Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The mad monk at the church door

At one time when one was speaking of the mad monk, two historical personages would have been suspect -- either Rasputin or Luther. Once I did a computer engine search of "mad monk" and only Rasputin came up. Has the myth of Luther brushed aside his skeptics and cynics?

In the middle ages it was understood by all that the intellect or intelligence was the highest mental attribute. Luther put the will above the intellect. A child is willful, but unlearned and immature. Any idiot can be willful, all tyrants are. This is Luther's contribution to theology and western civilisation.

Luther was not well schooled in scholasticism, but he knew he hated it. Luther publicly burned the written works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the possessor of the greatest human mind and most learned of men. The Dominicans would be Luther's constant thorn.
On a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would be almost invisible. -- G.K. Chesterton
The legendary fiction of the posting of 95 theses on the Witttenberg castle church's door is still repeated and accepted as a fantastic vignette of history. Erwin Iserloh in 1961 scholarly demolished that myth, but still the textbooks print the falsity of the nailing. The story first appeared after Luther's death, written by Philipp Melanchthon, and no one recorded Luther ever speaking of it, but on the last day of October 1517 he did mail letters to the Bishop of Brandenburg, and the Archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz.

Much has been changed to glorify Luther. For all of those who approve of the Protestant rebellion, he is the heresiarch hero. Just as the chopping down of the cherry tree was invented for Washington's hagiography, so were events for Martin.

Luther proclaimed the non-biblical sola scriptura argument, that he could only make after he denied the canonicity of the Epistle of Saint James. When he misquoted scripture, his loud response would be, "Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!" So authority rested with him. So this is the foundation of Luther's pronounciamento, the clarion call of protestantism and modern man.

Luther first became a monk, by his own reckoning, to fulfill an oath, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk", he pledged during a thunder and lightning storm that terrified him, near Stotterheim on the second of July 1505. This moment of sturm und drang must be a moment when his rationality is a question.

He was a fearful man, yet morally scrupulous to the obsessive extreme. He could not, in his own mind, justify and make reconciliation with God. In substitution for absolution, he misunderstands grace. He also did not understand that good works were a grace. In his addled algebra he advises, "to sin boldly".

He was a new Mohammed*. His new religion, with the aid of the sword and a new distribution and concentration of wealth, would change the faith of many Catholic lands into a new and strange creed.

He was also a flippant, foul mouthed boor, who was fixated on his bowels and their product. The reformation had its ontogenesis on the privy†, one can wonder, if he were to have been prescribed an effective laxative, that all of Germany would have remained Catholic and Nazism would not have come into existence. Luther was not only a necessary antecedent for Calvin, but also for Nietzsche and Hitler.

The anglican John Osborne wrote a very good play in 1961 about Luther and Stacy Keach portrayed the rôle on film in 1973. Before this, there was: Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther (1958), a psychological biography and Hartmann Grisar's (1845-1932) multi volume biography and a single volume one. All of these are a corrective to the portrait many cherish of the reformer.
* I cannot find the reference, but it may have been, Sylvester Mazzolini da Prierio, the master of the sacred palace, papal theologian, who in response to Leo X's question, "Who is this Luther?", answered...

† "in cloaca" "das Klo" -- In October 2004, there was discovered his thinking room in Wittenberg.

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