Erasmus’ “Hyperaspistes” (1526): Excoriation of Luther’s Personal Insults

Erasmus’ “Hyperaspistes” (1526): Excoriation of Luther’s Personal Insults February 6, 2017


Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536); portrait (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498-1543) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

(Seven Parts)
Part V: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Excoriation of Luther’s Personal Insults

From: Peter Macardle and Clarence H. Miller, translators, Charles Trinkhaus, editor, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76: Controversies: De Libero Arbitrio / Hyperaspistes I, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999.

* * * * *

As it is, since you chose to follow the emotions of certain persons rather than your own judgment, how much there is in your book that is completely off target, how much that is superfluous, how many commonplaces dwelled on at length, how many insults, how much that is manifestly inane, how many ruses, how many sly digs, how much that is shamelessly twisted and distorted, and how many tragical conclusions drawn from the distortions, and how much undeserved vociferation inspired by the conclusions! Because you were pleased to spend good time badly in such matters, I too am forced to use up some of my alotted lifespan in refuting them. My initial reaction is amazement. (p. 97)

. . . you should have considered the role you have undertaken to play, namely that of a person who professes to bring back into the light the gospel, which had been buried under mounds of earth for more than fifteen hundred years, one who abrogated all the authority of popes, bishops, councils, and universities, and promised the whole world a certain and true road to salvation hitherto unknown on earth. It was utterly incongruous for someone who had undertaken such an arduous task, like Atlas supporting the heavens on his shoulders (for now I will deal with you as if everything that you claim for yourself were true), for such a person to amuse himself as if he were dealing with a joking matter, to direct his bons mots, his mocks and moues, his witticisms at anyone he pleases, . . . (p. 99)

Certainly I thought that I had clearly avoided giving you any pretext for outrageous insults. I deliberately overlooked some of the more offensive passages in your Assertion because they could not be treated without injury to you. (p. 101)

. . . you may perhaps have written against others more vociferously but never against anyone with more enmity and bitterness . . . (p. 101)

In speech feelings sometimes outrun reason, but in writing we should not give in to emotion; we should look not to what seems emotionally right at the time but rather to what could be thought right for all time. (p. 102)

But since in this so very unfriendly response you want to appear to be a friend, and (heavens spare us!) a fair-minded one at that, I want you and your adherents to know that I am not so stupid as to be taken in by such tricks or so faint-hearted as to be disturbed by your insults. It would have been simpler if you had openly raged against me in your accustomed way. . . . to keep up this fiction . . . you found it necessary to join forces with a wordsmith [likely, Philip Melanchthon] to concoct the style and add the rhetorical facade, since, after all, you were writing against a rhetorician. I know the force of your style, which is like a torrent rushing down a mountain with a great roar and sweeping rocks and tree trunks with it. The language of this wordsmith flows more gently but carries more poison with it. I am not unaware who he is. (p. 103)

As for that spirit you claim for yourself, I wish you had given evidence of it in your writings as constantly and as emphatically as you assert you have it. However that may be, if your wordsmith in his bitterness had been content to insult my folly, my silliness, my utterly blatant ignorance, I would have overlooked it. But if I were to overlook the charge of wickedness levelled against me, the accusation of blaspheming God brought against me more than once, and finally that Lucianic word atheist, I would be worthy of being truly thought to be what you proclaim I am. But still I will refute these accusations in such a way as not to turn the insult back on you. (p. 112)

As for your insult about scum, I will set it down to your temperament and your want of eloquence. For I would prefer to be called scum rather than poison; scum can be washed off, but not so poison. (p. 114)

But I was not the only one who wanted restraint in your writing; even your sworn adherents wanted it. For they are learning from the event how many thousands of people are being alienated from the gospel (if indeed what you are teaching is the gospel) by the savageness of your pen or (if you prefer) by your less-than-evangelical witticisms. (p. 115)

How, then, can there be any validity in the notion that my Discussion has undone many of those who have not drunk in the Spirit from your writings, since it depends on such silly arguments that instead of undoing anyone it elicits laughter and pity from you and your followers? Is it so easy for people to fall away from the gospel? (p. 116)

Now I turn to those points you excerpted from my preface and with marvelous dexterity twisted them so as to slander me, opening up for us the storehouse of remarks about Sceptics. Here you immediately make a melodramatic uproar because I mentioned the Sceptics, as if I thought that nothing at all should be asserted. And you do not cease slandering me until you have made me into an atheist, although you began by saying that you did not want to make any judgment about my mind. How well these things dovetail! . . . you follow up with ‘in your heart you carry around a Lucianic atheist.’ And here you leave it up to me whether I want to appear to be a ridiculous orator or a wicked and insane writer. This is that restraint of yours with which you imitate my Discussion! . . . that whole speech in which you so superciliously despise a Sceptical attitude in matters pertaining to the Christian religion . . . is entirely beside the point, an extraordinary performance for such a remarkably wise orator as yourself. (pp. 117-118)

For is there anything you would hesitate to throw up to me, since you are not ashamed to call Erasmus time after time a Lucian and an Epicurus? (p. 123)

Therefore I ask you time and time again, Luther, what is the relevance of all your insults and slanders, all your taunts and outcries and curses, claiming that I want the freedom of the Sceptics in dealing with Holy Scripture; that ‘I do not care whether I fully understand or not’ what is prescribed by Scripture and the church; that ‘the gist of what I say is that it makes no difference what anyone anywhere believes so long as world peace is maintained’; . . . and to consider Christian doctrines as [‘]in no higher category than the opinions of philosophers’; and that the whole thrust of my writing shows that ‘in my heart I foster a Lucian or some other pig from the herd of Epicurus, someone who does not believe in God himself and hence secretly laughs at those who believe in God and profess that belief.’ And elsewhere you say that my breath has the foul, drunken odour of Epicurus and that I reek of nothing so much as the atheist Lucian. And then, not satisfied with such gross insults, you even add a rhetorical figure, saying, ‘You know what I refrain from saying here.’ . . . you claim that I wrote so wicked that even these wicked men [theologians] would tear me limb from limb if you did not hold them back out of the goodness of your heart. . . . when you have made me into a pig from the herd of Epicurus, as if I believed there is no God or, if there is, that he takes no care of mortals, when (I say) you have taunted me with such insults that none more atrocious could ever be imagined, then you add the hyperbole that I know ‘what you refrain from saying here.’ This would be the place to rage against you, if I wanted to imitate the impudence of your pen. There was no need at all for such shameless fabrications. I could have revealed from the writings of others what monster you hide in your heart and what spirit your writings breathe out at us. . . . I beseech you, Luther, by that spirit of yours of which you boast so often, do you write these things because you believe them or do you make them up to bring hatred down upon me? If you think I am as you describe me, you have conceived a very false opinion of me; if on the other hand you are making them up, as I believe you are, you can easily imagine what kind of opinion I conceive of you. But if your faithful ‘brothers’ in Christ have reported such things to you, they lied through their teeth. Do you think that I care nothing about the doctrines of the church simply because I refuse to support your condemned assertions? Do my many writings testify that I do not believe in God at all? . . . Or who ever heard from me a wicked statement about God? But I know that you think something quite different from what you write, nor is it hard for anyone to perceive what spirit has inspired you to write so odiously. And do not think that those spurious adjurations will make anyone believe you . . . If I wished to turn this technique back against you, even you can see, I think, how much material would be provided not so much by the art of rhetoric as by the facts themselves. (pp. 124-126)

Here I once more appeal to your conscience, Luther: aren’t you ashamed to smear your wretched paper with such trash? You twist my words to make it seem that I was setting down a formulation of all of Christianity intended for everyone. In fact, I was setting down what was enough to protect simple people from the contentious and almost inexplicable difficulties which are discussed concerning the subject of free will. (p. 137)

You never lack for something to say, but I think the judicious reader will not find it difficult to know what I think of you at this point. (p. 137)

I admonish the Christian to subject himself completely to the will of God . . . Are these the words of someone who denies there is any God? . . . How can someone commit himself completely to a God who he does not believe exists, or if he does, has no concern about human affairs? (p. 137)

Time after time, Luther, see how you are swept away by your impetuous temperament, yielding to it in a way incompatible with the image you chose to project. (p. 137)

. . . it is amazing how melodramatic language flows out of you, replete with salty wit and smelling of the barnyard . . . (p. 139)

But the fact that you are so disparaging, derogatory, and utterly contemptuous towards my Discussion argues that it is not as contemptible as you make out. If it did not bear down on you, your pen would not have produced such outrageous insults to its author. (p. 140)

But when you begin to play-act for . . . your claque, you are so impudent in your insults and your pantomimed mockery, so tricky and so unrestrained in your abuse when you are hemmed in by arguments, that no one, even if he bent over backwards to be fair to you, could find any excuses for your spirit. (p. 142)

I, on the other hand, would not dare to promise to make you ashamed of anything, such is your pertinacity, but I will make everyone understand how crafty you are in twisting, distorting, misrepresenting, exaggerating whatever you wish, although the world has long since recognized this. There are those who have repeatedly mentioned your inconstancy in published books, and you cleverly pretend not to notice. (p. 145)

And afterwards you offer us apologies for that wonderful lack of eloquence of yours, although when it comes to abuse and slander you have such a great abundance of bitter language that you can exhaust any amount of leisure or patience, and you are so crafty, moreover, that nothing can be said so carefully that you cannot turn it into dreadful melodrama. (p. 146)

. . . you . . . hurl many other charges against me which are not based on fact but on whatever advances your case, as I have partly shown and will later show more clearly. (p. 157)

I believe you throw in this section deliberately to refresh your readers and give them some pleasure, since the rest is so tasteless that it had long since turned their stomach. (p. 161)

. . . in the next section you hurl the lightning-bolt of your foul abuse at me, saying I teach that God is ignorant, that the faith should be scorned so that we will let go of the promises of God, and many other things ‘that even Epicurus would hardly prescribe.’ Not content with that, I trample Christians under my feet and the whole content of Christianity too — indeed, what not? — because I advise those of moderate intelligence not to engage in contentious disputations on such subjects but to hold to what the church has handed down. And from this you draw the conclusion, logician that you are, that ‘my book is so ungodly, blasphemous, and sacrilegious that anything like it is nowhere to be found.’ If you are ashamed of such accusations I do not know; certainly you would be if you had any sense of shame. . . . What you call a bad cause, I, together with the church, call the very best cause . . . And not the favour or the fear of any prince, not even your savagery, could then or could ever bring enough pressure to make me knowingly impugn what is true or defend what I know to be false in matters which concern godliness. Thus when you hammer away again and again at the notion that I yielded to favour or fear against my conscience, you make it clear again and again that you are either miserably deceived or are making up the most malicious lies. (pp. 162-163)

Where did you get the idea that I wrote the Discussion specifically against you? That is not what the title indicates, and the work itself clearly shows otherwise, but you imagine this, or rather you fabricate it, so as to make it seem more just for you to rage against me. (p. 164)

If you should ever pour forth such insults against some outrageous misdeed, one already demonstrated as factual, it mnight be called vehemence. As it is, since you never cease to rattle on in this fashion and never stop even when there is no justification for such insults and you have not proven what you assume, there is no one, Luther, who does not perceive that this uncontrolled abusiveness bespeaks a mental disorder in you which I would rather contemn than imitate. (p. 170)

Look now and see whether the apostles introduced the teachings of the gospel into the world with such methods as these, which you use to restore it, as you say. Did they ever slander the innocent? Did they ever rant and rave against anyone with such scurrilous language? Did they turn up their noses at anyone? Did they take up the cause of the gospel with trickery, slander, and threats? Did they ever use such impudent language? Here I could mention many other things, which I hold back; perhaps your insight can divine what I mean. (p. 171)

. . . why do you yourself not rant and rave against the emperor with savagery like that with which you assail the pope and bishops? For the emperor is a greater obstacle to your gospel than the pope. (p. 175)

There is no one, then, who does not see how much tragic eloquence you spew forth, making yourself all the more ridiculous the more you rant and rave, violently and uncontrollably, beyond the limits of the case. (p. 182)

Nor are you so ignorant of the Latin language that you did not understand what I meant, but rather, as Midas turned whatever he touched into gold, so you were determined to turn whatever you could get your hands on into slander. I was already hoping that your mind was now at least satiated with insults. But there is no limit to it . . . (p. 195)

. . . you have the impudence first of all to identify Baal with the God of our church, who is adored by so many thousands of saints that supported and support free will, and then to claim the true God for your flock. (p. 202)

Could you ever bear to say ‘as you very pointedly argue,’ since for you I always speak ignorantly and stupidly. [?] . . . since up to now you have so shamelessly ranted and raved against Erasmus as a Sceptic and worse than a Sceptic, namely a thoroughgoing Lucian and Epicurus? Again, could you say ‘there is something in what you say but not the whole truth,’ since you always bawl out that I have nothing to say and utter nothing but verbal bubbles and bombast? But however this may be, it doesn’t much matter. (p. 214)

And here you indulge in marvellous rhetorical flourishes, or rather someone else under your name [partial ghost writer Melanchthon?], for you are not able to set forth ten words without insults. (p. 223)

But you seem to me to fight like that dog sent by the king of Albania as a gift to Alexander: when the dog fought with an elephant, he skilfully ran around in circles barking on one side and then the other, until he wore the beast out, making it dizzy from turning around so often, and in this way brought it down. (p. 230)

And once before I already gave you the reason for my procedure: to find out whether you could dispute without insults . . . (p. 242)

You see to it that this disputation of yours is translated into German, so that you can expose Erasmus to ridicule among farmers, sailers, and cobblers, to whom he cannot speak, and do you think learned men do not see what you are doing? Insurrection is what you have in mind; you see that that is what has so often resulted up to now from your German pamphlets. This is what the apostles did, indeed! I debated with you, subject to the judgment of the community of learned men; you transfer your case to the ignorant mob and you make false charges against me among workmen, tanners, and farmers, who favour you and do not know me. They understand you when you make false charges; they do not understand me when I reply. What a pretty victory you are out to get! (pp. 247-248)

You do nothing but stoop to slander, to insults, to threats, and yet you want to appear guileless and undefiled, not led by human emotions but by the Spirit of God. (p. 278)

Note, I beg you, how much time, paper, and effort I have lost in refuting your quibbles, insults, and slanders. You could have defended your teaching boldly, without injuring anyone and gaining praise for yourself. And that much was deserved by my modest Discussion; the duller and sleepier she was — for that is how you interpret my courtesy — the less she deserved the uncontrollable rage of your pen. As it is, while you twist and turn everything into slander and insults, you lose a good part of your leisure, and so do I and the reader. And you are so far from gaining any credit for yourself by revealing your disordered mind here that even what you rightly teach or warn or inculcate will not be credited by many — and I confess that there are very many such things in your writings. For what led you to make false charges about something that never even crossed my mind? (p. 291)

. . . you still have leisure to write such large books, such elaborately abusive books, against a person whose mind is completely unknown to you, at least it is so if you judge it to be only like what you make it out to be. If you had ranted and raved with free and open insults, we could praise your frankness and put it down to your temperament; but as it is you carry on with crafty malice. If you had been content with two or three insults, they might have seemed to have just slipped out; as it is your whole book swarms everywhere with abuse. You begin with it, you proceed with it, you end with it. If you had glutted yourself with only one kind of insult, calling me a blockhead, an ass, or a mushroom, one after the other, I would have given no answer except that line from the comedy: ‘I am a human being and I consider nothing human foreign to me.’ But such things could not satiate your hatred; you had to go on to make me into a Lucian or an Epicurus, disbelieving Holy Scripture to the extent that I think there is not even a God, an enemy of Christianity, finally a blasphemer against God and the Christian religion. Such are the charms scattered throughout your book, which is set over against my Discussion, which contains no insults. If some lightweight and lying tattler, of which there is no lack in your confraternity, brought this perverse opinion to you, you ought to consider how such levity fits the character you have taken upon yourself to play. If you conceived it in your own mind, who would believe that any good man could have such horrible suspicions about someone he doesn’t know. But if you made them up out of a desire to injure me, it cannot be obscure to anyone what should be thought of you. But because my writings clearly refute your sanders, since they everywhere preach the majesty of Holy Scripture and the glory of Christ, you deny that I was sincere when I wrote them. A ready and easy solution: if you cannot slander something, it was written as a joke; if anything is open to slander, it was written seriously. And such distinctions as these enable you to incriminate; yet you hiss at sophistical distinctions which were invented in order to teach. I ask you, what is such a mind, such a nature, if indeed it is a nature? Or what kind of spirit, if it is a spirit? And finally, what is such a non-evangelical way of teaching the gospel? Has the rebirth of the gospel taken away all secular laws, so that now it is permissible to say and write whatever you like against anyone you please? Is this the complete liberty you are restoring to us? If someone claimed I had no intelligence, judgment, or learning, I could bear it with moderation. If someone accused me of ignorance or thoughtlessness in handling Scripture, I would recognize a human failing. But if someone accuses me of disregarding God and scorning Scripture, he either does this because he is persuaded by the speech of some talebearer and so is most frivolous or, if he makes it up himself, he is an unbearable backbiter. At this point look for yourself to what your conscience tells you. (pp. 295-296)


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