Erasmus vs. Luther — a Rift That Defined the Course of Western Civilization

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in the New York Times:

Merlin_135768453_f8e258a0-705c-4bb9-ad4d-d27a60162e13-superJumboOften the best way to understand opposing viewpoints is to imagine the proponents in dialogue. How would Euripides have responded to Plato, his Athenian contemporary, concerning the philosopher’s banishing poets from his utopia? Or picture George Eliot cornering Arthur Schopenhauer to challenge his argument that women are unsuited for artistic and intellectual greatness. The history of ideas is filled with pairs of contemporary minds who missed the opportunity to confront each other point blank, leaving us to dream up hypothetical exchanges.

But sometimes our imaginations aren’t necessary. Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther, though they never met in person, were articulate in their assessments of each other. In their disdain for the power-hungry abuses of the church, the grotesque superstitions it encouraged in the laity and the equally grotesque scholasticism it encouraged in the era’s theologians, they might have been natural allies; instead they became implacable foes. Each, in opposing the other, clarified his own point of view. In the process, the two great reformist movements of their day — the Renaissance, embodied in Erasmus, and the Reformation, embodied in Luther — were torn asunder. Michael Massing’s riveting “Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind” is devoted to this fateful parting of ways.

More here.