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Dutch, 1467–1536
Although Erasmus had been dead nearly half a century when Montaigne coined the term essai in 1580 to refer to his new prose composition, he would undoubtedly have shared Francis Bacon’s observation that although Montaigne’s term was new, the form itself was ancient. Certainly the essay of Montaigne owes a large debt to the Adagia (1500; Adages) and the Colloquia familiaria (1516; The Colloquies) of Erasmus. In the 1870s, at a time when academic divisions of genre did not include a category for the essay, French literary critic Baston Feugère attempted unsuccessfully to sort Erasmus’ canon according to standard genres. What is noteworthy about Feugère’s failure, however, is how closely his description of Erasmus’ eclectic style approximates contemporary definitions of the essay: for Feugère, Erasmus’ prose was a conflation of theology, ethics, pedagogy, satire, erudition, and even personal reminiscence; his style was easy, lightly mocking, often personal, and predominantly aphoristic. Feugère, in fact, was merely echoing a complaint that was itself as old as the works of Erasmus. In his own day, Erasmus suffered the harsh slings of the French Ciceronian Étienne Dolet (L’Erasmianus sive Ciceronianus, 1535), who criticized in his rhetorical style what in Montaigne’s work would be praised. Dolet resented the base subject matter, the aphoristic style, the familiar and deriding tone, and the rootless and wandering prose.
Attempting to form and define a genre for the essay three decades after Feugère, Pierre Villey (Les Sources et l’évolution des “Essais” de Montaigne, 1908), first suggested a generic link between the literary style of Erasmus and the essai of Montaigne. He argued that Montaigne’s Essais were derivative of several genres and subgenres that arose out of the cultural and philosophical milieu of the Renaissance, naming Erasmus’ Adages and Apophthegmes (1531) as the Essais’ most influential precursors. While Erasmus’ works are not, then, essays per se, we can in retrospect recognize elements of the essay in them.
Although as a corpus his works chart the development and ascendancy of his rhetorical theory, a theory that by breaking from the Ciceronian model would culminate in Montaigne’s Essais, it is his lesser-known, more condensed theoretical works that provide a greater understanding of the Erasmian influence on the formation of the essay.



During the 16th and 17th centuries, Erasmus’ rhetorical experiments (and to a lesser extent those of his younger contemporary, François Rabelais) were pivotal in the transmission of essayistic attributes from the works of such classical writers as Lucian, Quintilian, Seneca, and even Plato to the early modern works of Montaigne, Bacon, and their European and British contemporaries, in whose writings the essay began to take form. In his popular (for some heretical) handbook De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (1512.; On Copia [the abundance] of Words and Ideas), Erasmus synthesizes the tenets of his rhetorical style into a theory of writing as an open-ended and spontaneous exercise that escapes the prescriptive parameters and artificial symmetry imposed by classical models of rhetoric and dialectic. In De inυentione (On Invention), his first treatise on rhetoric, Cicero delineated five steps in his rhetorical model, placing emphasis on the first three: invention, the discovery of valid arguments; arrangement, the distribution of arguments in appropriate order; and style (elocutio), the expression of the arguments in proper language and syntax. Reacting against the emphasis his Ciceronian contemporaries continued to place on imitation and style over content, Erasmus reverses Cicero’s paradigm, subjugating style and the symmetry of syntax to the primacy of the subject matter. Like all subgenres of the modern essay, then, the writings of Erasmus broke with traditional notions of form. His writing burst the seams of the classical— primarily Ciceronian—model, spilling over with a plenitude of language that, although compressed in the eloquence of each individual theme, was expansive in its collective narrative. Thus, the revolution in prose style mounted against the rhetorical conventions of Ciceronianism was initiated by the pen of Erasmus and not at the hands of the earliest essayists, Montaigne and Bacon, as is so often argued.
By the inclusion in his handbook of a section on “imitation,” the standard practice in rhetorical theories since classical antiquity, Erasmus would appear to embrace certain elements of standard rhetorical and pedagogic practice. But here, too, he moves counter to convention. For Erasmus, the writer asserts his independence by both replicating and fragmenting the revered classical models to create a new model of intertextuality. The process of naturalizing fragments of alien texts would later be perfected in the writings of Montaigne in terms of what he called topoi, and Bacon would advance the use of topoi by juxtaposing contradictory axioms or precepts of received wisdom, a practice he recommends in The Advancement of Learning (1605). But such conventions were not without their dangers. Borrowing from and alluding to older works implied that meaning was inherent in a fragment or allusion and thus transferable from one context to another.
The difficulties of such a notion would be addressed repeatedly by Erasmus, most explicitly in his Convivium religiosum (Religious Fellowship), and by Montaigne and Bacon, both of whom, not incidentally, freely borrowed from Erasmus’ literary corpus.
Erasmus’ appropriation and integration of alien texts predicts yet another intriguing metamorphosis found in the essay. We might see such a practice as having anticipated Montaigne and later essayists’ projection of the self into their writing as a way of militating against the influence and prestige of an Ur-text.
Finally, because Erasmus’ theory of rhetoric came at a time when the high and rigid rhetorical style of Cicero was perceived as antithetical to the precepts of 16th-century humanism, his work dovetailed neatly with contemporary projects on both sides of the English Channel to explore and vigorously defend the use of the vernacular. After all, crucial to the emergence of the essay and its subsequent popularity is the simultaneous rise in literacy, the vernacular, and the bourgeois class.
In De ratione studii (1512; A Method of Study), Erasmus would complete his turn from Ciceronian style. In this text, he argues that although the choice of words is important to the writing process, the subject matter has primacy. That is, Erasmus reconfigures the ancient rhetorical and pedagogic paradigm of natura-doctrina-exercitatio. He elevates performance (experientia) above the exactness of doctrina, a sensibility that would be perfected in the Essais of Montaigne. In effect, Erasmus was guarding against what he perceived as the empty loquacity produced by imitation, a subject touched on by Plutarch
and Petrarch, and one which Erasmus expanded upon in his proto-essay, Lingua (1525; Speech). That the motivation to write and the act of writing itself are valued above the mediation of technique helps to explain Erasmus’ lifelong custom of elaborating his already printed texts. The gradual evolution of his work on the New Testament, the perennial revisions of Paraclesis (1519; An Exhortation to the Diligent Study of Scripture), and the manifold versions of the Ratio verae theologiae (1518; The Reason of True Religion) all testify to Erasmus’ view of the text as a work-in-progress. His practice of continual revision, taken together with his theory of deconstructing and incorporating alien material, reinforces his idea of the text as an object that could continue to be expanded and embedded with additional meaning. Thus, his writing already heralds a theory of textual heterogeneity, the fundamental characteristic of the essay genre that makes the essayist of every age Erasmus’ literary descendant. Moreover, the gradual sedimentation of Erasmus’ works clearly anticipates Montaigne and Bacon’s view of the essay as an open-ended and antisyllogistic narrative, one which advances not logically but obliquely. Each “draft” simply becomes one more brick toward the foundation of reason that leads to a greater truth. This is precisely why the essay, in the empiricist tradition of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, flourished as a tool for the collaborative production, accumulation, and dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the 18th century.
In short, what for Erasmus was practice for the essayists would be form.
When weighing Erasmus’ influence on the essay, it is essential not only to consider the texts he authored, but also the subsequent interpretations of the ideology those texts were perceived to deploy, especially their influence during the 18th century, a time when the periodical essay—and its division into sociological and scientific subgenres—was codified and commodified in the growing market economy as an agent of an imperial and bourgeois moralism. (Here, we have only to think of Pope’s accolades for Erasmus in Essay on Criticism [1711], or the Erasmus invoked in the “practical moralism” of Addison and Steele.) It is Erasmus, more than any of his contemporaries, to whom the 17th- and 18th-century writers and thinkers revert, by both explicit reference and implicit allusion. Erasmus was so popular among Enlightenment thinkers, in fact, that the 18th century saw the publication of no fewer than three complete biographies of him. He is
mentioned in many of the great documents of the Enlightenment, including Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1746–72) and Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756, 1761–63; Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations). His progressive thought resonates in still more of the period’s most influential humanist essays, such as Locke’s treatise, The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). The 17th-century French Cartesian Pierre Bayle proclaimed Erasmus the church father of the Enlightenment, a title that places Erasmus at the head of a long tradition of modern skepticism, for which Bayle himself is a distinguished forerunner. In a stunning recapitulation of his role in Luther’s 16thcentury struggle with the papal court, Erasmus is once again cast as mediator between Catholic and Protestant, in debates that would escalate into Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. As in Luther’s day, both sides would lay claim to Erasmus, finding in the ambiguities of his free and associative rhetorical style support for their respective partisanships.
Given the 18th century’s renewed interest in the classical period, its philosophical rediscovery of neoplatonism, it is not surprising that it is Erasmus to whom pundits returned for a rehearsed argument between the classical and the nascent vernacular models of rhetoric. He was used as a symbol in the conflict between classical restraint and Romantic fervor in late 18th-century Germany. Ultimately the late 18th and early 19th centuries would consider him part of the tradition of “freethinking” education that through Locke would give rise to the essays of Rousseau and Voltaire, to culminate in the work of Jeremy Bentham. Finally, in the grand scheme of the 18th century, Erasmus was summoned forth as the great humanist whose intellect and idea of progress paved the way for the likes of Descartes, Locke, and several other great architects of the Age of Reason. Yet, if it is writers in this period whose praise for Erasmus codified his position as an innovator of language and free thinking, then it is also detractors like Edward Gibbon, historians in and of this period, whose criticism has resulted in modern scholarship’s having glossed too narrowly, or slighted altogether, Erasmus’ manifold contribution to the emergence of the essay as a genre.

Desiderius Erasmus. Born in Rotterdam, probably 27/28 October 1467. Studied at schools in Gouda and Deventer, until 1493; a seminary at ‘s Hertogenbosch; entered the monastery of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, Steyn, 1487: ordained priest, 1492,; secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai, 1493–95; studied at the College of Montaigue, Paris, 1495–99 and 1500–01; University of Turin, Doctor of Divinity, 1506. Lived or traveled in England, 1499, 1505–06, 1509–14, 1515, 1516, 1517; lived in Italy, 1506–09, and Louvain, 1517–21. General editor of John Froben’s press, Basle, 1521–29. Lived in Freiburg, 1529–35, and again in Basle, 1535–36. Declined the offer of becoming a Cardinal. Died 12 July 1536.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Adagia, 1500, and later augmented editions; as Proverbs or Adages, translated by Richard Taverner, 1539, and Margaret Mann Phillips, 1964
Enchiridion militis Christiani, 1503; as The Manual of the Christian Knight, translated by William Tyndale, 1533 (reprinted 1905), and Anne M.O’Donnell, 1981; as The Christian Manual, translated by John Spier, 1752; as The Handbook of the Militant
Christian, translated by John P.Dolan, 1962; as The Enchiridion, translated by Raymond Himelick, 1963
Encomium moriae, 1511; revised edition, 1514; edited and translated by Hoyt H.Hudson, 1941; several translations, as The Praise of Folly, including by Thomas Chaloner, 1549, John Wilson, 1668 (reprinted 1961), Leonard F.Dean, 1946, A.H.T. Levi and Betty Radice, 1971, and Clarence H.Miller, 1979
De ratione studii, 1512; revised edition, 1514; as On the Aim and Method of Education, edited by W.H.Woodward, 1904; as A Method of Study, translated by Brian McGregor, in Collected Works, 1978
De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, 1512; revised edition, 1514; as On Copia of Words and Ideas, translated by Donald B.King and H.David Rix, 1963; as On Copia, translated by Betty I. Knott, in Collected Works, 1978
Colloquia familiaria, 1516, and later augmented editions; edited by L.E.Halkin, F.Bierlaire, and R.Hoven, in Opera omnia, 1972; as The Colloquies, translated by H.M.London, 1671, Roger L’Estrange, in Twenty Select Colloquies, 1680, revised edition, 1923, Nathan Bailey, 1725, and Craig R.Thompson, 1965; in part as Ten Colloquies, translated by Craig R.Thompson, 1957
Institutio principis Christiani, 1516; as The Education of a Christian Prince, translated by Lester K.Born, 1936
Julius Exclusus, 1517; as The Dialogue Between Julius the Second Genius and Saint Peter, translated anonymously, 1534; as The Pope Shut out of Heaven Gates, 1673;
also translated by J.A. Froude, 1894
De libero arbitro, 1524; edited by J.Walter, 1910; as Discourse on the Freedom of the Will, edited and translated by Ernest F. Winter, 1961
Lingua, 1525
Dialogus Ciceronianus, 1528; edited by Pierre Mesnard, in Opera omnia, 1971; as Ciceronianus; or, A Dialogue on the Best Style of Speaking, edited and translated by Izora Scott, 1900
Apophthegmes, 1531; translated by Nicholas Udall, 1542, reprinted 1877
The Complaint of Peace, translated by Thomas Paynell, 1559, revised edition, 1946
Opus epistolarum (in Latin and English), edited by P.S.Allen and others, 12 vols., 1906– 58; as The Epistles, edited and translated by Francis M.Nichols, 3 vols., 1901–18; as Correspondence, translated by R.A.B.Mynors and D.F.S.Thomson, annotated by Wallace K.Ferguson, James K.McConica, and Peter G. Bietenholz, in Collected Works, 1974
Opuscula, edited by W.K.Ferguson, 1933
The Essential Erasmus, edited by John P.Dolan, 1964
Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings, edited by John C.Olin, 1965
Essential Works, edited by W.T.H.Jackson, 1965
The Praise of Folly, and Other Writings, edited by Robert M. Adams, 1989
The Erasmus Reader, edited by Erika Rummel, 1990
Other writings: edited works by Ambrose, Aristotle, Augustine, Basil, Cato, Chrysostom, Cicero, Cyprian, Hilary, Irenaeus, Jerome, Lactantius, Origen, Plutarch, Pseudo-Arnobius, Seneca, and others.
Collected works editions: Opera omnia, 6 vols., 1969–95 (in progress); Collected Works, 33 vols., 1974–95 (in progress).
Devereux, E.J., Renaissance Translations of Erasmus: A Bibliography to 1700, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983
Further Reading
Mansfield, Bruce, Phoenix of His Age: Interpretations of Erasmus, c. 1550–1750, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979
Mansfield, Bruce, Man on His Own: Interpretations of Erasmus, c. 1750–1920, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Pavlovskis, Zoja, The Praise of Folly: Structure and Irony, Leiden: Brill, 1983
Schoeck, R.J., Erasmus Grandescens: The Growth of a Humanist’s Mind and Spirituality, Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1988
Schoeck, R.J., Erasmus of Europe: The Making of a Humanist, 1467–1500, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990
Screech, M.A., Ecstasy and “The Praise of Folly”, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988 (original edition, 1980)
Smith, Henry Goodwin, “The Triumph of Erasmus in Modern Protestantism,” Hibbert Journal 3 (1905): 64–82
Thompson, Geraldine, Under Pretext of Praise: Satiric Mode in Erasmus’ Fiction, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974

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