Erasmus: The 16th Century's Pioneer of Peace Education and a Culture of Peace

Author:Peter van den Dungen
Position:Honorary Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. A.B.(Antwerp), M.A.(John Hopkins), Ph.D. (King's College, London)

More than a century before Grotius wrote his famous work on international law, his countryman Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam laid the foundations for the modern critique of war. In several writings, especially those published in the period 1515- 1517, the “prince of humanists”brilliantly and devastatingly condemned war not only on Christian but also on secular/rational grounds. His graphic... (see full summary)


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I Introduction

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.” 7 Another leading Erasmus scholar from Belgium,Page 412Aloïs Gerlo, in a chapter on him as a cosmopolitan and pacifist, draws attention to “that very important vein in his oeuvre: his numerous peace writings.”He continues, “Erasmus has not ceased to oppose war through his pen”and he relates him as regards this subject to such modern figures as Tolstoi, Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland, and Bertrand Russell. “In short, he is rightly regarded as the first principled European pacifist.” 8 It hardly needs stating that editors and translators of Erasmus’peace writings have always been the first to emphasise his life-long campaign for peace. For instance, in the introduction to her translation of The Complaint of Peace, Chantal Labre writes that Erasmus conducted tirelessly throughout his life and in work after work a “war against war.” 9 That change is under way was notably shown in the title given to the large exhibition held in Basle in 1986 on the 450th anniversary of Erasmus’death and which presented him as a “pioneer of peace and tolerance.” 10 In Images of Erasmus, a major art exhibition recently held in the city of his birth, “War and Peace”was one of the three themes focussed on together with “Scholarship and Education”and “Church and Faith,”not unlike the major themes in Halkin’ s biography mentioned above.11

II “The Invention 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.12 The title of Sir Michael’s Page 413 book was inspired by a quotation from the 19th century English jurist, Sir Henry Maine: “War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.” 13 Howard writes, “the medieval order, as it developed in Europe between the eighth and the eighteenth centuries, was largely a matter of a successful symbiosis between the ruling warrior class that provided order and the clerisy that legitimized it. Eventually critics emerged from within that clerisy who denied the essential legitimacy of their rulers on the grounds that war was not a necessary part of the natural or divine order, but a derogation of it. It was then that peace, the visualization of a social order from which war had been abolished, could be said to have been invented; an order, that is, resulting not from some millennial divine intervention … but from the forethought of rational human beings who had taken matters into their own hands.” 14 Erasmus stands as a key figure in the transition from the medieval to the modern period who not only in his own lifetime but still today is recognised as a paragon of the class of learned men, of scholars, Howard’s “clerisy.”It is hard to think of another critic who argued as passionately, convincingly, and - not to forget - as courageously as Erasmus that “war was not a necessary part of the natural or divine order.”For all his piety and Christian devotion, Erasmus condemned war and believed in the possibility of a social order from which it had been banned precisely because of “the forethought of rational human beings.”It seems therefore that as far as Europe and the modern era are concerned, his name cannot be overlooked in any discussion of the modern invention of peace at least as this concept is interpreted by Howard. Yet, Howard claims: “... if anyone could be said to have invented peace as more than a mere pious aspiration, it was Kant. He was almost alone in understanding that the demolition of the military structures built up in Europe over the past millennium would be no more than a preliminary clearing of the ground. New foundations would then have to be laid: peace had to be established.” 15

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...

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