« PreviousContinue »
primary and central, of the Founder of Christianity had died out of the Church of His planting—just as the regenerating graff perishes from the stock, leaving it to relapse to its original unregenerated condition-it was his undying glory to have called men's attention to the starting-point of health and truth and beauty, crushed and obliterated by the wilder growth it was meant to supplant. Even in our own day no outcome of Erasmian thought and energy is more worth noting than his conception of original essential Christianity; and if Professor Froude's monograph did no more service than calling men's attention to this phase of Erasmus's teaching it would be difficult to overestimate either its merit or its utility.
Nor was the influence of the Rotterdam scholar-albeit more partial and accidental in its incidence of a less wholesome kind in the political world, at that time as vehemently stirred by jealousies and controversies as was the ecclesiastical world. For that matter, it would have been well if Erasmus could have been made a kind of European dictator, with absolute power over all potentates, secular and ecclesiastical, for the latter half of his life. His letters supply us with ample indications as to the way he would have used that power. Every cause, every institution, every interest would have benefited by the judicious, philosophic, level-headed, many-sided consideration, he would instinctively have given them. Even the Thirty Years' War of the next century, the premonitory shadow of which, grim, dark, and menacing, was already rising on the horizon of European politics, might haply have been averted if Erasmus's counsels of moderation and justice to Imperial and subordinate rulers had been followed. The scandalous brutalities which disgraced the reign of Henry VIII. in England, and for which Froude is ready, here as elsewhere, with his inadequate apology of 'stern
times requiring stern measures,' might never have been heard of if Erasmus had been at the King's elbow.
But Erasmus's influence, wholesome as it would have been on a larger area of human interests and activities than was actually within the range of his superintendence, wholesome also as it really was in the smaller individual scope within which he could exercise it, was the direct outcome of his character. Professor Froude alludes to this more than once in the course of his work. For that matter, both the literary and general character of the Rotterdam scholar have received all possible elucidation and elaboration from his treatment,
Pas J. Acading De Riel fuerit Er
Not that he has any novelties to discover. In this department of his biographer's duties Froude is no 'path breaker,' nor does he tread a partially worn track. On the other hand, the character of Erasmus is a macadamised road. Every critic of repute from his age to ours, every book of every dimension from those early and almost contemporary monographs such as J. A. Fabricius's dissertation which comprehends, under the heading De Religione Erasmi, such interesting questions as Utrum Atheus fuerit Erasmus vel Pyrrhonius Theologus,* down to Mark Patteson's article in the last edition of the “Encyclopædia Britannica’ and Mr. Drummond's excellent though not brilliant 'Life'-all are agreed as to the main issues of Erasmus's intellectual and general character.
No case ever demonstrated more unquestionably the wisdom of Plato's aspiration and advice —that the world should be ruled by philosophers. The spirit of Erasmus was in all things the spirit of moderation, of wisdom, and of a sound mind. The natural mental structure of the man was essentially philosophic. While in abstruse speculative subjects, religious or other, he was chary of dogma, in ordinary matters of belief and of action his judgements were ready enough. Hence his Christian creed was composed of few articles, those only being chosen which rested on the undoubted language of Christ Himself. This Socratic wisdom--or, to speak more inclusively, this culmination at once of both Hellenic and Jewish wisdom-he carried into all his judgements and decisions whencesoever originated or however formed. On this philosophic substructure were superimposed all the acquirements of his erudite life—the fabric of his accumulated and assimilated knowledge. Like the subdivisions of a Gothic cathedral, all the varied chapels, transepts, and gables of his gigantic temple of knowledge took the bold, substantial form and the elegant design of its ground-plan and structural erections. To take a single example, his patristic interpretations of Augustine and Jerome are marked by the same breadth and simple strength of conception that distinguish his Biblical exegesis, notably his · Paraphrase of the New Testament.' In a word, the details of the Erasmian Pantheon copy the grandeur, the uniformity, the beauty of outline, which marks the ground-plan together with its foundation and basal sub-erec
* See the scarce work of J. A. Fabricius, 'Opusculorum Sylloge,' p. 361, &c.
tions. In this respect, however, Erasmus conforms to a universal law. The assimilated whole, the corpus eruditionis of all genuine scholars, is marked by homogeneousness both of outline and internal structure, and there is no branch or detail that does not manifest the characteristics of the whole-breadth, grandeur, and harmonious beauty.
That Erasmus lacked some of the requirements of the finished scholar need not cause us surprise. Like every robust thinker, to whom the life is more than meat and the body than raiment, he had no time, even if he had the inclination, for a fastidious culture of the purely ornamental details of scholarship. When the philosophic scholar and thinker has constructed his temple of knowledge, his systematic compilation of eclectic thought, or, as it may be, of reasoned speculation and many-sided culture, he does not care much for mere stage accessories, the purely ornamental features, which might be superadded to the building as a whole, not as enhancing its strength, but as adding somewhat to its beauty. Hence we are assured that Erasmus neither cultivated nor cared much to possess such adventitious adornments of knowledge as a classical Latin style. With his customary petulant hypercriticism Mark Patteson complained that the Erasmian Latinity was by no means classical. This is, doubtless, true; Erasmus would have been the first to admit it. Notwithstanding his admiration for Cicero, Erasmus was quite aware of the impassable gap between his style and that of the great master of Latin diction. His Latinity was, in fact, what inight be called the ordinary working-day Latinity' of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—the Latin of Sir T. More and Roger Ascham of the former, and of the Scaligers, Fabricius, and Salmasius of the latter. Setting aside, however, claims to a pure classic Latinity which Erasmus never dreamt of making, we may say that his style, which certainly is not ungrammatical and is not wanting in expressiveness, has by means of the schoolroom use of the Colloquies’taught more Latin than any work in the language in modern times, and the author has quite enough utilitarianism in his composition to regard this as a stronger claim to linguistic fame than any excellence of linguistic form.
Of his other intellectual acquirements we need add no more to what has been already said. Gifted as few scholars have been with a combination of talents not often found in close juxtaposition, Erasmus had conjoined in his own personality the keen, sensitive organisation of the bel esprit,
the schoolroom the languagerianism in
the man of the world, with the calm, many-sided contemplative temperament of the genuine philosopher. His keenness of intellectual perception, manifested by a rare insight into the internal constitution of arguments and causes, and enlivened by a ready wit, which, in its turn, was sharpened and polished by an incisive causticity and an irony which was either playful or the outcome on due occasion of a sava indignatio ; while, on the other hand, it was softened and humanised by an unfailing urbanity, and a most charming suavity of manner. These qualities, embodied particularly in his letters, render them a delightful representation of the man in his combined character of scholar and thinker, of man of the world and recluse, of adviser-general of popes and emperors on the one hand, of poor students, maid-servants, and artisans on the other. He was the common Socratic or Delphian oracle of doubters who found in the mere search for truth a profounder peace of mind than all the dogmas of all the creeds put together could furnish. In this deeper aspect, wherein the highest interests of thinking men are involved, the thought of Erasmus has a value which is perennial. Indeed, its undoubted value for his own time is a measure of its worth for ours or for any period of which the conditions and circumstances resemble the close of the sixteenth century. Given any period of vehement controversy—when human beliefs and human interests, religious, political and social, are arrayed against each other in internecine conflict, when all earnest men are seduced into some kind of partisanship, and dogmas divide the world between thein—what line of thought, what intellectual temperament, what process of reasoning, it may be asked, should enable the thinker to hold his own amid the chaos of mutually opposed causes and important buman concerns engaged in dire conflict ? Nor is this assimilation of the times of Erasmus with other periods of history imaginary. For that matter, the circumstances of our own day are sufficiently alike as to recall the end of the sixteenth century, and hence the lesson of Erasmus, of his thought and intellectual temperament, is one that it behoves Englishmen to learn. Special experience of very recent times has taught us that the foes with which Erasmus had to contend are neither defunct nor shorn of their mischievous power in our own day. Excessive dogma, ecclesiasticism, religious exclusiveness and intolerance, are still dominant in more than one section of the Christian world. The millennium of complete toleration, of supreme goodness, mutual consideration and charity, even granting that it is on the road, has not as yet arrived. The Christianity of the New Testament has not gained that complete recognition which is its due. Progress, no doubt, Europe bas made since the day when its emperors and popes, its princes and politicians, sat ostensibly at the feet of Erasmus; but the advance has only been partial, and the lesson but half learned. For this reason, the Life of • Erasmus,' especially embodied and embalmed as it is in his humorous, wise, and graphic letters, still retains its use. Happily for the English reader, the method of Professor Froude in this most interesting monograph, by allowing Erasmus to tell his story in his own inimitable way, has really the effect of giving a translation of what is after all the Rotterdam scholar's chief work-his magnificent collection of letters. Hereafter, the English reader will have no excuse for ignorance of the noble career, the disinterested character, and indomitable energies of one of the great teachers of Europe and of England at a time when both Europe and England were passing through one of their most critical conjunctures. Nor, as we began our article with the late Regius Professor of History, can we conclude it without a similar reference by way of closing reminiscence, since the spirit of Erasmus and the design which moulded his life-namely, the union of the highest philosophical and literary culture with the loftiest and withal the simplest teaching of Christianity-is common to both of them. It is not the least remarkable feature of this interesting and brilliant monograph that its moral, its animating spirit and teaching, as set forth by the most remarkable thinker of the sixteenth, are now attested and endorsed by one of the most noteworthy teachers in our England of the nineteenth, century.