Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Huizinga's Erasmus

However much trouble I'm having finding enjoyment reading fiction this summer (see here), I've been hitting the jackpot with intellectual biographies. Having already praised to the skies recent biographies of Frank Ramsey (see here) and Albert Hirschman (see here), I've gone old school, back to Johan Huizinga's 1924 biography, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

I'm about half way through the book, and am amazed not only by the author's famous erudition but his remarkably balanced approach to his subject. Whereas most biographers seem to either love or hate their subjects, Huizinga presents a fully human Erasmus, possessing not just a brilliant mind and skillful pen but various character flaws from which ordinary humans suffer, including jealousy, pettiness, and an over-weening pride. However, instead of using Erasmus's flaws to denigrate him as a man and/or scholar, Huizinga merely presents them in a way that allows the reader to see beyond the saint-like scholar who inhabits Holbein's famous portrait. The result is an intellectual biography of a real man, rather than the platonic form of a biblical humanist that usually comes to mind when the name Erasmus is mentioned.

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