Page images
PDF
EPUB

More, living, into the midst of the conflict, and, dying, into the ranks of martyrdom for his convictions, while a friend of his, of easier disposition, more patient of difference of opinion, neither contended as earnestly in life, por sealed his adhesion in death with such a bloody testimony for Rome Erasmus, expressed the constitutional differences between himself and More, when, stating that More hated with positive hatred the seditions tenets disturbing the world, he expressed his own state of feeling, negatively, in the acknowledgment that he did not love seditious verity”—he had not energy to hate or love either party, to the point of active engagement for either.

The case of this Sir Thomas More's chosen friend and congenial companion is more peculiar than his own, and marks him more especially for one of those who continued to hold their Catholicity" with a difference,” and without wholly prostrating mind and intellect in ultramontane submission to the papacy-Desiderius Erasmus stands out in history, arrayed against Martin Luther, as his most able and acute opponent; their duel upon the thesis “ De Servo Arbitrio” is recorded as one of the best contested and most memorable of the theological conflicts of the day; the great parties at either side looked on with deep interest, as each champion,

With that stern joy which warriors feel

In foemen worthy of their steel, dealt his argumentative blow or vituperative retort, his "diatribe" or hyperaspistes,” to his opponent.

There is no doubt that in classing the celebrities of the Reformation age polemically, we must set Erasmus down on the muster-roll of the papal forces, yet is it by no means so certain to which party his secret and personal fealty was given, or to which cause he rendered most effective service. It seems more than doubtful whether his metaphysic duel with Luther, on the subject of "Free Will,” afforded the papacy any support at all commensurate to the damaging effect of his more popular and satiric exposures of patent Church abuses—the very choice of subject on which, when urged, entreated, flattered to the conflict by all the influence of the papacy, Erasmus decided to join issue with the Reformer, did not show any great desire to render effective aid; inasmuch as it lay far above and removed from that region of debate in which his Church felt weak and required support; “ fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," are topics on which Milton represents the fallen angels as debating after they had lost heaven, and in the mazes of which the human intellect may wander to the point of losing itself to the end of time, but these matters are not of the essence of the quarrel between Rome and Reformed Christendom, nor has infallibility ever yet been able to propound its own views upon them with such dogmatic certainty as that its champions can venture to belabour opponents as with inexpugnable propositions ; hence the polemic service of Erasmus was coldly received, and as coldly acknowledged at Rome ; the papacy cannot afford to repudiate or censure even the half-hearted service of a champion so world-famed as the ex-monk of Erasmus, whose life was of blameless beauty, as standing forth to illustrate the secessary tendencies of Romanism in an honest mind convinced of its truth, to combine a spirit of fell persecution with the fairest graces of the human character.

Rotterdam, yet the "faint praise" with which it damns his exertions in the cause, and the significant silence observed respecting the better known productions of his witty pen, prove very plainly that in papal estimation he ranks below champions every way and immeasurably his inferiors.

No fact is better ascertained, than that Erasmus always felt, and freely avowed himself to have been the victim of circumstances, in the fixing of his destination in life. It is rumoured that even pre-natal evils might have warranted a question concerning him similar to that put to our Lord, “ Which did this man sin or his parents, that he was doomed to be a monk?" It is said that he came into life as one of those " children of shame” destined to be " put away" in that living death of the cloister, to which, as he himself elegantly says, “ driven rather than drawn” (adactum magis quam inductum), he was consigned at the age of seventeen years. True it is that, in after life, Erasmus to some extent freed himself from a yoke peculiarly galling to a mind and spirit like his, yet the trammels of the convent ever hung about him, impeded his free mental action, and, as he himself ingenuously owns,“ kept him from changing either his religion or vocation, not because he approved either, but that he should not cause scandal.” How many a mind like his

* Upon reflection, it appears to me that neither the terms “faint praise," or "suspicious silence," fully describe the low estimate in which the Church of Rome holds the writings of Erasmus. Occasionally we come upon proofs of that stealthy and sly hostility, which, “ willing to wound,” is yet “afraid to strike.” It would not answer the purpose of the papacy to reckon this celebrated man among Protestants, and yet in their charity papists assign him no better place, character, or fate. In a rare and curious work, entitled “EPIGRAMMATA IN HÆRETICOS," the work of " Frusius, a Jesuit,Louvain, A.D. 1596,” we find Luther and Erasmus thus classed and characterised:

[ocr errors][merged small]

'Twixt Luther and Erasmus, say

What difference can " the Faithful" see,
As rattlesnake that bars the way,

Asp-like this poisons silently.-R. The point of this epigram seems derived from the “ Aspistes” and “Hyperaspistes” of their celebrated controversy. One still more severe, on Erasmus, alone, is recorded in the following:

“ Ut Rhadamantheum stetit ante tribunal Erasmus,
Ante jocos scribens serio damnor ait?
Cui judex:-Libri dant seria damna jocosi
Si tibi culpa jocus-sit tibi pæna jocus."

Erasmus thus to hell's chief judge did say,
“Must I for drolling with damnation pay?"
To him hell's judge, “ Light books do serious ill,

Thy sin was scoffing—scoff in suffering still."-R. Straws show the direction of a deep current, these light epigrams indicate the deep but suppressed feeling of Rome as to the real effect of the productions of Erasmus on her cause. I find, in the Menagiana, another epigram on Erasmus, which Ménage quotes in his loose way, and at the same time, with a strange want

lingers on, and endures party fetters less from conviction than "a kind of shamefacedness”* (“pudore quodam").

We find these candid avowals of Erasmus in a remarkable letter (not found, as I learn, in his collected works), which he addressed to the supe

of perception of its pointlessness, censures only for its bad prosody! The epigram, as he gives it, is as follows:

"Hic jacet Erasmus, qui quondam bonus erat mus,

Rodere qui solitus, roditur a vermibus.” "Il y a (dit Ménage), comme vous voyez, deux grosses fautes de quantité, qu'il semble que l'auteur ait bien reconnues, et quand on lui demandoit pourquoi il avait fait la première syllabe de 'vermibus' brève ? C'est, répondit-il, que dans le premier vers j'ai fait la première syllabe de bonus' longue.”

This anecdote has all the appearance of falsifying the epigram, or epitaph, in order to give Ménage occasion for “telling a good story." By calling Erasmus "bonus,” the whole point of the epigram is blunted, and I am inclined to think that a play on his name may have been lost by misquotation-at all events, without the gross and double violation of prosody, I think & good and pointed epigram may be made of the idea, which I venture thus;

Hic jacet Erasmus-vivens tu durus eras mus,
Rodere qui solitus-rosus et ipse jaces.
Here lies Erasmus, once of biting wit,

Now food for worms, he lies a biter bit.-R. The bat in the fable is but the type of the buffetings and repudiation which Erasmus has endured from both sides. The Romanist gives him scant thanks for his half-hearted aid ; the Protestant reproaches as pusillanimous his hesitation to stand to his convictions when the call was “ Who is on the Lord's side-roho Neither party seems to take into account that mental conformation which disqualified the man from going all lengths with either. The following neutralising extracts from his opinions perhaps best express the suspended, undecided state of his convictions :

“Si Lutherus omnia bene scripsisset, mihi tamen magnopere displiceret seditiosa libertas."

And again: "Si inclinat factio Lutheriana, exoriretur intolerabilis pseudomonachorum tyrannis."

The truth is, that though his pen was sharp and polished, he wanted the nerve and energy with which Luther, according to Beza's elegant epigram, made his grey-goose quill “do more execution than the club of Hercules." Bayle has said this, perhaps the bitterest because truest thing concerning him: “He seems to me one of those who wished for reformation, but he had too narrow an idea of the Divine Providence, not considering that it leads to the same end, sometimes by one way sometimes by another, so that with his non amo seditiosam veritatem' -he rested in the mire!!

Beza's well-known epigram has had many traditors, all falling short of the concise elegance of the original. I could never resist a temptation to translate an epigram even with the warning of previous failures before me:

« ROMA orbem domuit, Romam sibi Papa subegit

Viribus illa suis, fraudibus iste suis.
Quanto isto major Lutherus major et illa,

Istum illamque uno qui domuit calamo,
I nunc Alciden memorato Græcia mendax,

Lutheri ad calamum ferrea clava nihil."

ROME ruled the world, Popes the world's ruler ruled,

That swayed by arms, these by arts befooled;
Behold an humble monk surpassing either,

Who, conquering both, wields but a grey-goose feather.
Let boasting Greece proclaim Alcides' praise,

But LUTHER's pen his iron club outweighs.-R.

rior of his convent in answer to a requisition that he should resume his conventual habits and duties; most affecting it is to hear this clear. headed and intellectual being, who had been delivered over to the dreary bondage of the monastic system at the unreflecting age already mentioned, expressing his sorrowful conviction that “if he had happened on some liberal profession he might have been reckoned not only among happy but good men.” The whole letter is a testimony so clear and yet unimpassioned against monachism and its ensnaring and embondaging vows, that I think a version of it may be interesting, giving as it does a kind of résumé of the career of Erasmus, and probably an exposition of the principles of those men scattered here and there through the realms of the papacy to a larger amount than will ever be known before the “ day of the revelation of all things,” who were and are “Protesters" though not “Protestants.

Some of the elegances of the concise and classic Latin of Erasmus are not transferable to another tongue, but I can offer the rendering as generally faithful throughout :

TO THE REVEREND FATHER SERVATIUS, ERASMUS SENDS GREETING.*

HONOURED FATHER, - Your letters, sent through many hands, reached me about to go into England, and afforded me infinite pleasure, as evincing your ancient kindness towards me. I reply briefly, as writing on a journey and chiefly in reference to the subject of your letter. Every man has his own opinion as every bird his own note, and it is impossible to please every one. God is my witness that my purpose is to act for the best ; as for my early notions, age and experience have corrected them. I never intended to change either my calling or religion, not because I approved

them, but that I should not cause any scandal, for you are aware that I was rather driven than drawn to that calling by the importunity of my guardian and other evil advices, and that when I found that this vocation by no means suited me, I was kept in the same by a kind of shamefacedness and the reproaches of Cornelius Uverden. All things do not suit all: from a peculiar habit of body, I never could endure to fast ; once roused from sleep, I cannot rest again for many hours. My mind is so disposed to literature (not to be found in a conventt), that I feel sure if I had happened on some liberal profession I might have been reckoned not only among happy but good men. Therefore, when I found that course of life unsuited to me, adopted as it was under compulsion and not willingly, yet, once adopted, since (according to public opinion) it is sacrilegious to forsake it, I determined to endure my misfortune. You know my varied unhappiness, but this I esteem the chief, that I was driven on a course of life to which I was as indisposed mentally as corporeally. Mentally, in that I abhor ceremonial

* I find this letter in a biographic sketch of Erasmus in a collection “ Vita Virorum Selectorum,” published, strangely enough, without any title-page or date, but ascertained to have been the compilation of Dr. William Bates, a nonconformist, published A.D. 1681. He speaks of it as a letter which “ in epistolarum volumine nusquam compareat,” but it has probably been introduced into the edition of his works subsequently edited at Leyden in 1703 by Monsieur Le Clerc, which I have not seen.

| “Quarum istic nullus usus.

&

and delight in liberty ; corporeally, in that even though I liked that mode of life, my constitution could not endure its austerities. But it may

be said, “ You were of full age to choose, and had your year of probation” (as it is called). Absurd! as if any one could expect that a boy of seventeen, å mere student, could have that self-knowledge which is great attainment even for the aged, or could in one year learn what

many come to grey hairs do not yet understand. Unproved and inexperienced, I was spared by the artifices I have mentioned. Still, I own that a good man can live well in any calling ; I don't pretend to be faultless, nor yet so vicious but that if I had had a truly Christian director and not a superstitious bigot* I might have come to good. Meanwhile, having looked to what course of life would be least evil

, I think I have followed it; I have lived with respectable people, and in studies which have restrained me from many vices; I have enjoyed the society of men truly Christian, by whose converse I have been benefited. Of my works which, perhaps, you despise--I say nothing, though many acknowledge to have become wiser and better in the reading of them. Love of money I know not; fame attracts me little; though sometimes vicious, I never was the slave of vice ; gluttony or ebriety I always' abhorred and shunned. Whenever I contemplated the idea of returning to your society there rose before me the envy of many, the contempt of all; the cold and vapid converse, savouring nothing of Christ! the worldly entertainments ; in fine, a mode of life altogether from which, if you “subtract the ceremonial, I don't see what that you can call desirable is left." And finally came the consideration of bodily infirmity, now' aggravated by age, illness, and labours, to that extent that, without satisfying my brethren, I should destroy myself. For some years past I' suffer from the stone, a cruel and fatal disorder; for some years past illness obliges me to drink a particular kind of wine ; I cannot endure all kinds of diet or of climate, for this disorder often returns, and requires 'strict regimen, and I know too well your Dutch climate and mode of living, to say nothing of your morals, f'so that to 'return would serve no end but to bring you trouble and me death. But possibly you think it a great blessing to die among your confraternity: this is a fallacy which imposes on all as well as yourself. Shall we confine piety and Christianity to a certain place, kind of worship, or of habit, or to some trifling ceremonials (ceremonialis)? Shall we think it all over with him who changes a white dress for a black one, a cowl for a cloak, and then travels? I venture to affirm that the greatest damage to Christian piety proceeds from those they call “the religious," though possibly, at first, drawn thereto by pious zeal; then by degrees they grew to about six thousand different kinds of monachism ; the authority of pontiffs, too facile and indulgent in many things, increased the evil. What can be more polluted or impious than the laxer orders, or, if you turn to those of highest esteem, except some dusterities and Jewish“ will-worship,” I don't know what conformity to Christ you will find. On these things it is, that they pride themselves and judge and contemn others. How much more according to the mind of Christ would it be to consider the whole Christian world as one great monastery; all Christians as co

• "Gubernator vere Christianus, non Judaicè superstitiosus.”

| “Novi victus vestri rationem ut de moribus nihil dicam.” VOL, XLIII.

« PreviousContinue »