A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)
22 Rules from Erasmus’ Enchiridion
Erasmus’ first best-seller was his Enchiridion, or Handbook of the Christian Soldier. He wrote it in 1501 and published it in 1503, safely before the Reformation began rumbling. It was apparently universally popular in a divisive era, but as the world around it changed, it became a special favorite of Protestants for some time.
Stylistically, one thing that made the book unique was its flowing, uninterrupted, discursive style. Erasmus used an easy Latin style, and the book was translated into multiple vernacular languages. As someone who has assigned this book for college students to read, I can testify that modern readers do not find the flowing style as attractive as early modern readers did. In fact, it kind of drives them crazy.
Perhaps to compensate for the free-flowing style, Erasmus introduces some structure into the work: he offers twenty-two (mostly) numbered rules, of unequal length, in the main part of the work. Below, I am copying out those 22 rules, from the version that appears in the Collected Works of Erasmus, volume 66: Spiritualia, Volume 1 (Toronto: 1988), edited by John W. O’Malley. I’ve used direct quotation when possible, but in some cases I have condensed the points and tried to pick out the key words
- Understand fully what the Scriptures tell us about Christ and his Spirit, and belive this with your whole heart. (“Be assured that there is nothing so true, nothing so certain and beyond all doubt of all that you take in with your ears, behold with your eyes, or touch with your hands than what you read in these writings.”)
- Enter upon the road of salvation not hesitantly or timidly, but with resolute purpose, wholeheartedly, and with a trusting and, so to speak, gladiatorial heart.
- You must ignore all those specters and phantasms which spring up before you as if you were at the very gates of hell.
- Place Christ before you as the only goal of your life, and direct to him alone all your pursuits, all your endeavors, all your leisure time and hours of occupation.
- Perfect piety is the attempt to progress always from visible things, which are usually imperfect or indifferent, to invisible. [This is the most important, and perhaps the most elaborately explained, of the rules.]
- The mind of one who aspires after Christ should be in complete disaccord with the actions and opinions of the crowd and his model of piety should be Christ alone and no other.
- The true and quickest road to happiness is so to direct our minds to the admiration of heavenly things that as the body produces a shadow, so the love of Christ, the love of the good and of the eternal will automatically bring with it a repugnance for passing things and a hatred of lowly things.
- If the storms of temptation descend upon you more frequently and more violently, do not immediately begin to be dissatisfied with yourself as if you were not dear to your God or pleasing in his sight, or as if you were lacking in piety or any less perfect. On the contrary, give thanks that he is training you as a future heir, chastising you as a dear son, putting you to the test as a friend.
- Be vigilant and alert in anticipation of the future attacks of the enemy.
- When the tempter suggests some evil thought, turn your mind away from him energetically and spit upon him, as it were, or pray fervently, or apply yourself with all your mind to some pious occupation, or answer the tempter with words taken from the Scriptures.
- When the enemy incites you to shameful acts, do not rely on your own weakness, but remember merely that you are capable of all things in Christ. When after the defeat of the instigator or at the completion of some pious action you feel that your mind is immersed in a kind of secret interior pleasure, then be on your guard, again and again, not to attribute anything to your own merits.
- When you are tempted to evil you not only do not sin, but you make the temptation an occasion for the practice of virtue.
- Fight with the conviction and the hope that this will be your last battle if you emerge victorious.
- Be especially on guard that you do not dismiss any vice as negligible.
- Do not compare the hardship of the battle with the pleasure of sin, but compare the present bitterness of the battle with the future bitterness of sin that accompanies the defeated; then compare the present sweetness of vice, which allures you, with the future sweetness of victory and tranquillity of mind that accompanies the stalwart fighter.
- If ever you receive a deadly wound, take care that you do not immediately throw away your shield, lay down your weapons, and surrender yourself to the enemy.
- The one remedy that is most efficacious against every kind of adversity and temptation is the cross of Christ, which is at one and the same time an example for sinners, a solace for those who are distressed, and an armament for those who are engaged in the fight.
- Call up before your mind’s eye how loathsome, how detestable, how deadly a thing is sin, and
how great is the dignity of man by contrast.
- Compare the two sources, so unlike each other: God and the devil.
- Contrast likewise the rewards of serving one or the other.
- Reflect also on how wretched and fleeting is the present life, how death threatens us insidiously on every side, and how it catches us unawares without discrimination.
- Impenitence must always be feared, the last of all evils, especially when one reflects how few there are out of so many who truly recover from their sins with their whole heart.