A philosopher who’s still modern and relevant 500 years after his death. Erasmus is synonymous with freedom of speech, respect for others, knowledge and culture, tolerance and education.
Erasmus always considered himself to be a native of Rotterdam, even though the city was only an unknown village on the River Meuse in his time. His books made Erasmus an internationally renowned philosopher and a Rotterdam icon all over the world.
Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, probably on 28 October 1466. We do know the day and month, but we aren’t sure about the year. He was the second son of a single mother and a priest. He was baptised Erasmus, but he officially adopted the name Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus in 1506. Desiderius means ‘one who is wanted’. Erasmus himself was ordained as a priest as well and he also became a scholar, author and translator.
He was already famous during his lifetime. This wasn’t only because he wrote a great many books; he also had the good luck to be around just after the printing press had been invented. So people all over Europe were able to read his books. His fame was also due to the fact that he commissioned the best artists of the age to make portraits of him, so that everyone could see what he looked like.
Erasmus exchanged letters with the major thinkers of his time. For instance, he was a friend of Thomas More, a prominent lawyer, philosopher and statesman, and advisor to King Henry VIII of England. He also had a pretty pithy discussion with German reformer Martin Luther, and a lot of people read their letters in which they had a flaming row. Erasmus acted as advisor to powerful people such as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Erasmus was extremely critical and expressed strong criticism of the Church and those in power. His most famous book is probably De Lof der Zotheid (In Praise of Folly) in which he pokes fun at people and society. Another famous book of his, ‘Adagia’, is a collection of many proverbs and sayings from classical antiquity. We still use these proverbs and sayings even now, and they can be seen on the streets of Rotterdam today as well.
Erasmus said: ‘The world is my home’. He symbolises unlimited knowledge. Erasmus travelled all around Europe at a time when it took people about a day to cover a distance of 20 kilometres. Besides the Netherlands, he also lived in what is now France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.
He moved from Rotterdam to Gouda quite soon after his birth and went to school in Deventer. He then travelled to Paris to study, write and teach.
While in Italy, he was awarded a doctorate in theology in Turin, published books in Turin and travelled to Rome. Erasmus lived in Louvain for a while as well until the schism in the Church, which divided Christians into Catholics and Protestants. Erasmus refused to take sides and left the town. He also lived in Cambridge and Freiburg.
But he lived in Basle for the longest period of time and many of his books were printed there. He died in Basle on 12 July 1536. Erasmus is buried in the cathedral at Basle and his tomb can still be seen there.
Erasmus was a prolific writer and influential thinker who wrote thousands of letters (more than 3,000 of these are still in existence) and more than 100 books. He wrote down his ideas and views on all kinds of topics in his books and letters. These topics include religion, how to behave and how to bring up children.
Erasmus’s books and letters are still read and translated even today. His views on behaviour, religion, language, education and politics are still relevant now, 500 years after his death.
Take his arguments in favour of tolerance and freedom of speech, the importance of dialogue and the role of humour, satire and irony in this. And he also discussed the position of women and their right to academic education. He was an advocate of courtesy, innate refinement and tolerance; attention for schooling and the importance of proper education; and being receptive to others and willingness to reconsider one’s own views.
Although most of Erasmus’s life was spent abroad, he considered himself to be a native of Rotterdam. And he emphatically started calling himself Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus in 1506. As Erasmus’s fame grew and spread, the town of Rotterdam also became increasingly well known. Erasmus was already considered a prominent writer and thinker during his own lifetime. So a lot of people went to Rotterdam to see the place where he was born.
Erasmus is without question the most famous Rotterdam celebrity of all time and he is one of the city’s icons. And since he was a world citizen, he fits in perfectly with Rotterdam’s image as a world city.
The city of Rotterdam is extremely proud of Erasmus, and that’s why so many buildings and institutions are named after him. Examples include the Erasmus Bridge, Erasmus University Rotterdam and the Erasmus Medical Centre.
The topical nature of Erasmus’s work and his tremendous significance for Rotterdam can be seen in the ‘Lof der Zotheid’ badge. This badge is awarded by the ‘Erasmus: A Rotterdam Icon’ Committee on 28 October every year during the celebrations for Erasmus’s birthday.
The ‘Lof der Zotheid’ badge is awarded to a person who has been of service to Rotterdam by working in line with Erasmus’s own philosophy of life, preferably in a light-hearted manner.