Wednesday, January 19, 2005

16th Century Candor

I enjoy the frankness of the authors of the 16th century. Rabelais' sophomoric scatology, Marguerite of Navarre's sexually explicit tales, Montaigne's open discussion of his impotence (only occasional, mind you), and this passage from Luther:
These words ‘just’ and ‘justice of God’ were a thunderbolt in my conscience. They soon struck terror in me who heard them. He is just, therefore He punishes me. But once when in this tower I was meditating on those words, ‘the just lives by faith,’ ‘justice of God,’ I soon had the thought whether we ought to live justified by faith, and God’s justice ought to be the salvation of every believer, and soon my soul was revived. Therefore it is God’s justice which justifies us and saves us. And these words became a sweeter message for me. This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.
Luther did not really have to tell us exactly when and where this key revelation came to him. Indeed, in a later era such as that of Descartes, this sort of personal detail would not have been deemed "respectable" enough for public disclosure. Psychoanalytic theorist Norman O. Brown makes much of Luther's recounting of the "tower experience" in Life Against Death, writing that "Luther with his freedom from hypocrisy, his all-embracing vitality, and his all-embracing faith, records the scene of his crucial religious experience with untroubled candor." Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis has more about the "untroubled candor" of 16th century thinkers. At that point, there was an openness to the complexity of life that dissipated with the onset of rationalism in the following century. The question for Toulmin is whether we can retrieve some of that candor now.


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