Before 1980, a consensus existed that Erasmian humanism lay at the basis of the liberal arts education system. Within that system, literary studies had the prime position, embodied in the concepts of bonae litterae and litterae humaniores. In recent years the idea of a liberal education has taken a battering. The principles of humanism are often treated defensively. The study of Erasmus’s literary writings, meanwhile, has happily devolved into other areas: into philology, grammar, and rhetoric. This article argues that the retreat in the wake of anti-humanism has led to some misunderstanding of Erasmus. An idea of the “literary” is central to his theoretical position. Erasmus’ concept of literature is here re-examined, both as a theory of imitation and as a medium of subjectivity. He emerges as more radical a literary interpreter than the pre-1980 consensus allowed. At the same time, it is argued that in riding the wave of the educational storm of the late twentieth century, the post-1980 attack on literary humanism has missed something of the power, imagination, and subtlety of Erasmus’ thought.
Erika RummelThe Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance & Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press1995); C.H. Kneepkens “The New Italian Learning and the Modern Devotion: Valla Synthen Erasmus and Elegant Latin” New Medieval Literatures 11 (2009) 231–248; Lodi Nauta In Defense of Common Sense: Lorenzo Valla’s Humanist Critique of Scholastic Philosophy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 2009).