In 1969 festivities* celebrating Erasmus took place in various cities around the world on what was then held to be the 500th anniversary of his birth. Since then, the traditionallyPage 410favourite year of 1467 has again established itself as the most likely year of his birth; more recently a strong case has been made for 1466. The Royal Library in Brussels organised an important exhibition entitled Erasmus and Belgium which was the main event of the “National Commemoration of Erasmus.”It consisted largely of early editions of works by Erasmus. For our purposes it is felicitous that the first item on display, and the first entry in the published exhibition catalogue,1 is his anti-war essay, Dulce Bellum Inexpertis ( “War is sweet to those who do not know it” ) - shown, moreover, in an edition printed in Leuven in 1517. The foregrounding of this work was not because the organisers somehow wanted to emphasise Erasmus as a pacifist. It is merely because this essay was first published in his Adages, and because the listing of early editions of Erasmus’s books printed in Belgium, which constituted the first section of the exhibition, was presented in alphabetical order of title. Before its publication as an independent pamphlet, Bellum (as the work became popularly known) had first appeared in the Adages, the enormously popular work in which Erasmus had collected 100s, and later 1,000s of sayings and proverbs culled from the writings of the ancients. The Adages thus became an ideal instrument to popularise, and make more widely available, the treasures of classical wisdom, which up to this time had remained inaccessible to a larger audience.
Erasmus’Adages has been called the first great bestseller of the new age of printing. More than 150 editions published during the 16th century alone testify to its popularity. The book has received universal praise, not only during his lifetime but continuing up to the present. While contemporaries referred to it as “the arsenal of Minerva” (Guillaume Budé) or representing “the Garden of Wisdom”(Richard Taverner), more recently Roland Bainton has called the adages “pearls of wisdom.”Margaret Mann Phillips, a leading English expert on Erasmus, and translator of the Adages,2 has called it “a key work of the 16th century... the book which formed the European mind.”The great Dutch historian and biographer of Erasmus, Johan Huizinga, wrote that with this book, “Erasmus brought the gold of the classical mind in circulation.”In terms of the history of literary genre, the book represents a lifetime before Montaigne, “the birth of the Essay”by Anton Gail.
However, our interest is not in this most influential and popular of books, but in what was soon to become its most famous, and longest essay. That it featured at thePage 411very opening of the exhibition and catalogue is fortuitous because thus, from the beginning, the attention of the visitor and reader is drawn to the fact that Erasmus was a pacifist and critic of war. Further evidence of this follows soon, since the fifth work displayed was a collection of five works by Erasmus, published again in Leuven the following year (1518), and which includes Querela Pacis (The Complaint of Peace). It is unfortunate, and scarcely believable, that all too often Erasmus’pacifist sentiments and strivings have been ignored by his biographers especially in earlier centuries, even though they are a constant and important element in his life - as clearly evidenced by his publications on the subject which appeared in many editions and translations as well as by the many references to it in his correspondence. This hard-to-understand neglect of a vital part of his life’s work and writings is also shown in the Erasmus House in Anderlecht near Brussels, “Maison d’Erasme,”where the great humanist lived from May to October 1521, after life in Leuven had become unbearable and his writings were beginning to be regarded as heretical. When the present writer visited this impressive museum, not long after its renovation and reopening in 1988,3 it was perplexing and dismaying to discover that none of his anti-war writings was on display - as if a deliberate effort had been made to hide this aspect from the visitor.
The pre-eminence of Erasmus as an early pacifist and critic of war is conclusively shown in the most extensive bibliography of historical peace and anti-war literature available, viz. the lists compiled in the 1930s by Dr. Jacob ter Meulen, the long-serving scholar-librarian of the Peace Palace in The Hague. He also compiled the definitive bibliography of Grotius, and who built up the famous Grotius collection of the Peace Palace.4 All but eight of the 58 publications listed for the earliest period (1480-1521) are by Erasmus.5 And yet, as mentioned, in many biographies this aspect of his life and work is hardly touched upon. Moreover, it is not only scholars and biographers who ignore Erasmus the pacifist, but also students of war and peace. As regards the former, there are of course exceptions, and some Erasmus scholars have highlighted the centrality of peace in his life and work. For instance, Ross Dealy writes that for Erasmus “war is…a phenomenon at the very center of his concerns.” 6 A leading Belgian expert, Leon-E. Halkin has similarly written that “throughout his life, Erasmus was preoccupied with the theme of peace.”
As regards scholars of war and peace, their neglect of Erasmus can be illustrated in the work of one of the leading military historians of our time, Sir Michael Howard, who in his book, The Invention of Peace, fails even to mention Erasmus.
Kant’ s essay, Towards Perpetual Peace, was published in 1795 - almost three centuries after Erasmus had addressed the question of war and peace. Of course, it cannot be denied that compared with Erasmus, the philosopher from Koenigsberg offered a muchPage 414more elaborate and specific, legally based, outline for humanity’s long and arduous path which would eventually result in the establishment of a durable world peace. Erasmus’pacifist writings, for all their brilliance, were largely moral...