Date of Award

2001

Document Type

Thesis

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Tom Auffenberg

Second Advisor

Dr. Johnny Wink

Third Advisor

Dr. Preban Vang

Abstract

In his introductory editorial comments on Erasmus' letters, literary critic Robert M. Adams commented that "Like Voltaire, with whom it's commonplace to compare him, Erasmus was a prodigious correspondent." Erasmus and Voltaire shared much more than an affinity for writing letters. A list of their similarities reads much like one of those supposedly eerie lists of coincidences between the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. The dates of their respective births remain uncertain. Both may have been illegitimate during times when ancestry mattered a great deal, and neither was born noble. Both rose above their beginnings by means of education and ability and became internationally celebrated figures. Both wrote eloquently. Neither was English, but both adored England. Both traveled widely and consorted with the elite of the European political and intellectual community; and when favor turned to displeasure, both sought refuge in Switzerland. Both typified, in their lives and work, the major values and goals of the times in which they lived. Both died somewhat disillusioned. And, most importantly for this study, both Erasmus and Voltaire wrote remarkable satire.

Whimsical and critical, touching and biting, comical and compelling, the satirical writings of Erasmus and Voltaire are among the best the Western tradition has to offer. And while both wrote for an audience in a specific time and place, their words and themes remain timeless. In fact, they shared many topics and satirical targets in commons; but while the satire of Erasmus and Voltaire criticized many of the same things, it is marked with distinctions of motivation and purpose that can be explained with reference to the authors' personal world view and the dominant attitudes of the times in which they lived. This comparative study seeks to offer such an explanation.

Chapter one, in addition to providing a general outline for the paper as well as a few more introductory remarks, will be devoted to finding a useful definition of "satire." Chapter two will provide brief biographies of Erasmus and Voltaire, as well as general overviews of the periods in European hisotry in which they lived: the Renaissance adn the Enlightenment. The second chapter will be concerned specifically with identifying the two writers as individuals whose lives embodied many of the major values and goals of their respective time periods.

Chapters three and four will introduce and present several of Erasmus and Voltaire's most important and well-known satirical pieces. These chapters will highlight some of the most significant objects of the authors' satire, especially those which they had in common. Chapter Five will be a topical treatment of the satirical objects highlighted in Chapter Four and will be focused on fleshing out the notion that the differences in the ways Erasmus and Voltaire approache similar topics can be explained by persona and time period distinctions. The final chapter will disucss the importance of the satire of Erasmus and Voltaire for contemporary readers as well.

As indicated by the title of the paper, this study will concentrate on the religious satire of Erasmus and Voltaire. Not only does this concentration make a broad topic somewhat more manageable, but it also has analytical importance as well. The periods of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment constitute significant moments in the history of Christianity, moments marked by radical change in the western world's experience with and attitude toward the Christian religion. Two themes that will be touched upon in Chapters two and five is the extent to which Renaissance attitudes toward Christianity were characterized, more or less, by reform while those of the Enlightenment were marked, more or less, by rejection and the ways in which the religious satire of Erasmus and Voltaire reflect those attitudes.

These two men are among the most prominent in European history, Whether one agrees or not with the sorts of things Erasmus and Voltaire spent their lives advocating, one cannot help but be fascinated by the lies they live; and whether one likes or not the satire of Erasmus and Voltaire, one cannot help but be impressed by the learning, brilliance , and wit that produced it. It is in this spirit of respect and fascination that this paper is written.

 
 

To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.