Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From Erasmus’s Correspondence
By Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1467–1536)
Passages Showing his Views of Life and Conduct

READ first the best books…. The important thing for you is not how much you know, but the quality of what you know. Divide your day and give to each part of it a special occupation… Never work at night. It dulls the brain and hurts the health.  1
  I would not change my freedom for the best bishopric in the world.—LETTER TO PETER GILES, 1516.  2
  I am now fifty-one years old…. I am not enamored of life, but it is worth while to continue a little longer with such a prospect of a golden age…. All looks brighter now…. I myself, insignificant I, have contributed something. I have at least stirred the bile of those who would not have the world grow wiser, and only fools now snarl at me. One of them said in a sermon lately, in a lamentable voice, that all was now over with the Christian faith.—LETTER TO CAPITO, circa 1518.  3
  Old institutions cannot be rooted up in an instant. Quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Avoid all appearance of sedition. Keep cool. Do not get angry. Do not hate anybody. Do not get excited over the noise which you have made…. May Christ give you his spirit, for his own glory and the world’s good.—LETTER TO LUTHER, circa 1519.  4
  The world is waking out of a long deep sleep. The old ignorance is still defended with tooth and claw, but we have kings and nobles now on our side.—LETTER TO SIR HENRY GUILDFORD, 1519.  5
  For yourself, the intelligence of your country will preserve the memories of your virtues, and scholars will tell how a king once reigned there who in his own person revived the virtues of the ancient heroes.—LETTER TO KING HENRY VIII., 1519.  6
  The justest war can hardly approve itself to any reasonable person…. The people build cities, the princes destroy them, and even victory brings more ill than good.—LETTER TO THE ABBOT OF ST. BERTIN.  7
  My work has been to restore a buried literature, and recall divines from their hair-splittings to a knowledge of the New Testament.—LETTER THROWING LIGHT ON HIS PURPOSE IN PRESENTING HIS EDITION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, 1521.  8
Passages Relating to the Monks

  HAPPY Epimenides, that he woke at last! Some divines never wake at all, and fancy themselves most alive when their slumber is deepest…. Do not mistake me. Theology itself I reverence and always have reverenced. I am speaking merely of the theologasters of our own time, whose brains are the rottenest, intellects the dullest, doctrines the thorniest, manners the brutalest, life the foulest, speech the spitefulest, hearts the blackest, that I have ever encountered in the world.—LETTER TO HIS PUPIL GREY.
  A set of creatures who ought to be lamenting their sins, but who fancy they can please God by snorting in their throats.  10
  You say that I cannot die better than among my brethren. I am not so sure of that. Your religion is in your dress;… your religious orders, as you call them, have done the Church small service.—LETTER TO SERVATIUS, 1514.  11
  I am delighted that you have stood up for Reuchlin…. What a fight he is having, and with what enemies! The Pope himself is afraid to provoke the monks…. Those wretches in the disguise of poverty are the tyrants of the Christian world.—LETTER TO PIRKHEIMER, 1517.  12
  What a thing it is to cultivate literature! Better far to grow cabbages. Bishops have thanked me for my work, the Pope has thanked me; but these tyrants the mendicant friars never leave me alone with their railing.—LETTER TO CARDINAL WOLSEY, 1518.  13
Passages Relating to Scholasticism and Theology

  I WISH there could be an end of scholastic subtleties,… and Christ be taught plainly and simply. The reading of the Bible and the early Fathers will have this effect.—LETTER TO CAPITO, circa 1518.
  … Wrangling about the nature of the Second Person of the Trinity, as if Christ were a malignant demon, ready to destroy you if you made a mistake about his nature!… Reduce the articles of faith to the fewest and simplest…. Let our divines show their faith by their works, and convert Turks by the beauty of their lives.—LETTER TO ABBOT VOLZIUS, circa 1518.  15
  Heresy is held a deadly crime; so if you offend one of these gentlemen they all rush on you together, one grunting out “Heretic,” the rest grunting in chorus and crying for stones to hurl at you.—LETTER TO LAURINUS, circa 1518.  16
  It would be well for us if we thought less of our dogmas and more of the gospel.—LETTER TO PETER BARBIRIUS, 1521.  17
  May not a man be a Christian, who cannot explain philosophically how the nativity of the Son differs from the procession of the Holy Spirit?… The sum of religion is peace, which can only be when definitions are as few as possible, and opinion is left free on many subjects. Our present problems are said to be waiting for the next Œcumenical Council. Better let them wait till the veil is removed, and we see God face to face.—LETTER TO THE ARCHBISHOP OF PALERMO, 1522.  18
Passages Relating to Luther

  LUTHER’S party have urged me to join them, and Luther’s enemies have done their best to drive me to it by their furious attacks on me in their sermons. Neither have succeeded. Christ I know; Luther I know not…. I have said nothing, except that Luther ought to be answered and not crushed…. We must bear almost anything rather than throw the world into confusion…. The actual facts of things are not to be blurted out at all times and places, and in all companies…. I was the first to oppose the publication of Luther’s books. I recommended Luther himself to publish nothing revolutionary. I feared always that revolution would be the end, and I would have done more had I not been afraid that I might be found fighting against the Spirit of God.—LETTER TO BISHOP MARLIANUS, 1520.
  May Christ direct Luther’s actions to God’s glory!… In Luther’s enemies I perceive more of the spirit of this world than of the Spirit of God. I wish Luther himself would be quiet for a while…. What he says may be true, but there are times and seasons. Truth need not always be proclaimed from the house-tops.—LETTER TO SPALATIN, 1520.  20
  As to Luther himself, I perceived that the better a man was, the less he was Luther’s enemy…. Can it be right to persecute a man of unblemished life, in whose writings distinguished and excellent persons have found so much to admire?… The Pope has no worse enemies than his foolish defenders. He can crush any man if he pleases, but empires based only on terror do not last.—LETTER TO CARDINAL CAMPEGGIO, 1520.  21
  By burning Luther’s books you may rid your book-shelves of him, but you will not rid men’s minds of him.—LETTER TO GODSCHALK, MODERATOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUVAIN, 1520.  22
  I told him that it was useless to burn Luther’s books, unless you could burn them out of people’s memories.—LETTER TO SIR THOMAS MORE, circa 1520.  23
  Curses and threats may beat the fire down for the moment, but it will burst out worse than ever. The Bull has lost Luther no friends, and gained none for the Pope.—LETTER TO A FRIEND AT ROME, circa 1521.  24
  All admit that the corruptions of the Church required a drastic medicine. But drugs wrongly given make the sick man worse. I said this to the King of Denmark lately. He laughed, and answered that small doses would be of no use; that the whole system needed purging. For myself, I am a man of peace and hate quarrels.—LETTER TO WARHAM, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, 1521.  25
  It is easy to call Luther “a fungus”; it is not easy to answer him.—LETTER TO LORD MOUNTJOY, circa 1521.  26
  They may chain the tongues of men: they cannot touch their minds.—LETTER TO PIRKHEIMER, circa 1521.  27
  They call me a Lutheran. Had I but held out a little finger to Luther, Germany would have seen what I could do. But I would rather die ten times over than make a schism.—LETTER TO CORONELLO, circa 1522.  28
  Christendom was being asphyxiated with formulas and human inventions. Men needed waking. The gospel light had to be rekindled. Would that more wisdom had been shown when the moment came…. Your Highness sends me two books of Luther’s, which you wish me to answer. I cannot read the language in which they are written.—LETTER TO GEORGE, DUKE OF SAXONY, circa 1522.  29
  I do not object generally to the evangelical doctrines, but there is much in Luther’s teachings which I dislike. He runs everything which he touches into extravagance…. Do not fear that I shall oppose evangelical truth. I left many faults in him unnoticed, lest I should injure the gospel. I hope mankind will be the better for the acrid medicines with which he has dosed them. Perhaps we needed a surgeon who would use knife and cautery.—LETTER TO MELANCHTHON, 1524.  30
  Luther could not have succeeded so signally if God had not been with him, especially when he had such a crew of admirers behind him. I considered that it was a case for compromise and argument. Had I been at Worms, I believe I could have brought it to that.—LETTER TO DUKE GEORGE OF SAXONY, 1524.  31
Letter to Pope Adrian VI.

  YOUR Holiness requires my advice, and you wish to see me. I would go to you with pleasure if my health allowed. But the road over the Alps is long. The lodgings on the way are dirty and inconvenient. The smell from the stoves is intolerable. The wine is sour and disagrees with me…. As to writing against Luther, I have not learning enough…. One party says I agree with Luther because I do not oppose him…. The other finds fault with me because I do oppose him. I did what I could. I advised him to be moderate, and I only made his friends my enemies…. They quote this and that to show we are alike. I could find a hundred passages where St. Paul seems to teach the doctrines which they condemn in Luther. I did not anticipate what a time was coming. I did, I admit, help to bring it on; but I was always willing to submit what I wrote to the Church…. Those counsel you best who advise gentle measures…. Your Holiness wishes to set things right, and you say to me, “Come to Rome. Write a book against Luther. Declare war against his party.” Come to Rome? Tell a crab to fly. The crab will say, “Give me wings.” I say, “Give me back my youth and strength.”… If I write anything at Rome, it will be thought that I am bribed. If I write temperately, I shall seem trifling. If I copy Luther’s style, I shall stir a hornets’ nest.
  But you ask me what you are to do. Well, some think there is no remedy but force. That is not my opinion; for I think there would be frightful bloodshed…. Things have gone too far for cautery. Wycliffe and his followers were put down by the English kings; but they were only crushed, not extinguished…. However that may be, if you mean to try prisons, lashes, confiscations, stake, and scaffold, you need no help from me. You yourself, I know, are for mild measures: but you have no one about you who cares for anything but himself; and if divines only think of their authority, monks of their luxuries, princes of their politics, and all take the bit between their teeth, what can we expect? For myself, I should say, discover the roots of the disease. Clean out those to begin with. Punish no one. Let what has taken place be regarded as a chastisement sent by Providence, and grant a universal amnesty. If God forgives so many sins, God’s vicar may forgive.  33
  You ask me why I did not speak out at once. Because I regarded Luther as a good man, raised up by Providence to correct the depravity of the age.—LETTER TO THE PRINCE OF CARPI, 1525  34
  You see how fiercely Luther strikes at me, moderate though I was…. Ten editions of his reply have been published already. The great men in the Church are afraid to touch him, and you want poor me to do it again…. In France they are at work with gibbet and dungeon. It won’t answer…. Let Catholics meanwhile reform the abuses which have provoked the revolt, and leave the rest to a general council.—LETTER TO FABER, 1525(?).  35
  The rival parties drag at the two ends of a rope. When it breaks, both will fall to the ground.—LETTER TO THE ARCHBISHOP OF COLOGNE, 1528.  36
  The kings are fighting among themselves for objects of their own. The monks, instead of looking for a reign of Christ, want only to reign themselves. The theologians curse Luther…. Idiots that they are, they alienate with their foul speeches many who would have returned to the Church.—LETTER TO THE BISHOP OF AUGSBURG, 1528.  37
  Now, partly from superstition, partly from avarice, the saying of masses has become a trade like shoemaking or bricklaying.—LETTER TO THE BISHOP OF HILDESHEIM, 1530.  38
  The problem is how to heal this fatal schism without rivers of blood.—LETTER TO MEXIA, 1530.  39
  To kill one’s fellow-creatures needs no great genius; but to calm a tempest by prudence and judgment is a worthy achievement indeed.—LETTER TO THE BISHOP OF TRENT, 1530.  40
Passages Showing Various Moods, but Generally his Strong Tendency toward Broad-Churchmanship

  OTHERS may be martyrs if they like. I aspire to no such honor.
  We have not all strength for martyrdom, and I fear that if trouble comes I shall act like Peter.  42
  I have not condemned ceremonies. I have only insisted on a proper use of them. Christ did the same; so why find fault with me?… The Christian religion nowadays does not require miracles, and there are none; but you know what lying stories are set going by crafty knaves.—LETTER TO AN ENGLISH BISHOP, 1528.  43
Passage Showing a Playful Skepticism
(Referring to the tearing down of the Saints’ images at Basle)

  STRANGE that none of them worked a miracle to avenge their dignity, when before they had worked so many at the slightest invitation…. At Basle not a saint stirred a finger.—LETTER TO PIRKHEIMER, circa 1529.
Passages Revealing his Feelings toward the End of Life

  YOU talk of the great name which I shall leave behind me, and which posterity is never to let die;… but I care nothing for fame and nothing for posterity. I desire only to go home and to find favor with Christ.—LETTER TO POPE PAUL III. IN 1535 (the year before Erasmus’s death).
  [For the full series of Erasmus’s letters in the original, see various editions, but especially that of LeClerc, Louvain, 1703–6. Those given above are selected from the abridged translations given by Froude in his ‘Life and Letters of Erasmus,’ London, 1894. See also the selections in Jortin and Drummond.]  46

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