The Mistake of Attributing the Extraordinary Intellectual Development of This Period to the Protestant Reformation
What we understand by the modern English period is all that interval of time which extends from the middle of Queen Elizabeth's reign to our own day. Doubtless more books have been produced than at any preceding period, elementary knowledge has spread more extensively among the masses, physical sciences have reached a wonderful development, criticism and philology have entered a new career, the novel and the newspaper have grown to be the daily food of the million. But it is right to conclude from these facts that the so-called Protestant Reformation originated this movement, and thus opened to mankind an era of unheard of progress in civilization and science?* [Footnote: "The times which shine with the greatest splendor in literary history are not always those to which the human mind is most indebted.....The first fruits which are reaped under a bad system often spring from seed sown under a good one." Macaulay, Essay on Machiavelli] Or rather, was not the intellectual activity of Europe already aroused and even fairly started with a promise of great progress before the sixteenth century, and did not that activity receive from the religious and political commotion of the Reformation a sudden check, from which it has recovered only to grow wild, and follow, to a great extent, devious and deceitful ways? We do not mean to enter here upon a full discussion of this vast subject, but merely to throw in a few remarks, corroborated in most instances by Protestant authorities, concerning the actual influence of the Reformation upon the principal elements of human progress, as literature in general, fine arts, philosophy, social order, liberty bother civil and religious; and then briefly state what we understand to be the real causes of the wider spread of letters in modern times.
1. Literature in General.--Erasmus, who was contemporary with the early reformers, and certainly no blind approver of the old state of things, gives his testimony that the Reformation was fatal to all wholesome intellectual progress, and he laments bitterly that wherever Lutheranism reigns, literature perishes. In one of his letters, speaking of the Evangelicals of his day, he tells us that to them is due the fact that polite letters are neglected and forgotten: "languent, fugiunt, jacent, intereunt bonae litterae." [Hallam's Lit. of Europe, vol. i, p. 189.] "The most striking effect," says Hallam, "of the first preaching of the Reformation was that it appealed to the ignorant....It is probable that both the principles of the great founder of the Reformation, and the natural tendency of so intense an application to theological controversy, checked, for a time, the progress of philological and philosophical literature on this side of the Alps." [Ibid., p. 192.] Thomas Arnold, in his work entitled Chaucer to Wordsworth, thus characterizes the English reformers: "The official reformers, if one may so call them,--Henry VIII. and his agents, and the council of Edward VI.,--did positive injury to education and literature for the time, by the rapacity which led them to destroy the monasteries for the sake of their lands. Many good monastic schools thus ceased to exist, and education throughout the country seems to have been at the lowest possible ebb about the middle of the century. The sincere reformers, who afterwards developed in the great Puritan party, were disposed to look upon human learning, as something useless, if not dangerous; upon art, as a profane waste of time; and generally upon all mental exertion which was not directed to the great business of securing one's salvation, as so much labor thrown away." [Pp. 52 and 53.] In his History of English Literature, the same writer lays the charge in question upon the reformers generally, and Luther in particular, as being the originator of the fanatic movement against human learning. [P. 106] "By the regulations of the Star Chamber, in 1585, no press was allowed to be used out of London, except one at Oxford and another at Cambridge. Thus every check was imposed on literature, and it seems unreasonable to dispute that they had some efficacy in restraining its progress." [Hallam's Lit. pp. 413 and 414]
2. Fine Arts.--The effect of the Reformation on the fine arts was pernicious, not only by the destruction of existing specimens of architecture, sculpture, and painting; but by diverting art itself from its original and natural destination. The Reformation viewed as superstition the pomp of divine worship, as objects of idolatry the masterpieces of art. Its tendency was to degrade taste by repudiating its models; to introduce a dry, cold, captious formality, in lieu of the elevating, soul-inspiring service of the old Catholic cathedrals.* [When Dean, afterwards Bishop, Berkley offered an organ as a gift to the town of Berkley in Massachusetts, the selectmen of the town were not prepared to harbor so dangerous a guest; and, voting that 'an organ is an instrument of the devil for the entrapping of men's souls, they declined the offer.' Duckinck's Cyc., vol. i., p. 166.] "The Reformation favorable to the fine arts!" exclaims Archbishop Spalding, "as well might you assert that a conflagration is beneficial to a city which it consumes. Wherever the Reformation appeared, it pillaged, defaced, often burnt churches and monasteries; it broke up and destroyed statues and paintings, and it often burnt whole libraries." [History of the Reformation, vol. i., ch. 15.] In the British Parliament during the Protectorate, so deep was the fanaticism of the times, that "serious propositions were made to paint all the churches black, in order to typify the gloom and corruption that reigned within them."
3. Philosophy.--A few remarks concerning the influence of Protestantism on philosophy, are made necessary from the close relation in which that branch of learning stands to literature. The vehicle through which the results of philosophical investigation are conveyed to the people at large, is literature; and, reciprocally, the speculations of philosophy are modified by the ideas current in literature. What, then, have been the effects of the Reformation on philosophy?
The fundamental principle of the Reformation--private judgement or the rejection of authority in religious matters--sweeps away all the mysteries of the Christian faith, since, being above human reason, they cannot be comprehended by human reason. Hence Rationalism must be substituted for Christianity, and a pagan literature must be ultimately the inevitable consequence. In fact, those among Protestants who followed out their principle, were led to drive away God and the soul from their philosophy, and rush madly into the gross errors of materialism. To substantiate what we say, we need only recall the names of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Hobbes, Blount, Toland, Shaftesbury, Woolston, and Bolingbroke. The French philosophism of the last century emanated from this school; and the French infidels, headed by Voltaire, were at first mere echoes of their English masters. It is also a fact worthy of notice that Voltaire, who cherished so intense a hatred of Christianity, has generally found great favor with Protestants. At times, indeed, reactionary movements have been set on foot to turn the tide of infidelity; but, as long as the principle remains, such movements will be failures. To-day the fatal doctrines continue to produce the self-same consequences in the skeptical, anti-Christian spirit that strives more and more to assert its supremacy, even in such quarters as the once so conservative University of Oxford. Darwin, Spencer, Tyndal, Huxley, Matthew Arnold, are the leading representatives of that spirit. The effects of such a philosophy upon literature have been to deprive it of the highest source of inspiration, the Christian spirit; to throw a cloud of doubts over the best-ascertained facts of history; and finally to replace Christian by pagan ideals and heroes. Such in fact, to a great extent, is our contemporary literature; such is it, at least, in its most popular form, the all-pervading novel.
4. Social Order.--It cannot be denied, that peace and order, in the State, are among the essential conditions to the progress of civilization and the prosperity of literature. The best guarantee of peace and order, is found in a spirit of obedience on the part of the governed, and a spirit of justice on the part of the government. Now Protestantism stands opposed to this twofold spirit. Its very origin was a protest, a revolt against the highest authority on earth; its essential principle, a sanction to arbitrary rule and despotism; and hence its effect was gradually to undermine the basis of social order. Germany, the cradle of Protestantism, was frightfully mutilated by the devastating scourge of religious wars. The ferment of revolt, extending wherever the Reformation prevailed, was everywhere a cause of commotion and strife. During two entire centuries, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland, were writhing with anarchy. France was reduced to the verge of ruin by the same religious dissensions. For two-thirds of the sixteenth century, England groaned under religious persecutions and the most brutal despotism; and, during the greater part of the seventeenth; she was a pry to civil wars and the fanaticism of sectarians. Hallam considers that the excitement of a revolutionary spirit was a consequence of the new doctrines, and adds: "A more immediate effect of overthrowing the ancient system was the growth of fanaticism, to which, in its worst shape, the Antinomian* [Antinomian (αντι, against, and νομος, law) signifies the error which denies the obligation of the moral law, under the Christian dispensation. Luther said that we might sin a thousand times a day and not mind it, provided we had faith in Christ, i. e., faith that His merits are greater than our iniquities.] extravagances of Luther yielded too great encouragement." [Lit. of Europe, vol. i., p. 187, Harper's Edit.] "A political and spiritual despotism such as that of Henry VIII. and of Cromwell, would have been impossible but for the Reformation." [Fred. Schlegel.] It is a startling fact, that, in every Protestant kingdom of continental Europe, absolute monarchy, in its most consolidated and despotic form, dates precisely from the period of the Reformation.
5. Civil and Religious Liberty.--Those who look upon Protestantism as inseparable from public liberty, do not agree with Hallam and Guizot, neither of whom can be accused of any want of sympathy for the Reformation. According to the former, "It is one of the fallacious views of the Reformation, to fancy that it sprung from any notions of political liberty, in such a sense as we attach to the word." [Lit. of Europe, vol. i., p. 187] "In Germany," says the latter, "far from demanding political liberty, the Reformation has accepted, I should not like to say political servitude, but the absence of liberty." [Hist. Gen. de la Civil., Lect. 12.]
With regard to religious liberty, let us hear Hallam again: "The adherents of the Church of Rome have never failed to cast two reproaches on those who left them: one, that the reform was brought about by intemperate and calumnious abuse, by outrages of an excited populace, or by the tyranny of princes; the other, that after stimulating the most ignorant to reject the authority of the Church, it instantly withdrew this liberty of judgement, and devoted all who presumed to swerve from the line drawn by law, to virulent obloquy, or sometimes to bonds and death. These reproaches, it may be a shame for us to own, 'can be uttered and cannot be refuted.'" [Lit. of Europe, vol. i., p. 200.] In what age or country has religious liberty ever been more systematically, more steadily, and more thoroughly trampled upon, than it was in the case of Catholics in England, Ireland, and Scotland, from the time of Elizabeth to the Catholic Emancipation in 1829? In our own country, the early history of Virginia and New England is little more than a record of doctrinal disputations, the bitter fruits of religious intolerance.
From the facts just enumerated, the following conclusion forces itself upon us: that the Reformation was rather a retrograde than a progressive movement in the interests of civilization and science; and that, if literature had developed so extensively in modern times, it is not in consequence, but in spite of the Reformation. The various elements of modern progress, carefully gathered together for centuries, had already produced great results, and the impulse was given for still greater, when the Reformation entangled the human mind in wild controversies, and estranged it from the Church only to lead it beak gradually to paganism. This false direction given to the mind, of which we see still the unhappy consequence, belongs to the Reformation; whilst the life and brilliancy that characterize this epoch are due, as we shall show, to causes far different.
Real Causes of Human Progress and Literary Improvement in the Modern Period
Among these causes, we place in the first rank the Catholic Church. She it was that saved the world from utter barbarism, when the hordes of the North were settling over the ruins of the old pagan civilization. She it was that converted and civilized, one after another, all the nations of Europe. It was her zeal for intellectual pursuits that led to the foundation of numerous schools, and those famous universities, which, for depth of teaching and the number of students, have never been equalled. When the new civilization was threatened by the fanaticism of Islam, it was her pontiffs that first sounded the alarm, and united in one common cause the rival claims of European princes. Indeed, from Urban II. to St. Pius V, and from St. Pius V. to Clement XI., the popes never relented their efforts till the Mahometan power was first crippled at Lepanto, and its aggressive spirit finally broken under the walls of Belgrade (1717).
The Crusades not only repelled the enemy of civilization, but proved beneficial at home, by dissolving the feudal system, ridding Europe of many a petty despot, stimulating commerce, and eliciting a spirit of industry, enterprise, and invention.
The decline of the feudal system and the abolition of slavery, by introducing a large body of men into the rank of citizens, contributed not a little to the general development of human resources. Under feudalism, the mass of the people, under the appellation of serfs, were bought and sold with the soil to which they were attached; but now their condition was gradually improved by the influence of the Church, until the system disappeared altogether from European society.
As regards slavery, "the spirit of the Christian religion," says Bancroft, "would, before the discovery of America, have led to the entire abolition of the slave-trade, but for the hostility between the Christian Church and the followers of Mahomet. In the twelfth century, Pope Alexander III., true to the spirit of his office, . . . had written that 'Nature having made no slaves, all men have an equal right to liberty.' It was the clergy that had broken up the Christian slave-markets at Bristol and Hamburg, at Lyons and at Rome." * [Hist. of the U. S., Vol. i., pp. 163 and 165, 1st edition.]
Another important element of human progress, also the work of the Church, were the elevation of the female character, and the restoration of women to her proper station in society. The Church, from the first, taught the barbarian to treat women not as a slave, but a companion. The mother, whose duties in the training of her children were so laborious and weighty, forgot her troubles in the joy of possessing the undivided affection of her spouse. She became the sovereign of the domestic circle, the ornament, and refiner of society.
A more immediate cause of the progress of letters in Western Europe, must be traced to the advent in Italy and elsewhere, of many learned Greeks, together with the munificent patronage held out by the Houses of Medici, of Este, of Gonzaga, and especially by the Popes. Greek manuscripts were collected at great expense, and buildings erected to preserve these treasures and the monuments of art that survived the ravages of the barbarians. As early as the middle of the fifteenth century, the Vatican Library, enriched, if not founded, by Pope Nicholas V., possessed now fewer than 5000 volumes, many of which were of the greatest value. This zeal for letters and the general revival created a galaxy of geniuses in the golden age of Leo X., very properly styled the second Augustan age of Roman literature, when
'A Raphael painted, and a Vida sung.'
Elsewhere also, as in Spain, in Portugal, and in France, three countries where the Reformation did not succeed in implanting itself, there was a general outburst of enthusiasm for letters, which, indeed, might have been fatal to Christian ideas but for the directing hand of the Church.
Finally, what contributed most of all to the development of literature in modern times, was that wonderful invention of the art of printing, the authors of which, according to the more common opinion of learned men, were Faust, Schæffer, and Gutenberg, at Metz, about the year 1440. Printing by hand was known long before, even as far back as the tenth century, but was of little advantage, owing to the slowness of the process and the scarcity of paper. The invention of the printing press, at a time when paper had become cheaper and more common, afforded unprecedented facilities for the prosecution of literary studies. Before the close of the fifteenth century, it is said that 10,000 editions of works, of which the classics formed a considerable number, were printed in Europe. Of these works, Italy had the honor of publishing nearly one-half; while a very small number, (not exceeding one hundred and fifty), were printed in England. of the Vulgate, Hallam mentions ninety-one editions, and of Virgil, ninety-five. We find 291 editions of the writings of Cicero. These numbers, it must be remembered, relate not to single volumes; but to whole editions of the works, varying from 225 to 550 copies, or more, for each edition. If we take the latter number as the basis of our calculation, and apply it to the works of Cicero alone, the result is that above 160,000 copies of the writings of this elegant author were brought into circulation during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.
In England, the example set by William Caxton, who first introduced the press there in 1477, was eagerly followed by others. Not only the classic works of Roman and Grecian genius, but the popular writings of modern Italy and France, were translated and widely circulated. Thus a taste for general reading and information was excited and fostered in all classes of society. The language itself soon felt the benefit of the new impulse, and was enriched by a great variety of words drawn from the ancient and modern tongues. Better models of thought and style were introduced; and the quaint untutored phraseology of our earliest authors, yielded to the more correct diction and polished periods of subsequent writers. Yet this movement was considerably retarded by the religious commotions of the kingdom, during the reigns of Henry VIII. and his two successors. When the nation had become more indifferent to the old worship, and the general quiet was left undisturbed by the patient endurance of Catholics under a relentless and bloody persecution, then England was able to enjoy the golden age of her literature.