|Lucas Cranach the Elder: Martin Luther, circa 1532; Hans Holbein the Younger: Portrait of Erasmus, 1523|
In his own day, Erasmus mocked all who mangled grammar and lacked Greek. “Barbarian” was his favorite term of abuse, directed at medieval schoolmasters, scholastic theologians, and others who were rhetorically impaired. He and his fellow humanists gilded their letters with citations from classical writers to signal their membership in the fraternity of learning. As for vernacular tongues, the use of which was spreading across Europe, Erasmus dismissed them as vulgar.
“It is important for scholars to confine themselves to those languages that have almost exclusively been used in learned writing,” he declared. “The reason is that they do not depend for their guarantee on ordinary people. The people are poor custodians of quality.” In short, Erasmus—that champion of a common humanity—was a world-class snob.
Around the same time that the Erasmians were celebrating the dawn of a new enlightened era, a very different movement was gathering in support of Martin Luther. An Augustinian friar then in his early thirties, Luther had developed his own, unique gospel, founded on the principle of faith. Man, he thought, can win divine grace not through doing good works, as the Latin Church taught, but through belief in Christ. No matter how sincerely one confessed, no matter how many alms one gave, without faith in the Savior, he reasoned, no one can be saved. When Luther made this “discovery,” in around 1515, he felt that he had become “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”