When it came to sizing up Luther and what he meant, Erasmus, the wisest of the wise, was as blind as any other man.
In 1934, when dark clouds were already gathering around Europe, Stefan Zweig published what he would later consider his most personal and most self-revealing book, a biography of Erasmus of Rotterdam. The main objective of this biography was, plain enough, to reintroduce the thought of this Renaissance humanist to the 20th century reader. Zweig thought it important to remind his fellow Europeans that, despite what current affairs were telling them, not all Europeans had thought about territorial disputes and political and religious problems along the same lines, that not every text written in Europe had been written to exacerbate nationalist sentiments, but that there had been thinkers that had argued for the cultivation of a supranational, European spirit:
“Erasmus of Rotterdam was, of all the writers and creators in the West, the first conscious European, the first to fight on behalf of peace, the ablest champion of the humanities and of a spiritual ideal.” (Ch. 1)
Zweig’s biography of Erasmus does a lot to achieve its main goal; we do learn a lot about the man and his works and, most importantly, a lot is learned about the reasons he was so famous in his lifetime. However, what I want to focus is on a passage that comes along in chapter seven, where Zweig narrates the first “encounter” between Erasmus and the man who would later be his greatest opponent, Luther.
Erasmus stands at the peak of his powers and fame, and every important European wants to either visit him or correspond with him. Among the innumerable letters of sympathy and respect, on December 11, 1516, he receives one from Spalatinus, secretary of the Elector of Saxony, which, among other things, tells him about a young Augustinian friar in town who felt a great respect for his teachings but who differed from him on the question of Original Sin. According to Zweig:
“This letter is one of the minute stones which go to the composition of the vast mosaic known as the history of man. For the first time, though indirectly, Dr. Martin Luther—for the young Augustinian friar was none other than he—addressed the great master, and his initial protest already touched the central point around which the two paladins of the Reformation were in later years to fight as enemies. At the time when he received the letter, Erasmus paid little heed to the impressions it conveyed. How should he, busy as he always was, wooed by the whole intellectual world, find time to dispute on theological matters with an obscure monk in the depths of Saxony? He passed the information by, little knowing that the hour had struck when his own life and that of the world at large were to take a new turn. So far he had stood alone, master of Europe and master of the new interpretation of the Gospels; now a mighty opponent had arisen. With gentle finger, hardly audible, Martin Luther tapped at the door of Erasmus’ heart; his name was to sound throughout the world as the heir and conqueror of Erasmus.” (Ch. 7)
As Zweig insists from the very beginning of his book, Erasmus’ fame was impressive and extended to all the territories of Europe, and the foundation of this fame lay on his wisdom and judgment — “doctor universalis,” “prince of scientific learning,” “father of study,” “light of the world,” and “vir incomparabilis et doctorum phoenix” were some of the honorary titles he was given. But when it came to sizing up Luther and what he meant, when the moment came to recognize the magnitude of what his critique represented, none of these titles came to help. Erasmus, the wisest of the wise, was as blind as any other man.
This blindness about the outcome of our plans and actions, this stumbling accuracy of our judgment at the moment of sizing up our circumstances, has been one of the components of what the greatest Western minds have called the human condition. Whenever we reflect upon this episode of Erasmus’ biography, we would do well if recalling that poem by Constantine Cavafy titled “Ended”:
In trepidation and amid suspicions,
with agitated minds and frightened eyes, —
wasting away, — we plan how we should act
in order to escape the obvious peril
that so calamitously threatens us.
And yet we err; the peril is not there;
false were the messages, — or then we never
listened attentively, or we mistook.
Disaster of a kind we dreamt not of,
sudden, impetuous, falls on us; and we —
unready — where time now? — are cast adrift.