Harvard Classics, Volume 36: Early 16th Century Writing

The works this time around: The Prince, by Machiavelli, Utopia by Sir Thomas More, and the three big works by Martin Luther were all written in the 1510’s by their respective authors. As far as I can tell, this is the only unifying theme. The works on their own are, however, all very important works in the creation of the modern world.

The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli hardly needs much introduction. It is the first work of what we would call political science since the classical era. The book lays out Machiavelli’s famously pragmatic, practical, and amoral approach to political survival in a period of upheaval in Italian politics. Italy at the time was divided, with Habsburg controlled Naples in the South, the Papal states in the center of Italy, the Florentines, Milanese, Venetians and other small sovereignties fighting amongst each other in the North, with France trying to muscle its way into the scene. Il Promessi Sposi, which depicts the Holy Roman Empire and France duking it out across the Duchy of Milan takes place about 100 years after The Prince was written.

One interesting thing I found in The Prince is that Machiavelli suggests the use of colonizing new people, loyal to the prince, in a newly acquired province, as a way to cement control of the region. It certainly harkens to today’s immigration policies.

Before moving on to Utopia, Thomas More’s biography, as written by his son-in-law was presented since it is by far the best primary source we have for More’s life, and every biography, vingette and portrayal of Thomas More is based on this biography. It is, understandably, very flattering, but it does a good job of relating the details of More’s life. The most consequential events of More’s life come at the end of it, when he refuses to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. His display of piety and conviction in this time have earned him a sainthood in the Catholic Church, eventually being executed for his faithfulness to the Catholic church.

More’s biography, however, serves as a prelude to his most famous work, Utopia. The term utopia is, in fact, coined from this work. The word itself is based on Greek, meaning “no-place”. More certainly understood that his ideal commonwealth was fantasy, and not a prescription for real-life. His big assumption is that everyone would just work hard and contribute to the commons because they were so virtuous. That, of course, is a defining feature of utopian dreaming.

There were two bits that really struck me as particularly interesting. The first was the nature of warfare conducted by the Utopians. While More gives clear definitions of just wars that the Utopians participate in, he also describes their methods of warfare, and they are quite brutal. Even though enemy citizens who have no choice but to oppose the Utopians in battle are spared as far as is possible given the nature of warfare at the time and its effect on agriculture, the people who resist them are brutally slaughtered. A far cry from the catch-and-release warfare that defined Froissart’s Chronicles.

The other interesting thing was the religion of the Utopians. Utopia has religious diversity, and is unacquainted with Christianity until the first Europeans appear. At this point, Christianity gains a foothold, but exists alongside other faiths. More presents all religions as getting at some universal truth, and in this way he presents the Utopian religion as proto-Unitarian. What makes this so interesting is not just the Thomas More is early to the party when it comes to post-Enlightenment religious thinking, but that this view so starkly contrasts with his Catholicism. In Utopia, the religious situation in an ideal society is one where everyone believes what they think is correct. This is a very odd stance for someone who became a religious martyr to take.

An important tenet of Christian belief is that salvation requires, at the very least, a belief in Christ as the source of salvation. (Aside: We’re about to get much more into this issue). It strikes me as odd that someone who laid down their life for a particular interpretation of Christianity would say that the ideal society would have a wide divergence in beliefs. What kind of ideal society, after all, lets masses of people suffer eternal damnation?

Now that we’ve broached the issue of Christian theology, it is time to talk about Martin Luther. This reading comes at an interesting time, given the controversy surrounding the Catholic church in the United States at the moment. Of course it is also important to note my own biases in this case, as a Protestant, I’m generally going to be sympathetic to Luther’s views because even though I had never read them before, they certainly comport with why I don’t plan on joining the Catholic church anytime soon.

The works of Luther that are included are the big three that kicked off the Protestant reformation. The first are the Ninety-Five Theses. These are Luther’s list of complaints about the sale of indulgences within the Catholic church. He kept his criticism tepid compared with later works, but his objections come from a desire to see the religious life of Europe more closely align with the Gospel, and the notion of buying your way out of repentance goes against the idea. Moreover, selling indulgences on the behalf of the deceased seems ludicrous, because once a person is dead, they aren’t under the Pope’s authority anymore. Anyways, given the events of the Counter-Reformation, these issues were eventually rectified by the Catholic Church, at least in the main. But by then, the world had started spinning and Luther’s list of grievances grew into irreconcilable differences.

In the three years between Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the monastery, Luther continued to write and develop his theology that broke with what he saw as innovations away from the way Christianity was practiced, and the way Christianity was supposed to be practiced according to scripture. In Letter to the Christian Nobility, Martin Luther lays out his greater set of complaints about the Catholic church. What he lays out as the extra-Biblical additions of the Catholic church strike true, although in other places he correctly points out that these additions are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but Luther argues that some of them have had the effect of driving people away from proper belief. This work constitutes a strong indictment and calls for a total re-working of the Catholic church. For this, and for refusing a summons to Rome (probably a smart move given the treatment of Jan Huss), Luther was excommunicated.

The final work by Luther was a work of straight theology called Concerning Christian Liberty. The main theological idea to rise out of this is the Protestant notion that salvation is achieved by faith alone. Christian liberty, according to Luther is a freedom from ceremony, structures that enable Christianity as well as freedom from the Mosaic laws. Conversely, while he is on Earth, the Christian is obligated to live their life in the service of others, to use the opportunity that has been given to them to do good works. Critically, however, the performance of works is inconsequential, in Luther’s eyes, to Christian salvation. Luther argues that someone who has faith in Christ will naturally go out and do good works as a part of their belief.

This argument is an important one theologically, and a serious point of contention between Protestants and Catholics, but ultimately, the same three factors are in play: faith, good works, and salvation. The difference is which are causes and which are effects. The Catholic places good works as a cause for salvation along with faith, while the Protestant sees faith alone as the cause of both salvation and good works. A big point Luther makes is that works done without faith can’t be considered good works, because they are necessarily done for personal glory, rather than God’s. Since faith is therefore a pre-requisite for good works, it cannot fall as a pre-condition to salvation. I won’t bother with scriptural references here because ultimately, both sides can present passages which seem to favor their side, and I’m not prepared to step into arguing theological points which do not have a strong consensus.

With all of that said, this was a very impactful volume of the Harvard Classics. All of the works are incredibly influential even today in their various fields. From here, there is a volume of Enlightenment-era English writers, followed by a volume on medicine, prologues, and then the English poetry collection. I have been working on the poetry in spare moments, in order to prevent myself from trying to dive through a huge survey of 700+ poems in a couple of months. Things are starting to get close to the finish line. At my average pace of 37 volumes (I’ve read volume 50 already) in two years, I have about nine months left to finish the collection. At the pace of the past year (26 volumes), I have about six months left. Either way, there’s still quite a bit left.

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