Must We Always Pick a Side?

WE’RE LIVING IN A SIMILAR DAY to that of the Age of Exploration, where change is taking place at a rate where the information we decide to omit from our daily lives has become more essential than what we choose to let into our consciousness.

At the end of the fifteenth-century, news of discovery after discovery from distant shores flooded the continent. The vastness of the globe was now conceivable, causing the old ways of thinking to be disregarded in every aspect, writes Stefan Zweig in his biography of one of the pioneering humanists of the transformative era, Erasmus of Rotterdam:

“Ptolemy’s maps, which for twenty generations had been looked upon as an irremovable heritage, were, after Columbus’s and Magellan’s voyages, laughed at even by children; works upon the cosmos, astronomy, geometry, medicine, and mathematics, which for centuries had been studied and accepted as unimpeachable, were cast aside.”

Ships embarked for the “new world” and returned to the astonished crowds of Spain and Portugal, bringing with them unprecedented wealth, which translated to the commissioning of art and the beautifying of cities.

New discoveries of the world brought with it a diversity of knowledge; all signs of the new Europe pointed to progress. Undisclosed was the oppressive conquest and domination of other cultures, cultures that didn’t ask for enlightenment or an illumination as to the credo of the European man.

We stand as products of our given age. Today society has reached some sort of ideal where the world is spread open like the pages of a book.

It’s easy to look back on the darkest times in history and wonder how nobody stood up to fight for what was right. How could the truth, the light, not have been brighter? There were everyday people who sought freedom through truth and wanted to stand up, but without a figure to lead the way, perhaps their pursuit of truth seemed futile.

We are indebted to the individuals who have come before us and stood up to corruption and greed, horror and incivility.

This makes history utterly fascinating, as the individuals who stood up to such darkness were truly admirable — yet they were human, we are human. Humans are not perfect creatures.

The Catholic Soul

We know many iconic figures of history only as names who did this, wrote this, lived here — but when we dive deeper, we realize they were complete individuals with faults, passionate in their greatest moments, yet often fearful in hours of solitude.

Life takes its course for all of us. Nobody is immune to their own mind, emotions, or heart. To recognize defining moments from history in a more complete context clarifies the aims of distinct groups or parties, as no era is simply black and white — nor is the individual’s soul.

At the turn of the fifteenth-century progress was considered a good thing. When all signs pointed to a newly enlightened world, how could one not stand behind this progress and adhere to it by becoming one with the masses on a forward march?

As the world opened up, so did the very soul of the individual; on the macro level, the divine answers to the universe were being revealed, but what was the individual’s newfound role in it?

As Leonardo da Vinci drew his Vitruvian Man, an extraordinary drawing which illustrates the crossroads of science, religion and the human heart — so too did the masses seek their own answers to the questions in their hearts.

Yet it was challenging to follow one’s own intuition, as the Roman Catholic dominance in the religious world had a firm hold on society. The church was crying for a breath of fresh air after the superstitious theology of the Middle Ages, where there was no room for opposition or a questioning what was taking place.

“The people of the Middle Ages possessed but one soul, the Catholic soul,” writes Zweig.

This substantial hold on religion barely held the continent together while the blood of men continually at war drenched European soil. An unequivocal devotion to the church bound races and classes together, “no matter how hostile they might be at heart into one magnificent community.”

The Selling of Indulgences

Priests, with the Pope as their figurehead, stood as the mediator between man and God, between man and their own spirit. Christian dogma needed an overhaul.

As the scientific world stepped through the threshold of advancement with each new discovery, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation shook the religious world to its core.

With the posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517, Luther — an impassioned German monk and Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg — challenged the Roman Catholic Church and the very foundation of religion.

At that time, the church provided the answer to salvation in the afterlife through the selling of indulgences. These were a one-way ticket for one’s soul from purgatory to heaven after death. The church sold indulgences for an acknowledged donation or other charitable work — Pope Leo X had in fact granted indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

If one did something against the rules of the church, I imagine that person’s soul would feel conflicted to the point of ruin.

In retrospect it’s easy to see the selling of indulgences as the church taking advantage of the pious masses. But until somebody stood up and questioned what was happening, it was just a custom of the era. If one had an impure thought or wanted a guarantee that their soul would be accepted into heaven, the purchase of an indulgence was the answer.

Martin Luther Sparks the Protestant Reformation

Luther was an ascetic monk who said he thought sinful thoughts so often that he wondered if there was any amount of work that he could do to grant himself a place in heaven.

According to Protestant tradition, he posted his Ninety-Five Theses, a list of problems addressing the practices of the day, on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany. The Protestant Reformation ignited like a wildfire.

Luther had thoughts like any human — he wondered if he was living in accordance with his morals. He couldn’t continue letting the church mediate between good or bad for financial gain, nor could he let there be a mediator between him and God.

I believe in our modern day we must be the mediators of our own minds by regulating what we let in.

To Martin Luther, God provided the source for all inspiration and meaning to a devout Christian. God can mean anything to anyone: the magnificent voice in the sky that looks over our world, fate’s guiding hand which we may believe has a plan for the direction our lives will take, the sheer magnificent of nature, or nothing at all.

Faith, and Faith Alone

At this point of my life, God is my inner voice; it’s the energy that binds me to this planet, it’s my heart beating in my chest, it’s looking up into the stars and becoming meaningless.

God may be all of these things. As Luther believed, there should be no mediator between man and God, between us and our soul. It’s recognized that he had a realization after reading Romans 1:17 which states:

“The righteous will live by faith.”

Faith, and faith alone, he believed, opened the gates of heaven, not a peddler collecting gold for indulgences. To Luther, faith was the immediate connection between man and God.

Luther proved to be an example that it only took one person to set the course of change. Faith was all that mattered. Nobody could say otherwise.

How Ideas Spread

In the Scripture, the disciple Paul was addressing the Roman people to explain the entire Christian doctrine.

It was a world where ideas spread by word of mouth from town to town or an army on the move. The borders of nations were constantly shifting and being decimated, only to be redrawn by the whim of a king or a conquering ruler.

Today, ideas spread in less than a second from one side of the world to the other, and beyond that, from our world into the vastness of space beyond our earthly realm.

Still, the connection between the individual and what’s above, between the individual and what is within, the same relationship that ignited Martin Luther’s questioning of the norms, remains pure when we believe in it, when we believe in ourselves.

Faith is believing in something to strive towards. It doesn’t matter if it’s a connection with God or a connection with our very spirit. Faith is believing there’s something to live for.

The Printing Press Radically Changes the World

While the world is a much more accepting place today than it was five-hundred years ago, we ask the same questions as we did then; we seek the answer to finding peace in our soul.

Around 1440 in the city of Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, a revolutionary creation that would go hand in hand with the questioning of the church and the questioning of authority.

For the first time, it wasn’t only the church who could interpret the Bible or the intellectuals who could decipher the resurgence of books from Greek and Roman antiquity.

Anybody could derive their own meaning from these books as they strove towards a life based on their own individuality.

Humanism became the doctrine of the future, one that imagined a world intertwined through newfound knowledge from education and reading, and through a connection with oneself.

While Martin Luther was igniting his Protestant revolt against the church, the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam was setting a new paradigm in motion.

Erasmus of Rottertdam

Erasmus and other Renaissance humanists “hoped to conquer the world by means of the pen, just as those others had conquered with the sword,” writes Zweig.

Ostensibly, Erasmus was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands around the year 1466. His parents died early in his life. At the age of nine, Erasmus was sent to the Latin school of Deventer in the Netherlands, and then in 1487 he entered the Augustinian monastery at Steyn:

“Not so much from religious inclination as because that cloister happened to possess the finest library of classical literature the country could boast of,” writes Zweig.

In 1492, the Bishop of Utrecht ordained him as a priest. However, his time wasn’t spent so much in monkish ritual as it was studying the classics and the fine arts, says Zweig.

Erasmus was a man who, throughout his life, did whatever he could to remain utterly independent. He answered to nobody against his will, irrespective of the circumstances taking place around him.

Dedicated to the Quest for Knowledge

At twenty-six, he ran away from the restrictions of the church and was appointed as Latin secretary for the Bishop of Cambrai for a journey to Italy the bishop was preparing.

Erasmus established himself in the court life of Brussels during this waiting period. He spent his days conversing with intellectuals, studying the classics of antiquity, and writing his first book.

When the bishop postponed the trip indefinitely, he agreed to send Erasmus to Paris University. Erasmus never returned to the monastic life, but dedicated his life to the fight “against ignorance, folly, and traditional presumption,” writes Zweig.

Erasmus discovered his great love in life — the quest for knowledge. For somebody who was resilient to not take drastic measures in return for fame, Erasmus spent his days with his pride cast aside, writing “flattering dedications to the vain, frighten the timid by virulent pamphlets, wheedle money out of the wealthy with begging letters,” writes Zweig.

“Behind this lack of pride — a lack many have deplored — there lay concealed a resolute and magnificent independence of mind. If he paid flattering compliments in his letters, it was that he might more openly unveil the truth in his books.”

At Home Nowhere and Everywhere

Skilled in Latin and Greek, the tongue of the “enlightened”, Erasmus garnered international fame as one of the most knowledgeable men of the age. He spent his nomadic days transcending national borders at different universities or acting as a tutor to English aristocracy; he felt at home nowhere and anywhere. As long as he preserved his independence and could go as he pleased, he would continue.

The collective spirit of Europe was hopeful the turn of the century, as every day new inventions and discoveries flooded into the Western world.

“National vanity was eclipsed and the wellbeing of mankind as a whole was set up as the goal,” writes Zweig.

This was largely due to Erasmus and his literary work.

Like Martin Luther, Erasmus believed that man’s connection with God wasn’t solely found in outward observance. Rather, a man’s faith lay within. Whereas Martin Luther sought rebellion from the church, Erasmus believed in a “reflorescentia,” or renewal of the Christian ideal, “by a return to its Nazarene purity.”

The church was so contaminated by corruption that total reform, as Luther inflamed, was the clear path to a renewal of Christian doctrine.

However Erasmus was a natural pacifist and knew there was another way to achieve what he believed in: a return to the teachings of the Gospels. It wasn’t what others observed, how much one paid in indulgences, or how much one attended Mass. He believed one honors God by living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.

Revolution wasn’t the answer. Fighting fire with fire would only set the continent aflame. Unfortunately, this proved to be the case.

The Ideal of Humanism

The ideal of humanism and of Erasmus was a universal understanding of human life, a “religion that would be more spiritual and more humane,” writes Zweig.

Before the Protestant Reformation began with Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses, Erasmus could express his thoughts through the eloquence of his pen.

“In Praise of Folly [a satirical piece published in 1511] reveals abuses within the Catholic Church; the Handbook for a Christian Fighter [1503] presents us with the dream of a universally understandable ideal.”

These publishings served as the stepping stones to ultimate religious freedom from Roman Catholicism. But by translating the Vulgate, the only Bible translation approved by the church from Greek into a fresh Latin translation, he set the stage for future translations into the vernacular of its nation. This included Luther’s future German translation.

Erasmus’s translations, paired with the accessibility of knowledge because of Gutenberg’s Printing Press, took the sole power out of the monk and priest’s hands.

They could no longer stand as gatekeepers between faith and man:

“The peasant shall read it while resting by the plough,” Erasmus wrote, “and the spinner at his loom.”

Leonardo Pursues the Perennial Questions of the Universe

During this age of radical change, it was unthinkable to openly disregard religion altogether. Yet, a new world was emerging, one where man could answer to himself and himself alone.

Leonardo da Vinci was on a personal pursuit to answer the questions of the universe; like the individual stars of a constellation connecting to reveal something more profound, Leonardo studied how each discipline of our temporal realm connects with the rest of man’s endeavors, with nature and the incorporeal.

Leonardo believed in the individual’s acquisition of knowledge by empirical experience, by trial and error, and an insatiable thirst for knowledge as an essential part of life. To Leonardo, man represented the microcosm of the universe, whose only limits were the boundaries one places in the depths of their own mind.

For Leonardo, these limits were boundless.

Erasmus, on the other hand, believed not only that free will could be a vehicle of self-discovery, but that it could connect every nation and every race. It wouldn’t be by a common ancestor or land, but by reaching a level of attainable knowledge where everybody realized their individuality and worth.

All Ideas Have a Right to Exist

As a man with no proper home, borders meant nothing to Erasmus. Just as Erasmus considered all nations relevant with no border being necessary between them, as a humanist, he believed in the acceptance of all ideas.

Erasmus believed that:

“Every idea had a right to existence, as none could make an exclusive claim to being correct.This is the sign manual of the humanist: never to look upon contrasts with an inimical eye; always to work with a view to bringing about unity even there when unity seems impossible to achieve; invariably to seek out what is human in everything.”

A united European nation based on tolerance, acceptance, and education could be achieved, the humanists believed. Zweig writes:

“None were denied an entry into this spiritual guild. Anybody was eligible to become a humanist if he desired education and culture. Every form of intolerance — and intolerance invariably implies misunderstanding — was alien to the doctrine of universal understanding.

Men of any class, and women, too, nobles and priests, kings and merchants, the laity and the clergy, all had free access to this free community; none were asked whence they came and to what race or class they belonged, no inquiries were made to discover what was their native speech or the nation to which they owed fealty.”

The Shortcomings of Erasmus

Erasmus — a man who loved nothing more than his solitude and peace, his books and his insatiable writing — believed this ideal could be attainable, that the world could break down its borders and become one civilized nation.

If he could, he would spend his days in the newfound printing houses of Venice correcting proofs and producing translations. But in 1517, as Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, the floodgates of fanaticism blew open.

It pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other in a senseless war that altered the face of the planet and discounted Erasmus’s ideal of a common nation — a world elevated by widespread knowledge.

While Erasmus believed in a unified European person who welcomed all into the knowledgeable guild, his lack of perspective proved his ultimate shortcoming.

While he believed in the advancement of society through education and openness, his vision didn’t truly consider the beating heart of Europe — the peasantry. He spoke of these people and sought to empower them through his translations and satire of the church, yet Erasmus never took the time to get to know who these people truly were.

While he traveled from country to country, he was happiest spending his time in the town’s library scouring its books, conversing in Latin, irrespective of the nation’s vernacular.

This was where he was content, among literature and the solitude of his letters. He had no interest in music or the art of the day, for he truly was a simple being, happiest floating on the cloud of intellect.

Luther’s rally cry, on the other hand, “destroyed at one blow all that Erasmus’s delicate penmanship had so onerously and tenderly put together,” Zweig writes.

“The Christian and European world was, consequently, hopelessly divided for centuries thereafter, so that Catholic was opposed to Protestant, northerners to southerners, Germans to Latins.”

The Non-Party Man

To give up their lives and take up the sword, the people of Europe needed a strong voice as their leader, a Luther, and while the support of Erasmus would have been a great supplement to Luther’s cause, “Erasmus’s name was associated in all men’s minds with complete incorruptibility,” Zweig writes.

 “A non-party man is invariably the most important asset for the party man, and the finest standard round which to rally sympathizers.”

Erasmus the pacifist couldn’t give up his individuality or his soul. When the world asked him to choose a side, Erasmus broke down, ill-equipped to brace the storm that was at his steps.

He, on one hand, backed the cause of Luther and the Reformation, being a man who studied the scripture and dedicated himself to translating it for the masses. Yet he also felt bound to the church — what he felt was the last foundation of unity in a crumbling spiritual world.

When asked to stand up and fight for either, Erasmus’s name faded into obscurity, along with his vision for a nation based on morality. The time of Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, and Martin Luther was ripe for change.

The Course of History

The Protestant Reformation is the course of action that history took, and in retrospect it created unimaginable bloodshed in the name of the “true” Christian doctrine — a concept which seems completely absurd.

But with no clear path of progress, what truly is the correct course of action for history to take, for nations to take, for the individual to take? People rally behind a voice of change, one that stands up to the accepted norm and irrefutably states their perception of truth.

Yet Erasmus, with his stance of pacifism, didn’t dream of a world of pure individuality and freedom, where classes served no hierarchy:

“If we examine their theories more closely, we shall see how the ancient arrogance of the nobly born has been replaced by another kind of arrogance, by the pride of intellect which was to hold sway for three hundred years to come.

Which held that only the man who was sure of his Latinity, who had passed through a university, had a right to judge what was right and what was wrong, what was moral and what was immoral. The humanists, in the name of reason, were just as determined to govern the world as were the princes in the name of authority and the Church in the name of Christ.”

How Can We Learn From This?

Erasmus sought a more humane Christian ideal, one not based on theology but on the teachings of Jesus Christ. What he failed to see was the absolute value of every individual no matter their race, ethnicity, nationality or gender, just as the civilizations that would follow from century to century did.

Erasmus was a man of his time, as was Martin Luther, and it’s impossible to grasp their perspectives completely.

Yet, we must ask ourselves: how can we learn from the perspective which history gives? What would I do in a given situation? Would I listen to my soul and my inner compass of truth, or would I follow the masses and pick up a pitchfork?

Erasmus longed to remain individual and maintain a semblance of independence. He also dreamed of an intellectual elite which he prized more than the “lesser” minds he encountered.

Studying history gives us a choice. We must use the gift of perspective and the knowledge of the past in our everyday lives to remain individual and maintain our own essential spirit. I believe we must treat everybody and all with the respect they deserve; in doing so we respect ourselves, and the very voice we’ve been given.

Even when we believe we’re fighting on the right side; should we be fighting at all? Even when we believe our pursuit is the moral one, who are we actually alienating? These are questions to consider, as I believe the only way to move is forward with an open mind.

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