwixt military despotism and fierce revolutions; that even in orthodox Austria and Spain his own works are odious as those of a traitor and heretic. But during the interval he would find, that in countries where Luther and his sturdy pioneers had cleared the copse and stirred the soil, over and above a splendid crop of industry and liberty and piety, there had sprung up no despicable samples of mind and taste and scholarship. Even in far and forgotten Scandinavia he would find Tycho Brahe, Thorwaldsen, Berzelius, and Linnæus. In his own Holland he would not be ashamed of Grotius and Rembrandt, of Hoofd and Bilderdijk and Tollens. Even if Newton and Bacon could be got at in Latin, he might at last deign to learn English for the sake of Spenser and Shakspeare, Milton and Cowper, Walter Scott and Bulwer Lytton-for the sake of Locke, Reid, and Hamilton-for the sake of Prescott and Mottley, as well as Gibbon, Hume, and Macaulay. And on the very homestead of that tremendous overturner he would find flourishing reputations which required large room to grow in, and would soon learn to appreciate Leibnitz and Kant, Humboldt and Leibig, Klopstock and Wieland, Goethe and Schiller.