Mercy in Moderation

In 1534 Martin Luther published a commentary on Psalm 101.  He used this commentary as an opportunity to write a manual for the Christian prince.  In August 1532, John Frederick the Magnanimous became the Electoral Duke of Saxony with the death of his father, John the Steadfast. Luther wrote often about the proper actions of Christian secular leaders and specifically addressed his own rulers often.  Here he explained how a prince must apply mercy and justice: 

“Thus David is also speaking here in courtly or princely terms about mercy and justice, that is, benefit for the pious and punishment for the wicked.  A prince and lord must use both of these.  If there is only mercy and the prince lets everyone milk him and kick him in the teeth and does not punish or become angry, then not only the court but the land, too, will be filled with wicked rascals; all discipline and honor will come to an end.  On the other hand, if there is only anger and punishment or too much of it, then tyranny will result, and the pious will be breathless in their daily fear and anxiety.”*

Here Luther examines how a leader must balance mercy and justice with his subjects.  He states that a prince must punish and display anger in order to properly discipline the people and preserve his land from criminals.  This follows the medieval tradition that a king or ruler must express righteous rage at the criminal actions of his subjects in order to properly rule the kingdom in a godly manner.**  However, according to Luther, if a prince only shows anger this will lead to tyranny and even the good subjects will be afraid.    

“This is also what the heathen say on the basis of daily experience: ‘Strict justice is the greatest injustice.’ The same may also be said of mercy: All mercy is much worse than no mercy at all.  A father cannot do a more unfatherly thing for his child than to spare the rod and let the little child have its own way.  With such stupid affection he is finally ‘raising’ a son for the executioner, who afterwards will have to ‘raise’ him in another way, namely, with a rope on the gallows.  Moderation is good in all things.  To achieve it is an art; indeed, it is a matter of God’s grace.  But because such an ideal can hardly be attained, it is good to try to come the closest to it by giving mercy priority over justice…Where a happy medium cannot be attained, it is better and safer to fall short on this side than on that; that is, too much mercy is better than too much punishment.  One can withdraw and reduce too much mercy; but punishment cannot be taken back, especially when it touches body, life, and limb.”***          

While the Bible formed Luther’s basic ideas, he often appealed to ancient Greco-Roman sources in his commentaries and sermons.  In this section he referred to ancient sayings regarding justice and moderation.  Although he did not identify them here the sources are Cicero and Aristotle.  He quoted Cicero’s De officiis (on duties) about strict justice often.  Apparently it was a Roman proverb as Cicero indicates:

“Injustices can also arise from a kind of trickery, by an extremely cunning but ill intentional interpretation of the law.  In consequence the saying ‘the more Justice, the more injustice’ has be now become a proverb well worn in conversation.  Many wrongs of this type are committed even in public affairs.”****       

Secondly, Luther refers to the concept of moderation and applies it to balancing mercy and justice.  This idea goes back at least to the Oracle at Delphi’s “nothing in excess” and became a central concept in Aristotle’s theory of ethics.  Most refer to it as the golden mean.  Aristotle famously described virtue as “a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.”*****     

*Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101, Luther’s Works 13:152-53. [Emphasis added]

**On this topic see Kate McGrath, Royal Rage and the Construction of Anglo-Normal Authority, c.1000-1250 (2019), 109-146.

***Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101, LW 13:153.

****Marcus T. Cicero, On Duties I. 33.  trans. Margaret Atkins (Cambridge 1991), p. 14.

*****Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II. 6. trans. Richard McKeon (New York 1992), p. 361. 

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