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Erasme, Precepteur de l'Europe.

It may strike many as odd that when Jean-Claude Margolin wishes to describe Erasmus as the "preceptor of Europe," one of the examples he gives of Erasmian influence centers around the Jesuits, who tended to regard Erasmus as the enemy of all piety. Rather than recording the overt responses of Erasmus's readers, Margolin works to trace Erasmus's actual influence on the thinking of Europeans from the sixteenth century to the present. As Erasmus set out to instruct his readers in things pertaining to their intellectual, moral and spiritual development, Margolin argues that he succeeded astonishingly well in leaving his mark on an entire continent and beyond.

Margolin first characterizes Erasmus's thinking as having several key points: the value he attached to liberty; the importance he accorded to the individual; and the use of experience rather than abstract reasoning as a basis for knowledge. Overriding all of these is Erasmus' belief in the union between intellectual and moral development, and his commitment to education as the building of character. These attitudes in turn are the fruit of the humanistic revival, on which Erasmus drew, that began in Italy.

Margolin sees Erasmus's teaching to be the basis for most of what is progressive in modern European culture. His scope is far-ranging, including areas most often left on the margins of Erasmus scholarship, such as eastern European and trans-Atlantic influences. While Margolin's Erasmus is not a modern-day rationalist, he is compatible with liberal thinking and opposed to all sectarianism, dogmatism, and authoritarianism. His is always a practical theology, down-to-earth and free of mysticism, looking to how people live as the key to their spiritual well-being. Like almost all Europeans of his time he tended to exclude non-Europeans, particularly non-Christians, from his definition of civilized humanity, but in this he was only expressing the limits of his historical context.

He was before anything else the teacher par excellence of Europeans. Wherever we see Europeans working out compromises, eschewing fanaticism, and embracing dialogue, Erasmus's spirit is present, even if those practicing such virtues consider themselves to be his enemies, such as the Jesuits (who, insofar as they themselves participated in education, were nourished in a humanistic culture). His name resounds through subsequent centuries as a defender of exegetical scholarship and common sense. And although Erasmus himself tended to limit his human interactions to an intellectual elite, he was not above writing about such as those which found their way into the Adagia and the Colloquia, two works which Margolin sees as being particularly influential in subsequent popular literature.

Some may choose to take issue with Margolin's emphasis on Erasmus's theology as almost solely concerned with the ethical side of human life; after all, for Erasmus, reading the Word of God is the one way in which humans bridge the gap between heaven and earth - and heavenly things, given somewhat short shrift in Margolin's portrait, concerned Erasmus deeply. Margolin's concept of influence extends not only to those who unwittingly followed his ideal while repudiating his name, but also to those who distorted the ideal while embracing the name.

Margolin is comprehensive in his effort to extend the dialogue during Erasmus's own century into subsequent centuries, and to show Erasmus's significance for our own day as well as his own. His book thus rescues Erasmus from a merely antiquarian interest, revealing a deep commitment to the substance of what Erasmus had to say.

LAUREL CARRINGTON St. Olaf College
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Carrington, Laurel
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Words:571
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