Thursday, February 16, 2017

Martin Luther and Donald Trump

Have I got your attention? You weren't expecting that, were you? No "Hitler and Trump"? No way I am going to get into that argument. As I mentioned in a post sometime ago, I refuse to engage in political discussions. I take seriously the advice of Uncle Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. (See below.) Every January I write my list of New Year's resolutions in my thick calendar (pictured left), transferring the ones from the previous year and adding a comment on my success rate. Number 8 is: "Do not discuss politics." My notation for the past year: "Continuing success." (As for number 1 -- "Stop Swearing" -- the notation reads: "Total failure.") I have to admit that number 8 was broken already on January 24. After attending a talk at Columbia University (on the most recondite subject, but inevitably laden with reference to "Hitler"), I went to dinner with several of the attendees. I won't describe what happened in the course of the after-dinner discussion; it is not pretty when Goethe Girl loses her Zen-like attitude. Well, it is now February, and so far I have been faithful to my resolution. Of course, it helps being in Aruba. Besides the lack of distractions that enable me to concentrate on my essay on world literature (due June 1!), I never encounter anyone who wants to talk about U.S. politics.

Yet, suddenly this morning the Luther–Trump pairing occurred to me. And here is how it came about. I have been reading, as I posted earlier, Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English. In the third chapter, “People Around the World Writing in External Languages,” she provides a historical overview of how how we have reached the point where English is “a formidable universal language above and beyond all others.” Mizumera’s major point is that texts written in a universal language represent knowledge that is accumulated in what she calls a “library,” not so much a physical place, but, rather, “the collectivity of accumulated writings.” For a long time, extending into the 16th century, Europe had a very good universal language in which the most important knowledge was expressed: Latin.

Latin proved itself serviceable for expressing the knowledge considered most important by elites, the ones who read and wrote in the universal language. It also showed itself flexible enough to express the new science. As late as Newton, scientific discoveries were written in Latin: the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo traveled from region to region, accessible to all who read Latin. These men, one might say, belonged to the same universal culture, even if in everyday life they spoke in their mother tongue. The same could be said for humanists: Erasmus, Thomas More, Martin Luther. Spinoza, for goodness sake, wrote in Latin. Their ideas, set down in books, traveled, too. As Mizumera writes, it was “economical” to write in a universal language.

The Whore of Babylon Wearing the Papal Crown
Writing in Latin began to decline in the early modern period, and "national" languages took shape (a process that I will not attempt to summarize here). Luther, a humanist who had written most of his major anti-papal texts in Latin — not to forget the 95 theses —in the sacred language that elites had kept from ordinary people, now turned to the people themselves and wrote in German, inaugurating its development as a national language. To further his Reformist cause he began his translation of the Bible, but he also let loose a flood of scurrilous anti-papal writings, also in German. His argument with the Church became personal.

Luther's opponents portrayed as animals
Anyone who visited the Morgan Library for the recent Martin Luther's Reformation exhibition (see my post) will know what I mean. Calling Pope Leo X the "Anti-Christ" was one of Luther's milder insults. Ultimately, fhe effect of Luther's Reformation were "YUGE." All are permitted at this point to make their own comparisons.

Come to think of it, I am surprised that the comparison between Trump and Luther has not yet been made.

Picture credit: F1 Online

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