Desiderius Erasmus (1466)
It was on this date, October 27, 1466, that the Dutch author, and the greatest humanist scholar of the northern Renaissance, Desiderius Erasmus was born Gerrit Gerritszoon in Rotterdam, in what is now the Netherlands. He was the product of a liaison between a housekeeper-niece and a Dutch priest. Ordained a priest himself, he learned first-hand about the laxity and corruption of contemporary monasteries when he entered one run by the Augustinian Order.
Erasmus became a life-long critic of the Catholic Church, but kept his life long (he died on 12 July 1536, age 69) by distancing himself from both Lutheranism and Romanism – he claimed "no inclination to die for the truth." He was known for hearty, Rabelaisian, living, usually on someone else's tab. Still, his wit and scholarship – he was for a time professor of Greek at Oxford University – won him international notice. Erasmus has been described as "the man who laid the egg that Luther hatched," but his refusal to join forces with Luther did nothing to prevent the Catholics from burning his excellent edition of the Greek New Testament.
In a less theologically repressive age, Erasmus would have been more candid about his skepticism. However, in his Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae, 1688), which he dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More, he writes, "As the Christian Church was founded in blood, confirmed by blood, and advanced by blood, so now in like manner... the Popes take to the sword." His letters, too, contain caustic indictments. In one, Erasmus says that "the monarchy of the Popes at Rome, as it is now, is a pestilence to Christendom, but I do not know if it is expedient to touch this sore openly."
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. (In regione caecorum rex est luscus.)
—Desiderius Erasmus, Adagia (III, IV, 96)
Erasmus was active during the reigns of some of the most corrupt popes in Catholic history – Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X – so his philosophical prudence cannot be faulted. Although the Catholic Encyclopedia has the effrontery to claim him, Erasmus was the greatest Freethinker of his time.
* Some sources (such as the Catholic Encyclopedia) put his date of birth as late as October 28, some as early as October 26. Here I follow the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
This deathbed conversion, by so critical a thinker as Leonardo, who would have nothing to lose by professing piety all his life, can only mean that during his prime years he was a secret freethinker.