ON ERASMUS THE PRE-REFORMATION HUMANIST

. . . . there can be no doubt that Erasmus had already lost touch with speculative philosophy and theology to such a degree that he no longer understood the stabilizing, civilizational function of a conscientious and systematic, intellectual analysis of such complex and explosive spiritual forces as those that are contained in the New Testament.

What surprises most in Erasmus—and the reader of his work must always remind himself of the general situation in order not to become unduly critical of him—is his almost unbelievable historical naïveté. He seems to have had almost no sense at all for the fact that the existence of human societies in history is more than a occasion for bright individuals to show off their taste in belles lettres, their elegance of style, and their knowledge of three languages. The hubris of the intellectual was already so strong in him that it dulled his sense for the importance of tradition and intellectual discipline and exaggerated the value of brilliant demolition of the symptoms of an evil.

One must say of him what must be said of so many intellectuals after him: that he was fundamentally right in his emotional revolt but totally wrong in his intellectual response. The reformism of Erasmus, in its positive as well as its negative aspects, has its historical importance because it shows the extent to which the intellectual and spiritual traditions of Western civilization had disintegrated before the great upheaval of 1517 changed the situation radically through the injection of the spiritual resources of the sectarian movements into the public life of the Western nations.

The ambivalence of Erasmus’s reaction toward the Reformation, his sympathy with the revolt, and his disgust with its forms (very much reminiscent of our contemporary so haben wir es nicht gemeint [after World War II-fjw] ); show best the difficulties arising from an escape into a humanistic private existence in an age of crisis, from the escape into an existence that is pious, learned, and reasonable but deficient in strength of intellect and spirit.

CW Vol 22 (HPI-IV)
Chapter 2, THE ORDER OF REASON: ERASMUS AND MORE
§ 2 The Christianity of Erasmus, pp 96-97.





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