Luther on Rulers and History

“A prince must also be very wise and not always try to impose his will, even if he has the right and the best of all reasons to do so.  For it is a far nobler virtue to put up with a slight to one’s own rights than [it is to risk damage] to life and property, where this is to the advantage of the subjects.  As we know, worldly rights are valid only with respect to the things of this world.” Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, in Luther’s Works, vol. 44, p. 94.

Dr. Luther wrote these words in his discussion of the Fourth Commandment (Thou shalt honor thy father and mother) in this famous treatise from 1520.  In this section Luther examines obedience to governmental officials and the proper behavior of temporal rulers.

“Therefore, it is absolutely foolish to say, I have a right to it and will therefore take it by force and hold on to it, although all sorts of misfortune may come to others in doing so.  In this connection we read of Caesar Augustus that he did not want to wage war, however right he was, unless there were sure indications of greater benefit than harm, or at least of a bearable harm.  He said that war can be likened to to fishing with a golden net–you never catch as much as you risk losing.” Ibid.

Luther referred to Caesar Augustus as a positive example for rulers.  In this case, he uses Caesar Augustus’ worldly wisdom regarding the risks of war.  The ruler must always know that his actions (even when justified) may lead to his own ruin and the ruin of his people.  Luther concludes that a good ruler must be willing to sacrifice his own will for the needs for his subjects.

“He who drives a cart must act differently than if he were walking alone.  When he is on his own he can walk, jump, and do what he likes, but when he is driving he must control and guide so that the horse and cart can follow.  He has to pay greater regard to the horse and cart than to himself.  A prince is in the same position.  He stands at the head and leads the multitude, and must not go or do as he wants but as the multitude are able.  He has to pay more regard to their needs and necessities than to his own will and pleasure. When a prince rules according to his own mad will and follows his own opinion he is like a mad driver who rushes straight ahead with his horse and cart through bushes, hedges, ditches, streams, uphill and downdale [sic], regardless of roads and bridges.  He will not drive for very long.  He is bound to smash up.” Ibid., pp. 94-95.

An evil prince neglects his people or exploits them for selfish gain.  If he is not educated properly his actions will lead to destruction.  What is the solution?  Study history!

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “it would be of the greatest value to the ruling class if from their youth up they were to read, or have read to them, history books, both sacred and secular.  They would find in these books more by way of example about the art of ruling than in all the law books…Historical examples give and teach much more than laws and statutes.  In the former a particular historical experience teaches, in the latter, untried and uncertain words.” Ibid., p. 95

Cicero’s on Wisdom and Action

“The foremost of all the virtues is the wisdom that the Greeks call sophia.  (Good sense, which they call phronensis, we realize is something distinct, that is the knowledge of things that one should pursue and avoid.) But the wisdom that I declared to be the foremost is the knowledge of all things human and divine; and it includes the sociability and fellowship of the gods and men with each other.” Cicero, On Duties I. 153. eds. and trans. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins (Cambridge 1991), p.59.  [Italics in original]

While Cicero praised the search for wisdom, he emphasized the social nature of human existence expressed in marriage, the family, and then the larger community. As he wrote: “Moreover, learning about and reflecting upon nature is somewhat truncated and incomplete if it results in no action.  Such action is seen most clearly in the protection of men’s interests and therefore is concerned with the fellowship of the human race.  For that reason this should be ranked above mere learning.” Ibid., pp. 59-60.

Cicero on Reason’s Guidance

“To sum up: when undertaking any action, we must hold fast to three things. First, impulse must obey reason; nothing is more suited to ensuring the observance of one’s duties than that. Secondly, we must keep in mind the importance of the thing we wish to achieve, so that we employ neither more nor less care and effort than the case requires. The third thing is that we should be careful to moderate all things that may affect our appearance and standing as a gentleman.  The best limit, moreover, is to maintain seemliness itself, which we have discussed already, and not to step beyond it. However, of these three things, the most important is for impulse to obey reason.” Cicero, On Duties I. 141. eds. and trans. M.T. Griffin and E.M. Atkins (Cambridge 1991), pp. 54-55.


A Medieval Good Friday

“Faithful cross, true sign of triumph, Be for all the noblest tree; None in foliage, None in blossom, None in fruit thine equal be; Symbol of the world’s redemption, For the weight that hung on thee!” 4th verse in Sing, My Tongue the Glorious Battle in Lutheran Service Book, 454.

Here’s the original Latin:                                                                                                     Crux fidelis, inter omnes arbor una nobilis                                                                         Nulla talem silva profert flore, fronde, germine                                                                   Dulce lignum dulce clavo dulce pondus sustinens                                                             Source: Joseph Sövérffy, Hymns of the Holy Cross: An Annotated Edition with Introduction, (Leiden, 1976), p. 15.

Notice that the modern English version (at least in LSB) did not translate “sweet wood with the sweet nail.”  To hear the chant of this text go here: 

This verse is from Venantius Fortunatus’s sixth-century hymn, Pange, lingua, gloriosi. Fortunatus’s hymn (and particularly this verse) became a standard part of most Western medieval liturgies associated with devotion of the cross.  Often choirs repeated this verse during the adoration of the cross on Good Friday which began with the antiphon:

Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. O, Come let us adore! (Ecce lignum crucis in quo salus mundi pependit venite adoremus.) The Sarum Missal, Ed. J. Wickham Legg (Oxford, 1916), 113. [My translation]

Medieval preachers focused on Christ’s passion, devotion to the cross, prefigurations of the Christ’s cross in the Old Testament, and the imitation of Christ in their Good Friday sermons.  The great twelfth-century theologian, Peter Lombard, included all these elements in long sermon appointed for Good Friday.  I will conclude with some of his sermon:

“The serpent suspended on the tree, this is Christ. [He is] a serpent because [he is] mortal.  [He is] bronze because [he is] immortal.  But [he is] mortal according to the human nature and immortal according to his divine nature.  Indeed, humanity fell by the persuasion of the serpent into the condemnation of death. Therefore, it is suitable that the serpent was lifted up on the tree in order to point toward this death. Therefore, what hangs there, unless the death of the Lord?” Patrologia Latina 171:686 {Falsely attributed to Hildebert.} [My translation] Here Lombard referred to Numbers 21:9 and John 12:32.

In another place Lombard emphasized the Christian’s imitation of Christ in the following manner: “Always in this life the Christian ought to hang on the cross, not in the body, but in spirit, not in the flesh, but in the mind so that we may have our bodily members nailed down by the spiritual nails of God’s precepts.” PL 171:691 [My translation] In this way Christ’s crucifixion becomes the pattern for the Christian’s life.   For example, Peter stated: “The eyes of Christ were darkened on the cross, so that our eyes may turn away from looking at vain things.” Ibid. [My translation]

Lombard concluded with a proclamation of the praise of the cross similar to Good Friday liturgy: “This is the tree of life, sweet wood, which dried up the tree of death. Therefore, on this tree the God-man was lifted up, so that he who was above all things may draw all to himself.” PL 171:695. [My translation]


Erasmus on the Folly of Political Leaders

“Show me a man such as princes commonly are: a man ignorant of the laws: an enemy of the public: intent upon private gain; taken to pleasure; against knowledge, liberty, and truth; never occupied with the safety of the state; and finally measuring all things in terms of his own desire and profit.  Now first seat him on a golden chair, the chair symbolizing the union of all the virtues; next give him a crown adorned with precious gems, this symbolizing that he ought to surpass all others in every heroic quality.  In addition to these hand him a scepter, en emblem of justice and of a devoted heart and soul; and last of all place on him a scarlet robe, symbolizing the love and fervent respect that he ought to have for the realm.  If any prince would try to uphold these symbols, even if it meant giving up his life, then I am sure that he would have the honor to be ashamed of his depravity.  He would fear that some satirist might turn this whole solemn affair into ridicule and sarcasm.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in The Essential Erasmus, trans. John P. Dolan (New York, 1964), 155.

In this famous work Erasmus satirized European society in the early sixteenth century. This quote demonstrates that he did not spare kings and the nobility from his acerbic literary attacks.  This portrayal is the opposite of Erasmus’ description of the Christian prince

Also he did not spare the courtiers.  The modern courtiers are staffers, diplomats, and lobbyists.  “Now what shall I say about the noble courtiers? These men desire to be likened as God’s foremost creatures, yet the fact is that no group of men is more sordid, more obsequious, more idiotic, or more contemptible than this set of men…They are contented with being able to speak of the king as ‘our master'; in knowing how to return a compliment in three word; in knowing on which occasion to use the titles of ‘Your Grace’ ‘Your Lordship,’ and ‘Your Majesty'; in not knowing shame; and in having mastered the art of flattery with exceptional success.” Ibid.

Augustine on the Use of Symbols

“But, all those truths which are presented to us in figures tend, in some manner, to nourish and arouse that flame of love by the impulse of which we are carried upward and inward toward rest, and they stir and enkindle love better than if they were set before us unadorned, without any symbolism of mystery.  It is hard to explain the reason for this; nevertheless, it is true that any doctrine suggested under an allegorical form affects and pleases us more, and is more esteemed, than one set forth explicitly in plain words.  I believe that the soul makes its response slothfully as long as it is involved in earthly things, but, if it is borne along to corporeal representations and from them to spiritual ones, which are symbolized by those figures, it gains strength by that transition, it is enkindled like fire shaken in a torch, and by that more ardent love it is carried on to rest.” Augustine of Hippo, Letter 55: Book II of the Inquiries of Januarius, Saint Augustine: Letters, vol. 1, trans. Sister Wilfrid Parsons, Fathers of the Church, vol. 12  (Washington, D.C.  1951), p. 277.  [Find older translation in Letter LV, ed. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 1 (1886), p. 309-310.]

Artists and the Liberal Arts

“I want the painter, as far as he is able, to be learned in all the liberal arts, but I wish him above all to have a good knowledge of geometry….Our rudiments, from which the complete and perfect art of painting may be drawn, can easily be understood by a geometer, whereas I think that neither the rudiments nor any principles of painting can be understood by those who are ignorant of geometry. Therefore, I believe that painters should study the art of geometry.” Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and on Sculpture in The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook.  Ed. Kenneth Bartlett. 2nd Ed. (Toronto, 2011),  p. 171.  [Emphasis added]

It should not surprise us that Alberti thought artists should study geometry.  Alberti was an architect and an artist.  The study of geometry laid the foundation for the transformation of the artistic depiction of the world.  However, notice that Alberti exhorted artists to study all the liberal arts.  Therefore, he continued:

“Next, it will be of advantage if they take pleasure in poets and orators, for these have many ornaments in common with the painter.   Literary men, who are full of information about many subjects, will be of great assistance in preparing the composition of a ‘historia,’ and the great virtue of this consists primarily in its invention.  Indeed, invention is such that even by itself and without pictorial representation it can give pleasure.” Ibid.

Here Alberti compares the composition of a historical painting (historia) to the practice of literary and rhetorical invention.  He understands the painting similarly to literary narrative presented by an orator.  Invention is the process by which an orator asks questions to find commonplaces (loci) for his speech.  For Alberti, a great work of art tells a compelling story to its observers.

Simply consider Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as an example. The great artist tells the story of God’s creation and restoration of the world and humanity.  He finds his material in the commonplaces of the Bible.

Augustine on the Use of History

“Whatever the subject called history reveals about the sequence of past events is of the greatest assistance in interpreting the holy books, even if learnt outside the church as part of primary education.” Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching II. XXVll., trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford 1999), p. 55.

In his famous work on Christian teaching Augustine examines the use various subjects to support a proper understanding of the Bible.  History serves a significant role in that it examines God’s providential work in time.  This subject explains what has happened already and provides examples and guides for the teachers and students of holy Scripture.  In order to understand Augustine’s use of pagan and sacred history, then simply read his monumental work, The City of God.

“Historical narrative also describes human institutions of the past, but it should not for that reason be counted among human institutions.  For what has already gone into the past and cannot be undone must be considered part of the history of time, whose creator and controller is God.  There is a difference between describing what has been done and describing what must be done.  History relates past events in a faithful and useful way, whereas the books of haruspices and similar literature set out to teach things to be performed or observed, and offer impertinent advice, not reliable information.” Ibid., p. 56.

Haruspices were diviners in ancient Rome who read the entrails of animals to predict future events.  Augustine contrasts their unreliable predictions and teachings with the reliable information provided by divine providence through the examination of historical events.  According to Augustine, God controls history, not diviners, and the historical narrative reflects his handiwork.

The Remedy of Human Infirmity

“Although pleasurable in many ways, the pursuit of letters is especially fruitful because it excludes all annoyances stemming from differences of times and place, it draws friends into each other’s presence, and it abolishes the situation in which things worth knowing are not experienced.  Arts would have perished, laws would have disappeared, faith and all religious duties whatsoever would have shattered, and even the correct use of eloquence would have declined, save that divine compassion granted to mortals the use of letters as a remedy for human infirmity.  The examples of our ancestors, which are incitements and inducements to virtue, never would have encouraged and been heeded by everyone, unless, through devotion, care and diligence, writers triumphed over idleness and transmitted these things to posterity.” John of Salisbury, Prologue to Policraticus, ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman. Cambridge, 1990, p. 3.

In the opening paragraph of his work on political philosophy and history John of Salisbury lauds the study of letters (i.e. reading and writing) as the foundation of the liberal arts, learning, and religion.  Through literature, as if through a divine gift, our ancestors pass on their collective wisdom to us from the past.  We rest the study of history upon this literary foundation and thereby we may remedy our human weaknesses.

Proper Digestion

“In the process of learning, the very thing that ought to be a great help, namely, a great desire to learn, often becomes for many people an impediment.  They want to take in everything at the same time, and are able to retain nothing as a result.  For as excess food does not nourish, but disgusts the stomach, weighing down and weakening the rest of the body, so a great abundance of things ingested all at once into the memory slips away heedlessly now and weakens the memory for the future.  So always let those who are eager to learn read widely, but let them select a few things each day that their memory can digest, and in this way let them store away three or four things or more, as each one’s ability or leisure will allow, as the special profit of that day. By reading other things, they will succeed in preserving by meditation what they have already learned and daily reading will make more familiar to them what they have yet to master.” Piero Paolo Vergerio, “Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth,” in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, pp. 321-322.

Vergerio, the early fifteenth-century teacher, explains how good students must not overwhelm their minds with too much reading.  Commit small bits of ideas to memory on a daily basis.  When a student attempts to learn many things too quickly it gives the mind a “stomach ache.”  Vergerio follows the classical and medieval tradition of comparing reading to eating.  Slowly chewing one’s food makes for better digestion.  Similarly, slowly and steadily reading increases one’s abilities to remember and ultimately to truly learn.