The Crimson Bookshelf
"ERASMUS OF ROTTERDAM," by Stefan Sweig. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. The Viking Press. New York. 247 pp. $3.
STEFAN SWEIG'S pen is guided by a versatile hand and although it has shown particular ability at thrilling narrative such as "Marie Antoinette" it is more than capable in recording scholarly research and thought. Zweig's biography of Erasmus is not a conventional biography; it is rather a perceptive study of the great thinker as a representative of sixteenth century Humanism, a cold unimpassioned word picture of a mind rather than a man. Erasmus was a thinker not a doer; it was he who laid the foundation upon which Luther based his violent departure from the past and the unity of Christendom in the West. Erasmus was an enlightener, a teacher of reason, a vigorous opponent of unthinking subjection to tradition. This cloistered scholar in a brief seven days of relaxation from his studies produced his "Praise of Folly"--a tract so exquisitely satirical that it places him on a pedestal among his contemporaries and yet so pointed that it set the fire of unrest which was to break into an all-consuming flame when Luther, the violent forceful sword of reason pointed for battle with Rome. Although he was the subject of almost universal adulation Erasmus' life is in essence tragic. His unwillingness to partake of struggle, his profound hatred of violence prevented him from taking sides when all of Europe was madly partisan. Both parties wanted his support but he could not give himself up to partisanship, for his ideal was utterly sixteenth century humanistic--all of mankind was to be united in the common aim of betterment through knowledge, reason, and a belief in man's ability to progress. No longer could a retiring scholar take the lead; the stage was set for violent partisan action. Luther took the lead in the drama and the procession of the centuries has left Erasmus behind, a magnificent, tragic scholar and idealist who thought too much to act.
Zweig is neither Catholic nor Protestant so his approach is reasonably objective and his work is free from the heavy touch of axe-grinding. His perceptive style is devoid of superfluities and the work is one of stimulating scholarships.