GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS AND HISTORICAL INTERPRETATIONS OF FAITH AND SPIRITUALITY IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
TOLERANCE, INTOLERANCE, PERSECUTION
Some groups who are honored for their contributions to religious freedom do not carry unblemished records. The Anabaptists, whose idea of the separation of church and state is a great step toward freedom of religion, were often guilty of harsh and uncharitable conduct toward dissenters within their own ranks and even toward other groups of like-minded individuals. It is not easy for us to judge how they would have dealt with dissent if they had become the officially recognized church in any large area for any length of time, since it was their lot to suffer persecution universally. In the one case where Anabaptists had a brief ascendancy Mnster in the 1530s the record is not encouraging. Religious history seems to indicate that persecuted groups, claiming freedom while they are being oppressed, become in their turn persecutors if they manage to achieve dominance. This certainly applies to both Catholics and Protestants in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras.
Religious intolerance then is the undoubted fact. What were the motives for persecution? Professor Roland H. Bainton gives three prerequisites: "(1) The persecutor must believe that he is right; (2) that the point in question is important; (3) that coercion will be effective."21 These three beliefs must, therefore, have been widely shared in the sixteenth century by individuals and groups whose views in other respects differed widely.
Granting the validity of this argument, is there another and apparently opposite possibility? May it be that sometimes the persecutor, outwardly so sure that he is right, harbors deep in his thinking perhaps largely hidden even from himself a doubt that his views are correct after all? The heretic or dissenter then becomes an actualization or projection of the persecutor's own doubts, which he is anxious above all to hide from himself. It, therefore, becomes essential for his security that he suppress these doubts. In getting rid of the heretic, he is then getting rid of his own questions and inner fears. This is advanced as a possibility, though by its very nature it is unlikely to be susceptible of definite proof, and in any event it would not apply in every case. Religious dogmas and doctrines deal with things unseen, which must be received through faith; in such matters, it is surely easy to have doubts.
It is also asserted that persecution and bigotry on religious grounds can be best explained by assuming that the religious justification is not the basic one, but merely a reflection, even a subterfuge, for deeper underlying motives, which may be, for example, economic or political. It is argued that at a time when religion was so intimately bound up with the political and social order, uniformity of religion within a state appeared as an absolute necessity to prevent internal breakdown, chaos, and even anarchy. There is a good deal of truth to this argument, because that is how it seemed to many in the sixteenth century. To a certain extent, their fears were justified in the circumstances of the time; religious conflict was associated in many countries with civil disorder and rebellion.
To assert, however, that in these struggles religion was always a secondary factor, and that the real issue was always political, social, or economic may be an oversimplification. It may reflect, not so much the sixteenth century, in which religion was a vital reality, as the twentieth, in which a much more secular outlook prevails. It is quite likely that, at least in a good many cases, the causes of religious persecution were religious.
That such an apparently self-evident statement needs to be made at all is a sign of the extent to which Marx and Freud have accustomed us to look for the meaning behind the appearance and to take little or nothing at its face value. Still, the people who did the persecuting, and those who were being persecuted, thought religious motives were causing it all. Maybe it would be presumptuous of us, at this distance, to decide that we always know them better than they knew themselves. Here we can quote the works of Professor Ernest Nelson on the subject: "It is my conviction...that these views of faith, exclusive salvation and the extreme criminality of heresy were not formulated in order to defend a persecution determined upon for worldly purposes, but that they were the premises of a persecution which was essentially religious."22
Do we, in any event, have any right to sit in judgment on the religious persecution of the sixteenth century? It cannot be denied that this turbulent age often saw self-styled Christians treating one another with a cruelty and barbarity that contrast strangely with the life and teachings of their Lord. Those who refuse to make such judgments base their refusal on the following types of argument: Moral judgments are inadmissible in history, and no age or society has a right to pass such judgments on any other; our own century has on its conscience offenses against humanity that make those of the sixteenth century seem puny and insignificant; and the kinds of behavior that we are tempted to condemn are manifestations of the spirit of the age, and we must make the effort to see the period in its own terms, not ours.
If we admit that there is a substantial amount of truth in these contentions, we may still question the last of them that there is a spirit of the age that produces, explains, and in a sense justifies acts of bigotry and repression. The expression "spirit of the age," does not refer to a real, living entity that has a sort of independent existence and manifests itself through the people who lived during a given period. It is a convenient term that refers to patterns of thought or feeling held by such a large or influential segment of the people that it gave a distinctive coloring to the period. There are always many others who disagree with what we tend to consider the dominant outlook of the age.
Therefore, if we can find significant voices raised in opposition to the prevailing bigotry and intolerance of the sixteenth century, we can say that in this respect the age stands condemned, not by us, but by some of its own more enlightened spirits. We have already seen that there were individuals who spoke and acted on behalf of humanity and tolerance in the face of conflicting religious views. We have referred to Erasmus, Castellio, Montaigne, William of Orange, Stephen B thory, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Henry of Navarre, among others. A few more may be mentioned here.
Sebastian Franck, the spiritualist, believed that persecution is a sign of heresy. He wrote in 1539, "To me, anyone who wishes my good and can bear with me by his side, is a good brother, whether papist, Lutheran, Zwinglian, Anabaptist, or even Turk...."23 Valentin Weigel (1533 88), although a Lutheran minister, was really a part of the same spiritualist tradition as Franck. He too believed in an invisible church whose members were dispersed everywhere. God can be found in all sects.
Among Catholics too, especially among those who had been influenced by Erasmus, voices were raised in behalf of conciliation among the religious groups. Georg Witzel (1501 73), who for a while was Lutheran but returned to the Catholic church, never gave up his belief in conciliation. He was opposed to the use of force in religious matters, disliked the Council of Trent, and urged the Protestants and Catholics to overcome their differences and unite.
An interesting figure in the development of ideas of toleration is the Italian Jacobus Acontius (c.1500-c.1567), who became a Protestant, fled to Switzerland, and spent his last years in England where he served as a military engineer and received a pension from Queen Elizabeth I. In 1565 he published The Stratagems of Satan. It is one of Satan's stratagems, he wrote, to cause religious strife and dissension. He recommends methods of overcoming this stratagem, including the renunciation of all violence in religious matters. He also recommends the Erasmian idea of distinguishing between the fundamental doctrines on which all should agree, and the less important ones, on which disagreement is possible without danger to unity. While he granted to the state the right to control the church, he denied that it could use force against heretics or in the settlement of controversies over religion. He agreed that each person should be free to follow his own choice in religion; the resultant variety of opinions will eventually lead to the discovery of the truth.
In France, as has been shown, the relentless persecution of the Huguenots by the crown brought on the horrors of civil war. In the midst of all this cruelty and bloodshed, some men sought peaceful solutions to the religious conflicts. One of these men was Guillaume Postel (1510 81). Postel not only studied the classical languages Latin, Greek, and Hebrew but also Arabic, and became very interested in eastern civilizations.
In 1544 he published his work De orbis terrae concordia (Concerning the Harmony of the Earth). In this book he advocated universal religious peace, to be achieved by convincing Jews, Moslems, and pagans of the truth of Christianity. To this end he undertook to prove both that Christianity is true and that there are basic points common to all religions. This position is broader than that of Erasmus and his followers, who tried to demonstrate the common belief of the various denominations within Christianity. Throughout his career, he continued to urge reconciliation among Christians and between Christians and all others.
During the civil wars, which began in 1562 and lasted until the final decade of the century, a number of statesmen and Catholic clergymen and prelates spoke for at least some measure of toleration for the Huguenots. From the reign of Charles IX (1560 74), more and more persons in France, both Catholic and Protestant, began to argue that the conscience cannot be compelled.
It was the party of the politiques, concerned above all with the welfare of France rather than the interests of a particular sect, who saw in religious toleration and freedom the only solution to the civil strife. Most of the politiques were Catholic, though after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre there were Protestants who adopted the politique position, being willing to grant to Catholics the same freedom they claimed for themselves.
From the time when it became clear that Henry III would be succeeded by Henry of Navarre until the latter's conversion to the Catholic faith, it became urgent for Frenchmen to consider whether a heretic could wear the French crown. An anonymous pamphlet of 1591, The True and Legitimate Constitution of the State, claimed that the state and religion were independent of one another, but agreed also that religion should be subordinate to the state. Within one state, it further asserted, various religions could coexist; freedom of worship is no danger to society. A ruler's religion had nothing to do with his acceptability. On the other hand, the king should not force his religion on his subjects who are not of his faith. This interesting point of view envisages something like the modern secular state.
The Protestant Franois de La Noue, who fought in the army of Henry of Navarre, wrote of the possibility and desirability of Catholics and Protestants living together, although he hoped that someday religious unification would be possible.
To these scattered examples of men who, for various reasons and in differing degrees, favored religious toleration, many others could be added. There were also rulers during the period who were opposed to the use of compulsion in religious matters, including some whom we have not mentioned, such as the emperor Maximilian II (1564 76). Yet we are left with the impression of a prevailing intolerance and bigotry in religion. While it is perhaps impossible to plumb all the psychological, social, and other causes for this, a few suggestions may be offered, in addition to those made at the beginning of this discussion.
It might be well, first of all, to abandon the idea that progress and enlightenment have made us more tolerant than our forebears. If religion does not excite us as much as it once did, the reason is probably indifference rather than broadmindedness. In any event, there are parts of the civilized world today where religious differences are still a matter of life and death. In our own secularized society, people are still capable of intolerance, bigotry, and all sorts of irrational prejudice toward those who are sufficiently different from themselves in matters they consider important.
There are no personal villains; we cannot accuse the men of the sixteenth century of any special iniquity, though at the same time it is unnecessary to accept the view that people are always all alike. If they were, history would be a much less interesting study than it is. There are two possible factors that help to explain the religious virulence of the period:
1. The close connection between church and state, found in Protestant countries as well as in Catholic.
As long as a single religion enjoyed the exclusive protection and coercive power of the state, and the state associated its safety with the maintenance of religious uniformity within its borders, there was little hope for religious freedom. Only after long years and painful lessons, which exceed the boundaries of this book, did it become clear at least in some places that the state must remain neutral in religion. It should intervene in religious matters only to prevent intolerance and discrimination, not to enforce them.
2. The dogmatic approach to religion.
A person's religious reliability was based on his adherence to certain dogmas, rather than on the degree to which his life expressed the Christian virtues. To be safe, one had to be orthodox. This made heterodoxy, or heresy, the most serious religious offense. The coming of a more undogmatic religion, with an emphasis on moral character and uprightness of life, would in time bring greater tolerance and mutual acceptance. This ideal, foreshadowed by Erasmus, was also a long time in coming.
Of course, one reason for the height of religious passion was the importance of religion in people's lives. One of the eventual causes of the cooling of this sort of passion was the loss by religion of its central position in society and in the individual life. As religion lost its power to dominate men's thinking, it also lost its capacity to rouse bitterness and hatred at least to a degree and in certain areas. Even in the sixteenth century, the persons who contributed the most to the growth of toleration were those to whom religion was not the dominant concern of their lives. William the Silent and Henry of Navarre, though no doubt sincerely religious in their own ways, were men who had changed religion more than once in their lives, and were by no means fanatics. Queen Elizabeth I of England had lived through many changes of religion in her country, and like Henry and William, was primarily concerned with politics. Religious freedom owes the Reformation a debt, but it is an indirect one; the great leaders of the Protestant Revolt did not believe in religious freedom or foster it. It came in spite of them one of the beneficent results of their work, but a result of which they would have heartily disapproved. This may stand as a statement of the extent and limits of human freedom: Men are free to make choices that will significantly affect the course of history; but they are not free to control the ways in which their choices will act.
THE OCCULT AND SUPERNATURAL
To the prescientific mentality of the Renaissance and Reformation period, men's lives were likely to be affected at every turn by innumerable unseen forces. Good and evil spirits filled the air; the devil was a real and threatening presence; the heavenly bodies exercised an awesome influence over the fates of nations and individuals. As always, times of crisis war, plague, revolution, social unrest heightened these superstitious beliefs, which had tremendous influence during this period. Among the most significant phenomena of this sort were witchcraft, astrology, and magic.
The belief in witches and the fear of their malevolent power was very old, and among Christians there was a literal application of the Biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (Exodus 22:18) However, the most widespread campaign against witchcraft in Christian Europe did not begin until the late fifteenth century. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull Summis desiderantes affectibus which called attention to the prevalence of witchcraft "in some parts of Northern Germany" and elsewhere in German-speaking territories. He, therefore, granted to two Inquisitors, the Dominicans Kramer and Sprenger, authority to proceed against such people in the territories mentioned.
Two years after the bull, the two men named in it brought out a book, the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, an extensive study of witchcraft. Throughout the sixteenth century and beyond, the fight against witches went on. When the split in the church came, Protestants were just as strongly opposed to witchcraft and just as convinced of its reality as Catholics. All over Europe, thousands of persons were burned as witches. It has been estimated that from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, the number goes into the millions. James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, wrote a book about witches and went about in constant fear that witches were planning torments to be inflicted on himself, though in his later years he became somewhat less credulous. The mother of Johannes Kepler, the great scientist, was accused of witchcraft, and he spent much time and energy working to free her from the charge.
Witches were believed to be in collusion with the devil. They met with him in the sinister orgies of the Witches' Sabbath. They sometimes had intercourse with him. Their powers are summarized in the bull of Innocent VIII. They slay infants in the mother's womb and also the offspring of cattle. They blast the produce of the earth, as well as men, women, and beasts. They afflict men and women, as well as animals, with pains and diseases. They hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving. They blasphemously renounce the Faith, "and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetuating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls...."
In the midst of the general hysteria, some voices of reason were raised. Physician Johann Weyer in a book published in 1566 opposed the supernatural explanation of witchcraft. He refused to attribute power to the devil, and, as we would put it, felt that people who considered themselves to be witches were suffering from psychological disorders. For treating these people, he insisted that medical knowledge was necessary. Montaigne also says that such people should have "Hellebore rather than hemlock." With his usual sanity, he refused to believe the stories he heard about witches.
Truly, I would not believe my own self about this. How much more natural and likely it seems to me that two men are lying than that one man should pass with the winds in twelve hours from the east to the west! How much more natural that our understanding should be carried away from its base by the volatility of our untracked mind than that one of us, in flesh and bone, should be wafted up a chimney on a broomstick by a strange spirit!
Astrology and magic were also exceedingly important during this period. Nothing has done more to discredit the older picture of the Renaissance as an age of emerging reason and enlightenment than the growing awareness of the extent to which even very learned men of the period were immersed in these traditions. It is even possible to speak of a revival of magic in the Renaissance. While magic and astrology may seem at first glance to be closely allied, this is not altogether true. There is a sense in which they are opposed. Magic involves man's control over the forces of nature; and even over supernatural forces; and astrology, in one aspect, assumes man's subjection to the heavens.
In another way, however, astrology and magic are more closely allied. In order for the magus to exercise his mastery over the forces inherent in the universe, he must be initiated into the secret relationships that exist between the heavens and earthly things. There was something very appealing to many Renaissance thinkers in the conception of hidden relationships, known to the select few, which unite the different parts of the universe and which, if known, enable man to exercise a mastery that is almost more than human. These ideas satisfied some of the deepest desires and most cherished concepts of the period: the search for an underlying unity in the multiplicity of the world; the idea of the dignity and power of man; and the notion of an intellectual elite, a nobility of the mind.
Another form taken by the search for unity was the idea that certain basic truths had been revealed to the greatest thinkers of all the ages and were to be found in all intellectual and religious traditions. Since it was still difficult to appreciate non-Christian thinkers on their own terms, many men longed to show that these great minds were actually in basic agreement with Christianity and with one another. Egyptians, Chaldaeans, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all were welcomed into the fold.
When it could be shown that the doctrines of these sages not only agreed with the true faith, but that they also held secret meanings that gave men power over cosmic forces, the deep-seated longing for unity was satisfied and a contribution was made to the knowledge of magic.
Thus the so-called Hermetic and Cabalistic doctrines were of great importance. The Hermetic writings were actually productions of the second and third centuries A.D. They were written by a group of unknown writers, probably Greek, and were based largely on Platonic and Stoic thought. They were attributed to a Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-great), supposed to have been an Egyptian wise man of immense antiquity. His respectability in Christian circles is attested by the fact that he is pictured on the pavement of the cathedral of Siena.
This nonexistent character though of course he was believed to have really existed had a tremendous impact on the Renaissance. Among his most devoted followers was Marsilio Ficino, whom we have seen as the leading figure in Florentine Neoplatonism. Ficino translated and studied the Hermetic writings and believed in their magical doctrines. He was a physician, and attempted to use celestial influences for medical purposes, according to what he had learned from the Hermetic philosophy.
Pico della Mirandola, Ficino's friend and colleague, shared his interests. He too wanted to find the bonds that united the great thinkers of the ages, and he knew a great deal about Oriental, Hebrew, Greek and Roman, and medieval thought. He was particularly concerned about the Cabala, a mystical doctrine based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. The Cabala, as interpreted by Pico and other Christian thinkers, showed that the Hebrew thought of the Old Testament agreed with the essential teachings of the Greeks and with the tenets of the Christian faith. His Heptaplus is an interpretation of the first twenty-seven verses of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. Through a very elaborate seven-fold exegesis of these verses, Pico demonstrated that in them their author Moses had out of his vast wisdom expounded on the nature of the entire universe, and that his explanations were in accord with Egyptian, Greek, and Christian thought.
In a brief final chapter, he sums up his views in this way: "It is the firm opinion of all the ancients, unanimously asserted as beyond doubt, that the five books of the Mosaic law contain the entire knowledge of all arts and wisdom both divine and human. This knowledge is hidden and concealed, however, in the very letters of which the phrases of the law are composed."24 He proceeds to demonstrate this by showing that the Hebrew word translated by the phrase "In the beginning" at the start of the book of Genesis when subjected to proper interpretation explains "the whole plan of the creation of the world and of all things in it."
The Cabala also carried with it magical doctrines. This was a very ambitious type of magic because it drew upon powers beyond mere nature the powers derived from angels, from the names of God, and from the Hebrew language, which was considered sacred. Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man has been called "the great charter of Renaissance Magic."25 In the Oration, he distinguished between bad magic, which depends on demons, and the good kind, which is "the utter perfection of natural philosophy."26 Thus he performs the feat of reconciling Christianity with magic, at least to his own satisfaction. He finds that this kind of magic has been studied and practiced among Persians, Greeks, Arabs, and Christians. It understands the harmony of the universe and the affinity of natures, brings forth the miracles concealed in the world and in God's mysteries, and weds earth to Heaven. This kind of magic contemplates the wonders of God, and leads to the love and worship of Him.
The belief in the occult, in magic and in astrology, did not, however, mean an unbounded credulity. In fact, it could be combined with a thoroughgoing skepticism. The reason for this may be that a study of magic undermined faith in human reason and in a universe that could be grasped by reason. The coexistence of these tendencies is illustrated by the interesting figure of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486 1535). Agrippa studied the Cabala and the Hermetic writings and wrote a book entitled De occulta philosophia (Concerning Occult Philosophy). Yet his most important book was his De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum (Concerning the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences) of 1526.
Agrippa had long harbored doubts about the powers of the human mind, and these doubts had grown through the years. Earlier he had sought refuge from them by turning to the occult, but by this time he had come to doubt the occult also. He now turned to the Bible and divine grace as the only source of truth.
This position, called fideism, was also present in Montaigne, and is especially clear in his longest essay, "Apology for Raymond Sebond." (II, 12) There were other skeptics in the period. Pietro Pomponazzi (1462 1525) in his treatise De immortalitate animae (On the Immortality of the Soul) of 1516 argued that the soul's immortality cannot be demonstrated philosophically and must be accepted by faith. In 1581 Francisco Sanchez published a book entitled Quod nihil scitur (That Nothing Is Known). In it he states: "I do not even know this that I know nothing.27 In his book he brings out many reasons to prove man's ability to gain knowledge. One could mention many others who doubted the capacities of the human mind. As Professor Don Cameron Allen puts it, relativism had come to stay.28
Skepticism and relativism were potentially corrosive of dogma and dogmatism, and capable of inspiring a breadth, balance, and tolerance sadly lacking to the fierce theological quarrels of the sixteenth century. In time their effects would be felt, but those effects were largely in the future.
THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY IN HISTORY
The sixteenth century had a tremendous significance in the development of European, and even of world civilization. Students have, of course, differed over the exact nature of its importance. Perhaps we can approach the question by breaking it down that is, discuss three of the most important aspects of the age and examine a few of the many ways in which they have been interpreted by historians. Which of these is "most important?" The returns are not all in, and probably will never be. When we ask what is the most important part of any historical period or movement, we are essentially asking what had the greatest impact on the future. But the future changes. Thus what seems most important about the sixteenth century may differ from one age to the next, and we cannot foresee what will seem most significant to coming generations.
To begin with, one cannot find responsible scholars who look upon the Protestant Revolt as either a giant stride in the growth of freedom and enlightenment, on the one hand, or as an unmitigated evil brought about by dangerous men on the other. A more balanced view prevails among Catholic and Protestant students alike. Catholics today evince a much more positive appreciation of Luther. John M. Todd, an English Catholic layman, has written a sympathetic biography of the reformer; Father Joseph Lortz, the distinguished German Catholic historian, has contributed greatly to an appreciation of Luther. One aspect of the new Catholic judgment of Luther is a recognition that the theology in which he was trained departed from sound doctrine and needed reform. The French scholar Father Louis Bouyer has told how he left the Protestant faith in which he was brought up and became a Catholic to preserve the values of Protestantism. John P. Dolan, an American Catholic historian, has written a book on the Reformation with the subtitle, "A Conciliatory Assessment of Opposite Views." The reader of Dolan's book is struck by the thoroughness and detail of his account of the abuses in the church on the eve of the Reformation.
Another recent trend in Reformation scholarship is to diminish the differences between Catholics and reformers and emphasize the similarities. For Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, the reformers were "obedient rebels." The French scholar Jean Delumeau, writing with an avowedly ecumenical purpose, emphasizes that the reformers were closer to the Catholics than they realized. A Dominican has written a book with an introduction by a Protestant to suggest a continuity between Aquinas's thought and Luther's. A German Lutheran pastor has produced a work with a preface to the American edition written by a Jesuit to prove the essentially Catholic character of the Augsburg Confession. Such examples as these and many more could be given show the effects of the ecumenical spirit on Reformation scholarship.
Another development in the interpretation of the Reformation is the conviction that it was primarily a religious movement. It has been interpreted as the result of other factors economic, political, psychological, social. Some students may still see it in this light, but it seems more accurate to regard the Reformation as basically a religious movement. Political conditions, economic and social factors, psychological phenomena all played their part. But there seems no valid reason to deny religion its place as an autonomous human motive, along with the others.
In the area of psychological interpretation, a notable contribution has been made in the study of Luther by the distinguished psychologist Erik H. Erikson. He has applied his knowledge of human psychological development to the career of the reformer, and interprets his life as a series of internal crises. Erikson's methods and conclusions are somewhat controversial, but he has made a serious effort to cope with the problems involved, and this work cannot be ignored by students of the subject. Some will feel that it is a dead end; others will argue that it opens up important avenues for investigation.
This may be the place to say something about the question of Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. When Max Weber wrote his essay on the subject early in this century, he could not have known what he was starting. An immense and apparently never-ending stream of discussion has been devoted to the subject. It should be noted that Weber did not write about Protestantism and capitalism; he wrote about the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, contending that the former made a great contribution to the development of the latter. While perhaps nobody in the world certainly not the present writer has read all that has ever been written on the issue, the ideas of the Swedish economist Kurt Samuelsson seem convincing; his contention is that there is no connection. Certainly the great reformers and their early followers were not aware of such a relationship, and would have rejected the idea that economic prosperity is a sign of special divine favor.
Recently scholars have argued for the preeminence of the scientific revolution. Herbert Butterfield, well-known English historian, considered it the most important event in European history since the birth of Christianity. Compared to it, the Renaissance and Reformation were merely episodes. This statement is arresting, memorable, provocative, and largely meaningless, since by failing to define the terms it uses it deprives them of any ascertainable content. What if the Renaissance is defined to include the scientific revolution, as it often is? To talk of the Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific revolution as though they were all distinct entities marching side by side or against each other is to do violence to the complexity that characterizes historical experience, and on which Butterfield has elsewhere insisted.
A third aspect that scholars often choose as central is the rise of the nation-state. A style of historical writing that enjoys considerable vogue today minimizes the importance of this development and concentrates instead on a broad survey of social, economic, religious, and cultural conditions throughout Europe. This approach has undoubted value in bringing out general trends and important interrelationships, which might otherwise go unnoticed. It may also be a response to the dissatisfaction increasingly felt today with the restrictive and destructive effects of nationalism and national sovereignty, and the desire to break through the artificial barriers that divide mankind.
Yet, if applied to modern European history, this approach runs the risk of distorting the facts. For in modern times, the nation-state has been a most significant actor on the world scene perhaps the most powerful force of all. This has not been an unmixed blessing far from it. Two great German historians, Gerhard Ritter and Friedrich Meinecke, have called attention to the "demonic" quality of the state, as it has behaved in modern history. Meinecke refers to the sinful character of the state. The history of the modern world is to a great extent the record of the sins of the state.
Many of the great political thinkers of the sixteenth century saw this sinfulness, and their feelings about it took the form of an anti-monarchical bias. This was true of Machiavelli, Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin. The expression "reason of state," which began to be used in the sixteenth century, describes the motivating force behind the actions of the state: self-preservation. In the eyes of the rulers of the national state, anything is legitimate if it threatens the state. The fact that this doctrine is so seldom challenged indicates the extent to which modern civilization has been permeated with the point of view of the nation-state.
It was in the sixteenth century that the nation-states, some of which had been developing for a long time, emerged as the dominant forces in European politics. Their dealings with each other during this time formed the first chapter in the history of modern international relations and the beginning of what Ludwig Dehio has discussed in his book The Precarious Balance. He shows how, during the period since the sixteenth century, there has been a succession of nations striving for dominance in Europe and being prevented from consolidating it normally at the cost of war.
It is Dehio's contention that the old European state-system is destroyed. Perhaps a new Europe is in the making. Nevertheless, the older Europe the Europe that existed from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth cannot be understood without the national state, which so largely, for better or for worse, governed the destinies of a continent and of the world.
We have an illustration of this in our own time, in what may be termed the rediscovery of Protestant thought. A new depth of understanding of what the early Reformers, especially Luther, really meant, has grown up, especially in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, since about 1917. The terrible tragedies and disasters of the twentieth century have helped to give a new relevance and applicability to the insights of the Reformation, and have assisted in the crucial task of understanding the sources and possible cures for the dilemmas of our time.
What the individual student considers the most important aspect of the sixteenth century if he chooses to think in these terms will inevitably depend on his own view of history and of human society in general.