A 33-year-old Martin Luther expressed his ideas by posting 95 theses to the door of a Wittenburg church. For doing so, he was chased around the countryside fearing for his life.
At the age of 33, you might think Martin Luther a young man. However, in the early 1500s, the average life expectancy was just 35 years. Live much beyond that, and you were considered old and most fortunate.
Martin Luther’s life was both extraordinarily consequential, for a young man or a man of any age, and long- he died in 1546 at the very old age of 64. Interestingly, he sent a note to a friend a month before his death complaining of his infirmities. He wrote, “I, old, weary, lazy, worn-out, cold, chilly, and, over and above, one-eyed man."
Martin Luther was a radical. His ideas were seen as antithetical to contemporary power structures. He dared to expose the tyranny and corruption of the church-state cabal. The Roman Catholic Church, comfortably ruling the land and growing rich from the selling of indulgences, didn’t much care for Luther’s critique and came to despise him. They sent thugs to hunt him down to bring him to Rome for some Middle-age justice. If he resists, burn him at the stake as a heretic. They would fail at silencing this courageous old young man who gave breath to a new way to relate to the same God. Luther’s 95 theses along with the Gutenberg Press would change the world.
The Gutenberg press was considered a technical marvel. The ability to take typeset letters and create words, and stories, and ideas and make thousands of copies quickly allowed the writings of someone like Luther to gain an audience. Rome could chase him through the deep forests of Germany but they could no longer destroy his ideas.
One definition of ‘heretic’ is a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted. In the 1500s, a heretic could be burnt at the stake at the bequest of the church. An opinion or idea so counter to contemporary sentiment, it must be extinguished and the tortured twists and screams of someone dying a most horrific death used as a public example. How else are mere citizens to know the one and only acceptable orthodoxy?
The visual imagery of a man or woman being burned alive atop a pile of burning wood is nearly unbearable. Life often ends with some pain mostly from natural decay, disease, or accident. But to burn someone to death as a way to extinguish his or her ideas is a dastardly deed too evil to contemplate- we are confronted with the brutality of despotism.
“Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” ― John Stuart Mill
There is nothing new about despotism. Nor has it been vanquished. Some would have you believe it is a specialty of religion which they use to prove the moral superiority of their atheism. They site the practice of burning heretics to death during the middle ages and witches for heresy. Unfortunately, these poor souls, for the most part, met their end a result of petty disputes and rivalries.
Petty disputes and rivalries sent many to Siberia. Millions. Extra rations were promised to those who ratted out a neighbor. For certain, many who disappeared held ideas deemed heretical by the ruling Marxist. Ideas for which they were to be re-educated by force. Most never returned home- not from being burned to death but from starvation, disease, and neglect- breaking the human spirit is possibly even less humane.
A few would survive. When political power structures were realigned one more time, Mr. Solzhenitsyn would find an audience for his ‘heretical’ ideas. His books would be read by millions. His insights into the human soul are still discussed today. He would also find meaning in his experience. In his desperation, he prayed, "Bless you, prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul."
I think we can agree that good and evil are on opposite ends of a continuum with many variations or degrees in between. Despotism, with its desire to maintain power using any cruelty necessary, sits on evil’s lap. Power structures of nearly all persuasions will ultimately fall to despotism giving meaning to the cliche ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Today and so far, death at the stake is deemed too extreme, but depriving someone of a job by having them fired for having ideas deemed heretical is a form of despotism- just more humane. So too is depriving men and women, sometimes highly learned experts of expressing themselves on today’s social media platforms is power run amuck. It too is despotism. To cheer the misfortune of those who lose their job or are silenced because of ‘heretical’ ideas is just more despotism. But we, in our faux sophistication call it ‘cancel culture.’
The histories of Mr. Solzhenitsyn and Mr. Luther should stand as a monument to all who believe liberty to be one of our most human of ideals. Mr. Solzhenitsyn's ideas were once thought to be ‘dangerous.’ The political winds shifted and he became a voice for those who yearn for liberty everywhere.
Martin Luther saw the tyranny and despotism of the day and at great personal risk stood up against it. Both withstood the often inhumane attempts at being ‘canceled’ allowing their ideas to ultimately flourish benefiting all of humanity.
C.K. Chesterton, a brilliant British writer and Catholic philosopher, was perhaps clairvoyant when he said, “If there is one fact we really can prove, from the history that we really do know, it is that despotism can be a development, often a late development and very often indeed the end of societies that have been highly democratic. A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.”
Happy Reformation Day!