Castellio Against Calvin



Extremes Meet


Le temps est trouble, le temps se esclarcira

Apres la plue l'on atent le beau temps

Apres noises et grans divers contens

Paix adviendra et maleur cessera.


Mais entre deulx que mal l'on souffrera! --Chanson de Marguerite d'Autriche.


THE struggle seemed over. By clearing Castellio out of the way, Calvin had rid himself of the only adversary endowed with outstanding intelligence. Simultaneously, he silenced his political opponents in Geneva and could now develop his policy unhampered. As soon as dictators have surpassed the inevitable crises of early days, they can usually regard their position as secure for a considerable time. Just as the human organism, after a period of discomfort, becomes acclimatized to new physical surroundings, so, likewise, do the nations adapt themselves to new methods of rule. After a while the members of the older generation, who bitterly compare the extant regime of force with their memory of earlier and easier days, die out, while the younger folk, who have no such memories, grow up in the new tradition which they take for granted. In the course of a generation, people can be decisively modified by an idea; and thus it came to pass that, after two decades of Calvin's theocracy, the dictator's new decalogue had progressed from its condition of theological conceptualism and had assumed material form. In justice we have to admit that this talented organizer set to work after his initial victory with wise deliberation, expanding his system gradually until it became worldwide. In respect of behaviour, the iron order he established made Geneva exemplary. From all parts of the western world, members of the Reformed Churches journeyed as pilgrims to the "Protestant Rome" that they might admire so remarkable a specimen of a theocratic regime. What rigid discipline and Spartan endurance could achieve, was achieved to the full. Granted, dynamic variety was sacrificed to monotony, and joy to a mathematical correctness; but, in return, education was raised to a niche among the arts. Schools, universities, and welfare institutions were beyond compare; the sciences were sedulously cultivated; and with the foundation of the Academy, Calvin not only brought into being the first intellectual centre of Protestantism, but at the same time set up a counterpart to the Society of Jesus created by his sometime fellow-student Loyola--logical discipline being contraposed to logical discipline, and a steeled will to a steeled will. Splendidly equipped with theological armaments, preachers and agitators were sent forth from Geneva to spread Calvinist doctrines. The Master had made up his mind long ago that his authority and his teaching should not be restricted to this one Swiss town. His will-to-power forced him to extend his sway over lands and seas, in the hope that Europe, nay the world, would accept his totalitarian system. Scotland was already under his thumb. thanks to the activities of his legate, John Knox; Holland, Scandinavia, Denmark, and parts of Germany had been permeated by the Puritan spirit; in France, the Huguenots were rallying to strike a decisive blow. If favoured by fortune, the Institutio might become a universal institution, and Calvinism might be established as the unified method of thought and behaviour of civilization.

How decisively such a victory would have modified European culture is shown by the imprint of Calvinism on the lands where it speedily became supreme. Wherever the Genevese Church was able to enforce the moral and religious dictatorship to which it aspired-even though that dictatorship was fleeting--a peculiar character was stamped upon national life. The citizens, or subjects, tended to become persons who "spotlessly" fulfilled their moral and religious obligations; sensuality and libertarianism were tamed and domesticated until they were methodically controlled; life assumed dun, drab hues. So effectively can a strong personality immortalize itself in the daily life of a people that to this day, in towns where Calvinism was for a time dominant, the casual observer can recognize its enduring influence, as displayed in a moderation of demeanour, in a lack of emphasis as regards dress and behaviour, and even in the sobriety of architecture. Bridling everywhere the impetuous demands of individualism, strengthening everywhere the grip of the authorities, Calvinism elaborated the type of the good servant, of the man who modestly but persistently subordinates himself to the community-in a word, the type of the excellent official and the ideally perfect member of the middle class. There is considerable truth in the assertion that no other factor has worked so powerfully as Calvinism to promote the unprotesting obedience essential for the success of industrial capitalism; for Calvinism inculcated upon the young, as a religious duty, the unquestioning acceptance of equalization and mechanization. It must never be forgotten that a State enhances its military strength by the resolute organization of its subjects. Those marvellously tough, tenacious, and frugal navigators and colonists who conquered and settled new continents for Holland and England were mainly of Puritan origin. These Puritan stocks helped to mould the North American character so that the United States and Canada owe a large portion of their immense success to the educational influence of the doctrinaire preacher from Picardy.

Assuredly we of the year 1936--four centuries after the death of Erasmus, Geneva's determination to live exclusively according to the gospels and God's word, and Calvin's first coming to Geneva-have good reason for congratulating ourselves that the famous "discipline" was not, in its more trenchant form, successfully established throughout Protestant Europe. Hostile to beauty, happiness, life itself, the Calvinists raged against the splendour of vital expansion and against the spendthrift magnificence of the arts. Their exacting and orderly system placed a ban upon creative interpretations and cast a pall over the blaze of colour which, during the Renaissance, had given western Europe its empery in the history of civilization. Just as for centuries to come in Geneva they emasculated art; just as, on getting control of England, they hastened to trample underfoot one of the most beautiful blossoms in the world of spirit, the Shakespearian theatre; just as they purged the churches of pictures and statuary, inculcating the fear of the Lord as a substitute for human delight-so, all over Europe, they decreed that enthusiasm was to be tolerated only as a form of piety drawing men nearer to God. Other manifestations of enthusiasm were ruthlessly condemned as opposed to their interpretation of the Mosaic Law. A queer world it would have been had they achieved their end. The European spirit, undergoing atrophy, would have contented itself with theological hair-splitting, instead of unfolding and transforming itself without cessation. For the world remains barren and uncreative if it be not fertilized by liberty and joy; and life is frozen stiff when trammelled by a rigid system.

Happily, Europe did not allow itself to be disciplined, puritanized, "Genevesed," any more than non-Lacedaemonian Hellas would be dragooned by Spartan severity. Calvinist rigidity was victorious only in a small part of Europe; and even there it speedily abdicated. Calvin's theocracy could not for long impose itself upon any State; and, soon after the dictator's death, stubborn realities mitigated the harshness of his would-be inexorable "discipline." In the end warm sensuality proved stronger than abstract doctrine. With its vigorous juices, it permeates that which attempts to shackle it, breaking all bonds and tempering every asperity. Just as a muscle cannot remain tensed for an unlimited time or a passion persist enduringly at a white heat, so a dictatorship in the realm of the spirit cannot everlastingly maintain its ruthless radicalism. Indeed, it seldom endures for more than one generation.

Thus Calvin's intolerant discipline was modified sooner than might have been expected. Rarely, after the lapse of a century, does a doctrine resemble closely what it was when first promulgated; and we should make a grave mistake were we to suppose the later Calvinism to be identical with the Calvinism of Calvin. No doubt, even in the days of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Genevese were still anxiously discussing whether the theatre ought or ought not to be forbidden, and were actually asking themselves whether the "fine arts" denoted the progress or the doom of mankind-but long ere this the harsh angles of Calvinism had been rounded off, and rigid interpretations of the word of God had been adapted to human needs. The spirit of development knows how to modify its creatures for its own mysterious purposes. Eternal progress accepts from every system no more than is desirable, throwing away restrictive products as we throw away the skin of a fruit. In the great plan which mankind fulfils, dictators are but temporary forces; and what aspires to hedge the rhythm of life within a field of reaction, achieves its aim only for a season, to lead, then, to a yet more energetic escape. Thus, by a strange modification, Calvinism, with its fierce determination to hamper individual liberty, gave birth to the idea of political liberty. Holland, Cromwell's England, and the United States of America, the three countries where modern liberalism was first conceived, gave ample scope to the liberal and democratic ideas of the Stare. One of the most important of latter-day documents, the Declaration of Independence of the United States. issued from the Puritan spirit; while the Declaration, in turn, exercised a decisive influence upon the shaping of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Strangest transformation scene of all when extremes met. The lands which were to be most thoroughly steeped in intolerance became the focuses of toleration in Europe. In the very places where Calvin's religion had been law, Castellio's ideal was subsequently realized. That Geneva where Calvin had burned Servetus because the Spaniard dared to differ in opinion from the dictator became, in due time, the place of refuge for the living Antichrist of his day, Voltaire, "God's enemy." This "Antichrist" was courteously visited by Calvin's successors in office, the preachers at the cathedral of St. Pierre, who did not hesitate to engage in philosophic discussions with the blasphemer. In Holland, again, men who could find rest nowhere else on earth, Descartes and Spinoza, wrote books that were to free mankind from the fetters of ecclesiasticism and tradition. Renan, little disposed to tank of miracles, declared it to be a miracle that rigid Protestants were furthering the rationalist Enlightenment. Yet they did so. Persons who in other lands were being persecuted for their faith and their opinions fled to the shadow of Calvinism in search of protection. Extremes meet. Within two centuries from the deaths of Castellio and Calvin, the demands of the former and the demands of the latter, brotherly toleration on the one hand, and religion on the other, were to dwell peaceably side by side in Holland, in England, and in America.

For Castellio's ideals, like Calvin's, outlived their creator. When a man dies, it may seem for a brief space that his message has evaporated into the void; for a few decades silence may enfold it, as the earth his coffin. No one breathed the name of Castellio; his friends died or vanished; the few of his writings that had been published gradually became unobtainable, and no one ventured to print the others. It might have been supposed that his fight had been fought, his life lived, in vain. But history moves along strange routes. The apparently unqualified success of his opponent promoted Castellio's resurrection. The victory of Calvinism in Holland was too complete. The preachers, annealed in the fanatical school of the Academy, thought it incumbent upon them to outdo Calvin's severities in the newly conquered land. Soon, however, among this stubborn people, who had successfully defended themselves against those who claimed empery over the Old World and the New, resistance raised its head. The Netherlanders would not endure to have their newly acquired political liberties stifled by dogmatic coercion in the realm of conscience. Some of the clergy began to remonstrate-being later known as "remonstrants"-against the totalitarian claims of Calvinism; and when they were in search of spiritual weapons against unsparing orthodoxy, they remembered a forerunner, who had become almost legendary. Coornhert and the other liberal Protestants disinterred his writings, and from 1603 onwards began to reprint them in the original and in Dutch translations. On all hands they secured attention and aroused increasing admiration.

It became apparent that Castellio's ideal of toleration had not perished in the tomb, but had outlived a severe winter. Now it was to blossom with renewed energy. The enthusiasts for toleration were not content with the already published writings of the Master, but sent emissaries to Basle to secure those which had been left behind in manuscript. Having been brought to Holland, these works were published in the original and in translations, so that half a century after Castellio's death a collected edition appeared at Gouda (1612). Thereupon, the resurrected Castellio became a centre of controversy, and had for the first time a large circle of disciples. His influence was widespread, though almost impersonal and anonymous. Castellio's thoughts lived again in others' works and others' struggles. The Arminians' famous advocacy of liberal reforms in Protestantism was mainly supported by arguments derived from his writings. When an Anabaptist was being tried for heresy at Chur, in Switzerland, Gantner, a Grisonese preacher, took up the cudgels on behalf of the accused, and appeared in court with "Martinus Bellius's" book in his hand. It is probable, indeed, although documentary evidence of the hypothesis is lacking, that Descartes and Spinoza were directly influenced by Castellio's ideas, since Castellio's works were now so widely read in Holland. However this may be, the cause of toleration was not espoused by intellectuals and humanists alone. Gradually it became the cause of the whole population of the Low Countries, who were weary of theological disputations and fratricidal wars of religion. In the Peace of Utrecht, the idea of toleration became a weapon of statecraft, materializing vigorously out of the realm of abstraction to take up its abode on solid earth. The ardent appeal made by Castellio to the princes, demanding that they should show respect for one another's opinions, had now been heard by a free people and embodied in its laws. From this first province of What was to be a world dominion, the idea of toleration for every creed and every opinion started its conquest; and one country after another, accepting Castellio's message, condemned persecution of religious or philosophical opinions. In the French Revolution the rights of the individual were at length guaranteed. It was declared that men had been born free and equal, that they were entitled to express their opinion and to proclaim their faith without restraint. By the time that the next century, the nineteenth, was well under way, the notion of liberty-the liberty of nations, of individuals, of thoughts-had been accepted as an inalienable maxim by the civilized world.

Appendix: Bibliography and Chronology

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