The Education of a Christian President

Erasmus by Holbein the Younger
1523 portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) by Hans Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia

In our Christianity and Western Culture program at Bethel, we refer frequently to the biblical image of being surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” In my experience, few witnesses have been greater than the Dutch-born writer known as Erasmus (1466?-1536).

In class yesterday I mostly presented Erasmus as exemplifying how the “Catholic Reformation” was no mere reaction to Luther, but a movement that predated Protestantism by decades and sought reform without schism. Despite anticipating numerous Protestant themes in his writings, Erasmus famously declined to embrace the Reformation of Luther — to the bitter disappointment of fellow Christian humanists like Philipp Melanchthon — both because of doctrinal disputes (primarily, the degree to which humans freely chose to cooperate, to even a small degree, in their salvation) and his larger concern that Luther was risking the peace of Europe and the unity of the Church for the sake of theological innovation.

But on this first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, I’m also mindful of a small book Erasmus published one year before anyone outside of Saxony had heard of Martin Luther: The Education of a Christian Prince.

Now, Erasmus was writing with the goal of flattering a particular Christian prince (the one who had just become King Charles I of Spain and was soon to become Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), and he presumed that hereditary monarchy was the best form of government:

Charles V
The Christian Prince? Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) – Wikimedia

Although there are many kinds of state, it is pretty well agreed among the philosophers that the most healthy form is monarchy; not surprisingly, for, by analogy with the deity, when the totality of things is in one person’s power, then indeed, so far as he is in this respect in the image of God, he excels everyone else in wisdom and goodness, and, being quite independent, concentrates exclusively  on helping state. Anything different from this would have to be the worst type of state, since it would be in conflict with that which is the best,” (p. 37 — all quotations from the Cambridge edition edited by Lisa Jardine and translated by Neil Cheshire and Michael Heath)

But however different our democratic, pluralistic polity is from late medieval Christendom, and however much Education of a Christian Prince was an attempt to butter up “Charles, greatest of princes… more blessed than Alexander,” I think that Erasmus’ portrait of an ideal ruler has much to recommend it over the more famous how-to manual for Renaissance princes, written three years earlier but not (as far as I can tell) known to Erasmus (since The Prince wasn’t published until much later). Machiavelli surely would never have written the following summaries:

The first obligation of the good prince is to have the best possible intentions; the next is to be on the look-out for ways of avoiding or removing evils, and, on the other hand, of achieving, increasing, and reinforcing what is good. (50)

…the prince schooled in the doctrine of Christ and in the precepts of wisdom will hold nothing more dear than the happiness of his people: indeed, he will hold nothing else dear, and must both love and cherish them as one body with himself. He will devote all his thoughts, all his actions, all his energies to a single purpose, that of ruling the province entrusted to him in such a way that on the day of reckoning he will satisfy Christ and will leave a most honourable memory of himself among mortals. (98)

So before you cast your vote, you might judge for yourself how well the leading candidates for president match a few of the key features of Erasmus’ model:

“Unless you are a philosopher, you cannot be a prince…”

As the title indicates, much of the work is concerned with the proper shaping of a political leader. And, not surprisingly, the humanist Erasmus recommends a humane education for future rulers — with a background in the liberating arts preceding any explicitly political training:

The examples set by famous men vividly inspire a noble youth’s imagination, but the ideas with which it is imbued are of much the greatest importance, for they are the source from which the whole character of his life develops…. It is… fruitless to give advice on the principles of government without previously setting a prince’s mind free from those popular opinions which are at once most widely held and yet most fallacious….

…some idiot courtier, who is both more stupid and more misguided than any woman ever was, will protest: ‘You are making a philosopher for us, not a prince.’ ‘I am indeed making a prince’, I reply, ‘although you would prefer a loafer like yourself to a prince. Unless you are a philosopher you cannot be a prince, only a tyrant. There is nothing better than a good prince, but a tyrant is such a bizarre beast that there is nothing as destructive, nothing more hateful to all. (10-11, 15)

Romney at BYU
Mitt Romney at BYU’s 1971 commencement ceremony – Romney campaign, via The Washington Post

By this standard, one might be encouraged by both candidates. Mitt Romney majored in English as a student at Brigham Young University, where (as Jason Horowitz reported in a February 2012 profile in the Washington Post) he enrolled in the Honors College, read everything from Homer and Dante to Faulkner and Salinger, and even considered pursuing a doctorate in literature before opting (at the advice of his department chair) for business and law school at Harvard. After moving from Occidental (a small liberal arts college in Los Angeles) to Columbia University, Barack Obama leavened seminars on U.S. foreign policy and international relations with literature classes in which he wrote about T.S. Eliot, quoted Nietzsche, and read Heart of Darkness with Edward Said (apparently disliking that last experience, according to Obama biographer David Maraniss).

In turn, Erasmus would have the well-educated prince recognize that “the chief hope for the state is founded in the proper training of its children….

Consequently the utmost care must be taken over public and private schools and over the education of girls, so that they are straight away in the care of the best and most reliable teachers, where they absorb both Christian principles and also literature that is of sound quality and conducive to the welfare of the state. In this way it will come about that there is truly no need for many laws or penalties, because the citizens follow the right course of their own accord.

Such is the power of education, as Plato has written that man who has been correctly brought up emerges as a kind of divine creature, while faulty upbringing, on the other hand, reduces him to a horrible monster. (72)


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