What Erasmus, patron of Erasmus, brought to the thought of education


After two years very disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis, the international mobility of young people is on the rise again. Among the measures most popular with students who wish to spend part of their course abroad is Erasmus + .

Why was Erasmus chosen as the tutelary figure of this program which, in 2022, celebrated its 35th anniversary? How does the cultural openness it allows echo the thought of the famous humanist? In a very factual way, if he gave his name to a program facilitating the movement of students and teachers across the European Union , it is undoubtedly because this Dutch scientist led an itinerant life , during from which he built up a vast network of correspondents and friends, from north to south of the continent.

Born in Rotterdam in 1467 or 1469, the author of the Eloge de la folie subsequently lived in present-day Belgium, France, England, Italy, Germany, in present-day Switzerland where he died in 1536 Although he never went to Spain, his influence there was great . He was also not lacking in admirers or friends in Poland and Hungary.

Erasmus’s travels were not recreational: often lacking money, he needed the support of wealthy benefactors, likely to welcome him and offer him the conditions for a life, if not always comfortable, at least free from the material worries, so that he could devote himself to his work of editing and writing.

Travel was also necessary for him for scientific reasons: going to Oxford, Paris, Louvain, Venice or Basel gave him access to libraries, manuscripts, to meet other scholars, publishers …

Finally, in the context of strong religious tensions at the beginning of the 16th century  , Erasmus sometimes felt obliged to leave a city to preserve his freedom and security, as in 1521 when he left Louvain, or in 1529 when he preferred to leave (temporarily) of Basle: in either case, he refused to give in to pressure from those – Catholics in Louvain, Protestants in Basle – who wanted him to take a firm stand in their cause, against the other side.

A humanism inseparable from a reflection on education

In addition to the European dimension of Erasmus’s life, it is his status as a “humanist” that makes it possible to understand why the European academic mobility program was placed under his patronage. The word “humanism” lends itself to misinterpretations, but its use is inevitable when Erasmus is mentioned. In any case, the term is later.

Attested in French in the 18th century  , in the sense of love of humanity, the word acquired in the 19th century  , first in German, then in other European languages, the more technical meaning that we know today. in the history of ideas, that which refers to the movement to restore honor to Greek and Latin authors of Antiquity among European scholars of the 15th and  16th centuries  .

Late, the word “humanism” is however based on expressions attested in the authors of the 15th and  16th centuries  : studia humanitatis or litterae humaniores , that is to say “studies of humanity” or “more human letters “, in the active sense of the adjective, namely “the letters that make you more human” – or, in a comparable spirit, bonae litterae , the “good letters”, not only in the aesthetic sense of “belles-lettres” , but also and even more in the moral and educational sense of “letters that make good, better”.

Humanism is indeed based on a thought and a practice of education, and, inseparably, on a certain anthropology. Through his immense work, Erasmus occupies a prominent place in the history of education – a paradoxical place, however, because Erasmus was more a theoretician than a practitioner of education  : he only accepted teaching duties to earn a living, and as soon as he had the opportunity to free himself from it to devote himself to study and writing, he took advantage of it.

Demanding and impatient, Erasmus seems to have found it difficult to bear the limits of his pupils. Devoid of interest in institutional and material questions, he was not the man to embark on a major project to create schools or teaching centers either: if he participated in the founding of the Trilingual College of Louvain in 1517, it is as a man of networks, to attract the best teachers there, without intending to teach there himself.

Confidence in the learning abilities of young people

A theoretician of education, Erasmus initially intended to propose study programs for children, adolescents, young people, as well as a few simple but strong principles. Two of his best-known works are explicitly and principally devoted to the education of children:

  • the Plan of studies ( De ratione studii , 1512) which advocates in a demanding manner the assiduous and progressive reading of Greek and Latin authors, the only way to achieve fluency in these two languages ​​which are for Erasmus the vehicles of knowledge;
  • the Discourse on the need to give children a liberal education very early on ( Declamatio de pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis , 1529), where it is important not to misunderstand the meaning of the word “liberal”: it is a question of dispensing a an education that makes you free, able to think for yourself, just as the bonae litterae make you good, and the littterae humaniores make you more human.

More than a study program, the De pueris offers, in the form of a speech addressed to an adolescent German prince, a real pedagogical anthropology: unlike trees, homines non nascuntur, sed finguntur , that is to say – say “we are not born human, but we are shaped as such” , by education.

Erasmus insists on the extreme receptivity of the child, on the great capacities of his memory, on his learning faculties always on the alert. No doubt there is a part of idealism in this generalization, but the essential is in this conviction that the child is capable of receiving the best of human knowledge and, through this knowledge, of becoming better himself. , more fully human, and free.

It is clear that the Erasmian vision of education applies to an elite. Even if the De ratione studii falls within the framework of a class, Erasmus’s ideal remains a personalized education, based on a demanding relationship between the tutor and his pupil. The De pueris is addressed to a young prince himself a beneficiary of the lessons of the German humanist Conrad Heresbach.

In 1516, for the attention of the young Charles of Habsburg, the future Charles V, Erasmus published the Education of the Christian Prince to promote at the highest level his ideas on the link between knowledge and virtue, and even more his rejection of all war. We are obviously a long way from a school-type program for mass education.

As for the intellectual formation of young girls, unlike his Spanish contemporary Juan Luis Vives, author of an Education of Christian Women (1523) , Erasmus did not pay very close attention to it: with him, the education femininity remains essentially moral and practical, and this question remains intimately linked to the more general problems of Christian marriage, as shown by one or another of the Colloquies (for example, The Woman Who Complains About Marriage or The Institution of Christian Marriage (1526). Although very admiring of the science of Margaret More, daughter of his friend Thomas More, Erasmus considered women of such a high level of culture to be exceptional, and did not seek to promote an elite education for women.

A theological anchor

Beyond the works devoted explicitly to questions of education, it is a large part of the work of Erasmus which can be considered as educational. The enormous collection of Adages and the collection of Colloquies , works which Erasmus took up throughout his life, are intended to provide pupils with models of literary commentary, argumentation and moral reflection for the former, examples of Latin discussion , also with a strong moral content but not without intellectual boldness, on the most varied subjects and in an often playful style, for the latter.

Erasmus’ pedagogical thought and the anthropology that underlies it are inseparable from his Christian vision of the world. The faith of Erasmus does not lend itself to simplistic reductions: readily critical and irreverent, Erasmus – who was a regular canon, admittedly exclaustered, and a priest – remained, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, faithful to the Catholic Church.

It was on the theological question of human freedom (decidedly essential theme with Erasmus) that he firmly opposed Martin Luther during a quarrel by works interposed in 1524-1526. Erasmus defended “free will” against the pessimistic anthropology of Luther , in whom human nature was so invaded by sin that there remained no free will, but rather a “serf will”.

In Erasmus, the promotion of knowledge has meaning only as a condition for the progress of virtue, for the improvement of the human being, created in the image of God, endowed with reason and freedom.

Author Bio: David Gilbert is Director of the Department of Church History, Faculty of Theology at the Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP)