Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Venemous Martin Luther

I won't be blogging so much in the coming months, since the school year begins in little more than a fortnight. I'm starting with King Lear, and this marks my first pedagogical venture into Shakespearean territory. To prepare, I'm reading a number of canonical texts from the Early Modern period and which I ashamedly admit I have not before read, including Bacon, Montaigne, and Machiavelli. Today, I looked at Martin Luther's famous De Servo Arbitrio ("The Bondage of the Will"), an impassioned rejoinder to Desiderius Erasmus. (Roughly, Luther's position was that mankind is not free to choose good or evil, but is determined to do so by divine providence. Erasmus believed that the question of freewill was itself unnecessary.) Without analyzing the philosophical or theological issues, I just want to draw attention to Luther's rhetoric (in the first six sections of De Servo), which is pretty extraordinary. It betrays a desire to not simply counter Erasmus, but to pummel him into desperate submission.

Luther begins by responding to Erasmus's assertion that Erasmus is "so far from delighting in assertions, that [he] would rather at once go over to the sentiments of the skeptics, if the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures, and the decrees of the church, would permit [him]." The issue, then, is about assertions, whether we should delight in them, and how they relate to the authority of Scripture and the decrees of the church.

Luther immediately admits a need to bite his tongue: "I consider, (as in courtesy bound,) that these things are asserted by you from a benevolent mind, as being a lover of peace. But if any one else had asserted them, I should, perhaps, have attacked him in my accustomed manner." So Luther is giving us a restrained criticism, one deserving of a good-hearted opponent, and not as he is apparently wont to give someone of less worthy metal. And yet, Luther makes clear, Erasmus has touched a nerve.

Luther then proceeds to say that a Christian would not make the argument Erasmus has made: "
What Christian would bear that assertions should be contemned? This would be at once to deny all piety and religion together; or to assert, that religion, piety, and every doctrine, is nothing at all." He makes the same point a little later, in equally forceful language: "As though you could have so very great a reverence for the Scriptures and the church, when at the same time you signify, that you wish you had the liberty of being a Sceptic! What Christian would talk in this way?"

Luther says Erasmus presents a position both "absurd" and "impious."
Yet, Luther soon reminds us that he is holding back his true feelings: "What I should cut at here, I believe, my friend Erasmus, you know very well. But, as I said before, I will not openly express myself." Later, he says that Erasmus has put forward statements which are "without Christ, without the Spirit, and more cold than ice." Even better: "What shall I say here, Erasmus? To me, you breathe out nothing but Lucian, and draw in the gorging surfeit of Epicurus. If you consider this subject 'not necessary' to Christians, away, I pray you, out of the field; I have nothing to do with you." Shortly thereafter: "And it is difficult to attribute this to your ignorance, because you are now old, have been conversant with Christians, and have long studied the Sacred Writings: therefore you leave no room for my excusing you, or having a good thought concerning you."

Luther presents a complete and utter rejection of Erasmus, not only as an intellect, but as a person, and such is ever magnified by the assertion that Luther is holding back!
I gotta say, philosophy and theology aside, that's some awesome writing. And it sorta puts recent debates about religion, atheism and rhetoric into perspective.

Luther is also known for writing harshly against the Jewish people, where the power of his rhetoric is just as evident, even in the opening lines:

I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that those miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews and who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them.
As terrible as his words are, and as damaging as they were and have been, I cannot help but admire Luther's ability to wield language to his ends. Can we not admire the art even when it is designed to such ill effects?