Erasmus The Education of a Christian Prince

Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince: Book Summary and Review

This essay is divided into four sections. Section one provides an account of the life of Erasmus till the year 1516 – when he published The Education of a Christian Prince. It also attempts to outline the social and political context in which the book was written, as well as the major influences in the life of the author which shaped his beliefs as reflected in the book.

Section two provides a brief description of the mirrors for princes genre, as well as some of its key characteristics and examples. It also contains a sub-section on ‘Virtue’, the development of which was a central concern for books of this genre. Section three will then present a summary of the book, The Education of a Christian Prince, highlighting some key messages from each chapter. And section four contains some comments on the book, including its language and style, references to classical texts and authors etc.

On Erasmus : The Context

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (later, to be also known by sobriquets such as “prince of humanists” and “the tutor of Europe”) was born in the late 1460s in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Though born an illegitimate child, he was cared well by his parents and is believed to have first attended a school in Gouda where he was a chorister. When about 9 or 10 years of age, he was moved to Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer which was one of the earliest centres of humanism in the Netherlands – offering instruction in the Greek and Latin masters and a ‘newer’ form of Christianity (as compared to the Middle Ages).

After the early death of his parents, Desiderius was put in charge of guardians who sent him “to a mediocre and antiquated’ school.”(Margolin, 2000). After an outbreak of plague, however, he came back to Gouda. And in 1492 he entered a monastery and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood (though, as it was to turn out, he was to work as a ‘secular priest’ most of his life, having been given a permanent dispensation by the pope).

Soon after, he becomes the secretary of the Bishop of Cambray, on account of his erudition and skills in Latin. In 1495, with the Bishop’s blessings, he joined the University of Paris – giving Latin lessons and writing textbooks (later to be used for centuries in European schools). He also came to be recognised in the Parisian humanist circles as an orator and poet; and in 1499, one of his rich English pupils invited him to England.

There, as a guest of the royal family, he came in contact with some of the most influential figures of the time such as Thomas Moore and became more ambitious in his own undertakings. He set himself the task of making the masterpieces of Greek and Latin as well as “the riches of the Bible” accessible to the reading public.

Upon his return to the continent a few years later, he began by publishing Adages (a book of proverbs mostly derived from Greek and Latin classics and accompanied by his commentaries) in Paris in 1500. Few years later, he published Manual for a Christian Soldier – a theological essay inspired by Saint Paul. In January 1504, at the request of a Bishop he knew intimately, he delivered the panegyric of Philip the Handsome, the King of Spain, (this forms the second part of the book The Education of the Christian Prince) using the opportunity to speak in favour of peace (and, also perhaps, to offer himself as a tutor to the King’s young children). The same year he was to discover a manuscript that suggested “making corrections to the Vulgate on the basis of collations with the Greek text” (ibid.). This set him on the task of collating manuscripts, correcting the Vulgate, translating and making commentaries, which twelve years later resulted in the ‘New Testament’.

Between 1506 and 1509 he lived in Italy; and while in Venice, the access to many ancient Greek manuscripts allowed him to further expand his book of ‘Adages’. However, he seems to have been disturbed by his stay in Rome – in particular by the luxury of the Pope’s court and the policies of the ‘warrior pope’ Julius II (which, he believed, was against the preaching of Christ).

In 1515, 21 year old Francis I took over the reins in France; and the following year, 16 year old Charles I took over the Spanish Empire (followed by his becoming the Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V in 1519.) In 1515, Erasmus had been appointed as a counsellor to Charles, and it was during this period of (comparatively) improved political situation that he wrote some ‘pacifist works’, one of the important one’s among which was ‘The Education of the Christian Prince’ – a book in the ‘advice for princes’ genre, which we will discuss in the next section.

Mirrors for Princes

‘Mirrors for princes’ (Lt: principum specula), or more commonly ‘advice for princes’ was a sub-genre of political writing in many countries [7]. Some of the most well-known works of this genre come from Europe – written in the Early Middle Ages, the Middle Ages and, especially, during the Renaissance. Written in the form of books, and often at times when young princes were about to take power, these were meant to provide the new king with ‘advice’ about their role and conduct, as well as exemplars for them to follow (or avoid).

Many such political treatises of the 16th and 17th century Europe were written by humanist and religious authors, and though they were usually ‘dedicated’ to one prince/king, it was understood that they (also) offered ‘general advice’ (not just for all princes/kings, but also for the reading public). The books often stressed on the importance of ‘Christian theological and cardinal virtues’ and included political and moral precepts, discussions on war and peace, expositions on moderation etc. – often sketching the image of ‘an ideal prince’ who embodied the Christian and cardinal virtues, and acted as a model for his officials and subjects.

Three of the most influential works of this ‘sub-genre’, produced during the early 16th century, are Machiavelli’s The Prince (written in 1513), Erasmus’s Education of a Christian Prince (published: 1516), and Thomas More’s Utopia (published: 1516). [Utopia, however, is different from the others works – but is often compared with them because it includes discussion on the role of princes].

The roots of the long tradition of such books goes back to ancient Greece – Plato’s Republic, Laws and The Statesman, Aristotle’s Politics, and Plutarch’s Moralia being the most notable examples. In the Politics, for instance, Aristotle writes “without justice and valour, no state can be supported”.

Their ideas on governance later influenced St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas – who wrote in the City of God that the state cannot be governed without justice and that “a true commonwealth reflects the will of the people when it is slightly and justly administered whether by one monarch or by a few.” Emphasizing that a prince must reflect Christian values he says, ““We call those Christian emperors happy who govern with justice, who are not puffed up by the tongues of flatterers or the services of sycophants, but remember that they are men.”

There was usually a tendency to take an idealist approach in these books – an attempt to draw a picture of an ideal prince (or state) – the most notable exception being Machiavelli’s The Prince (who emphasized the real instead of the ideal).

On Virtue

The belief that a prince who aims for glory must inculcate in himself certain ‘princely qualities’ is often encountered in ancient texts. The discussions of ‘Roman moralists’ about what these qualities should be and their nature substantially influenced the humanist thinking of the renaissance period.

Though the Romans considered favours bestowed by ‘fortuna’ to be important for glory, they also believed that certain personal characteristics of a man (Latin vir from which we get ‘virtue’) disposed Fortuna to shower her attention on the person possessing them – thus bringing glory and fame to the ruler. For instance, Cicero asserts in Tusculun Disputations “that if we act from a thirst for virtus without any thought of winning glory as a result, this will give us the best chance of winning glory as well; for glory is virtus rewarded.”

But what constituted ‘virtus’? The Roman moralists believed that a virtuous person (a ‘vir’) is characterised by three sets of qualities. The first set which, following Plato, Cicero lists in Moral Obligation (as the cardinal virtues were): wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. In addition to these, another set of qualities later came to be especially associated with ‘princely’ conduct and character and the primary among these, Cicero believed, was that of ‘honesty’ – which referred to “a willingness to keep faith and deal honourably with all men at all times.” And lastly, a virtuous person was supposed to recognise that if they desired honour and glory they must strive to be virtuous at all times (i.e. recognise that “it is always rational to be moral”.)

Education of a Christian Prince reflects both Platonic and Christian virtues and precepts. It describes the qualities of the Christian prince as “wisdom, justice, moderation, foresight, and zeal for the common welfare”. At the same time, it also emphasizes that the prince must learn that the teachings of Christ apply to “no one more than to himself”.

Book Summary

The book is divided into two sections: The Education of a Christian Prince (ECP), the larger of the two sections, comes first; and it is followed by A Panegyric for Archduke Philip of Austria (the Panegyric). ECP is further divided into 11 ‘chapters’ of uneven lengths. The first of these – The Birth and Upbringing of a Christian prince – is the longest and constitutes about half of the book.

ECP begins with a dedication to Prince Charles (who was to later become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), and a foreword which indicates the purpose of the book and the approach of the author.

Wisdom in itself is a wonderful thing, Charles greatest of princes,” it begins, “and no kind of wisdom is rated more excellent by Aristotle than that which teaches how to be a beneficent prince; for Xenophon in his Oeconomicus rightly considers that there is something beyond human nature, something wholly divine, in absolute rule over free and willing subjects. (p.1-2)” “You owe it to heaven that your empire came to you without the shedding of blood, and no one suffered for it,” it further stresses, “ [and] your wisdom must now ensure that you preserve it without blood-shed and at peace. (p. 3)”

Having laid down his purpose; in the first chapter of the book, Erasmus begins my suggesting that just as we do not give the helm of a ship to one who has noblest ancestry, but one who is most skilled; where it is possible to vote for a prince, one must look for a “single object” in selecting him: his concern for “people’swell-being regardless of all personal feelings. (p.5)” However, having made the importance of ‘skill’ and ‘intention’ of a prince clear; he quickly moves to cases “where there is no power to select the prince” (such as his own country) – and emphasizes, through the rest of the chapter, the need of ‘training’ the ‘born prince’ so that he too develops the same skill and intentions (“those who are born to the state must be brought up for the state. p. 7; p. 9)

He then goes on to highlight the importance of starting the training early and selecting the right person for the (humane) education of the prince. He asks that such a person realise the importance, challenges and opportunities that his job provides; and presents some examples of how the teacher may proceed with the education of the young prince (such as use of fables, engraving maxims on trophies etc.) He then moves to underscore the importance of “the best possible understanding of Christ” in the mind of the prince; insisting, that the prince should take it to his heart that “virtue is its own reward (p. 14)” and “true honour is the spontaneous consequence of virtue and right action – the less sought after it is the brighter it shines (p. 14)”

He then moves to counter the possible criticism that such training is fit only for philosophers and not princes with the help of ancient texts and analogies and warns that “always remember the fact that you are a Christian prince…as different from even the noble pagan princes as a Christian is from a pagan” and that even though there is ‘one death’ for all the judgement after death is not the sane – the most powerful are also treated the most sternly (p. 18). He further asks that the prince be taught to guard against the flatterers (a topic he will return to again in a later chapter) and use his reason over emotions (as, for instance, “the prince must disregard emotional reactions and use only reason and judgement. (p. 24)”

Drawing from the scriptures (for instance, Deuteronomy; on p. 31) he sketches the ‘images’ of a good prince and a ‘tyrant’ – listing their various characteristics, and attempting to make clear how desirable the former is and how revolting the latter. He also makes it a point to clarify that despite its risks, “it is pretty well agreed among the philosophers that the most healthy form is monarchy. (p. 37)” – but then goes on to stress that the prince or monarch is just one part of the ‘body’ of the state and their ‘ruling’ must be seen as a form of serving (p. 41).

He then highlights the immense responsibility of ruling a state and the care that must be taken by the prince (at places even employing sarcasm to get the point across): “How little difference there is between a marble statue …decked out with crown and sceptre and a prince who has no heart! The only difference is that blank stare of the former does nobody any harm, while the latter’s senselessness is very detrimental to the state.” The first chapter then ends with a reminder against flattery (p. 50, 53) and the importance of reason and “love for goodness.”

In Ch. 2, which is titled The prince must avoid flatterers, and is based on one of Plutarch’s essays. Erasmus says that the “well-being of great princes is extremely vulnerable to this particular plague”, and insists that not only should the nurses and attendants of the prince be chosen carefully; flatterers must also be punished severely as their acts “does damage to the state” (p. 56) by harming the prince and his (Christian) training. Further, he sees statutes, portraits etc. too, as forms of flattery and advises that the prince learn to uses unavoidable eulogies and titles such as “Father of his country” to reflect on his behaviour and “act in such a way that he is seen to be worthy of that title. (p.59).”

He recommends books for the prince – as it will teach him things that others may not have dared to bring to his attention – but warns that since many of the writers he will encounter are pagans, he must “test everything against the standard of the Christ. (p. 60)” He then goes on to list proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, the Book of Wisdom, the Gospels, Plutarch’s Apophthegms, Moralia and Lives; Seneca’s writings, Aristotle’s Politics, Cicero’s Offices and Plato’s The Laws (since Republic was lost at the time) as books worth reading for the prince.

The third chapter is on The arts of peace and he begins this by declaring that “our first and foremost concern must be for training the prince in the skills relevant to wise administration in time of peace, because with them….the devices of war may never be needed.” He lists the study of geography and history and frequent visits of towns and territories by the prince as important factors, stating: “I prefer a prince to be born and brought up among the people he is to rule, for mutual regard develops and consolidates best whenever good will springs from a natural source. (p. 67)” He further advices the prince to avoid both hatred and contempt for it undermines good will and authority; as well as “all innovations as far as proves possible: for even if something is changed for the better, a novel situation is still disturbing in itself. (p. 71)”

This leads him to the topic of Revenue and taxation – which, he says – has been the cause of many revolts in history. The best way of ‘increasing revenue’ (and avoiding discontent among the people), he suggests, “Would be for the prince to abolish superfluous expenditure, to disband redundant offices, to avoid wars and foreign tours, to check the acquisitiveness of officialdom, and to pay more attention to the just administration of his territory than to its expansion. (p. 74)”

Interestingly, some may find his advice in this chapter perhaps as relevant today: “Care must be taken that discrepancies in wealth are not excessive: not that I would want anyone to be forcibly deprived of his goods, but some system should be operated to prevent the wealth of the many from being allocated to the few (p. 75)” and that if taxes are unavoidable “let the burden fall on those foreign and imported goods which are not so much necessities of life as luxurious and pleasurable refinements whose use is confined to the rich. (p. 76)”

This chapter is followed by a small unit on ‘Generosity in the prince’ which advises a modestly generous approach: “The skilful and vigilant prince will therefore seek ways of helping everyone, and that does not mean simply by handing out gifts. (p.77)” The next two chapters are on the ‘Enactment or amending of laws’ and the appointment of ‘Magistrates and their duties’. Borrowing from Plato the adage, that which is governed the least is governed the best, he counsels the prince that it is best to have as few laws as possible, and further, that they must not merely prescribe punishments but act as deterrents. He speaks strongly against the use of law as ‘spiders’ web’ which traps small insects but is ineffective against the large birds; and stresses that these must be drafted in plain terms and widely promulgated so that “there is little need for those grasping sort who call themselves lawyers and advocates.” Similarly, borrowing from Aristotle, he emphasizes that there is no use of establishing laws if there is no one to see to it that these are upheld; and then goes on to list the special qualities to be looked for in a magistrate.

Then he moves to the two primary methods which are available to the prince for securing peace and stability in his kingdom and the region: Treaties (Ch. 8) and The marriage alliance of princes (Ch. 9). In the former he warns: “in making treaties (as in everything else) the prince should pursue only the public interest”; and advises that “Where mutual trust exists and business is being done between honest men, there is no need for a lot of these niggling bits of paper.” Even if certain clauses of the treaty are breached, he says, greatest efforts must be made to amend the breach rather than breaking off the friendly relations or seeing it as a personal affront and reacting in anger.

In Ch. 9, Erasmus advices the prince against marrying outside the kingdom (as was the practice in the royal families in Europe, at that time), saying, that it is unlikely that children born out of such marriages would be accepted wholeheartedly by the country, or that the children themselves would be completely attached to the people. “The fortunes of princes may be improved by alliances of this kind, but the fortunes of the people suffer.”

The next chapter, The business of princes in peacetime, declares that “It is better for the prince to be engaged in public duties than to spend his life hidden from sight (as was the practice in Persia).” He holds up as a model a king who could “dispense justice to his people from his own lips…and we read that he learned twenty-two languages thoroughly for the purpose (p. 100)” and advises the prince that efforts should be more on ‘improving’ the realm rather than ‘increasing’ it.

The book closes with a final chapter “On starting war”; which cautions that “Although the prince will never make any decision hastily, he will never be…more circumspect than in starting a war; other actions have their different disadvantages, but war always brings about the wreck of everything that is good…there is no evil that persists so stubbornly (p. 102)” Here, he once again invokes the virtues of a “truly Christian prince” saying that if Plato (a pagan) could call fights between Greek states as ‘sedition’ and not wars, what term (pejorative) would suffice for a war between Christians? He goes on to oppose the papal position on war (at the time), as well as those that had been taken by St. Augustine and St. Bernard, declaring, “Christ himself, and Peter, and Paul, always teach the opposite. Why does their authority carry less weight than that of Augustine or Bernard? (p. 105)”


Beliefs of the Author

One of the first things that one would perhaps notice in The Education of the Christian Prince is how significantly Erasmus’s vision of an ‘ideal’ education for the head of a state, is influenced by some of his own deeply held beliefs.

First, having been ordained as a Catholic priest at the age of about twenty five; even though he had received permanent dispensation from the Pope, he maintained his ‘loyalty’ with the Church and continued to see himself as a ‘secular priest.’ Three (of the many) important features of the book which have quite apparently been influenced by Erasmus’s religious background and beliefs are (a) its stress on the importance of the ‘Christian virtues’ and insistence that a Christian prince must follow them at all times, (b) its repetitive use of a rhetorical feature in which the author first presents an example of a good pagan prince or philosopher (Greek, Roman, Jewish etc.) and then poses the question: If a pagan (prince/king/philosopher/society) could act (or think) so nobly, must the expectations from the Christian prince (or people) not be much higher [1]? and (c) its attempt to prevent oppression and wars (or large scale violence) in Europe, by highlighting the commonality of ‘Christian blood’ (which comes out especially strongly in the last chapter).

Second, one of Erasmus’s central desires appear to be the maintenance of ‘order’ in a society – it was (at least) partly this that fueled his strongly pacifist tendency [2] which finds such strong expression in the book (with 4 of the 11 chapters related to (the prevention of) war).It finds expression even at other places such as his assertion (p. 120) that “A choral dance makes an elegant spectacle so long as it is performed with order and harmony, but it becomes farcical if the gestures and voices get confused; similarly, a kingdom or city is an excellent institution if everyone is assigned a place and performs his proper function” and his advice (p. 100) that “The prince should avoid all innovation as far as proves possible: for even if something is changed for the better, a novel situation is still disturbing in itself.”

Third, (which is related with the second point) he accepts monarchy, as he sees it as the best form of government to prevent chaos and maintain order in the society; however, he is clear and insistent, that only a monarchy over “free and willing subjects” is justified and the prince must avoid the charge of tyranny at all costs (or else his rule become unjustified – leading to violence and disorder).

These three themes – Christian virtues, desire for peace, and rule over willing and free subjects – are not just central to the book, but also seem to have been central in the author’s life.

Organization of the Book and Style of Writing

As mentioned in Sec. 3 the book consists of two parts. The first part, The Education of the Prince (described above) was written in 1516 for Prince Charles. The second part is a panegyric which was delivered in January 1504 for Philip the Handsome, the King of Spain – and Charles’ father.

As Erasmus points out in the preface (in the form of a letter to a Bishop who had encouraged him to write the panegyric) some saw the panegyric as abject flattery – something that he strongly speaks against in The Education of the Prince. The purpose of publishing these together thus may not be very clear initially. However, as he explains in the preface, “There is certainly no other method of correcting princes so effective as giving them an example of a good prince for a model, on the pretext of pronouncing a panegyric, provided that you bestow virtues and remove vices in such a way that it is clear that you are offering encouragement towards the one and deterrence from the other.” And “those who believe panegyrics are nothing but flattery seem to be unaware of the purpose and aim of the extremely far sighted men who invented this kind of composition, which consists in presenting princes with a pattern of goodness, in such a way as to reform bad rulers, improve the good, educate the boorish, reprove the erring, arouse the indolent, and cause even the hopelessly vicious to feel some inward stirrings of shame (p. 112-114)”

Even more importantly, the king to whom the panegyric was addressed, Erasmus insists, “in addition to his surely unparalleled advantages of fortune, is already a shining example of such great virtues” (p. 145); and had shown princes around the world how to govern well. Thus, he fully exemplifies the precepts that are laid down in The Education of the Christian Prince.

Style of Writing: Erasmus was not only a philologist, grammarian and theologian but also a rhetorician (also, as noted above, he had earned fame as an orator in Paris even before he had produced any substantial written work). The foundations of the rhetoric style in the Western world, of course, goes back to ancient Greece and Rome; and because of his close familiarity with ancient texts of both civilizations, Erasmus was familiar with the works of classical authors such as Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. Aristotle (for instance), describes three genres of rhetoric: forensic (judicial/concerned with determining truth or falsity of events), deliberative (political/concerned with determining whether or not action should be taken), and epideictic (ceremonial/concerned with praise and blame, values/ethics/virtue etc.) In The Education of the Christian Prince, Erasmus mainly uses the deliberative and epideictic forms, which were best suited for the genre.

The book is replete with analogies; some of the oft-used ones among them being comparison of the state with a ship (and the prince with a sailor) (p. 34, 52, 76 etc.); the comparison of the state with a body and the prince as a doctor (p. 94, 108, 110, 111, 141, 165 etc.) , the comparison of the prince with a father and the citizens as his children (p. 46, 54, 55 etc.), the comparison of people (especially, those who do not follow the Christian values such as tyrants) with animals (p. 58, 59, 132), and the comparison of the prince with the sun [3] (p. 52, 53, 77 etc.).

Similarly, it also makes use of a variety of similes and metaphors (for instance, explaining the importance of laws which are equally valid for all, he says, if they are not fair to all “the laws will be nothing but spiders webs, which birds can easily break because of their size, and in which only flies will be entangled. (p. 116)” Erasmus’s tone is polite but authoritative, and at places ironic/sarcastic[6] and hortatory (for instance, p, 17).

It also makes use of a number of fables (such as Aesop’s) and figures from Greek and Roman mythology such as Midas, Hercules, Cyclops, the Homeric heroes such as Achilles, Odysseus; Greek gods such as Jupiter and so on – indicating not just his own familiarity with these legends, but also that most (educated) people of this era were (expected to be) familiar with these names and legends.

One of the less commonly used literary conventions used in The Education of the Prince, however, is what has been called the “fusion of two medieval literary forms that often represented opposed political views: the discursive advice to princes and the related narrative literature of the fall of princes. (Hardin, 1982)” The attempt is, on the one hand, to inspire and educate with examples from classical texts and of famous kings (such as David and Solomon[4]); and on the other hand to develop a repulsion even fear of not following the “true Christian” path by narratives such as that of Nero and Caligula. As Erasmus says (p. 55) “The prince’s tutor shall see that a hatred of the very words ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny’ are implanted in the future prince by frequent diatribes against those names which are an abomination to the whole human race—Phalaris, Mezentius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Nero, Caligula, and Domitian, who wanted to be called ‘God’ and ‘Lord’.

One of the weaker points of the book, however, is the way the author attempts to build arguments or justify a point. Very often assertions are made without any justification at all – merely presented as self-evident truths/explanations ( such as, “As God set up a beautiful likeness of himself in the heavens, the sun; so he established among men a tangible and living image of himself, the king”, p. 53). Even where attempts are made to ‘justify’ a claim, the justification depends substantially on false analogies and appeals to authority (usually to classical texts and authors, or the scriptures) – or on rhetorical questions such as “If a pagan could do this, should not the Christian prince aim even higher?”

The point on appeal to authority leads us to the next point about the numerous references made to Greek and Roman authors, in the text. However, before we discuss these, a few comments related to the effects of the ‘printing revolution’ which had started some decades prior to the publication of the book:

Gutenberg work on the printing press is said to have begun around 1436. The first copies of the Gutenberg Bible came out around 1455, and by 1500 printing press and print shops had spread throughout Western Europe. However, it is apparent from the mistakes in references (as well as Erasmus’ own admissions), that he was often quoting from memory while writing it – (while some may suggest that this was because the author wasn’t careful enough; given that Erasmus was at this time fairly well-settled in the role of the king’s counsellor) it may instead indicate that books/manuscripts (of even well-known texts) were rather scarce.

Further, it is interesting to note the care with which the person to whom the book (or even parts of books, or individual units/essays) was to be dedicated, were chosen. This again, on one hand, points to the rarity (and the importance) of ‘books’ (or printed matter) and on the other hand, the ‘political role’ that such matters (which would perhaps be considered trivial by many people today) played – it was a way to show allegiance, give honour, win favours and jobs and so on. At least part of the reason why Erasmus wrote The Education of the Christian Prince, it is said, was a desire to showcase his knowledge and talents on administrative matters, and secure a (well-paid) employment – first at Charles’ and later at Henry VIII’s (English) court.

References: Erasmus is untiring in his references to classical authors and texts, as well as to the scriptures. Interestingly (though perhaps not surprisingly, given his humanistic approach) – his references to the ‘pagan’ philosophers and kings exceed his references to ‘Christian’ sources. While the first twelve pages, for instance, are replete with pagan references, the first reference to a Christian source comes on page thirteen.

Plato (Republic, Law) and Aristotle (who is usually presented as an authority beyond questioning; Politics,) have been referred to more than twenty five times each in the book; references to Plutarch (essays, Moralia) are also almost equally numerous. Other ancient writers referred include Xenophon (Oeconomicus), Homer (Iliad, Odyssey), Seneca (Moral letters, De clemetia), Isocrates (precepts), Xenophon, Dionysius (On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy), Herodotus, Cicero (Offices) and Virgil (Aeneid) – among others. As noted above, the references are used not only to ‘illustrate’ a point but often also to ‘prove’ it [5].

The Christian sources referenced, on the other hand, include Samuel, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Timothy, Isaiah, Matthew, and Romans (as also St. Augustine, St. Bernard and some other Christian saints). Erasmus also makes a number of references to his own works, especially his Adages – but whereas at some places he refers to them by name, more often he makes only an indirect reference (assuming that the readers would know which of his works is being referred), as for instance, “But I have written a great deal elsewhere on the evils of war, and this is not the place to repeat it (p. 109).”

Overall, the book helps prove the prediction of his friend Colet, ‘Nomen Erasmi nunquam peribit’ (the name of Erasmus will never perish).

Additional Comments

[1]For instance, “If Aristotle, who was a pagan and a philosopher too (and not as holy as he was learned even by their standards), painted such a picture, how much more is it necessary for one who is Christ’s representative to do so?” (p. 58; see also, p. 33. 46, 61 among others.) 

[2]His religious beliefs and a (forced) nomadic caused by the strife that divided the region at that time – perhaps, being the other causes. 

[3]As God set up a beautiful likeness of himself in the heavens, the sun, so he established among men a tangible and living image of himself, the king. But nothing is more communal than the sun, which imparts its light to the rest of the heavenly bodies. In the same way the prince must be readily accessible for the needs of his people, and have his own personal light of wisdom in himself, so that even if everyone else is in some respect blind, yet his own vision is never at fault. 

[4]“Everybody praises Solomon because when he was in a position to ask for whatever he wanted and would have received at once whatever he asked, he did not ask for enormous wealth, or to rule the whole world, or for the destruction of his enemies, or for exceptional fame and glory, or for pleasure, but for wisdom.” 

[5]And perhaps – as one might be led to suspect from the inordinate number of references in the book’s preface – to also showcase one’s familiarity with the classical works. 

[6] For instance: If all that makes a king is a chain, a sceptre, robes of royal purple, and a train of attendants, what after all is to prevent the actors in a drama who come on the stage decked with all the pomp of state from being regarded as real kings? 

[7]Such as, broadly categorizing, Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus; Isocrates’ To Nicocles and Evagoras (in Greek); Seneca’s De clementia (in Latin); Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra, and Arthashastra (in India; Al-Farabi’s Fusul al-Madani (Aphorisms of a Statesman) in the Islamic world etc.

[8] The comparison of laws with spiders’ web, was originally done by Anarchasis, a Scythian philosopher, as documented in Plutarch’s Greek Lives.  


[1]Jardine, L. (1997). The education of a christian prince. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ Pr.

[2]Margolin, J. C., (2000). Erasmus. UNESCO: International Bureau of Education

[3]Skinner, Quentin. Machiavelli. Past Masters Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4]Hardin, R. F. (1982). The Literary Conventions of Erasmus’ Education of a Christian Prince: Advice and Aphorism. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 1982), pp. 151-163

[5]Di Salvo, A. J. (1989). Spanish Guides to Princes and the Political Theories. Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 9.2 (1989): 43-60.

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