Erasmus on the Arts in Luther’s Reformation: A Tragedy

By Kirk Essary, The University of Western Australia

The arts had affective import for Erasmus on multiple levels. The emotions themselves are described by the Dutch humanist in categories derived from the ars rhetorica, and according to the genres of classical literature. Following Quintilian, Erasmus offers a taxonomy of feeling ex arte in his 1535 manual for preachers, the Ecclesiastes: ‘The more violent emotions’ (vehementius affectus) he writes, ‘which the Greeks call pathê are to be discovered in Homer’s Iliad and in tragedy; the calmer ones, which are pleasant rather than disturbing, are supposed by Homer’s Odyssey and by comedy’.[1] In other words, Erasmus conceives of affectus via the lens of ars, ars in this case originating with Homer, whom Erasmus elsewhere describes as ‘a sort of Ocean of all the arts and sciences’.[2]

During the early years of the Reformation, Erasmus came to understand the Luther movement, too, as distinctly emotional, and the language he used to describe the fallout was derived from ancient tragedy and epic. By taking a cue from Jessica Wolfe, who has described Erasmus’s penchant for using images from classical literature to assess European ‘discourses of strife’ in the sixteenth century as a kind of ‘mythographic shorthand’,[3] we can more fully appreciate Erasmus’s conceptualisation of the events (or feelings) which gave rise to the Reformation.

As early as 1518 Erasmus finds himself forced to defend the arts more vigorously and to interpret attacks on the humanities in a new light. ‘The humanities were making pretty good progress everywhere’, he wrote in 1521, ‘had not this sad business of Luther arisen to throw everything into confusion’.[4] From the beginning of the Luther movement, conservative Catholics and nascent Protestant-humanists connected Lutheranism to the Erasmian brand of Christian humanism which employed humanistic methods to biblical studies. Thus was born the oft-repeated adage that Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched. In the first letter Erasmus wrote to Luther himself, Erasmus hints at his displeasure with the emotional tone of the dispute: ‘I keep myself uncommitted, so far as I can, in hopes of being able to do more for the revival of good literature. And I think one gets further by courtesy and moderation than by clamour’.[5]

‘The Divine Mill’ (1521), by Martin Seger ( Christ pours grain into a mill, which is then gathered by Erasmus and baked into the gospel by Luther. This ‘bread’, which takes on the form of books, is rejected by monks, bishops, and the pope.
‘The Divine Mill’ (1521), by Martin Seger ( Christ pours grain into a mill, which is then gathered by Erasmus and baked into the gospel by Luther. This ‘bread’, which takes on the form of books, is rejected by monks, bishops, and the pope.


But Erasmus’s hopes for moderation would be dashed, his relationship with Luther would sour (to put it mildly), and his attempts to disassociate himself from the Protestant cause would never convince his most trenchant Catholic critics. In 1520, Erasmus writes to Gerard Geldenhouwer:

I am filled with forebodings about that wretched Luther; the conspiracy against him is strong everywhere, and everywhere the ruling princes are being provoked against him, especially Pope Leo… Hatred of liberal studies and the stupidity of monks—they were the prime sources from which the whole tragic story sprang.[6]

In this case, the tragedy would seem to lie not in the fact that Luther has effected a schism, but in the energised philistinism of certain monks and theologians who both over-reacted to Luther and associated his movement with the humanities.

Erasmus repeatedly expresses his exasperation at the discord that arose through abusive and over-passionate language in the Europe-wide disputes over Luther. ‘What could be more raving mad’, he writes in a letter from 1521, ‘than to debate a question of such importance with scandalous pamphlets and lunatic uproar? … In this matter the first point is that both sides have gone wrong, in my opinion, and that too much passion has been brought to bear in both directions’. In the same letter, he complains that even if Luther had borrowed from his books, that was no fault of his own, although he concedes that he (Erasmus) might ‘have phrased some things more cautiously, had I seen that a different time was coming as fraught with tragedy as the present’.[7] Erasmus prays to be extricated from the tragedy, or from the new Iliad with its violent passions: ‘This business of Luther’, he writes to Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham in 1521,


far removed as it is from liberal studies, even so burdens the work of people like myself with considerable unpopularity. There is an element of chance in this: before Luther arose, I had long been fighting a bitter campaign against the sort of people who are now Luther’s chief opponents… And now they all vie with one another in attacking Luther, as the Greeks of old attacked Hector when he was down.

Erasmus would prefer to find himself in a comedy, or in the Ür-comedy, the Odyssey: ‘We must avoid [Luther] like Scylla’, he continues, ‘and yet make sure we are not swept into Charybdis’.[8]

These comments provide insight into the difficult position Erasmus found himself in. Decried then and after as a lukewarm fence-sitter, we might more fairly say that it was Erasmus’s affective disposition, and specifically his disposition toward the arts, that forced him to take the middle course. Erasmus would condemn the venomous tendencies of the religious disputations from the early years of the Reformation until the end of his life. In 1534, after several years of silence between the two men, Erasmus was surprised to find that Luther had published a new attack on him. He responds by invoking an epithet from the Iliad: ‘Lo and behold, Martin Luther’s thumos agênor is inflamed against me again. He has sent out a letter, completely unexpected, every line of which breathes a murderous hatred’.[9] Thumos agênor is the description Homer applies to the Trojan Sarpedon, who in the Iliad rages against the Argives ‘as a lion attacks cattle’.[10] Comparing himself to Luther, Erasmus writes:

I confess that I am by natural inclination rather given to jesting, both in my writings and in my conversations with friends… But since no person is free of every fault, I prefer to seem slightly foolish to some than a kind of harsh, plêktês (‘violent’), Procrustean character, always breathing tragedy.


Finally, he closes the loop for us:

Rhetoricians must first of all teach using arguments, then, if the matter demands, stimulate the emotions, but must not rashly excite the violent feelings known as pathê. But never to stop being vehement, never to cease thundering truly tragic words, this is lunacy rather than eloquence.[11]

Kirk Essary is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions at The University of Western Australia. He holds an MA in Classics from Texas Tech University (2008), an MA in Religions of Western Antiquity from Florida State University (2010) and a PhD in Religion from Florida State University (2014). He works primarily on Erasmus and John Calvin, analysing their understanding of emotions in the larger context of the Renaissance and Reformation reception of classical, biblical and patristic ideas. He is also interested in the role of emotion and affectivity in the history of rhetoric, in sermons and preaching manuals, and in the theological discourse of early modern biblical humanists. His first book, Erasmus and Calvin on the Foolishness of God: Reason and Emotion in the Christian Philosophy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), examines the role of Pauline folly in the conceptions of the ‘Christian philosophy’ in the works of Erasmus and John Calvin, with an eye to Erasmus’s influence on the sixteenth-century Protestant exegetical tradition.


[1] Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974-), 24:654. Hereafter CWE.

[2] CWE 29:5.

[3] See her excellent book, Homer and the Question of Strife from Erasmus to Hobbes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

[4] CWE 8:312.

[5] Ep 980 (CWE 6:392).

[6] CWE 8:44.

[7] Ep 1225 to Pierre Barbier (1521).

[8] Ep 1228 to Warham (1521); CWE 8:286.

[9] CWE 78:412.

[10] Ibid.

[11] CWE 78:458-59, modifed; Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami (Amsterdam, 1969-) IX-1, 479-80.

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