Was Erasmus successful?

When do we call someone successful? And was Erasmus successful? What did he actually accomplish for himself or for us?

According to Erasmus himself, he had a difficult life. It started at his birth (circa 1467) as the child of two unmarried parents. That bothered him a lot, although his parents not only cared very much about each other, but also about their sons. They saw to it that Erasmus received a good education in the Netherlands, although in retrospect Erasmus often disliked his teachers. He also studied for a while in Paris, but things were no better there; certainly the food in his boarding house was so lousy that it made him sick, and the bishop did not come through with the promised scholarship. Still, he traveled incredibly extensively and luxuriously (on horseback and with servants) all his life, but he kept complaining about lack of money and poor health.

Erasmus could not draw well either, as evidenced by this “self-portrait.”

So Erasmus felt he was struggling, but was he successful in his endeavors? He made a career as a top Latin teacher and disseminator of ancient wisdom in the Renaissance. And from 1500 on, he also began to publish his knowledge more and more in textbooks. He cleverly used his fame as a teacher and his publications to also put forward his ideas on Christian ethics. An important point for him was that whoever is responsible must also behave responsibly; responsibility for Erasmus meant: putting self-interest in the background. A privileged position brings with it obligations. Young people, especially future leaders, must be brought up accordingly. And how nice it would be, if people would not look for excuses to apologize but together sincerely see what is most honest.

That teaching may seem rather innocuous. Yet rulers – both secular and spiritual – in his day were startled by the suggestion that they were using their influence more for themselves than for others. But Erasmus was tactful, and so he and his supporters succeeded in building a network of peace and reason in the early 16th century. The European heads of state of the time asked him for advice and his opinion was well listened to. However, it was not yet the case that they always acted on Erasmus’ ideas.

Nor would Erasmus live to see his ideas actually become reality. In the 1520s the Turks advanced violently into Western Europe as far as Vienna, and Luther’s church reform divided Western Europe itself more than ever. Unlike Erasmus, Luther believed that people had no personal responsibility. Meanwhile, Machiavelli explained that wise leaders must be pragmatic to maintain their influence, even for the sake of their subjects. All in all, plenty of reasons for struggle, from which Erasmus did not rejoice. He advocated that victors should treat their vanquished so well that they would afterwards be happy with their new situation. And he himself tried to evade the struggle, which was not easy or fun in a torn society, and which caused his influence to dwindle.

So he died (in 1536) in peace, surrendered by friends, perhaps disillusioned, but with his head held high.

Successful in the 21st century?

The search term “erasmus” at an Internet search engine soon produces a hundred million hits, and as a straightforward influencer, Erasmus would certainly be proud of that. But he also knew that such scores are very limited to measure his influence. He would want to know whether leaders today are ethically well-equipped in his name. Erasmus’ views on responsible leadership hold true today as ideals, but are they also the norm in politics, business and education? Are leaders now so formed that they act responsibly of their own accord? Although there are many Erasmians walking around today, that is not immediately clear.

Put it this way: Is Erasmus successful?

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