Desiderius Erasmus

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In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (27 October 146612 July 1536) was a Dutch philosopher, humanist and theologian.

See also: The Praise of Folly


Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.
What is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?
I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.
I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.
  • Animals only follow their natural instincts; but man, unless he has experienced the influence of learning and philosophy, is at the mercy of impulses that are worse than those of a wild beast. There is no beast more savage and dangerous than a human being who is swept along by the passions of ambition, greed, anger, envy, extravagance, and sensuality.
    • De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis declamatio (1529), translated by Beert C. Verstraete as On Education for Children, in The Erasmus Reader (University of Toronto Press: 1990), p. 73
  • I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults.
    • Letter to an unidentified friend (1489), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 58
  • A constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies, so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery, for no activity can be continued for long if it does not to some extent afford pleasure to the participant.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • You must acquire the best knowledge first, and without delay; it is the height of madness to learn what you will later have to unlearn.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 114
  • Do not be guilty of possessing a library of learned books while lacking learning yourself.
    • Letter to Christian Northoff (1497), as translated in Collected Works of Erasmus (1974), p. 115
  • Ad Graecas literas totum animum applicui; statimque ut pecuniam accepero, Graecos primum autores, deinde vestes emam.
    • I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.
    • Letter to Jacob Batt (12 April 1500); Collected Works of Erasmus Vol 1 (1974)
    • Variant translation: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.
  • In regione caecorum rex est luscus.
    • In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.
    • Adagia (first published 1500, with numerous expanded editions through 1536), III, IV, 96
    • Also in the same passage of the Adagia is a variant: Inter caecos regnat strabus (Among the blind, the squinter rules).
  • The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.
    • Adagia (1508)
  • Bis dat, qui cito dat.
    • He that gives quickly gives twice.
    • Adagia (1508)
  • There are monasteries where there is no discipline, and which are worse than brothelsut prae his lupanaria sint et magis sobria et magis pudica. There are others where religion is nothing but ritual; and these are worse than the first, for the Spirit of God is not in them, and they are inflated with self-righteousness. There are those, again, where the brethren are so sick of the imposture that they keep it up only to deceive the vulgar. The houses are rare indeed where the rule is seriously observed, and even in these few, if you look to the bottom, you will find small sincerity. But there is craft, and plenty of it — craft enough to impose on mature men, not to say innocent boys; and this is called profession. Suppose a house where all is as it ought to be, you have no security that it will continue so. A good superior may be followed by a fool or a tyrant, or an infected brother may introduce a moral plague. True, in extreme cases a monk may change his house, or even may change his order, but leave is rarely given. There is always a suspicion of something wrong, and on the least complaint such a person is sent back.
  • I have no patience with those who say that sexual excitement is shameful and that venereal stimuli have their origin not in nature, but in sin. Nothing is so far from the truth. As if marriage, whose function cannot be fulfilled without these incitements, did not rise above blame. In other living creatures, where do these incitements come from? From nature or from sin? From nature, of course. It must borne in mind that in the apetites of the body there is very little difference between man and other living creatures. Finally, we defile by our imagination what of its own nature is fair and holy. If we were willing to evaluate things not according to the opinion of the crowd, but according to nature itself, how is it less repulsive to eat, chew, digest, evacuate, and sleep after the fashion of dumb animals, than to enjoy lawful and permitted carnal relations?
    • In Praise of Marriage (1519), in Erasmus on Women (1996) Erika Rummel
  • I am a lover of liberty. I will not and I cannot serve a party.
    • Spongia adversus aspergines Hutteni (1523), § 176, As quoted in Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1900) by Ephraim Emerton, p. 377
    • Variant: I am a lover of liberty. I cannot and will not serve parties.
  • There is no doubt about Martin Luther's marriage, but the rumour about his wife's early confinement is false; she is said however to be pregnant now. If there is truth in the popular legend, that Antichrist will be born from a monk and a nun (which is the story these people keep putting about), how many thousands of Antichrists the world must have already!
    • Responding to rumours prompted by the marriage of Martin Luther, in a letter to François Dubois (13 March 1526), as translated in The Correspondence of Erasmus : Letters 1658 to 1801, January 1526-March 1527 (1974) edited by Charles Garfield Nauert and Alexander Dalzell, p. 79
    • Paraphrased variant: They say that the Antichrist will be born of a monk and a nun. If so, there must already be thousands of Antichrists.
  • The world thought well of my schoolmaster guardian, because he was neither a liar, nor a scamp, nor a gambler; but he was coarse, avaricious, and ignorant; he knew nothing beyond the confused lessons which he taught to his classes. He imagined that in forcing a youth to become a monk he would be offering a sacrifice acceptable to God. He used to boast of the many victims which he devoted annually to Dominic and Francis and Benedict.
    • As quoted in Life and Letters of Erasmus: Lectures Delivered at Oxford 1893-4 (1899) by James Anthony Froude
  • Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.
    • As quoted in Erasmus of Rotterdam‎ (1934) by Stefan Zweig, Eden Paul, and Cedar Paul, p. 91; reprinted in Erasmus — The Right to Heresy (2008) by Stefan Zweig, p. 62
  • There is nothing I congratulate myself on more heartily than on never having joined a sect.
    • As quoted in Thomas More and Erasmus (1965) by Ernest Edwin Reynolds, p. 248
  • I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.
    • As quoted in Erasmus (1970) by György Faludy, p. 197
  • I doubt if a single individual could be found from the whole of mankind free from some form of insanity. The only difference is one of degree. A man who sees a gourd and takes it for his wife is called insane because this happens to very few people.
    • As quoted in Words from the Wise : Over 6,000 of the Smartest Things Ever Said (2007) by Rosemarie Jarski, p. 312. From The Praise of Folly.
  • For we have in Latin only a few small streams and muddy puddles, while they have pure springs and rivers flowing in gold. I see that it is utter madness even to touch with the little finger that branch of theology that deals chiefly with the divine mysteries, unless one is also provided with the equipment of Greek.
    • As quoted in Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) by By Eric Metaxas, p. 85
  • Most Christians are superstitious rather than pious, and except for the name of Christ differ hardly at all from superstitious pagans.
    • The Erasmus Reader (1990), pp. 140-141.
  • Whatever you see in the more material part of yourself, learn to refer to God and to the invisible part of yourself. In that way, whatever offers itself to the senses will become for you an occasion for the practice of piety.
    • The Erasmus Reader (1990), p. 141.
  • You venerate the saints, and you take pleasure in touching their relics. But you disregard their greatest legacy, the example of a blameless life. No devotion is more pleasing to Mary than the imitation of Mary's humility. No devotion is more acceptable and proper to the saints than striving to imitate their virtues.
    • The Erasmus Reader (1990), p. 144.
Main article: The Praise of Folly
  • For what is life but a play in which everyone acts a part until the curtain comes down?
  • This type of man who is devoted to the study of wisdom is always most unlucky in everything, and particularly when it comes to procreating children; I imagine this is because Nature wants to ensure that the evils of wisdom shall not spread further throughout mankind.
  • It might be wiser for me to avoid Camarina and say nothing of theologians. They are a proud, susceptible race. They will smother me under six hundred dogmas. They will call me heretic and bring thunderbolts out of their arsenals, where they keep whole magazines of them for their enemies. Still they are Folly's servants, though they disown their mistress. They live in the third heaven, adoring their own persons and disdaining the poor crawlers upon earth. They are surrounded with a bodyguard of definitions, conclusions, corollaries, propositions explicit, and propositions implicit. ...They will tell you how the world was created. They will show you the crack where Sin crept in and corrupted mankind.
  • They [the theologians] will explain to you how Christ was formed in the Virgin's womb; how accident subsists in synaxis without domicile in place. The most ordinary of them can do this. Those more fully initiated explain further whether there is an instans in Divine generation; whether in Christ there is more than a single filiation; whether 'the Father hates the Son' is a possible proposition; whether God can become the substance of a woman, of an ass, of a pumpkin, or of the devil, and whether, if so, a pumpkin could preach a sermon, or work miracles, or be crucified. And they can discover a thousand other things to you besides these. They will make you understand notions, and instants, formalities, and quiddities, things which no eyes ever saw, unless they were eyes which could see in the dark what had no existence.
    • as quoted by Froude ibid., (1899)
  • Of how much more passion than reason has Jupiter composed us? putting in, as one would say, "scarce half an ounce to a pound."

(Translated by John P Dolan)

  • Let me mention another requirement for a better understanding of Holy Scripture. I would suggest that you read those commentators who do not stick so closely to the literal sense. The ones I would recommend most highly after St. Paul himself are Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Too many of our modern theologians are prone to a literal interpretation, which they subtly misconstrue. p.37
  • In this life it is necessary that we be on our guard. To begin with we must be constantly aware of the fact that life here below is best described as being a type of continual warfare. This is a fact that Job, that undefeated soldier of vast experience, tells us so plainly. Yet in this matter the great majority of mankind is often deceived, for the world, like some deceitful magician, captivates their minds with seductive blandishments, and as a result most individuals behave as if there had been a cessation of hostilities. p.61
  • The things that we can see with our physical eyes are mere shadows of reality. If they appear ugly and ill formed, then what must be the ugliness of the soul in sin, deprived of all light? The soul, like the body, can undergo transformation in appearance. In sin it appears as completely ugly to the beholder. In virtue it shines resplendently before God.
  • Like the body the soul can be healthy, youthful, and so on. It can undergo pain, thirst, and hunger. In this physical life, that is, in the visible world, we avoid whatever would defile or deform the body; how much more, then, ought we to avoid that which would tarnish the soul?
  • I feel that the entire spiritual life consists in this: That we gradually turn from those things whose appearance is deceptive to those things that are real. p. 63
  • Once we have tasted the sweetness of what is spiritual, the pleasures of the world will have no attraction for us. If we disregard the shadows of things, then we will penetrate their inner substance.
  • You worry whether the drought will end. It is far better that you pray that God may water your mind lest virtue wither away in it. You are greatly concerned with money that is lost or being wasted, or you worry about the advance of old age. I think it much to be desired that you provide first of all for the needs of your soul.
  • Origen, of course, is also a great advocate of the allegorical approach. Yet I think you will have to admit that our modem theologians either despise this method of interpretation or are completely ignorant of it. As a matter of fact they surpass the pagans of antiquity in the subtlety of their distinctions. p. 63
  • Anyone who actually admires money as the most precious thing in life, and rests his security on it to the extent of believing that as long as he possesses it he will be happy, has fashioned too many false gods for himself. Too many people put money in the place of Christ, as if it alone has the key to their happiness or unhappiness. p. 100
  • The worst evil is hardness of heart. Those who do not repent, who deliberately remain in their habits of sin, have the the most to fear. p. 146
  • Careful thought about this will reveal how few there are who are truly converted from evil habits, especially among those who have prolonged their lives of sin right up to the end. The path down to evil is quick, slippery, and easy. But to turn and “to go forth to the upper air . . . this is effort, this is toil.” Think of Aesop’s goat before you descend and remember that climbing out is not easy. p. 147
  • Not to be a proud and haughty person, you have to follow the old proverb and “know thyself.” That is to say, you must regard your special talents, whatever beauty or fame you have, as gifts from God, and not as things you earned for yourself. Whatever is low and mean is not God’s doing, however. Here you can only blame yourself. Remember the squalor of your birth and how naked and poor you were when you crawled into the light of day like a little animal. p.154

(Peace speaks in her own person)

  • Though I certainly deserve no ill treatment from mortals, yet if the insults and repulses I receive were attended with any advantage to them, I would content myself with lamenting in silence my own unmerited indignities and man's injustice.
  • This world, the whole of the planet called earth, is the common country of all who live and breathe upon it.
  • Among the celestial bodies that are revolving over our heads, though the motions are not the same, and though the force is not equal, yet they move, and ever have moved, without clashing, and in perfect harmony.
  • The very elements themselves, though repugnant in their nature, yet, by a happy equilibrium, preserve eternal peace; and amid the discordancy of their constituent principles, cherish, by a friendly intercourse and coalition, an uninterrupted concord.
  • In living bodies, how all the various limbs harmonize, and mutually combine, for common defence against injury! What can be more heterogeneous, and unlike, than the body and the soul? and yet with what strong bonds nature has united them, is evident from the pang of separation. As life itself is nothing else but the concordant union of body and soul, so is health the harmonious cooperation of all the parts and functions of the body.
  • Animals destitute of reason live with their own kind in a state of social amity. Elephants herd together; sheep and swine feed in flocks; cranes and crows take their flight in troops; storks have their public meetings to consult previously to their emigration, and feed their parents when unable to feed themselves; dolphins defend each other by mutual assistance; and everybody knows, that both ants and bees have respectively established by general agreement, a little friendly community.
  • But plants, though they have not powers of perception, yet, as they have life, certainly approach very nearly to those things which are endowed with sentient faculties. What then is so completely insensible as stony substance? yet even in this, there appears to be a desire of union. Thus the loadstone attracts iron to it, and holds it fast in its embrace, when so attracted. Indeed, the attraction of cohesion, as a law of love, takes place throughout all inanimate nature.
  • I need not repeat, that the most savage of the savage tribes in the forest, live among each other in amity. Lions show no fierceness to the lion race. The boar does not brandish his deadly tooth against his brother boar. The lynx lives in peace with the lynx. The serpent shews no venom in his intercourse with his fellow serpent; and the loving kindness of wolf to wolf is proverbial.
  • As Christ had recommended peace during the whole of his life, mark with what anxiety he enforces it at the approach of his dissolution. Love one another, says he; as I have loved you, so love one another; and again, my peace I give unto you, my peace I leave you. Do you observe the legacy he leaves to those whom he loves? Is it a pompous retinue, a large estate, or empire? Nothing of this kind. What is it then? Peace he giveth, his peace he leaveth; peace, not only with our near connections, but with enemies and strangers!
  • As to the people; in all these countries the greater part of the people certainly detest war, and most devoutly wish for peace. A very few of them, indeed, whose unnatural happiness depends upon the public misery, may wish for war; but be it yours to decide, whether it is equitable or not, that the unprincipled selfishness of such wretches should have more weight than the anxious wishes of all good men united.
  • Let the public good overcome all private and selfish regards of every kind and degree; though in truth, even private and selfish regards, and every man's own interest, will be best promoted by the preservation of peace.
  • Finally, every man will become dear and pleasing to every other man; all will be beloved by all! and, what is still more desirable, beloved also by Christ; to become acceptable to whom is the highest felicity of human nature.
  • We must learn how to imitate Cicero from Cicero himself. Let us imitate him as he imitated others.
    • in The Erasmus Reader (1990), p. 130.
  • A speech comes alive only if it rises from the heart, not if it floats on the lips.
    • in The Erasmus Reader (1990), p. 130.


  • Dulce bellum inexpertis.
    • War is sweet to them that know it not.
      • Though Erasmus quoted this proverb in Latin at the start of his essay Bellum [War], and it is sometimes attributed to him, it originates with the Greek poet Pindar ("γλυκύ δ᾽ἀπείρῳ πόλεμος [War is sweet to them that know it not.]"). See also Wiktionary:dulce bellum inexpertis.
    • Variant translations:
      • War is sweet to those not acquainted with it.
      • War is sweet to those who do not know it.
      • War is sweet to those that never have experienced it.
      • War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.

Quotes about Erasmus

Erasmus dramatizes a well-established political position: that of the fool who claims license to criticize all and sundry without reprisal, since his madness defines him as not fully a person. ~ J. M. Coetzee
  • Erasmus’s Moria … sees through the madness of those who see themselves as reasonable and self-possessed while in reality giving themselves over to rivalry.
    • David Attwell, “The life and times of Elizabeth Costello,” J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual (2006), p. 34
  • What is unique about Folly’s mode of truth is its positionality: it comes “not from ‘the wise man’s mouth’ but from the mouth of the subject assumed not to know and speak the truth.” Folly’s truth entails “a kind of ek-stasis, a being outside oneself, being beside oneself, a state in which truth is known (and spoken) from a position that does not know itself to be the position of truth.”
    • David Attwell, “The life and times of Elizabeth Costello,” J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual (2006), p. 35
  • As a representative of both the feminine and the parodic, Moria does not set out to expose or destroy social conventions: her wisdom lies in working with them, without being ruled by them.
    • David Attwell, “The life and times of Elizabeth Costello,” J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual (2006), p. 35
  • What is the position of someone who sees behind the masks, but refuses to expose them violently? … The Praise of Folly marks out such a position, ‘prudently disarming itself in advance, keeping its phallus the size of the woman’s, steering clear of the play of power, clear of politics.’
    • David Attwell, “The life and times of Elizabeth Costello,” J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual (2006), pp. 35-36
  • Erasmus dramatizes a well-established political position: that of the fool who claims license to criticize all and sundry without reprisal, since his madness defines him as not fully a person and therefore not a political being with political desires and ambitions. The Praise of Folly, therefore sketches the possibility of a position for the critic of the scene of political rivalry, a position not simply impartial between the rivals but also, by self-definition, off the stage of rivalry altogether.
    • J. M. Coetzee, “Erasmus’s Praise of Folly: Rivalry and Madness,” Neophilologus 76 (1992), p. 1
  • Erasmus advises students to read only the best books on the subjects with which they are occupied. He cautions them against loading their memories with the errors of inferior writers which they will afterwards have to throw off and forget. The best description of the state of Europe in the age immediately preceding the Reformation will be found in the correspondence of Erasmus himself. I can promise my own readers that if they will accept Erasmus for a guide in that entangled period, they will not wander far out of the way.
  • I am going to speak to you this evening about the 'Encomium Moriæ,' if not the most remarkable, yet the most effective of all Erasmus's writings. It originated... in his conversations with More at Chelsea. ...and the title is a humorous play on More's own name.
    • James Anthony Froude, Life and Letters of Erasmus (1894) Lecture VIII
  • Folly, Moria, speaks in her own name and declares herself the frankest of beings. The jester of the age was often the wisest man; the so called wise men were often the stupidest of blockheads: and the play of wit goes on from one aspect to the other, the ape showing behind the purple, and the ass under the lion's skin.
  • Meanwhile rational Europe, trying to keep inflammable passion and mad peasant blood within decent bounds, had lost its great spokesman in Erasmus. He died in April. The torch of good reason was for the moment dimmed. Two firebrands, still obscure, were planning the conquest of mankind for a Christ of their own making, each asking his followers to immolate their reason and to bind their will. In 1536 John Calvin published his Institutio. In the same year a Spanish Basque, to be known as Ignatius Loyola, was finishing the studies at Paris that underlay the Society of Jesus. Henry's 'moderation,' on the terms of his own dominance, would push half-evolved Europeans along the road of the modern state, while Calvin and Loyola, borrowing statecraft and rousing the lust of warfare with the breath of the Eternal, would stir in religion precisely the same appetite for earthly dominance. Beside them Erasmus might seem a feeble creature, sitting by his open fire with a glass of Burgundy in front of him. But Erasmus had made the New Testament his labour of love. He was not a hero, like Loyola or Calvin. He was not an 'emperor' as Henry now called himself. He was only a humanist. Beside him the Jesuits, affirming liberty and vowing obedience, or the Calvinists, affirming predestination and applying the scourge, recalled very ancient priesthoods and glorious savage instincts that cry from the caverns to be released even if they must carry a Bible in their hand. Yet the Galilean Jew could not have despised the humanist: if he had rested by the fire with Erasmus, this book of the New Testament on his knees, and a glass of Burgundy before him, perhaps he might have raised those sad eyes to see that truth and charity had lingered for an instant at Basle, finding an honest welcome there that the Word was still alive; that the arm of the law and the methods of torture, to which his own thin hands bore witness, were perhaps not the only ways to prize the divinity in man.
  • Here again you confuse and mix everything up in your usual way.
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