Erasmus’ “Hyperaspistes” (1526): Luther’s Dissembling, Arrogance, Polemics, Etc.

Erasmus’ “Hyperaspistes” (1526): Luther’s Dissembling, Arrogance, Polemics, Etc. February 7, 2017


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

(Seven Parts)
Part VII: Erasmus’ Hyperaspistes (1526): Luther’s Dissembling, Arrogance, Polemics, Etc.

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.

* * * * *

Now I will show you the counsel of your wordsmiths, who thought to themselves as follows: . . . ‘Erasmus . . . is eager for glory; hence we will always hammer at the point that he knows nothing, and we will everywhere spit on him as a person of no account and overwhelm him with scorn and disgust. That will really burn him up, but in order to do this credibly, we will mix in some praise, we will pretend to be his friends, we will put on a show of pity for him rather than hatred; we will attribute to him intelligence and supreme eloquence, so that when the reader sees our candour on these points, he will think we would also attribute other qualities to him if he deserved them. Then by every possible means we will increase and intensify his burden of suspicion and ill will, fashioning our speech as if he agreed with us but pretends not to, partly out of fear, partly out of his love for riches; we will consider the sophists, compared with him, to be far more preferable; and then we will act out the play so as to curry favour in both theatres, both that of the “brothers,” who have hated him for some time now, and that of the sophists and pharisees, who have long since been hostile to him because of good learning. Finally we will mix in a good dose of abuse and insults, so that, if we cannot wear out the frail and timid old man with our loquacity or overthrow him with our arguments, we will at least wear him down with verbal abuse.’

Such advice, so straightforward and evangelical, would be immediately detected in your book by a reader of any intelligence, but to your adherents it seemed very clever. In this design who does not see the embrace of the scorpion about to infix his sting? Who does not perceive the poisoned cup smeared with honey? ‘Worshipful Erasmus, my dear Erasmus, most beloved Erasmus, most excellent Erasmus, endowed with the highest intelligence, with the greatest gifts, with supreme eloquence, to whom good learning owes so much, etc.’ Here indeed is the embrace, here is the honey. But this same praiseworthy Erasmus presently writes so wickedly that not even the impious sophists can put up with him; he blasphemes against God; and worse yet, he doesn’t believe anything at all, but inwardly he is a secret Epicurus or an atheist Lucian, saying in his heart, ‘There is no God, or if there is, he does not care about the affairs of mortals.’

This is the sting, this is the deadly poison, this is the toad’s venom. If this book is not everywhere awash with such witticisms, then I am as lying as a Cretan. If, on the other hand, such accusations and many others are everywhere hurled, hammered at, and harped on, show me (I beg you) anyone against whom you have written more venomously. And this very inconsistency of your speech reveals the insincerity of your heart. . . . Do you think people are such blockheads that they do not understand by what spirit you are being led when you write such things, blowing hot and cold from the same mouth, offering honey and poison in the same goblet, presenting bread with one hand, hurling stones with the other? (pp. 104-106)

Your eloquence is not inconsiderable; would that it were matched by a sober and sincere attitude! (p. 106)

Now what sort of an accolade do you bestow on me when you attribute to me supreme eloquence joined with supreme ignorance of the subject matter? (p. 106)

And what you attribute to me in the beginning you take away from me in the course of the disputation, where you make Erasmus so stupid that he cannot see what is clearer than daylight. Time after time you accuse this most eloquent writer of being ignorant of rhetoric: he does not understand the central point at issue; he often says what is irrelevant or what completely undermines his case; he gives a bad definition, a worse division, and the worst arguments; in short, he does nothing which is not against the precepts of rhetoric. (p. 107)

Such inconsistencies demonstrate sufficiently that you are not saying what you think. And so, once eloquence has been taken away, all that is left is the intelligence which you initially attribute to me. But in the course of the disputation, my Discussion is dumbfounded and blind, she snores and dreams, she neither remembers nor understands what others say or even what she herself utters. So much for Erasmus’ intelligence! This is the way authors vacillate, Luther, when they do not derive their language from the truth but instead cleverly make up everything they say.

You are no more consistent when, in the prefatory remarks at the beginning of your work, you say the authority of Erasmus is not to be scorned, and then in the course of the work you do nothing but make Erasmus a joke and a plaything, holding him up as a laughing-stock to the whole world. (p. 107)

For in your commentary explicating the Epistle to the Galatians, I am cried up as ‘the top man in theology and a victor over ill will’ — that is what you say in the preface . . . in the course of the work I am frequently singled out for honour: in one place Erasmus is correct, ‘as always.’ . . . In another I am ‘the most excellent Erasmus.’ In another you are very happy to agree with your friend Erasmus. Once more in the appendix which was added by Commodus Britannus, you take second place but I am awarded the highest praise in the restoration of the gospel. I will not set out here the hundreds of letters by your adherents in which I am cried up as the prince of theologians. But the minute I dared to open my mouth against your teaching, I immediately became entirely ignorant of theology. . . . If your judgment is so vacillating, who will have any confidence in it? (p. 109)

At that time you were luring me with flattery to join your league, but now that you are vexed by A Discussion you try to make Erasmus as blind as a bat. But just as I was not taken in by those high-sounding praises, so too now I am not even the least bit disturbed by this vituperation of yours. I knew that those praises were not truly meant, just as this vituperation was dictated by hatred and anger. But at that time, when I was vaunted as supreme in theology, I became not so much as an iota the more learned; so too now, when I am proclaimed by a similar hyperbole to know nothing at all, I am not rendered a bit more ignorant. (p. 110)

There is in print a letter of Melanchthon in which he attributes a great deal to you, but me he does not hesitate to rank higher than all the ancients. So too a member of your school, a certain Erasmus Alber . . . makes me equal or even superior to St. Jerome. If all the ancient Fathers, if Jerome himself knew nothing about theology, if they and the church were totally blind, I am sorry for them, and I can put up with my blindness more easily, since I share it with such extraordinary men. (pp. 110-111)

We have the fruit of your spirit: it has come down to bloody slaughter, and we fear yet worse disasters unless God favours us and averts them. You say that such conflict is inherent in the word. I think it makes some difference how God’s word is preached, supposing for the moment that it is God’s word you are teaching. You do not acknowledge these rebels, I imagine, but they acknowledge you, and it is already clear that many who boast that they are evangelicals have been the cruelest instigators of revolution . . . to be sure, through your savage booklet against the peasants you deflected suspicion away from yourself, but even so you could not keep people from believing that you provided the occasion for these uprisings by your pamphlets, especially the ones written in German . . . against monks and bishops, in favour of evangelical freedom, against human tyranny. I still do not have so low an opinion of you, Luther, as to think you intended your designs to come to this, but nevertheless, long ago when you began this whole story, I conjectured from the violence of your pen that this is how it would ened; and that is why in my first letter to you I advised you to be upright in dealing with this business and take care not to write anything in an uncontrolled or divisive fashion. (p. 114)

[see my highly related, copiously documented paper: Martin Luther’s Violent, Inflammatory Rhetoric and its Relationship to the German Peasants’ Revolt (1524-1525) (+ Part II)]

. . . you require us to believe that you do nothing of your own free will but rather under the guidance of the spirit of Christ, and you are indignant if we do not immediately abandon the teaching embraced and held by the Catholic church for so many centuries in the past and swear allegiance to you. I never had any inclination to join your conspiracy. (p. 142)

As for me, Luther, I have enough faith in Holy Scripture and the decisions of the church to hope for my salvation from the mercy of God, even without any help from your faith. In the future, therefore, do not claim what belongs to God, do not make pronouncements about a person’s spirit, but rather examine your own spirit carefully lest it should turn out you have a rider different from the one you proclaim you have. (pp. 144-145)

You foist off such super-sophistry on us simple souls, boasting at the same time to the whole world that you have such knowledge in theology that I doubt any of the apostles ever claimed as much. (p. 153)

For never to make a mistake, never not to know, never to regret having said something is peculiar to such a Gnostic and Stoic knower as you. But now tell me this: how are you consistent when you claim I am utterly ignorant of the truth and yet you charge me with the unforgivable sin? But no one who sins through ignorance is held accountable for his offence . . . Therefore my ignorance exonerates me from this charge, but you, who are ignorant of nothing, have good reason to be afraid that you will have this charge levelled against you, since you stoutly rescind the decisions of the church and assert anything and everything. Again, how can you reconcile the fact that I know nothing with the notion that, though I agree with you, I defend divergent positions to curry the favour of princes? You want to make me out to be a scoundrel who knowingly impugns the truth out of fear of princes, and at the same time you want to make me utterly ignorant of the truth. . . . since you are always in the grip of an uncontrollable urge to slander, you follow now one impulse, now another, and so make statements which are inconsistent with one another. . . . But how do such things square with the Spirit of Christ . . .? (pp. 154-155)

For in this whole first part of your book, what else have you done, I ask you, except triumph, lord it over the defeated, show your battle-trophies, and sing paeans before you have even come up to our battleline? (p. 158)

I am so accustomed to such insults that I would almost take pleasure in them if it were not that I fear this savage attitude of yours will enmesh the world in the worst sort of disasters. For what Erasmus loses is of no importance whatever, as long as the gospel reigns. . . . If we imagine that the princes treated their peasants very tyrannically (and it is not clear to me that they did), whch was more advantageous to the peasants: to bear with their very unjust lords or to experience the effects of a rebellion in which so many thousands perished and the injury was so far from being removed that the yoke was doubled and rendered even more grievous? . . . For even if that cause of yours is as important as you make it out tobe, nevertheless that misplaced abusiveness of yours, which spares no mortal at all, has as its reult that you not only accomplish nothing but also that you double and exacerbate the tyranny you strive to eliminate and you advance those whom you wish to suppress. (pp. 170-171)

. . . this seditious wantonness of your pen also brings destruction down on all good things. The people are stirred up against bishops and princes; magistrates are hard pressed to put down mobs eager to revolt; cities which were once joined by very close ties now quarrel among themselves with fierce hatred; now you can hardly find any man you can safely trust; all freedom has been taken away. For you have not removed but rather you have aggravated the tyranny (for so you usually call it) of princes, bishops, theologians, and monks. All deeds and words are immediately subject to suspicion, and it is not allowed even to open one’s mouth about points which once could be debated pro and con. The slavery which you set out to shake off has been redoubled; the yoke is heavier; the chains are not shaken off but tightened. (pp. 293-294)

Liberal studies, together with languages and good writing, are everywhere disregarded because you have loaded them down with ill will. The outstanding monuments of the ancients are rejected, and in their place the world is filled with quarrelsome and defamatory books which infect the reader with poison and disease. I know some good and learned men who at first were not unwilling to read your lucubrations with a desire to know and judge them. They were finally forced to reject them because they confessed that they were infected by the many grimaces, jests, witticisms, insults and unchristian slanders with which you contaminate your doctrine, not unlike those whose occupation is to stuff capons or pheasants with garlic. And at first these things have a certain titillation and we itch to read them, but when they gradually creep into the mind, they infect the sincerity and gentleness of the heart. And although you see how many evils this ferocity of yours has brought into the world, though you have been warned so often, even by those who wish you well, still you continually get worse and worse, both uselessly drawing into danger those who commit themselves to your faith and alienating those whom you could have attracted to you — for now I once more pretend that your doctrine is orthodox — and finally preventing this worldwide uproar, however it arose, from ever bringing forth for us some degree of beneficent tranquillity. You have drawn numberless people away from their bishops, and now they wander around like scattered sheep, having no shepherd, especially when they see that your church is shaken by so many quarrels and thrown into tumult by internal warfare. (pp. 294-295)

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