THE RIGHT TO HERESY OR, HOW JOHN CALVIN KILLED A CONSCIENCE
Manifesto on Behalf of Toleration
To seek truth and to utter what one believes to be true can never be a crime. No one must be forced to accept a conviction. Conviction is free.
SEBASTIAN CASTELLIO, 1551.
IT was immediately recognized that the burning of Servetus had brought the Reformation to and beyond a parting of the ways. In a century disfigured by innumerable acts of violence, the execution of one man more might have seemed a trifling incident. Between the coasts of Spain and those of the lands bordering on the North Sea (not excepting the British Isles), Christians burned countless heretics for the greater glory of Christ. By thousands and tens of thousands, in the name of the "true Church" (the names were legion), defenceless human beings were haled to the place of execution, there to be burned, decapitated, strangled, or drowned. "If those thus butchered had been, I will not say horses, but only swine," we read in Castellio's De haereticis, "every prince would have considered he had sustained a grave loss." But since only men and women were slain, no one troubled to count the victims. "I doubt," groans Castellio, "whether, in any epoch of the world's history, so much blood can have been shed as in our own."
But throughout the centuries, among numberless atrocities, it has always been one, which might have seemed no worse than the others, that pricked apparently slumbering consciences. The flames that destroyed the martyred Servetus were a beacon overtopping all others at that day; and, two centuries later, Gibbon declared that this one sacrifice had scandalized him more deeply than the burning of hecatombs by the Inquisition. For, to quote Voltaire, the execution of Servetus was the first "religious murder" committed by the Reformation, and the first plain repudiation of the primary idea of that great movement. In and by itself, the very notion of "heretic" is absurd as far as a Protestant Church is concerned, since Protestants demand that everyone shall have the right of interpretation. Thus, at the outset, Luther, Zwingli, and Melanchthon declared themselves strongly opposed to the use of forcible measures against those who stood in the wings of their movement and tended to exaggerate its purposes. Here are Luther's own words: "I have little love for death sentences, even though well deserved; what alarms me in this matter is the example that is set. I can, therefore, by no means approve that false doctors shall be put to death." In his pithy way he went on to say: "Heretics must not be suppressed or held down by physical force, but only combated by the word of God. For heresy is a spiritual affair, which cannot be washed away by earthly fire or earthly water." Zwingli was, if possible, even more emphatic in his repudiation of any appeal to the secular arm in such cases, and of any use of force.
Soon, however, the champions of the new doctrine, which had meanwhile established itself as a "Church," had to recognize what the authorities of the Old Church had long known-namely, that in the long run power cannot be maintained without force. Consequently, to avoid coming to a decision (which could not really be avoided), Luther suggested a compromise, trying to distinguish between "heresy" and "sedition," between "remonstrants," who differed from the opinion of the Reformed Church only in spiritual and religious matters, and "rebels," real "disturbers of the peace," who, while challenging the established religious order, wanted also to change the social order. As regards these last, by whom he meant the communistically inclined Anabaptists, he approved the official use of force as a means of suppression. But not one of the early leaders of the Reformed Church could bring himself to the decisive step of delivering over to the executioner any who might hold other opinions than his own and might style themselves free-thinkers. Too recent were the days when those religious revolutionaries had battled against pope and emperor on behalf of their convictions, and had been proclaimed the champions of the most sacred rights of man. The establishment of a Protestant Inquisition seemed at the outset unthinkable.
But that was the epochal step taken by Calvin when he burned Servetus. Thereby he made short work of the "Freiheit des Christenmenschen" (freedom of the Christian man), which had been fought for by the Reformation; he outstripped the Catholic Church, which to its honour had for more than a thousand years hesitated to burn anyone alive simply because he insisted upon interpreting Christian dogmas in his own way. But Calvin, in the second decade of his personal dominion, established his spiritual tyranny by burning alive one who challenged it. Servetus was not slain as an atheist, for he had never been that; he was martyred because he had repudiated some of Calvin's theses. When, hundreds of years later, the free city of Geneva erected a monument to the free-thinker Servetus, it vainly endeavoured to exculpate Calvin by describing Servetus as a "victim of his epoch." Montaigne was of that time, and so was Castellio. It was not the blindness and folly of his day that sent Servetus to the stake, but the personal despotism of Calvin. Unfaith and superstition may be expressions of an era, but for a particular misdemeanour he alone is responsible who commits the offence.
Indignation grew rapidly from the first hour after Servetus's martyrdom, and even de Beze, Calvin's official apologist, had to admit: "The ashes of the unhappy man were not yet cold when acrimonious discussion arose on the question whether heretics ought to be punished. Some hold that they must indeed be suppressed, but not by capital punishment. Others want to leave them to God's punishment." We see that de Beze, though his general inclination was to glorify whatever Calvin did, was extremely hesitant here; and still more dubious were Calvin's other friends. True, Melanchthon, who had himself railed savagely against Servetus, wrote to his "dear brother" as follows: "The Church thanks you, and will thank you in days to come. The Genevese officials acted rightly when they condemned this blasphemer to death." And there was even to be found a scholar and zealot named Musculus to compose a paean on the occasion-perpetual "trahison des clercs."
But these were the only voices of hearty approval. Zurich, Schaffhausen, and the other synods were far less enthusiastic than Geneva had hoped. Although, on principle, they may have thought it well that "over-zealous" sectarians should be intimidated, they were unquestionably glad that the first Protestant "act of faith," the first destruction of a nonconformist, had not taken place within their own walls, and that Jehan Calvin would have to bear the odium of this terrible decision.
But if these co-religionists did no more than damn with faint praise, adverse voices speedily made themselves heard. The most distinguished jurist of the day, Francois Baudouin, uttered a decisive opinion: "I hold that Calvin had no right to open a criminal prosecution over a point of religious doctrine." Not merely were the free-thinking humanists throughout Europe outraged; many of the Protestant clergy likewise expressed disapproval. Barely an hour's walk from the gates of Geneva, and protected from Calvin's minions by Bernese overlordship, the Vaud clergy declared in the pulpit that Calvin's treatment of Servetus had been irreligious and illegal. In Geneva itself Calvin had to call in the aid of the police to repress criticism. A woman who publicly declared Servetus to be a martyr for the sake of Jesus Christ was imprisoned; and so was a book-printer for maintaining that the town authorities had condemned Servetus at the will and pleasure of one man. Some noted scholars of foreign nationality pointedly shook the dust from their feet as they hastened to quit a city where they no longer felt safe since a despotism had been established which was a menace to freedom of thought.
Soon Calvin was forced to recognize that the martyrdom of Servetus had been much more dangerous to the dictatorship than had been the Spanish scholar's life and writings.
Calvin had a sensitive ear for any sort of contradiction. Accustomed though the Genevese were, under his regime, to express themselves guardedly, murmurs that found their way through keyholes and closed windows made the dictator realize that his fellow-burghers were restraining their wrath with difficulty. Still, the deed had been done. God Almighty himself could not make it undone. Since to escape the consequences of his actions was impossible, the best thing for Calvin was to put a bold front on the matter and blazon his responsibility. Despite himself, and imperceptibly, Calvin, who had begun with a cheerful offensive, was forced into the defensive. His friends unanimously assured him that it behoved him to find justifications for the "act of faith" thanks to which Servetus had been consigned to the flames. Somewhat reluctantly, therefore, he made up his mind to "enlighten" the world about Servetus and to compose an apologia for having slain that heretic.
But, in the Servetus affair, Calvin had an uneasy conscience; and a man with an uneasy conscience, try though he may to stifle his doubts, writes poor stuff. Naturally, therefore, his apologia, entitled Defence of the True Faith and of the Trinity against the Dreadful Errors of Servetus, a book which, as Castellio said, the dictator wrote "when his hands were still dripping with the blood of Servetus," was one of the weakest of his writings. Calvin himself admitted that he penned it "tumultuarie"-that is to say, nervously and in haste. How uncertain of his own position he felt, when thus forced to assume the defensive, is shown by the fact that he got all the pastors in Geneva to sign the manifesto as well as himself, so that others might share the responsibility. He found it disagreeable to be regarded as instigator to the murder of Servetus, with the result that two opposing trends are clumsily mingled in the pronunciamento. On the one hand, warned by the widespread discontent, Calvin wished to shuffle responsibility onto the "authorities"; but on the other hand he had to prove that the Town Council had been perfectly right in destroying such a "monster" as the Spaniard. He presented himself as the mildest-mannered of men, as inveterately opposed to violence of any kind, filling the greater part of his book with complaints of the cruelty of the Catholic Inquisition, which sentenced true believers without giving them a chance to defend themselves, and then had them executed in the most barbarous way. ("What about you?" he would later be asked by Castellio. "Whom did you appoint to defend Servetus? ") He went on to astonish his readers by informing them that he bad, in secret, done his utmost to bring Servetus to a better frame of mind. ("Je n'ai pas cesse de faire mon possible, en secret, pour le ramener a des sentiments plus saints.") It had really been the Town Council, he declared, which, despite his inclination towards leniency, had insisted upon the death sentence, and upon one of such peculiar cruelty. These alleged efforts of Calvin on behalf of Servetus, of the murderer on behalf of his victim, were "so secret," that not a soul was found to believe the legend. Castellio contemptuously marshals the facts. "The first of your 'exhortations' was nothing but invective; the second was to commit Servetus to prison, which the Spaniard was not to leave until on his way to the stake where he was burned alive."
While thus with one hand he waved away his personal responsibility for the martyrdom of Servetus, with the other hand Calvin produced the best evidence he could to exculpate "the authorities." As usual, he grew eloquent when he had to justify suppression. It would be most unwise-so ran the argument-to allow everyone liberty to say what he pleased ("la liberte a chacun de dire ce qu'il voudrait"), for then epicureans, atheists, and despisers of God would be heartily pleased. No doctrine but the true doctrine (i.e., that of Geneva) must be proclaimed. Such a censorship did not signify a restriction of liberty. (Intolerant despots always have recourse to the same logical fallacy.) "Ce n'est pas tyranniser l'Eglise que d'empecher les ecrirains mal intentionnes de repandre publiquement ce qui leur passe par la tete." Those who are gagged to check the utterance of opinions discordant with the views of a dictator are not subjected to any coercion, if we are to believe Calvin and others of his calibre; they have been justly treated, an example being made of them "for the greater glory of God."
The weak point that Calvin had to defend did not concern the suppression of heresy, since such action had long since been copied by the Protestants from the Catholics. The real question at issue was whether the powerful possess the right to kill persons who hold other views than their own. In the case of Servetus, Calvin asserted this right from the outset, and his business now was to justify his action. Naturally he sought justification in the Bible, endeavouring to show that he had acted in accordance with the terms of a "higher commission," in obedience to a "divine command." That higher commission, that divine command, was what had led him to thrust Servetus out of the world. Yet he could not find convincing examples in Holy Writ, because the Bible has not formulated the notion of "heresy," but refers merely to "blasphemy." Now Servetus, who amid the flames continued to call upon the name of Jesus, had never been an atheist. Calvin, always eager to quote from the Bible any passages that might serve his turn, declared nevertheless that it was a "sacred duty" imposed upon "authority" to eradicate all who held opinions subversive of authority (his own). "Just as an ordinary man would be blameworthy should he fail to draw his sword when his house is contaminated by idolatry or when one of his dependents rebels against God, how much worse is such cowardice in a prince who shuts his eyes when wrong is done to religion." The sword is put into the hands of authorities that they may use it "for the honour of God." For actions performed in "saint zele" are justified in advance. The defence of orthodoxy, of the true faith, dissolves the ties of blood, the dictates of human kindliness. A man must destroy even those of his most immediate household when Satan has driven them to repudiate the "true" religion; and (we shudder as we read) "on ne lui [Dieu] fait point l'honneur qu'on lui dolt, si on ne prefere son service a tout regard humain, pour n'epargner ni parentage, ni sang, ni vie qui soit et qu'on mette en oubli route humanity quand il est question de combattre pour sa gloire." With terrifying bluntness we are told that Calvin can regard as pious only those who, for the sake of doctrine (his doctrine), suppress "tout regard humain," that is to say, every sense of humaneness. Here we have a ghastly but tragical demonstration of the lengths an otherwise clear thinker and a profoundly religious man could go when blinded by fanaticism. He would willingly hand over to the Inquisition his friends, his brethren, and his kindred by blood, whenever they differed from him upon the minutest article of doctrine and held another opinion than that of the Consistory. Lest anyone should repudiate so barbarous a contention, Calvin turned to his last and favourite argument: the Terror. He declared that anyone who should defend or excuse a heretic was himself guilty of heresy and marked for punishment. Since he could not endure contradiction, Calvin proposed to intimidate those who might be moved to contradict him, threatening the offenders with the fate that had befallen Servetus. To the stake with them if they would not hold their tongues! Calvin wished to be free once for all from worry over this vexatious question of Servetus's murder. The incident must be closed.
But the accusing voice of the slain could not be silenced however shrilly and furiously Calvin might rage, yelling exculpations to the world. The Calvinist apologia, with its clamours to the faithful to undertake a heresy-hunt, made a most unfavourable impression. The best of the Protestants were horrified at the prospect of establishing the Holy Inquisition within their own Church. Some declared that it would have been less offensive if so monstrous a thesis had been advocated by the Town Council instead of by a preacher of God's word, by one of Christ's servants. With splendid resolution, Zerchintes, town clerk of Berne, subsequently to be Castellio's loyal friend and protector, proclaimed his position: "I avow," he wrote privately to Calvin, "that I, too, am one of those who would fain limit as far as possible the right to inflict capital punishment on account of differences in matters of faith, even where the error is voluntarily held. What determines my judgment in these matters is not only those passages of Holy Writ which can be quoted against the use of force, but also the example of the way in which, here in Berne, the Anabaptists have been mishandled. I myself saw a woman of eighty dragged to the scaffold, together with her daughter, a mother of six children, these two women having committed no other offence than to repudiate infant baptism. In the light of such an example, I dread lest the legal authorities might not be restrained within the limits you yourself would like to establish, and lest they might be inclined to treat petty offences as great crimes. I therefore deem it advisable that the authorities should rather be unduly clement and considerate than be over-ready to appeal to the sword. I would rather shed my own blood than be stained with the blood of a man who had done nothing to deserve punishment by death."
These are the words of a minor municipal officer in a fanatical epoch. Many shared his views while thinking it inexpedient to utter them. Even the worthy Zerchintes was as little inclined as his master, Erasmus of Rotterdam, had been to take a definite side in current disputes. Shamefacedly he informed Calvin that he did not intend to make a public protest. "I shall not step down into the arena unless my conscience forces me to do so. I would rather remain dumb, so far as my conscience allows, instead of rousing discussions and mortifying anyone." Persons of a humane disposition are too ready to resign themselves to events, thus playing into the hands of the violent. Nearly all of them behaved like this excellent but pacific Zerchintes. They were steadfastly silent, the humanists, the clergy, the scholars; some from hatred of public broils, others from fear lest they themselves should be suspected of heresy if they failed (hypocritically) to declare that the execution of Servetus had been a praiseworthy deed. Matters reached such a pass that it seemed as if all would comply with Calvin's preposterous demand that dissentients must be persecuted. Unexpectedly, however, a voice was raised, a voice well known to Calvin and detested by him, to accuse, in the name of affronted humanity, the man responsible for the murder of Miguel Servetus. This was the limpid voice of Castellio, who had never yet been intimidated by the threats of the Genevese dictator, and who resolutely risked his life in order to save the lives of countless others.
In spiritual warfare, not those are the best champions who light-heartedly and passionately begin the feud, but those who hesitate long because they are lovers of peace, and because their resolutions are slowly formed. Not until they have exhausted every possibility of an understanding, and have recognized that recourse to arms is inevitable, do they joylessly accept the position thrust on them and rally to the defence; but those who have found it most difficult to decide upon militant action are, once they have decided, the most steadfast of all. So was it with Castellio. Being a true humanist, he had no love for contention. Conciliatory methods were far more conformable to his gentle and profoundly religious nature. Like his spiritual ancestor Erasmus, he knew that truth has many facets, whether it be earthly or divine; nor was it by chance that one of his most important works (penned in 1562, but not printed until modern times) received the momentous title De arte dubitandi, "Concerning the Art of Doubting." Castellio's unceasing selfexamination was far from making him a sceptic, but his caution rendered him considerate towards other opinions than his own, and he would rather be silent than prematurely take a hand in a quarrel in which he had neither lot nor part. After having, for the sake of internal freedom, voluntarily surrendered office and dignity, he withdrew from political life, preferring to devote himself to a spiritually creative deed, the translation of the Bible into Latin and French. He found a quiet home in Basle, the last enclave of religious freedom. There the university was still safeguarding the bequests of Erasmus, and for this reason the survivors of what had once been a pan-European movement fled thither, in order to escape persecution by ecclesiastical dictators. In Basle lived Carlstadt, expelled by Luther from Germany; Bernardino Ochino, whom the Roman Inquisition had hunted out of Italy; Castellio, chased by Calvin from Geneva; Laelius Socinus and Coelius Secundus Curio; and, under the mask of an assumed name, the Anabaptist David Joris, who had been outlawed in the Low Countries. A common destiny and their joint subjection to persecution brought these refugees together, although in religious matters they by no means shared one another's views. But genuine humanists never need agreement upon the minutest points of doctrine before they can enter into friendly relations. Those who had renounced the claims of the various dictators to exercise authority over their minds as well as their bodies led a quiet and retired existence in Basle. They did not shower tracts and pamphlets upon the world; they did not deliver disputatious lectures; they did not form leagues and sects. What drew them ever more closely together was the distress with which they regarded the increasing stringency of those who exercised dictatorial powers in the realm of the spirit as well as in the realm of the flesh. Lonely "remonstrants" (as the opponents of any sort of dogmatist terror came later to be called) were united in terms of peaceful fraternity.
Of course these independent thinkers regarded the burning of Servetus, and the ferocious pamphlet in which Calvin defended his action, as a declaration of war. Anger and horror animated them at so audacious a challenge. They recognized that the issue was decisive. If such a monstrous deed were left unchallenged, then there was an end to freedom of thought in Europe. Might would be enthroned as right. But "after so splendid a dawn," after the Reformation had raised the banner of "liberty of conscience" throughout the world, was there to be a relapse into the realm of "Cimmerian darkness"? Were all Christians who did not share Calvin's views in every respect to be extirpated with fire and sword? Was it not essential, at this critical hour, and before a thousand similar fires were kindled from the flames of Champel, to proclaim loudly that men who in spiritual matters held other views than those in power must not be hunted like wild beasts or cruelly executed like robbers and murderers? Even though rather belatedly, the world must definitely understand that intolerance was unchristian, and, when it took the form of terrorism, inhuman. A plain word must be spoken on behalf of the persecuted and against the persecutor.
It was necessary to speak loudly and clearly-but was this still possible? There are times in which the simplest and least ambiguous truth needs to be disguised before it can be disseminated; when the humanest and most sacred thoughts must be smuggled through back doors, masked and veiled like thieves, because the front doors are watched by the police and mercenaries of the authorities. Again and again in history recurs the absurd spectacle in which, whereas all incitations of one people or one faith against the others are tolerated and encouraged, all conciliatory tendencies, all pacifist ideals, are regarded with suspicion and are suppressed on the pretext that they are dangerous to some civil or religious body. They are stigmatized as "defeatist," as likely to undermine pious or patriotic zeal because of their universally humanist trend. Thus, under the terror established by Calvin, Castellio and his adherents dared not promulgate their views openly. A manifesto on behalf of toleration, an appeal to our common humanity such as they planned, would be frustrated on the very first day by the embargo of the spiritual dictatorship.
Force, therefore, had to be met with cunning. A name was expressly coined. "Martinus Bellius" was announced as author of a new work; and on the title page of what was really Castellio's book there appeared a false name as place of publication (Magdeburg instead of Basle). But, above all, in the text of this volume, an appeal for the rescue of persecuted innocents masqueraded as a scientific or a theological treatise. It was made to appear as if, in an academic way, learned ecclesiastical and other authorities were discussing the question: "De haereticis an sint persequendi et omnino quomodo sit cum eis agendum doctorurn virorum turn veterum tum recentiorum sententiae"-or, translated: "Concerning heretics, whether they should be persecuted, and what is to be done about them, illustrated by the opinions of learned authors both old and new." Indeed, one who should merely flutter the pages of De haereticis might well believe it to be nothing more than a pious theoretical tract, for here he would find the opinions of the most noted Fathers of the Church, those of St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, and St. Jerome, imprinted peacefully side by side with selections from the writings of such great Protestant authorities as Luther and Sebastian Franck, or those of nonpartisan humanists like Erasmus. Here, surely, was nothing but a scholastic anthology, a juristic and theological assemblage of quotations from divers philosophers, compiled in order to help the reader to form an unbiased opinion concerning this difficult problem. But a closer examination shows that no opinions are quoted other than those which declare the passing of death sentences upon heretics to be improper. The cunning, the only malice, of this book penned in deadly earnest lay in the fact that among the authorities who condemn the use of the last extremities of force against heretics, we find one name which must have been peculiarly galling to Calvin, namely, Calvin's own. Jehan Calvin's opinion had been promulgated in the days when he himself was persecuted, and was averse to fierce appeals to fire and sword. The slayer of Servetus, Calvin to wit, was condemned by Calvin as unchristian, in the following signed passage: "It is unchristian to use arms against those who have been expelled from the Church, and to deny them rights common to all mankind."
But what gives a book its value is that which it openly expresses, and not the meaning that is hidden away out of sight. In the dedication to the Duke of Wurttemberg, Castellio puts the dots on the i's and the crosses on the t's. It is the opening and closing words of this dedication which lift the theological anthology above the level of a fugitive polemic. Though the dedication to the duke occupies little more than a dozen pages, they were the first pages in which it was claimed that freedom of thought had a sacred right of asylum in Europe. Although written only in favour of heretics, the dedication constitutes an animated defence of all those who, in later days, were to be persecuted by other dictators because they demanded political or philosophical independence. The struggle against the hereditary enemy of spiritual justice, against the narrowness of the fanatics who wish to suppress opinions running counter to those of their own party, was here definitively opened. That restrictive notion was victoriously confronted by the idea whose spread is the only way of liquidating hostilities on earth the idea of toleration.
Castellio developed his thesis with dispassionate logic, lucidly and irrefutably. The question at issue was whether heretics should be persecuted and punished with death for what was a purely intellectual offence. But before discussing this, Castellio inquires: "What do we really mean by the term heretic?" Whom are we entitled to call a heretic, without being unjust? Castellio's answer runs: "I do not believe that all those who are termed heretics are really heretics .... The appellation has today become so abusive, so terrifying, carries with it such an atmosphere of opprobrium, that whenever a man wishes to rid himself of a private enemy, he finds that the most convenient way is to accuse this foe of heresy. As soon as others hear the dreaded name, they are filled with such overwhelming fear that they stop their ears, and blindly assail, not only the alleged heretic, but also those who venture to say a word in his favour."
Castellio refused to become infected by such a hysteria for persecution. He knew that each era discovers a fresh group, of unhappy persons upon whom to empty the vials of collective hatred. Sometimes it is on account of their religion, sometimes on account of the colour of their skin, their race, their origin, their social ideal, their philosophy, that the members of some comparatively small and weak group are made targets for the annihilative energies latent in so many of us. The watchwords, the occasions, vary; but the method of calumny, contempt, destruction, remains unchanged. Now, declared the writer, an intelligent being should not allow himself to be blinded by such defamatory words, or to be carried away by the fury of mass instincts. Again and again, with a fresh devotion to balance and to justice, he must seek the right. Consequently, in this matter of heretics, "Martinus Bellius" refused to take up a definitive position until he had fully mastered the significance of the word.
What, then, is a heretic? Castellio returned again and again to this question. Since Calvin and the other inquisitors declared the Bible to be the only valid law-book, Bellius searched the pages of Holy Writ with the utmost care. Lo, he could not find the word or the concept in scripture. A dogmatic system, an orthodoxy, a unified doctrine, had to come into existence for the word "heretic" to gain currency; no one could rebel against a Church until that Church became an institution. True, in the Bible we find references to unbelievers and the need for their punishment. But it does not follow that one who is called a heretic is therefore an unbeliever. The case of Servetus furnished proof of this. Those who had been styled heretics, above all the Anabaptists, maintained that they were true and genuine Christians, and honoured the Saviour as their most sublime and beloved exemplar. Since no Christian ever called a Turk, a Jew, or a heathen, a "heretic," heresy must be a crime committed wholly within the Christian fold. Thus we derive a new formulation. Heretics are persons who, although they are Christians, do not profess "true" Christianity, but stubbornly deviate in one way or another from the "right" path.
Have we now found our definition? Alas, how are we to decide which, among the multifarious interpretations, is "true" Christianity, or which is the "right" interpretation of the word of God? Do we find it in the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Zwinglian, the Anabaptist, the Hussite, or the Calvinist exegesis? Is there such a thing as absolute certainty in religious matters, and is it always possible to achieve a "sound" interpretation of Holy Writ? Castellio was bold enough, in defiance of the self-confident Calvin, to answer with a modest no. The meaning. of Holy Writ was sometimes plain and sometimes obscure. "The truths of religion," wrote this man who was fundamentally religious, "are in their nature mysterious, and, after more than a thousand years, are still the field of unending struggle, in which blood will not cease to flow until spiritual love illumines us and is given the last word." Anyone who interprets Holy Writ can make a mistake, and therefore toleration is the first duty of a Christian. "If all things were as clear and plain as is the existence of God, Christians could easily be of one way of thinking in religious matters, just as all nations are united in the recognition that there is a God. Since, however, all is obscure and confused, Christians should cease to condemn one another. If we are wiser than the heathen, let us show ourselves better and more compassionate than were they."
Castellio has advanced a step in his disquisition. Anyone who, though he recognizes the fundamentals of the Christian faith, fails to do so in the way pleasing to the established authorities, is styled a heretic. Heresy, therefore (here at length we reach the core of the matter), is not an absolute, but a relative concept. Of course, for a Catholic, a Calvinist is a heretic; and equally, of course, for a Calvinist, an Anabaptist is a heretic. The man who in France is accounted a true believer is a heretic in Geneva; and conversely. He who in one country will be burned as a criminal is, in a neighbouring land, acclaimed a martyr. "Whereas in one city or one neighbourhood, they will style you a true believer, in the next city, or the adjoining neighbourhood, they will despise you as a heretic; so that he who today wishes to live undisturbed must have as many convictions and religions as there are towns and countries." Now Castellio comes to his last and boldest formulation. "When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views." This seems extremely simple, almost commonplace, so obvious is it. But to say as much frankly, demanded immense moral courage in those days. For the significance of this formulation was that a whole era, its leaders, princes, and priests, Catholics and Lutherans alike, were flatly told that their heresy-hunting was absurd, and the outcome of an illusion. Thousands and tens of thousands had been persecuted and put to death, hanged, drowned, or burned, illegally; they were innocent, for they had not committed any crime against God or the State; they had not lived apart from their fellows in the realm of action, but only in the invisible world of ideas. Who is entitled to direct a fellow-man's thoughts, or to consider the latter's intimate and most private convictions a crime at common law? Not the State, nor any other established authority. We read in the Bible that we are to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and Castellio quotes Luther to the effect that the earthly kingdom has command only over the body, whereas, as far as the soul was concerned, God did not wish any mundane law to prevail. The State is entitled to insist that every subject shall comply with the dictates of external and political order. Consequently, any authoritative interference in the internal world of moral, religious, and (let me add) artistic convictions, so long as these do not involve manifest rebellion against the essence of the State (in modern terminology, so long as they do not consist of political agitation), signifies an abuse of power and an invasion of the inviolable rights of the individual. For what happens in this inner world no one is responsible to the State, seeing that "with regard to these matters everyone can make a personal appeal to God." The State authority has no concern with matters of opinion. Why, then, should people foam at the mouth when they come across someone whose philosophical convictions differ from their own; why this instant call for the police; why this murderous hatred? In default of a conciliatory spirit, true humaneness is impossible. "We can live together peacefully only when we control our intolerance. Even though there will always be differences of opinion from time to time, we can at any rate come to general understandings, can love one another, and can enter the bonds of peace, pending the day when we shall attain unity of faith."
The blame for these butcheries, for these barbarous persecutions which dishonour the name of man, does not accrue to the "heretics." They are blameless. No one can be taken to task for his thoughts or his convictions. Guilt, in a perpetually guilty world suffering from illusions and wild confusion, attaches to fanaticism, to the impatience of ideologists who will not admit that any other idea, religion, or philosophy than their own can be true. Inexorably Castellio pillories such maniacal presumption. "Men are so strongly convinced of the soundness of their own opinions, or, rather, of the illusive certainty that their own opinions are sound, that they despise the opinions of others. Cruelties and persecutions are the outcome of arrogance, so that a man will not tolerate others' differing in any way from his own views, although there are today almost as many opinions as there are individuals. Yet there is not one sect which does not condemn all the others and wish to reign supreme. That accounts for banishments, exiles, incarcerations, burnings, hangings, the blind fury of the tormentors who are continually at work, in the endeavour to suppress certain outlooks which displease our lords and masters, or, often enough, for no explicable reason." Obstinacy on one side leads to obstinacy on the other. As a result of spiritual intolerance, "as a result of the savage and barbaric desire to commit cruelties, we see many today who are so greatly inflamed by calumny that they grow enraged when one of those sentenced to execution is mercifully strangled before the faggots are fired."
Only one thing can save mankind from such barbarism -toleration. Our world has room for many truths, which, if people had goodwill, could abide harmoniously together. "Let us be tolerant towards one another, and let no one condemn another's belief." Heresy-hunts are needless, as is any sort of persecution of opinion. Whereas Calvin, in his exculpation, had adjured princes to use fire and sword for the unsparing extirpation of heresy, Castellio implores the potentates to "incline, rather, to the side of clemency, and never yield to those who incite you to murder, for they will not stand beside you as helpers when you are called to your last account; they will have enough to do in order to defend themselves. Believe me, if Christ were here on earth today, He would never advise you to kill those who call on His name, even though they may err upon some detail, or may deviate from the right path."
Dispassionately, as is proper when intellectual problems call for solution, Sebastian Castellio discussed the thorny question of the guilt or innocence of so-called heretics. He carefully weighed the pros and cons, and demanded the establishment of a city of spiritual freedom to which these hunted wretches might resort for asylum. Though he felt certain of his ground, he presented his opinions humbly, whereas the sectarians, like cheapjacks in the marketplace, extolled their dogmatic wares noisily. Each of these narrow-minded doctrinaires screamed from his pulpit that he and no other was hawking the true belief, that only through his voice and in his words could God's will be proclaimed, while Castellio said simply: "I do not speak to you claiming to be a prophet sent by God, but as a man drawn from the masses, who detests contentiousness, and whose only wish is that religion shall seek to establish itself not through quarrels, but through compassionate love, not through outward practice, but through the inward service of the heart." Doctrinaires talked to one another as to schoolboys and slaves; but the humanists addressed one another as brother to brother, as man to man.
Nevertheless, a truly humane man could not but be strongly moved by the sight of inhuman deeds. The hand of an honest writer could not calmly go on penning statements of principle when his mind was profoundly disturbed by the illusions of his time; his voice could not but tremble when his nerves vibrated in just indignation. Thus, in the long run, Castellio could not restrain himself, or confine himself to academic inquiries concerning the martyrdom at Champel, where an innocent man was put to death amid unspeakable tortures, a scholar destroyed by a scholar, a theologian by a theologian, in the name of the religion of love.
The image of the tortured Servetus, the mass-persecutions of heretics, made Castellio raise his eyes from the written page, to seek those who were inciting to such cruelties, those who were fruitlessly trying to excuse their intolerance on the ground that they were pious servants of God. Calvin is fiercely envisaged when Castellio exclaims: "However horrible these things may be, the sinners sin yet more horribly when they endeavour to wrap up their misdeeds in the raiment of Christ, and declare that they act in accordance with his will." Castellio knows that persons in authority always endeavour to justify their deeds of violence by appealing to some religious or philosophical ideal. But blood besoils any idea on whose behalf it is shed, and violence debases the thoughts it claims to defend. Miguel Servetus had not been burned at Christ's command, but at the command of Jehan Calvin, and this was a disgrace to the whole of Christendom. "Who," exclaims Castellio, "would today wish to become a Christian when those who confess themselves Christians are slain by other Christians without mercy by fire and water and the sword and are treated more cruelly than murderers or robbers?" Who would wish to go on serving Christ when he sees how today anyone that differs in some paltry detail from persons who have wrested power to themselves is burned alive in the name of Christ, although, like Servetus, he calls on Christ amid the flames, and loudly declares himself a believer in Christ? "What more could Satan do than burn those who call on the name of Jesus?"
This admirably humane man therefore feels it is time to dispel the illusion that persons are martyred and murdered merely because, on the intellectual plane, they differ from the potentates of the hour. And since he sees that potentates always misuse their powers, and since he himself, alone, a weakling, is the only person on earth to espouse the cause of the persecuted and the hunted, he despairingly raises his voice and ends his appeal in an ecstatic fugue of compassion.
"O Creator and King of the world, dost thou see these things? Art thou become so changed, so cruel, and so contrary to thine own self? When thou wast on earth, none was more mild, more clement, more patient of injury. When scourged, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, and crucified between two thieves, in the midst of thy humiliation thou didst pray for those who had done these shameful things to thee. Art thou now so changed? I implore thee in the sacred name of thy Father: can it really be thy will that those who do not understand thy precepts as the mighty demand shall be drowned, cut with lashes to the entrails, sprinkled with salt, dismembered by the sword, roasted at a slow fire, and tortured to death as cruelly as possible? Dost thou command and approve these things, O Christ? Is it really thy servants who have organized such butcheries, who thus flay thy people and chop them to mincemeat? Art thou really present when people call thy name in witness during such atrocities, as if thou wert an hungered for human flesh? If thou, Christ, do really command these things, what is left over for Satan to do? What a terrible blasphemy it is to declare that thou couldst command these deeds of Satan! What base presumption on the part of men to ascribe to Christ that which can come to pass only through the will and inventiveness of the Devil!"
Had Sebastian Castellio written nothing more than the preface to the book De haereticis, and in that preface, nothing but this page, his name would remain imperishable in the history of mankind. For how solitary was his voice; how little hope could he have that his adjuration would find hearers in a world where the clash of arms dulled the sound of words and where war was the last appeal! Still, though they have been promulgated again and again by religious teachers and by sages, the most humane demands of forgetful mankind must be restored to memory. "Doubtless I say nothing," adds the modest Castellio, "which others have not said before me. But it is never superfluous to repeat what is true and just until it enforces recognition." Since, in every age, violence renews itself in changed forms, the struggle against it must continually be renewed by those who cling to the things of the spirit. They must never take refuge behind the pretext that at the moment force is too strong for them. For what it is necessary to say cannot be said too often, and truth can never be uttered in vain. Even when the Word is not victorious, it manifests its eternal presence; and one who serves it at such an hour has given glorious proof that no Terror holds sway over a free spirit, but that even in the most cruel of centuries there is still a place for the voice of humaneness.
Chapter Seven: Conscience Against Violence
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