The Divine Assembly Line: Discussing the Self in Erasmus

In response to Luther’s denunciation of free choice, Erasmus delineates the nature of the Self into triplicate components. The Erasmian Self, expectedly in opposition to Luther’s, is definitely capable of making its own choices, but only insofar as it is governed by the Grace of God. It is through a mediation betwixt forces of conflicting agendas that Erasmus constructs his entire view of Self. An importance of paradox permeates his argument and even underlies it as its more personal origin, Erasmus himself being a devout Catholic, yet one opposed to some of the same things as Luther; a humanist who depends on the oversight of the Divine. Mediating through a threefold intricacy of paradoxes, Erasmus shows that each person is essentially a worker striving to produce an existence which is one nearest not personal perfection, but one closest in proximity to God’s satisfaction. “[U]nderstand . . . that a good will cooperates with the action of grace[, a]nd . . . that God works in us and that our will and our carefulness rest on God[,] and that “ . . . our will is to God as a vase to a potter[;]” essentially, we are but products producing a product on a divine assembly line (Desiderius Erasmus, On the Freedom of the Will, 81). This assembly line, as it were, consists of “ . . . three stages of human action: the first is thought, the second will, the third accomplishment” and Grace’s mediation between the three constitutes precisely what for Erasmus is the Self (Erasmus, 80).

For Erasmus, the Self is not entirely independent, and this is not problematic. The Self cooperates always with God, yet is not wholly subject to divine providence, the notion of which Erasmus frequently discredits belief in. For Erasmus, God is perfect, and in control only insofar that he created everything and that in each thing he created is an inherent goodness discernible when that particular thing is viewed as a whole for its own sake. Simply, the sum of a thing’s parts is simultaneously good and evil, and it is able to be such because of God’s creation. Evil and good have been placed in everything, and God’s only remaining influence lies in the role he plays in accommodating Self. God’s grace is as close Erasmus allows himself to come to accepting providence. “It is the will of man turning himself toward the impulse of grace . . . which bears onward our will that we may perform what we will” (Erasmus, 84).

The Self is constantly striving, as the thought of the Renaissance context in which Erasmus wrote often stressed. However, this striving is neither for independence nor for perfection, but for obedience—either to oneself or to God; the only self indulgence is deviation, either away from God toward mischief or away from mischief toward God. Grace is what glues together the three fragments of production required in this sort of factory of the Self. Thought is what is required to initiate the process of striving, and accomplishment is what finishes it; though striving can never be vindicated in the mortal realm. This is due in part to the nature of these first and last of the three steps in the Self production process; they are not borne of human attempt, but divinely reared; one cannot control a thought nor render and accomplishment without the grace that binds the two to the central precept of the will.

The will is the only purely independent component of the Self and it is free only within the bounds of the divine task which is always at hand. Regarding the difficulty of the notion of predestination and fate in governing the accomplishment of the will, those ignorant to the Erasmian dealing of truth must note that “[i]t is lawful to speak the truth; it is not expedient to speak the truth to everybody at every time and in every way[;]” following this example, one can think of the will of the Self as truth and is expediency as God’s grace, which is what determines whether the attempt of the will shall be accomplished, and ultimately, the will cannot even pursue its endeavour without the divine appearance of the initiating thought (Erasmus, 40-41).

At one point in his argument, Erasmus likens human existence to an assistant under an architect; God is he whom is credited, but it is man who performs the required tasks. In spite of this, God is not dependant on man, though man depends on God. The

. . . preacher of wisdom wishes that the divine wisdom may stand by him to be with him and work with him. It assists as adviser and helper just as an architect helps his assistant, tells him what is to be done, shows him the why and wherefore, puts him right wherever he has begun to go wrong, and comes to his aid where he fails in anything; the work is ascribed to the architect without whose help nothing could be done, and yet nobody would say that the assistant and pupil has done anything (Erasmus, 85).

In the Self, “ . . . the why and wherefore” are the striving of the initiating though and the choice of the will, both of which serves as the means of constructing the divine product which is manufactured solely for God’s whim, and facilitated by his grace (Erasmus, 85).

As has thus far been demonstrated, in Erasmus, the Self is not a quality of human character, but a transitive faculty afforded by the divine to administer not a divine plan, but be subjected to the modification of its complementary will by God’s grace. What is produced by this means, then, is an end which is among the most mystical, and as the conflictingly faithful Erasmus notes, an end to be comprehended only when one’s literal end is met; what the next life offers is not perfection nor vindication, but rather the showcase of whatever products.


Erasmus, Desiderius. On the freedom of the will. Halifax: University of King’s College, EMSP 2000.06 in-class handout, September 13, 2007.