Who are Renaissance Philosophers?

The Renaissance period of the Medieval era of philosophy covers, very roughly, the 15th and 16th Centuries. It can be seen as a bridge between Medieval philosophy and the start of Modern philosophy during the Age of Reason.

It includes the following major philosophers:

Erasmus, Desiderius (1466 – 1536) Dutch
Machiavelli, Niccolo 1469 – 1527) Italian
More, Sir Thomas (1478 – 1535) English
Bacon, Sir Francis (1561 – 1626) English

The Renaissance is named for the rebirth or revival of classical civilization and learning. In general terms, it is usually considered to have begun in Italy in the mid-14th Century and rolled across Europe over the succeeding two centuries.

In philosophical terms, the renaissance represents a movement away from Christianity and medieval Scholasticism and towards Humanism, with an increasing focus on the temporal and personal over merely seeing this world as a gateway to the Christian afterlife. A new sense of critical enquiry arose that looked back to the ancient Greeks but also set the stage for the birth of modern philosophy in the Age of Reason.


Sir Francis Bacon


Sir Francis BaconSir Francis Bacon (Baron Verulam, 1st Viscount St Alban) (1561 – 1626) was an English philosopher, statesman, essayist and scientist of the late Renaissance period. He was an astute and ambitious politician in the turbulent and poisonous political climate of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But, despite his sometimes nefarious dealings and constant battles against debt, he was also the possessor of a brilliant mind.

His major contribution to philosophy was his application of inductive reasoning (generalizations based on individual instances), the approach used by modern science, rather than the a priori method of medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelianism. He was an early proponent of Empiricism and the scientific method.


Francis Bacon was born in London, England on 22 January 1561. His father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I; his mother was Ann Cooke, Sir Nicholas’ second wife, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, and sister-in-law of William Cecil (Lord Burghley) (chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth). He was therefore raised as an English gentleman, and had many contacts in the royal court of the day. He was the youngest of his father’s five sons and three daughters.

Bacon’s early education was conducted at home owing to poor health, which plagued him throughout his life. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge at the age of twelve (living in Cambridge for three years with his older brother, Anthony), and it was there that he first met the Queen, who was impressed by his precocious intellect. In 1576, he briefly entered the upper class part of Gray’s Inn, but was soon granted the opportunity to travel (with Sir Amias Paulet, the English ambassador at Paris) throughout France, Italy and Spain, including some time spent at the University of Poitiers in France and at the French court. There were unsubstantiated rumours that he became romantically involved during this time with Marguerite de Valois, sister of the French king).

In February 1579, he returned to England on the sudden death of his father, although his inheritance was much less than anticipated, and he returned to Gray’s Inn to study law in order to support himself. He was admitted as a junior barristerin 1582, but his ambitions (which he described as to discover truth, to serve his country and to serve his church) led him into politics. He served as Member of Parliament for Melcome Regis in 1584, and then Taunton (1586), Southampton and Ipswich (1597), Liverpool (1589), Middlesex (1593) and St Albans and Ipswich (1604).

His early opposition to Elizabeth’s tax program retarded his political advancement, but, with the help of his powerful uncle, Lord Burghley, he rose quickly in the legal profession, receiving the valuable appointment of reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber in 1589. During this period, he also became acquainted with Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and by 1591, he was acting as the earl’s confidential adviser. He continued to use his contacts to advance his career, including an appointment to Queen’s Counsel in 1596, although his money problems continued and, in 1598, he was briefly arrested for his bad debts. He was an astute politician and managed to sever his ties with the Duke of Essex before Essex was executed for treason in 1601 (even publicly arguing against his old benefactor).

With the accession of King James I after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Bacon’s star continued to rise and he was knighted in the same year. In 1606, he married Alice Barnham, the 14-year old daughter of a well-connected London MP (he was later to disinherit her on the discovery of her infidelity). Despite the generous income from his various legal positions, old debts and his spendthrift ways kept him indebted. He managed to negotiate the political obstacles of King James’ reign, and continued to receive the King’s favour, although he was not always so popular with his peers. He was rewarded with one prestigious appointment after another, including Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), Privy Councillor(1616), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (1617), Lord High Chancellor (1618), Baron Verulam of Verulam (1618) and Viscount St. Albans (1621).

Sir Francis played a leading role in creating the British colonies in the New World, especially in Virginia, the Carolinas and Newfoundland. His government report on “The Virginia Colony” was made in 1609, and he helped form the Newfoundland Colonization Company which sent John Guy to found a colony in Newfoundland in 1610.

Sir Francis Bacon’s public career ended in disgrace in 1621, when a Parliamentary Committee on the administration of the law charged him with twenty-three counts of corruption and bribery. Although his imprisonment in the Tower of London was short-lived, he was declared incapable of holding future office or sitting in parliament, and only narrowly escaped being deprived of his titles. He was banishedfrom London, and he retired to his estate at Gorhambury (near St. Albans) to devote himself to writing and scientific work.

He died, aged 66, at the home of Lord Arundel in Highgate, London on 9 April 1626, leaving substantial debts. At his funeral at Saint Michael’s Church in St. Albans, over thirty famous thinkers of the day collected together their eulogies of him, suggesting that, among many political enemies, he also had many scholarly and literary friends.

Since his death, several controversies and conspiracy theories have arisen regarding Bacon, including his possible homosexuality, the possibility that he (and also the Earl of Essex) may have been Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate and unacknowledged son, that he was the real author of many of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, that he was deeply involved with various secret societies such as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, and that he faked his own death. In the 20th Century, some Ascended Master Teachings organizations in the United States went so far as to claim that that Francis Bacon had never died, and had since become an Ascended Master.


For Bacon, the only knowledge of importance to man was empirically rooted in the natural world, and a clear system of scientific inquiry would assure man’s mastery over the world. He had a great reverence for Aristotle, although he found Aristotelian philosophy barren, disputatious and wrong in its objectives.

Bacon argued that, while philosophy at the time generally used the deductive syllogism (see the section on Logic) to interpret nature, it should instead proceed through inductive reasoning, from fact to axiom to law. However, he cautioned that before beginning this induction, the philosopher must free his mind from certain false notions or tendencies which distort the truth, which he characterized as the four Idols: “Idols of the Tribe” (common to the race); “Idols of the Den” (peculiar to the individual); “Idols of the Marketplace” (from the misuse of language); and “Idols of the Theatre” (from the abuse of authority).

In Ethics, he distinguished between duty to the community (an ethical matter) and duty to God (a religious matter). He believed that any moral action is the action of the human will (which is governed by belief and spurred on by the passions), that good habit is what aids men in directing their will toward the good, but that no universal rules can be made, as both situations and men’s characters differ. One of his many aphorisms was that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to Atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”.

Among his earlier publication were the “Essays”, the “Colours of Good and Evil”, the “Meditationes Sacrae” (which includes his famous aphorism, “knowledge is power”, an early expression of Pragmatism), and the “Proficience and Advancement of Learning”. In 1620, his “Novum Organum” (“The New Instrument”), the most important part of his fragmentary and incomplete “Instauratio Magna” (“The Great Renewal”), was published, and a second part, “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (“The Advancement of Learning”), was published in 1623.

“The New Atlantis”, written in 1623 and published after his death in 1627, expressed Bacon’s aspirations and ideals in the form of an idealized utopia and a vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge. In it, he envisioned a land where there would be greater rights for women, the abolition of slavery, elimination of debtors prisons (a rather personal note), separation of church and state, and freedom of religious and political expression. It includes his idea for a cooperative research institution, which was instrumental in the plans and preparations for establishing the Royal Society for science in the 17th Century.

From his early studies, Bacon was persuaded that the methods and results of scienceas then practiced (largely based on the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle) were erroneous. While many Aristotelian ideas ( such as the position of the earth at the centre of the universe) had been overturned, his methodology (based on the premise that scientific truth could be reached by way of authoritative argument) was still being used. Bacon argued strongly that truth required evidence from the real world (Empiricism), and urged full investigation in all cases, avoiding theories based on insufficient data. Although not himself a distinguished scientist, his importance is in the way he articulated what was to become the dominant mode of thought.

Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535)


Sir Thomas MoreSir Thomas More (AKA St. Thomas More) (1478 – 1535) was an English philosopher, scholar, statesman and writer of the Renaissance period.

His writing and scholarship earned him a great reputation as a Christian Humanist scholar in continental Europe, and was famously described by Robert Whittington as “a man for all seasons”. He occupied many public offices under King Henry VIII, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor of England.

More coined the word “utopia”, a name he gave to an ideal, imaginary land whose political system he described in his famous 1516 book of the same name. The book was a forerunner of the utopian literary genre, and has been claimed by some modern Socialists as key in the early development of Socialist ideas



Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478 in London, England, the the sole surviving son of Sir John More (a prominent judge) and Agnes Granger (or Grainger or Graunger). As a youth, he served as a page in the household of Archbishop Morton, who predicted that More would become a “marvellous man”. More went on to study at Oxford under Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn.

Around 1494, More returned to London to study law, was admitted to Lincoln’s Innin 1496, and became a barrister in 1501. Even while studying to be a lawyer, he subjected himself to the discipline and the monastic life of the Carthusian monksat a nearby monastery, and the prayer, fasting, and penance habits stayed with him for the rest of his life. However, his sense of duty to serve his country in the field of politics won out over both law and the church, and he entered Parliament in 1504.

In 1505, at the age of 27, More married his first wife, the 17 year old Jane Colt. Their marriage was a happy one, and they bore four children: Margaret (Meg, his favourite, who later married William Roper), Elizabeth (Beth, who married William Daunce), Cicely (Cecy, who married Giles Heron) and John (Jack). In addition, they adopted an orphan girl, Margaret Giggs. He was a very devoted father and, unusually for the era, he educated his daughters as he did his son, saying that women were just as intelligent as men (and taking particular pride in his eldest daughter Meg’s achievements).

Jane Colt died in 1511, and More remarried almost immediately (so his children would have a mother) to Dame Alice Middleton, a widow seven years his senior. They bore no children of their own, although he adopted her daughter, also called Alice.

More had become a close friend of Desiderius Erasmus during the latter’s first visit to England in 1499, and the two Humanists began of a lifelong friendship and correspondence. Together, they produced Latin translations of the works of Lucianin 1506 during Erasmus’ second visit and, on his third visit in 1509, Erasmus dedicated his “Encomium Moriae” (“In Praise of Folly”) to More.

From 1510 to 1518, More was one of the two undersheriffs of the city of London, a position of much responsibility, and he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant. In 1517, he entered the service of the young King Henry VIII of England as a counsellor and personal servant, and in 1518 he became a member of the Privy Council. After a diplomatic mission to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he was knighted and made Under-Treasurer in 1521. As secretaryand personal advisor to King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas became governmentally influential, welcoming diplomats, drafting official documents and liaising between the King and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.

In 1523, More became the Speaker of the House of Commons, where he helped establish the parliamentary privilege of free speech. Later, he became High Steward for the universities of Oxford and of Cambridge, and, in 1525, he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position holding administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.

He was passionate about maintaining the unity of Christendom and he saw the fragmentation and discord of the Reformation of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) as a threat to the harmony and strict hierarchy he so greatly valued. With this in mind, he assisted Henry VIII with writing the “Defence of the Seven Sacraments” in 1521 (a polemic response to Luther’s “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”), beginning a violent exchange which led to intemperate personal insults. He also aided Cardinal Wolsey in preventing Lutheran books from being imported into England, and assisted with a Star Chamber edict against heretical preaching.

Up until this time, More had been fully devoted to King Henry and to the cause of royal prerogative. He initially cooperated with the king’s new policy, denouncingboth Cardinal Wolsey and the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More’s qualms grew.

After the fall of Thomas Wolsey in 1529, More became Lord Chancellor, the first layman ever to hold the post. As Lord Chancellor, More had six Lutherans burned at the stake and imprisoned as many as forty others in his zeal to wipe out collaborators of William Tyndale, the exiled Lutheran who had clandestinely published a Protestant translation of the Bible in English in 1525. Although he always denied allegations of violence or torture while interrogating them, More presided over further burnings, including those of the former Benedictine monk Richard Bayfield in 1531 and the priest and writer John Frith in 1533.

In 1530, More refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and in 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church. In 1532, he again asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming illness and sharp chest pains, and this time Henry granted his request.

When, in 1533, More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England, Henry had More charged with patently false charges of accepting bribes, which were dismissed for lack of any evidence, and the next year he was also cleared of a trumped-up conspiracy charge. However, later in 1534, More refused to to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy (which denied the authority of the Pope), and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1535, he was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession, and was convicted (on evidence which was almost certainly perjured).

He was executed by beheading, alongside Bishop Fisher, on 6 July 1535, and his head was placed on a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. His daughter Margaret Roper rescued it, and the skull is believed to rest in the St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury. He is considered a Catholic martyr, and was beatified in 1886, canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and declared the patron saint of politicians and statesmen in 1980.



Despite his busy political career, More was a prolific scholar and literary man. In his communications with other Humanists, Erasmus described More as a model Man of Letters, and he was famously described in 1520 by Robert Whittington (c. 1480 – 1553) as “a man for all seasons”. As a Christian Humanist, he sought the re-examination and revitalization of Christian theology by studying the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in light of classical Greek literary and philosophic traditions.

Between 1513 and 1518, More worked on an unfinished historiography, the “History of King Richard III”, later published in both English and Latin. It reflected an early move from mundane medieval chronicles to a more dramatic writing style.

In 1516, More wrote his most famous and controversial work, “Utopia”, a novel wherein a traveller describes the political arrangements of the imaginary island country of Utopia. In Utopia, private property does not exist, and there is almost complete religious toleration. Atheism, however, is not tolerated, with More arguing that, if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife, he could never be trusted because logically he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself. The perfectly orderly and reasonable social arrangements of Utopia (based loosely on monastic communalism) are contrasted with the contentious social life of European states, and the social need for order and discipline is emphasized (rather than liberty).

Although some have argued that “Utopia” was largely ironic and that More was at every point an orthodox Christian, it has also attracted the admiration of modern Socialists, who have argued that it was a shrewd critique of economic and social exploitation in pre-modern Europe, and that More was one of the key intellectual figures in the early development of Socialist ideas.

Along with Erasmus, More was responsible for reviving Hedonism to some extent, defending it on religious grounds. He argued that not only did God design us to be happy, but that He uses our desire for happiness to motivate us to behave morally. Perhaps more importantly, More distinguished between the pleasures of the mind and pleasures of the body, and argued that we should pursue pleasures that are more naturally grounded, so that we do not become preoccupied with artificial luxuries.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527)


niccolomachiavelliNiccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) was an Italian philosopher, political theorist, diplomat, musician and writer of the Renaissance period. He was a central figure in the political scene of the Italian Renaissance, a tumultuous period of plots, wars between city states and constantly shifting alliances.

Although he never considered himself a philosopher (and often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as irrelevant), many subsequent political philosophers have been influenced by his ideas. His name has since passed into common usage to refer to any political move that is devious or cunning in nature, although this probably represents a more extreme view than Machiavelli actually took.

He is best known today for two main works, the well-known “The Prince” (a treatise on political realism and a guide on how a ruler can retain control over his subjects), and the “Discourses on Livy” (the most important work on republicanism in the early modern period).

Although he is sometimes presented as a model of Moral Nihilism, that is actually highly questionable as he was largely silent on moral matters and, if anything, he presented an alternative to the ethical theories of his day, rather than an all-out rejection of all morality. He was also accused of Atheism, again with little justification.



Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy on 3 May 1469, the second son of Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli (a lawyer) and Bartolommea di Stefano Nelli. His family were believed to be descended from the old marquesses of Tuscany, and were probably quite wealthy.

Little is known of his early life, but his education (possibly at the University of Florence) left him with a thorough knowledge of the Latin and Italian classics, and he was trained as a man with great nobility and severe rigour by his father. He entered governmental service in Florence as a clerk and ambassador in 1494, the same year as Florence had restored the republic and expelled the ruling Medici family. He was soon promoted to Second Chancellor of the Republic of Florence, with responsibility for diplomatic negotiations and military matters. Between 1499 and 1512, he undertook a number of diplomatic missions to the court of Louis XII of France, Ferdinand II of Aragón and the Papacy in Rome. During this time, he witnessed at first hand (and with great interest) the audacious but effective statebuilding methods of the soldier/churchman Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507).

From 1503 to 1506, Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine militia and the defence of the city (he distrusted mercenaries, preferring a citizen militia). He had some early success, but in 1512, the Medici (with the help of Pope Julius II and Spanish troops) defeated the Florentine force, and Machiavelli was removed from office, accused of conspiracy and arrested. After torture, he was eventually released and retired to his estate at Sant’Andrea (in Percussina near Florence) and began writing the treatises that would ensure his place in the history of Political Philosophy, “Il Principe” (“The Prince”) and “Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio” (“Discourses on Livy”).

Near the end of his life, and probably with the aid of well-connected friends whom he had been constantly badgering, Machiavelli began to return to the favour of the Medici family. From 1520 to 1525, he worked on a “History of Florence”, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’Medici (who later become Pope Clement VII). However, before he could achieve a full rehabilitation, he died in San Casciano, just outside of Florence, on 21 June 1527. His resting place is unknown.



Machiavelli’s best known work, “Il Principe” (“The Prince”), was written in some haste in 1513 while in exile on his farm outside Florence, and was dedicated to Lorenzo de’Medici in the hope of regaining his status in the Florentine Government. However, it was only formally published posthumously in 1532. In it, he described the arts by which a Prince (or ruler) could retain control of his realm. A “new” prince has a much more difficult task than a hereditary prince, since he must stabilize his newfound power and build a structure that will endure, a task that requires the Prince to be publicly above reproach but privately may require him to do immoral things in order to achieve his goals. He outlined his criteria for acceptable cruel actions and pointed out the irony in the fact that good can come from evil actions.

Although “The Prince” did not dispense entirely with morality nor advocate wholesale selfishness or degeneracy, the Catholic Church nevertheless put the work on its index of prohibited books, and it was viewed very negatively by many Humanists, such as Erasmus. It marked a fundamental break between Realism and Idealism. Although never directly stated in the book, “the end justifies the means”is often quoted as indicative of the Pragmatism or Instrumentalism that underlies Machiavelli’s philosophy. He also touched on totalitarian themes, arguing that the state is merely an instrument for the benefit of the ruler, who should have no qualms at using whatever means are at his disposal to keep the citizenry suppressed. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, though, Machiavelli was not looking to describe the ideal society, merely to present a guide to getting and preserving power and the status quo.

His other major contribution to political thought, the “Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio” (“Discourses on Livy”) was begun around 1516 and compeleted in 1518 or 1519. It was an exposition of the principles of republican rule, masquerading as a commentary on the work of the famous historian of the Roman Republic. It constitutes a series of lessons on how a republic should be started and structured, including the concept of checks and balances, the strength of a tripartite structure, and the superiority of a republic over a principality or monarchy. If not the first, then it was certainly the most important work on republicanism in the early modern period.


Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536)


Desiderius ErasmusDesiderius Erasmus (AKA Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus or Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam) (1466 – 1536) was a Dutch philosopher and theologian of the Renaissance. He is best known as an early Humanist (sometimes known as “Prince of the Humanists” or “the crowning glory of the Christian Humanists”), and the intellectual father of the Reformation. He was instrumental in rescuing Christian theology from the pedantries of the Scholastics.

He was a very learned classical scholar, and was especially interested in the study of ancient languages. Although his Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament earned him enemies among both Catholics and Protestant Reformers, his works were hugely popular and influential, both during his life and afterwards (in the 1530’s, his writings accounted for 10 to 20 percent of all book sales).


Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, on 27 October 1466 (or possibly 1469). He was born with the Dutch name Gerrit Gerritszoon but adopted the name Erasmus after the early Christian saint of that name. He was almost certainly illegitimate, his father, Gerard Rogers, later becoming a priest, and his mother Margaretha being the daughter of a physician. He lived his first four years in Rotterdam, before moving to his parents’ home town of Gouda.

Despite being illegitimate, his parents looked after and educated him. At nine years of age, he went to the school of the celebrated Humanist Alexander Hegius (1433 – 1498) in Deventer, run by the Brethren of the Common Life, where he soon exhibited a brilliant intellect, a wonderful memory and extraordinarily quick powers of comprehension. When both his parents suffered early deaths from the plague in 1483, his guardians forced him into in a series of monastic schools, including, in 1486, the Augustinian college of Stein (near Gouda), where he spent almost six years and had a first-hand taste of monastic life which forever coloured his views.

In 1491, a fortunate accident allowed Erasmus to leave the monastery for the post of secretary to Henry of Bergen (the Bishop of Cambray), on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation as a man of letters. In 1492, the Bishop ordained him to the Catholic priesthood, although he never actively worked as a priest, and throughout his life he regularly attacked the monasticism of the time and the Church’s excesses in general. In 1495, with the bishop’s consent, he went on to study and also teach at the University of Paris, specifically at the Collège de Montaigu, under the strict direction of the ascetic Jan Standonck. The college was known as a centre of reforming zeal, and the University, although still the chief seat of Scholastic learning (which Erasmus found repugnant), was already coming under the influence of Humanism.

He made his first visit to England in 1498, where he lived chiefly at Oxford, before returning to Paris in 1500 where he spent the next six years, and started his early writings. In 1506, he made another short visit to England, and then carried out a long-desired journey to Italy, staying at Padua and Rome and at a publishing house in Venice. With the accession of King Henry VIII in 1509, Erasmus’ old student Lord Mountjoy induced him once more to make England (more specifically, Cambridge) his home, where he was granted the position of Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity and stayed for some time at Queens’ College. During this time, he was particularly impressed by the old-style Bible teaching of the English Humanist and theologian John Colet (1467 – 1519). After 1514, he lived alternately in England and Basel, Switzerland, and from 1517 to 1521 at Louvain in Flemish Belgium. After this, with the exception of six years in Freiburg, Switzerland, he spent the rest of his life at Basel.

While in England in 1515, Erasmus had begun a search for available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament with the goal of meeting the demand for a printed edition before the Polyglot Bible project could be finished. Inspired by Colet, and despite his continuing poverty, he rapidly mastered the Greek language and set about preparing a new edition of St. Jerome’s 4th Century Bible translation. This resulted in his “Textus Receptus”, of which he produced several versionsover the subsequent years.

At that time, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was making public his criticisms of the Church, and although Erasmus was generally sympathetic with many of them, he declined to commit himself, arguing that to do so would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship which he regarded as his purpose in life. Erasmus, at the height of his literary fame throughout Europe, was inevitably called upon to take sides and, when he hesitated to support him, Luther felt that Erasmus was avoiding the responsibility due either to cowardice or lack of purpose, and he gradually withdrew his early admiration for Erasmus. The Catholic Church, however, and especially the Catholic Counter-Reformationafter his death, accused him of being instrumental in the whole Protestant movement, and all of his works were later placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Paul IV in 1557. By remaining firmly neutral, both sides accused him of siding with the other.

Throughout his life, Erasmus was offered many positions of honour and profit in the academic world, but declined them all, preferring to retain his his freedom of intellect and literary expression. As a scholar, he tried to free the methods of scholarship from the rigidity and formalism of medieval Scholastic traditions, and as a theologian he pursued a purification of the Christian doctrine by returning to the historic documents and original languages of scripture, and by an appeal to reason without fear of the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic church). He corresponded with more than five hundred men of the highest importance in the world of politics and of thought, and his advice on all kinds of subjects was eagerly sought (even if not always followed).

Erasmus died of a sudden attack of dysentery on 12 July 1536 in Basel, and was buried there in the cathedral.


Erasmus wrote mainly on ecclesiastic subjects but also on those of general human interest (although he regarded these as trifling, a leisure activity). In 1500, he produced a collection of adages, commonly called the “Adagia”, including several of his own (e.g. he is credited with the adage “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, and with the origin of the English phrase “Pandora’s box”). In his first serious work, the “Enchiridion militis Christiani” (“Handbook of the Christian Soldier”) of 1503, he first outlined his essential view that the chief evil of the day was formalism (going through the motions of tradition, without understanding their basis in the teachings of Christ), and as examples he mentioned monasticism, saint worship, war, the spirit of class and the foibles of “society”.

His best-known work is “Moriae encomium” or “Laus stultitiae” (“The Praise of Folly”), a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, written in 1509, published in 1511 and dedicated to his friend, Sir Thomas More. The “Sileni Alcibiadis” of 1515 continues in this vein, criticizing those that spend the Church’s riches at the people’s expense. His “Institutio principis Christiani” (“Education of a Christian Prince”), written as advice to the young King Charles of Spain, was published in 1516, sixteen years before Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. Contrary to Machiavelli’s advice, Erasmus suggested a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression. His often reprinted “Colloquia Familiaria”, first published in 1518, was a kind of Humanist textbook for the study of Latin.

It was only comparatively late in his life, when he had fully mastered Latin, that Erasmus’ real literary productivity began. His output was prodigious, and he translated, edited or annotated many of the greatest names of the classical and patristic world, including AristotleCiceroSt. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome.

While in England in 1515, Erasmus had begun a search for available manuscripts of the Greek New Testament and, although he did not have access to a single complete manuscript, he nevertheless quickly put together what became the first published Greek New Testament (with a Latin translation and annotations) in 1516, using several Greek manuscript sources. This “Textus Receptus” (and his later 1519 and 1522 editions) was subsequently used as the main source material by the reformers Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and William Tyndale (1494 – 1536), and for the Church of England’s authoritative King James Version (1611) of the Bible.

He continued to produce ever more definitive editions of his Bible translations in 1527 and 1535, as well as his popular “Paraphrases of the New Testament”, and the “Ecclesiastes” (or “Gospel Preacher”) of 1536, in which he comments on the function of preaching.