Erasmus in the 21st century

by Jeroen Bouterse

He had a visceral aversion to war, was strongly in favor of social distancing in times of pandemic, and believed it would be a good thing if the Germans turned down their heaters a notch or two.[1] Of these still sympathetic opinions, the last was admittedly informed by his discomfort with wood stoves. Erasmus did comment on fuel markets once: echoing a friend’s joke, he claimed to be annoyed by heretics for being burned at such a scale that it drove up wood prices.[2]

It was one of the many occasions in which he spoke with dry irony about things that disturbed him deeply. Erasmus found his own way of talking about violence and war, and the other horrors that humans inflict upon each other. At the deepest level, his analysis was that war is bad. He was not, confirms his biographer Sandra Langereis, a very strong political thinker. An individualist rather than a sociologist, he tended to see war as a moral evil, and blame it on the foolishness and wrongheadedness of rulers. The people found cities; the mighty raze them to the ground.

Perhaps this is a good time to read Erasmus.

Our friends at war

In contrast with the cynicism of the monarchs of his time, up to and including the head of the Church, Erasmus offers the gentle, ethical kind of Christianity that he finds in the New Testament. In one of his dialogues, a particularly warlike Pope, recently deceased, is surprised to find himself locked out of Heaven. Incapable of understanding why the apostle Peter is so curious about his theological, pastoral or ascetic merits, the Pope protests that he did not have time for nonsense, “being continually engaged in warfare”. Instead, he goes on to list his many achievements on the battlefield, and all the riches they won him.[3]

Here is the starkest contrast, the most extreme internal contradiction, the most laughable joke: the highest Christian leader waging war for earthly gains. Whenever Erasmus really wants to hammer home the point that no age sins more terribly against peace than his own, he reminds us of the profound mismatch between the peacefulness of Christ and the belligerence of Christian monarchs. We do not need the Gospel, however, to see that war is wrong; this much we can learn from nature. It was a truth available to the ancients; Erasmus’ lengthy reflection on the ills of war grows as a comment on Pindar’s saying that war is sweet to those who haven’t experienced it.[4]

Nature, Erasmus explains there, has made humans for peace: not venomous or armored, but soft and cuddly. She gave us the capacity to resolve conflict through speech and reasoning, a common interest in knowledge to draw us together, and diversity in skill to encourage cooperation and mutual admiration. All our natural capacities and inclinations indicate that we thrive on concord and amity. Nature would be surprised and horrified to see us armed for battle.

Erasmus takes his time to let each of these points sink in. War is sweet to the inexperienced, and so his readers need to become experienced, as fully as words can make them. The argument is not just theoretical; we need to inhabit this Erasmian sensibility. We need to feel to our bones, as he does, that war is inhumane in the deepest and most literal sense. He seeks to paint a picture of humans as they are supposed to be, and then, vividly, of what humans become when they are preparing for battle – how unlike themselves, wearing helmets, horns, pikes, scales and sharp teeth. They even change their voices, from their natural softness to a horrible roar. War deforms us, even before the unspeakable tragedy of the actual slaughter and all the other atrocities.

When we thoroughly appreciate how alien war is to us, its existence becomes puzzling, so Erasmus provides us with a genealogy of the practice. Our incremental descent into madness began in the state of nature, naked and undefended. Approval of stronger individuals who could defeat predators soon led to the unprovoked killing of other animals for meat. Now accustomed to slaughter, it was a matter of time before humans broke the social taboo of violence against each other, first at small scale and without weapons – and, just as before with the animals, directed at violent individuals – but over time increasing in scale, technology and mischief, until we are where we are now, the worst of times, where Christians fight Christians and thereby go against everything that Christ and Paul preached.

Erasmus sometimes signals that it would be better for Christian states to take on the Islamic Ottoman Empire than to fight each other. This seems less a sign that he is buying into a clash-of-civilizations narrative, however, than a way of calling out the hypocrisy of Christian princes. These rulers don’t even focus on a supposedly existential threat to the religion they all pretend to uphold, and thereby reveal how base the motives for their petty wars in fact are. No, he did not want to fight the Ottomans. His counsel against war stops short of absolute pacifism, but it does extend to every war of choice, even a theoretically ‘just’ one against the infidel state that is Christian Europe’s favorite Other at the time. “The Turks are human beings”, he says simply. Christendom is indeed central to Erasmus’ moral universe, but this shows mainly in the fact that he holds it to a higher standard, that its failings weigh heavier on his mind. Yes, the Turks commit atrocities, he writes when Europe is outraged by illustrations of Ottoman war crimes; but “worse crimes were perpetrated at Asperen, not by Turks, but by my own countrymen, many of them even my friends”.[5] Erasmus obviously thought Christianity was in principle superior to any other religion, but this was for him not a subject for propaganda, and especially not in the service of that most unchristian thing of all, war.

Just no

Were there no Christian justifications for war, then? Erasmus notes that others have argued that after all, the Bible shows God positively encouraging the Jews to wage war. This is true, he says, but they waged war on divine command, and not among themselves. And by the way, if the Jews are such a shining example, why do Christians not also practice circumcision and abstain from eating pork? The assumption here, not even left unspoken, is that Jewish customs are repugnant. Experts apparently disagree on precisely how anti-Jewish Erasmus was, but that Judaism meant a bad thing to him is beyond dispute.[6] The best that can be said is, again, that while Erasmus assumed and rationalized the inferiority of Jewish religion, he did not single it out for sustained anger here; rather, he used a shared understanding of its inferiority to criticize his fellow Christians. These should act better but in fact act worse, is the message.

Can’t war be justified in the same way that legal punishment can be justified – as retaliation for crimes? Wouldn’t it be unjust to refuse to revenge wrongs if this is in our power? Erasmus is not against even capital punishment, but the analogy is flawed, he says. The law can harm individual criminals, whereas war is never precise: most harm is done precisely to those that don’t deserve punishment – to thousands of elderly people, women and children. This is Erasmus’ humanitarian argument against even the most just wars: it is better to leave some crimes unpunished than to ruin the lives of so many innocent people – “innocent enemies”, he says, meaningfully: people we call our enemies even though they personally never did anything against us.

Least of all, Erasmus is impressed by historical territorial claims as a casus belli. Wars launched by rulers who have read just a bit too much of the glorious history of their realms and seek to make it great again, are to him the absolute height of foolishness. If the restoration of historical boundaries provides an excuse for war, there will be no end to it ever. Should 16th-century Rome lay claim to Africa and Spain, because they were Roman provinces once? Even aside from the fact that government should have the consent of the people, and that to the people the choice between two claimants is usually indifferent – just the question who your city’s tribute is addressed to; even assuming that you have a legally strong claim to rule a city, is it really worth going to war over such a claim?

Obviously not; the net loss, even to yourself, is too big. This is foolishness, then. Or evil. For there are princes who stir up war the better to oppress their own subjects, the more easily to exploit them. They should be warned that even this kind of cynicism is always a gamble; ambitious rulers don’t get what they desire. Instead they find themselves stuck in ever worse situations, and dependent on the worst sort of people. The gains are low, the risks and the costs are high. In war, everybody loses.

I decided to read Erasmus on war because he was, though I know him only superficially, not completely new to me; I went to a school named after him that consciously sought to channel his individualism and cosmopolitanism, and over the years I have read some of his works, admiring his open-minded, kind and forgiving attitude to people for whom existing social institutions didn’t work so well. Based on this, however, I did not expect to be challenged; I did not expect surprising insights in war from a Christian theologian and classicist who lived before the nation-state, before NATO, before modern artillery and nuclear weapons. I was not looking for analyses, or for arguments pro or contra no-fly zones, but for a simple, friendly voice that cried out for peace.

And indeed, that is what Erasmus’ essays on war are: recognizably humanitarian, often to the point of predictability. Still, I was thrown off-balance by the way his pacifism edges into a more specific cultural criticism. Erasmus does not just provide a utopian vision of world peace; he does not just sigh wearily that war is a tragic part of the human condition; he thinks it is avoidable, that there is no excuse for it, and that everybody who makes excuses is to blame. He confronts the excuses head-on, exploring the ways in which we tell ourselves stories that justify violence as a necessary evil. And as reasons for extending violent conflict even for a day, he rejects all of those stories categorically, whether they be stories about historical rights, about inter-state justice, or about the superiority of our way of life and the necessity to defend it against evil. Even if it concerns stories that Erasmus otherwise buys into, the stories that are closest to his heart, about the importance of Christendom.

There are no stories, not even the truest and deepest ones, that outweigh our shared, immediate, bodily interest in peace. Erasmus famously found it difficult to imagine dying for his commitments. Not all of us are strong enough to be martyrs, he wrote, and he suspected that, when it came down to it, he would follow the apostle Peter’s example, evading his enemies by disowning his friends.[7] He tried to maintain a moderate position at the start of one of the most ideologically polarized times in Western history, during Luther’s reformation, and as a result found himself distrusted by both sides. When his friend Thomas More was executed by order of Henry VIII, Erasmus felt his other self had died[8] – and he, a Catholic, felt it wasn’t worth the loss; that More shouldn’t have died for Catholicism. Why had his friend taken the risk, why couldn’t he have left theology to the theologians? It led one famous scholar to censure Erasmus, centuries later, for missing the point: More had simply died for his conscience.[9]

Erasmus did not want humans to invent reasons for themselves to die. Are there not, he mused in War is sweet, enough ways already in which the world can kill us? Hundreds of deadly illnesses listed and described, and new ones springing up every day; old age; earthquakes, and sudden fatal accidents such as choking on a fishbone. Why should we add more misery, more injustice? This was, no doubt, a limited perspective, but it was not, I believe, a petty one. Erasmus did not just want himself and his friends to die peacefully; he wanted a world in which everyone could die peacefully, and for such a world to come about all ideologies and parties had to lower their tone, including his own. There ought to be less room for martyrdom, fewer absolute commitments.

To maintain ambiguity and irony when the world is sorting itself into camps; to say that you don’t want people to die in the name of your values; this cannot have been easy. This is a kind of courage, too, one that our time may have new reasons to appreciate in Erasmus.

[1] Johan Huizinga, Erasmus (1924 / 1936) 127-128.

[2] Sandra Langereis, Erasmus: dwarsdenker (2021) 432 (digital edition).


[4]; Langereis, Erasmus, 379. Most of my essay traces this discussion in the Adagia, although very similar motifs may be drawn from The complaint of peace.

[5] Quotes in this paragraph from the article by Fred R. Dallmayr: ‘A war against the Turks? Erasmus on war and peace’, Asian Journal of Social Science 34 (1) 67-85, page 70, 71.

[6] Hilmar M. Pabel, ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam and Judaism: a reexamination in the light of new evidence’, Archive for Reformation history 87 (1996) 9-37.

[7] Huizinga, Erasmus, 172.

[8] Langereis, Erasmus, 670.

[9] Huizinga, Erasmus, 197.