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This essay compares the works of Pico Della Mirandola and Martin Luther through their writings The Oration on the Dignity of Man and Concerning Christian Liberty respectively and their effect on European society.
The essay first examines the social conditions that existed during the times of Mirandola and Luther to give the reasons why Mirandola chose to criticize the Church in an indirect way and why Martin Luther adopted the direct method.
The essay then examines the main points of the writings of both the thinkers in the main body of the essay.
The essay then concludes by summing the social conditions, main points and objectives of the two thinkers in writing their masterpieces that served to enlighten the European society and clergy alike.
A Comparison of the Writings of Mirandola and Martin Luther
During the Middle Ages, the Church had become all powerful in Europe. The power of the Pope and the Church extended to all walks of human life including governance. During the Renaissance period many scholars, philosophers and thinkers realized that the stranglehold being exerted by the Church was stifling human creativity and progress including scientific progress. In those tumultuous times, two great thinkers Pico Della Mirandola and Martin Luther through their writings The Oration on the Dignity of Man and Concerning Christian Liberty respectively served to enlighten the people and the clergy alike. This essay compares the two works and its effect on European society.
In the 15th century, the Humanist Movement had gained popularity in Europe. The Movement aimed at looking at liberal arts through a wider prism that encouraged the reading and inclusion of thoughts and philosophies of other great religions rather than just Christianity. The 15th century was also the age of exploration. European explorers travelled far and wide to discover the Americas, a trade route to India via the Cape of Good Hope (Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, Hsia, & Smith, 2009, p. 420) and also led to the establishment of colonial empires. Technological advancements were also being made. Paper mills were set up in Italy that made paper cheaper to produce than parchments. The introduction of mechanical printing brought forth a communication revolution. The invention of the movable type allowed printing of books and manuscript in large numbers and thus allowed the dissemination of knowledge easier. The disruptive features of this new technological breakthrough alarmed the political and religious clergy who quickly introduced strict censorship rules (Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, Hsia, & Smith, p. 426).
The political structure of 15th century Europe comprising of small city states and territories made it possible for thinkers, artists, philosophers to experiment and question the beliefs and way of life of those times. Rome, however, continued to exert overwhelming influence over the courts of kings and it brooked no opposition to its primacy. The Church however, had lost its popular hold over the people who yearned for greater spiritual solace than that was being provided by the Church. The Humanists provided this solace and thus ran into stiff opposition from the Orthodox Church who saw the Humanist movement as a direct challenge to their supremacy. Thus competing ideologies as propounded by the Humanists was sought to be censored and proscribed by the Church. Thinkers and preachers who crossed the ‘red lines’ were apt to be declared as heretics by the Church which could lead to a possible death sentence. In 1486, Mirandola thus had to resort to indirect criticism of the Church to escape inquisition. Mirandola cleverly intertwined Christian and non-Christian sources to drive home his thesis that true knowledge is not just resident in the Bible and Christian theologies but in also the works of other religions and cultures.
After Mirandola’s seminal work, the Humanist movement gained greater strength. Christian humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) and Thomas More (1478–1535) preached Christian piety as defining true virtue. Erasmus wrote Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503) and The Praise of Folly (1509) (Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, Hsia, & Smith, p. 427). More’s best-known work, Utopia (1516), was inspired by the voyages of discovery that actually was a critique of More’s own society. These works gave further impetus to the ongoing debate on the primacy of the Church and the need to reform its corrupt practices. Therefore, when Martin Luther wrote his masterpiece Concerning Christian Liberty in 1517, 34 years later, Renaissance had matured and the Church now had many more detractors and was not all powerful. Hence, Luther’s frontal assault where he openly criticizes the Church and its practices aimed at reforming it were widely accepted. Luther, a pious monk was disgusted with the Church’s practices of selling letters of indulgences and wrote against it as well as the Church’s practice of amassing land and wealth for itself.
The style of writings of both the thinkers also displays striking contrast. Mirandola commenced his treatise by referring to “the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen” (Mirandola, 1) when he introduces the wonder that is man and that the need for man to follow the laws set by God are found not only in Christian writings but also in Islam. The need for man to follow the laws set by God are found not only in Christian writings but also in Islam as Mirandola points out and that even Mohammed stated “that the man who deserts the divine law becomes a brute” (Mirandola, 8). Thus Mirandola did not shy away from invoking the Islamic writings of the Quran, a remarkable feat for his times. In Para 9, Mirandola continues explaining the changing nature of man by referring to Chaldean theology. The examples of the Seraph, the Cherubim, the Thrones as also the mentions of apostle Paul and the Book of Job is referred to in Paragraphs 10-15 and to the teachings of “Empedocles the philosopher (Mirandola, 15).
Heraclitus and Homer are also mentioned to explain the limits of natural philosophy. Socrates and Plato are referred to explain the importance of moral philosophies in Para 18 as also Pythagorean wisdom and Cicero’s poetic aphorisms. Mirandola also refers to Zarathustra for expounding on the maxim ‘know thy self’. Mirandola then refers to Latin thinkers like Albert, Thomas, Scotus, Egidius, Francis and Henry and rightly surmises the importance of learning of different religions and cultures. Luther on the other hand makes no such allusions to other religions but concentrates on the core issues of the day by declaring that “a Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none” (Luther, 1517, 3). Luther argued that the words of Jesus needed no priests or church to be understood and followed by the followers and that faith in Christ was sufficient justification for its practice that required no further sanction or control of the Church “for Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them” (Luther, 47).
Launching a scathing attack on the clergy, Luther gives the example of Christ saying that “His priesthood does not consist in the outward display of vestments and gestures, as did the human priesthood of Aaron and our ecclesiastical priesthood at this day” (Luther, 38). Denying that the clergy had any right to rule over other Christians, Luther stated that “Not that in the sense of corporeal power any one among Christians has been appointed to possess and rule all things, according to the mad and senseless idea of certain ecclesiastics” (Luther, 40). Luther posits that all Christians are not only kings but also freest of men as every Christian is a priest. Luther backed his arguments with examples from the bible which became difficult for the Church leaders to refute. A typical example of the use of the bible is evident when Luther says that “For Holy Scripture makes no distinction between them, except that those, who are now boastfully, called popes, bishops, and lords….” (Luther, 46).
So great was the influence of Martin Luther’s writings that it launched a strident reform movement. The reformation of church was forced upon by this courageous German monk. Initially, it caused many a riots and revolts in the countryside that was put down by the German Princes. However, later even the urban populace and the princes protested against the highhandedness of the Church giving rise to the Protestant Movement. While Mirandola’s style and treatment of the subject and his protest was muted and subtle, Luther’s was a blunt commentary on the state of things in the Christian clergy of those times. Mrandola’s writings were more philosophical and scholastic. Luther’s writings though as scholastic, had a definite political intent. Mirandola attempted to bring about change in Christian thought through appeals at introspection and understanding. Luther, on the other hand sought to bring about change by directly confronting the ills of the clergy and by attempting to reduce them to the level of the common man. Mirandola’s approach was more syncretistic while Luther’s approach was unidirectional in its focus.
In conclusion it can reiterated that the works of Pico Della Mirandola and Martin Luther both had salutary effect on reforming the Christian religion. The technological advances of those times, namely the introduction of the mechanical printing press made it easier for writers, thinkers and philosophers to disseminate their thoughts to a wider public. Both thinkers strove to bring about reform in the manner and conduct of the Christian religion. While Mirandola addressed the case from a holistic, syncretistic view, Martin Luther chose to attack the issue more directly by challenging the Church’s primacy in being the arbitrator between man and God. Luther’s was an all out assault on the corruption and the exclusivist practices of the religious clergy. Mirandola’s indirect approach was due to his adherence to the Humanist Movement and the necessity posed by the political structures of those times in which the Church still had a great control over the way of life and administration in Europe. Luther, on the other hand, through his blunt message served to shake the foundations of Christian religious orthodoxy and gave birth to the Protestant movement.
Hunt, L., Martin, T. R., Rosenwein, B. H., Hsia, R.-P. C., & Smith, B. G. (2009). The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures Third edition. Web.
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Luther, M. (1517). On the Freedom of a Christian. Web.