From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Barzun, Jacques

HarperCollins, 2000

pp. 16 - 19

Luther wasn’t just a rough, coarse, shouting peasant who overthrew fifteen hundred years of solidified Christian ethos by violence. He was a person of great imagination, as his Table Talk shows, and he was full of warmth and understanding, including about sex, and he was endlessly hospitable to whole housefuls of visitors, who ate him out of all his money. So he would “do some manual labor for cash or sell a silver drinking cup.” He grew to love his plain wife Katie and all his friends, grieving their deaths for days. He was full of common sense and tender feelings. He insulted his foes. (“In the 16th century and for a good 200 years more, insult was the accepted seasoning of intellectual debate” including among the aristocrats of the Age of Reason). He wrote 55 volumes, loved nature, played the flute and guitar, wrote 40 hymns, praised music as a force that routs the Devil, struggled with depression, knew that faith transcended reason and was full of enigmas. “We are fools to try to explain them.” He heard no voice of God, didn’t think of himself as a prophet, wondered whether he was even justified, found some of his early books offensive. Like others in his biblically literal age, he justified cruelty, even though he himself found the OT harsh and the NT merciful. He did not want to punish heretics, astrologers, or alchemists, or that crazy Copernicus with his sun-centered astronomy, but only witches and criminals. He “preferred the repentant sinner to the self-righteous.” (p. 19), and burst out against ‘the merely good man.” By the time of Luther’s death, Wittenberg was besieged and it looked as if Luther’s revolution was doomed. Peace in Germany meant that every prince could choose catholicism or evangelicalism, and also every town could choose. If your prince chose differently than you wanted, you were free to pack up and leave. Hence the arrival of INDIVIDUALISM.