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Erasmus Origins and History

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Trinity College, founded in 1592, has an unusually long, successful and innovative record in the academic study of history. The Erasmus Smith’s professorship of Modern History was established in 1762 and one of its first incumbents was the celebrated J.B. Bury (1861-1927), author of the classic History of the Roman Empire (1893) and also of a Life of St Patrick (1905) (external) and a History of Freedom of Thought. (1914) (external) Bury’s successors included several distinguished historians of modern Ireland, including T.W. Moody (1907-84) and F.S.L. Lyons (1923-83), under whose guidance, from the 1930s, the Department played a leading role in the creation of a critical school of modern Irish historical scholarship. The current occupant of the Erasmus Smith’s chair is Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, a historian of the seventeenth-century Irish nobility.

A second professorial chair, the Lecky Professorship in History, was established in 1913. The chair’s occupants have included several notable historians of medieval Ireland, including Edmund Curtis (1881-1943), A.J. Otway-Ruthven (1909-89) and J.F. Lydon (1928-). For further details, see Peter Crooks, ‘The Lecky professors’, in P. Crooks, ed., Government, War and Society in Medieval Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008). The current holder of the Lecky chair is Professor I.S. Robinson, a specialist in the history of popes and emperors in the high middle ages.

Initially medieval and modern history were taught in the same department but, as in many universities, two separate Departments of Medieval and Modern History were established in 1965, maintaining their existence until reunited in 2005. At that point the combined Department of History was linked with Classics, History of Art and Gender Studies to form the School of Histories and Humanities. The History Department retains, however, its distinctive identity and it remains committed to its tradition of rigorous and innovative scholarship. It has recently, for example, been in the forefront of collaborative ventures with IT specialists designed to digitize important historical records.

The present Department of History has over twenty full-time academics, along with several post-doctoral fellows, a substantial body of postgraduate research students, and a thriving group of graduate students following taught M. Phil courses. Consistently rated as ‘excellent’ in external reviews, the Department enjoys an international research profile in a several areas, most notably in the history of Ireland from the Middle Ages to the present day. In addition to its expertise in Irish history, the Department also includes specialists in European history, especially in France and Germany, and in non-European history. Themes covered include historiography, archaeology, migration and settlement, religion, diplomacy, politics and warfare.

Staff are accessible, ready to listen to students' ideas and open to interdisciplinary approaches. We pride ourselves on our ability and willingness to give personal attention to undergraduate and graduate students and on the atmosphere of mutual assistance and respect that prevails among staff and students.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the illegitimate son of a priest, was born in either Rotterdam or Gouda in Holland. He himself was ordained a priest in 1492 but left the monastic life two years later to become secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai. He went to Paris to study theology in 1495, and to England in 1499, where he became a close friend of the humanists John Colet and Thomas More. Under their encouragement he studied both the classics and religious literature. He published the Enchiridion Milities Christiani in 1501, an appeal for a return to the spirit of early Christianity, with its emphasis on mutual love, sharing, and rejection of the pursuit of material riches. In 1504 he was in Belgium, producing an edition of Lorenzo Valla’s work. He returned to England to study the Greek texts there, later going to Basel to produce in 1516 a new edition of the New Testament, based on Greek sources.

Erasmus traveled widely and was a prolific letter writer. In his letters he discussed the folly of war, the value of books, and the need to act from judgment rather than impulse. Some extracts from these letters are given here. He also wrote Praise of Folly, which in one of his letters he describes as written in 1509 to amuse Thomas More. In other letters he urged that it should not be judged as too sharply censorious. “I wanted to advise, not to rebuke, to do good, not injury, to work for, not against, the interests of men.” The extracts from the book given here deal primarily with secular follies that Erasmus mocked, rather than the religious follies that occupy the last third of the book and brought a storm about his head.

<!-- --> Darwinism: it was all in the family Erasmus Darwin’s famous grandson learned early about evolution. TFE Graphics


Charles Darwin by Russell Grigg Many people erroneously think that Charles Darwin (who earned a degree in theology) was once blissfully content with the biblical explanation of origins—until, that is, as an unbiased naturalist, he stumbled across the idea of evolution by observing the ‘facts of nature’ in the Galápagos Islands in 1835. The truth is significantly otherwise. The concept of evolution had, in fact, been ‘in his family’ ever since his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, first suggested it in 1770.1 As we have often pointed out, evolutionists do not have any facts that are unavailable to creationists—it is how these facts are interpreted that is significant, and it is ideology which largely determines the interpretation. Charles Darwin himself said, ‘How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!’2 So we need to carefully consider the influences on Darwin’s mindset before he set out aboard the Beagle on his round-the-world trip in 1831. The key to understanding how he was predisposed to interpreting facts in favour of an evolutionary ideology goes back to the beliefs, writings and role model of his grandfather, Erasmus. Scientist, inventor and doctor TFE Graphics


Erasmus Darwin Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) was one of the most erudite, enthusiastic and dedicated scientists/inventors of his day. He completed a major translation from Latin to English of the works of Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), who devised the plant classification that forms the basis of modern botany. His many inventions included a speaking machine, a copying machine, and a carriage steering mechanism later used in cars. Indeed, ‘There is scarcely an idea or invention in the modern world that Erasmus Darwin did not originate or foresee, from evolution to eugenics, from airplanes to submarines, from antiseptics to psychoanalysis, from talking-machines to telephones.’3 He began his chosen profession of medicine at Lichfield in 1756. His reputation as a physician was established when he saved the life of a young man from a prominent local family, whom other doctors had declared to be incurable. Because his cures were ‘unfashionably frequent’ his practice gradually became the largest in the English Midlands. King George III asked him to become his personal physician in London, but Erasmus declined. In about 1766, he co-founded the Lunar Society—a social club for the great scientists, industrialists and natural philosophers of his day. It has been called ‘the think tank of the Industrial Revolution’ and was the most famous English scientific society of the eighteenth century, after the Royal Society. Members included James Watt (of steam-engine fame), Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of oxygen), William Murdoch (the inventor of gas-lighting), Josiah Wedgwood (the great potter) and Samuel Galton (a wealthy industrialist). Others in America linked to the Society included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Epicure, free-thinker and poet His love of food (particularly fruits, sugar, cream and butter)4 was matched by his dislike of exercise, and by the age of 46 he had grown so corpulent that a semi-circle had to be cut out of his dining table to accommodate his girth at meal times. Married twice, he sired 12 Darwin offspring and, in between marriages, a further two (known) illegitimate daughters by a Miss Parker. These girls were raised in his home with his other children, and later were the inspiration for a lengthy tract by Erasmus on female education.5 Erasmus was anti-Christianity, anti-slavery, and pro the American and French Revolutions. An outstanding poet, he often wrote his opinions and scientific ideas in verse, the most notable of which were The Botanic Garden (published in two parts, 1789, 1791), which consisted of 4,384 lines of perfectly rhyming couplets, and The Temple of Nature (published posthumously in 1803). Sample: ‘Cold gills aquatic form respiring lungs, And sounds aërial flow from slimy tongues.’6,7 Evolution à la Erasmus Erasmus first tentatively suggested the idea of evolution in 1770. His family coat of arms featured three scallop shells, and to these he added the Latin words E Conchis omnia (‘everything from shells’). He had this motto painted on his carriage to publicize his theory ‘without anyone noticing’. However, notice they did. Canon Seward of Lichfield Cathedral wrote some satirical verses of his own, complaining that Darwin …


Eramus Darwin’s bookplate with three scallops on the diagonal. In 1771 he added the words ‘E conchis omnia’ (everything from shells) to demonstrate his belief in evolution. ‘… renounces his Creator And forms all sense from senseless matter. Great wizard he! by magic spells Can all things raise from cockle shells.’8 To avoid offending his rich patients, Erasmus painted over the motto on his carriage, and instead put it on his bookplate (1771). In the next two decades, Erasmus was emboldened to state more and more of his evolutionary ideas. In The Economy of Vegetation (1792), he proclaimed that the earth was formed from a cosmological explosion: ‘When high in ether, with explosion dire From the deep craters of his realms of fire, The Whirling Sun this ponderous planet hurl’d, And gave the astonish’d void another world.’9 In The Botanic Garden, he said that life began in the sea and progressively developed from there: ‘Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves; First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass, Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass; These, as successive generations bloom, New powers acquire and larger limbs assume; Whence countless groups of vegetation spring, And, breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.’10 His major work, Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life (two volumes, 1794 and 1796), was a huge medical treatise in prose, which included a comprehensive classification of diseases and treatments. Within 10 years, four British and two American editions appeared, and it was translated into German, French and Italian. It has been called ‘the first consistent all-embracing hypothesis of evolution’, and was published some 65 years before Charles published his version of evolution in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Erasmus said that ‘millions of ages [i.e. thousands of millions of years] before the commencement of the history of mankind … all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which The Great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts … and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!’ (I:505)11 Later, in The Temple of Nature, Erasmus extends this to read: ‘“all vegetables and animals now existing were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones, formed by spontaneous vitality” in primeval oceans.’11 And he says: Erasmus was strongly anti-Christian, and included Credulity, Superstitious Hope, and the Fear of Hell in his catalogue of diseases. ‘man … Should eye with tenderness all living forms, His brother-emmets [i.e. ants], and his sister-worms.’12 Erasmus tried to appease the church-going culture of his day by referring to ‘The Great First Cause’, highlighted in capitals, but quickly affirmed that, once started, evolution needs no divine help, but proceeds ‘by its own inherent ability’. He was strongly anti-Christian, and included ‘Credulity, Superstitious Hope, and the Fear of Hell in his catalogue of diseases.’13 These ideas were widely denounced by writers such as the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the term ‘darwinizing’, meaning speculating wildly, in reference to Erasmus’s evolutionary ideas.14The Temple of Nature was generally condemned for its ‘total denial of any interference of a Deity’ and he was further assailed for trying ‘to substitute the religion of nature for the religion of the Bible’.15 Erasmus’s influence on Charles Although Erasmus died seven years before Charles was born, Charles grew up in a household where his father, Robert, had imbibed Erasmus’s ‘free-thinking’ (materialist), anti-Christian ideas. So disbelief was an acceptable trait within the Darwin family—perceived not as ‘a moral crisis or rebellion’, but perhaps even as ‘a filial duty’.16 Charles read and ‘greatly admired’ Zoonomia when he was 18. Years later, when faced with the same sort of censure as Erasmus had faced, Charles tried to disown his grandfather’s book,17 claiming that, ‘on reading it a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years, I was much disappointed; the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given’.18 Nevertheless, in 1837, when Charles began writing his ideas in a notebook, he inscribed the word Zoonomia on the title page ‘to signal that he was treading the same path as his grandfather’.19 One of Charles’s chief arguments for evolution is based on the shape of the beaks of finches in response to the types of food available that he saw in the Galápagos Islands in 1835. Is it credible to think that he had not been influenced by what Erasmus had written on the subject? Namely: ‘Some birds have acquired harder beaks to crack nuts, as the parrot. Others have acquired beaks adapted to break the harder seeds, as sparrows. Others for the softer seeds of flowers, or the buds of trees, as the finches. Other birds have acquired long beaks … and others broad ones … . All … gradually produced during many generations by the perpetual endeavour of the creatures to supply the want of food (I:504).’20 Almost every topic discussed, and example given, in Zoonomia reappears in Charles’s Origin. Almost every topic discussed, and example given, in Zoonomia reappears in Charles’s Origin. In fact, all but one of Charles’s books have their counterpart in a chapter of Zoonomia or an essay-note to one of Erasmus’s poems.21 And Charles’s own copies of Zoonomia and The Botanic Garden are extensively marked and annotated. So, Erasmus cast a long shadow which, via his grandson, has made atheism intellectually respectable and changed the worldview of Western mankind from belief in the Creator God to the worship of humanistic hedonism, free from any sense of accountability to the God who is ‘Judge of all the earth’ (Genesis 18:25). The message for us today is to consider what we pass on to our children and grandchildren. We have the responsibility to teach them the true biblical worldview, which is foundational, not only to our need for salvation, but also to the way of it—through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in His death and Resurrection. This will give meaning to their lives, so that they need not flounder in the sea of uncertainty of a man-made anti-God theory, which is now ‘the big lie’ of 21st-century thinking.