Book Review: Erasmus by Cornelis Augustijn

Cornelis Augustijn, Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence, trans. J. C. Grayson (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1991)

This biography of Erasmus is extraordinary for its lucid brevity. It is no easy task to depict a figure of Erasmus’ stature—his life, works, and influence!—in 200 pages, but Augustijn delivers. A lesser scholar might have opted to sacrifice aspects of Erasmus’ life or to throw style to the wind in an encyclopedic information dump. Augustijn has taken neither easy course. Rather, he pares down his discussions of other scholars to an absolute minimum, where credit must be attributed or errors corrected. Even more importantly, he chooses perceptive presentation over comprehensive description. Short chapters allow him to cover all the necessary ground; keen judgment enables him to sift out details of lesser import. Augustijn’s prose, even in translation (thanks to Grayson), is both direct and interesting. The only subpar chapter is, unfortunately, the first one after the introduction. Those who persevere will be rewarded.

Augustijn set three goals for himself in this work. First was to combine newer scholarship in French, English, and German, scholarly domains that too often pursue disparate paths. As far as I was able to judge, Augustijn succeeded. He certainly displays intimate knowledge of the history of Erasmus’ reception in various places and times (see especially ch. 15). His second objective was “not to measure Erasmus by the standards of others but to offer him the chance to be himself” (5). Too often in scholarship has Erasmus been a negative foil for others: Zwingli, Enlightenment thinkers, above all Luther. There is some foundation for this, as Erasmus left neither school nor denomination, and even some contemporaries were already forming his image as proto-Luther. However, such is not the task of a biographer. Augustijn succeeds on all counts in disentangling Erasmus from various instrumentalizing narratives. He is shown to have propounded a coherent program of reform, even if no one implemented it. Augustijn’s third goal was to embed Erasmus within the fuller context of his milieu, the international biblical humanist movement. Here he was less successful. Certainly Erasmus’ concept of biblical humanism is clear enough, and others are said to have shared it, but other figures remain sketchy. Partly this may be because Erasmus was a man of many admirers and just as many critics, but few true peers.

Augustijn does not shy from advancing global assessments and identifying “essential” ideas. At a few points I was a bit skeptical toward this harmonizing, synthesizing tendency, but he does argue his conclusions rather than assume them. He asserts that Erasmus’ most central identity, pointed out by his critic Maarten van Dorp, was grammaticus (grammarian). Erasmus appropriated this title and used it of himself, even in publications. He believed in the centrality of the word, both for scholarship and devotion. Augustijn intriguingly cites one of Erasmus’ lesser-known treatises, Lingua (The Tongue), for corroboration. Erasmus’ central theological concept is said to be the distinction between internal and external, spirit and flesh. In this conviction, if not in all the applications, Zwingli was a true successor. Augustijn stresses Erasmus’ similarity with Luther on many individual points of church reform, but distinguishes him from Luther primarily by what they found significant. Erasmus not only disagreed with Luther’s doctrines of predestination and justification, but moreover (unlike Luther) failed to find their disagreement particularly important. To him, Luther could be neither heretic nor hero, only a good critic with a bad attitude. Augustijn locates Erasmus’ most important contributions in his consistent application of philological method to the Bible, his dethroning of systematic theology in favor of exegesis, and in his (never-realized) program for ecclesiastical renewal.

Overall this was an excellent book. I recommend it highly both for non-academics and for academic non-specialists. I assume period specialists will already be familiar with this excellent contribution.