“On Disdaining the World”. Erasmus’ First Work, Contemplating Monastic Life

Erasmus, Desiderius (ca.1466-1536)

De contemptu mundi epistola.

Cologne: Johann Soter, 1523


Octavo: 15 x 9.8 cm. [64] p. Collation: A-D8

Bound in modern boards covered with an incunable leaf. The contents are in excellent condition. Attractive woodcut border on the title.

This is an early edition of Erasmus’ first work written somewhere between 1486 and 1489, when Erasmus, as he himself tells us, “was scarcely twenty years old” (olim vix annos natus viginti) and shortly after he had become a member of the Augustinian Canons Regular at Steyn. Despite its early date, the book was not printed until 1521, when Erasmus was already well established as an international man of letters.

What can account for this? Erasmus tells us that he published the book only in order to preempt another person from publishing it without his permission. It was an awkward state of affairs, for by the time he published the “De Contemptu mundi”, not only had Erasmus left the monastic life, but he had also become an outspoken and harsh critic of monasticism. The work as originally written consisted of eleven chapters. In the first Erasmus explains his reason for writing his apologia of the solitary life. The succeeding six chapters treat of the dangers, both spiritual and temporal, of living in the world and discuss the inevitability of death and the misery of those who live by seeking after pleasure. The four chapters following these explain the true pleasure and desirability of living a solitary life.

“In certain sections, Erasmus portrays the monastic life as one of almost worldly pleasure, the eleventh chapter being titled, ‘De voluptate vitae solitariae’ (Of the pleasure of solitary life). Solitude is praised to a great extent because of the occasions it affords for learning and study rather than because of the opportunities it gives for the practice of penance and self-denial.”(Hirten)

The twelfth chapter is a warning to youth who contemplate entering the monastery. Monasteries were founded for noble purposes but many have been corrupted and have become “schools of impiety.” So one must be careful to join a monastery known for deep piety and devotion. Moreover, one must safeguard one’s own baptismal innocence. This chapter was perhaps written for the printed edition, in order to accommodate Erasmus’ mature views on monasticism; an early manuscript draft discovered in the 1981 lacks the final chapter. However, Erika Rummel has argued, through a comparison with other writings of Erasmus written between 1503 and 1518, that the concluding chapter might very well have been written earlier.

Erasmus Online 5529; Mynors 1137; Bezzel, Erasmusdrucke 686; VD16 E 2598; Not in De Reuck