Erasmus and the Ideal Ruler


David Kute

Political Science 218


Professor Sissa



        In 1515, Desiderius Erasmus settled in Basel, Switzerland. This move was to have implications for the Dutch humanist’s career and works. During his stay in Basel, Erasmus gained a powerful new patron, Jean Le Sauvage. After the two met, Sauvage was appointed Grand Chancellor of Burgundy, and took this opportunity to make Erasmus councillor to the young heir to Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. It was with the young prince’s upbringing in mind that Erasmus wrote Education of a Christian Prince. In this work, Erasmus was to argue that education is an essential element to running a state, by ensuring that the next- in- line to the monarchy obtains the adequate knowledge and wisdom. Erasmus’s vision contains a moralistic strain that was evident in earlier writings on authority, notably the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine. However, despite these similarities to earlier works it offered a radical new approach. I will examine the Education of a Christian Prince and a later work, the Complaint of Peace (1521), both of which deal with the issues of authority, war, and the constitution of a Christian kingdom. It is my contention that in both works, Erasmus offers a revolutionary vision of a new Europe, and it is on the themes of leisure, political conventions, war, and nobility that he offers his most innovative ideas.

Erasmus’s Education of a Christian Prince offers advice for cultivating the most important part of the government, the prince. The work describes in detail all the steps a ruler is to take to ensure that his progeny receives the right education. Erasmus believes that education is vital for virtuous rule, and it is the source of a good prince (DE, pg.6). The education of a prince also carries maybe the most important role in shaping the state, as it impacts the kingdom as a whole. Among all the people, none have the influence the ruler does, as of all positions “it is by far the greatest and the most hazardous of all.”(DE, pg.9) The power of a prince is such that the monarch’s character can bring a country great success or total ruin (DE, pg.6). A monarch with tyrannical inclinations can destroy his country, while a wise ruler can greatly benefit it. Finally, it is also a duty of the ruler to make sure his heir is a worthy and righteous successor (DE, pg.9). In the same way the ruler is supposed to rule wisely, it is also his duty to ensure the king who follows will be sufficient. Therefore, education is the best way to fashion a virtuous king.

Monarchy is the best form of government, and elected kingship is the preferred method of selecting a monarch. Erasmus infers that the ancient scholars believed that monarchy was the best of forms (DE, pg. 37). This is through a hierarchy of numbers, where something that is single is primary in quality (DE, pg.37). It is also due to a virtuous prince being superior to a virtuous democracy or oligarchy. Erasmus says “if it happens that your prince is complete with all the virtues, then monarchy pure and simple is the thing.”(DE, pg. 37) If the king is wicked, however, or even just an ordinary monarch, then it is better to use a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy (DE, pg. 37). In the same way that monarchy is the preferred system, elected kingship is also the favored way of finding a new king. With elected kingship, many of the qualities that a prince is to learn can be criteria for selection of the new monarch. These qualities should not be “ancestry, physical appearance, or height,” but rather health, experience, and age (DE, pg.4). Also, the candidate for kingship should display a “calmness and equability of temperament and a sober disposition and devoid of all rashness….” (DE, pg. 4) If elected kingship is not a possibility, then education will be the primary means to ensure a wise and generous king (DE, pg. 4). Therefore, monarchy is the best form of government and elected kingship should obtain the best candidate for the monarchy.

The people who are around the prince should be selected carefully. This is because the young prince should be kept at a distance from evil influences (DE, pg.6). For those closest to the prince exert considerable influence on the monarch and his education. Special care should be taken, then, to choose the prince’s retainers, tutors, maids, and companions. The woman in the prince’s household should be of a certain character. “The child born to the throne is not to be entrusted to just anyone you please even in the case of his nurses, but to women of blameless character who have been prepared and instructed for the task….” (DE, pg. 8) Companions too should be chosen carefully: “nor should he associate with unselected companions, but with boys of good and respectable character who have been brought up and trained in the ways of courtesy and decency.”(DE, pg. 8) Attendants with a strong moral foundation are thus an essential element in the prince’s education. Next follows the prince’s tutor. Erasmus calls for certain characteristics in a tutor:


For this task, therefore, he should pick out from the whole range of his subjects (or indeed recruit from anywhere else) men of integrity, purity, and dignity; men who have been taught by long practical experience and not just by petty maxims; men whose age will win them respect, whose unblemished lives will earn them obedience, and whose pleasant and friendly manner will bring them affection. (DE, pg.7)


Moral character, so important for selecting the prince’s companions and attendants, is not the sole indication of worth. Other qualities, namely kindness and the type of experience that comes with having lived a long and righteous life, are also necessary for teaching the prince successfully. This is because a good tutor will engender in his disciple respect, obedience, and affection. Moral fortitude alone will not achieve this. Therefore, the ideal tutor for the prince must be of venerable age, be kind, disciplined and experienced, and be of great moral fortitude. The prince’s environment should be carefully prepared, with attendants, companions, and tutors selected attentively.

Common aristocratic practices are to be shunned, and instead the prince is to receive a different sort of education. In sixteenth century Europe, the aristocratic elite were accustomed to a whole set of leisure activities. Erasmus frowned on these activities, as explained in the following passage:


How can you expect anything but evil from a prince, who, whatever his nature at birth…is subject from the very cradle to the most stupid ideas and spends his boyhood among silly women and his youth among whores, degenerate comrades, the most shameless flatterers, buffoons, street players, drinkers, gamblers, and pleasure mongers as foolish as they are worthless. In this company he hears nothing, learns nothing, and takes in nothing except pleasure, amusement, pride, arrogance, greed, irascibility, and bullying; and from this schooling he is soon installed at the helm of the kingdom. (DE, pg.8-9)


           Leisure pursuits such as whoring, drinking, and gambling are to be avoided with care. Although common to the elite classes of the period, Erasmus feels these practices will have a negative effect on a man. Rather than cultivating wisdom, the prince will fall prey to low sins, desires, and emotions, and knowledge and understanding will escape him. Thus, the common habits of the aristocracy were criticized, and instead Erasmus called for a different sort of education.

            Erasmus has particular suggestions for educating a prince. First, the lives of great men should be studied (DE, pg .10). Second, maxims should be taught, and also placed in relevant possessions, such as rings, prizes, paintings, and such, so that the lessons to be gleamed from them can be impressed on the mind (DE, pg.10). Certain examples of poor kingship should not be studied, including the lives of some famous historical kings (DE, pg.19). Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Xerxes are amongst those. Erasmus also suggests the young prince be taught the lives of the worst tyrants, so that the conduct displayed can act as a deterrent and illustrate the evil that comes with wicked behavior (DE, pg. 26-27 ). Another particular suggestion is study of the Proverbs of the Old Testament (DE, pg.61). Maxims, proverbs, and the lives of great men are to be studied. Outside of basic knowledge of war, politics, history, geography, and other arts (DE, pg. 65), these are to be the moral foundation of the prince’s education.

          There are many qualities a prince should obtain, and acquisition of these virtues should be the goal behind his education. The prince is supposed to be beyond ordinary people. What are joys for ordinary people, the prince should be above (DE, pg.14). The prince should thus be more like a philosopher. Erasmus writes, “Unless you are a philosopher, you cannot be a prince, only a tyrant.”(DE, pg.15) The cultivation of character and morals that Erasmus calls for belongs to the realm of the philosopher, and it is essential that the prince has the same relationship with knowledge and virtue. He should be moderate and frugal, although he holds immense wealth and freedom (DE, pg. 16). The prince’s greatness is moreover dependent on “wisdom, integrity, and right action” (DE, pg.14). And virtue and morality are also relevant to the prince. “The prince should be taught to love virtue and despise depravity, as the truly bad is bound up with depravity and the truly good with moral worth.” (DE, pg.13) For Erasmus, morality was a determinant for what was considered good. If something had no moral worth, then it was unequivocally bad. Virtue and other moral qualities were the goal of the philosopher prince, who held the power of the government for the people.

       The relationship of a prince to the people should be akin to the analogy of the father to the son. Erasmus explains this clearly. “The good prince must have the same attitude towards his subjects as a good paterfamilias has towards his household; for what else is a kingdom but a large family, and what is a king but the father of very many people.” (DE, pg.34) Tied to this conception of the king as father of the multitude of people, the king must show concern for their well being (DE, pg. 17). Thus, the king should respond to the people’s welfare the same way a father would to a son. This is what also distinguishes the monarch from the tyrant.

      The figure of the tyrant differs dramatically from a king. The chief difference is that a true king will hold the best interests of the people at heart, while the tyrant only aims to please himself (DE, pg. 25). But, the rulers are not limited to that distinction. Other attributes of tyranny are described in detail. Referring to Aristotle’s Politics, he says that tyrants see to it that barriers are placed in front of the people, so that they will not find a chance to oppose his tyranny, so that they do not trust each other, and finally, so they have no means of changing the system (DE, pg. 29). This is the scenario the tyrant aims at in order to repress the people. Making use of a traditional moral educational strategy, Erasmus further illustrates many of the extreme characteristics belonging to the tyrant and king:

        A tyrant’s aim is to follow whatever takes his fancy; a king’s on the other hand, is to follow what is right and honorable. For a tyrant, reward is wealth; to a king, it is the honour which follows from wealth. A tyrant governs by fear, deceit, and evil cunning; a king through wisdom, integrity, and goodwill. The tyrant wields his power for himself; the king for the state. The tyrant guards his security with a gang of foreign attendants and with hired brigands; the king considers himself safe enough in his good will towards his subjects and their good will towards him. (DE, pg.27)

         The contrasts between tyranny and kingship are shown clearly in this passage. For Erasmus, what constitutes tyranny also identifies with wickedness and immorality. The father- son analogy also applies to kingship and tyranny, as holding the best interests of the people at heart is what gives a king legitimacy. Also distinguishing the two is the moral nature of the one, and the depravity of the other. And again, self interest is a defining characteristic of tyranny. The tyrant does what he pleases, aims to accumulate his own personal fortune, utilizes fear and cunning as effective instruments of power, and brings in foreigners for protection. The tyrant is indifferent to virtue and wisdom, fears his own people, and only seeks to satisfy his own desires. The model of tyranny Erasmus portrays, drawn heavily from classical sources, lies in contrast to the ideal model of kingship.

        Erasmus also takes the occasion to offer advice on a whole group of phenomena relating to European politics and society. Peace, rather than war, should always be the principal aim of the ruler (DE, pg. 65). With this goal in mind, the king should learn to administer his land capably. When it comes to taxation, the prince should try as much as possible to avoid employing it (DE, 73-75). Often, personal greed and avarice are most kings motivations for taxation. If necessary, the prince should first tax luxury goods, as taxing essential goods will impose hardships on the people and the poor. On the subject of law, the prince should use laws to deter by reason more than punishment (DE, pg. 81). Law should be simple, inclusive, and easy to read, and practitioners of the legal profession abolished. (DE, pg.81-82) But lawyers are not the only profession that should be kicked out of the prince’s land. Certain social classes should be kept at arms length from a life of luxury and idleness, and even banished from a kingdom (DE, pg.83). These include: tax farmers, pedlars, usurers, brokers, panders, estate managers, game wardens, agents and retainers, soldiers, and those who inhabit monasteries and universities. Finally, Erasmus believed that treaties were a sign of moral depravity (DE, pg. 94), and that the dynastic marriages which were the custom throughout Europe during the period should be done away with (DE, pg. 95). In conclusion, Erasmus provides radical suggestions for changing perceived problems in the political and social sphere.

     The kingship of a Christian prince differs from that of a pagan king. Erasmus proposes that certain watchwords belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, such as “dominion,” “imperial authority,” and others, do not belong to a Christian kingdom. Instead, “the ‘imperial authority’ of Christians is nothing other than administration, benefaction, and guardianship.”(DE, pg. 39) Erasmus felt that dominion and authority were not the marks of a genuine king, but rather indications of tyranny. He also felt that there was a sort of agreement between the people and the monarch, and both sides were to uphold their end of the bargain (DE, pg. 43). The reality of a king being master over the people was opposed to Christianity. Erasmus first explains “if you are master over all your people, it follows that they must be your slaves….” (DE, pg. 40) He continues: “Since nature created all men free and slavery was imposed upon nature (a fact which even the laws of pagans concede), consider how inappropriate it is for a Christian to acquire mastery over fellow Christians, whom the laws did not intend to be slaves, and whom Christ redeemed from all slavery.” (DE, pg. 40) The idea that a king was lord and master over his people was certainly opposed to Christian teaching, and Erasmus likened it to slavery. A king who did not regard the people in the same way a father would a son, and held no regard for their well being, was no different than a slave master. Thus, dominion, majesty, imperial authority and any form of unrighteous relationship between the monarch and the people was akin to slavery and un- Christian. A lord who regarded the people as servants had basically enslaved them. Such values would be fine for a pagan king, but a Christian prince must follow Christ’s example (DE, pg. 42). “It is the right of a pagan prince to oppress his people by fear, to compel them to do humiliating tasks, to dispossess them, to plunder their goods and finally make martyrs of them: that is a pagan prince’s right.”(DE, pg. 42) The behavior of a tyrant is justified for non- Christian peoples. But this type of conduct is un- Christian and conflicts with Christ’s gospel. Erasmus recognizes that certain statements are made that conflict with his own vision of a Christian prince. He explains: “Do not let it escape you that what is said in the Gospels or in the apostolic writings about the need to endure masters, obey officials, do honor to the king, and pay taxes is to be taken as referring to pagan princes, as at that time there were not yet any Christian princes.”(DE, pg. 41) In other words, certain conduct by pagans was acceptable and to be treated with respect by Christians, but it in no sense justified the form a Christian king was to take. Just because Christ and Paul tolerated taxes and imperial authority, a Christian prince should not think he is justified to think he can behave in the same manner as the pagan overlord. The Christian prince should act in a way that accords with the Christian gospel. Although this style of rule appears inadequate, the prince who truly follows the Christian way will receive his due. A genuine Christian prince receives honor, obedience, magnificence, and authority in their truest form (DE, pg. 43). Therefore, the Christian prince is not to be modeled after the pagan one.

       Erasmus himself is unsure whether his vision is practical. He expresses this uncertainty through certain passages in the work. For example, when discussing the possibility of shaping a perfect prince, Erasmus writes “but since this would probably never happen, although it is a fine ideal to entertain….” (DE, pg. 37) Here Erasmus recognizes the vision of a perfect prince, whom his work aims at shaping, is unrealistic. He thus acknowledges the lofty ideals his work entertains, and that they are unlikely to come to fruition.

      Much of Erasmus’s vision is revolutionary. His advice contrasts with almost every contemporary notion of life in the sixteenth century. It was common practice for the wealthy to engage in leisure activities during the sixteenth century; yet Erasmus felt disdain for it and its impact. Treaties, interconnecting marriages, and taxation were commonplace; again Erasmus suggested they held no role in the virtuously ruled Christian kingdom. The European aristocracy felt it was noble by blood; again Erasmus called this sort of nobility the “worst” kind (DE, pg. 16). It seems at every turn, Erasmus opposes the European status quo. Finding little of moral worth, he declares many of these practices as signs of depravity. Erasmus’s views on shaping a virtuous prince were truly earth shattering, and it was on the dual subjects of war and peace that he offered his most radical break with contemporaries.

      For Erasmus, war can almost never be conducted justly. This was the main theme of a chapter in Education of a Christian Prince and in a later work, the Complaint of Peace, which explored the issue further. In the former work, he questions whether any war is just. “…how calamitous as well as wicked a thing is war, and how even the most just of wars brings with it a train of evils- if indeed any war can really be called just.”(DE, pg.103) Here Erasmus questions that there is justice in any kind of war. In this context, he describes war as amongst the greatest of evils and perpetual by nature (DE, pg. 102) Therefore, war is so wicked, that by its very nature it is hard to associate anything good or just coming from it. However, in Complaint of Peace, he views war, under certain conditions, as being just. He explains:


I am speaking all along of those wars which Christians wage with Christians, on trifling and unjustifiable occasions. I think very differently of wars, bonafide, just and necessary, such as are, in a strict sense of those words, purely defensive, such as with an honest and affectionate zeal for the country, repel the violence of invaders, and, at the hazard of life, preserve the public tranquility. (DE, pg 27)


If a kingdom is truly Christian and virtuous, and invaders force their way upon it, in such a scenario, war can be justified. Such a war would entail a kingdom and monarch dedicated to peace, and relations with potential invaders that are truly conducted in a wise and harmonious manner. There also can be no “trifling or unjustifiable” pretexts, but merely strict adherence to self defense and self protection. In other words, if the king’s conduct is good, his kingdom is administered with benevolence and justice, and his relations with neighbors are well ordered, then in this case, if invaders attack, a purely defensive war can be called just. It appears that the conditions Erasmus stipulates were not reached by any contemporary or historical war, as he offers no example of a just war being waged. Therefore, Erasmus offers two views on war, one questioning if it ever is justified, the other placing the most Utopian of conditions around it, which have to be met in order for it to be considered just.

      Peace was a desired state that was to be maintained at all costs. In Complaint of Peace, peace is almost always better than war (DE, pg.22). Under any circumstance, the prince should avoid war and achieve peace. Even if tribute to a foreign nation is required, it is a small price to pay compared to the consequences of war (DE, pg. 26). In Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus also expresses the same views, and asks the prince to contemplate “how desirable, how honorable, how wholesome a thing is peace….” (DE, pg. 104) He also explains that humans are born to peace and good will (DE, pg. 104). Peace is to be maintained at all costs, and it should be the primary goal of the king. For it is a desired state that humans are naturally born to, and holds none of the multitude of evils that come with war.

      The calamity of war brings the greatest suffering upon humankind. Many evils follow the beginning of wars, and it brings the “wreck of everything that is good.” (DE, pg. 103) In Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus describes war in great detail. War is un- Christian, brings on great evil, destroys morals, causes more woe to mankind than all the others, affords the horrid sight of Christian fighting Christian, is seditious and unholy, etc. (DE, pg.103-105). War is also persistent in the same way a virus is to the human body- once war breaks out, additional wars are sure to follow (DE, pg.103). Erasmus conceives of war like a terrible monster, one that destroys everything and brings the greatest suffering to humankind.

      There is a revolutionary aspect to Erasmus’s pacifism. In the Complaint of Peace, the personification of Peace visits sixteenth century Europe and discovers she is unwelcome. Visiting each class of society inhabiting a city, Peace realizes that everywhere she goes, war prevails instead of peace. She enters the courts of the kings, yet here she finds that great energy is spent in creating pretexts for war. She next visits various social classes, with little success. The commoners are described as being similar to a wave, guided to and fro by their passions and incapable of doing anything on their own. The law courts and extensions of the state are found to be the home of war mongerers. The ecclesiastical authority also engages in war with as much dedication as the kings. Even in academia, and in married life, there are numerous conflicts. Christendom as a whole remains foreign to peace. In case the point is lost, Erasmus consistently criticizes the wars of recent memory. For example:

If the military transactions of old time are not worth remembrance, let him who can bear the loathsome employ, only call to mind the wars of the last twelve years; let him attentively consider the causes of them all, and he will find them all to have been undertaken for the sake of kings; all of them carried on with infinite detriment to the people, while in most instances, the people had not the smallest concern either in their origin or their issue. (DE, pg. 18)


The Europe Erasmus had been accustomed to is a place where war is waged under almost any pretext. Trivial affairs that are irrelevant and insignificant to the genuine concerns of the people are often the causes behind wars. In the passage, Erasmus challenges the reader to find a war that began for reasons other than a king’s own self interest. The implications of this passage are revolutionary as they call into question the entire process of initiating war in the first place. War and the kings who wage it are not the only objects of criticism. Rather, it is the entire system that Europe had been accustomed to that is questioned. Likewise, in Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus similarly expresses disdain towards the normal justifications employed for the majority of wars. He uses examples of the pettiest pretexts for initiating war, such as a personal slight, marriage, or loss of rights (DE, pg.105). Therefore, Erasmus’s views on war were radical, propagating a pacifism almost foreign to the period.

            With Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus offered a didactic solution to the perceived problems of sixteenth century society and politics. The monarch was to receive an education that would allow him to cultivate virtue, wisdom, and character. The king was to be a philosopher, someone of high character and knowledge. As I have argued, Erasmus offers a revolutionary new vision of Europe, one where luxury and leisure, war, politics, and nobility have no place. These views were a departure from orthodoxy, and contained criticism of contemporary and popular practices.


Works Cited

  1. Erasmus, Desiderius. The Complaint of Peace. 1521.
  2. Erasmus, Desiderius. The Education of a Christian Prince. 1515.