Erasmus of Rotterdam

If any figure stands head and shoulders above other northern European humanists, it was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Although Erasmus is often presented as reflecting northern Euro- pean humanism at its best, the situation is perhaps more complex than is generally realized. There were significant tensions within northern European humanism. Two are of particular interest: one concerning the question of national languages, the other concerning the question of national boundaries. On both counts, Erasmus pitted himself against other humanists with different ideas.

Erasmus regarded himself as a citizen of the world, and Ciceronian Latin as the language of that world. He saw national languages as presenting an obstacle to his vision of a cosmopolitan Europe united by the Latin language. Yet this was not something that all humanists agreed on. Other humanists, especially in Germany and Switzerland, saw national languages as promoting a sense of national identity. Erasmus’s cosmopolitan vision of humanism contrasted sharply with more nationalist approaches.

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For Erasmus, the vision of a cosmopolitan Europe was threatened by political and cul- tural nationalism, which only served to reinforce outdated concepts such as a sense of national identity and associated ideas such as national boundaries. Other northern human- ists, by contrast, saw themselves as engaged in a struggle to promote national identity. Where Erasmus would have preferred to concentrate upon eliminating nationalist ideas and values, Swiss humanists saw themselves as having a sacred duty to defend Swiss national identity and culture by literary means.

This tension between the “cosmopolitan” and “nationalist” visions of humanism, between those wishing to abolish and those wishing to consolidate national identities, reflects the conflicting views current within northern European humanism of this period. It also demonstrates that Erasmus cannot be regarded as a totally representative spokesman for humanism, as some scholars suggest.