Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Martin Luther's contempt for logic, philosophy and reason itself

Martin Luther

Excerpt from 3 Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, by Jacques Maritain

WITH LUTHER…the will has the primacy [over reason], truly and absolutely; it is the very conception of life that is affected. We can say he is the first great Romantic. 

That attitude of soul would naturally go with a profound anti-intellectualism, which was besides helped by the Occamist and nominalist training in philosophy Luther received. Let me quote here a few characteristic passages. Let us first hear him speak of Aristotle and St. Thomas.

“Aristotle is the godless bulwark of the papists. He is to theology what darkness is to light. His ethics is the worst enemy of grace.” He is a “rank philosopher,” an “urchin who must be put in the pig-sty or donkey’s stable,” “a shameless slanderer, a comedian, the most artful corrupter of minds. If he had not lived in flesh and bones, I should not scruple to take him for a devil.” As for St. Thomas, “he never understood a chapter of the Gospel or Aristotle.” […] “In short, it is impossible to reform the Church if Scholastic theology and philosophy are not torn out by the roots with Canon Law.”

“The Sorbonne, that mother of all errors,” he says in 1539, “has defined, as badly as could be, that if a thing is true, it is true for philosophy and theology; it is godless in it to have condemned those who hold the contrary.” So too the faculty of Paris is “the damned synagogue of the devil, the most abominable intellectual prostitute under the sun, the true gate of hell, etc.” The theologians of Louvain fare no better; they are “coarse donkeys, cursed sows, bellies of blasphemers, epicurean swine, heretics and idolators, putrid puddles, the cursed broth of hell.”

Has he a grudge against any particular system? No. He is attacking philosophy itself. “Barking against philosophy is a homage he thinks to give to God . . . One should learn philosophy only as one learns witchcraft, that is to destroy it; as one finds out about errors, in order to refute them.”

From him Carlstadt, as early as 1518, borrowed that fine thought, that “logic is nowhere necessary in theology because Christ does not need human inventions.” What? Dare to tie down Dr. Luther to the principle of contradiction? Argument was never for him anything but a boxing-match, in which he was past master, and where the thing was to knock out his opponent by any means. “When I care to start writing,” he said cynically to Philip of Hesse, “shall be able to get out of the difficulty easily and leave your Grace to stick in the mud.” Finally, the Reformer declares war not only on philosophy, but essentially on reason. Reason has an exclusively pragmatic value, it is for use in earthly life. God has given it to us only “to govern on earth, that is to say that it has power to legislate and order everything regarding this life, like drinking, eating, and clothes, as well as what concerns external discipline and a respectable life.” But in spiritual things it is not only “blind and dark,” it is truly the whore of the devil. It can only blaspheme and dishonour everything God has said or done.” “The Anabaptists say that reason is a torch. . . . Does reason shed light? Yes, like that which filth would shed if it were set in a lantern.” And in the last sermon preached at Wittenberg, towards the end of his life: “Reason is the devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom . . . Throw dung in here face to make her ugly. She is, and she ought to be drowned in baptism . . . She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.”

Luther’s contempt for reason is, moreover, in harmony with his general doctrine about human nature and original sin. According to Luther, sin has vitiated the very essence of our nature, and this evil is final; grace and baptism cover over, but do not efface, original sin. So that the most that reason could be granted would be a wholly practical part in life and human business. But it is incapable of knowing first truths; all speculative knowledge, all metaphysics is a snare: “omnes scientiae speculativae non sunt verae . . . scientiae, sed errores,” –and the use of reason in matters of faith, the claim to establish a coherent science of dogma and of the revealed deposit by reasoning and the use of philosophy, in short, theology, as the scholastics understood it, is an abominable scandal. In a word, this corrupted Christian takes with gross literalism and in absolutely opposite sense the passages in which spiritual writers speak of the annihilation of the natural faculties, debases the thought of Tauler and the German mystics as well as the texts of St. Paul and the Gospel, and declares that faith is against reason. “Reason is contrary to faith,” he wrote in 1536. And a little later: “Reason is directly opposed to faith, and one ought to let it be; in believers it should be killed and buried.”

I have quoted these passages because it is instructive to discern in the beginning, in its authentic tone and quality, the false ant-intellectualist mysticism which was to poison so many minds in a more subtly and less candid guises in the nineteenth century. Luther in a word, brought a deliverance and an immense relief to humanity two hundred and thirty years before Jean-Jacques. He delivered man from the intelligence, from that wearisome and besetting compulsion to think always and think logically. Yet this liberation has constantly to be begun again. For, as he wrote in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, “Alas, in this life reason is never completely destroyed.”

[Maritain’s numerous references for this selection have been omitted here.]

Share This