Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 11.djvu/329
The chronology of Colet's career is difficult to fix precisely, but it would appear that not later than 1498 he delivered, under the same conditions as before, another course of lectures at Oxford. His subject was St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, and he followed with increasing boldness much the same plan as in his first course. He depicted St. Paul's character with greater vividness ; introduced his theory of accommodation to account for St. Paul's views on marriage, with which he did not wholly agree ; attacked with redoubled vigour the corruptions of the church, and exhibited throughout a more intense religious fervour. Among Colet's auditors was the scholar Erasmus, who came to Oxford in 1498, and was entertained by Richard Charnock, prior of St. Mary's. Charnock told Colet of his guest's attainments ; Colet wrote to Erasmus a letter of welcome ; Erasmus replied in highly appreciative terms, and from that time the two men were the fastest friends. A fantastic dialogue between them on the story of Cain and Abel is reported by Erasmus (Epist. xliv.) as taking place in a college hall, and must be dated very soon after their first interview. Dis-
tion ; insisted on the necessity of loving rather than of knowing God ; and finally spoke with dissatisfaction of the condition of the church. No schoolman was quoted, but Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Plotinus were frequently referred to, and their writings clearly suggested some of Colet's phraseology, although the mazes of Neo-Platonic speculation were carefully avoided. The lectures produced an immediate effect. A priest called on Colet one winter night early in 1498 and entreated him to explain privately the attraction that St. Paul's Epistles had for him. Colet, with characteristic good nature, paraphrased the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, to the complete satisfaction of his listener, and he described the curious interview to his friend, Richard Kidderminster, abbot of Winchcombe, in a letter which attests his practical piety and his consciousness of originality (Epist. I. in Knight's Life, 265 et seq. ; Cambr. Univ. Libr. MSS. Gg. iv. 26, p. 62 et seq.) Another friend, whom Colet calls Radulphus, was stimulated at probably the same date by Colet's practical handling of St. Paul's Epistles to apply for assistance in interpreting other 'dark places of scripture,' and Colet replied in a treatise on the Mosaic creation. Radulphus has not been satisfactorily identified, and the theory that makes him out to be Ralph Collingwood, dean of Lichfield, is not well substantiated. In four letters Colet put forward the view that the first chapters of Genesis are to be treated as poetry as an attempt on the part of a great lawgiver to accommodate his teaching to the understanding of an ignorant people. The work is not free from inconsistencies and scholastic subtleties, but its spirit is, in the main, that of a scientific inquirer. From Pico della Mirandola's ' Heptaplus ' (1489) an exposition on the same subject some of Colet's philosophical dicta were drawn, and Philo Judaeus, Origen, and St. Augustine doubtless influenced his opinions. For a young man named Edmund, who has been doubtfully identified with his mother's grand nephew, Edmund Knevet (mentioned in Colet's will), Colet also prepared a very literal paraphrase of the text of the Epistle to the Romans, of which a fragment reaching to the close of the fifth chapter is alone extant. Meanwhile Colet was following up another line of thought, first suggested to him in his Italian travels. The chief Italian Neo-Platonists were well acquainted with a number of writings in Greek, ascribed to Dionysius, called the Areopagite, who was identified with the disciple of St. Paul mentioned in Acts xvii. 34. These works, which were first published in a Latin translation at Paris in 1498, described and explained in a mystical fashion the constitution and practices of the apostolic church, and Colet, like Ficino, regarded them as authoritative. The genuineness of the Dionysian books was disputed a short time afterwards by Grocyn and Erasmus, and has been demolished by later scholars. Canon Westcott insists that they are pseudonymous, and ascribes them to the Edessene school of the fifth or sixth century (Contemp. Review, May 1867) ; others represent them as much more modern forgeries (see art. 'Dionysius Pseudo-Areopagita ' in Dict. Christ. Biog.) Colet did not concern himself with these doubts, but drew up a series of abstracts of the pseudo-Dionysius's chief compositions, ' De Caelesti Hierarchia' and 'De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia,' and then based on them a number of treatises, of which 'De Sacramentis Ecclesiæ,' and ' De Compositione Sancti Corporis Christi Mystici,' are extracts. In these works Colet explains that man is related to God through an ascending series of emanations from the Divine Being, and that a symbolic meaning underlies all the details of the Christian sacerdotal and sacramental system. But, after examining these systems as they existed according to Dionysius at their institution, Colet was astonished by the degrading contrast presented by their shape in his own day. His passion for ecclesiastical reform was thus intensified, and henceforth declared itself in unmistakable utterances.