JOHN EMERIC EDWARD DALBERG-ACTON, LORD ACTON, LECTURES ON MODERN HISTORY (1906)
LECTURE III: THE RENAISSANCE
EDITION USED Lectures on Modern History, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1906).
III THE RENAISSANCE
Next to the discovery of the New World, the recovery of the ancient world is the second landmark that divides us from the Middle Ages and marks the transition to modern life. The Renaissance signifies the renewed study of Greek, and the consequences that ensued from it, during the century and a half between Petrarca and Erasmus. It had survived, as a living language, among Venetian colonists and Calabrian monks, but exercised no influence on literature.
The movement was preceded by a Roman revival, which originated with Rienzi. Rome had been abandoned by the Papacy, which had moved from the Tiber to the Rhone, where it was governed by Frenchmen from Cahors, and had fallen, like any servile country, into feudal hands. Rienzi restored the Republic, revived the self–government of the city, the memories attached to the Capitol, the inscriptions, the monuments of the men who ruled the world. The people, no longer great through the Church, fell back on the greatness which they inherited from ancient times. The spell by which the Tribune directed their patriotism was archĺology. In front of the Capitoline temple, near the Tarpeian rock and the She–Wolf’s cave, he proclaimed their rights over the empire and the nations; and he invited the people of Italy to a national parliament for the restoration of Italian unity and of the ancient glory and power of Rome. Patriotism, national independence, popular liberty, all were founded on antiquarian studies and the rhetorical interpretation of the fragments of the Lex Regia.
The political scheme of Rienzi failed, but it started a movement in the world of thought deeper and more enduring than State transactions. For his ideas were adopted by the greatest writer then living, and were expounded by him in the most eloquent and gracious prose that had been heard for a thousand years. Petrarca called the appearance of the patriotic tribune and rhetorician the dawn of a new world and a golden age. Like him, he desired to purge the soil of Italy from the barbaric taint. It became the constant theme of the Humanists to protest against the foreign intruder, that is, against the feudal noble, the essential type of the medieval policy. It is the link between Rienzi, the dreamer of dreams, and the followers of Petrarca. Boccaccio had already spoken of the acceptable blood of tyrants.
But the political influence of antiquity, visible at first, made way for a purely literary influence. The desire for good Latin became injurious to Italian, and Petrarca censured Dante for his error in composing the Divine Comedy in the vulgar tongue. He even regretted that the Decamerone was not written in Latin, and refused to read what his friend had written for the level of uneducated men. The classics became, in the first place, the model and the measure of style; and the root of the Renaissance was the persuasion that a man who could write like Cicero had an important advantage over a man who wrote like Bartolus or William of Ockham; and that ideas radiant with beauty must conquer ideas clouded over with dialectics. In this, there was an immediate success. Petrarca and his imitators learnt to write excellent Latin. Few of them had merit as original thinkers, and what they did for erudition was done all over again, and incomparably better, by the scholars who appeared after the tempest of the Reformation had gone down. But they were excellent letter writers. In hundreds of volumes, from Petrarca to Sadolet and Pole, we can trace every idea and mark every throb. It was the first time that the characters of men were exposed with analytic distinctness; the first time indeed that character could be examined with accuracy and certitude.
A new type of men began with Petrarca, men accustomed to introspection, who selected their own ideals, and moulded their minds to them. The medieval system could prepare him for death; but, seeing the vicissitudes of fortune and the difficulties of life, he depended on the intellectual treasures of the ancient world, on the whole mass of accessible wisdom, to develop him all round. To men ignorant of Greek, like the first generation of the Renaissance, the fourteenth–century men, much in ancient philosophy was obscure. But one system, that of the Stoics, they studied deeply, and understood, for they had the works of Seneca. For men craving for self–help and the complete training of the faculties, eager to escape from the fixed types of medieval manhood, minted by authority, and taught to distrust conscience, when it was their own, and to trust it only in others, Seneca was an oracle. For he is the classic of mental discipline, vigilant self–study, and the examination of conscience. It is under these influences that the modern type of individual man took shape. The action of religion, by reason of the divided Church, and the hierarchy in partibus was at a low point; and no age has been so corrupt, so barbarous in the midst of culture. The finished individual of the Renaissance, ready for emergencies equal to either fortune, relying on nothing inherited, but on his own energy and resource, began badly, little recking rights of others, little caring for the sanctity of life.
Very early in the first or Latin phase of the revival, people suspected that familiarity with the classics would lead to admiration for paganism. Coluccio Salutato, who had been Florentine Secretary from the time of Petrarca, and is a classical writer of Latin letters, had to defend the new learning against the rising reproach of irreligion; and the statue of Virgil was ignominiously removed from the market–place of the town which his birth has made illustrious, as a scandal to good men. Petrarca never became a Greek scholar. He felt the defect. To write beautiful Latin was nothing, unless there was more to say than men already knew. But the Latin classics were no new discovery. The material increase of knowledge was quite insufficient to complete the type of an accomplished man. The great reservoir of ideas, of forgotten sciences, of neglected truth remained, behind. Without that, men would continue to work at a disadvantage, to fight in the dark, and could never fulfil the possibilities of existence. What was impatiently felt as the medieval eclipse came not from the loss of elegant Latin, but from the loss of Greek. All that was implied in the intended resurrection of antiquity depended on the revival of Greek studies. Because Petrarca possessed the culture of his time beyond all men, he was before them all in feeling what it needed most. Knowledge of truth, not casual and partial, but as complete and certain as the remaining civilisation admitted, would have to be abandoned, if Latin was still to be the instrument and the limit. Then the new learning would not be strong enough to break down the reliance on approved authors, the tyranny of great names, the exclusiveness of schools. Neither rhetoric nor poetry could deprive Aristotle and Peter Lombard, St. Augustine and St. Thomas, of their supremacy, give them their position in the incessant stream of thought, or reduce them beneath the law of progress in the realm of knowledge.
The movement which Petrarca initiated implied the revival of a buried world, the enrichment of society by the mass of things which the western nations had allowed to drop, and of which medieval civilisation was deprived. It meant the preference for Grecian models, the supremacy of the schools of Athens, the inclusion of science in literature, the elevation of Hippocrates and Archimedes to a level with Terence and Quintilian, the reproduction of that Hellenic culture which fought the giant fight of the fourth and fifth century with the Councils and Fathers of the Church. That is why the Latin restoration, which was the direct result of Petrarca’s example, was overwhelmed by the mightier change that followed, when a more perfect instrument reached the hands of men passionately curious and yearning for new things.
At first there was no way of acquiring the unknown tongue. But the second generation of Humanists sat at the feet of Byzantine masters. The first was Chrysoloras, who was sent to Italy on a political mission and settled in 1397 as a teacher of his own language at Florence. When he died, at the Council of Constance, there were Italian scholars who could read Greek MSS. As teachers were scarce, adventurous men, such as Scarparia, Guarino, Aurispa, pursued their studies at Constantinople. Filelfo remained there for seven years, working in great libraries not yet profaned by the Turk. Before the middle of the fifteenth century Italy was peopled with migratory scholars, generally poor, and without fixed appointments, but able to rouse enthusiasm when they offered Plato for Henry of Ghent, and Thucydides for Vincent of Beauvais. By that time the superiority of the new learning, even in its very fragmentary condition, was irresistible.
Just then three events occurred which determined the triumph of the Renaissance. The Emperor came over to the Council of Florence [1438-45 – tkw] with a number of bishops and divines. In the discussions that followed, Greek scholars were in demand; and one Eastern prelate, Bessarion, remained in Italy, became a cardinal [1439 – tkw], and did much for the study of Plato and the termination of the long Aristotelian reign. His fine collection of manuscripts was at the service of scholars, and is still at their service, in St. Mark’s library at Venice. The fall of Constantinople drove several fugitives to seek a refuge in Italy, and some brought their books with them, which were more scarce and more needful than men. For by that time Greek studies were well established, and suffered only from the extreme scarcity of manuscripts. The third important event was the election of Parentucelli, who became Pope Nicholas V [1447 – tkw]. On that day the new learning took possession of the Holy See, and Rome began to be considered the capital of the Renaissance.
It was not in the nature of things that this should be. For the new men, with their new instrument of intellectual power, invaded territory which was occupied by the clergy. In the Middle Ages the Church, that is to say, first the cloister, then the universities founded under the protectorate of the Church, had the civilising of society, and, apart from law, the monopoly of literature. That came to an end when the clergy lost the superiority of knowledge, and had to share their influence with profane laymen, trained in the classics, and more familiar with pagan than with Christian writers. There was a common presumption in favour of the new point of view, the larger horizon, of opinions that were founded on classical as well as on Christian material. The Humanists had an independent judgment and could contemplate the world they lived in from outside, without quitting it, standing apart from the customary ways. As Pater said: “The human mind wins for itself a new kingdom of feeling and sensation and thought, not opposed to, but only beyond and independent of the spiritual system then actually realised.”
This is one of many causes operating at the time to weaken the notion of ecclesiastical control. It was the triumphant return of an exile, with an uproarious popularity and a claim to compensation for arrears. The enthusiasm of those who were the first to read Homer, and Sophocles, and Plato grew into complaint against those by whose neglect such treasures had been lost. Centuries of ignorance and barbarism had been the consequence. There was not only a world of new ideas, but of ideas that were not Christian, which the Christianity of the West had discarded. They began to recover the lost power, and the ages in which they had been unknown became the ages of darkness. As they were also ages in which the Church had exerted supreme authority, antagonism was not to be averted. The endeavour was not only to make the range of men’s thought more comprehensive, but to enrich it with the rejected wisdom of paganism. Religion occupied a narrower space in the new views of life than in those of Dante and the preceding time. The sense of sinfulness was weaker among the Humanists, the standard of virtue was lower; and this was common to the most brilliant of the Italian prelates, such as Aeneas Sylvius, with the king of the Renaissance, Erasmus himself.
Lorenzo Valla, the strongest of the Italian Humanists, is also the one who best exhibits the magnitude of the change that was going on in the minds of men. He had learnt to be a critic, and, what was more rare, a historical critic. He wrote against the belief in the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, which was one of the fixed positions of theology, then and long after. When the Greeks at the Council of Florence declared themselves unacquainted with the Apostles’ Creed, Valla warned the Latins not to speak of it as an apostolic composition. During a war between Rome and Naples, Valla, in the Neapolitan service, attacked the Donation of Constantine as the basis of the temporal power, and exhorted Pope Eugenius to abandon what was a usurpation, and a usurpation founded on fraud. Formidable in all the armour of the new learning, he did more than any other man to spread the conviction that the favourite arguments of the clergy were destined to go down before the better opinion of profane scholars. Valla is also the link between Italy and Germany. His critical essay on the New Testament in the Vulgate influenced Erasmus, who published it in 1505. His tract against the Donation, as the title–deed of the temporal sovereignty, was printed by Ulrich von Hutten, and spread that belief that the Pope was antichrist, which was afterwards an important article of the Huguenot Church. He was also a forerunner of the Reformation by his tract on the Freedom of the Will. This man, who displayed so conspicuously the resentful and iconoclastic spirit, the religious scepticism, the moral indifference, the aversion for the papal sovereignty, the contempt for the laws and politics of feudalism, the hope and expectation of a mighty change, was an official in the Pope’s household.
After the discussion with the Greeks at Florence it was clear to all men that there was a deeper issue than the revival of classical learning, that there was a Christian as well as a pagan antiquity, and that the knowledge of the early Church depended on Greek writings, and was as essential a part of the Renaissance as the study of Homer or of Pindar. The inference was drawn by Nicholas V., the first Renaissance pontiff. He recognised the fact that a divine in full possession of Hellenic literature would be a more competent defender of tradition, a better writer, a stronger disputant, than the long line of scholastic teachers. He saw that it would be the means of renovating theology and disclosing the authentic and necessary evidences of historical religion. The most enlightened ecclesiastics of that age understood but vaguely that there was not only benefit and enrichment in a policy that favoured the new learning, but the only possible escape from a serious danger.
Religious knowledge in those days suffered not only from ignorance and the defect of testimony, but from an excess of fiction and falsification. Whenever a school was lacking in proofs for its opinions, it straightway forged them, and was sure not to be found out. A vast mass of literature arose, which no man, with medieval implements, could detect, and effectually baffled and deceived the student of tradition. At every point he was confronted by imaginary canons and constitutions of the apostles, acts of Councils, decretals of early Popes, writings of the Fathers from St. Clement to St. Cyril, all of them composed for the purpose of deceiving.
The example of Lorenzo Valla made it certain that all this was about to be exposed. The process that began with him lasted for two centuries, to the patriarchs of authentic erudition, Ussher and Pearson, Blondel and Launoy, the Bollandists of Antwerp and the Benedictines of Saint–Maur. It became apparent that the divines of many ages had been remarkable for their incapacity to find out falsehood, and for their dexterity in propagating it, and it made no little difference whether this tremendous exposure should be made by enemies, and should constitute one series of disasters for religion. This was prevented by the resolve of Pope Nicholas, that the Holy See should sanction and encourage the movement with its influence, its immense patronage, and all its opportunities. Therefore Valla, who had narrowly escaped alive from the Inquisition, became a functionary at the Vatican, and received 500 ducats from the Pope to translate Thucydides. Scholars were attracted by the papal collection of 5000 manuscripts, which were the foundation of the Vatican library, the first in the world after the fall of Constantinople.
The alliance between renovated Hellenism and the Papacy was ratified a few years later, when the most intelligent of the Italian Humanists, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini of Siena, was raised to the throne under the name of Pius II., and became the most modern of medieval Popes. He was one of those Churchmen in whom the classical spirit of the time predominated over the ecclesiastical. Twice there was a breach, and a momentary reaction; but on the whole the contract was observed, and the ancient pagans made their way under the shadow of St. Peter’s better than the early Christians. Humanists of the type of Valla were domesticated by the prizes held out to them, from the pen of the secretary to the tiara of the pontiff. The apprehended explosion never came; the good and evil that was in the new scholars penetrated the court and modified its tone. Bibbiena’s comedies were applauded at the Belvedere; the Prince was published by the Pope’s printer, with the Pope’s permission; a cardinal shrank from reading St. Paul, for fear of spoiling his style; and the scandals in the family of Borgia did not prevent bishops from calling him a god. Calixtus III. said that he feared nothing from any hostile Powers, for he had three thousand men of letters to rely on. His successor, Aeneas Sylvius, considered that the decline of the empire was due to the fact that scholarship had gone over to the Papacy. The main fact in the Italian Renaissance is that an open conflict was averted at the cost of admitting into the hierarchy something of the profane spirit of the new men, who were innovators but not reformers. Ficino declares that there was no place where liberty prevailed as it did at Rome. Poggio, the mocking adversary of the clergy, was for half a century in the service of the Popes. Filelfo was handsomely rewarded by Nicholas for satires which would be considered scarcely fit for publication. Aeneas Sylvius laughed at the Donation of Constantine, and wrote an account of his own Conclave in the tone of a fin de siŹcle journalist. He is indeed the founder of freedom of speech in History. When his History of his own time was published, a great number of passages injurious to his countrymen and to his ecclesiastical brethren had to be suppressed. They have been printed lately, and contain, in fifty pages, the concentrated essence of the wickedness of Italy. Platina wrote an angry and vindictive History of the Popes, and presented it to Sixtus IV., who made him librarian of the Vatican. Erasmus, who had no sort of clerical bias, warmly extols the light and liberty which he found at Rome in 1515, at the very eve of the Reformation.
There were branches of classical philology in which the Renaissance was backward. The general purpose was to set up Plato in the place of Aristotle, discredited as an accomplice of the obscurest schoolmen. Under the Medici, a Platonic academy flourished at Florence, with Ficino and Politian at its head. But there was a tendency to merge Plato in Neoplatonism, and to bridge over what separated him from Christianity. Neither the knowledge of Plato, nor the knowledge of the Gospel, profited by the endeavour. The only branch of literature in which the Renaissance gave birth to real classics, equal to the ancients, was politics. The medieval theory of politics restrained the State in the interest of the moral law, of the Church, and of the individual. Laws are made for the public good, and, for the public good, they may be suspended. The public good is not to be considered, if it is purchased at the expense of an individual. Authorities are legitimate if they govern well. Whether they do govern well those whom they govern must decide. The unwritten law reigns supreme over the municipal law. Modern sentiments such as these could not be sustained in the presence of indifference to religion, uncertainty as to another world, impatience of the past, and familiarity with Hellenistic thought. As the Church declined the ancient State appeared, a State which knew no Church, and was the greatest force on earth, bound by no code, a law to itself. As there is no such thing as right, politics are an affair of might, a mere struggle for power. Such was the doctrine which Venice practised, in the interest of a glorious and beneficent government, and which two illustrious writers, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, made the law of modern societies.
The one thing common to the whole Italian Renaissance was the worship of beauty. It was the ĺsthetic against the ascetic. In this exclusive study, that is, in art, the Italians speedily attained the highest perfection that has been reached by man. And it was reached almost simultaneously in many parts of Italy, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice. First, it was the triumph of classical over medieval models, and the suppression of Gothic. Then it was the outbreak of modern painting, beyond all models, medieval or ancient, in a generation of men remarkable for originality. Rome, which had adopted the new learning under the impulse of Nicholas V., went over also to the new art and became its metropolis. It was the ripest and most brilliant work of the time, and it was employed to give expression to religious ideas, and to decorate and exalt the dignity of the Papacy, with its headquarters at the Vatican. The man who conceived how much might be done by renascent art to give splendour to the Church at the moment when its terrestrial limits were immeasurably extended, and its political power newly established, was Julius II. In 1505 Emmanuel of Portugal, inspired by the prodigies of that epoch of discovery, and by the language of recent canonists, addressed him in these terms: “Receive, at last, the entire globe, thou who art our god.”
Julius, who, by the energy of his will and his passion for posthumous fame, was the true son of the Renaissance, asked Michael Angelo to construct a monument worthy of a pontiff who should surpass all his predecessors in glory. When the design proved too gigantic for any existing Church, he commanded Bramante to pull down the Basilica of Constantine, which for a thousand years had witnessed the dramatic scenes of ecclesiastical history, the coronation of Charlemagne, the enthronement of the dead Formosus, the arrest of Paschal, and to erect in its place a new and glorified St. Peter’s, far exceeding all the churches of the universe in its dimensions, in beauty, in power over the imagination of men. The ruthless destruction indicates the tone of the new era. Old St. Peter’s was not only a monument of history, but a sepulchre of saints.
Julius was not inspired by the Middle Ages. Under him the Papacy was preparing for a new career, less spiritual than what once had been, more politic and secular and splendid, under new stars. He had Bramante, Michael Angelo, Rafael, San Gallo, Peruzzi, a concentration of artistic genius such as had never been, not produced by Rome itself, but attracted from every quarter by the master of Rome. What had been, one hundred years before, a neglected provincial town, became the centre of European civilisation by the action of the Popes, and principally of one ambitious Pope. The Vatican paintings were largely political, commemorating the sovereign more than the priest, until St. Peter’s was designed to exhibit the sublime grandeur and unity of the universal Church, and the authority of its head upon earth. It was the crowning triumph of the Renaissance. When he was dying, Julius said that the masses are impressed not by what they know, but by what they see. He transmitted to his successors the conception of a Church to be the radiant centre of religion and of art for mankind; and we shall see that this was, after all, a disastrous legacy.
The Renaissance, which was at its height in Italy after the middle of the fifteenth century, was checked by the wars of Charles V., the siege of Rome, and the Spanish domination. Toward 1540 Paolo Giovio says that scholarship had migrated from the Italians to the Germans; and the most learned Italian of the next generation, Baronius, knew no Greek. Before its decline in Italy it had found new homes beyond the Alps, especially in Germany. The Germans adopted the new learning much later, near a century later than the Italians, when an occasional student, such as Agricola and Reuchlin, visited Bologna or Rome. It spread slowly. Of the seventeen universities, some, such as Vienna, Heidelberg, Erfurt, admitted the new studies; others, like Cologne, resisted. There was not the patriotic sentiment, the national enthusiasm. It was the importation of a foreign element, the setting up of an old enemy, the restoration of a world the Germans, under Alaric and Theodoric, had overthrown. They began with the invention of printing, which exactly coincided with the fall of Constantinople, as the earliest specimens of print are indulgences for the Turkish war. This gave assurance that the work of the Renaissance would last, that what was written would be accessible to all, that such an occultation of knowledge and ideas as had depressed the Middle Ages would never recur, that not an idea would be lost. They got their classics generally from Italy; but after Aldus had published his series of ancient writers, still treasured by those whom Greek contractions do not repel, the New Testament and the Fathers, edited by Erasmus, were printed at BČle by Froben and Amerbach.
The pagan spirit, the impatience of Christianity, appears only in one or two Germans, such as Mutianus Rufus, who kept his convictions to himself. There were no great theologians, but there was the greatest religious writer that ever lived, the author of the Imitation, and he was not a solitary thinker, but a member of a congregation which kept religion alive, especially in North Germany. The opposition which arose was stronger and more defined than anything in Italy, but it was against Catholicism, not against Christianity.
The only matter in which German philology surpassed Italian was science. The man who turned the course of the new learning into those channels was Johannes Müller of Königsberg, near Coburg, therefore known as Monteregio; at Regiomontanus Bessarion gave him a MS. of Ptolemy, and he designed a scheme to print the whole body of Greek mathematicians. His Ephemerides are the origin of the Nautical Almanack, and enabled Columbus and Vasco and Vespucci to sail the high seas; and Nuremberg, where he lived, became the chief seat of the manufacture of nautical instruments. He was made a bishop, and summoned to Rome to reform the Calendar. There was one Italian who possessed the scientific spirit, without help from books, by the prerogative of genius; that was Leonardo da Vinci. But he confided his thoughts to diaries and note–books, which are now in process of publication, but which remained unknown and useless in his time.
The conflict between the new learning and the old, which was repressed in Italy by the policy of Rome, broke out in Germany, where it was provoked by the study of Hebrew, not of Greek. At Rome in 1482 a German student translated a passage of Thucydides so well that the lecturer complained that Greece was settling beyond the Alps. It was the first time that the rivalry appeared. That student was Reuchlin. His classical accomplishments alone would not have made his name one of the most conspicuous in literary history; but in 1490 Pico della Mirandola expounded to him the wonders of oriental learning, and Reuchlin, having found a Rabbi at Linz, began to study Hebrew in 1492. His path was beset with difficulties, for there were no books in that language to be found in all Germany. Reuchlin drew his supply from Italy, and was the first German who read the Cabbala. He shared many popular prejudices against the Jews, and read their books to help him with the Old Testament, as he read Greek to help him with the New. He had none of the grace, the dexterity, the passion, of the Humanists, and very little of their enthusiasm for the classics. He preferred Gregory of Nazianzum to Homer. Savonarola shocked him by his opposition to Alexander VI. His writings had little scientific value; but he was a pioneer, and he prized the new learning for the sake of religion. Therefore, when he was summoned to give an opinion on the suppression of Jewish books, he opposed it, and insisted on the biblical knowledge and the religious ideas to be found in them. Divines, he said, would not have made so many mistakes if they had attended to the Jewish commentators.
At that time persecution was raging against the Jews in the Peninsula. They had always had enemies in the German towns, and in July 1510, thirty–eight Jews were executed at Berlin. This intolerant spirit began, in 1507, to be directed against their books. None were printed in Germany until 1516; but from 1480 they had Hebrew presses in Italy, at Naples, Mantua, Soncino, and at Constantinople. If their study was encouraged while the printing was permitted, the Jews would become a power such as they never were before printing began, and when none but a few divines could read Hebrew. The movement in favour of destroying them had its home at Cologne, with Hochstraten, the Inquisitor; Gratius, a good scholar, whose work, known as Brown’s Fasciculus, is in the hands of every medieval student; and Pfefferkorn, who had the zeal of a recently converted Jew. In his anxiety to bring over his former brethren he desired to deprive them of their books. He would allow them to retain only the Old Testament, without their commentaries. He would compel them to hear Christian sermons. By degrees he urged that they should be expelled, and at last that they should be exterminated.
Maximilian, the emperor, turned with every wind. Reuchlin, the defender of toleration, was attacked by Pfefferkorn as a sceptic and a traitor, and was accused before the ecclesiastical court. In 1514 the Bishop of Spires, acting for the Pope, acquitted Reuchlin; the sentence was confirmed at Rome in 1516, and the Dominicans, who were plaintiffs, agreed to pay the costs. Nevertheless they appealed, and in 1520 Rome reversed the previous judgment and condemned Reuchlin. In the midst of greater things the sentence escaped attention, and was only brought to light by a scholar who is still living. But in the meantime the Humanists had taken up the cause of Reuchlin, and the result had been disastrous for the Dominicans. They had not directly assailed the new learning, but their attack on the study of Hebrew had been the most crass exhibition of retrograde spirit. If Jews were not allowed to read Jewish books, such as Maimonides, to whom St. Thomas owes so much, how could Christians be allowed to read pagan classics, with their highly immoral gods and goddesses?
The golden opportunity of making intolerance ridiculous could not be neglected. In the summer of 1515 a volume appeared purporting to contain letters to Ortwin Gratius; and it was followed two years later by another. With some good satire and some amusing caricature, they also contained much personal insult and calumny. The wit is not enough to carry on the joke through 108 letters, carefully composed in Teutonic dog Latin by the best Latinists north of the Brenner. Erasmus, who was diverted at first, afterwards turned away with disgust, and Luther called the authors buffoons. The main writer of the first volume was Crotus Rubianus, and of the other, Hutten. Reuchlin himself disapproved. But he shared in the victory, which was so brilliant that his condemnation by Rome passed without notice, and it was not till our day that the success of the despised Pfefferkorn became known to the world. It was the first effective appeal to opinion against constituted authority, and the most decisive demonstration of the power of the press. And it gave the Humanists occasion so to define the issue that all could understand, in spite of the reserve of Erasmus and of Reuchlin himself.
Erasmus Rogers, the greatest figure in the Renaissance, was born at Rotterdam and brought up in extreme poverty, and he was a valetudinarian and an invalid in consequence of early privation. He lived in France and Belgium, in England and Italy, in Switzerland and Germany, so that each country contributed to his development, and none set its stamp upon him. He was eminently an international character; and was the first European who lived in intimacy with other ages besides his own, and could appreciate the gradual ripening and enlargement of ideas. He devoted himself on equal terms to classical and to Christian antiquity, and drew from both alike the same lessons of morality and wisdom; for he valued doctrine chiefly for the sake of a good life and a happy death, and was impatient of subtle dialectics and speculative disputations. With so much of Renaissance studies as did not serve the good estate of souls he showed little sympathy, and was indifferent to art, to metaphysics, to antiquarian pedantry. He endeavoured to make men familiar with the wisdom of the ancients by a collection of 1451 adages selected from their works. His Colloquies, the most popular book of his age, sold in 24,000 copies. At first he was more a scholar than a divine; and though he learnt Greek late, and was never a first–rate Hellenist, published editions of the classics. In later life the affairs of religion absorbed him, and he lived for the idea that the reform of the Church depended on a better knowledge of early Christianity, in other words, on better self–knowledge, which could only result from a slow and prolonged literary process. He started from the beginning by his edition of the Greek Testament, begun here, at Queens’, in 1512, published at BČle by Froben in 1516. It had already been printed from better MSS. by Cardinal Ximenes in the fifth volume of the Complutensian Polyglot, which did not appear until 1522. Therefore Erasmus’s edition is the first ever published. It was produced at last, in a hurry, to secure the priority, and was not greatly improved afterwards. Part of the Apocalypse was wanting in all his MSS. He restored it by translating it into Greek from the Vulgate, and in six verses made thirty mistakes. His second edition had a letter of approbation from Leo X., and it was the edition which Luther used for his translation. It is a sign of the want of religious interest in the Renaissance, especially in Italy, that printing had been going on for sixty years, and 24,000 works issued from the press, some of them more than a hundred times, before anybody thought of the Greek Testament.
Erasmus occupied his later years with the works of the Fathers, also printed by Froben, the Greeks in Latin translations. “Letters,” he said, “had remained Pagan in It aly, until he taught them to speak of Christ.” Just as he was entirely destitute of the national fibre, so too he stood apart from the schools or currents of his time. His striving was to replace the scholastics by the Fathers, systematic theology by spiritual religion; and those Doctors of the Church who inclined to system, such as St. Augustine, repelled him. It may be said that he was not attracted by St. Paul, and preferred the Gospels to the Epistles. He esteemed Seneca more highly than many Christian divines. Although he chose to employ the weapon of irony, and abstained from the high horse and the big word, he was earnest in his desire for the reform of abuses in the Church. He disliked contention, and desired to avoid offence; but he made enemies in all parts of Europe, and was vehemently denounced by the theologians of Paris and Louvain, by the Spanish friars, by Archbishop Lee, by ZuĖiga, the Count of Carpi, and especially by the very learned Steuchus of Gubbio. In later days he was one of the first writers put on the Index. But throughout his career as a divine, that is, for the last quarter of a century that he lived, he was consistently protected, defended, consulted by Popes, until Paul III. offered him a Cardinal’s hat and desired that he would settle at Rome. He told Leo X. that he thought it a mistake to censure Luther, with whom he agreed as to many of the matters calling for reform. But whilst Luther attributed the prevailing demoralisation to false dogmas and a faulty constitution, Erasmus sought the cause in ignorance and misgovernment. What came from this division of opinion pertains to the next lecture. Erasmus belonged, intellectually, to a later and more scientific or rational age. The work which he had initiated, and which was interrupted by the Reformation troubles, was resumed at a more acceptable time by the scholarship of the seventeenth century.