« PreviousContinue »
to begin again: if he can recall the spell-bound terror with which, in the double coil of fate and mystery, he followed the car of Æschylus : or recollects how, amidst the iron energy, the multitudinous march, and trampling grandeur of Homer, he felt himself for the moment gigantic or heroic: such a one will be able to understand the rapture with which the finest minds of Europe re-entered the long-closed temple, and the delirium of delight which made some of them sit out their remaining days at the unexpected and inexhaustible banquet.
The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1444, conferred this boon on Western Europe, by scattering Greeks and Greek manuscripts through Italy and Germany; but the language of Plato, of Chrysostom, and of the New Testament was still the monopoly of a favoured few. Before he left Paris Erasmus had already made marked proficiency ; but in England one great attraction was Oxford, with its distinguished Grecians, Grocyn, Linacre, and William Latimer. In their congenial society he added largely to previous acquisitions ; and the hospitalities of Oxford he repaid to England a few years afterwards when at Cambridge, as professor of Greek, he gave to the mathematical university a classical renown, which in the persons of Barrow, and Bentley, and Porson, has been nobly perpetuated.
In 1500, Erasmus published the first of his larger works, a collection of “ Adages,” or proverbial sayings, compiled from authors, Greek and Roman. It is a work of wonderful industry, in its ultimate form containing upwards of 4,000 phrases, all of thein explained, many of them traced to their origin, and not a few of them commented upon and applied with great frankness and pungency. Like Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," like Southey's “Commonplace Book" and "Doctor," the “ Adages” of Erasmus are an inexhaustible repository; a sort of fireside
museum or curiosity shop, with contents so droll, so ingenious, so beautiful, as might suffice to beguile the longest winter that ever snowed up Iceland, and brighten the densest fog that ever brooded over London.
He had reached his fortieth year when he set out on a visit to Italy. To the scholar of that age Italy was what Mecca is to the Moslem, and in the universities of Turin, Bologna, and Padua, he found a requital for his pilgrimage. At the same time, his visit to the head-quarters of the Papacy was not calculated to increase his devotion to the Church, for it was the pontificate of that sanguinary ruffian, Julius the Second ; and although cajoled and flattered by Pope and Cardinals, Erasmus came away from Rome with his eyes opened to the hypocrisy of the higher ecclesiastics, and with his heart sickened at the wars and the wickednesses carried on by the so-called Vicar of Christ. As he slowly jogged back over the Alps and down the Rhine, his musings on 'mankind in general and monks in particular, shaped themselves into a satire, which, as soon as he found himself safe under the roof of Sir Thomas More, he sate down and wrote off in nine days. “The Praise of Folly" ought to be a continuous irony ; but when he has occasion to show up the silly trifling of the schoolmen, the low lives of the mendicant friars, the greed and grasping of the successors of those Apostles who forsook all when they followed their Master—the ink grows so caustic as to burn holes in the paper, and from the time that this jeu d'esprit came forth its author could expect nothing but rancorous hatred from the clergy. “Pray, walk into my parlour,” said the spider to the fly; and after the appearance of “The Praise of Folly," the writer received pressing invitations to return to Rome; but he had been in the Pope's parlour already, and he was too old and wise a fly to venture back again.
This humorous and plain-spoken book preceded the Reformation by many years, and must have had a great effect in opening the eyes of men to ecclesiastical abuses, as well as to other crimes and follies of the time. But its popularity was surpassed by a work which appeared in 1524, the success of which we believe to be quite unmatched in the annals of modern Latin literature. The “Colloquies” came out at Paris, and by spreading a report beforehand that the work was prohibited, the knowing publisher had so excited people's curiosity, that an edition of 24,000 copies was exhausted in a single day, and the reprints are all but numberless. Vith its happy sketches of men and manners, with its sparkling vivacity, with the good feeling which is constantly gleaming out, and with the cleverness which can never be bid, there is no wonder that it has proved a universal favourite ; but it contains little that was calculated to reinstate him in the good graces of the Romish clergy.
Early in life Erasmus had published an admirable work, “The Handbook of the Christian Soldier," which, like most of his religious treatises, evades the doubtful disputations of scholastic theology, and is an effort, earnest and enlightened, to explain the truths and enforce the duties essential to a Scriptural piety. And although a charm would be added to these writings by more fervour and unction, we must accept them as the effusions of a mind sagacious and sensible rather than glowing or imaginative, and more intent on the practical than the ideal. They are singularly free from the asceticism and ceremonial observances of Popery, and they exhibit the Gospel and the way of salvation much more clearly than you will find them in “ The Whole Duty of Man," or the sermons which formed the Sunday reading of many a "good old English gentleman" last century. Comparing the “Enchinidion" with
Jeremy Taylor's “Holy Living,” most readers would say that the Englishman is the most devout; but I think it must be confessed that, Papist as he is, the Dutchman is the most evangelical. Nor should we forget the courage with which he assails popular vices; amongst others, that splendid folly or specious crime which we all lament, but the guilt of which it is always so difficult to fix on any perpetrator-war, I mean. Erasmus is the true father of the Peace Society.
But the greatest services which Erasmus conferred on theological truth, and on the cause of religion pure and undefiled, remain to be mentioned. The first of these was the publication of the New Testament in Greek in the year 1518, when he was fifty-one years of age; the other, his Paraphrase or Exposition, which appeared in 1522.
Although the art of printing had existed for eighty years, it is remarkable that the original records of the Christian faith were still only to be found in manuscript. Of these Erasmus compared some five copies, for the sake of ensuring greater accuracy; and with a Latin translation subjoined his own amended version of the Vulgate—the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles were handed forth to the learned of Europe in the language originally employed, from the press of the editor's friend, Frobenius of Basle.
To this work was prefixed a letter from the Pope, praising the attempt and patronising the author. A Papal bull in favour of the Bible! How odd! You would as soon expect to hear a free Gospel preached by a seller of indulgences, or to see an edict of toleration issued by the General of the Inquisition. But Leo had a kindly feeling towards Erasmus, and, like the rest of the Medici, he was fond of Greek; and so, as Peter's successor, he employed the seal of the fisherman to sanction the publication of Peter's Epistles, and those other documents which are destined to explode the Papacy.
In truth, Leo-a scholar, a voluptuary, and a gentlemanly infidel-in the chair of St. Peter was in a false situation ; and in permitting the publication of such a book, he committed the mistake into which a bigot or a wary churchman would not have fallen. The monks and the inferior clergy knew better. They looked at the book, with the bull prefixed, and felt very much as you may suppose that his attorney would feel, if, in a fit of antiquarian noodleism, some country squire had gone to his charter chest and published the documents which prove that he and his line are intruders and impostors, and that the estates ought all this time to be in the hands of others. There, if that infallible idiot had not gone and put his name to a book which told all the world that the vineyard belonged, not to the old Roman busbandmen, but to Wicliffite upstarts and Waldensian claimants ! You never saw such a sensation, unless you may have happened to be present when the roof was taken off from some ancient barn, and amidst hisses and wheezing and various anathemas, the owls remonstrated with you for disturbing the darkness of ages. A storm was raised, not only against the book, but against the language in which it was written.
The orthodox thanked Heaven that they could not read Greek, and the more knowing circulated a rumour that a language had been lately invented, with characters crabbed and unchristian-looking, and of such a deadly quality, that whosoever learned it was sure to become a heretic.
The "sign” was “spoken against ;' but the book was iargely read, and its work went on. Aniongst its earliest students was a young graduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. He had become concerned about his soul, and his confessor prescribed penances which emptied his purse and