Ruling the World Through Reading Books

“The world is indeed a sick thing; it is the kind of fur on which neither hide no hair is any good.  The healthy heroes are rare, and God provides them at a dear price.  Still the world must be ruled, if men are not to become wild beasts.  So things in the world in general remain mere patchwork and beggary; it is a veritable hospital, in which princes, lords, and all rulers lack wisdom and courage–that is, success and direction from God–even as the sick person lacks strength and power.  So here one must patch and darn and help oneself with the laws, sayings, and examples of the heroes as they are recorded in books.  Thus we must continue to be disciples of those speechless masters which we call books.” Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101 [:1], in Luther’s Works, vol. 13, p. 164.  Cicero_opera1555

In this commentary Dr. Luther sought to advise the new ruler of Electoral Saxony on being a Christian prince.  John Frederick followed his father, John the Steadfast, as Elector of Saxony.  His support of the Reformation led to his military defeat to Emperor Charles V, subsequent imprisonment,  and loss of much of his territory.

Written in 1534, Dr. Luther advised the new prince on how to rule properly.  He drew upon biblical texts but also from ancient Greek and Roman writings.  Luther advises rulers to turn to the heroes of the past and to their wisdom.  After the statement recorded above, Luther continued:

“Yet we never do it as well as it is written there; we crawl after it and cling to it as to a bench or to a cane.  In addition, we also follow the advice of the best people who live in our midst, until the time comes in which God again provides a healthy hero or a wondrous man, in whose hand all things improve or at least fare better than is written in any book.” Ibid.

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Sallust on the Danger of Using Force

“Of these various paths to fame, it seems to me that the holding of civil and military posts, and indeed all political activities, are in these days the least desirable.  For the deserving do not obtain the honours of office; and the ill-deservers who do obtain them gain nothing thereby either in security or in true honour.  The use of force to rule one’s country or subjects – even if a man is in a position of power, and employs that power to right wrongs – is a perilous course: for it invites counter-measures, and any attempt at revolution is a certain forerunner of massacre, banishment, and other acts of warlike violence.  On the other hand, to struggle in vain against odds, and after exhausting efforts to gain nothing but hatred, is the height of folly – a folly that no one is likely to be guilty of, unless he is possessed by a dishonourable and fatal desire to sacrifice his own honour and freedom in order to increase the power of a set of oligarchs.” Sallust, Chap. 1 in The Jugurthine War trans. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 36. [Emphasis added]

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Dr Luther on the Soldier’s Obedience and Just War

“A second question: ‘Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.’  I reply: If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, Acts 4 [5:29], and you should neither fight nor serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God.” Martin Luther, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, in Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 130.

Knight,_Death_and_the_Devil Dr. Luther addressed the topic of just war and the soldier’s responsibility in this work in 1526.  War, similar to most periods in human history, played a central role in sixteenth century society.  The Peasants’ War had recently taken place, European monarchs continued to fight one another, and the Ottoman Turks moved northward into central Europe in the 1520s.  In this work Dr. Luther stated that being a soldier could be a legitimate vocation for a Christian under certain circumstances.  In the quote above, he specifically asserted that soldiers should not fight or serve for an unjust cause.  While Luther rejected the idea of a crusade or holy war, he did believe that temporal powers could wage just wars when necessary in this sinful world. (See:

In 1523 Dr. Luther had written similarly concerning this issue: “What if a prince is in the wrong? Are his people bound to follow him then too? Answer: No, for it is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men [Acts 5:29].” Martin Luther, Temporal Authority, in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, p. 125.

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Recollection and Thought

“The faculty of memory is both the cause and the repository of memory and recollection.  Memory is an image which has been left behind by some sensory or mental impression that has actually been received.  In other words, it is the retention of sensation and thought.  Thus, on the one hand, the soul apprehends or senses sensible objects through the organs of sense, and a mental impression is formed; on the other hand, it apprehends intellectual objects through the mind and a conjecture is formed.  Hence, when it retains the form of things of which it has received impressions, or of things of which it has thought, then it is said to remember.” John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith, Bk 2, Chap. 20., trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr., The Fathers of the Church vol. 37 (New York 1958), p. 245.                                                                      John_Damascus_(arabic_icon)

In this work John of Damascus (d. 749) included sections on philosophy.  While John sought to pass on the Eastern Christian theological tradition, his work also contained fascinating teaching concerning human nature.   Here John explains the nature of memory and its role in human understanding.  He continued:

“One must note that the apprehension of intellectual things comes only through learning, or the natural process of thinking.  It does not come from sensation, because sensible things are remembered in themselves, whereas intellectual things we do remember, provided we have learned something of them, but of their substance we have no memory.

Recollection is the recovery of memory that has been lost by forgetting, and forgetting is the loss of memory.  When the imaginative faculty has apprehended material things by means of the senses, it communicates [the impression] to the thinking faculty, or reasoning faculty–for both of these are the same thing.  When this faculty has received the impression and formed a judgment of it, it passes it on to the faculty of memory.” Ibid.


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History as the Soul’s Path to Glory

“What guides and controls human life is man’s soul.  If it pursues glory by the path of virtue, and is independent of fortune, which can neither give any man uprightness, energy, and other good qualities, not deprive any man of them.  But if the soul is enslaved by base desires and sinks into the corruption of sloth and carnal pleasures, it enjoys a ruinous indulgence for a brief season; then, when idleness has wasted strength, youth, and intelligence, the blame is put on the weakness of our nature, and each man excuses himself for his own shortcomings by imputing his failure to adverse circumstances.  If men pursue good things with the same ardour with which they seek what is unedifying and unprofitable – often, indeed, actually dangerous and pernicious – they would control events instead of being controlled by them, and would rise to such heights of greatness and glory that their morality would put on immortality.” Sallust, Chap. 1 in The Jugurthine War, trans. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 35.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus (Sallust) lived during the first century BC and wrote histories of the Roman Republic.  His works on the Jugurthine War, the conspiracy of Catiline, and fragments of other histories survive.  Sallust allied with Julius Caesar in the populares faction against the aristocratic Senators and Pompey in the Civil War from 49-45 BC.  In the last years of his ten years of his life (assuming he died c. 35) he spent writing historical works.  In this quote we observe Sallust’s moral understanding of the study of human history and its relationship to the nature of the human soul.  He continued:

“As man consists of body and soul, all our possessions and pursuits partake of the nature of one or the other.  Thus personal beauty and great wealth, bodily strength, and all similar things, soon pass away; the noble achievements of the intellect are immortal like the soul itself.  Physical advantages, and the material gifts of fortune, begin and end; all that comes into existence, perishes; all that grows, must one day decay.  But the soul, incorruptible and eternal, is the ruler of mankind; it guides and controls everything, subject itself to no control.  Wherefore we can but marvel the more at the unnatural conduct of those who abandon themselves to bodily pleasures and pass their time in riotous living and idleness, neglecting their intelligence – the best and noblest element in man’s nature – and letting it become dull through lack of effort; and that, too, when the mind is capable of so many different accomplishments that can win the highest distinction.” Ibid., pp. 35-36.

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The Sweetness of the Cross

13th-century_painters_-_Psalter_of_Blanche_of_Castile_-_WGA15846    “Now, what sweetness was your heart able to imbibe when, with your inner eye, you saw the Lord carrying his cross? Who can appreciate that humility, that meekness, that patient endurance?  Indeed, he was led like a sheep to the slaughter, like a lamb before its shearers he was silent and did not open his mouth. [Isaiah 3:7] How sweet it was to reflect on that, as it were, still fresh wounds of Christ, to stand as it were by his cross, to see the tears of his mother; to hear that sweet voice [say]: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. [Luke 23:34] What hope for the forgiveness of our sins does not surge up in us when we hear him praying so sweetly even for his enemies.” Aelred of Rievaulx, “Sermon 11: For the Feast of Easter” in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Liturgical Sermons, trans. Theodore Berkeley and M. Basil Pennington (Kalamazoo 2001), p. 189. [Italics in original]

The twelfth-century Cistercian abbot, Aelred of Rievaulx, preached to his monks on tasting the Lord’s sweetness (I Peter 2:3).  This work reflects the Cistercian emphasis on the meditation on Christ’s human suffering as a means to transform the soul.  In the same manner that Christs’s suffering and death changed into glory and life, so meditation on the Lord’s passion transforms the affections of the Christian.  This meditative sweetness is like wine instead of milk, because its sweetness has a bite.  Aelred concludes:

“You should not be able to look at those sweet hands being pierced with the nails so hard without sadness, albeit sweet.  Nor, similarly, on the piercing of his feet with the iron and the wounding of that most tender side with the lance.  Nor should you be able to behold those dear sweet tears of our Lady without compassion, however sweet.” Ibid.

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John of Salisbury on Pride and Death

“Pride is truly the root of all the evils that feed mortality.  Streams become dry if the source of the flow is cut off; a tree will not thrive with severed roots.  Vices languish if passion banished; yet if manure is piled upon the roots, the tree will become fertile and the sterility of the desert will recede.  If the source of the liquid overflows, then the increase turns into streams; if fuel is added to the fire, then the blaze of the wood is renewed.  So if one fosters the poisonous vice of pride inherent in nature, not even if one wishes can one impede that virus of mortification from infecting the vital organs.  Love of self is not as much akin to man as inherent in him.  If someone exceeds the mean, he veers toward error.  All virtues are limited in their proper ends and consist in the mean; if one is excessive, one is off the path, not on the path.” John of Salisbury, Policraticus III. 3., ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman (Cambridge 1990), p. 17.


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Reading the Best Authors

“This then will be our first study: to read only the best and most approved authors.  Our second will be to bring to this reading a keen critical sense.  The reader must study the reasons why the words are placed as they are, and the meaning and force of each element of the sentence, the smaller as well as the larger; he must thoroughly understand the force of the several particles whose idiom and usage he will copy from the author he reads.”  Leonardo Bruni, “On the Study of Literature,” in The Great Tradition, ed. Richard M. Gamble (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2007), p. 334.

Leonardo Bruni, the early fifteenth century humanist, wrote this paragraph after stating that readers must carefully chose the proper writers to read and imitate.  He had compared reading to eating properly for one’s age or physical condition. (See here:  Bruni on Study as Eating) For this reason, Bruni argues that readers must begin with the best authors and seek to understand the grammar and logic of their texts.

In the following sections Bruni recommends to his correspondent, Battista Malatesta, the daughter of the Count of Urbino, that she should read numerous Christian authors including Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Cyprian, and, especially, Lactantius Firmianus.  Additionally, he recommends Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great, if she had good Latin translations available.

What about the great Roman writers?

“A woman, on the other hand, who enjoys secular literature will choose Cicero, a man–Good God!–so eloquent! so rich in expression! so polished! so unique in every genus of glory!  Next will be Vergil, the delight and ornament of our literature, then Livy and Sallust and the other poets and writers in their order.  With them she will train and strengthen her taste, and she will be careful, when she is obliged to say or write something, to use no word she has not first met in one of these authors.” Ibid. [Italics in original]

His advice to Battista exemplifies the Renaissance humanist’s understanding of the imitative nature of learning from the great authors of antiquity.  In this case, he identifies both the Christian and pagan writers.  Notice that reading these texts trains her taste, that is, shapes her understanding.

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Hugh of St. Victor on the Sacred Scriptures

“For the whole Divine Scripture is one Book, and the one Book is Christ, for the whole Divine Scripture speaks of Christ and is fulfilled in Christ.  Our purpose in reading Scripture is that, by gaining knowledge of what He did and said and commended, we may be enabled to do what He told us and receive what He has promised.” Hugh of St. Victor, Noah’s Ark II. 11. in Hugh of Saint-Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings, trans. Religious of C. S. M. V. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1962), p. 86. [Emphasis added]

Hugh of St Victor-1

Hugh taught in Paris during the early twelfth century at the Abbey of St. Victor.  During this era the schools in northern France, especially in Paris, emerged as the most significant schools of theology in Western medieval society. Hugh’s writings demonstrate a combination of the contemplative and early scholastic method to theology.

Hugh followed the Christian tradition established by Christ Himself, St. Paul, and later Augustine of Hippo that the central focus of the Bible is Jesus.  Also, notice what Hugh asserts to be the purpose in reading Scripture: to gain knowledge of Christ’s actions and to  receive His promises.


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Luther on Pride of Students

“We have many students here who are so full of knowledge after they have been in Wittenberg half a year that they suppose they are more learned than I am.  When they go out into the country to other people, their knowledge breaks out like a cloudburst.  It seems to weigh a hundred pounds, but if you put it on a scale, it would only weigh an eighth of an ounce.  That is what pride does.  They have learned only a word or two, or they have heard a single word.  Then this becomes pure Adam, all flesh, so that they all apply their knowledge to achieving some pre-eminence [sic].” Martin Luther, “Commentary on Psalm 26,” in Luther’s Works vol. 12, p. 189.

Humility lays the foundation for true learning in the Christian and classical tradition. Many students learn a small amount and become puffed up in their knowledge.  Luther points toward this example of how pride and ambition leads down a path toward destruction.  Pride based on knowledge, especially knowledge of some basic theology, is a dangerous vice.  It can lead to heresy.  As Luther explained: “Other bodily vices are so coarse that we feel them, but this one can always adorn itself with the honor of God and give the impression it has God’s Word on its side.” Ibid., p. 188.


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