III. THE HUMANISTS AND THE REFORMATION

The intolerant dogmatism of the Reformers, their violence of speech, their sectarian fragmentation and animosities, their destruction of religious art, their predestinarian theology, their indifference to secular learning, their renewed emphasis on demons and hell, their concentration on personal salvation in a life beyond the grave—all these shared in alienating the humanists from the Reformation. Humanism was a pagan reversion to classical culture; Protestantism was a pious return to gloomy Augustine, to early Christianity, even to Old Testament Judaism; the long contest between Hellenism and Hebraism was renewed. The humanists had made remarkable headway within the Catholic fold; in Nicholas V and Leo X they had captured the papacy; popes had not only tolerated but protected them, and had helped them to recover lost treasures of classic literature and art—all on the tacit understanding that their writings would be addressed, presumably in Latin, to the educated classes, and would not upset the orthodoxy of the people. Disturbed now in this cozy entente, the humanists found that Teutonic Europe cared less for them and their aristocratic culture than for the soul-warming talk of the new vernacular preachers about God and hell and individual salvation. They laughed at the passionate debates of Luther and Eck, Luther and Carlstadt, Luther and Zwingli, as battles over issues that they had thought long dead or courteously forgotten. They had no taste for theology; heaven and hell had become myths to them, less real than the mythology of Greece and Rome. Protestantism, as they saw it, was treason to the Renaissance, was restoring all the supernaturalism, irrationalism, and diabolism that had darkened the medieval mind; this, they felt, was not progress but reaction; it was the resubjection of the emancipated mind to the primitive myths of the populace. They resented Luther’s vituperation of reason, his exaltation of a faith that was now to be dogmatically defined by Protestant popelets or potentates. And what remained of that human dignity which Pico della Mirandola had so nobly described, if everything that happened on the earth—every heroism, every sacrifice, every advance in human decency and worth—was merely the mechanical fulfillment, by helpless and meaningless men, of God’s foreknowledge and inescapable decrees?

Humanists who had criticized, but never left, the Church—Wimpheling, Beatus Rhenanus, Thomas Murner, Sebastian Brant—now hastened to confirm their loyalty. Many humanists who had applauded Luther’s initial rebellion as the wholesome correction of a shameful abuse drew away from him as Protestant theology and polemics took form. Willibald Pirkheimer, Hellenist and statesman, who had so openly supported Luther that he had been excommunicated in the first draft of the bull Exsurge Domine, was shocked by Luther’s violence of speech, and dissociated himself from the revolt. In 1529, while still critical of the Church, he wrote:

I do not deny that at the beginning all Luther’s acts did not seem to be vain, since no good man could be pleased with all those errors and impostures that had accumulated gradually in Christianity. So, with others, I hoped that some remedy might be applied to such great evils; but I was cruelly deceived. For, before the former errors had been extirpated, far more intolerable ones crept in, compared with which the others seemed child’s play.... Things have come to a pass that the popish scoundrels are made to appear virtuous by the Evangelical ones.... . Luther, with his shameless, ungovernable tongue, must have lapsed into insanity, or been inspired by the Evil Spirit.75

Mutianus agreed. He had hailed Luther as the “morning star of Wittenberg”; soon he was complaining that Luther “had all the fury of a maniac.”76 Crotus Rubianus, who had opened a path for Luther by the Letters of Obscure Men, fled back to the Church in 1521. Reuchlin sent Luther a courteous letter, and prevented Eck from burning Luther’s books in Ingolstadt; but he scolded his nephew Melanchthon for adopting the Lutheran theology, and he died in the arms of the Church. Johannes Dobenek Cochlaeus, at first for Luther, turned against him in 1522, and addressed to him a letter of reproach:

Do you suppose that we wish to excuse or defend the sins and wickedness of the clergy? God save us!—we would far rather help you to root them out, as far as it can be done legitimately.... . But Christ does not teach such methods as you are carrying on so offensively with “Antichrist,” “brothels,” “Devil’s nests,” “cesspools,” and other unheard-of terms of abuse, not to speak of your threatenings of sword, bloodshed, and murder. O Luther, you were never taught this method of working by Christ!77

The humanists of Germany had perhaps forgotten the scurrility of their Italian predecessors—Filelfo, Poggio, and many more—which had set a pace for Luther’s contumelious pen. But the style of Luther’s warfare was only the surface of their indictment. They noted—as Luther noted—a deterioration of morals and manners in Germany, and ascribed it to the disruption of ecclesiastical authority, and the Lutheran discounting of “good works” as a merit for salvation. They were hurt by the Protestant derogation of learning, Carlstadt’s equating of pundit and peasant, Luther’s slighting of scholarship and erudition. Erasmus voiced the general view of the humanists—and here Melanchthon sadly concurred78—that wherever Lutheranism triumphed, letters (i.e., education and literature) declined.79 The Protestants retorted that this was merely because learning, to the humanist, meant chiefly the study of pagan classics and history. For a generation the books and pamphlets of religious polemics so absorbed the mind and presses of Germany and Switzerland that nearly every other form of literature (except the satire) lost its audience. Publishing firms like Froben’s in Basel and the Atlansee in Vienna found so few purchasers for the learned works that they had issued at great cost that they verged on bankruptcy.80 Rival fanaticisms stifled the young German Renaissance, and the trend of Renaissance Christianity toward reconciliation with paganism came to an end.

Some humanists, like Eoban Hess and Ulrich von Hutten, remained faithful to the Reformation. Hess wandered from post to post, returned to Erfurt to find the university deserted (1533), and died professing poetry at Marburg (1540). Hutten, after the fall of Sickingen, fled to Switzerland, robbing for his food on the way.81 Destitute and diseased, he sought out Erasmus at Basel (1522), though he had publicly branded the humanist as a coward for not joining the Reformers.82 Erasmus refused to see him, alleging the inadequacy of his stove to warm Hutten’s bones. The poet now composed An Expostulation denouncing Erasmus as a chicken-hearted renegade; he offered to withhold it from publication if Erasmus would pay him; Erasmus balked, and urged upon Hutten the wisdom of settling their differences peaceably. But Hutten had allowed the manuscript of his lampoon to circulate privately; it came to Erasmus’ knowledge, and moved him to join the clergy of Basel in urging the city council to banish the irascible satirist. Hutten sent the Expostulation to the press, and moved to Mulhouse. There a mob gathered to attack his refuge; he fled again, and was taken in by Zwingli at Zurich (June 1533). “Behold,” said the Reformer, here more humane than the humanist, “behold this destroyer, the terrible Hutten, whom we see so fond of the people and of children! This mouth, which blew storms upon the pope, breathes nothing but gentleness and goodness.”83 Meanwhile Erasmus replied to the Expostulation in a hastily written Spongia Erasmi adversus aspergines Hutteni (Erasmus’ Sponge on Hutten’s Aspersions); and he wrote to the town council of Zurich protesting against the “lies” Hutten had told of him, and recommending the poet’s banishment.84 But Hutten was now dying; the war of ideas and the ravages of syphilis had exhausted him. He breathed his last (August 29, 1523) on an island in the Lake of Zurich, being thirty-five years old, and possessing nothing but his clothes and a pen.

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