From the Archives: Desiderius Erasmus
WHAT THING of so great a value does this world promise you, that for the love thereof you will put your Soul’s health in danger . . . ? What, I say, does it promise you? Is it abundance of riches? For that is what mortal folks especially desire. But truly there is nothing more miserable, more vain or deceitful, more noxious or hurtful, than worldly goods. Worldly goods are the very masters or ministers of all misgovernance and mischief. Holy Scripture does not without a cause call covetousness the root of all evil. For from it springs an ungracious affection for goods; and in it injuries and wrongs have their beginning. From it grow sedition and part-taking [dispute], . . . stealing, pillaging, sacrilege, extortion, and robbing. Riches engender and bring forth incest and adultery. Riches nourish and foster ravishments, mad loves, and superfluity.
. . . What rich man can you show me who is not infected with one of these two vices: either with covetousness . . . or else with prodigality and waste . . . . The covetous man is servant and not master of his riches, and the waster will not long be master thereof. The one is possessed and does not possess: and the other within a short while leaves the possession of riches.
Yet, I ask you, what good are these precious weights—which are gathered and gotten by great grief and kept only with tremendous thought and care? In heaping them together is labor intolerable, and in keeping them is excessive care and dread, and the forgoing or loss of them is a miserable vexation and torment. Therefore a rich man has no sporting time: for either without rest or sleep he watches the goods he has gotten, or else he gapes to get more-or else he sorrows for his losses. And when he is not gaining more, he feels that he is losing and suffering damage. And what if he has mountains of gold? Or what if his riches are greater than mountains of gold? Then so much the more he augments his burden and heaps up his cares, and throws fear upon fear and grief upon grief, and takes on himself the job of a caretaker, full of all misery and labor.
Why do you consider riches and money so valuable? What preciousness is in them? For truly they are only pieces of pure brass engraved with images and inscriptions. These can neither expel nor put away the cares or griefs that gnaw thee about the stomach, nor can they rid you of any sickness of the body, and much less of death. But you will say that riches enable you to withstand need and poverty. You are deceived, I assure you, for they will cause you to be ever needy. For just as drink does not quench the thirst of one who has the dropsy, but makes him more thirsty, so with the abundance of goods or riches, your desire to have more just increases. And whoever seeks after more, shows himself to be needy.
By Desiderius Erasmus
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]Erasmus (c 1469–1536) was the most celebrated humanist scholar of his time. His renowned Latin New Testament, based upon his critical Greek text, made future biblical scholarship indebted to him; Erasmus, though a dedicated Catholic, attacked the abuses of monasticism with brilliant satire in his In Praise of Folly, and agreed with Luther in Luther’s attack on the abuse of indulgences, though the two later bitterly opposed each other. Here, in the third chapter of an early book, De Contemptu Mundi, Erasmus decries the dangers of wealth.
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