As a thoroughly convinced Protestant who is already home and so isn’t looking to get there, I find it interesting that we often speak of the Reformation as beginning on October 31, 1517 with Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. It’s a convenient date, to be sure, and a good one with which to mark the specifically spiritual emphases of the Reformation. But there were other times, such as the 11th century, 500 years before Luther, when Christians called very important work to fix problems in the church “reform” and even talked about the “necessity of preaching the Gospel,” or the whole of the 15th century, which was consumed by a variety of programs all explicitly invoking the necessity of reforming the Church.
This suggests that too rigid a periodization of history will fail to notice important overlaps of ideas and circumstances, protracted and complex movements that cut across all the later, tidy categories of developed polemical positions, influential people who can’t be neatly pigeonholed as “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” This being the case, a long running theme of mine has been and continues to be that all of Church history is the common property of all Christians, so we Protestants need never feel shame talking positively about people and events prior to October 31, 1517.
What if, for instance, we thought of the Reformation as beginning nearly 100 years earlier than the 95 Theses, that is, in 1439 when the humanist Lorenzo Valla exposed as fraudulent the document that had served for centuries as the historical basis of the papacy, the Donation of Constantine? Valla’s solid, factually-based polemic against the papacy’s reliance on frauds is a fun read, especially since it was written a bit less than 50 years before Luther was even born – and by a Catholic priest. If you haven’t heard my earlier episode, “The Insolence of Ecclesiastical Princes,” I covered a similar theme there.
But what if we went further back than Lorenzo Valla, to events that had already severely damaged the credibility of Rome, and so set our starting date for the Reformation as the beginning of the Western Schism in 1378? Over the next 40 years, numerous attempts to heal that intractable breach of unity, focused on the very office that supposedly guarantees the unity of the Church, showed vast tracts of Christendom that councils could sometimes be superior to popes. This idea didn’t die with the formal collapse of conciliarism in the late phases of the Council of Basel, but resounded like a gong in everyone’s ears for almost two centuries, all the way into the 17th century.
Or maybe we should push our starting date for the Reformation back to the recovery of Aristotle by Western Christians from the middle of the 12th century, 400 years before Luther. Studying Aristotle closely set in motion an unstoppable tsunami of Christian realization that there were quite other ways to order the government of both the Church and the State than subjugation to one guy in Rome. John of Paris and Marsilius of Padua are must reads on this topic, but we might, just for the delightful historical irony, point out that even Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle to exposit ideas about how one-man rule too easily devolves into tyranny, which leaves his subjects room to resist his authority.
Other dates might be proposed, but in the interests of time, let me instead state my point in these speculations about other starting dates for the Reformation. Didn’t I start by saying I was going to talk about the first part of Thomas More’s Utopia? Quite so, and here’s the connection: Thomas More, though a staunch Catholic to his death, here shows us through both his own character and that of Ralph Hythloday, certain important clues to why the early 16th century conflict needs much more careful handling than is frequently done on the popular level.
On that level, which most of us either inhabit or have frequent dealings with, historical lines tend to be drawn far too sharply in the wrong places. It’s very easy to draw lines at predestination and justification, for example, but if we aren’t careful, we will put crucial antecedents to our own views on the wrong side of the lines, thus lopping off the branch we ourselves are sitting on. A major reason I’m focusing on Thomas More’s Utopia here is precisely to avoid such branch-lopping by pointing out the necessity of firmly planting the Reformation’s feet deeper than October 1517 – namely, planting them where they belong, in the catholic Christian cultural renewal movement called the Renaissance.
Time is short, so I’ll have to move quickly. For reference purposes, I will be quoting from the translation of Utopia by Robert M. Adams as found in the Second Edition of the Norton Critical Edition published in 1992.
The first thing to note is when More’s friend, Peter Giles, tells More that Raphael Hythloday, who has discovered fantastic and world-picture altering things, is not some careless, self-destructive traveler like Palinurus in Vergil’s Aeneid. Hythloday is, rather, a careful, rational adventurer like Homer’s Odysseus, who learned many new things by traveling, or like the careful, rational philosopher Plato, who traveled to learn new things (pg. 5). These images well describe the Renaissance, particularly its emphasis on the God-given power of human reason to penetrate the obfuscations of false appeals to antiquity and attain to actual truth. This emphasis had by More’s and Luther’s day been trucking along for nearly 200 years, upsetting more than few important apple carts in both the Church and the State.
Whatever one winds up thinking about Hythloday’s account of the marvelous land of Utopia, note that More positions him such that the very ideas of traveling, both physically and intellectually, of discovering new things that challenge the old, and perhaps even of demanding change for the sake of the common good is not some novel notion invented by heretics or rebels. To see this point, who would claim that Amerigo Vespucci, the real Italian mariner who sailed West in 1499 and found South America, was by his journeying off-the-beaten-path, and by his discovery of a new (really, an ancient) land some sort of agent of the Devil attempting to overthrow in favor of silly novelties the once-for-all-delivered Truth handed down in unbroken succession from the Geography and Cartography Fathers?
Indeed not. More instead positions first Hythloday’s experiences with the civil justice mechanism of England, and later, his experiences with the natural revelation-based society of Utopia that he finds after taking his leave of Vespucci as prompting entirely legitimate criticisms of traditions that, despite their supposed hoary age, are quite bad and must be altered for the good of the whole society.
Since that theme, that the health of the whole society outweighs the good of an individual, even when he is the leader, was an old theme of ancient Greece and Rome, and upheld by no less than Thomas Aquinas, it is interesting to read between the lines as More’s Hythloday spins out explicit classical references and implicit classical allusions right and left in order to ground the acceptability of today’s generation questioning various ideas and practices that claimed to be ancient and without error. The classics, of course, being the common property of Christians, are not only non-sectarian, but also far older, more clear, and much more stable sources with which to evaluate contemporary problems.
There are, for instance, several connections in Hythloday’s speech to the Athenian lawgiver Solon and the Ionian “father of history” Herodotus. Solon, you remember, traveled abroad and took a little of this and a little of that from various cultures as he prudentially judged them better than his city’s own conventions, and so as more likely to foster her security and peace. You can glimpse Solon easily, if you’ve read Plutarch’s account of his life, in More’s report that Hythloday “described quite a few other customs from which our own cities, nations, races, and kingdoms might take examples in order to correct their errors” (pg. 7). Wait, what? Isn’t More a Catholic? Indeed, which makes you wonder what happened to make Catholicism so hard and unteachable after his day.
As for Herodotus, one of my all-time favorite classical authors, the way he appears in Hythloday’s words to More is pretty much dynamite to any ipse dixit claim that things are true by virtue of great age and long, uninterrupted practice. But don’t take my word for it – here’s the Catholic Thomas More, er, the adventurer Raphael Hythloday:
“Now in a court composed of people who…admire only themselves, if a man should suggest something he had read of in other ages or seen in far places, the other counsellors would think their reputation for wisdom was endangered, and they would look like simpletons, unless they could find fault with his proposal. If all else failed, they would take refuge in some remark like this, ‘The way we’re doing it is the way we’ve always done it, this custom was good enough for our fathers, and I only hope we’re as wise as they were.’ And with this deep thought they would take their seats, as though they had said the last word on the subject – implying, forsooth, that it would be a very dangerous matter if a man were found to be wiser in any point than his forefathers were. As a matter of fact, we quietly neglect the best examples they have left us; but if something better is proposed, we seize the excuse of reverence for times past and cling to it desperately.” (pp. 8-9)
Just in case you’re wondering, that entire sequence of thoughts is found multiple times in Herodotus, who told so many seemingly outlandish stories about faraway lands, peoples, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (thanks, J.K. Rowling) precisely to help his culturally-insular Greek fellows try to realize that, well, a thing is not true just because it’s old, has been done for a long time, and makes us feel that we must be closer to Truth than all the benighted “barbarians” who do it all so very, very differently than we.
I guess the connections I want you to see relevant to the Reformation are pretty clear by now. And since they are so clear, I’m going to wax a bit rhetorically strong for a minute. We live in an age of mass disinformation caused by information overload, and many Christians begin to feel an impatient intellectual and spiritual longing for Totally Unquestionable Truth. Such Truth, many of us feel, must be mediated Infallibly to our brains by “Authority,” which from the standpoint of the Renaissance might as well be called surrogate brains relieving us of our personal responsibility to think. For many of us, Catholic and Protestant, led about by such “Authority,” it’s too easy to surrender to quick, sloppy polemics about inestimably important religious matters like those that exploded Christendom in the early 16th century.
So here’s my little piece of strong rhetoric: Book I of the staunch Roman Catholic Thomas More’s Utopia, renders it impossible to responsibly say such things as that the Reformation popped out of nowhere, or at any rate, from the addled little brain of a rebellious German monk who thought himself wiser than all his betters. Moreover, it’s impossible to responsibly say such things as that it was the Reformation which caused many of our Modern cultural woes by breaking a more primal Catholic unity and peace and by denying the unbroken history of the ages in favor of novelties. Of course, one can say such things all day long, and be quite untroubled by them. But I think that what More shows us is that to say such things is irresponsible.
Now how can I say that, since we know that More went on to write blistering polemics against Luther, and went to his own death staunchly resisting what he thought of as the unconscionable impositions of the secular power into spiritual matters? Well, I can say that because in two words, Renaissance humanism. I cannot here diverge even for a bit to discuss that topic. It will have to suffice to say that like early Scholasticism before it, Renaissance humanism, by its relentless insistence on criticizing present verities on the basis of their conformity to a standard of truth outside themselves, made it not only possible, but actually both necessary and unavoidable for someone like Martin Luther to arise and do what he did.
Take a look at pp. 9-19 in the version I am citing from, at Hythloday’s account of the corruption of the English court on justice for thieves. The application of the entire exchange to ecclesiastical matters as well as civil is going to be quite difficult to deny in any way other than merely begging the question.
Remember, the Renaissance’s call “Back to the sources!” had been in the air everyone breathed for nearly 200 years, which shows us a very lengthy process of Catholic Christians learning to ask questions about matters they had for too long wrongly thought were settled. It would be grossly anachronistic to read back into the historical records the hardline, post-Tridentine uniformitarianism that lies behind the popular Catholic rhetoric that “Luther was a rebel against authority.” Again, just go back to 1439 and hear the Catholic priest Lorenzo Valla’s scathing indictment of the fraudulent “historical” basis of papal power:
I know that for a long time now men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. So all these are yours, supreme pontiff? And it is your purpose to recover them all? To despoil all kings and princes of the West of their cities or compel them to pay you a yearly tribute, is that your plan?
Now since Valla’s discoveries were just the tip of the iceberg, it is irresponsible to claim that the Reformation was a bizarre, rebellious, novel eruption into the unbroken purity and continuity of Christ’s Church. To those who would speak thus, I point to Thomas More’s Raphael Hythloday mocking the childish belief that something profound has been said merely by invoking a supposedly unquestionable antiquity that is a mish-mash of half-truths, legends and fables, and romantic longings for Ideal Worlds that never did and never will exist. Please don’t be mad at me for saying that; be mad at Thomas More. I’m just channeling him.
If we want to better understand our own past as Western Christians, to better engage the ongoing, serious disagreements we have over so many issues, we really must try to hear what Raphael Hythloday is teaching about the real shape of the relationship of historical and current authorities to Truth. For though it stings to take it seriously, it really is true what Hythloday somewhat snarkily said about people who imagine that their fathers were necessarily rationally superior to themselves, and so are simply to be followed without question. That is, Hythloday via Thomas More, not Enloe via Martin Luther, says that such people are pretty shallow thinkers who confuse their own intellectual laziness with pious reverence for antiquity.
In reality, what the whole of the Renaissance shows us, in everything from the new (old) geography to the new (old) books to the new (old) modes of politics to the new (old) ways of construing spirituality, is the uniform lesson that we are just as rational as our fathers, which is why we can honor them by attending closely to what they say while at the same time feeling free to examine what they say and follow it only if it is actually True. The Renaissance showed us that human nature is always and everywhere the same. A consequence of this is that we are to realize that the Fathers were not constitutionally superior to us, but that we are every bit as rational and capable as they.
Indeed, were we to get the kind formation of intellect and soul that our Fathers in the faith had, we ourselves might just be able to equal their achievements and take our rightful place among them in what is often called “The Great Conversation.” Rather than sit at their feet like helpless children, imbibing all from them, we might actually talk to and with them, and – as we say in Latin, mirabile dictu!, “amazing to say!” – even offer corrections where they erred. This seems an astonishing thought, yet in the Renaissance, it actually did happen. People who began in an intellectually and aesthetically and spiritually lesser condition than their Fathers began to study the works of their Fathers and, in time, found themselves producing literature and theology and architecture and art equal to, if not greater, than their Fathers.
Such a way of relating to our Fathers, realizing that we share a common human rational nature with them and can fully participate in the kind of life they had, even to the point of criticizing what they did and making our own judgments to the contrary, is called “adulthood,” the attainment of which is, or at least is supposed to be, the goal of every child. What we should see from Book I of Utopia is that Thomas More the Catholic is telling us all to stop being led about by authorities who don’t actually know what they’re talking about, and instead to grow up and start thinking for ourselves. The road from here to Luther is a very short one, indeed.
But here is where it will be said by the Catholic that I’ve gone astray in my reasoning. Have I really missed the brute historical fact that if it’s so rational and proper to criticize even spiritual authority and hold it responsible to standards outside of itself, why didn’t Thomas More follow in Luther’s footsteps? Don’t I believe that there is a radical difference between mere geographical realities or mere civil order arrangements and the Divinely-Revealed Constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ, let alone Christ’s own promise that the gates of Hell will never prevail against her? Don’t I grasp that while it was quite alright for the Renaissance humanists to debate all kinds of alternative civic governmental schemes and fine-tune public and private ethics by close engagement with ancient systems of thought, Luther and all his followers went wrong precisely in extending such debate to matters impinging on the next world? I mean, what’s next – textual criticism of Bible manuscripts and the unworkable social chaos of cuius regio, cuius religio? Don’t I see that More had to draw lines to keep Hythloday-ish adventuring toward a good land from winding up in the mocking wasteland of Voltaire?
The answer to these and other like questions starts with the Renaissance recovery of the fact that our minds were made to engage with the world and substantially understand it. Revelation is not confined by human rationality, but neither does it simply contradict it or do an end-run around it. The parts of Utopia Book I that I have engaged herein show that growth in wisdom is for everyone a very difficult, time-consuming, fallible process involving so many interconnected factors that nobody but God can see how they all fit together.
That More and Luther used the same intellectual tools provided by humanism, pursued adulthood down the same paths of their common Fathers, but wound up in different places at the end is unsurprising to any careful student of human nature. And when, using the kinds of critical tools that Renaissance humanism bequeathed to Christendom, we take the trouble to descend into the details of various controversies, when we aim to be prudent travelers like Odysseus and Plato and Raphael Hythloday rather than foolish ones like Palinurus, we will discover, perhaps surprisingly, that a few key issues well understood can illuminate what before seemed only a Stygian labyrinth.
Illumination is not, of course, perfect understanding. Discerning readers will detect several fronts of the soon-to-be Catholic vs. Protestant divide looming large in More’s Utopia, which, after all, was published in Latin only a year before the 95 Theses. It is well-known that More held Luther in great contempt as a purveyor of abominable heresies for which he tried to offer proofs from the Bible that really only showed his own idiocy. Luther, he said in places, had authored a pestilent sect teaching execrable heresies that turned “the antidote of Holy Scripture entirely into poison.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Pt. IV, pp. 456-457).
All I can say about that, I guess, is, “Sticks and stones may break bones,” and so forth – and certainly we own that Luther could give as good as he got in the department of personal attacks full of rhetorical excess. All this aside, though, Thomas More the humanist writing about universal human issues was a far more judicious and thoughtful man than Thomas More the Catholic polemicist writing about his favored sect of Christianity, so I still say that dyed-in-the-wool Protestant though you are, you should still find yourself a copy of Utopia and get busy reading and enjoying it. There’s much, much more in this short little book that deserves sustained, sober thought, no matter on what side of the Catholic-Protestant divide you find yourself.