Castellio Against Calvin


Stefan Zweig





He who, though he falleth, is stubborn in his courage, and, being in danger of imminent death, is no whit daunted in his assurance; but, in yielding up the ghost, beholds his enemy with a scornful and fierce look--he is vanquished, not by us, but by fortune; he is slain, but not conquered. The most valiant are often the most unfortunate. So are there triumphant losses more to be envied than victories.

--MONTAIGNE, Of Cannibals.


"A fly attacking an elephant." Such is the MS interpolation, in Sebastian Castellio's own handwriting, on the Basle copy of his polemic against Calvin. At first it repels us a little, and we are inclined to regard it as one of the hyperbolical utterances to which the humanists were prone. Yet Castellio's words were neither hyperbolical nor ironical. By the crude contrast this doughty fighter merely intended to convey clearly to his friend Amerbach his own profound and distressing conviction that he was challenging a colossal antagonist when he publicly charged Calvin with having been instigated by fanatical dogmatism in putting a man to death and thus slaughtering freedom of conscience under the Reformation.

When Castellio entered the lists in this perilous tourney, taking up his pen as a knight a lance, he was aware that a purely spiritual attack upon a dictatorship in the panoply of material armour would prove ineffectual, and that he was, therefore, fighting for a lost cause. How could an unarmed man, a solitary, expect to vanquish Calvin, who was backed by thousands and tens of thousands, and equipped with all the powers of the State? A master of the art of organization, Calvin had been able to transform a whole city, a whole State, whose numerous burghers had hitherto been freemen, into a rigidly obedient machine; had been able to extirpate independence, and to lay an embargo on freedom of thought in favour of his own exclusive doctrine. The powers of the State were under his supreme control; as wax in his hands were the various authorities, Town Council and Consistory, university and law-courts, finance and morality, priests and schools, catchpoles and prisons, the written and the spoken and even the secretly whispered word. His doctrine had become law, and anyone who ventured to question it was soon taught--by arguments that burked discussion, by the arguments of every spiritual tyranny, by jail, exile, or burning at the stake--how in Geneva only one truth was valid, the truth of which Calvin was the prophet.

But the sinister power of this zealot extended far beyond the walls of Geneva. The Swiss federated cities regarded him as their chief political member; throughout the western world the Protestants had appointed this "violentissimus Christianus" their commander-in-chief; kings and princes vied with one another in wooing the favour of a militant ecclesiastic who had established in Europe a Church organization second in power only to that ruled by the Roman pontiff. Nothing could happen in the political world without his knowledge; very little could happen there in defiance of his will. It had become as dangerous to offend the preacher of St.-Pierre as to offend emperor or pope.

What was his adversary, Sebastian Castellio, the lonely idealist who, in the name of freedom of thought, had renounced allegiance to Calvin's as to every other spiritual tyranny? Reckoning up the material forces available to the two men, it is no exaggeration to compare one of them to a fly and the other to an elephant. Castellio was a nemo, a nobody, a nullity, as far as public influence was in question; he was, moreover, an impoverished scholar, hard put to make a living for wife and children by translations and private tuition; a refugee in a foreign land, where he had no civil status nor even the fight of residence, an émigré twice over; and, as always happens in days when the world has gone mad with fanaticism, the humanist was powerless and isolated amid contending zealots.

For years this great and modest and humane man of learning lived under the twin shadows of persecution and poverty, always in pitiful straits, yet inwardly free, because bound by no party ties, and because he had not let himself become enslaved by any of the prevailing forms of fanaticism. Not until his conscience was outraged by Calvin's execution of Servetus did he put aside his peaceful labours and attack the dictator, in the name of the desecrated rights of man. Not until then did this solitary prove himself a hero. Whereas his veteran opponent had a compact train of devoted followers (or, if not devoted, held in the trammels of a harsh discipline), Castellio could count on the support of no party, whether Catholic or Protestant. There was no great man, no emperor and no king, to protect him, as such had protected Luther and Erasmus. Even the few friends and intimates who admired his courage ventured only in secret to say a cheering word.

Dangerous indeed to life or limb was the public defence of a thinker who dared espouse the cause of the persecuted when fanatics were heresy-hunting and were racking or burning those who differed from them. Nor did Castellio confine himself to particular cases; he denied that those in the seats of the mighty were entitled to harm anyone because of private opinions. Here was a man who, during one of those periods of collective insanity with which the world is from time to time afflicted, dared to keep his mind immune from popular hallucinations, and to designate by their true name of murder the slaughterings which purported to be made for the greater glory of God. Humane feeling compelled him to raise his lone voice, saying: "I can no longer keep silence," and to besiege the heavens with clamours of despair concerning man's inhumanity to man. So perennial is the cowardice of our race that Castellio and his like who defy those in high places need look for few if any supporters. Thus it came to pass that in the decisive hour Sebastian Castellio found no backers, while his whole possessions were those which form the inalienable property of the militant artist: an unyielding conscience in an undismayed soul.

Yet for the very reason that Sebastian Castellio knew from the first that his campaign would be unavailing, and precisely because, knowing this, he unhesitatingly followed the call of conscience, his sacred stubbornness stamps for all time as a hero this "unknown soldier" in mankind's great war of liberation. Because he had the courage to make his passionate protest against a worldwide terror, Castellio's feud with Calvin must remain everlastingly

memorable. In respect of the underlying problems, moreover, this historical struggle transcends the time limits of the period during which it took place. It was not a dispute about some narrowly definable theological point, nor about the man Servetus; nor was it one to decide the issue between liberal and orthodox Protestantism. A question of far wider scope, a timeless question was at stake in this contest. Nostra res agitur. A battle was opened, which, under other names and in changing forms, has perpetually to be refought. Theology was no more than an accidental mask, worn became theology was the mode in sixteenth-century Geneva (and elsewhere). Castellio and Calvin were the symbolical expressions of an invisible but irreconcilable conflict. It matters not whether we term the poles of this enduring conflict toleration versus intolerance, freedom versus tutelage, humaneness versus fanaticism, individuality against mechanical uniformity, conscience against violence. In the last analysis these names signify an inward and personal decision as to which counts more for us: mankind or politics, the ethos or the logos, personality or community.

Every nation, every epoch, every thoughtful human being, has again and again to establish the landmarks between freedom and authority: for, in the absence of authority, liberty degenerates into licence, and chaos ensues; and authority becomes tyranny unless it be tempered by freedom. Buffed deep in human nature is a mystical longing for the absorption of self into the community; and ineradicable is the conviction that it must be possible to discover some specific religious, national, or social system which will definitively bestow peace and order upon mankind. With pitiless logic, Dostoeffsky's Grand Inquisitor proved that, for the most part, men are afraid of the gift of freedom; and in very truth the generality, from slackness in face of the enigmas that have to be solved and the responsibilities life imposes, crave for the mechanization of the world by a definitive and universally valid order which will save them the trouble of thinking.

This messianic yearning for a perdurable solution of the riddles of conduct is the ferment which smooths obstacles out of the path of prophets. When the ideals of one generation have lost their fire, their zest, their vivid tints, it is enough for a man (or woman) equipped with strong powers of suggestion to declare peremptorily that he and he alone has discovered the new and true formulas, and myriads will confidently accept the teachings of the nth messiah. For whoever can give men a new illusion of unity and purity will instantly stimulate the holiest of human energies: self-sacrifice and enthusiasm-- Millions, as if under a spell, are ready to surrender themselves, to allow themselves to be fertilized, even violated; and the more such a revealer or prophet asks of them, the more are they willing to give. Liberty, which yesterday seemed to them their greatest good and their highest pleasure, they will fling away for his sake, and will unresistingly follow the leader, fulfilling the Tacitean aspiration "ruere in servitium," so that, throughout history, the peoples, in a desire for solidarity, have voluntarily put their necks under the yoke and have kissed the hand into which they themselves have pressed the goad.

Thoughtful persons must be uplifted by the recognition that what, again and again in the story of our ancient, jejune, and mechanized world, has worked such miracles of suggestion has ever been the power of an idea--that most immaterial of forces. We incline, therefore, to yield to the temptation of admiring these world-seducers, who have succeeded in influencing crass matter by the might of the spirit. But, having gained the victory, such idealists and utopists, almost without exception, incontinently prove the worst of cheats. Power impels them to grasp universal power, victory leads to a misuse of victory; and, instead of congratulating themselves on having persuaded so many to accept their own pet illusions, on having gained disciples glad to live or to die for the cause, these conquistadors succumb to the itch for converting majority into totality. They crave to enforce their dogma upon those who are not party-members. The pliable, the satellites, the soul-slaves, the camp-followers of any big movement, do not suffice a dictator. Never will he be content until the free, the few independents, have become his toadies and his serfs; and, in order to make his doctrine universal, he arranges for the State to brand nonconformity as crime. Ever renewed is this curse that awaits religious and political ideologies, compelling them to degenerate into tyrannies as soon as they have established dictatorships. But directly a priest or a prophet ceases to have confidence in the immanent power of his faith or his teaching, and seeks to diffuse it by force, he declares war upon liberty. No matter what the dominant idea may be, whenever it has recourse to terror as the instrument for imposing uniformity upon alien convictions, it is no longer idealism but brutality. Even the purest of truths, when forcibly thrust upon malcontents, becomes the sin against the Holy Ghost.

This ghost, this spirit, is a mysterious element. Impalpable and invisible as air, it seems to enter without resistance into all forms and formulas. It misleads persons of despotic temperament into the fancy that they can compress it as much as they please, and reduce it to obedience in sealed flasks. But to every compression, it reacts dynamically by a proportional counter-pressure; and when very strongly compressed, it becomes an explosive, so that suppressive measures always lead to revolt. It is a consoling fact that, in the end, the moral independence of mankind remains indestructible. Never has it been possible for a dictatorship to enforce one religion or one philosophy upon the whole world. Nor will it ever be possible, for the spirit always escapes from servitude; refuses to think in accordance with prescribed forms, to become shallow and supine at the word of command, to allow uniformity to be permanently imposed upon it. How stupid and how futile is the attempt to reduce to a common denominator the divine multiplicity of existence, to divide human beings arbitrarily into black and white, good and bad, sheep and goats, true believers and heretics, loyalists and disloyalists--on the ground of a "principle" based exclusively upon the use of the strong hand. Always and everywhere there will crop up independents who sturdily resist any such restriction of human liberty, "conscientious objectors" of one sort and another; nor has any age been so barbaric, or any tyranny so systematic, but that individuals have been found willing and able to evade the coercion which subjugates the majority, and to defend their right to set up their personal convictions, their own truth, against the alleged "one and only truth" of the monomaniacs of power.

In the sixteenth century, although then as now the ideology of violence was rampant, there were free and incorruptible spirits. Letters from the humanists of those days bear witness to a profound distress at the disturbances caused by the champions of force. We are strongly moved by their detestation for the cheapjacks of dogma, who cried in the marketplace: "What we teach is true, and what we do not teach is false." As enlightened cosmopolitans, the humanists were horrified by the inhumanity of the "reformers," who ran riot over the western world, which had nurtured a faith in beauty, and foamed at the mouth while proclaiming their violent orthodoxies--men such as Savonarola, Calvin, and John Knox, who wished to make an end of beauty and to transform the globe into a moral seminary. With fateful perspicacity the humanists foresaw the disasters which such rabidly self-satisfied men would bring upon Europe. Through the clamour of tongues was already audible the clash of weapons, and the coming of a disastrous war could be confidently prophesied. But the humanists, though they knew the truth, did not dare fight for the truth. Almost always in life the lots are parted, so that a man of insight is not a man of action, and a man of action is not a man of insight. These sad-hearted humanists exchanged touching and admirably written letters, and complained often enough behind the closed doors of their studies; but none of them came into the open to defy Antichrist. Erasmus ventured, now and again, to shoot a few arrows out of his ambush. Rabelais, wearing fool's cap and motley, used fierce laughter as a scourge. Montaigne, a noble and wise philosopher, wrote eloquently about the matter in his Essays. But none of them struck shrewd blows in the endeavour to prevent the infamous persecutions and executions. Rendered cautious by experience, they said that the sage could find better occupation than attempting to control a mad dog, that it was a sensible man's part to keep in the background lest he should himself become one of the victims.

Castellio, however, earned his title to imperishable fame by being the one humanist to leave cover, and wittingly to meet his fate. Heroically he espoused the cause of his persecuted companions, and thereby threw away his life. Unfanatically, though daily and hourly threatened by the fanatics, dispassionately, with Tolstoyan imperturbability, hoisting like a banner his conviction that no man should be subjected to force for holding this or that opinion as to the nature of the universe, he declared that no earthly power was entitled to exercise authority over a man's conscience. And because he uttered these opinions, not in the name of a party but as a spontaneous expression of the imperishable spirit of mankind, his thoughts, like many of his words, can never fade. Universally human and timeless thoughts, when minted by an artist, retain for ever the sharpness of their first moulding; and an avowal which tends to promote world unity will outlast disuniting, aggressive, and doctrinaire utterances. The unique courage of this forgotten worthy should serve as example to later generations, above all in the moral sphere. For when, in defiance of the theologians, Castellio styled Calvin's victim Servetus "a murdered innocent"; when, in reply to Calvin's sophisms, he thundered the imperishable utterance, "to burn a man alive does not defend a doctrine, but slays a man"; when, in his Manifesto on Behalf of Toleration (long before Locke, Hume, and Voltaire, and much more splendidly than they), he proclaimed once for all the right to freedom of thought--he knew that he was hazarding his life for the sake of his convictions. Let not the reader suppose that Castellio's protest against the judicial murder of Miguel Servetus was on the same footing as the much more celebrated protests of Voltaire in the case of Jean Calas and of Zola in the Dreyfus affair. Such comparisons nowise detract from the outstanding moral grandeur of what Castellio did. Voltaire, when he took up the cudgels for Calas, was living in a humaner age, and, as a famous writer, could count on the protection of kings and princes. Similarly Zola was backed by an invisible army, by the admiration of Europe and the world. Voltaire and Zola were doubtless risking reputation and comfort, but neither of them ventured his life. That is what Castellio ventured, knowing that in his fight for humaneness he would concentrate upon his luckless head all the inhumaneness of the cruel century in which he lived.

Sebastian Castellio had to pay the full price for his heroism, a price which emptied his energies to the dregs. This advocate of non-violence, who wished to use none but spiritual weapons, was throttled by brute force. Again and again do we see, as here, that there is scant hope of success for one who has at his command no other power than that of moral rectitude, and who, standing alone, joins battle with a compact organization. As soon as a doctrine has got control of the State apparatus and the instruments of pressure which the State can wield, it unhesitatingly establishes a reign of terror. The words of anyone who challenges its omnipotence are stifled, and usually the dissentient speaker's or writer's neck is wrung as well. Calvin never attempted seriously to answer Castellio, preferring to reduce his critic to silence. Castellio's writings were censored, placed under a ban, and destroyed wherever found. By the exercise of political influence, the adjoining canton was induced to deny him freedom of utterance within its borders. Then, as soon as his power of protest or criticism had been destroyed, when he could not even report the measures that were being taken against him, Calvin's satellites calumniously attacked him. There was no longer a struggle between two adversaries equipped with like weapons, but the ruthless bludgeoning of an unarmed man by a horde of ruffians. Calvin held sway over the printing presses, the pulpits, the professorial chairs, and the synods. Castellio's steps were dogged; eavesdroppers listened to his every word; his letters were intercepted. Can we wonder that such a hundred-handed organization could easily get the better of the lonely humanist; that nothing but Castellio's premature death saved him from exile or the stake? The triumphant dogmatist and his successors did not scruple to wreak vengeance on their adversary's corpse. Suspicion and base invectives, posthumously disseminated, destroyed it like quicklime, and scattered ashes over his name. The memory of the solitary who had not only resisted Calvin's dictatorship, but had inveighed against the basic principle of dictatorship over the things of the spirit, was, so the zealots hoped, to pass from the minds of men for ever.

This last extremity of force was very nearly successful. Not merely was Castellio disarmed, gagged, and bound while his life lasted, but the methodical suppression of references to the great humanist consigned him to oblivion for many years after he was dead. Down to this day, a scholar need not blush never to have heard or mentioned the name of Sebastian Castellio. How could scholars know about him, seeing that the censorship of his chief writings endured for decades and for centuries? No printer who worked within Calvin's sphere of influence was bold enough to publish them; and when they at length appeared, it was too late for them to establish his renown as pioneer. Others, meanwhile, had adopted his ideas. The campaign he initiated and in which he fell was carried on in the wake of other standard-bearers. Many are foredoomed to live in the shadows, to die in the dark-village Hampdens and mute inglorious Miltons. Those who followed in Castellio's footsteps harvested and garnered his fame; and in every schoolbook we may still read the error that Locke and Hume were the first advocates of toleration in Europe, the blunder being .repeated and repeated as heedlessly as if Castellio's De haereticis had never been penned and printed. Forgotten is the author's moral courage, forgotten his campaign on behalf of Servetus, forgotten the war against Calvin ("a fly attacking an elephant"), forgotten are his writings. They are inadequately represented in the Dutch collected edition of translations; we find a few manuscripts in Swiss and Netherland libraries, and know of some utterances about Castellio by grateful pupils--these are the whole "remains" of a man whose contemporaries almost unanimously regarded him as one, not only of the most learned, but also of the most noble-minded, of his century. Great is the debt of gratitude still to be discharged to this forgotten champion, and crying the injustice still to be remedied.

History has no time to be just. It is her business, as impartial chronicler, to record successes, but she rarely appraises their moral worth. She keeps her eyes fixed on the victorious, and leaves the vanquished in the shadows. Carelessly these "unknown soldiers" are shovelled into the common ditch of forgetfulness. Nulla crux, nulla corona--neither cross nor garland--records their fruitless sacrifice. In truth, however, no effort made by the pure at heart should be deemed futile or stigmatized as barren; nor is any expenditure of moral energy dissipated into empty space to leave no repercussions. Though vanquished, those who lived before the time was ripe have found significance in the fulfilment of a timeless ideal; for an idea is quickened to life in the real world only through the endeavours of those who conceived it where none could witness the conception, and were ready for its sake to advance along the road to dusty death. Spiritually considered, the words "victory" and "defeat" acquire new meanings. Hence we must never cease to remind a world which has eyes only for monuments to conquerors that the true heroes of our race are not those who reach their transitory realms across hecatombs of corpses, but those who, lacking power to resist, succumb to superior force--as Castellio was overpowered by Calvin in his struggle for the freedom of the spirit and for the ultimate establishment of the kingdom of humaneness upon earth.

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