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Interpretations of Erasmus, c. 1750-1920: Man on His Own.

Mansfield, Bruce. Interpretations of Erasmus c 1750-1920: Man on His Own. Erasmus Studies, vol. 11. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. xxii + 512 pp. $75.00--This volume is a sequel to Phoenix of His Age: Interpretations of Erasmus c 1550-1750, the author's earlier study of Erasmus's reputation from the time of his death until the middle of the eighteenth century. The present volume offers a fascinating account of the reception of Erasmus during the period from around 1750 to the first quarter of the present century. The volume is divided into a brief introduction and two parts: a shorter first part covering the ages of Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Revolution; and a longer second part dealing with the nineteenth century and after. Mansfield's two books look for an explanation for the continued interest in Erasmus during the past four centuries on the part of persons of quite different persuasions and backgrounds.

The present volume focuses upon the uses to which Erasmus's name and reputation have been put during the decades from the Enlightenment to the early years of this century. Mansfield studies many individual authors, often key figures in European intellectual history, such as Voltaire, Gibbon, Herder, Coleridge, Ranke, Hallam, Pattison, Froude, Dollinger, Pastor, and many others. He has grouped these men by their various commitments and associations as, for example, Catholics, Protestants, liberals, and romantics. Twin chapters, for example, sketch nineteenth-century Catholic and nineteenth-century Protestant views of Erasmus's relation to Catholic orthodoxy, tradition, and scholasticism on the one hand, and of his relation to the Reformation on the other. On the assumption that there is a connection between the lives and historical situations of the individual authors and their responses to Erasmus, Mansfield presents the reader with a brief biographical sketch of the principal interpreters of Erasmus's many-faceted writings in each of the ages covered, as well as with an indication of the principal features of their interpretation and evaluation of Erasmus. The result is not one portrait of the "real" Desiderius Erasmus, but multiple vignettes; these are so varied in the way they view and assess Erasmus that the result at times verges on a complete relativism.

This fault is mitigated only by clear scholarly advances in such things as the dating and publication of Erasmus's letters. The cumulative effect of this meticulous study does, nonetheless, gradually bring the reader, though quite indirectly, to a better knowledge of this great Renaissance scholar, humanist, and reformer. For the earlier, confessionally polarized assessments, often unquestioned and repeated by succeeding generations, gradually neutralize one another, and more modem studies reveal different facets of the personality, historical background, friendships, interests, and work of Erasmus. The reader is thereby led to see a greater complexity in the object of the volume's study that prevents one from categorizing Erasmus as merely fitting one or more stereotypes. Rather, the many studies converge to disclose an Erasmus who was not simply Catholic or Protestant, not simply reformer or humanist, not simply skeptic or liberal, but "a man on his own," as the subtitle of this volume claims--a subtitle which is itself drawn from Erasmus's own words: homo pro se.

Mansfield's study concludes with seventy-four pages of endnotes, thirty pages of bibliography, and a twenty-seven-page index. The bibliography includes not merely the primary sources for the period studied, but also secondary, more modem works on Erasmus. There are also twelve pages of portraits or photographs, mainly of some of the principal interpreters of Erasmus, but also of title pages of a few of the more important studies on him.
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Author:Teske, Roland J.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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