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Martin Luther

Essay by review  •  September 12, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  10,776 Words (44 Pages)  •  3,812 Views

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I HOPE that I have already made it clear that I do not intend to give anything like a biography of Luther. The biographer ought to record all the known facts of a man's life, important the unimportant, pleasant and unpleasant--and then it should be the task of the reader to form his own judgment on the character of the man who has been described to him. True, especially in the case of Luther, this has often not been observed; and so-called biographers have been at pains to portray a reformer who was almost a saint, ignoring all his weaker and weakest points. There are, however, some quite excellent biographies of Luther, and to those who are concerned with getting a complete and unbiased picture, I would wholeheartedly recommend Funck-Brentano's work, "Martin Luther", from which incidentally I shall quote quite often.

The task of the commentator is quite different from that of the biographer. The commentator does not even attempt, or pretend, to give a full picture. He takes some particular points and analyses and discusses them in detail in order to prove, or disprove--whatever the case may be--a particular theory. This is what I am trying to do. And since it is my object to trace Luther's influence on German political and social development, I shall discuss merely the factors which seem to me to be relevant.

I know of hardly any other man in history on whom it would be more difficult to talk than on Luther, for I fully realise that every statement of mine may be contradicted. First of all, this is because people find it very difficult to look at Luther in an unbiased way. Some glorify everything he has done, others vilify everything.

Take for example--quite apart from our subject--Luther's influence on the German language. Heinrich von Treitschke, the famous German historian, stated: "Luther invented the New High German in one day, at one stroke, he created it." But the historian Janssen (who wrote sixteen volumes on German history in the Middle Ages) states quite definitely that "Luther created no new German language", that Luther had no influence whatsoever on the development of German.

Now both these historians are scholars. But Treitschke is an ultra-national Lutheran, who sees in Luther a kind of god. Whatever Luther thinks and says is a miracle. Like God Himself he created a new language with one stroke. Janssen, on the other hand, is a Roman Catholic who sees no good whatsoever in Luther, and even the thought that the man who split the Catholic Church might have had some beneficial influence on his native tongue is abhorrent to him.

The truth lies probably, in this case, somewhere in the middle; but it will be seen how careful we have to be in accepting statements about Luther, however comment may be and will be contradicted.

Luther, admittedly, helped his commentators tremendously by his own writings. For these were a mass of contradictions. He was quite likely to affirm and to deny the same fact or phenomenon within a very short while; and thus he made it possible for "authorities" to quote whatever side they preferred. But it is just this wealth of contradictions which gives us the first clue to Luther's character. "For, like his doctrines and his writings, Luther's life was a mass of contradictions arising from the neurotic temperament" (Funck-Brentano).

From early youth, Luther was a very neurotic character. He had an extremely strict upbringing and tells us himself that "My mother flogged me until I bled on account of a single nut". At school and university it was not much better. He was whipped by his teachers as often as fifteen times a day, all for ridiculous offences. "The undue severity of which he was the victim as a little boy left its mark on his character; he always remained somewhat timid, wild and mistrustful." His friends already remarked then that young Luther "suffered from an uneasiness of spirit" and psychical abnormality". He began very early in life to suffer from melancholia, and there can be no doubt that "his whole nervous system was strained".

It is interesting to remember how he decided at this period to enter the Church. "On July 2, 1505, as the young man was returning from a visit to his parents at Magdeburg, a violent storm overtook him not far from Erfurt. As he was travelling alone near Stotterheim, a bold of lightning struck in his immediate vicinity and laid him prostrate on the ground. `Help me, help me! If thou helpest me, St. Anne, I will become a monk!'" So it was that he entered the monastery.

Nothing could have been worse for that frightened, nervous, emotional, unstable young man than the rather hard and monotonous life of a monk. Thus it is not surprising that his monastic life was full of strange incidents. "One day when Luther was present at High Mass in the monks' choir, he had a fit during the Gospel, which, as it happened, told the story of the man possessed. He fell to the ground and in his paroxysms behaved like one mad, shouting `I am not possessed, I am not possessed'." We often hear in his later life that "hysterical weeping and sobbing overwhelmed him". While he was still in the monastery, "the other monks often thought that he was possessed by the devil."

Complete mental instability remained the keyword to his life. He tried to overcome his depressions by overwork or too much prayer, always overdoing things, with the result that his mental state deteriorated. There are many passages in his own writings which give us a good insight into Luther's psychological processes. Here is where he is overworking himself. "I need two secretaries. I do practically nothing all day long but write letters. . . . I am Preacher of the Convent and the Refectory; and vicar in the district, and therefore elevenfold Prior; I am responsible for the fish-ponds at Leitzkau; I am agent at Torgau in the suit for Herzberg parish church; I give lectures on St. Paul, I am collecting notes on the Psalter. I rarely have time to recite my Office and say Mass." "Physically I am fairly well, but I suffer in spirit," he would confess. "For more than the whole of last week I was tossed about in death and hell, so that I still tremble all over my body and am exhausted. Billows and tempests of despair and blasphemy assailed me and I had lost Christ almost entirely" (Luther's Letters, Enders Edition, vol. 1, pp. 66, 67, and vol. 6, page 71).

At other times he does nothing at all. "I am here in idleness," he writes in 1521, "alas neglecting prayer and not sighing once for the Church of God. I burn with all the desires of my unconquered flesh. It is the ardour of the spirit that I ought to feel. But

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