• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Homage To The Heretic

January 2018

For there to be a heresy, there must be a heresiarch. There must be one from whom all others go off and buck the trend—one who stirs the pot and leads others to shake up and turn over the status quo. He’s an obstreperous rabble-rouser and an unflinching nonconformist. At his essence, though, he’s an architect, who builds into the stale landscape his own design. He carves controversy into ivory towers, and watches them crumble with a touch. He pens in eristic and illicit prose the words no one dares write and thinks the thoughts no one dares think. His final creation, though, can be just one of two things: it’s either an edifice or an epitaph. If it’s the former, he’s built a monument that will withstand not only his life, but those of endless generations to come. If the latter, he’s dug an early grave that will soon be forgotten. He either lives on, an exemplar for a cause and a godhead for a coming school of thought, or he dies, his bones buried deep and far removed from hallowed grounds, without another peep.

History is littered with such men, while modernity is molded by them and in every age and in every country, we can name a few. But to start, we must travel back surprisingly far in time. It’s there that we stumble into the Golden Age of Greece and discover the fountainhead of all European philosophical thought. With a curious peak into the agora, it’s Socrates we find standing above and before all other heretics to come. As a man, he was one of many unremarkable things: a soldier, a sculptor, and a sophist. But as a myth, he was something unsurpassed—someone who would teeter on the edge of immortality for all time to come. He became the bedrock upon which all Western thought was built.

But that says little to the controversy he stirred in his own day. Against an oracle’s exhortations otherwise, Socrates claimed to be ignorant. While it was a self-effacing and humble admission to make (and the ultimate testament to his other-worldly wisdom), Athenians had no time for it; they thought he was simply impudent. The assembly charged him with two capital crimes: one for impiously neglecting the gods and two, for corrupting young Athenians who thirsted to bathe in his ambiguous wisdom. His dialectic ultimately damned him to a choice between hemlock and the hinterland, between death and exile. He left us as only the best of heretics do—steadfast and willingly in death as he swallowed the toxic concoction.

Following in the steps of Greek’s greatest gadfly came first a poet and then a scientist. Plato was all things at once: he was a wrestler and an artist, a Conservative and a Communist, and a feminist and a philosopher par excellence. What he wasn’t, though, was a heretic. This role he saved for his student and staunchest opponent, Aristotle. The Academy only found its rival in the Lyceum, and poetry only in prose. Aristotle was the master of both (his Lyceum and his prosaic style, that is) and brought back to the earth those forms that floated above Plato’s head. He gave teeth to later Jewish and Christian theologians arguing from a “First Cause” and taught his precocious student Alexander the nuances of nature and biology—but on lessons of borders and temperance, young Alexander had no time. It was Aristotle’s affiliation with history’s greatest conqueror that finally did him in. He was charged as a heretic for promulgating impieties and siding with Macedonia in spite of Greece. Unlike their sentencing of Socrates, Athenians were less sympathetic when they doled out judgment on Aristotle; they gave him one choice, and it was death. Aristotle politely declined. He chose instead to adjudicate his own case, and so added jurisprudence to his broad arena of expertise. He thought exile a punishment commensurate with the crime, and away he went, never again to step foot in history’s most enlightened city.

With a short leap across the Ionian Sea, and with the brief passage of some twenty-odd centuries, we land in Italy during the time of Medici and Galileo Galilee. To his name we ascribe many things: physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. He was a man synonymous with his age—that is, of the Renaissance. He was a polymath to the bone and soaked with stubborn conviction through and through. And just as Rome had conquered Greece many years before, he too was a conqueror of something essentially Greek. He overpowered and laid waste to an important component of Aristotelian thought. As it pertained to physics, Aristotle claimed that the downward movement of an object is faster or slower depending on its size. Thus, if dropped from the same height, one coin of gold and one of silver would reach the ground at perceptibly different times. By employing the very scientific method that Aristotle had created, and using it against him, Galileo proved the master wrong. In so doing, no one raised a hand to object.

They thought it better to save their protest for bigger concerns on a celestial scale. When Galileo turned his attention from small bodies falling toward Earth to those massive specs floating high above, he invited a controversy the likes of which we’ve never seen. Armed with a telescope and liberated of doubt, he set forth to chart the skies above. What he saw and described confounded colleagues at the university, affirmed Copernicus and Kepler, and enraged the Catholic Church. He saw through his lens the sun and all of those dancing bodies beholden to it. He saw truth replacing folklore and science leap-frogging religion. Above all, though, he saw a heliocentric world no longer as a heterodox, but as an irrefutable fact.

For its part, the Church was unimpressed. It wasn’t the first time it had been made to put up with Galileo’s vexing eccentricities. Until that point, it had suffered his scientific brilliance, but only insofar as it wasn’t completely at odds with his service to the Church. In light of this, the Church asked politely if he might not recant. Naturally, he refused. The Church was to learn that while he might be the most intelligent man in Italy and in all of Europe, he was without a doubt the continent’s most intransigent. Recognizing this, the Church’s admonitions grew and an Inquisition was called. Galileo was summoned to Rome, but still, he appeared more loyal to Poland and Copernicus than he did to the Vicars of Peter.

But alas, a man can be pressed only so far, and in the end, Galileo decided that the cosmos wasn’t worth dying for. He yielded to the Church, submitted his papers, and the ecclesiastical censors got to work. His nine sentences persuading us to join in his allegiance to Copernican thought were expunged. The rest of his work read as before, but those nine sentences made all the difference. Defeated, he hurried off in forced retirement to live out the rest of his days. At least for the moment, his theory died but his skin was saved. He remained, however, a heretic at heart; until the day he died, he was convinced his work was true. Ultimately, the matter would be left for future generations to fill in the gaps—to the likes of Brahe or Newton, who were less beset with dogma and better equipped for clerical assaults.

As it is with history, so too is it with heresy, that the Greco-Romans kicked things off. Take one stride then, east or west across the continent, and you’ll soon stumble upon any number of heretics familiar to your Sunday school days. Frustrated with Rome, but for reasons different than those of the mad Italian scientist pointing to the stars, were John Wyclif, John Huss, and Martin Luther.

Wyclif was another man who’d worn many hats. He was a religious philosopher, theologian, reformer, and politician. He combined these skills in a lifetime of relentless effort that ended in him sowing the seeds of a reformation that would sweep through all of European thought. He thrived in the politics of England’s tricky entanglement with Rome. He demanded that the Church, which was swollen with pomp and profit, return to the sort of apostolic poverty once prescribed by Christ. In political-ecclesiastical treatises, too numerous to count, he called for the Church to turn over its wealth and land to the state, who might put it to better use.

Embittered Englishmen and women around him agreed. The threat of a war with France was lapping at their beaches, all while peasants were taking their grievances to the streets in what was to be their namesake revolt. Land, taxes, and possessions, they thought, shouldn’t mean a thing when your only putative concern is your soul.

Wyclif was a hero at home, but a nuisance at Rome. And while he moved under the protection of John of Gaunt and the king, he had painted on his back an ever-growing target. To ensure he’d forever remain on the Church’s radar, Wyclif began championing two more causes. The first was to liberate the Bible of its Latin tongue, which had become all but unintelligible to the masses. St. Jerome’s vulgar work was useful in his own time, but that was eons ago. The English-speaking commoners hungered for a knowledge of the New Testament that they could pursue more intimately and directly. Wyclif was their most audacious advocate.

In addition, he called upon Church leaders to re-examine their ontological understanding of Christ. How could it be, Wyclif asked, that corrupt priests, bishops, and popes can consecrate bread into body and wine into blood? Transubstantiation, he thought, was nothing more than a myth—an illusory part of the liturgy to be done away with. His vexation only grew when he realized that those clerics giving the sacrament of the Eucharist were the same ones practicing simony on an egregious scale. On these three issues, that of a state’s obeisance to Rome, an English-language version of the Bible, and transubstantiation, Wyclif’s polemical and heretical trinity was complete. As we’ll see, it was an idea that would linger in the air, influencing the likes of Zwingli, Calvin, and Luther.

For all his rabble-rousing, though, Wyclif lived out his years relatively unperturbed and enjoyed a natural death. The same can’t be said of John Huss, the Czech heretic who’s become most synonymous with the very word itself. He too was a philosopher and theologian and eventual rector at the University of Prague. He picked up where Wyclif left off, proceeding to pile on to this crumbling theory of transubstantiation. Bread is bread, wine is wine, and as such, in their physical state, they remain. For this, he was excommunicated and his city put under a papal interdict.

But for all its strong-arming, the Church couldn’t keep Huss quiet. He took his leave from the city, found an inconspicuous shack on the outskirts of town, and went on to write his strongest profanities to date. His ideas were gaining in popularity, a foreboding prospect that the Church wanted to nip in the bud. A Hussite reconciliation with the Church seemed like a moonshot, but Emperor Sigismund thought it was worth a try. He convinced Huss to abandon his simple, rustic home and travel to Constance, where he might speak his piece and, with any luck, put to rest all his and Rome’s ill-will. Sigismund promised him safe-conduct, but like a Sophoclean tragedy whose final scene the viewer already knows, he couldn’t keep his word; Huss’ return ticket to Bohemia would never be punched. His inquisitors took this golden opportunity to throw him away in chains, with the hope that he’d see the error of his ways and recant. He did not, and what awaited him next was the pyre. He died singing hymns in a smoldering pile of martyrdom and ash.

The same council, after ridding itself of the pesky heretic from Prague decided to reconsider Wyclif’s case. This time, it agreed that the English heretic must be made to account for his sins. In a posthumous visit, members of the council dug up his grave, exhumed his bones, burned whatever remained, and floated the ashes down the River Swift. But, as the river’s name implies, it didn’t take long for Wyclif’s memory to scamper away from this small English estuary, pour out into the eager Channel, and suffuse all of European thought in a revolutionary sea.

Among those bathing and baptizing themselves in Wyclif’s revitalizing creed was Martin Luther. Of the three Protestant forerunners we’ve met thus far, history knows him best and regards him first. Early on, Luther was what any young, pious, God-fearing German might be. He was a monk, devoted and austere, filled to the brim with a love of Catholicism and the Sacred Writ. He was an archetypal devotee, a man prostrate at Rome’s feet and cut from an Augustinian cloth, so much so that any future Jesuit would be proud to call him a friend. But Huss and Wyclif got a hold of him and wouldn’t let go.

At their urging, he dove headfirst into the ideas of consubstantiation and anti-clericalism. He swallowed whole the nourishment they provided and a fire quickly grew within him. It was to become the torch that would light the way for a revolution to come. He furiously scratched into the pages of history his Ninety-Five Theses, which he then affixed to a church door in Wittenberg. Not since the crucifix had a block of wood been adorned with such numinous controversy. The German people were split in deciding what to think of him; some thought him a rash deviant, others a liberating native son.

It’s no surprise where the Church fell on this continuum. The pope demanded Luther present himself before an ecclesiastical court in Rome. With memories of Huss’ “safe-conduct” pledge rattling in his head, Luther curtly declined. He was brought instead to the city of Worms, where an assembly (or diet) awaited him. There, amid clerics and princes and beneath the anxious eyes of all of Christendom, he refused to repudiate his work. An edict later condemned him an enemy of the state, but this meant little to a state that was for the first time bustling with a national pride it had never known. In Luther, Germany (or what would become Germany) finally had its champion for national sovereignty and its patron saint of independence from an extortionate, ecclesiastic tyrant.

It was either an appeal to self-preservation or a moment of prescience when Luther philosophically reflected that “We should vanquish heretics with books, not with burning”. This, in the end, is every heretic’s hope. It’s a hope that has endured through many years and across most, but not yet all, nations. It’s a hope that, like a light, wanes and waxes, flickers and blazes from one moment to the next. Luckily, we look back to see it burning long enough, untrammeled by orthodoxy or tyranny and moving us along our path from the repressed age of un-reason to that of restless reason. It shone brightest of all in France, in the minds and works of the gentle Rousseau, the encyclopedic Diderot, and the quintessential Voltaire. It suffused the British Isles, who, for all their provincial differences, found comity in a shared light. In Ireland, it captured Cantillon, Berkeley, and Burke; In England it inspired Gibbon, Hobbes, Newton, and Locke; and in Scotland, it gripped Hume and Smith and never let go. From that wellspring the American mind was born, with all of its youthful rowdiness, unapologetic vigor, and rapacious and urgent cry to be free. Thence came Paine, Jefferson, Mason, Madison, and above all, Franklin. Thus, the Old World became New and the old thought became unfettered and free. And for this, we have none but the heretic to thank. Here’s to you—an homage to the heretic!

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