100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 85



Mahatma Gandhi was by common consent the saintliest figure of the 20th century. But what of other centuries? And for that matter what constitutes saintliness/religiosity? In many cases the two are almost contradictions in terms! Below is a list of those founders/renewers of religion from the history of humankind. Not all their actions were saintly, because founding a movement often requires the exact opposite behavior, but overall they represent what we will call the fifteen greatest representatives of religion as examples to their fellow members of humankind.

1. Muhammad (569? 632)


Muhammad in Mecca: 569?-622


On May 17, 569, Amina was delivered of the most influential human in history. His ancestry was distinguished, his patrimony modest: his father Abdullah, having predeceased his birth, left him five camels, a flock of goats, a house, and a slave who nursed him in his infancy. His name, meaning “highly praised,” lent itself well to certain biblical passages as predicting his advent. Amina died when he was six; his grandfather then raised him, aged seventy-six, and later his uncle Abu Talib. They gave him affection and care, but no one seems to have bothered to teach him how to read or write; the Arabs of the time held this feeble accomplishment in low repute; only seventeen men of the Quraysh tribe condescended to it. Muhammad was never known to write anything himself; he used an amanuensis. His apparent illiteracy did not prevent him from composing the most famous and eloquent book in the Arabic tongue or from acquiring such understanding of the management of men as seldom comes to highly educated persons.

    Of his youth, we know almost nothing, though fables about it have filled ten thousand volumes. At the age of twelve, says a tradition, he was taken by Abu Talib on a caravan to Bostra in Syria; perhaps on that journey he picked up some Jewish and Christian lore. Another tradition pictures him, a few years later, as going to Bostra on mercantile business for the rich widow Khadijah. Then suddenly we find him, aged twenty-five, marrying her. Until her death twenty-six years later, Muhammad lived with Khadijah in a monogamous condition highly unusual for a Muslim of means, but perhaps natural in their recipient. She bore him some daughters, of whom the most famous was Fatima, and two sons who died in infancy. He consoled his grief by adopting Ali, the orphan son of Abu Talib. Khadijah was a good woman, a good wife, a good merchant; she remained loyal to Muhammad through all his spiritual vicissitudes; and amid all his wives he remembered her as the best.

    Ali, who married Fatima, fondly describes his adoptive father at forty-five as


of middle stature, neither tall nor short. His complexion was rosy white; his eyes black; his hair, thick, brilliant, and beautiful, fell to his shoulders. His profuse beard fell to his breast. . . . There was such sweetness in his visage that no one, once in his presence, could leave him. If I hungered, a single look at the Prophet’s face dispelled the hunger. Before him all forgot their griefs and pains.


He was a man of dignity, and seldom laughed; he kept his keen sense of humor under control, knowing its hazards for public men. Of a delicate constitution, he was nervous, impressionable, given to melancholy pensiveness. In moments of excitement or anger, his facial veins would swell alarmingly; but he knew when to abate his passion, and could readily forgive a disarmed and repentant foe.

    There were many Christians in Arabia, some in Mecca; with at least one of these, Muhammad became intimate—Khadijah’s cousin Waraqah ibn Nawfal, “who knew the Scriptures of the Hebrews and the Christians.” Muhammad frequently visited Medina, where his father had died; there he may have met some of the Jews who formed a large part of the population. Many a page of the Qur’an proves that he learned to admire the morals of the Christians, the monotheism of the Jews, and the strong support given to Christianity and Judaism by the possession of Scriptures believed to be a revelation from God. Compared with these faiths the polytheistic idolatry, loose morality, tribal warfare, and political disunity of Arabia may have seemed to him shamefully primitive. He felt the need of a new religion—perhaps of one that would unify all these factious groups into a virile and healthy nation; a religion that would give them a morality not earth-bound to the Bedouin law of violence and revenge, but based upon commandments of divine origin and therefore of indisputable force. Many Arabs had been influenced by the Messianic expectations of the Jews; they, too, eagerly awaited a messenger from God. One Arab sect, the Hanifs, already rejected the heathen idolatry of the Kaaba, and preached a universal God, of whom all humankind should be willing slaves. Like every successful preacher, Muhammad gave voice and form to the need and longing of his time.

    As he approached forty, he became more and more absorbed in religion. During the holy month of Ramadan, he would withdraw to a cave at the foot of Mt. Hira, five kilometers from Mecca, and spend many days and nights in fasting, meditation, and prayer. One night in the year 609, as he was alone in the cave, the pivotal experience of all Islamic history came to him. According to a tradition reported by his chief biographer, Muhammad ibn Ishaq, Muhammad related the event as follows:


    Whilst I was asleep, with a coverlet of silk brocade whereon was some writing, the angel Gabriel appeared to me and said, “Read!” I said, “I do not read.” He pressed me with the coverlets so tightly that methought ’twas death. Then he let me go, and said, “Read!” . . . so I read aloud, and he departed from me at last. And I awoke from my sleep, and it was as though these words were written on my heart. I went forth until, when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, “O Muhammad! Thou art the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.” I raised my head toward heaven to see, and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man, with feet set evenly on the rim of the sky, saying, “O Muhammad! Thou art the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”


Returning to Khadijah, he informed her of the visions. We are told that she accepted them as a true revelation from heaven, and encouraged him to announce his mission.

    When pressed to describe the process of revelation, he answered that the entire text of the Qur’an existed in heaven, and Gabriel communicated one fragment at a time to him. Asked how he could remember these divine discourses, he explained that the archangel made him repeat every word.

    During the next four years, Muhammad more and more openly announced himself as the prophet of Allah, divinely commissioned to lead the Arab people to a new morality and a monotheistic faith. Difficulties were many. Muhammad lived in a mercantile, skeptical community, which derived some of its revenues from pilgrims coming to worship the Kaaba’s many gods. Against this handicap, he made some progress by offering to believers an escape from a threatened hell into a joyous and tangible paradise. He opened his house to all who would hear him—rich and poor and slaves, Arabs and Christians and Jews; and his impassioned eloquence moved a few to belief. His first convert was his aging wife; the second his cousin Ali; the third his servant Zaid, whom he had bought as a slave and had immediately freed; the fourth was his kinsman Abu Bakr, a man of high standing among the Quraysh. Abu Bakr brought to the new faith five other Meccan leaders; he and these became the Prophet’s six “Companions,” whose memories of him would later constitute the most revered traditions of Islam. Muhammad went often to the Kaaba, accosted pilgrims, and preached the one God. But when he attacked the Kaaba worship as idolatry the Quraysh rose to the protection of their income, and would have done him injury had not his uncle Abu Talib shielded him.

    Fear of a blood feud deterred the Quraysh from using violence upon Muhammad or his freemen followers. Upon converted slaves, however, they might employ dissuasive measures without offending tribal law. By years of commerce Abu Bakr had saved 40,000 pieces of silver; now he used 35,000 to buy the freedom of as many converted slaves as he could. Persecution of the poorer converts continued, and with such severity that the Prophet permitted or advised their emigration to Ethiopia (615).

    The defenders of the Kaaba gods formed a league pledged to renounce all intercourse with members of the Hashemite clan who still felt obligated to shield Muhammad. To avert conflict, many Hashemites, including Muhammad and his family, withdrew to a secluded quarter of Mecca, where Abu Talib could provide protection (615). A year later an event occurred which was almost as significant for Islam as the conversion of Paul had been for Christianity. Umar ibn al-Khattab, hitherto a most violent opponent, was won over to the new creed. He was a man of great physical strength, social power, and moral courage. His allegiance brought timely confidence to the harassed believers, and new adherents to the cause. Instead of hiding their worship in private homes, they now preached it boldly in the streets.

    The little group of converts rejoiced, but the year 619 brought triple misfortune to Muhammad. Khadijah, his most loyal supporter, and Abu Talib, his protector, died. Feeling insecure in Mecca, and discouraged by the slow increase of his followers there, Muhammad moved to Taif (620) one hundred kilometers east. But its leaders did not care to offend the merchant aristocracy of Mecca; its populace, horrified by any religious innovation, hooted him through the streets, and pelted him with stones until blood flowed from his legs. Back in Mecca, he married the widow Sauda, and betrothed himself to ‘A’isha, the pretty and petulant seven year-old daughter of Abu Bakr.*

    Meanwhile his visions continued. One night, it seemed to him, he was miraculously transported in his sleep to Jerusalem; there a winged horse, Buraq, awaited him at the Wailing Wall of the Jewish Temple ruins, flew him to heaven, and back again; and by another miracle the Prophet found himself, the next morning, safe in his Mecca bed. This flight made Jerusalem a third holy city for Islam.

    In 620 Muhammad preached to merchants who had come from Medina on pilgrimage to the Kaaba; they heard him with some acceptance, for the doctrine of monotheism, a divine messenger, and the Last Judgment were familiar to them from the creed of the Medina Jews. Returning to their city, some of them expounded the new gospel to their friends and in 622 some seventy-three citizens of Medina came privately to Muhammad and invited him to make Medina his home. He asked would they protect him as faithfully as their own families; they vowed they would, but asked what reward they would receive should they be killed in the process. He answered paradise.

    About this time Abu Sufyan, grandson of Umayya, became the head of the Meccan Quraysh. At his urging, the Quraysh commissioned some of their number to apprehend Muhammad, perhaps to kill him. Apprised of the plot, Muhammad fled with Abu Bakr to the cave of Thaur, five kilometers distant. The Quraysh emissaries sought them for three days, but failed to find them—the cave the two had taken refuge in miraculously and very rapidly developed cobwebs, and the Quraysh thought that no one was inside. The children of Abu Bakr brought camels, and the two men rode northward through the night, and through many days for 320 kilometers, until, on September 27, 622, they arrived at Medina. Two hundred Meccan adherents had preceded them in the guise of departing pilgrims, and stood at the city’s gates, with the Medina converts, to welcome the Prophet. Seventeen years later the Caliph Umar designated the first day—July 19, 622—of the Arabian year in which this Hegira (hijra—flight) took place as the official beginning of the Islamic era i.e. the Islamic state.


Muhammad in Medina: 622-30


The city hitherto called Yathrib, later renamed Medina’t al-Nabi or “City of the Prophet,” was situated on the western edge of the central Arabian plateau. Compared with Mecca it was a climatic Eden, with hundreds of gardens, palm groves, and farms. As Muhammad rode into the town one group after another called to him, “Alight here, O Prophet! . . . Abide with us!”—and with Arab persistence some caught the halter of his camel to detain him. His answer was perfect diplomacy: “The choice lies with the camel; let him advance freely”; the advice quieted jealousy, and hallowed his new residence as chosen by God. Where his camel stopped, Muhammad built a mosque and two adjoining homes—one for Sauda, one for ‘A’isha; later he added new apartments as he took new wives.

    In leaving Mecca, he had snapped many kinship ties; now he tried to replace bonds of blood with those of religious unity in a theocratic state. He called on both groups (the Refugees or Muhajirin from Mecca and the Helpers or Ansar converts in Medina) to worship in sacred union in the mosque. In the first ceremony held there, he mounted the pulpit and cried in a loud voice, “Allah is most great!” The assembly burst forth in the same proclamation. Then, still standing with his back to the congregation, he bowed in prayer. He descended the pulpit backward, and at its foot he prostrated himself thrice, while continuing to pray. In these prostrations were symbolized that submission of the soul to Allah which gave to the new faith its name Islam—“to surrender,” “to make peace”—and to its adherents the kindred name of Muslimin—“the surrendering ones,” “those who have made their peace with God.” Turning then to the assembly, Muhammad bade it observe this ritual to the end of time. A sermon completed the ceremony, often announcing, in Muhammad’s case, a new revelation, and directing the actions and policies of the week.

    The Prophet was creating a civic rule for Medina; and more and more he was compelled to address his time and inspirations to the practical problems of social organization, daily morals, even to intertribal diplomacy and war. As in Judaism, no distinction was made between secular and religious affairs; he was both Caesar and Christ. However, a majority of the Medina’s Arabs stood aside as “the Disaffected,” viewed the new creed and its ritual skeptically, and wondered whether Muhammad was destroying their traditions and liberties, and involving them in war. Most of the Medina Jews clung to their own faith, and continued to trade with the Meccan Quraysh. Muhammad drew up with these Jews a subtle concordat:

    The Jews who attach themselves to our commonwealth shall be protected from all insults and vexations; they shall have an equal right with our own people to our assistance and good offices; they . . . shall form with the Muslims one composite nation; they shall practice their religion as freely as the Muslims. . . . They shall join the Muslims in defending Yathrib against all enemies. . . . All future disputes between those who accept this charter shall be referred, under God, to the Prophet.


All the Jewish tribes of Medina and the surrounding country soon accepted this agreement: the Banu-Nadhir, the Banu-Kuraiza, the Banu-Kainuka. . . .

    The immigration of two hundred Meccan families created a food shortage in Medina. Because he was now technically at war with the Meccans, Muhammad commissioned his lieutenants to raid the caravans that passed Medina. He adopted the morals of most Arab tribes in his time. When the raids succeeded, four fifths of the spoils went to the raiders, one fifth to the Prophet for religious and charitable uses; the share of a slain raider went to his widow, and he himself at once entered paradise. So encouraged, raids and raiders multiplied, while the merchants of Mecca, whose economic life depended on the security of the caravans, plotted revenge. In 623, Muhammad himself organized a band of 300 armed men to waylay a rich caravan coming from Syria to Mecca. Abu Sufyan, who commanded the caravan, got wind of the plan, changed his route, and sent to Mecca for help. The Quraysh came 900 strong. The miniature armies met at the Wadi* Bedr, thirty-two kilometers south of Medina. If Muhammad had been defeated, his career might have ended there and then. He personally led his men to victory, ascribed it to Allah as a miracle confirming his leadership, and returned to Medina with rich booty and many prisoners (January 624).

    The Jews of Medina no longer liked this faith, which had once seemed so flatteringly kindred to their own. He retaliated with revelations in which Allah charged the Jews with corrupting the Scriptures, killing the prophets, and rejecting the Messiah. Originally the Muslims had arbitrarily made Jerusalem the qibla—the point toward which Muslims should turn in prayer; in 624 he changed this to Mecca and the Kaaba. About this time a Muslim girl visited the market of the Banu-Kainuka Jews in Medina; as she sat in a goldsmith’s shop a mischievous Jew pinned her skirt behind her to her upper dress. When she arose, she cried out in shame at her exposure. A Muslim slew the offending Jew, whose brothers then slew the Muslim. Muhammad marshaled his followers, blockaded the Banu-Kainuka Jews in their quarter for fifteen days, accepted their surrender, and bade them, 700 in number, depart from Medina, and leave all their possessions behind.

    Early in 625, Abu Sufyan led an army of 3000 men to the hill of Uhud, five kilometers north of Medina. Fifteen women, including Abu Sufyan’s wives, accompanied the army, and stirred it to fervor with wild songs of sorrow and revenge. Muhammad could muster only a thousand warriors, and even these did not fully follow his lead. The Meccans routed the Muslims; Muhammad fought bravely, received many wounds, and was carried half-unconscious from the field. But six months later the Prophet sufficiently recovered enough to attack the Banu-Nadhir Jews, charging them with helping the Quraysh and plotting against his life. After a three-week siege, he allowed them to emigrate, each family taking with it as much as a camel could carry. Muhammad appropriated some of their rich date orchards for the support of his household, and distributed the remainder among the Refugees. He felt justified in removing hostile groups from his flanks.

    In 626, Abu Sufyan and the Quraysh resumed the offensive, this time with 10,000 men, and with material aid from the Banu-Kuraiza Jews. Unable to meet such a force in battle, Muhammad defended Medina by having a trench dug around it. The Quraysh laid siege for twenty days; then, disheartened by wind and rain, they returned to their homes. Muhammad at once led 3000 men against the Banu-Kuraiza Jews. On surrendering, they were given a choice of Islam or death. They chose death. The Muslims slew their 600 fighting men, and sold their women and children into slavery.

    By this time, the Prophet had become an able general. During his ten years in Medina, he planned sixty-five campaigns and raids, and personally led twenty-seven. But he was also a diplomat. He shared the longings of the Refugees to see their Meccan homes and families and of both Refugees and Helpers to visit again the Kaaba that had been in their youth the hearth of their piety. As the first apostles thought of Christianity as a form and reform of Judaism, so the Muslims thought of Islam as a change and development of the ancient Meccan ritual. In 628, Muhammad sent the Quraysh an offer of peace, pledging the safety of their caravans in return for permission to fulfill the rites of the annual pilgrimage. The Quraysh replied that a year of peace must precede this consent. Muhammad agreed; they signed a ten-year’s truce.

    In 629, the Medina Muslims, to the number of 2000, entered Mecca peacefully; and while the Quraysh, to avoid mutual irritations, retired to the hills, Muhammad and his followers made seven circuits of the Kaaba. The Prophet touched the Black Stone reverently with his staff, but led the Muslims in shouting, “There is no god but Allah alone!” The orderly behavior and patriotic piety of the exiles impressed the Meccans; several influential Quraysh, including the future generals Khalid and Amr, adopted the new faith; and some tribes in the neighboring desert offered Muhammad the pledge of their belief for the support of his arms. When he returned to Medina, it was obvious that he was now strong enough to take Mecca by force.

    Muhammad knew that a tribe allied with the Quraysh had attacked a Muslim tribe, and thereby voided the truce (630). He gathered 10,000 men, and marched to Mecca. Abu Sufyan, perceiving the strength of Muhammad’s forces, allowed him to enter unopposed. Muhammad responded handsomely by declaring a general amnesty for all but two or three of his enemies. He destroyed the idols in and around the Kaaba, but spared the Black Stone, and sanctioned the kissing of it. He proclaimed Mecca the Holy City of Islam, and decreed that no unbeliever should ever be allowed to set foot on its sacred soil. The Quraysh abandoned direct opposition; and the buffeted preacher who had fled from Mecca eight years before was now master of all its life.


Muhammad Victorious: 630-2


His two remaining years—spent mostly at Medina—were a continuing triumph. After some minor rebellions all Arabia submitted to his authority and creed. In return for a moderate tribute, Muhammad took the Christians of Arabia under his protection, and they enjoyed full liberty of worship, but Islam forbade them to charge interest on loans. We are told that he sent envoys to the Greek emperor, the Persian king, and the rulers of Hira and Ghassan, inviting them to accept the new faith; apparently, there was no reply. He observed with philosophic resignation the mutual destruction in which Persia and Byzantium engaged themselves; but he does not seem to have entertained any thought of extending his power outside of Arabia.

    He filled his days with the chores of government. He gave himself conscientiously to details of legislation, judgment, and civil, religious, and military organization. The Prophet was not a scientific legislator; he drew up no code or digest, had no system; he issued edicts according to the occasion. He might present even his most prosaic directives as revelations from Allah. Harassed by the necessity of adapting this lofty method to mundane affairs, his style lost something of its former eloquence and poetry; but perhaps he felt that this was small price to pay for having all his legislation bear the awesome stamp of deity. At the same time, he could be charmingly modest. More than once, he admitted his ignorance. He protested against his followers taking him for more than a fallible and mortal man. He claimed no power to predict the future or to perform miracles.

    His ten wives and two concubines have been a source of marvel, merriment, and envy to the Western world. We must continually remind ourselves that the high death rate of the male among the ancient and early medieval Semites lent to polygamy, in Semitic eyes, the aspect of a biological necessity, almost a moral obligation. Muhammad accepted polygamy and indulged himself in marriage with a clear conscience and no morbid sensuality. ‘A’isha, in a tradition of uncertain authority, quoted him as saying that the three most precious things in this world are women, fragrant odors, and prayers. Some of his marriages were acts of kindness to the destitute widows of followers or friends, as in the case of Umar’s daughter Hafsa; some were diplomatic marriages, as in the case of Hafsa—to bind Umar to him—and the daughter of Abu Sufyan—to win an enemy. All his wives after Khadijah were barren. Of the children borne to him by Khadijah only one survived him—Fatima. Mary, a Coptic slave presented to him by the Negus of Ethiopia, rejoiced him, in the last year of his life, with a son; but Ibrahim died after fifteen months.

    He was a man of unassuming simplicity. His crowded harem troubled him with quarrels, jealousies, and demands for pin money. He refused to indulge the extravagance of his wives, but for a time he dutifully spent a night with each of them in rotation; the master of Arabia had no apartment of his own. The apartments in which he successively dwelt were cottages of unburnt brick, three and half to four meters square, two and half meters high and thatched with palm branches; the door was a screen of goat or camel hair; the furniture was a mattress and pillows spread upon the floor. He was often seen mending his clothes or shoes, kindling the fire, sweeping the floor, milking the family goat in his yard, or shopping for provisions in the market. He ate with his fingers, and licked them thriftily after each meal. His staple foods were dates and barley bread; milk and honey were occasional luxuries; and he obeyed his own interdiction of wine. Courteous to the great, affable to the humble, dignified to the presumptuous, indulgent to his aides, kindly to all but his foes—so his friends and followers describe him. He visited the sick, and joined any funeral procession that he met. He put on none of the pomp of power, rejected any special mark of reverence, accepted the invitation of a slave to dinner, and asked no service of a slave that he had time and strength to do for himself. Despite all the booty and revenue that came to him, he spent little upon his family, less upon himself, much in charity.

    But, like all men, he was vain. He gave considerable time to his personal appearance—perfumed his body, painted his eyes, dyed his hair, and wore a ring inscribed “Muhammad the Messenger of Allah”; perhaps this was for signing documents. His voice was hypnotically musical. His senses were painfully keen; he could not bear evil odors, jangling bells, or loud talk. “Be modest in thy bearing,” he taught, “and subdue thy voice. Lo, the harshest of all voices is that of the ass.” He was nervous and restless, subject to occasional melancholy, then suddenly talkative and gay. He had a sly humor. To Abu Horairah, who visited him with consuming frequency, he suggested: “O Abu Horairah! let me alone every other day, that so affection may increase.” He was a passionate warrior, and a just judge. He could be harsh, but his acts of mercy were numberless. He stopped many barbarous superstitions, such as blinding part of a herd to propitiate the evil eye, or tying a dead man’s camel to his grave, or stopping the branding of animals on their heads instead mandating that it be done on their haunches. His friends loved him to idolatry. His followers collected his spittle, or his cut hair, or the water in which he had washed his hands, expecting from these objects magic cures for their infirmities.

    His own health and energy had borne up well through all the tasks of love and war. But at the age of fifty-nine he began to fail. A year previously, the people of Khaibar had served him poisonous meat; since then he had been subject to strange fevers and spells; in the dead of night, ‘A’isha reported, he would steal from the house, visit a graveyard, ask forgiveness of the dead, pray aloud for them, and congratulate them on being dead. Now these fevers became more exhausting. One night ‘A’isha complained of a headache. He complained of one also, and asked playfully would she not prefer to die first, and have the advantage of the Prophet of Allah burying her—to which she replied, with her customary tartness, that he would on returning from her grave doubtless install a fresh bride in her place. For fourteen days thereafter the fever came and went. Three days before his death he rose from his sickbed, walked into the mosque, saw Abu Bakr leading the prayers in his stead, and humbly sat beside him during the ceremony. On June 10, 632, after a long agony, he passed away, his head on ‘A’isha’s breast.

    If we judge greatness by influence, he was one of the giants of history. He undertook to raise the spiritual and moral level of a people harassed into barbarism by heat and foodless wastes, and he succeeded more completely than any other reformer; seldom has any man so fully realized his dream. He accomplished his purpose through religion because not only was he himself religious, but because no other medium could have moved the Arabs of his time; he appealed to their imagination, their fears, and hopes, and spoke in terms that they could understand. When he began, Arabia was a desert flotsam of idolatrous tribes; when he died, it was a nation. He restrained fanaticism and superstitions, but he used them. Upon Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and his native creed, he built a religion simple, clear, and strong, and a morality of courage and racial pride, which in a generation marched to a hundred victories, in a century to empire, and remains to this day a growing and virile force through half the world.

* Renowned religious scholar Karen Armstrong comments: “There was no impropriety in Muhammad’s betrothal to ‘A’isha. Marriages conducted in abstentia to seal an alliance were often contracted at this time between adults and minors who were even younger than ‘A’isha. This practice continued in Europe well into the early modern period. There was no question of consummating the marriage until ‘A’isha reached puberty, when she would have been married like any other girl.— Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2006, 105

* A riverbed or valley usually dry in summer.

By agreeing to the concordat and then giving aid and comfort to the Meccans, they had committed treason.

2. Jesus Christ (1? B.C.E. 33)


The Sources


One of the most far-reaching activities of the modern mind has been the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible—the mounting attack upon its authenticity and veracity.

    What evidence is there for Christ’s existence? The oldest known mention of Christ in pagan literature is in a letter of the younger Pliny (110?), asking the advice of Trajan on the treatment of Christians. Five years later Tacitus described Nero’s persecution of the Chrestiani in Rome, and pictured them as already (64) numbering adherents throughout the Empire. Suetonius (125?) mentions the same persecution, and reports Claudius’ banishment (52?) of “Jews who, stirred up by Christ [impulsore Chresto], were causing public disturbances,” the passage accords well with the Acts of the Apostles, which mentions a decree of Claudius that “the Jews should leave Rome.” We must suppose that the Christian community in Rome had been established some years before 52, to merit the attention of an imperial decree. About the middle of this first century a pagan named Thallus, in a fragment preserved by Julius Africanus, argued that the abnormal darkness alleged to have accompanied the death of Christ was a purely natural phenomenon and coincidence; the argument took the existence of Christ for granted. The denial of that existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity.

    The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Paul. Several antedating the year 64 are almost universally accounted as substantially genuine. No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known Christ in the flesh.

    Matters are not so simple as regards the Gospels. The four that have come down to us are survivors from a much larger number that once circulated among the Christians of the first two centuries. The authors of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote in the Greek koine of popular speech. The directness and force of their simple style, the vivid power of their analogies and scenes, the depth of their feeling, and the profound fascination of the story they tell give even the rude originals a unique charm, immensely enhanced for the English world by the highly inaccurate but lordly version made for King James. The oldest extant copies of the Gospels go back only to the third century. The original compositions were apparently written between 75 and 95, and were therefore exposed to two centuries of errors in transcription, and to possible alterations to suit the theology or aims of the copyist’s sect or time. The only reference to a Christian gospel is in Papias, who, about 135, reports an unidentified “John the Elder” as saying that Mark had composed his gospel from memories conveyed to him by Peter. Papias adds: “Matthew transcribed in Hebrew the Logia”—apparently an early Aramaic collection of the sayings of Christ. Probably Paul had some such document, for though he mentions no gospels he occasionally quotes the direct words of Jesus.*

    Criticism generally agrees in giving the Gospel of Mark priority and in dating it to around 75. Since it sometimes repeats the same matter in different forms, a wide number of scholars believe it to have been based upon the Logia, and upon another early narrative, which may have been the original composition of Mark himself. Our Gospel of Mark apparently circulated while some of the apostles, or their immediate disciples were still alive; it seems unlikely, therefore, that it differed substantially from their recollection and interpretation of Christ. We may conclude, with the brilliant but judicious Schweitzer, that the Gospel of Mark is in essentials “genuine history.”

    Orthodox tradition placed Matthew’s Gospel first. Irenaeus describes it as originally composed in “Hebrew”—i.e. Aramaic; but it has come down to us only in Greek. Since in this form it apparently copies Mark, and probably also the Logia, criticism inclines to ascribe it to a disciple of Matthew rather than to the “publican” himself; even the most skeptical students, however, concede to it as early a date as 80-90. Aiming to convert Jews, Matthew relies more than the other evangelists rely on the miracles ascribed to Jesus, and is suspiciously eager to prove that Christ fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies. Nevertheless, it is the most moving of the four Gospels, and we must rank it among the unconscious masterpieces of the world’s literature.

    The Gospel according to Luke, generally assigned to about 85, announces its desire to coordinate and reconcile earlier accounts of Jesus, and aims to convert not Jews but gentiles. Very probably, Luke was himself a gentile, the friend of Paul, and the author of the Acts of the Apostles. Like Matthew, he borrows much from Mark. Many passages in Luke that are not in Mark occur in Matthew nearly verbatim; apparently Luke borrowed these from Matthew, or Luke and Matthew took them from a common source, now lost. Luke works up these candid borrowings with some literary skill; Renan thought this Gospel the most beautiful book ever written.

    The Fourth Gospel does not pretend to be a biography of Jesus; it is a presentation of Christ from the theological point of view, as the divine Logos or Word, creator of the world and redeemer of humankind. It contradicts the others in a hundred details and in its general picture of Christ. The half-Gnostic character of the work, and its emphasis on metaphysical ideas, has led many Christian scholars to doubt that its author was the apostle John. Studies tend to restore the Fourth Gospel to a date near the end of the first century.

    After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.


The Growth of Jesus


Both Matthew and Luke assign Jesus’ birth to “the days when Herod was king of Judea”—consequently in or before 1 B.C.E. Luke tells the story of the Annunciation with some literary art, and puts into the mouth of Miriam—Mary—that Magnificat, which is one of the great poems embedded in the New Testament. Luke describes Jesus as “about thirty years old” when John baptized him “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius”—i.e. 28-29. This would place Christ’s birth in the year 2-1 B.C.E. Luke adds, “in those days there went out a decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed . . . when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”* We have no knowledge of the specific day of his birth. Clement of Alexandria (200?) reports diverse opinions on the subject in his day, some chronologists dating the birth April 17 (Gregorian), some May 18; he himself assigned it to November 15, 3 B.C.E. As far back as the second century the Eastern Christians celebrated the Nativity on January 4. In 354, some Western churches, including those of Rome, commemorated the birth of Christ on December 25 that they erroneously calculated as the winter solstice; it was already the central festival of Mithraism, the birthday of the unconquered sun. The Eastern churches clung for a time to January 4, and charged their Western brethren with sun worship and idolatry, but by the end of the fourth century, the East also adopted December 25.

    Matthew and Luke place the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, eight kilometers south of Jerusalem; thence, they tell us, the family moved to Nazareth in Galilee. His parents gave him the quite common name Yeshu’a (our Joshua), meaning “the help of Yahweh”; the Greeks made this into Iesous, the Romans into lesus.

    The evangelists tell us little of Christ’s youth. On the annual journeys that all good Palestinian Jews made to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Jesus must have learned something of the Essenes, and their half-monastic, almost Buddhistic, life. But the experience that aroused him to religious fervor was the preaching of John, the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

    In or shortly after “the fifteenth year of Tiberius,” says Luke, Jesus came down to the Jordan so that John would baptize him. This decision attested Christ’s acceptance of John’s teaching; his own would be essentially the same. His methods and character, however, were different: he would himself never baptize anyone, and he would live not in the wilderness but in the world. Soon after Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, ordered the imprisonment of John. The Gospels ascribe the arrest to John’s criticism of Herod’s acts in divorcing his wife and marrying Herodias while she was still the wife of his half-brother Philip.


The Mission


When Herod imprisoned John, Jesus took up the Baptist’s work, and began to preach the coming of the Kingdom. He “returned to Galilee,” says Luke, “and taught in the synagogues.” We have an impressive picture of the young idealist taking his turn at reading the Scriptures to the congregation at Nazareth, and choosing a passage (lxi, 1-2) from Isaiah. Luke adds, “he began by saying to them, ‘This passage of Scripture has been fulfilled here in your hearing today.’” When the news came that Herod had beheaded John, and his followers sought a new leader, Jesus assumed the burden and the risk, and more and more boldly proclaimed the gospel of repentance, belief, and salvation. Some of his hearers thought he was John raised from the dead.

    His religious sensitivity was so keen that he condemned severely those who would not share his vision; he could forgive any fault but unbelief. He counsels nobly, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” but he cursed the men and cities that would not receive his gospel. He had the puritan zeal of the Hebrew prophet rather than the broad calm of the Greek sage. His convictions consumed him; righteous indignation now and then blurred his profound humanity; his faults were the price he paid for that passionate faith which enabled him to move the world.

    For the rest he was the most lovable of men. Many women sensed in him a sympathetic tenderness that aroused in them an unstinted devotion. Hardly within the inventive powers of the evangelists is the account of the prostitute who, moved by his ready acceptance of repentant sinners, knelt before him, anointed his feet with precious myrrh, let her tears fall upon them, and dried them with her hair. Of her, Jesus said that he forgave her sins “because she loved much.” We are told that mothers brought their children to be touched by him, and “he took the children in his arms, laid his hands upon them, and blessed them.”

    Unlike the prophets, the Essenes, and the Baptist, he was no ascetic. The Gospels represent him as providing abundant wine for a marriage feast, as living with “publicans and sinners,” and receiving a Magdalene into his company. He was not hostile to the simple joys of life, though he was unbiologically harsh on the desire of a man for a maid. Occasionally he partook of banquets in the homes of rich men. Generally, however, he moved among the poor. Realizing that the rich would never accept him, he built his hopes upon an overturn that would make the poor and humble supreme in the coming Kingdom. Jesus was not without intellect; he answered the tricky questions of the Pharisees with almost a lawyer’s skill, and yet with wisdom; no one could confuse him, even in the face of death. But his powers of mind were not intellectual, did not depend upon knowledge; they were derived from keenness of perception, intensity of feeling, and singleness of purpose. Only his earnestness and enthusiasm led him to overestimate his capacities, as in Nazareth and Jerusalem. That his powers were nevertheless exceptional seems proved by his miracles.

    Probably these were in most cases the result of suggestion—the influence of a strong and confident spirit upon impressionable souls. With a few exceptions, they are believable. Two features indicate the psychological nature of the miracles. Christ himself attributed his cures to the “faith” of those whom he healed; and he could not perform miracles in Nazareth, apparently because the people there looked upon him as “the carpenter’s son,” and refused to believe in his unusual powers; hence his remark that “a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.” We are told of Mary Magdalene that “seven demons had been driven out of her”; i.e. she suffered from nervous diseases and seizures (the word recalls the theory of “possession”); these seemed to abate in the presence of Jesus; therefore, she loved him as one who had restored her to life, and whose nearness was indispensable to her sanity. In the case of Jairus’ daughter Christ said frankly that the girl was not dead but asleep—perhaps in a cataleptic state; in calling upon her to awake he used not his wonted gentleness but the sharp command, “Little girl, get up!” This is not to say that Jesus considered his miracles to be purely natural phenomena; he felt that he could work them only through the help of a divine spirit within him. We do not know that he was wrong, nor can we yet set limits to the powers that lie potential in the thought and will of humankind. Jesus himself seems to have experienced a psychical exhaustion after his miracles. He was reluctant to attempt them, forbade his followers to advertise them, reproved men for requiring a “sign,” and regretted that even his apostles accepted him chiefly because of the “wonders” he performed.


The Gospel


He taught with the simplicity required by his audiences, with interesting stories that insinuated his lessons into the understanding, with pungent aphorisms rather than with reasoned argument, and with brilliant similes and metaphors. The parable form that he used was customary in the East, and some of his fetching analogies had come down to him, perhaps unconsciously, from the prophets, the psalmists, and the rabbis; nevertheless, the directness of his speech, the vivid colors of his imagery, the warm sincerity of his nature lifted his utterances to the most inspired poetry. Nearly all of them are models of brevity, clarity, and force.

    His starting point was the Gospel of John the Baptist, which itself went back to Enoch and Daniel; historia non facit saltum. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, he said; soon God would put an end to the reign of wickedness on earth; the Son of Man would come “on the clouds of the sky” to judge all humanity, living and dead. The time for repentance was running out; those who repented, lived justly, loved God, and put their faith in his messenger would inherit the Kingdom, would be raised to power and glory in a world at last freed from all evil, suffering, and death.   

    When would the Kingdom come? “Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” Certain signs would precede the coming: “wars and rumors of war . . . nation will rise against nation . . . there will be famines and earthquakes . . . many shall be offended, and . . . shall hate one another. Many false prophets will appear, many will be misled by them; and because of the increase of wickedness most men’s love will grow cold.” Sometimes Jesus made the advent of the Kingdom depend and wait upon the conversion of man to God and justice; usually he made its coming an act of God, a sudden and miraculous gift of divine grace.

    Many have interpreted the Kingdom as a communist utopia, and have seen in Christ a social revolutionist. Christ obviously scorned the man whose chief purpose in life is to amass money and luxuries. He promised hunger and woe to the rich and filled, and comforted the poor with Beatitudes that pledged them the Kingdom. The charge on which Jesus was condemned was that he had plotted to make himself “King of the Jews.”

    However, a conservative can also quote the New Testament to his purpose. Christ uttered no criticism of the civil government, and counseled a submissive gentleness hardly smacking of political revolution. He advised the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” He disapproves of the slave who, left with one mina, held it in unproductive safekeeping against the master’s return. And he puts into the master’s mouth the hard saying that “to him who has, more will be given, and from him who has nothing, even that which he has will be taken away”—an excellent summary of market operations, if not of world history. The revolution he sought was a far deeper one, without which reforms could only be superficial and transitory. If he could cleanse the human heart of selfish desire, cruelty, and lust, utopia would come of itself, and all those institutions that rise out of human greed and violence, and the consequent need for law, would disappear. Christ was in this spiritual sense the greatest revolutionist in history.

    His achievement lay not in ushering in a new state, but in outlining an ideal morality. His ethical code was predicated on the early coming of the Kingdom, and was designed to make people worthy of entering it. Hence the Beatitudes, with their unprecedented exaltation of humility, poverty, gentleness, and peace: these were not rules for ordinary life, they were a semi-monastic regimen fitting men and women for election by God into an imminent Kingdom in which there would be no law, no marriage, no sexual relations, no property, and no war. It was an ethic limited in purpose but universal in its scope, for it applied the conception of the Golden Rule to foreigners and enemies as well as to neighbors and friends. It envisioned a time when people would worship God not in temples but “in spirit and truth,” in every deed rather than in passing words.

    For a long time Christ thought of himself purely as a Jew, sharing the ideas of the prophets, continuing their work, and preaching like them only to Jews. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle* of the Law to fail.” Nevertheless, he transformed everything by the force of his character and his feeling. He added to the Law the injunction to prepare for the Kingdom by a life of justice, kindliness, and simplicity. He hardened the Law in matters of sex and divorce, but softened it toward a readier forgiveness, and reminded the Pharisees that God made the Sabbath for man. He relaxed the code of diet and cleanliness, and omitted certain fasts. He left the impression, at times, that the coming of the Kingdom would abrogate the Judaic Law.

    Jews of all sects except the Essenes opposed his innovations, and especially resented his assumption of authority to forgive sins and to speak in the name of God. The priests of the Temple and the members of the Sanhedrin watched his activity with suspicion; like Herod with John, they saw in it the semblance or cover of a political revolution; they feared lest the Roman procurator should accuse them of neglecting their responsibility for maintaining social order. They were a bit frightened by Christ’s promise to destroy the Temple, and not sure that it was only a metaphor.

    The final break came from Jesus’ growing conviction and clear announcement that he was the Messiah. At first, his followers had looked upon him as the successor to John the Baptist; gradually they came to believe that he was the long-awaited Redeemer who would raise Israel out of Roman bondage and establish the reign of God on earth. The intense expectations of his followers, and his discovery of his unusual psychic powers, seem to have persuaded him that God had sent him, not to restore the sovereignty of Judea, but to prepare men for the reign of God on earth. He took the phrase “Son of Man,” which Daniel had made a synonym for the Messiah, used it at first without clearly meaning himself, and ended by applying it to himself in such statements as “The Son of Man is master of the Sabbath”—which seemed high blasphemy to the Pharisees. At Caesarea Philippi, he approved Peter’s recognition of him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” probably added to prop up an evolving apostlistic theology. When, on the last Monday before his death, he approached Jerusalem to make a final appeal to the people, “the whole throng of his disciples” greeted him with the words, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Apparently, his followers still thought of him as a political Messiah who would overthrow the Roman power and make Judea supreme. These acclamations doomed Christ to a revolutionist’s death.


Death and Transfiguration


The Feast of the Passover was at hand, and great numbers of Jews were gathering in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice in the Temple. Visiting the Temple on the day after his entry into the city, the clamor and commercialism of the booths shocked Jesus. In a burst of indignation, he and his followers overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and the dove merchants, scattered their coins on the ground, and with “a scourge of rods” drove the traders from the court. For several days thereafter, he taught in the Temple, unhindered; but at night he left Jerusalem and stayed on the Mount of Olives, fearing arrest or assassination.

    The agents of the government—civil and ecclesiastical, Roman and Jewish—had kept watch on him probably from the time when he had taken up the mission of John the Baptist. His enthusiastic reception in Jerusalem seems to have set the Jewish leaders wondering whether this excitement, working upon the emotional and patriotic Passover throngs, might flare up into an untimely and futile revolt against the Roman power, and issue in the suppression of all self-government and religious freedom in Judea. The high priest called a meeting of the Sanhedrin, and expressed the opinion “that one man should die for the people, instead of the whole nation being destroyed.” The majority agreed with him, and the Council ordered the arrest of Christ.

    On the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan (our March 31), probably in the year 33,* Jesus and his apostles ate the Seder in the home of a friend in Jerusalem. He accepted his fate, and perhaps hoped that God as a sacrificial atonement for the sins of his people would receive his death. He had been informed that one of the Twelve was conspiring to betray him; and at this last supper he openly accused Judas Iscariot. In accord with Jewish ritual, Jesus blessed (in Greek, eucharistisae) the wine that he gave the apostles to drink. He told them, says John, he would be with them “only a little longer. . . . I give you a new command: Love one another. . . . Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God and believe in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions . . . I go to prepare a place for you.” It seems quite credible that in so solemn a moment he should ask them to repeat this supper periodically (as Jewish custom required), in commemoration of him; and not improbable that, with Oriental intensity of feeling and imagery, he asked them to think of the bread they ate as his body, and of the wine they drank as his blood.

    That night, we are told, the little band hid in the Garden of Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem. There a detachment of Temple police found them and arrested Jesus. They took him first to the house of Annas, a former high priest, then to that of Caiaphas; according to Mark the “Council”—probably a committee of the Sanhedrin—had already gathered there. Various witnesses testified against him, especially recalling his threat to destroy the Temple. When Caiaphas asked him whether he was “the Messiah, the Son of God,” Jesus reputedly answered, “I am he.” In the morning the Sanhedrin met, found him guilty of blasphemy (then a capital crime), and decided to bring him before the Roman procurator, who had come to Jerusalem to keep an eye on the Passover crowds.

    It did not seem to Pontius Pilate that this mild-mannered preacher was a real danger to the state. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asked. Jesus, says Matthew, answered ambiguously, “You have said it (sŭ eipas).” After Christ’s confession the law required conviction and Pilate reluctantly issued the sentence of death.

    Scourging, which left the body a mass of swollen and bloody flesh, usually preceded crucifixion. The Roman soldiers crowned Christ with a wreath of thorns, mocking his royalty as “King of the Jews,” and placed upon his cross an inscription in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin: Iesus Nazarathaeus Rex Ioudaeorum. A small crowd, such as could gather in Pilate’s courtyard, had called for Christ’s execution; now, however, as he climbed the hill of Golgotha, “he was followed by a great crowd of the people,” says Luke, and of women who beat their breasts and mourned for him. Quite clearly, the condemnation did not have the approval of the Jewish people.

    All who cared to witness the horrible spectacle were free to do so. The offender’s hands and feet were bound (seldom nailed) to the wood. A projecting block supported the backbone or the feet; unless mercifully killed, the victim would linger there for two or three days, suffering the agony of immobility, unable to brush away the insects that fed upon his naked flesh and slowly losing strength until the heart failed. The cross, we are told, was raised “at the third hour”—i.e. at nine in the morning. Of all the apostles, only John was present; with him were three Marys—Christ’s mother, her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Following the Roman custom, the soldiers divided the garments of the dying men; and as Christ had but one, they cast lots for it. Possibly, we have here an interpolated remembrance of Psalms 22:18: “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” The same Psalm begins with the words: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”—and this is the desperately human utterance that Mark and Matthew attribute to the dying Christ. Can it be that in those bitter moments the great faith that had sustained him before Pilate faded into black doubt? Luke, perhaps finding such words repugnant to the theology of Paul, substitutes for them: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”—which in turn echoes Psalms 31:5 with suspicious accuracy. At the ninth hour—at three in the afternoon—he “cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.”

    Was he really dead? In Jesus’ case, we are told that a soldier pierced his breast with a lance, drawing forth first blood and then lymph. Pilate expressed surprise that a man should die after six hours of crucifixion; he gave his consent to Christ’s removal from the cross only when the centurion in charge assured him of Christ’s death.

    Two days later Mary Magdalene, whose love of Jesus partook of that nervous intensity which characterized all her feelings, visited the tomb with “Mary the mother of James, and Salome.” They found it empty. “Frightened and yet overjoyed,” they ran to tell the news to the disciples. We can imagine the hopeful incredulity that greeted their report; the thought that Jesus had triumphed over death, and had thereby proved himself Messiah and Son of God, filled the “Galileans” with such excitement that they were ready for any miracle and any revelation. The disciples went back to Galilee. While they were fishing they saw Christ join them; they cast their nets, and drew in a great haul.

    Forty days after his appearance to Mary Magdalene, says the beginning of the Book of Acts, Christ ascended physically into heaven. The Master went as mystically as he had come; but most of the disciples seem to have been sincerely convinced that he had been with them in the flesh after his crucifixion.

* In 1897 and 1903, Grenfell and Hunt discovered in the ruins of Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt, twelve fragments of logia loosely corresponding to passages in the Gospels. These papyri are not older than the third century, but they may be copies of older manuscripts.

* Ed. Note: The ultimate authority on this period of history, Nobel laureate Theodor Mommsen, thinks that the most credible date for Quirinius’s first administration of Syria to be about 3-1 B.C.E.

Critics suspect Matthew and Luke of choosing Bethlehem to strengthen the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, and descended, as Jewish prophecy required, from David—whose family had dwelt in Bethlehem; but the suspicion falls far short of proof.

Ashoka had sent his Buddhist missionaries as far west as Egypt and Cyrene; very likely, therefore, to the Near East.

* A vowel point placed over a Hebrew consonant.

Judaic Christians anxious to discredit Paul may have interpolated these passages; but we may not arbitrarily assume so.

* There is much dispute about the duration of Christ’s mission, and the year of his death. We have seen Luke dating Christ’s baptism in the year 28-29, and this combined with his approximately 3 year ministry apparently requires that it be finished in the year in 33. The chronology of Paul, as based upon his own statements in Galatians I-II, the chronology of the procurators who tried him, and his death in 67, apparently require the dating of Paul’s conversion in 34.

Many arguments have been raised against the story of Judas, but they are unconvincing.

3. Buddha (480? B.C. 400? B.C.E.)


The Legend of Buddha


It is difficult to see, across 2,500 years, what were the economic, political, and moral conditions that called forth religions so ascetic and pessimistic as Jainism and Buddhism. Doubtless, much material progress had been made since the establishment of the Aryan rule in India: great cities like Pataliputra and Vaishali had been built; industry and trade had created wealth, wealth had generated leisure, leisure had developed knowledge and culture. Probably it was the riches of India that produced the Epicureanism and materialism of the seventh and sixth centuries before Christ. Religion does not prosper under prosperity; the senses liberate themselves from pious restraints, and formulate philosophies that will justify their liberation. As in the China of Confucius and the Greece of Protagorasnot to speak of our own dayso in Buddha’s India the intellectual decay of the old religion had begotten ethical skepticism and moral anarchy. Jainism and Buddhism, though impregnated with the melancholy atheism of a disillusioned age, were religious reactions against the hedonistic creeds of an “emancipated” and worldly leisure class. 

    Hindu tradition describes Buddha’s father, Shuddhodhana, as a man of the world, member of the Gautama clan of the proud Shakya tribe, and prince or king of Kapilavastu, at the foot of the Himalayan range. In truth, however, we know nothing certain about Buddha; and if we give here the stories that have gathered about his name it is not because these are history, but because they are an essential part of Hindu literature and Asiatic religion. Modern scholarship assigns his birth to approximately 480 B.C.E. and can say no more. Legend paints a colorful picture of the splendor and luxury that surrounded him in his youth. He dwelt as a happy prince in three palaces “like a god,” protected by his loving father from all contact with the pain and grief of human life. When he came of age five hundred ladies were sent to him that he might choose one as his wife. As a member of the Kshatriya caste, he received careful training in the military arts; but also he sat at the feet of sages, and made himself master of all the philosophical theories current in his time. He married, became a happy father, and lived in wealth, peace, and good repute.

    One day, says pious tradition, he went forth from his palace into the streets among the people, and saw an old man; and on another day, he went forth and saw a sick man; and on a third day he went forth and saw a dead man. He himself, in the holy books of his disciples, tells the tale movingly:


    Then, O monks, did I, endowed with such majesty and such excessive delicacy, think thus: “An ignorant, ordinary person, who is himself subject to old age, not beyond the sphere of old age, on seeing an old man, is troubled, ashamed and disgusted, extending the thought to himself. I, too, am subject to old age, not beyond the sphere of old age; and should I, who am subject to old age, . . . on seeing an old man, be troubled, ashamed and disgusted?” This seemed to me not fitting. As I thus reflected, all the elation in youth suddenly disappeared. . . . Thus, O monks, before my enlightenment, being myself subject to birth, I sought out the nature of birth; being subject to old age I sought out the nature of old age, of sickness, of sorrow, of impurity. Then I thought: “What if I, being myself subject to birth, were to seek out the nature of birth, . . . and having seen the wretchedness of the nature of birth, were to seek out the unborn, the supreme peace of nirvana?”


    Death is the origin of all religions, and perhaps if there had been no death there would have been no gods. To Buddha these sights were the beginning of “enlightenment.” Like one overcome with “conversion,” he suddenly resolved to leave his father,* his wife, and his newborn son, and become an ascetic in the desert. During the night he stole into his wife’s room, and looked for the last time upon his son, Rahula. Just then, say the Buddhist Scriptures, in a passage sacred to all followers of Gautama,


a lamp of scented oil was burning. On the bed strewn with heaps of jessamine and other flowers, the mother of Rahula was sleeping, with her hand on her son’s head. The Bodhisattwa, standing with his foot on the threshold, looked, and thought, “If I move aside the Queen’s  hand and take my son, the Queen will awake, and this will be an obstacle to my going. When I have become a Buddha I will come back and see him.” And he descended from the palace.


    He stopped at a place called Uruvela. Here he devoted himself to the severest forms of asceticism; for six years he tried the ways of the Yogis who had already appeared on the Indian scene. He lived on seeds and grass, and for one period he fed on dung. Gradually he reduced his food to a grain of rice each day. He wore haircloth, plucked out his hair and beard for torture’s sake, stood for long hours, or lay upon thorns. He let the dust and dirt accumulate upon his body until he looked like an old tree. He frequented a place where human corpses were exposed to be eaten by birds and beasts, and slept among the rotting carcasses.

    But one day the thought came to Buddha that self-mortification was not the way. Perhaps he was unusually hungry on that day, or some memory of loveliness stirred within him. He perceived that no new enlightenment had come to him from these austerities. “By this severity I do not attain superhumantruly nobleknowledge and insight.” On the contrary, a certain pride in his self-torture had poisoned any holiness that might have grown from it. He abandoned his asceticism, went to sit under a shade-giving tree, and remained there steadfast and motionless, resolving never to leave that seat until enlightenment came to him. What, he asked himself, was the source of human sorrow, suffering, sickness, old age and death? Suddenly a vision came to him of the infinite succession of deaths and births in the stream of life: he saw every death frustrated with new birth, every peace and joy balanced with new desire and discontent, new disappointment, new grief and pain. “Thus, with mind concentrated, purified, cleansed . . . I directed my mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings. With divine, purified, superhuman vision I saw beings passing away and being reborn, low and high, of good and bad color, in happy or miserable existences, according to their karma”—according to that universal law by which every act of good or of evil will be rewarded or punished in this life, or in some later incarnation of the soul.

    It was the vision of this apparently ridiculous succession of deaths and births that made Buddha scorn human life. Birth, he told himself, is the origin of all evil. Yet birth continues endlessly, forever replenishing the stream of human sorrow. If birth could be stopped . . . Why is birth not stopped?* Because the law of karma demands new reincarnations in which the soul may atone for evil done in past existences. If, however, a man could live a life of perfect justice, of unvarying patience and kindness to all, if he could tie his thoughts to eternal things, not binding his heart to those that begin and pass awaythen, perhaps, he would be spared rebirth, and for him the fountain of evil would run dry. If one could still all desires for one’s self, and seek only to do good, then individuality, that first and worst delusion of humankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire!and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could ever know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, nor hereafter, as many religions think. Only peace is possible, only the cool quietude of craving ended, only nirvana.

    Therefore, after seven years of meditation, the Enlightened One, having learned the cause of human suffering, went forth to the Holy City of Benares, and there, in the deer-park at Sarnath, preached nirvana to humankind.


The Teaching of Buddha


Like the other teachers of his time, Buddha taught through conversation, lectures, and parables. Since it never occurred to him, any more than to Socrates or Christ, to put his doctrine into writing, he summarized it in sutras (“threads”) designed to prompt the memory. As preserved for us in the remembrance of his followers, these discourses unconsciously portray for us the first distinct character in India’s history: a man of strong will, authoritative and proud, but of gentle manner and speech, and of infinite benevolence. He claimed “enlightenment,” but not inspiration; he never pretended that a god was speaking through him. In controversy, he was more patient and considerate than any other of the great teachers of humankind. His disciples, perhaps idealizing him, represented him as fully practicing ahimsa: “putting away the killing of living things, Gautama the recluse holds aloof from the destruction of life. He” (once a Kshatriya warrior) “has laid the cudgel and the sword aside, and ashamed of roughness, and full of mercy, he dwells compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life. . . . Putting away slander, Gautama holds himself aloof from calumny. . . . Thus does he live as a binder-together of those who are divided, an encourager of those who are friends, a peacemaker, a lover of peace, impassioned for peace, a speaker of words that make for peace.” Like Laozi and Christ, he wished to return good for evil, love for hate; and he remained silent under misunderstanding and abuse. “If a man foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my ungrudging love; the more evil comes from him, the more good shall come from me.” When a simpleton abused him, Buddha listened in silence; but when the man had finished, Buddha asked him: “Son, if a man declined to accept a present made to him, to whom would it belong?” The man answered: “To him who offered it.” “My son,” said Buddha, “I decline to accept your abuse, and request you to keep it for yourself.” Unlike most saints, Buddha had a sense of humor, and knew that metaphysics without laughter is immodesty.

    His method of teaching was unique, though it owed something to the Wanderers, or traveling Sophists, of his time. He walked from town to town, accompanied by his favorite disciples, and followed by as many as 1200 devotees. He took no thought for the morrow, but was content to be fed by some local admirer; once he scandalized his followers by eating in the home of a courtesan. He stopped at the outskirts of a village, and pitched camp in some garden or wood, or on some riverbank. The afternoon he gave to meditation, the evening to instruction. His discourses took the form of Socratic questioning, moral parables, courteous controversy, or succinct formulas whereby he sought to compress his teaching into convenient brevity and order. His favorite sutra was the “Four Noble Truths,” in which he expounded his view that life is pain, that pain is due to desire, and that wisdom lies in stilling all desire.


1. Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of pain: birth is painful, sickness is painful, old age is painful, sorrow, lamentation, dejection and despair are painful. . . .

2. Now, this, O monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain: that craving, which leads to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there, namely, the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence.

3. Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of pain: the cessation, without a remainder, of that craving; abandonment, forsaking, release, non-attachment.

4. Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of pain: this is the noble Eightfold Way: namely, right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.


    Buddha was convinced that pain so overbalanced pleasure in human life that it would be better never to have been born. More tears have flowed, he tells us, than all the water that is in the four great oceans. Every pleasure seemed poisoned for him by its brevity. “Is that which is impermanent, sorrow or joy?” he asks one of his disciples; and the answer is, “Sorrow, Lord.” The basic evil, then, is tanhanot all desire, but selfish desire, desire directed to the advantage of the part rather than to the good of the whole; above all, sexual desire, for that leads to reproduction, which stretches out the chain of life into new suffering aimlessly. One of his disciples concluded that Buddha would approve of suicide, but Buddha reproved him; suicide would be useless, since the soul, unpurified, would be reborn in other incarnations until it achieved complete forgetfulness of self.

    When his disciples asked him to define more clearly his conception of right living, he formulated for their guidance “Five Moral Rules”—commandments simple and brief, but “perhaps more comprehensive and harder to keep than the Decalogue”*:


1. Let not one kill any living being.

2. Let not one take what is not given to him.

3. Let not one speak falsely.

4. Let not one drink intoxicating drinks.

5. Let not one be unchaste.


    Elsewhere Buddha introduced elements into his teaching strangely anticipatory of Christ. “Let a man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good. . . . Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy. . . . Never in the world does hatred cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love.” Like Jesus, he was uncomfortable in the presence of women, and hesitated long before admitting them into the Buddhist Order. When a Brahman proposed to purify himself of his sins by bathing at Gaya, Buddha said to him: “Have thy bath here, even here, O Brahman. Be kind to all beings. If thou speakest not false, if thou killest not life, if thou takest not what is not given to thee, secure in self-denial—what wouldst thou gain by going to Gaya? Any water is Gaya to thee.”

    There is nothing stranger in the history of religion than the sight of Buddha founding a worldwide religion, and yet refusing to be drawn into any discussion about eternity, immortality, or God. The infinite is a myth, he says, a fiction of philosophers who have not the modesty to confess that an atom can never understand the cosmos. He smiles at the debate over the finiteness or infinity of the universe, quite as if he foresaw the futile astromythology of physicists and mathematicians who debate the same question today. He refuses to express any opinion as to whether the world had a beginning or will have an end; whether the soul is the same as the body or distinct from it; whether, even for the greatest saint, there is to be any reward in any heaven. He calls such questions “the jungle, the desert, the puppet-show, the writhing, the entanglement, of speculation,” and will have nothing to do with them; they lead only to feverish disputation, personal resentments, and sorrow; they never lead to wisdom and peace. Saintliness and contentment lie not in knowledge of the universe and God, but simply in selfless and beneficent living. Then, with scandalous humor, he suggests that the gods themselves, if they existed, could not answer these questions.

    When some students remind him that the Brahmans claim to know the solutions of these problems, he laughs them off: “There are, brethren, some recluses and Brahmans who wriggle like eels; and when a question is put to them on this or that they resort to equivocation, to eel-wriggling.” If ever he is sharp it is against the priests of his time; he scorns their assumption that the gods inspired the Vedas, and he scandalizes the caste-proud Brahmans by accepting into his order the members of any caste. He does not explicitly condemn the caste-system, but he tells his disciples, plainly enough: “Go into all lands and preach this gospel. Tell them that the poor and the lowly, the rich and the high, are all one, and that all castes unite in this religion as do the rivers in the sea.” He denounces the notion of sacrificing to the gods, and looks with horror upon the slaughter of animals for these rites; he rejects all cult and worship of supernatural beings, all mantras and incantations, all asceticism and all prayer. Quietly, and without controversy, he offers a religion free of dogma and priestcraft, and proclaims a way of salvation open to infidels and believers alike.

    At times this most famous of Hindu saints passes from agnosticism to outright atheism.* He does not go out of his way to deny deity, and occasionally he speaks as if Brahma were a reality rather than an ideal; nor does he forbid the popular worship of the gods. However, he smiles at the notion of sending up prayers to the Unknowable; “it is foolish,” he says, “to suppose that another can cause us happiness or misery”—these are always the product of our own behavior and our own desires. He refuses to rest his moral code upon supernatural sanctions of any kind; he offers no heaven, no purgatory, and no hell. He is too sensitive to the suffering and killing involved in the biological process to suppose that a personal divinity has consciously willed them; these cosmic blunders, he thinks, outweigh the evidences of design.

    But what is nirvana? It is difficult to find an erroneous answer to this question; for the Master left the point obscure, and his followers have given the word every meaning under the sun. In general Sanskrit usage it meant “extinguished”as of a lamp or fire. The Buddhist Scriptures use it as signifying: (1) a state of happiness attainable in this life through the complete elimination of selfish desires; (2) the liberation of the individual from rebirth; (3) the annihilation of the individual consciousness; (4) the union of the individual with God; (5) a heaven of happiness after death. In the teaching of Buddha, it seemed to mean the extinction of all individual desire and the reward of such selflessnessescape from rebirth. In Buddhist literature the term has often a terrestrial sense, for the arhat, or saint, is repeatedly described as achieving it in this life, by acquiring its seven constituent parts: self-possession, investigation into the truth, energy, calm, joy, concentration, and magnanimity. These are its contents, but hardly its productive cause: the cause and source of nirvana is the extinction of selfish desire; and nirvana, in most early contexts, comes to mean the painless peace that rewards the moral annihilation of the self. “Now,” says Buddha, “this is the noble truth as to the passing of pain. Verily, it is the passing away so that no passion remains, the giving up, the getting rid of, the emancipation from, the harboring no longer of, this craving thirst”this fever of self-seeking desire. In the body of the Master’s teaching, it is almost always synonymous with bliss, the quiet contentment of the soul that no longer worries about itself.

    When we see ourselves as parts of a whole, when we reform ourselves and our desires in terms of the whole, then our personal disappointments and defeats, our varied suffering and inevitable death, no longer sadden us as bitterly as before; they are lost in the amplitude of infinity. When we have learned to love not our separate life, but all people and all living things, then at last we shall find peace.


The Last Days of Buddha


From this exalted philosophy, we pass to the simple legends, which are all that we have concerning Buddha’s later life and death. Despite his scorn of miracles, his disciples brewed a thousand tales of the marvels that he wrought. Arguing from such pleasantries Émile Senart and others have concluded that based on ancient sun myths the legend of Buddha formed. It is unimportant; Buddha means for us the ideas attributed to Buddha in the Buddhist literature; and this Buddha exists.

    The Buddhist Scriptures paint a pleasing picture of him. Many disciples gathered around him, and his fame as a sage spread through the cities of northern India. When his father heard that Buddha was near Kapilavastu he sent a messenger to him with an invitation to come and spend a day in his boyhood home. He went, and his father, who had mourned the loss of a prince, rejoiced, for a while, over the return of a saint. Buddha’s wife, who had been faithful to him during all their separation, fell down before him, clasped his ankles, placed his feet about her head, and reverenced him as a god. Then King Shuddhodhana told Buddha of her great love: “Lord, my daughter (in-law), when she heard that you were wearing yellow robes (as a monk), put on yellow robes; when she heard of your having one meal a day, herself took one meal; when she knew that you had given up a large bed, she lay on a narrow couch; and when she knew that you had given up garlands and scents, she gave them up.” Buddha blessed her, and went his way.

    Now his son, Rahula, came to him, and also loved him. “Pleasant is your shadow, ascetic,” he said. Though Rahula’s mother had hoped to see the youth made king, the Master accepted him into the Buddhist Order. Then another prince, Nanda, they called to be consecrated as heir apparent to the throne; but Nanda, as if in a trance, left the ceremony unfinished, abandoned a kingdom, and going to Buddha, asked that he, too, might be permitted to join the Order. When King Shuddhodhana heard of this he was sad, and asked a boon of Buddha. “When the Lord abandoned the world,” he said, “it was no small pain to me; so when Nanda went; and even more so with Rahula. The love of a son cuts through the skin, through the hide, the flesh, the sinew, the marrow. Grant, Lord, that thy noble ones may not confer the ordination on a son without the permission of his father and mother. Buddha consented, and made such permission a prerequisite to ordination.

    Already, it seems, this religion without priestcraft had developed an order of monks dangerously like the Hindu priests. Buddha would not be long dead before they would surround themselves with all the paraphernalia of the Brahmans. These Bhikkhus, or monks, practiced in Buddha’s days a simple rule. They saluted one another, and all those to whom they spoke, with an admirable phrase: “Peace to all beings.”* They were not to kill any living thing; they were never to take anything save what was given them; they were to avoid falsehood and slander; they were to heal divisions and encourage concord; they were always to show compassion for all humans and all animals; they were to shun all amusements of sense or flesh, all music, nautch dances, shows, games, luxuries, idle conversation, argument, or fortune-telling; they were to have nothing to do with business, or with any form of buying or selling; above all, they were to abandon incontinence, and live apart from women, in perfect chastity. Yielding to many soft entreaties, Buddha allowed women to enter the Order as nuns, but he never completely reconciled himself to this move. To his favorite disciple he said, “If, Ananda, women had not received permission to enter the Order, the pure religion would have lasted long, the good law would have stood fast a thousand years. But since they have received that permission, it will now stand fast for only five hundred years.” He was right. The great Order, or Sangha, has survived to our own time; but it has long since corrupted the Master’s doctrine with magic, polytheism, and countless superstitions.

    Towards the end of his long life his followers already began to deify him, despite his challenge to them to doubt him and to think for themselves. Moreover, to Ananda he taught his greatest and noblest lesson:


    And whosoever, Ananda, either now or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, and a refuge unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but, holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, . . . shall not look for refuge to anyone besides themselvesit is they . . . who shall reach the very topmost height! But they must be anxious to learn!


    He died about 400 B.C.E., at the age of eighty. “Now then, O monks,” he said to them as his last words, “I address you. Subject to decay are compound things. Strive with earnestness.”

* His mother had died in giving him birth.

The Bodhi-tree of later Buddhist worship, still shown to tourists at Bodh-gaya.

* The philosophy of Schopenhauer stems from this point.

The oldest extant documents purporting to be the teaching of Buddha are the Pitakas, or “Baskets of the Law,” prepared for the Buddhist Council of 141 B.C.E., accepted by it as genuine, transmitted orally for three centuries from the death of Buddha, and finally put into writing, in the Pali tongue, about 80 B.C.E. These Pitakas are divided into three groups: the Sutta, or tales; the Vinaya, or discipline; and the Abhidhamma, or doctrine. The Sutta-pitaka contains the dialogues of Buddha, which Thomas Rhys Davids ranks with those of Plato. Strictly speaking, however, these writings give us the teaching not necessarily of Buddha himself, but only of the Buddhist schools. “Though these narratives,” says Sir Charles Eliot, “are compilations which accepted new matter during several centuries, I see no reason to doubt that the oldest stratum contains the recollections of those who had seen and heard the master.”

* In the words of Sir Charles Eliot.

* In Buddha, says Sir Charles Eliot, “the world is not thought of as the handiwork of a divine personality, nor the moral law as his will. The fact that religion can exist without these ideas is of capital importance.”

* Cf. the beautiful form of greeting used by the Jews: Shalom aleichem—“Peace be with You.” In the end, humans do not ask for happiness, but only for peace.

4. Akhenaten (1381? B.C.E. 1342? B.C.E.)


He ruled ancient Egypt as pharaoh from about 1360 to 1342 B.C.E. He was born Amenhotep IV to his father Amenhotep III and his chief queen Tiye, daughter of Yuya the probable Hebrew monotheist from Canaan. Akhenaten married his sister Nefertiti, who was one of the most famous and beautiful women in Egyptian history, and the two began one of the most auspicious reigns in history.

    In the year 1358 B.C.E. Amenhotep III, who had succeeded Thutmose IV, died after a life of worldly luxury and display, and was followed as sole ruler by his son Amenhotep IV, destined to be known as Akhenaten. A profoundly revealing portrait-bust of him, discovered at Tell-el-Amarna, shows a profile of incredible delicacy, a face feminine in softness and poetic in its sensitivity. Large eyelids like a dreamer’s, a long, misshapen skull, a frame slender and weak: here was a Shelley called to be a king.

    He had hardly come to power, perhaps even while coregent with his father, when he began to revolt against the religion of Amen and the practices of Amen’s priests, and became a Yahweh worshipper. In the great temple at Karnak, there was now a large harem, supposedly the concubines of Amen, but in reality serving to amuse the clergy. The young emperor, whose private life was a model of fidelity, did not approve of this sacred harlotry. The blood of the ram slaughtered in sacrifice to Amen stank in his nostrils; and the traffic of the priests in magic and charms, and their use of the oracle of Amen to support religious obscurantism and political corruption disgusted him to the point of violent protest. “More evil are the words of the priests,” he said, “than those which I heard until the year IV” (of his reign); “more evil are they than those which King Amenhotep III heard.” His youthful spirit rebelled against the sordidness into which the religion of his people had fallen; he abominated the indecent wealth and lavish ritual of the temples, and the growing hold of a mercenary hierarchy on the nation’s life. With a poet’s audacity he threw compromise to the winds, and announced bravely that all these gods and ceremonies were a vulgar idolatry, that there was but one godAten.

    Like Akbar in India thirty centuries later, Akhenaten saw divinity above all in the sun, in the source of all earthly life and light. We cannot tell whether he had adopted his theory from Syria, and whether Aten was merely a form of Adonis, or more likely, that his religion was an adaptation of the Yahwism brought in from Canaan. Of whatever origin, the new god filled the king’s soul with delight. He changed his own name from Amenhotep, which contained the name of Amen, to Akhenaten, meaning “beneficial to the Aten”; and helping himself with old hymns, and certain monotheistic poems published in the preceding reign, (under Amenhotep III, the architects Suti and Hor had inscribed a monotheistic hymn to the sun upon a stele now in the British Museum. It had long been the custom in Egypt to address the sun god, Amen-Ra, as the greatest god . . . but only as the god of Egypt), he composed passionate songs to Aten, of which this, the longest and the best, is the fairest surviving remnant of Egyptian literature:


Thy dawning is beautiful in the horizon of the sky,

O living Aten, Beginning of life.

When thou risest in the eastern horizon,

Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.


Thou art beautiful, great, glittering, high above every land,

Thy rays, they encompass the land, even all that thou hast made.


Thou art Ra, and thou carriest them all away captive;

Thou bindest them by thy love.

Though thou art far away, thy rays are upon earth;

Though thou art on high, thy footprints are the day.


When thou settest in the western horizon of the sky,

The earth is in darkness like the dead;

They sleep in their chambers,

Their heads are wrapped up,

Their nostrils are stopped,

And none seeth the other,

All their things are stolen

Which are under their heads,

And they know it not.

Every lion cometh forth from his den,

All serpents they sting. . . .

The world is in silence,

He that made them resteth in his horizon.


Bright is the earth when thou risest in the horizon.

When thou shinest as Aten by day

Thou drivest away the darkness.

When thou sendest forth thy rays,

The Two Lands are in daily festivity,

Awake and standing upon their feet

When thou hast raised them up.

Their limbs bathed, they take their clothing,

Their arms uplifted in adoration to thy dawning.

In all the world they do their work.


All cattle rest upon their pasturage,

The trees and the plants flourish,

The birds flutter in their marshes,

Their wings uplifted in adoration to thee.

All the sheep dance upon their feet,

All winged things fly,

They live when thou hast shone upon them.


The barks sail upstream and downstream.

Every highway is open because thou dawnest.

The fish in the river leap up before thee.

Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.


Creator of the germ in woman,

Maker of seed in man,

Giving life to the son in the body of his mother,

Soothing him that he may not weep,

Nurse even in the womb,

Giver of breath to animate every one that he maketh!

When he cometh forth from the body . . . on the day of his birth,

Thou openest his mouth in speech,

Thou suppliest his necessities.


When the fledgling in the egg chirps in the egg,

Thou givest him breath therein to preserve him alive.

When thou hast brought him together

To the point of bursting the egg,

He cometh forth from the egg,

To chirp with all his might.

He goeth about upon his two feet

When he hath come forth therefrom.


How manifold are thy works!

They are hidden from before us,

O sole god, whose powers no other possesseth.

Thou didst create the earth according to thy heart

While thou wast alone:

Men, all cattle large and small,

All that are upon the earth,

That go about upon their feet;

All that are on high,

That fly with their wings.

The foreign countries, Syria and Kush,

The land of Egypt;

Thou settest every man into his place,

Thou suppliest their necessities. . . .


Thou makest the Nile in the nether world,

Thou bringest it as thou desirest,

To preserve alive the people. . . .


How excellent are thy designs,

O Lord of eternity!

There is a Nile in the sky for the strangers

And for the cattle of every country that go upon their feet. . . .


Thy rays nourish every garden;

When thou risest they live,

They grow by thee.

Thou makest the seasons

In order to create all thy work:

Winter to bring them coolness,

And heat that they may taste thee.

Thou didst make the distant sky to rise therein,

In order to behold all that thou hast made,

Thou alone, shining in the form as living Aten,


Dawning, glittering, going afar and returning.

Thou makest millions of forms

Through thyself alone;

Cities, towns and tribes,

Highways and rivers.

All eyes see thee before them,

For thou art Aten of the day over the earth. . . .


Thou art in my heart,

There is no other that knoweth thee

Save thy son Akhenaten.

Thou hast made him wise

In thy designs and in thy might.

The world is in thy hand,

Even as thou hast made them.

When thou hast risen they live,

When thou settest they die;

For thou art length of life of thyself,

Men live through thee,

While their eyes are upon thy beauty

Until thou settest.

All labor is put away

When thou settest in the west. . . .


Thou didst establish the world,

And raised them up for thy son. . . .

Akhenaten, whose life is long;

And for the chief royal wife, his beloved,

Mistress of the Two Lands,

Nefer-neferu-Aten, Nefertiti,

Living and flourishing forever and ever.


    This is not only one of the great poems of history, it is the first outstanding expression of monotheismseven hundred years before Isaiah.* It is not correct to assume that he worshipped the sun—this is a common misconception—his god was God of all and embraced all nations equally as He embraced Egypt. Some have seen Akhenaten’s reform as one of the earliest attempts to enforce monotheism, although the religion of the Aten started as a monolatrous form of worship—the worship of one god in preference to all others. Perhaps, as Breasted suggests, this conception of one sole god was a reflex of the unification of the Mediterranean world under Egypt by Thutmose III. Akhenaten conceives his god as belonging to all nations equally, and even names other countries before his own as in Aten’s care; this was an astounding advance upon the old tribal deities. Note the vitalistic conception: Aten is to be found not in battles and victories but in flowers and trees, in all forms of life and growth; Aten is the joy that causes the young sheep to “dance upon their legs,” and the birds to “flutter in their marshes.” Nor is the god a person limited to human form; the real divinity is the creative and nourishing heat of the sun; the flaming glory of the rising or setting orb is but an emblem of that ultimate power. Nevertheless, because of its omnipresent, fertilizing beneficence, the sun becomes to Akhenaten also the “Lord of love,” the tender nurse that “creates the man-child in woman,” and “fills the Two Lands of Egypt with love.” So at last Aten grows by symbolism into a solicitous father, compassionate and tender; not, like Yahweh, a Lord of Hosts, but a god of gentleness and peace.

    It is one of the tragedies of history that Akhenaten, having achieved his elevating vision of universal unity, was not satisfied to let the noble quality of his new religion slowly win the hearts of people. He was unable to think of his truth in relative terms; the thought came to him that other forms of belief and worship were indecent and intolerable. Suddenly he gave orders that they erase and chisel out from every public inscription in Egypt the names of all gods but Aten; he mutilated his father’s name from a hundred monuments to cut from it the word Amen; he declared all creeds but his own illegal, and commanded them to close all the old temples. He abandoned Thebes as unclean, and built for himself a beautiful new capital at Akhetaten—“City of the Horizon of Aten.”

    Rapidly Thebes decayed as they took the offices and emoluments of government from it, and Akhetaten became a rich metropolis, busy with fresh building and a Renaissance of arts liberated from the priestly bondage of tradition. The joyous spirit expressed in the new religion passed over into its art. At Tell-el-Amarna, a modern village on the site of Akhetaten, Sir William M. Flinders Petrie unearthed a beautiful pavement, adorned with birds, fishes and other animals painted with the most delicate grace. Akhenaten forbade the artists to make images of Aten, on the lofty ground that the true god has no form; “for the rest he left art free, merely asking his favorite artists, Bek, Auta and Thutmose, to describe things as they saw them, and to forget the conventions of the priests. They took him at his word, and represented him as a youth of gentle, almost timid, face, and strangely dolichocephalic head. Taking their lead from his vitalistic conception of deity, they painted every form of plant and animal life with loving detail, and with a perfection hardly surpassed in any other place or time. For a while art, which in every generation knows the pangs of hunger and obscurity, flourished in abundance and happiness.

    Had Akhenaten been a mature mind he would have realized that the change, which he had proposed from a superstitious polytheism deeply rooted in the needs and habits of the people to a naturalistic monotheism that subjected imagination to intelligence, was too profound to be effected in a little time. He would have made haste slowly, and softened the transition with intermediate steps. But he was a poet rather than a philosopher; like Shelley announcing the demise of Yahweh to the bishops of Oxford, he grasped for the Absolute, and brought the whole structure of Egypt down upon his head.

    At one blow, he had dispossessed and alienated a wealthy and powerful priesthood, and had forbidden the worship of deities made dear by long tradition and belief. When he had Amen hacked out from his father’s name it seemed to his people a blasphemous impiety; nothing could be more vital to them than the honoring of the ancestral dead. He had underestimated the strength and pertinacity of the priests, and he had exaggerated the capacity of the people to understand a natural religion. Behind the scenes, the priests plotted and prepared; and in the seclusion of their homes, the populace continued to worship their ancient and innumerable gods. A hundred crafts that had depended upon the temples muttered in secret against the heretic. Even in his palace, his ministers and generals hated him, and prayed for his death, for was he not allowing the Empire to fall to pieces in his hands?

    Meanwhile the young poet lived in simplicity and trust. He had six daughters and one son; and though by law he might have sought another heir by his secondary wives, he would not, but preferred to remain faithful to Nefertiti. A little ornament has come down to us that shows him embracing the Queen; he allowed artists to depict him riding in a chariot through the streets, engaged in pleasantries with his wife and children; on ceremonial occasions the Queen sat beside him and held his hand, while their daughters frolicked at the foot of the throne. He spoke of his wife as “Mistress of his Happiness, at hearing whose voice the King rejoices”; and for an oath he used the phrase, “As my heart is happy in the Queen and her children.” It was a tender interlude in Egypt’s epic of power.

    Into this simple happiness came alarming messages from Syria.* The Hittites and other neighboring tribes were invading the dependencies of Egypt in the Near East; the governors appointed by Egypt pleaded for immediate reinforcements. Akhenaten hesitated; he was not quite sure that the right of conquest warranted him in keeping these states in subjection to Egypt; and he was loath to send Egyptians to die on distant fields for so uncertain a cause. When the dependencies saw that they were dealing with a saint, they deposed their Egyptian governors, quietly stopped all payment of tribute, and became to all effects free. Almost in a moment, Egypt ceased to be a vast Empire, and shrank back into a little state. Soon the Egyptian treasury, which for a century had depended upon foreign tribute as its mainstay, was empty; domestic taxation had fallen to a minimum, and the working of the gold mines had stopped. Internal administration was in chaos. Akhenaten found himself penniless and friendless in a world that had seemed all his own. Every colony was in revolt, and every power in Egypt arrayed against him, waiting for his fall.

    He hadn’t reached forty when, in 1342 B.C.E., he died, broken with the realization of his failure as a ruler, and the unworthiness of his race. A couple of years after his death, his son Tutankhamen, the discovery of whose tomb in 1922 caused an archeological sensation, reigned. Under Tutankhamen, they reached a compromise in which polytheism could return to the practice of worship in Egypt. The disintegration of the Empire, combined with the opposition of the priests of the displaced gods, worked to undermine the new religion. Under Tutankhamen, they moved the capital to Memphis and they restored the former gods, which the general populace never fully rejected in the first place. The “Exodus” resulted in the departure of monotheists from Egypt a generation later.

Yuya was not an Israelite, but most probably a Shasu Edomite worshipper of Yahweh, and therefore a descendant of Abraham.

* The obvious similarity of this hymn to Psalm CIV leaves little doubt that it was taken from Egypt and incorporated into the Old Testament.

* In 1893 Sir William M. Flinders Petrie discovered at Tell-el-Amarna over three hundred and fifty cuneiform letter-tablets, most of which were appeals for aid addressed to Akhenaten by the East.

5. Isaiah (750? B.C.E. 687? B.C.E.)


It was during the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC that the prophet Isaiah became one of the great figures of Hebrew history. (The book that bears his name is a collection of ‘prophecies’ (i.e. sermons) by two or more authors ranging in time from 710 to 300 B.C. Chapters 1-39 are usually ascribed to the First Isaiah, who is here discussed).

   Less provincial than Amos, he thought in terms of enduring statesmanship. Convinced that little Judah could not resist the imperial power of Assyria, even with the help of distant Egypt—that broken staff which would pierce the hand that should try to use it—he pled with King Ahaz, and then with King Hezekiah, to remain neutral in the war between Assyria and Israel, like Amos and Hosea he foresaw the fall of Samaria, and the end of the northern kingdom. When, however, the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, Isaiah counseled Hezekiah not to yield. The sudden withdrawal of Sennacherib's hosts seemed to justify him, and for a time his repute was high with the King and the people. Always his advice was to deal justly, and then leave the issue to Yahweh, who would use Assyria as his agent for a time, but in the end would destroy her, too. Indeed, according to Isaiah, all the nations known were destined to be struck down by Yahweh; in a few chapters (16-23) Moab, Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Babylon and Tyre are dedicated to destruction; ‘everyone shall howl.’ This ardor for ruination, this litany of curses, mars Isaiah's book, as it mars all the prophetic literature of the Bible.

   Nevertheless his denunciation falls where it belongs—upon economic exploitation and greed. Here his eloquence rises to the highest point reached in the Hebrew Bible, in passages that are among the peaks of the world's prose (cf. 3:14-15; 5:8; 10:1ff.). He is filled with scorn of those who, while fleecing the poor, present a pious face to the world (cf. 1:11ff.). He is bitter, but he does not despair of his people; just as Amos had ended his prophecies with a prediction, strangely apt today, of the restoration of the Jews to Palestine (Amos 9:14-15), so Isaiah concludes by formulating the Messianic hope—the trust of the Jews in some Redeemer who will end their political divisions, their subjection, and their misery, and bring an era of universal brotherhood and peace (cf. Isaiah 12:14; 9:6; 11:1-6; 2:4. The final passage is repeated in Micah 4:3).

   It was an admirable aspiration, but not for many generations yet would it express the mood of the Jews. The priests of the Temple listened with a well-controlled sympathy to these useful encouragements to piety; certain sects looked back to the Prophets for part of their inspiration; and perhaps these excoriations of all sensual delight had some share in intensifying the desert-born Puritanism of the Jews. But for the most part the old life of the palace and the tent, the market-place and the field, went on as before; war took its choice of every generation, and slavery continued to be the lot of the alien; the merchant cheated with his scales, and tried to Atene with sacrifice and prayer. It was upon the Judaism of post-Exilic days, and upon the world through Judaism and Christianity, that the Prophets left their deepest mark. In Amos and Isaiah is the beginning of both Christianity and socialism, the spring from which has flowed a stream of Utopias wherein no poverty or war shall disturb human brotherhood and peace; they are the source of the early Jewish conception of a Messiah who would seize the government, reestablish the temporal power of the Jews, and inaugurate a dictatorship of the dispossessed among mankind. Isaiah and Amos began, in a military age, the exaltation of those virtues of simplicity and gentleness, of cooperation and friendliness, which Jesus was to make a vital element in his creed. They were the first to undertake the heavy task of reforming the God of Hosts into a God of Love; they conscripted Yahweh for humanitarianism as the radicals of the nineteenth century conscripted Christ for socialism. It was they who, when the Bible was printed in Europe, fired the Germanic mind with a rejuvenated Christianity, and lighted the torch of the Reformation; it was their fierce and intolerant virtue that formed the Puritans. Their moral philosophy was based upon a theory that would bear better documentation—that the righteous man will prosper, and the wicked will be struck down; but even if that should be a delusion it is the failing of a noble mind. The prophets had no conception of freedom, but they loved justice, and called for an end to the tribal limitations of morality. They offered to the unfortunate of the earth a vision of brotherhood that became the precious and unforgotten heritage of many generations.

6. Laozi (604? B.C.E. 517? B.C.E.)

For a discussion of Laozi click here.

7. Martin Luther (1483 1546)

The Genesis of Luther


What circumstances of heredity and environment molded an obscure monk, in a town of three thousand souls, into the David of the religious revolution?

    Martin was born at Eisleben, Saxony on November 19, 1483. In 1501, he entered the university at Erfurt. Ockham’s nominalism had triumphed there, and presumably Luther noted Ockham’s doctrine that popes and councils could err. One day (July 1505), he encountered a frightful storm. It seemed to Luther a warning from God that unless he gave his thoughts to salvation, death would surprise him unshriven and damned. Where could he live a life of saving devotion? Only where four walls would exclude, or ascetic discipline would overcome, the world, the flesh, and the devil: only in a monastery. He chose the cloister of the Augustinian Eremites. In September 1506, he took the irrevocable vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

    There a treatise by Jan Hus fell into his hands, and doctrinal doubts were added to his spiritual turmoil. Johann von Staupitz, provincial vicar of the Augustinian Eremites, took a fatherly interest in the troubled friar, and bade him replace asceticism with careful reading of the Bible and Augustine. One day in 1508 or 1509 he was struck by a sentence in Romans (1:17): “The just shall live by faith.” Slowly these words led him to the doctrine that man can be “justified”—i.e. made just and therefore saved from hell only by complete faith in Christ and in his atonement for humankind. In Augustine Luther found another idea that perhaps renewed his terror—predestination—that only the elect had been chosen by God’s free will to be saved by the divine sacrifice of Christ.

    In 1508, he transferred to an Augustinian monastery at Wittenberg, and to the post of instructor in logic and physics, then professor of theology, in the university. He gave courses in the Bible, preached regularly in the parish church, and blamed the preachers of indulgences for taking advantage of the simplicity of the poor. In July 1517, whilst preaching in Dresden, he argued that the mere acceptance of the merits of Christ assured the believer’s salvation. Three months later (November 10) the reckless friar challenged the world to debate the Ninety-Five Theses that he had posted on Wittenberg Church.


The Revolution Takes Form


The Theses became the talk of literate Germany. Thousands had waited for such a protest, and the pent-up anticlericalism of generations thrilled at having found a voice. Johann Eck, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ingolstadt, charged Luther with disseminating “Bohemian poison” (the heresies of Hus), and subverting all ecclesiastical order. Luther countered in a Latin brochure Resolutiones (April 1518), copies of which he sent to his local bishop and to the Pope—in both cases with assurances of orthodoxy and submission. The harassed Pontiff, who had at first brushed the dispute aside as a passing fracas among monks, now took the matter in hand, and summoned Luther to Rome (July 17, 1518).

    Luther faced a critical decision. He wrote to Georg Spalatin, chaplain to Elector Frederick III, suggesting that German princes should protect their citizens from compulsory extradition to Italy. The Elector agreed. He had a high regard for Luther, who had made the University of Wittenberg prosper; and besides, Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I seeing in Luther a possible card to play in diplomatic contests with Rome, advised the Elector to “take good care of that monk.”

    Pope Leo X continued his efforts for conciliation. By a bull of November 19, 1518, he repudiated many of the extreme claims for indulgences. Leo commissioned Karl von Miltitz, a young Saxon nobleman in minor orders in Rome, to make a quiet effort to bring Luther, that “child of Satan,” back to obedience. When von Miltitz met Luther at Altenburg (January 13, 1519), he found him more open to reason than to fear. On March 13, Luther wrote to the Pope a letter of complete submission. Leo replied in a friendly spirit (April 8), inviting him to come to Rome to make his confession, and offering him money for the journey. Under the circumstances, he thought it safer to stay in Wittenberg, where he was especially happy to receive the support of Philipp Melanchthon, this intellectual of the Reformation. Another Wittenberg professor shone with a fiercer light than did Melanchthon’s. Andreas Carlstadt, had joined the university staff at the age of twenty-four (1504). Later in 1520, Carlstadt issued De canonicis scriptures libellus exalting the Bible over popes, councils, and traditions, and the Gospels over the Epistles; if Luther had followed this last line, Protestantism might have been less Pauline, Augustinian, and predestinarian.


Bulls and Blasts


On June 25, 1520, Leo issued a bull, Exsurge Domine, which condemned forty-one statements by Luther, and exhorted him to abjure his errors and return to the fold.

    Luther published the first of three little books that constituted a program of religious revolution. He wrote in German—and as a German patriot—An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate. In it, he extolled the German clergy to throw off their subjection to Rome, and establish a national church under the leadership of the Archbishop of Mainz. He also wished to reduce mendicant orders, interdicts, pilgrimages, and Masses for the dead; to abolish holydays (except Sundays) but to allow priests to marry. The German Church should be reconciled with the Husites of Bohemia; and that “we should vanquish heretics with books, not with burning.” And that there should be only one law, for clergy and laity alike. This headlong assault of one man against a power that pervaded all Western Europe became the sensation of Germany. The first edition of the Open Letter was soon exhausted, and new printings kept busy the presses of Wittenberg. Luther now planted his standard of revolt not in theological deserts, but in the rich soil of the German national spirit. Wherever Protestantism won, nationalism carried the flag. Luther issued a second manifesto, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 16). Addressed to theologians and scholars, it reverted to Latin, but it was soon translated, and had almost as much influence on Christian doctrine as the Open Letter had on ecclesiastical and political history. Since Christ had given his Apostles wine as well as bread at the Last Supper, the Husites were right: the Eucharist should be administered in both forms wherever the people so desired. Luther sent to Leo the third of his manifestos—A Treatise on Christian Liberty (November 1520). Here he expressed with uncongenial moderation his basic doctrine—that faith alone, not good works, makes the true Christian and saves them from hell. In one of a series of bitter pamphlets, Luther fully approved of the doctrines of Hus.    

    He issued an invitation to the “pious and studious youths” of Wittenberg to assemble outside the city on the morning of December 20. There, with his own hands, he cast the papal bull into a fire. On December 21, Luther proclaimed that no one could be saved unless they renounced the rule of the papacy. The monk had excommunicated the pope.


The Diet of Worms: 1521


The newly crowned Charles V summoned an Imperial Diet to meet at Worms. When the leading nobles, clergy, and representatives of the free cities assembled there (February 6, 1521), Luther was the chief topic of conversation. On March 13, Jerome Aleander presented to the Diet a proposal for the immediate condemnation of Luther. The Diet protested that the monk should not be condemned without a hearing. Charles thereupon invited Luther to come to Worms and testify concerning his teaching and his books.

    On April 27, Luther appeared before the Diet: the Emperor, six electors, an awesome court of princes, nobles, prelates, burghers, and Aleander armed with papal authority, formal documents, and forensic eloquence. On a table near Luther stood a collection of his books. Johann Eck—an official of the archbishop of Trier—asked him were these his compositions, and would he retract all heresies contained in them? He replied in a low and diffident voice that the books were his, but as to the second question he begged time to consider. Back in his lodging, he received a message beseeching him to stand fast; and several members of the Diet came privately to encourage him. Many seemed to feel that his final answer would mark a turning point in history.

    On April 28, he faced the Diet with fuller confidence. Now the chamber was so crowded that even the electors found it difficult to reach their seats. Eck asked him would he repudiate the works that he had written. He replied that those portions that dealt with ecclesiastical abuses were by common consent just. As to the doctrinal passages in his books, he agreed to retract any that proved contrary to Scripture. Eck, in Latin, made an objection that well expressed the view of the Church:


    Martin, your plea to be heard from Scripture is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wycliffe and Hus. . . . How can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all of them? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect Lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the Apostles, sealed by the red blood of martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, and defined by the Church . . . and which we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss, lest there be no end to debate. I ask you, Martin—answer candidly and without distinctions—do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?


Luther made his historic response in German:


    Since your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions. . . . Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.*


Luther returned to his lodging weary with the strife, but confident that he had borne good testimony in what Carlyle was to call “the greatest moment in the modern history of man.”

    The Elector Frederick on May 16 arranged, with Luther’s reluctant consent, to have him taken for concealment to the castle of Wartburg.


The Radicals


In Luther’s intellectual solitude, doubts and hallucinations plagued him. He solaced himself by writing vivid letters to his friends and his enemies, by composing theological treatises, and by translating the New Testament into German. Once he made a flying trip to Wittenberg to harness a revolution.

    His defiance at Worms, and his survival, had given his followers a heady elation. Carlstadt demanded that the clergy—monks as well as secular priests—should marry and procreate. Luther found something attractive in the idea, for he sent to Spalatin (December 1, 1521) a treatise On Monastic Vows, defending their repudiation.     

    Shortly thereafter, he sent to Spalatin for publication an Earnest Exhortation for All Christians, Warning Them against Insurrection and Rebellion. Luther feared that his conservative critics would soon be justified in their frequent predictions that his repudiation of ecclesiastical authority would loosen all bonds of social discipline. On March 19, 1522, he began a series of eight sermons that sternly called the university, the churches, and the citizens to order. He now rejected all appeals to force; had he not freed millions from ecclesiastical oppression without lifting more than a pen? He was at his best in those eight sermons in eight days. He risked all on being able to win Wittenberg back to moderation, and he succeeded.


The Foundations of Faith


Nearly all his writings were warfare, salted with humor and peppered with vituperation. He let his opponents elaborate superior Latin to be read by a few scholars; he too wrote Latin when he wished to address all Christendom; but most of his diatribes were composed in German, or were at once translated into German, for his was a nationalist revolution. No other German author has equaled him in clarity or force of style, in directness and pungency of phrase, in happy—sometimes hilarious—similes, in a vocabulary rooted in the speech of the people, and congenial to the national mind. Printing fell in with his purposes as a seemingly providential innovation, which he used with inexhaustible skill; he was the first to make it an engine of propaganda and war. Printing was the Reformation; Gutenberg made Luther possible.

    Luther’s supreme achievement as a writer was his translation of the Bible into German. For the New Testament (1522) Luther used the Greek text that Erasmus had edited with a Latin version in 1516. This part of the task he completed in 1521. After twelve more years of labor, and aided by Melanchthon and several Jewish scholars, Luther published the Old Testament in German. The translations of the Bible shared, as both effect and contributory cause, in that displacement of Latin by vernacular languages and literatures which accompanied the nationalist movement, and which corresponded to the defeat of the universal Church in lands that had not received and transformed the Latin tongue. Though he accepted some traditions not based on Scripture he rejected the right of the Church to add to Christianity elements resting not on the Bible but on her own custom and authority. Tradition was human and fallible, but nearly all Europe accepted the Bible as the infallible word of God.

    Reason, too, seemed a weak instrument when compared with faith in a divine revelation. You cannot, said Luther, accept both the Bible and reason. Luther condemned the Scholastic philosophers for making so many concessions to reason, for trying to prove Christian dogmas rationally, for trying to harmonize Christianity with the philosophy of that “cursed, conceited, wily heathen” Aristotle. Nevertheless, Luther took two steps in the direction of reason: he made the sermon, not ceremony, the center of religious ritual; and in the early days of his rebellion he proclaimed the right of every individual to interpret the Scriptures for themselves.

    Luther defended the Bible as absolutely and literally true. He admitted that if the story of Jonah and the whale were not in Scripture he would laugh at it as a fable. So too with the tales of Eden and the serpent, of Joshua and the sun; but, he argued, once we accept the divine authorship of the Bible we must take these stories along with the rest as in every sense factual. Having himself won mental peace through faith in Christ as presented in the Gospels, he clung to the Bible as the last refuge of the soul.


Luther’s Theology


Though he founded his theology with trusting literalness on the Scriptures, his interpretation unconsciously retained late medieval traditions. Even in his rebellion, he followed Wycliffe and Hus rather than any new scheme. The line from Wycliffe to Hus to Luther is the main thread of religious development from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Theologically Augustine’s notions of predestination and grace anchored the line, which in turn were rooted in the Epistles of Paul, who had never known Christ.

    Luther’s conception of God was Judaic. In him was the old picture of God as the avenger, and therefore of Christ as the final judge. He took heaven and hell for granted, and believed in an early end of the world. He described a heaven of many delights, including pet dogs “with golden hair shining like precious stones”—a genial concession to his children, who had expressed concern over the damnation of their pets. Sometimes he represented man as an endless bone of contention between good and bad angels, to whose differing dispositions and efforts were to be ascribed all the circumstances of a human’s fate—a Zoroastrian intrusion into his theology. He accepted magic and witchcraft as realities, and thought it a simple Christian duty to burn witches at the stake. His contemporaries, Roman Catholic or Protestant, shared most of these ideas.        

    Luther’s philosophy was further darkened by the conviction that man is by nature wicked and prone to sin.* As far as good works go, every one of us would merit damnation. Only the redeeming sacrifice of Christ—the suffering and death of the Son of God—could atone for humankind’s sins; and only belief in that divine atonement can save us from hell. It is this faith that “justifies”—makes a man just despite his sins, and eligible for salvation. Faith was now to do all the wonders formerly claimed for confession, absolution, contribution, and indulgence. By faith, Luther meant no merely intellectual assent to a proposition, but vital, personal self-committal to a practical belief. How does someone come to such saving faith? By divine predestination, the elect are chosen for eternal happiness, the rest are left graceless and damned to everlasting hell. Luther concluded, like Spinoza, that man is as “unfree as a block of wood, a rock, a lump of clay, or a pillar of salt.” Most of these conclusions lay annoyingly implicit in medieval theology, and Luther deduced them from Paul and Augustine with irrefutable consistency.

    The most revolutionary item in Luther’s theology was his dethronement of the priest. He allowed for priests as servants chosen by each congregation to minister to its spiritual wants. Prayers should be the direct communion of the soul with God, not appeals to half-legendary saints. The adoration of the saints, in Luther’s judgment, was a relapse into primitive polytheistic idolatry. As for the sacraments, viewed as priestly ceremonies conferring divine grace, Luther severely reduced their role. They involve no miraculous powers, and their efficacy depends, not on their forms and formulas, but on the faith of the recipient. The supreme sacrament is the Eucharist. It is no priestly magic, but a divine and perpetual miracle. He rejected episcopal courts and canon law. In Lutheran Europe, civil courts became the only courts, secular power the only legal power. Theoretically, Church and state remained independent; actually, the Church became subject to the state. The Lutheran movement, which thought to submit all life to theology, unwittingly, unwillingly, advanced that pervasive secularization which is a basic theme of modern life.


The Revolutionist


When some bishops sought to silence Luther and his followers, he emitted an angry roar that was almost a tocsin of revolution. In a pamphlet Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops (July 1522), he branded the prelates as the “biggest wolves” of all, and called upon all good Germans to drive them out by force. Stung by the prohibition of the sale or possession of his New Testament in regions under orthodox rulers, he wrote, in the fall of 1522, a treatise On Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. The authority of the state should end where the realm of the spirit begins.

    Actually, Luther was a conservative, even a reactionary, in the sense that he wished to return to early medieval beliefs and ways. He agreed with the medieval Church in condemning interest, regretted the growth of foreign trade, called commerce a “nasty business,” and despised those who lived by buying cheap and selling dear. He denounced as “manifest robbers” the monopolists who were conspiring to raise prices. And he concluded ominously in a blast On Trade and Usury (1524):


    Kings and princes ought to look into these things and forbid them by strict laws, but I hear that they have an interest in them, and the saying of Isaiah is fulfilled, “Thy princes have become companions of thieves.” They hang thieves who have stolen a gulden or half a gulden, but trade with those who rob the whole world. . . . Big thieves hang the little ones; and as the Roman senator Cato said, “Simple thieves lie in prisons and in stocks; public thieves walk abroad in gold and silk.” But what will God say to this at last? He will do as he says by Ezekiel: princes and merchants, one thief with another, He will melt them together like lead and brass, as when a city burns, so that there shall be neither princes nor merchants any more. That time, I fear, is already at the door.


    It was.


Luther: The Man


What was he like, this lusty voice of his time, this peak of German history?

    He had slipped into marriage by inadvertence. When, on his recommendation, some nuns left their convent, he undertook to find them husbands. Finally only one remained unmatched, Katherine von Bora. Luther suggested a Dr. Glatz as a husband; she replied that Glatz was unacceptable, but that Herr Amsdorf or Dr. Luther would do. Luther was forty-two, Katherine twenty-six; he thought the discrepancy prohibitive, but his father urged him to transmit the family name. On July 7, 1525, the ex-monk and the ex-nun became man and wife. The Elector gave them the Augustinian monastery as a home. Luther bought a farm, which Katie managed and loved. She bore him six children, and cared faithfully for them, for all Martin’s domestic needs, for a home brewery, a fishpond, a vegetable garden, chickens, and pigs. His letters to or about Katherine reveal his growing affection for her, and a generally happy marriage.

    He was a good father, knowing as if by instinct the right mixture of discipline and love. He composed songs for his children, and sang these songs with them while he played the lute. His letters to his children are among the jewels of German literature. Not content with six children, he took into his many-chambered monastery-home eleven orphaned nephews and nieces, brought them up, sat with them at table, and discoursed with them tirelessly. Some of them made uncensored notes of his table talk; the resulting mass of 6,596 entries rivals Boswell’s Johnson and Napoleon’s recorded conversations in weight, wit, and wisdom.   

    A strong will was Luther’s bedrock; hence his self-confidence, dogmatism, courage, and intolerance. But he had some gentle virtues too. In his middle years, he was the height of sociability and cheerfulness, and a pillar of strength to all who needed consolation or aid. He put on no airs, assumed no elegances, never forgot that he was a peasant’s son. His humor was rural, rough, rollicking, Rabelaisian. He loved music this side of idolatry, composed tender or thundering hymns, and set them to polyphonic strains already used in the Roman Church.

    His theology led him to a lenient ethic, for it told him that good works could not win salvation without faith in redemption by Christ, nor could sin forfeit salvation if such faith survived. One thing is clear: Luther was no puritan. He advised his followers to feast and dance on Sunday, approved of amusements, played a good game of chess, and called card playing a harmless diversion for immature minds. Some Protestant preachers wished to prohibit plays, but Luther was more tolerant. The man was immeasurably better than his theology.

    His intellect was powerful, but too clouded with the miasmas of his youth, too incarnadined with war, to work out a rational philosophy. He ridiculed astrology but sometimes talked in its terms. He praised mathematics as “relying upon demonstrations and sure proofs”; he admired the bold reach of astronomy into the stars, but, like nearly all his contemporaries, he rejected the Copernican system as contradicting Scripture. He insisted that reason should stay within the limits laid down by religious faith.

    Doubtless, he was right in his judgment that feeling, rather than thought, is the lever of history. The men who mold religions move the world; the philosophers clothe in new phrases, generation after generation, the sublime ignorance of the part pontificating about the whole. He had the courage to defy his enemies because he did not have the intellect to doubt his truth. He was what he had to be to do what he had to do.


The Lion of Wittenberg: 1536-46


His expanding frame harbored a dozen diseases—indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, colic, kidney stones, abscesses in the ears, ulcers, gout, rheumatism, sciatica, and palpitation of the heart. His deteriorating temper was in part an expression of his suffering. He tried hard to be reasonable in his treatise On the Councils and the Churches (1539). He reviewed conciliar history, and noted that several ecclesiastical councils had been called and presided over by emperors—a hint to Charles.

    He had always been politically conservative, even when appearing to encourage social revolution. His religious revolt was against practice rather than theory; he accepted to the end of his life the most difficult doctrines of orthodox Christianity and made some of these more indigestible than before. He despised the common people. Herr OmnesMr. Crowd—needs strong government, “lest the world become wild, peace vanish, and commerce . . . be destroyed. . . . No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood. . . . The world cannot be ruled with a rosary.” But when government by rosaries lost its power, government by the sword had to take its place. So Luther had to transfer to the state most of the authority that had been held by the Church; therefore, he defended the divine right of kings. In this exaltation of the state as now, the sole source of order lay the seeds of the absolutist philosophies of Hobbes and Hegel, and a premonition of Imperial Germany. As he aged Luther became more conservative than the princes. He quoted the Old Testament as justifying slavery. Everyone should stay patiently in the task and occupation to which God has assigned him. This conception of vocation became a pillar of conservatism in Protestant lands.

    Luther’s temper became hot lava as he neared the grave. Asked by Elector John Frederick I to restate the case against participation in a papally directed council, Luther sent forth a tirade Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil (1545), in which his flair for vituperation surpassed itself.    

    In January 1546, he went through wintry weather to Eisleben to arbitrate a dispute. He dined merrily on February 27. Early the next morning he fell ill with violent stomach pains. Then a stroke deprived him of speech and he died (February 28, 1546). He was buried in Wittenberg in the Castle Church on whose door he had pinned his Theses twenty-nine years before.

    Those years were among the most momentous in history, and Luther had been their strident and dominant voice. His faults were many. He lacked appreciation of the historic role that the Church had played in civilizing northern Europe, lacked understanding of humankind’s hunger for symbolic and consolatory myths, lacked the charity to deal justly with his Roman Catholic or Protestant foes. He freed his followers from an infallible pope, but subjected them to an infallible book; and it has been easier to change the popes than the book. He retained the most cruel and incredible dogmas of medieval religion, while allowing almost all its beauty to be stamped out in its legends and its art, and bequeathed to Germany a Christianity no truer than the old one, far less joyous and comforting, only more honest in its teaching and personnel. He became almost as intolerant as the Inquisition, but his words were harsher than his deeds.

    Yet his faults were his success. He was a man of war because the situation seemed to demand war, because the problems he attacked had resisted for centuries all the methods of peace. No man of philosophic breadth, no scientific mind restricting belief to the evidence, no genial nature making generous allowances for the enemy, would have flung down so world-shaking a challenge, or would have marched so resolutely, as if in blinders, to his goal. If his predestinarian theology was as repugnant to reason and human kindness as any myth or miracle in the medieval faith, it was by this passionate irrationality that it moved people’s hearts. Hope and terror make them pray, not the evidence of things seen.

    With the blows of his rude fist, he smashed the shell of authority that had blocked the movement of the European mind. If we judge greatness by influence, we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modem world. His influence on philosophy was tardy and indirect; it moved the fideism of Kant, the nationalism of Fichte, the voluntarism of Schopenhauer, the Hegelian surrender of the soul to the state. No other German is quoted so frequently or so fondly. He affected the moral life and institutions of Western man by breaking away from clerical celibacy, and pouring into secular life the energies that previously diverted to monastic asceticism, idleness, or piety. His influence lessened as it spread. Nevertheless, in Germany it was supreme; no other thinker or writer cut so deep a mark into the German mind and character. He was the most powerful figure in German history, and his compatriots love him not less because he was the most German German of them all.

* We cannot fully authenticate the famous words engraved on the majestic Luther Memorial at Worms: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” The words do not occur in the transcript of Luther’s reply as given in the records of the Diet; they make their first appearance in the earliest printed version of his speech.

* Alternatively, as we should now say, man is born with instincts fitted for the hunting stage but requiring persistent restraint in civilization.

8. Augustine of Hippo (354 430)

For a discussion of the life of Augustine, click here.

9. Ignatius Loyola (1491? 1556)

The Man


He was born Don Iñigo de Oñaz y Loyola in the castle of Loyola in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in 1491. He was one of eight sons and five daughters begotten by Don Beltran de Oñaz y Loyola, a member of the higher Spanish nobility. Brought up to be a soldier, Iñigo received little schooling, and showed no interest in religion. His reading was confined to Amadis of Gaul and like romances of chivalry. At seven, he was sent to serve as a page to Don Juan Velasquez de Cuellar, through whom he had some access to the royal court. At fourteen he fell in love with Ferdinand the Catholic’s new queen, Germaine de Foix; and when, in due course, he was knighted, he chose her as his “Queen of Hearts,” wore her colors, and dreamed of winning a lace handkerchief from her hand as prize in a tournament. This did not prevent him from engaging in the casual amours and brawls that were half a soldier’s life. In the simple and honest autobiography that he dictated in 1553-56, he made no effort to conceal these natural escapades.

    His carefree youth ended when assignment to active military service came at Pamplona, capital of Navarre. Four years he spent there, dreaming of glory and waking to routine. A chance came to distinguish himself: the French attacked Pamplona, Iñigo heartened the defense with his bravery; the enemy captured the citadel nevertheless, and Iñigo fractured his right leg from a cannon ball (May 30, 1521). The victors treated him kindly, set his bones, and sent him on a stretcher to his ancestral castle. Nevertheless, the bones had been wrongly set; they had to be re-broken and reset. The second operation proved more incompetent than the first, for a stump of bone stuck out from the leg; a third operation set the bones straight, but the leg was now too short; and for weeks Iñigo bore the torture of an orthopedic stretcher that kept him helpless and weak and in constant pain.

    During the weary months of convalescence, he asked for books, preferably for some exciting tale of knighthood and imperiled princesses. However, the castle library was composed of two books only: Ludolfus’s Life of Christ, and Flos sanctorum, recounting the lives of the saints. At first, these volumes bored the soldier; then the figures of Christ and Mary grew upon him, and the legends of the saints proved as wonderful as the epics of courtly love and war; these cavaliers of Christ were every bit as heroic as the caballeros of Castile. Gradually the thought formed in his mind that the noblest war of all was that of Christianity against Islam. In him, as in Dominic, the intensity of Spanish faith made religion no quiet devotion as in Thomas à Kempis, but a passion of conflict, a holy war. He resolved to go to Jerusalem and free the sacred places from infidel control. One night he had a vision of the Virgin and her Child; thereafter (he later told Father Gonzalez) no temptation to concupiscence ever assailed him. He rose from his bed, knelt, and vowed to be a soldier of Christ and Mary till his death.

    He had read that the Holy Grail had once been hidden in a castle at Montserrat in the province of Barcelona. There, said the most famous of all romances, Amadis had kept a full night’s vigil, before an image of the Virgin to prepare himself for knighthood. As soon as Iñigo could travel he mounted a mule, and set out for the distant shrine. For a while he still thought of himself as a soldier accoutered for physical combat. But the saints he had read about had had no weapons, no armor, only the poorest clothes and the firmest faith. Arrived in Montserrat, he cleansed his soul with three days of confession and penance; he gave his costly raiment to a beggar, and donned a pilgrim’s robe of coarse cloth. All the night of April 3-4, 1522, he spent alone in the chapel of a Benedictine monastery, kneeling or standing before the altar of the Mother of God. He pledged himself to perpetual chastity and poverty. The next morning he received the Eucharist, gave his mule to the monks, and set out on limping foot for Jerusalem.

    The nearest port was Barcelona. On the way, he stopped at the hamlet of Manresa. An old woman directed him to a cave for shelter. For some days, he made this his home; and there, eager to surpass the saints in asceticism, he practiced austerities that brought him close to death. Repenting the proud care that he had once taken of his appearance, he ceased to cleanse, cut, or comb his hair—which soon fell out. He would not trim his nails or bathe his body or wash his hands, face, or feet; he lived on such food as he could beg, but never meat; he fasted for days at a time; he scourged himself thrice daily and spent hours each day in prayer. A pious woman, fearful that his austerities would kill him, had him taken to her home, where she nursed him back to health. But when he was removed to a cell in a Dominican monastery at Manresa he resumed his self-flagellation. His remembrance of past sins terrified him; he waged war against his body as the agent of his sins; he was resolved to beat all thought of sin out of his flesh. At times, the struggle seemed hopeless, and he thought of suicide. Then visions came and strengthened him; at communion he believed that he saw not a wafer of bread but the living Christ; at another time Christ and His Mother appeared to him; once he saw the Trinity, and understood by a flash of insight, beyond words or reason, the mystery of three persons in one God; and “at another time,” he tells us, “God permitted him to understand how He had created the world.” These visions healed the spiritual conflict that had produced them; he put behind him all worry about his youthful follies; he relaxed his asceticism; and having conquered his body he could now cleanse it without vanity. From the experience of this struggle, almost a year long, he designed the Spiritual Exercises by which the heathen flesh could be subdued to the Christian will. Now he might present himself before the sacred shrines at Jerusalem.

    He set sail from Barcelona in February 1523. En route, he stayed two weeks in Rome, escaping before its pagan spirit could bend him from sanctity. On July 24, he took ship from Venice for Jaffa. He suffered a host of calamities before reaching Palestine, but his continuing visions sustained him. Jerusalem itself was a tribulation: the Turks who controlled it allowed Christian visitors, but no proselytizing; and when Iñigo proposed to convert the Muslims nevertheless, the Franciscan provincial who had been charged by the Pope to keep the peace bade the saint return to Europe. In March 1524, he was back in Barcelona.

    Perhaps he felt now that though he was master of his body he was subject to his imaginations. He determined to chasten his mind with education. Though now thirty-three, he joined schoolboys in studying Latin. However, the itch to teach is stronger than the will to learn. Soon Ignatius, as they scholastically called him, began to preach to a circle of pious but charming women. Their lovers denounced him as a spoilsport, and beat him brutally. He moved to Alcala (1526), and took up philosophy and theology. Here too he taught a little private group, chiefly of poor women, some of them prostitutes hungering for redemption. He tried to exorcise their sinful propensities by spiritual exercises, but some of his pupils fell into fits or trances, and the Inquisition summoned him. He suffered imprisonment for two months, but he finally convinced the inquisitors of his orthodoxy, and they released him; however, he was forbidden to teach. He passed on to Salamanca (1527), and went through a similar sequence of teaching, trial before the Inquisition, imprisonment, acquittal, and prohibition of further teaching. Disappointed with Spain, he set out for Paris, always on foot and in pilgrim garb, but now driving before him a donkey loaded with books.

    At Paris, he lived in the poorhouse, and begged in the streets for his food and tuition. He entered the College de Montaigu, where his sallow, haggard face, starved body, unkempt beard, and aged clothing made him a cynosure of unsympathetic eyes; but he pursued his purposes with such absorbed intensity that some students began to reverence him as a saint. Under his lead, they engaged in spiritual exercises of prayer, penance, and contemplation. In 1529, he transferred to the College Ste. Barbe, and there too he gathered disciples. His two roommates came by different routes to believe in his sanctity. Pierre Favre—Peter Faber—as a shepherd in the Savoyard Alps, had suffered deeply from fears superstitious or real, and under their influence he had vowed perpetual chastity. Now, aged twenty, he concealed under his disciplined manners a soul struggling feverishly against temptations of the flesh. Ignatius, though making no pretensions to intellect, had the power of sensing the interior life of others through the intensity of his own. He surmised the problem of his younger friend, and assured him that a trained will could control the impulses of the body. How train the will? By spiritual exercises, answered Ignatius. Together they practiced them.

    The other roommate, Francis Xavier, came from Pamplona, where Loyola had soldiered. He had a long line of distinguished ancestors; he was handsome, rich, proud, a gay blade who knew the taverns of Paris and their girls. He laughed at the two ascetics, and boasted of his successes with women. Yet he was clever in his studies; he already had a master’s degree, and was aiming at a doctorate. One day he saw a man whose face was pocked with syphilis; it gave him pause. Once, when he was expounding his ambition to shine in the world, Ignatius quietly quoted the Gospel to him: “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Xavier resented the query, but he could not forget it. He began to join Loyola and Faber in their spiritual exercises; perhaps his pride stirred him to equal the other two in power to bear deprivation, cold, and pain. They scourged themselves, fasted, slept in thin shirts on the floor of an unheated room; they stood barefoot and almost naked in the snow, to harden and yet subdue their bodies.

    The Spiritual Exercises that had first taken shape at Manresa now reached a more definite form. Ignatius modeled them on the Exercitatorio de la vida espiritual (1500) of Don Garcia de Cisneros, Benedictine abbot at Montserrat; but he poured into that mold a fervor of feeling and imagination that made his little book a moving force in modern history. Loyola took as his starting point the infallibility of the Bible and the Church; individual judgment in religion, he held, was the vain and chaos-breeding pretense of proud, weak minds. “We ought always to be ready to believe that what seems to us white is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it.” To avoid damnation we must train ourselves to be unquestioning servants of God, and of God’s vicar on earth, the Church.

    As the first spiritual exercise, we should recall our many sins, and consider how much punishment they deserve. Lucifer was condemned to hell for one sin; and is not our every sin a like rebellion against God? Let us keep a daily count of our sins by marks on lines that represent the days, and let us strive each day to reduce the marks. Kneeling in our darkened room or cell, let us picture hell to ourselves as vividly as we can; we must conjure up all the horrors of that undying fire; we must vision the torments of the damned, hear their shrieks of pain and their cries of despair; we must smell the stinking fumes of burning sulfur and flesh; we must try to feel those tongues of flame scorching our own bodies; and then we must ask ourselves, how can we escape that everlasting agony? Only through the redeeming sacrifice which God Himself, as Christ, offered on the cross.* Let us then contemplate the life of Christ, and in every detail; we must make ourselves present in imagination at those profoundest events in the history of the world. We must in fancy kneel before the holy figures in that divine epic, and kiss the hem of their garments. After two weeks of such meditations we must accompany Christ through every step in His Passion, every station of the cross; we must pray with Him in Gethsemane, feel ourselves scourged with Him, spat upon, nailed to the cross; we must suffer every moment of His agony, must die with Him, lie with Him in the tomb. Moreover, in the fourth week we must picture ourselves rising triumphantly from the grave, rising at last with Him into heaven. Strengthened by that blessed vision, we shall be ready to join as dedicated soldiers in the battle to defeat Satan and win men to Christ; and in that holy war we shall gladly bear every hardship and joyfully spend our lives.

    This call to lifelong devotion found nine students at Paris ready to accept it. Earnest young men feeling for the first time the unintelligibility of the world, and longing for some anchor of belief and hope in a sea of doubts and fears, may have been moved, by the very extent of the demands made upon them, to put their fate, their lives and salvation, in Loyola’s plan. He proposed that in due time they should go together to Palestine, and live there a life as nearly as possible like Christ’s. On August 25, 1534, Loyola, Faber, Xavier, Diego Laynez, Alonso Salmeron, Nicolas Bobadilla, Simon Rodriguez, Claude Le Jay, Jean Codure, and Paschase Broet, in a little chapel in Montmartre, took the vows of chastity and poverty, and pledged themselves, after two years of further study, to go and live in the Holy Land. They had as yet no apparent notion of combating Protestantism; Islam seemed to them the greater challenge. They had no interest in theological disputes; their aim was sanctity; their movement was rooted in Spanish mysticism rather than in the intellectual conflicts of the time. The best argument would be a holy life.

    In the winter of 1536-37, they walked through France, over the Alps, and across Italy to Venice, where they hoped to find passage to Jaffa. However, Venice was at war with the Turks; the trip was impossible. During the delay, Ignatius met Caraffa, and for a time joined the Theatines. His experience with these devoted priests had some influence in changing his plan from life in Palestine to service of the Church in Europe. He and his disciples agreed that if, after a year of waiting, Palestine should still be closed to them, they would offer themselves to the Pope for any service that he might assign to them. Faber secured permission for all of them to be ordained priests.

    By this time, Loyola was forty-six. He was bald and still limped slightly from his wound. His hundred and fifty-seven centimeters would have left him quite unimpressive had it not been for an aristocratic refinement of features, the sharp nose and chin, the somber, deep-set, piercing black eyes, the grave, intent countenance; he was already the absorbed and almost humorless saint. He was no persecutor; though he approved of the Inquisition, he was rather its victim than its agent. He was stern but kind; he willingly served the sick in hospitals and plague. His dream was to win converts not by the pyre or the sword but by catching character in malleable youth and forming it immovably to faith. Founder of the most successful educational order in history, he laid little emphasis on learning or intellect. He was not a theologian, took no part in the arguments and refinements of the Scholastics; he preferred direct perception to rational understanding. He did not have to argue about the existence of God, of Mary and the saints; he was convinced that he had seen them; he felt them closer to him than any object or person in his surroundings; in his own way, he was a God-intoxicated man. Yet his mystical experiences did not make him impractical. He could combine pliancy of means with inflexibility of ends. He would not justify any means for an end that he held good, but he could bide his time, moderate his hopes and demands, adjust his methods to characters and conditions, use diplomacy where needed, judge men shrewdly, choose fit aides and agents, and manage men as if he were—as he actually thought himself—a general leading a martial company. He called his little band by a military term, Compañia de Jesú; they were soldiers enlisted for life in the war against unbelief and the dissolution of the Church. For their part, as a matter of course and necessity, they accepted the military discipline of coordinated action under absolute command.

    In the fall of 1537 Loyola, Faber, and Laynez set out from Venice to Rome to ask papal approval of their plans. They walked all the way, begged their food, and lived mostly on bread and water. Nevertheless, they sang psalms happily as they went along, as if they knew that out of their small number would grow a powerful and brilliant organization.


The Jesuits


Arrived in Rome they did not at once ask audience with the Pope, for Paul III had immersed himself in critical diplomacy. They took service in the Spanish hospital, tended the sick, taught the young. Early in 1538, Paul received them, and they impressed him with their desire to go to Palestine and live there as exemplary monks; he and some cardinals contributed 210 crowns to pay the passage of the band. When the devotees had to abandon the idea as impracticable, they returned the money to the donors. They summoned those members who had remained in the north to Rome, and the company now numbered eleven. Paul appointed Faber and Laynez to professorships in the Sapienza (the University of Rome), while Ignatius and the rest devoted themselves to works of charity and education. Loyola made a special mission of converting prostitutes; with funds collected from his supporters, he founded the House of Martha to receive such women; and his fervent preaching against sexual transgressions made him many enemies in Rome.

    As the company received new candidates, it became desirable to define its principles and rule. The vow of obedience they added to those of chastity and poverty; the “general” chosen by them was to be obeyed only next to the Pope. A fourth vow was taken: to “serve the Roman Pontiff as God’s vicar on earth,” and “to execute immediately and without hesitation or excuse all that the reigning Pope or his successors may enjoin upon them for the benefit of souls or for the propagation of the faith” anywhere in the world. In 1539, Loyola asked Cardinal Contarini to submit these articles of organization to Paul III, and to request the papal confirmation of the company as a new order. The Pope was favorable; some cardinals dissented, thinking the group to be unmanageable extremists; but Paul overcame their objections, and by the bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae (“For the rule of the Church Militant”) he formally established what the bull called Societas Jesú, the “Society of Jesus” (October 7, 1540). The members were properly called “Clerks Regular of the Society of Jesus”; the name “Jesuit” did not appear till 1544, and then chiefly as a satirical term used by Calvin and other critics; Ignatius himself never used it. After his death, the success of the new order deprived the term of its early sting, and in the sixteenth century it was a badge of honor.

    On April 27, 1541, Ignatius was elected general. For several days thereafter, he washed dishes and discharged the humblest offices. During his remaining years (he was now fifty) he made Rome his home, and the city became the permanent headquarters of the society. Between 1547 and 1552, after much thought and experiment, he drew up the Constitutions, which, with minor changes, are the Jesuit rule today. The ultimate authority in the order was to lie in the fully “professed” members. These would choose two delegates from each province and these delegates—together with the provincial heads, the general, and his aides—were to compose the “General Congregation.” This would, when occasion required, elect a new general, and then it would delegate its authority to him as long as he should commit no grave offense. He was given an “admonitor” and four assistants, who were to watch his every act, warn him of any serious fault, and, if need appeared, convene the General Congregation to depose him.

    Candidates for admission were required to pass through two years of novitiate, in which they would be trained in the purpose and discipline of the society, go through the spiritual exercises, perform menial duties, and submit to the superiors in absolute “holy obedience.” They must put aside their own individual wills, follow orders like soldiers, and be moved about “like corpses”; they must learn to feel that in obeying their superiors they are obeying God. They must agree to report the faults of their associates to their superiors, and to harbor no resentment against someone else reporting them. This discipline was rigorous but discriminating and flexible; rarely did it break the will or destroy initiative. Apparently, the willingness to obey is the first step in learning to command, for this training produced a great number of able and enterprising men.

    Those who survived this trying novitiate would take “simple”—revocable—vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and would enter the “second class.” Some of these would remain in that status as lay brothers; some, as “formed scholastics,” aspiring to the priesthood, would study mathematics, the classics, philosophy, and theology, and would teach in schools and colleges. Those who passed further tests would enter the third class—“formed coadjutors”; and some of these might rise into the fourth class—the “professed”—all priests, and specially pledged to undertake any task or mission assigned them by the Pope. The “professed” were usually a small minority—sometimes hardly more than a tenth—of the entire society. All four classes were to live in common like monks, but in view of their many administrative and pedagogical duties, they were exempted from the monastic obligation to recite the canonical hours. No ascetic practices were required, though they might on occasion be advised. There was to be moderation in eating and drinking, but no stringent fasting; body as well as mind was to be kept fit for all tasks. A member might retain title to such property, as he owned when entering the order, but all income from it was to go to the society, which hoped to be the ultimate heir. Every Jesuit possession and action must be dedicated ad majorem Dei gloriam—to the greater glory of God.

    Seldom has an institution borne so definitely the stamp of one personality. Loyola lived long enough to revise the Constitutions into a successfully functioning rule. From his small, bare room he guided with severe authority and great skill the movements of his little army in every quarter of Europe, and many other parts of the globe. The task of governing the society, and of establishing and administering two colleges and several charitable foundations in Rome, proved too much for his temper as he aged; and though kind to the weak he became cruelly harsh to his closest subordinates. He was severest on himself. He made many a meal from a handful of nuts, a piece of bread, and a cup of water. Often he left but four hours of the day for sleep, and even restricted to a daily half-hour the period that he allowed himself for celestial visions and illumination. When he died (1556), many Romans felt that a sharp wind had ceased to blow, and perhaps some of his followers mingled relief with grief. Men could not realize, so soon, that this indomitable Spaniard would prove to be one of the most influential men in modern history.

* Note that Luther went through the same fears of hell, the same penitential austerities, and the same release through faith in the redeeming sacrifice of Christ that motivated the career of Ignatius.


10. Francis of Assisi (1181? 1226)


Giovanni de Bernadone was born in 1181 in Assisi, son of Ser Pietro de Bernadone, a wealthy merchant who did much business with Provence. (The literature on Francis is partly history, partly legend. As the legends are ameng the masterpieces of medieval literature, some of them are included in the following, with a warning in each instance. Most of the Fioretti “Little Flowers of St. Francis” and the Speculum perfectionis “Mirror of Perfection” are legend; and quotations from these writings are to be so construed). In Provence Pietro had fallen in love with a French girl, Pica, and he had brought her back to Assisi as his wife. When he returned from another trip to Provence, and found that a son had been born to him, he changed the child’s name to Francesco, Francis, apparently as a tribute to Pica. The boy grew up in one of the loveliest regions of Italy, and never lost his affection for the Umbrian landscape and sky. He learned Italian and French from his parents, and Latin from the parish priest; he had no further formal schooling, but soon entered his father’s business. He disappointed Ser Pietro by showing more facility in spending money than in making it. He was the richest youth in town, and the most generous; friends flocked about him, ate and drank with him, and sang with him the songs of the troubadours; Francis wore, now and then, a parti-colored minstrel’s suit. He was a good-looking boy, with back eyes and hair and kindly face, and a melodious voice. His early biographers protest that he had no relations with the other sex, and, indeed, knew only two women by sight; but this surely does Francis some injustice. Possibly, in those formative years, he heard from his father about the Albigensian and Waldensian heretics of southern France, and their new-old gospel of evangelical poverty.

   In 1202 he fought in the Assisian army against Perugia, was made prisoner, and spent a year in meditative captivity. In 1204 he joined as a volunteer the army of Pope Innocent III. At Spoleto, lying in bed with a fever, he thought he heard a voice asking him: “Why do you desert the Lord for the servant, the Prince for his vassal?” “Lord,” he asked, “what do you wish me to do?” The voice answered, “Go back to your home; there it shall be told you what you are to do.” He left the army and returned to Assisi. Now he showed ever less interest in his father’s business, ever more in religion. Near Assisi was a poor chapel of St. Damian. Praying there in February, 1207, Francis thought he heard Christ speak to him from the altar, accepting his life and soul as an oblation. From that moment he felt himself dedicated to a new life. He gave the chapel priest all the money he had with him, and went home. One day he met a leper, and turned away in revulsion. Rebuking himself for unfaithfulness to Christ, he went back, emptied his purse into the leper’s hand, and kissed the hand; this act, he tells us, marked an era in his spiritual life. Thereafter he frequently visited the dwellings of the lepers, and brought them alms.

   Shortly after this experience he spent several days in or near the chapel, apparently eating little; when he appeared again in Assisi he was so thin, haggard, and pale, and his clothes so tattered, his mind so bewildered, that the urchins in the public square cried out, Pazzo! pazzo!-”madman! A madman!” There his father found him, called him a half-wit, dragged him home, and locked him in a closet. Freed by his mother, Francis hurried back to the chapel. The angry father overtook him, upbraided him for making his family a public jest, reproached him for making so little return on the money spent in his rearing, and bade him leave the town. Francis had sold his personal belongings to support the chapel; he handed the proceeds to his father, who accepted them; but he would not recognize the authority of his father to command one who now belonged to Christ. Summoned before the tribunal of the bishop in the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, he presented himself humbly, while a crowd looked on in a scene made memorable by Giotto’s brush. The bishop took him at his word, and bade him give up all his property. Francis retired to a room in the episcopal palace, and soon reappeared stark naked; he laid his bundled clothing and a few remaining coins before the bishop, and said: “Until this time I have called Pietro Bernadone my father, but now I desire to serve God. That is why I return to him this money . . . as well as my clothing, and all that I have had from him; for henceforth I desire to say nothing else than “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” Bernadone carried off the clothing, while the bishop covered the shivering Francis with his mantle. Francis returned to St. Damian’s, made himself a hermit’s robe, begged his food from door to door, and with his hands began to rebuild the crumbling chapel. Several of the townspeople came to aid him, and they sang together as they worked.

   In February 1209, as he was hearing Mass, he was struck by the words which the priest read from the instructions of Jesus to the apostles:


And as ye go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils. Freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor a staff. (Matt. 10:7-10.)


It seemed to Francis that Christ Himself was speaking, and directly to him. He resolved to obey those words literallyto preach the kingdom of heaven, and possess nothing. He would go back across the 1200 years that had obscured the figure of Christ, and would rebuild his life on that divine exemplar.

   So, that spring, braving all ridicule, he stood in the squares of Assisi and nearby towns and preached the gospel of poverty and Christ. Revolted by the unscrupulous pursuit of wealth that marked the age, and shocked by the splendor and luxury of some clergymen, he denounced money itself as a devil and a curse, bade his followers despise it as dung, and called upon men and women to sell all that they had, and give to the poor. Small audiences listened to him in wonder and admiration, but most men passed him by as a fool in Christ. The good bishop of Assisi protested, “Your way of living without owning anything seems to me very harsh and difficult”; to which Francis replied, “My lord, if we possessed property we should need arms to defend it.” Some hearts were moved; twelve men offered to follow his doctrine and his way; he welcomed them, and gave them the above-quoted words of Christ as their commission and their rule. They made themselves brown robes, and built themselves cabins of branches and boughs. Daily they and Francis, rejecting the old monastic isolation, went forth, barefoot and penniless, to preach. Sometimes they would be absent for several days, and sleep in haylofts, or leper hospitals, or under the porch of a church. When they returned, Francis would wash their feet and give them food.

   They greeted one another, and all whom they met on the road, with the ancient Oriental salutation: “The Lord give thee peace.” They were not yet named Franciscans. They called themselves Fratres minores, Friars Minor, or Minorites; friars as meaning brothers rather than priests, minor as being the least of Christ’s servants, and never wielding, but always under, superior authority; they were to hold themselves subordinate to even the lowliest priest, and to kiss the hand of any priest they met. Very few of them, in this first generation of the order, were ordained; Francis himself was never more than deacon. In their own little community they served one another, and did manual work; and no idler was long tolerated in the group. Intellectual study was discouraged; Francis saw no advantage in secular knowledge except for the accumulation of wealth or the pursuit of power; “my brethren who are led by desire of learning will find their hands empty in the day of tribulation.” He scorned historians, who perform no great deed themselves, but receive honors for recording the great deeds of others. Anticipating Goethe’s dictum that knowledge that does not lead to action is vain and poisonous, Francis said, Tantum homo habet de scientia, quantum operatur—”A man has only so much knowledge as he puts to work.” No friar was to own a book, not even a psalter. In preaching they were to use song as well as speech; they might even, said Francis, imitate the jongleurs, and become ioculatores Dei, gleemen of God.

   Sometimes the friars were derided, beaten, or robbed of almost their last garment. Francis bade them offer no resistance. In many cases the miscreants, astonished at what seemed a superhuman indifference to pride and property, begged forgiveness and restored their thefts. We do not know if the following specimen of the Little Flowers of St. Francis is history or legend, but it portrays the ecstatic piety that runs through all that we hear of the saint:


   One winter’s day as Francis was going from Perugia, suffering sorely from the bitter cold, he said: “Friar Leo, although the Friars Minor give good examples of holiness and edification, nevertheless write and note down diligently that perfect joy is not to be found therein.” And Francis went his way a little farther, and said: “O Friar Leo, even though the Friars Minor gave sight to the blind, made the crooked straight, cast out devils, made the deaf to hear and the lame to walk . . . and raised to life those who had lain four days in the gravewrite: perfect joy is never found there.” And he journeyed on a little while, and cried aloud: “O Friar Leo, if the Friar Minor knew all tongues and sciences and all the Scriptures, so that he could foretell and reveal not only future things but even the secrets of the conscience and the soulwrite: perfect joy is not there.” . . . Yet a little farther he went, and cried again aloud: “O Friar Leo, although the Friar Minor were skilled to preach so well that he should convert all infidels to Christwrite: not there is perfect joy.” And when this fashion of talk had continued for two miles, Friar Leo asked: ... “Father, prithee in God’s name tell me where is perfect joy to be found?” And Francis answered him: “When we are come to St. Mary of the Angels” [then the Franciscan chapel in Assisi], “wet through with rain, frozen with cold, foul with mire, and tormented with hunger, and when we knock at the door, and the doorkeeper comes in a rage and says, “Who are you?” and we say, “We are two of your friars,” and he answers, “You lie, you are rather two knaves who go about deceiving the world and stealing the alms of the poor. Begone!” And he opens not to us, and makes us stay outside hungry and cold all night in the rain and snow; then, if we endure patiently such cruelty . . . without complaint or mourning, and believe humbly and charitably that it is God who made the doorkeeper rail against usO Friar Leo, write: there is perfect joy! And if we persevere in our knocking; and he issues forth, and angrily drives us away, abusing us and smiting us on the cheek, saying, “Go hence, you vile thieves!”if this we suffer patiently with love and gladness, write, O Friar Leo: this is perfect joy! And if, constrained by hunger and by cold, we knock once more and pray with many tears that he open to us for the love of God, and he . . . issues forth with a big knotted stick and seizes us by our cowls and flings us on the ground, and rolls us in the snow, bruising every bone in our bodies with that heavy club; if we, thinking on the agony of the blessed Christ, endure all these things patiently and joyously for love of Himwrite, 0 Friar Leo, that here and in this is found perfect joy.


   The remembrance of his early life of indulgence gave him a haunting sense of sin; and if we may believe the Little Flowers he sometimes wondered whether God would ever forgive him. A touching story tells how, in the early days of the order, when they could find no breviary from which to read the divine office, Francis extemporized a litany of contrition, and bade Brother Leo repeat after him words accusing Francis of sin. Leo at each sentence tried to repeat the accusation, but found himself saying, instead, “The mercy of God is infinite.” On another occasion, just convalescing from quartan fever, Francis had himself dragged naked before the people in the market place of Assisi, and commanded a friar to throw a full dish of ashes into his face; and to the crowd he said: “You believe me to be a holy man, but I confess to God and you that I have in this my infirmity eaten meat and broth made with meat.” The people were all the more convinced of his sanctity. They told how a young friar had seen Christ and the Virgin conversing with him; they attributed many miracles to him, and brought their sick and “possessed” to him to be healed. His charity became a legend. He could not bear to see others poorer than himself; he so often gave to the passing poor the garments from his back that his disciples found it hard to keep him clothed. Once said the probably legendary Mirror of Perfection,


when he was returning from Siena he came across a poor man on the way, and said to a fellow monk: “We ought to return this mantle to its owner. For we received it only as a loan until we should come upon one poorer than ourselves . . . . It would be counted to us as a theft if we should not give it to him who is more needy.


   His love overflowed from men to animals, to plants, even to inanimate things. The Mirror of Perfection, unverified, ascribes to him a kind of rehearsal for his later Canticle of the Sun:


   In the morning, when the sun rises, every man ought to praise God, who created it for our use . . . . When it becomes night, every man ought to give praise on account of Brother Fire, by which our eyes are then enlightened; for we be all, as it were, blind; and the Lord by these two, our brothers, doth enlighten our eyes.


He so admired fire that he hesitated to extinguish a candle; the fire might object to being put out. He felt a sensitive kinship with every living thing. He wished to “supplicate the Emperor” (Frederick II, a great hunter of birds) “to tell him, for the love of God and me, to make a special law that no man should take or kill our sisters the larks, nor do them any harm; likewise that all the podestas or mayors of the towns, and the lords of castles and villages, should require men every year on Christmas Day to throw grain outside the cities and castles, that our sisters the larks, and other birds, may have something to eat.” Meeting a youth who had snared some turtle doves and was taking them to market, Francis persuaded the boy to give them to him; the saints built nests for them, “that ye may be fruitful and multiply”; they obeyed abundantly, and lived near the monastery in happy friendship with the monks, occasionally snatching food from the table at which these were eating. A score of legends embroidered this theme. One told how Francis preached to “my little sisters the birds” on the road between Cannora and Bevagna; and “those that were on the trees flew down to hear him, and stood still the while St. Francis made an end of his sermon.”


   My little sisters the birds, much are ye beholden to God your Creator, and always and in every place ye ought to praise Him for that He hath given you a double and triple vesture. He hath given you freedom to go into any place . . . . Moreover ye sow not, neither do ye reap, and God feedeth you and giveth you the rivers and the fountains for your drink; He giveth you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees wherein to build your nests; and for as much as ye can neither spin nor sew, God clotheth you and your children . . . . Therefore beware, little sisters mine, of the sin of ingratitude, but ever strive to praise God.


We are assured by Friars James and Masseo that the birds bowed in reverence to Francis, and would not depart until he had blessed them. The Fioretti or Little Flowers from which this story comes are an Italian amplification of a Latin Actus Beati Francisci (1323); they belong less to factual history than to literature; but there they rank among the most engaging compositions of the Age of Faith.

   Having been advised that he needed papal permission to establish a religious order, Francis and his twelve disciples went to Rome in 1210, and laid their request and their rule before Innocent III. The great Pope gently counseled them to defer formal organization of a new order until time should test the practicability of the rule. “My dear children,” he said, “your life appears to me too severe. I see indeed that your fervor is great . . . but I ought to consider those who will come after you, lest your mode of life be beyond their strength.” Francis persisted, and the Pope finally yielded—incarnate strength to incarnate faith. The friars took the tonsure, submitted themselves to the hierarchy, and received from the Benedictines of Mt. Subasio, near Assisi, the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, so smallsome ten feet long that it came to be called Portiuncula—“little portion.” The friars built themselves huts around the chapel, and these huts formed the first monastery of the First Order of St. Francis.     

   Now not only did new members join the order, but, to the joy of the saint, a wealthy girl of eighteen, Clara dei Sciffi, asked his permission to form a Second Order of St. Francis, for women (1212). Leaving her home, she vowed herself to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and became the abbess of a Franciscan convent built around the chapel of St. Damian. In 1221 a Third Order of St. Francisthe Tertiarieswas formed among laymen who, while not bound to the full Franciscan rule, wished to obey that rule as far as possible while living in the “world,” and to help the First and Second Orders with their labor and charity.

   The ever more numerous Franciscans now (1211) brought their gospel to the towns of Umbria, and later to the other provinces of Italy. They uttered no heresy, but preached little theology; nor did they ask of their hearers the chastity, poverty, and obedience to which they themselves were vowed. “Fear and honor God,” they said, “praise and bless Him . . . . Repent . . . for you know that we shall soon die . . . . Abstain from evil, persevere in the good.” Italy had heard such words before, but seldom from men of such evident sincerity. Crowds came to their preaching; and one Umbrian village, learning of Francis” approach, went out en masse to greet him with flowers, banners, and song. At Siena he found the city in civil war; his preaching brought both factions to his feet, and at his urging they ended their strife for a while. It was on these missionary tours in Italy that he contracted the malaria, which was to bring him to an early death.

   Nevertheless, encouraged by his Italian success, and knowing little of Islam, Francis resolved to go to Syria and convert the Muslims, even the sultan. In 1212 he sailed from an Italian port, but a storm cast his ship upon the Dalmatian coast, and he was forced to return to Italy; legend, however, tells how “St. Francis converted the soldan of Babylon.” In the same year, says a story probably also mythical, he went to Spain to convert the Moors; but on arrival he fell so ill that his disciples had to bring him back to Assisi. Another questionable narrative takes him to Egypt; he passed unharmed, we are told, into the Muslim army that was resisting the Crusaders at Damietta; he offered to go through fire if the sultan would promise to lead his troops into the Christian faith in case Francis emerged unscathed; the sultan refused, but had the saint escorted safely to the Christian camp. Horrified by the fury with which the soldiers of Christ massacred the Muslim population at the capture of Damietta, Francis returned to Italy a sick and saddened man. To his chilling malaria, it is said, he added in Egypt an eye infection that would in later years almost destroy his sight.

   During these long absences of the saint his followers multiplied faster than was good for his rule. His fame brought recruits who took the vows without due reflection; some came to regret their haste; and many complained that the rule was too severe. Francis made reluctant concessions. Doubtless, too, the expansion of the order, which had divided itself into several houses scattered through Umbria, made such demands upon him for administrative skill and tact as his mystic absorption could hardly meet. Once, we are told, when one monk spoke evil of another, Francis commanded him to eat a lump of ass’s dung so that his tongue should not relish evil any more; the monk obeyed, but his fellows were more shocked by the punishment than by the offense. In 1220 Francis resigned his leadership, bade his followers elect another minister-general, and thereafter counted himself a simple monk. A year later, however, disturbed by further relaxations of the original (1210) rule, he drew up a new rulehis famous “Testament”aiming to restore full observance of the vow of poverty, and forbidding the monks to move from their huts at the Portiuncula to the more salubrious quarters built for them by the townspeople. He submitted this rule to Honorius III, who turned it over to a committee of prelates for revision; when it came from their hands it made a dozen obeisances to Francis, and as many relaxations of the rule. The predictions of Innocent III had been verified.

   Reluctantly but humbly obedient, Francis now gave himself to a life of mostly solitary contemplation, asceticism, and prayer. The intensity of his devotion and his imagination occasionally brought him visions of Christ, or Mary, or the apostles. In 1224, with three disciples, he left Assisi, and rode across hill and plain to a hermitage on Mt. Verna, near Chiusi. He secluded himself in a lonely hut beyond a deep ravine, allowed none but Brother Leo to visit him, and bade him come only twice a day, and not to come if he received no answer to his call of approach. On September 21, 1224, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, after a long fast and a night spent in vigil and prayer, Francis thought he saw a seraph coming down from the sky, bearing an image of the crucified Christ. When the vision faded he felt strange pains, and discovered fleshy excrescences on the palms and backs of his hands, on the soles and tops of his feet, and on his body, resembling in place and color the wounds—stigmata—presumably made by the nails that were believed to have bound the extremities of Jesus to the cross, and by the lance that had pierced His side. (It has been suggested that these swellings could have been due to malignant malaria, which, in the absence of modern treatment, has been known to produce purple hemorrhages of blood in the skin.)

   Francis returned to the hermitage, and to Assisi. A year after the appearance of the stigmata he began to lose his sight. On a visit to St. Clara’s nunnery he was struck completely blind. Clara nursed him back to sight, and kept him at St. Damian’s for a month. There one day in 1224, perhaps in the joy of convalescence, he composed, in Italian poetic prose, his Canticle of the Sun:

Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord.

Thine be the praise, the glory, the honor, and all benediction;

to Thee alone, Most High, they are due,

and no man is worthy to mention Thee.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,

above all Brother Sun,

who gives the day and lightens us therewith.

And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor;

of Thee, Most High, he bears similitude.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Moon and the stars;

in the heaven hast Thou formed them, clear and precious and comely.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Wind,

and of the air, and the cloud, and of fair and of all weather,

by the which Thou givest to Thy creatures sustenance.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Sister Water,

which is much useful and humble and precious and pure.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Fire,

by which Thou hast lightened the night,

and he is beautiful and joyful and robust and strong.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, of our Sister Mother Earth,

which sustains and hath us in rule,

and produces divers fruits with colored flowers and herbs.


Be Thou praised, my Lord, of those who pardon for Thy love

and endure sickness and tribulations.


Blessed are they who will endure it in peace,

for by Thee, Most High, they shall be crowned.


   In 1225 some physicians at Rieti, having to no good effect anointed his eyes with “the urine of a virgin boy,” resorted to drawing a rod of white-hot iron across his forehead. Francis, we are told, appealed to “Brother Fire: you are beautiful above all creatures; be favorable to me in this hour; you know how much I have always loved you”; he said later that he had felt no pain. He recovered enough sight to set forth on another preaching tour. He soon broke down under the hardships of travel; malaria and dropsy crippled him, and he was taken back to Assisi.

   Despite his protestations he was put to bed in the episcopal palace. He asked the doctor to tell him the truth, and was told that he could barely survive the autumn. He astonished everyone by beginning to sing. Then, it is said, he added a stanza to his Canticle of the Sun:


Be praised, Lord, for our Sister Bodily Death, from whom

no man can escape.

Alas for them who die in mortal sin;

Blessed are they who are found in Thy holy will,

for the second death will not work them harm.


   It is said that in these last days he repented of his asceticism, as having “offended his brother the body.” When the bishop was called away Francis persuaded the monks to remove him to Portiuncula. There he dictated his will, at once modest and commanding: he bade his followers be content with “poor and abandoned churches,” and not to accept habitations out of harmony with their vows of poverty; to surrender to the bishop any heretic or recreant monk in the order; and never to change the rule.

   He died October 10, 1226, in the forty-fifth year of his age, singing a psalm. Two years later the Church named him a saint. Two other leaders dominated that dynamic age: Innocent III and Frederick II. Innocent raised the Church to its greatest height, from which in a century it fell. Frederick raised the Empire to its greatest height, from which in a decade it fell. Francis exaggerated the virtues of poverty and ignorance, but he reinvigorated Christianity by bringing back into it the spirit of Christ. Today only scholars know of the Pope and the Emperor, but the simple saint reaches into the hearts of millions of men.

   The order that he had founded numbered at his death some 5000 members, and had spread into Hungary, Germany, England, France, and Spain. It proved the bulwark of the Church in winning northern Italy from heresy back to Catholicism. Only a small minority could accept its gospel of poverty and illiteracy; Europe insisted on traversing the exciting parabola of wealth, science, philosophy, and doubt. Meanwhile even the modified rule that Francis had so unwillingly accepted was further relaxed (1230); men could not be expected to stay long, and in needed number, on the heights of the almost delirious asceticism that had shortened Francis” life. With a milder rule the Friars Minor grew by 1280 to 200,000 monks in 8000 monasteries. They became great preachers, and by their example led the secular clergy to take up the custom of preaching, heretofore confined to bishops. They produced saints like St. Bernardino of Siena and St. Anthony of Padua, scientists like Roger Bacon, philosophers like Duns Scotus, teachers like Alexander of Hales. Some became agents of the Inquisition; some rose to be bishops, archbishops, popes; many undertook dangerous missionary enterprises in distant and alien lands. Gifts poured in from the pious; some leaders, like Brother Elias, learned to like luxury; and though Francis had forbidden rich churches, Elias raised to his memory the imposing basilica that still crowns the hill of Assisi. The paintings of Cimabue and Giotto there were the first products of an immense and enduring influence of St. Francis, his history and his legend, on Italian art.

   Many Minorites protested against the relaxation of Francis’ rule. As “spirituals” or “Zealots” they lived in hermitages or small convents in the Apennines, while the great majority of Franciscans preferred spacious monasteries. The Spirituals argued that Christ and His apostles had possessed no property; St. Bonaventura agreed; Pope Nicholas III approved the proposition in 1279; Pope John XXII pronounced it false in 1323; and thereafter those Spirituals who persisted in preaching it were suppressed as heretics. A century after the death of Francis his most loyal followers were burned at the stake by the Inquisition.


11. Marcus Aurelius (121 180)

For a discussion of Marcus Aurelius, see Appendix 44.


12. Mahatma Gandhi (1869 1948)


Picture the ugliest, slightest, weakest man in Asia, with face and flesh of bronze, close-cropped gray head, high cheek-bones, kindly little brown eyes, a large and almost toothless mouth, larger ears, an enormous nose, thin arms and legs, clad in a loin cloth, standing before an English judge in India, on trial for preaching "non-cooperation" to his countrymen. Or picture him seated on a small carpet in a bare room at his Satyagrahashram—School of Truth-Seekers—at Ahmedabad: his bony legs crossed under him in yogi fashion, soles upward, his hands busy at a spinning-wheel, his face lined with responsibility, his mind active with ready answers to every questioner of freedom. From 1920 to 1935 this naked weaver was both the spiritual and the political leader of 320,000,000 Indians. When he appeared in public, crowds gathered round him to touch his clothing or to kiss his feet.

   Four hours a day he spun the coarse khaddar, hoping by his example to persuade his countrymen to use this simple homespun instead of buying the product of those British looms that had ruined the textile industry of India. His only possessions were three rough cloths—two as his wardrobe and one as his bed. Once a rich lawyer, he had given all his property to the poor, and his wife, after some matronly hesitation, had followed his example. He slept on the bare floor, or on the earth. He lived on nuts, plantains, lemons, oranges, dates, rice, and goat's milk; often for months together, he took nothing but milk and fruit; once in his life, he tasted meat; occasionally he ate nothing for weeks. "I can as well do without my eyes as without fasts. What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner." As the blood thins, he felt, the mind clears, irrelevancies fall away, and fundamental things—sometimes the very Soul of the World—rise out of Maya like Everest through the clouds.

   At the same time that he fasted to see divinity he kept one toe on the earth, and advised his followers to take an "enema daily when they fasted, lest they be poisoned with the acid products of the body's self-consumption just as they might be finding God." When the Muslims and the Hindus killed one another in theological enthusiasm, and paid no heed to his pleas for peace, he went without food for three weeks to move them. He became so weak and frail through fasts and privations that when he addressed the great audiences that gathered to hear him, he spoke to them from an uplifted chair. He carried his asceticism into the field of sex, and wished, like Tolstoy, to limit all physical intercourse to deliberate reproduction. He too, in his youth, had indulged the flesh too much, and the news of his father's death had surprised him in the arms of love. Now he returned with passionate remorse to the Brahmacharia that had been preached to him in his boyhood—absolute abstention from all sensual desire. He persuaded his wife to live with him only as sister with brother; and "from that time," he tells us, "all dissension ceased." When he realized that India's basic need was birth control, he adopted not the methods of the West, but the theories of Malthus and Tolstoy.


   Is it right for us, who know the situation, to bring forth children? We only multiply slaves and weaklings if we continue the process of procreation whilst we feel and remain helpless. . . . Not till India has become a free nation . . . have we the right to bring forth progeny. . . . I have not a shadow of doubt that married people, if they wish well to the country and want to see India become a nation of strong and handsome, well-formed men and women, would practice self-restraint and cease to procreate for the time being.


   Added to these elements in his character were qualities strangely like those that, we are told, distinguished the Founder of Christianity. He did not mouth the name of Christ, but he acted as if he accepted every word of the Sermon on the Mount. Not since St. Francis of Assisi has any life known to history been so marked by gentleness, disinterestedness, simplicity, and forgiveness of enemies. It was to the credit of his opponents, but still more to his own, that his undiscourageable courtesy to them won a fine courtesy from them in return; the Government sent him to jail with profuse apologies. He never showed rancor or resentment. Thrice he was attacked by mobs, and beaten almost to death; not once did he retaliate; and when one of his assailants was arrested he refused to enter a charge. Shortly after the worst of all riots between Muslims and Hindus, when the Moplah Muslims butchered hundreds of unarmed Hindus and offered their prepuces as a covenant to Allah, these same Muslims were stricken with famine; Gandhi collected funds for them from all India, and, with no regard for the best precedents, forwarded every anna, without deduction for "overhead," to the starving enemy.

   Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869. His family belonged to the Vaisya caste, and to the Jain sect, and practiced the ahimsa principle of never injuring a living thing. His father was a capable administrator but a heretical financier; he lost place after place through honesty, gave nearly all his wealth to charity, and left the rest to his family. While still a boy Mohandas became an atheist, being displeased with the adulterous gallantries of certain Hindu gods; and to make clear his everlasting scorn for religion, he ate meat. The meat disagreed with him, and he returned to religion.

   At eight, he was engaged, and at twelve he was married, to Kasturbai, who remained loyal to him through all his adventures, riches, poverty, imprisonments, and Brahmacharia. At eighteen, he passed examinations for the university, and went to London to study law. In his first year there, he read eighty books on Christianity. The Sermon on the Mount "went straight to my heart on the first reading. He took the counsel to return good for evil, and to love even one's enemies, as the highest expression of all human idealism; and he resolved rather to fail with these than to succeed without them.

   Returning to India in 1891, he practiced law for a time in Bombay, refusing to prosecute for debt, and always reserving the right to abandon a case that he had come to think unjust. One case led him to South Africa; there he found his fellow Hindus so maltreated that he forgot to return to India, but gave himself completely, without remuneration, to the cause of removing the disabilities of his countrymen in Africa. For twenty years, he fought this issue out until the Government yielded. Only then did he return home.

   Traveling through India, he realized for the first time the complete destitution of his people. The skeletons that he saw toiling in the fields and the lowly Outcastes who did the menial work of the towns horrified him. It seemed to him that the discriminations against his countrymen abroad were merely one consequence of their poverty and subjection at home. Nevertheless, he supported England loyally in World War I; he even advocated the enlistment of Hindus who did not accept the principle of non-violence. He did not, at that time, agree with those who called for independence. He believed that British misgovernment in India was an exception, and that British government in general was good. Moreover, that British government in India was bad just because it violated all the principles of British government at home; that if the English people could be made to understand the case of the Hindus, it would soon accept them in full brotherhood into a commonwealth of free dominions. He trusted that when the War was over, and Britain counted India's sacrifice for the Empire in men and wealth, it would no longer hesitate to give her liberty.

   She did not; at the close of the War the agitation for Home Rule was met by the Rowland Acts, which put an end to freedom of speech and press; by the establishment of the impotent legislature of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms; and finally by the slaughter at Amritsar. Gandhi was shocked into decisive action. He returned to the Viceroy the decorations that he had received at various times from British governments; and he issued to India a call for active civil disobedience against the Government of India. The people responded not with peaceful resistance, as he had asked, but with bloodshed and violence; in Bombay, for example, they killed fifty-three unsympathetic Parsees. Gandhi, vowed to ahimsa, sent out a second message, in which he called upon the people to postpone the campaign of civil disobedience, on the ground that it was degenerating into mob rule. Seldom in history had a man shown more courage in acting on principle, scorning expediency and popularity. The nation was astonished at his decision; it had supposed itself near to success, and it did not agree with Gandhi that the means might be as important as the end. The reputation of the Mahatma sank to the lowest ebb.

   It was just at this point (in March 1922) that the Government determined upon his arrest. He made no resistance, declined to engage a lawyer, and offered no defense. When the Prosecutor charged him with being responsible, through his publications, for the violence that had marked the outbreak of 1921, Gandhi replied in terms that lifted him at once to nobility.


   I wish to endorse all the blame that the learned Advocate-General has thrown on my shoulder in connection with the incidents in Bombay, Madras, and Chauri Chaura. Thinking over these deeply, and sleeping over them night after night, it is impossible for me to dissociate myself from these diabolical crimes. . . . The learned Advocate-General is quite right when he says that as a man of responsibility, a man having received a fair share of education, I should have known the consequences of every one of my acts. I knew that I was playing with fire, I ran the risk, and if I was set free I would still do the same. I felt this morning that I would have failed in my duty if I did not say what I say here just now.

   I wanted to avoid violence. I want to avoid violence. Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips. I know that my people have sometimes gone mad. I am deeply sorry for it, and I am therefore here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.


   The Judge expressed his profound regret that he had to send to jail one whom millions of his countrymen considered "a great patriot and a great leader"; he admitted that even those who differed from Gandhi looked upon him "as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life." He sentenced him to prison for six years.

   They put Gandhi under solitary confinement, but he did not complain. "I do not see any of the other prisoners," he wrote, "though I really do not see how my society could do them any harm." But "I feel happy. My nature likes loneliness. I love quietness. And now I have opportunity to engage in studies that I had to neglect in the outside world." He instructed himself sedulously in the writings of Bacon, Carlyle, Ruskin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Tolstoy, and solaced long hours with Ben Jonson and Walter Scott. He read and re-read the Bhagavad-Gita. He studied Sanskrit, Tamil, and Urdu so that he might be able not only to write for scholars but also to speak to the multitude. He drew up a detailed schedule of studies for the six years of his imprisonment, and pursued it faithfully till accident intervened. "I used to sit down to my books with the delight of a young man of twenty-four, and forgetting my four-and-fifty years and my poor health."

   Appendicitis secured his release, and Occidental medicine, which he had often denounced, secured his recovery. A vast crowd gathered at the prison gates to greet him on his exit, and many kissed his coarse garment as he passed. However, he shunned politics and the public eye, pled his weakness and illness, and retired to his school at Ahmedabad, where he lived for many years in quiet isolation with his students. From that retreat, however, he sent forth weekly, through his mouthpiece Young India, editorials expounding his philosophy of revolution and life. He begged his followers to shun violence, not only because it would be suicidal, since India had no guns, but also because it would only replace one despotism with another. "History," he told them, "teaches one that those who have, no doubt with honest motives, ousted the greedy by using brute force against them, have in their turn become a prey to the disease of the conquered. . . . My interest in India's freedom will cease if she adopts violent means. For their fruit will be not freedom, but slavery."

   The second element in his creed was the resolute rejection of modem industry, and a Rousseauian call for a return to the simple life of agriculture and domestic industry in the village. The confinement of men and women in factories, making with machines owned by others fractions of articles whose finished form they will never see, seemed to Gandhi a roundabout way of burying humanity under a pyramid of shoddy goods. Most machine products, he thought, are unnecessary; the labor saved in using them is consumed in making and repairing them; or if labor is really saved it is of no benefit to labor, but only to capital; labor is thrown by its own productivity into a panic of "technological unemployment." So he renewed the Swadeshi movement announced in 1905 by Tilak; added to self-production was Swaraj, self-rule. Gandhi made the use of the charka, or spinning-wheel, a test of loyal adherence to the Nationalist movement; he asked that every Hindu, even the richest, should wear homespun, and boycott the alien and mechanical textiles of Britain, so that the homes of India might hum once more, through the dull winter, with the sound of the spinning-wheel."

   The response was not universal; it is difficult to stop history in its course. Nevertheless, India tried. Hindu students everywhere dressed in khaddar; highborn ladies abandoned their Japanese silk saris for coarse cloths woven by themselves. Prostitutes in brothels and convicts in prison began to spin; and in many cities great Feasts of the Vanities were arranged, as in Savonarola's day, at which wealthy Hindus and merchants brought from their homes and warehouses all their imported cloth, and flung it into the fire. In one day at Mumbai alone, the flames consumed 150,000 pieces.

   The movement away from industry failed, but it gave India for a decade a symbol of revolt, and helped to polarize her mute millions into a new unity of political consciousness. India doubted the means, but honored the purpose; and though it questioned Gandhi the statesman, it took to its heart Gandhi the saint, and for a moment became one in reverencing him. It was as Tagore who said of him:


   He stopped at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language. Here was living truth at last, and not only quotations from books. For this reason the Mahatma, the name given to him by the people of India, is his real name. Who else has felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood? . . . When love came to the door of India that door was opened wide. . . . At Gandhi's call India blossomed forth to new greatness, just as once before, in earlier times, when Buddha proclaimed the truth of fellow-feeling and compassion among all living creatures.

    Nevertheless, he had to wait for his canonization—till India was independent. She was granted freedom in 1947, but the partition of India grieved him. In addition, the rioting between Hindus and Muslims that followed further saddened him. Gandhi had worked for one unified nation where Hindus and Muslims peacefully coexisted. On Jan. 13, 1948, Gandhi started another fast. This one was to end the violence between Hindus, Muslims, and additional factions. Gandhi ended his fast on January 18 when the leaders vowed to end the fighting. Twelve days later, in New Delhi, as he went on his way to a prayer meeting, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic who opposed Gandhi's program of tolerance for all creeds and religions, assassinated him after firing three shots. A shocked India and a saddened world deeply grieved his loss. Albert Einstein provided Gandhi's encomium: "Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood." It was Gandhi's task to free India; and he accomplished it. Other tasks await other men.

13. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 1968)


Early Civil Rights Struggles


Stirred by his conviction that love and nonviolent protest could eradicate social injustice, and mightily assisted by his superb speaking skills that allowed him forcefully to articulate the demands of African-Americans for social justice, Martin Luther King Jr.'s moving pleas won the backing of millions of Americans of all races and made him world famous.

   Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Ga., on Jan. 15, 1929. Enrolled in segregated public schools he stood out as an intelligent student. After skipping both the 9th and 12th grades, Morehouse College in Atlanta admitted him at the tender age of 15. At Morehouse, he developed into an admirer of Benjamin E. Mays, Morehouse's president and a renowned scholar of African-American religion. Swayed by Mays, he set out for a vocation in the ministry and at 18 joined his father as a preacher in the same church. He graduated from Morehouse (1948) with a bachelor's degree in sociology, and then  enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa. He was the valedictorian in 1951 and received a graduate fellowship to Boston University where he obtained his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955. King's rhetorical talents—that later became celebrated as his prominence increased in the civil rights movement—grew gradually during his collegiate years. He won second-place in a speech contest while at Morehouse, but only got Cs in two public-speaking classes in his first year at Crozer. Nevertheless, by the end of his third year there his professors were complimenting him for the strong influence he made in his public speeches and debates.

   All during his education he felt influences that linked Christian theology to the fight of subjugated peoples. Moreover, he read and listened to the homilies of white Protestant ministers who advocated against American racism. Lastly, the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi on nonviolent resistance influenced him. Throughout his collegiate career, he particularly studied Gandhi's experiences on nonviolent protest, writing: "I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom." He established his philosophy of nonviolence on Christian teachings, and would later exemplify them in five books: Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story (1958),[1] Strength to Love (1963), Why We Can't Wait (1964), Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), and The Trumpet of Conscience (1968). Despite his emphasis on nonviolence, later he frequently became the target of violence: white racists bombed his home in Montgomery and hurled rocks at him in Chicago.   

   He started as an African-American Baptist minister, but became the chief organizer of the civil rights movement in the United States throughout the 1950s and 60s. In 1954, King assumed his first pastorate and began to lead the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a church with a learned congregation, which had recently been led by a minister who had campaigned against segregation. Shortly thereafter, his civil rights career commenced. On December 1, 1955, the police arrested African-American bus commuter Rosa Parks, an important member of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for defying a city ordinance compelling African-Americans to surrender their seats on buses when whites wished to sit in them or in the same row. Community NAACP leaders, particularly Edgar D. Nixon, realized that the arrest of the admired and highly esteemed Parks was the incident that could unite local African-Americans. Nixon additionally thought that somebody who could unite the community ought to direct a citywide protest. In contrast to Nixon and other African-American leaders in Montgomery, the newly arrived King had no foes. Moreover, Nixon appreciated King's public-speaking talents as enormous resources in the advancement of African-American civil rights in the city. That month the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), established by African-Americans to coordinate the boycott of the segregated city buses, selected King its leader. In his initial speech as organizer of the boycott, he related to his colleagues that:


[F]irst and foremost, we are American citizens. . . . We are not here advocating violence. . . . The only weapon that we have . . . is the weapon of protest. . . . The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.


The Montgomery bus boycott continued for more than a year, displaying a fresh attitude of protest among Southern African-Americans. King's solemn manner and constant appeal to Christian unity and American idealism favorably impressed whites outside the South. In this period his home was bombed, but he convinced his supporters to stay nonviolent in spite of threats to their lives and property; but it alerted the media's spotlight to Montgomery. An attorney for the MIA in February 1956 filed a lawsuit in federal court requesting an injunction opposing Montgomery's segregated seating procedures. This court held in favor of the MIA, and directed the city's buses to be desegregated. Montgomery appealed the ruling all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In November 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling, and King was a national figure. He held that the boycott confirmed, ". . . there is a new Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny." This success won him acknowledgment as a symbol of Southern African-Americans' new efforts to battle racial injustice. The next year he received the Spingarn Medal and became its youngest recipient.

   King, along with other African-American ministers, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to augment nonviolent efforts against discrimination and racism. The next year, he became its president, the organization's leading character, and its chief intellectual authority. His function became to fundraise, which he frequently performed in combination with his preaching activities in Northern churches. He stimulated African-Americans all through the South to convene peaceful sit-ins and freedom rides opposing segregation. Pervasive segregation existed all through the South: in public schools, public transportation, public recreation, and such public conveniences as hotels and restaurants. Numerous states also used varied approaches to deny African-Americans their voting rights. The SCLC wanted to enhance the NAACP's legal efforts to dismantle segregation via the courts, and King and the SCLC leadership promoted the practice of nonviolent direct action to oppose discrimination using marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The brutal response that direct action incited from some whites ultimately compelled the federal government to challenge head on the problem of injustice and racism in the South. He created strategic coalitions with Northern whites that later boosted his success in manipulating public opinion in the United States. One of these coalitions came about because of the efforts of African-American civil rights and nonviolence campaigner Bayard Rustin through whom King was introduced to former radical activists (several of them Jewish) who bestowed money and guidance about strategy. His periodic intimate adviser was Stanley Levison, a Jewish activist and previous member of the American Communist Party. He additionally cultivated fervent ties to important white Protestant ministers in the North with whom he held common theological and moral beliefs.

   A trip to India in 1959 provided King a welcome occasion to investigate Gandhi's system of nonviolent dissent called satyagraha. The next year he transferred himself from Montgomery to Atlanta to provide added energy to the SCLC's efforts, and worked as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church along with his father. He headed a "nonviolent army" to demonstrate against discrimination in Albany, Ga., and joined local protests opposing segregated housing, restaurants, hotels, and public transit. The SCLC enlarged the extent of the protests in an attempt to generate so much discord and chaos that would force local white administrators to terminate segregation in order to reinstate regular business activity. The tactic failed in Albany. Throughout the months of protest, Albany's police chief imprisoned hundreds of protestors with no obvious police brutality. Ultimately, the demonstrators’ vigor, and the funds to provide surety for them, was exhausted. In addition, that year African-American college students throughout the South commenced sit-ins at lunch counters and entering other places that denied them service. Civil rights demonstrations increased even more; the sixties had begun their trademarked turbulence.


II. I Have a Dream


King grew progressively more discontented that President John F. Kennedy was acting insignificantly to progress civil rights. The approach that hadn't succeeded in Albany did succeed, nevertheless, in Birmingham, Alabama, when the SCLC joined a local demonstration in the spring of 1963. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the ministers who had acted with King in creating the SCLC, directed the protest. Shuttlesworth trusted that Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Birmingham police commissioner, would order brutal attacks on the peaceful demonstrators. In May, King and his SCLC staff intensified anti-segregation rallies in Birmingham by persuading teenagers and schoolchildren to take part. Hundreds of singing kids packed the roads of downtown Birmingham enraging Connor, who dispatched police officers with vicious dogs and firefighters spraying high-pressure water hoses at the protesters. After publication in the world's media depicting scenes of the assault of adolescent protesters by dogs and being pinned next to buildings by gushing water from fire hoses, a nationwide uproar against segregation ensued. At some point in this period, the authorities jailed King in Birmingham. In a poignant plea entitled Letter from Birmingham Jail, he contended that people had the ethical right and duty to defy unfair laws; extensively read it furthered King's status as a moral leader. He responded to numerous white clergymen, who considered his efforts badly timed, by claiming that many Asian and African countries were rapidly attaining political independence though "we still creep at a horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter." Subsequently, President Kennedy proposed a sweeping civil rights bill to Congress.

   He and several civil rights leaders then planned an enormous rally in Washington, D.C. The occasion, dubbed the March on Washington, proposed to emphasize the issue of African-American unemployment and to press Congress to ratify Kennedy's bill. More than 200,000 Americans, many of whom were white, congregated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. The climax of the assembly, King's moving I Have a Dream speech, meaningfully illustrated the ethical basis of the civil rights movement. The speech articulated the desires of the civil rights movement in rhetoric as stirring as any in American history:


We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

   I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  

   . . . when we allow freedom [to] ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:


Free at last!

Free at last!

Thank God Almighty,

We are free at last!


   The movement secured a key win in 1964 when Congress approved the civil rights bill for which Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had fought. This Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in public venues and mandated equal opportunity in education and employment. Because of his success as head of the American civil rights movement, his easily discernible moral bearings, and his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to oppression, the Nobel Prize committee felt compelled to honor itself by bestowing on him its 1964 peace prize, which it has seldom awarded to a more deserving laureate. He became its youngest recipient and viewed it not only as an individual award but also as an international honor to the nonviolent civil-rights movement.

   In early 1965, the SCLC joined a planned voting-rights protest rally from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery over 80 km away. The aim of the rally was to attract national attention to the effort to obtain African-American voting rights in Alabama. On the day later identified as Bloody Sunday, police beat and used tear-gas on the marchers near Selma; scenes broadcast on television of the ferocity produced from a stunned public a flood of encouragement for the marchers to persist. The SCLC appealed for and obtained a federal court order banning police from obstructing the restart of the march to Montgomery. Two weeks following Bloody Sunday, more than 3,000 people, containing a nucleus of 300 marchers who would complete the full trip, embarked toward Montgomery. They entered the city five days later, where King spoke to a gathering of more than 20,000 people facing the capitol. The rally generated backing for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Johnson signed into law that August. The act postponed (and further amendments later proscribed) the application of literacy/voter restriction tests that frequently had been employed to preclude African-Americans from registering to vote.

   King was disheartened that the advance of civil rights in the South remained unmatched by progress in the lives of Northern African-Americans. Reacting to riots in impoverished African-American urban areas shortly after Selma, he resolved to concentrate the nation's awareness on the living situations of African-Americans in Northern cities, who daily experienced unemployment, inferior housing, and deprived schools. He amongst other leaders also took part in demonstrations critical of real estate discrimination that prevented African-Americans from residing in many suburbs or neighborhoods. In his judgment, this discrimination played a key role in confining destitute African-Americans in urban ghettos. In 1966, he set up a control center in a Chicago, Ill. slum, his first large civil rights endeavor outside the South. From here, he planned demonstrations against the city's biased practices in housing and employment. He and resident leaders also planned protests through white neighborhoods, but enraged whites in these segregated neighborhoods flung rocks and bottles at the protestors. Subsequently, Chicago officials provided assurances that they would promote fair housing practices in the city if he would discontinue the protests. He consented to the proposal, and the Chicago crusade terminated.

   By the mid-1960s, several up and coming African-Americans cast doubt on King's role as the uncontested leader of the civil rights movement. Campaigners such as Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) disagreed with him about his nonviolent march tactics and pleas to moral idealism that were futile in the face of white brutality. Several also rebuffed the guidance of ministers. In addition, numerous SNCC planners held hard feelings about him, believing that repeatedly they had worked hard arranging and coordinating protests, only to have the captivating King appear later and gather much of the recognition. By 1966 the Black Power movement, promoted most vigorously by Carmichael, entered into the nation's awareness and indicated that King's sway among African-Americans was fading. Many Black Power activists followed and wholeheartedly endorsed the viewpoint of the lately assassinated African-American Muslim leader Malcolm X, who strongly asserted the need for African-American autonomy and the absolute right to defend themselves against vicious attacks. Even more forcefully, Malcolm X had advocated the achievement of true civil rights through his famous "by any means necessary" phrase. The "Black Power" phrase itself distressed King and numerous white backers of racial equality. Several of them saw the emphasis on spirituality and nonviolence, which had heretofore characterized the civil rights movement, as changing. He reiterated his pledge to nonviolence, but disagreements between civil rights groups over "Black Power" implied that he no longer represented the entire movement. 


III. Free at Last


King started merging his civil-rights campaigns with a passionate stance against the Vietnam War. He thought the money and energy expended on war could be employed fighting poverty and discrimination at home. He felt that he would be a fraud if he demonstrated against racial violence without also denouncing the violence of war. However, radical African-American leaders assailed him for his appeals to nonviolence. They charged him with falling excessively under the influence of whites, while administration officials denounced his views on Vietnam. A number of African-American leaders believed that his declarations against war sidetracked public attention from civil rights. Furthermore, in 1967 he assailed the U.S. support of South Vietnam, for he viewed its government as corrupt and autocratic. Numerous supporters of the war condemned his disparagements, but the rising antiwar movement approved of his comments. Also in 1967, King heaped even more condemnation on American society.

   He thought poverty as terrible an evil as racism, and proclaimed that bona fide social justice mandated a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. He initiated and planned the Poor People's Campaign, a rally on Washington, D.C., in 1968 to highlight the association of poverty to urban violence that he hoped would bond the poor of all races in a fight for economic opportunity. The crusade would insist on a federal assurance of an annual income for those in dire need and other key antipoverty laws. He inaugurated a movement for the redistribution of the nation's resources to sweep away deep-rooted African-American poverty. Nevertheless, he died before taking part in the Poor Peoples Campaign. Early in 1968, he journeyed to Memphis, Tenn., to back the efforts of poorly paid striking sanitation workers. On April 4, sniper James Earl Ray, a white vagrant and fugitive convict, assassinated him. King's murder shook the nation and give rise to rioting by African-Americans in more than 100 cities. Years after his death, a number of people still questioned whether Ray had operated alone. In 1978, a select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives concluded on the "likelihood" that others assisted Ray. Furthermore, historians delving into King’s life and career discovered that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) repeatedly tapped his phone conversations and provided details on his personal life to the president and other administration officials. The FBI's rationale for invading his privacy was ostensibly that he allied himself with Communists and other "radicals."

   They laid him to rest in Atlanta beneath a memorial emblazoned with the closing words of his famous I Have a Dream speech. Derived from an old slave song, it reads:


Free at Last,

Free at Last,

Thank God Almighty,

I'm Free at Last.


Throughout the world, people grieved his death. Later that year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which proscribed racial discrimination in the rental or sale of nearly all housing in the U.S. Following his assassination, he turned into an icon of protest in the fight for racial justice. Some historians regard his death as the close of the civil rights era that commenced in the mid-1950s.

   He came to epitomize African-American daring and accomplishment, soaring moral leadership, and the capability of all Americans to tackle and conquer racial divisions. Memories of his condemnation of U.S. foreign policy and poverty diminished, and his towering rhetoric appealing for racial justice and integration became nearly as recognizable to later generations of Americans as the Declaration of Independence from which he quoted. His results were immense. His brief career exceedingly advanced the cause of civil rights. Following his leadership, the civil rights movement gained broad backing among whites, and Southern States eliminated laws that had hindered integration. His influence was felt in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. His vigorous personality and influential oratory helped unite many African-Americans in a quest for a nonviolent answer to racial oppression. While African-Americans that had abandoned faith in nonviolence contested his views, his conviction in the power of nonviolent protest remained fervent.      

   Meanwhile, the tributes continued. In 1977, President Carter posthumously bestowed on King the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his campaign against prejudice. In 1980, the zone that included his birthplace, church, and grave became the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site. In 1986, the United States Congress created a national holiday observed on the third Monday in January in his honor. This made him just the second American, following Washington, whose birthday is a national holiday. In 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum opened at the site of King's assassination in Memphis; the museum's exhibits comprise the history of the civil rights movement.

   You may slay the dreamer but you cannot kill the dream. . . .

[1] This account of the bus boycott presented a thoughtful description of that event and further spread King's moral authority nationally.


14. Henry David Thoreau (1817 1862)

 See Note 76

15. Mother Teresa (1910 1997)

From her beginnings as a simple Roman Catholic nun, she developed into an internationally known humanitarian as well as one of the most highly esteemed women in the world. This humble woman dedicated her life to performing charitable works for those suffering from extreme privation—starting in the shantytowns of Kolkata, India and spreading worldwide. Her work gained her the title saint of the gutters in addition to many awards. The honors bestowed on her ranged from the Jewel of India, to India’s topmost civilian medal, the first Pope John XXIII peace prize given her by Pope Paul VI in 1971, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1972, the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, and many honorary degrees from academic institutions around the world. The U.S. congress granted her an honorary U.S. citizenship in 1996. And two years before his death Pope John Paul II beatified her; in 2016 the Roman Catholic Church did the inevitable and canonized her despite the revelation that surfaced after her death that she had struggled mightily with a disbelief in God. Even saints are human.  

    Though of Albanian lineage she was born in Skopje, Macedonia and given the name Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. At eighteen, she chose to become a nun and traveled to Dublin, Ireland to enter the nunnery of the Sisters of Loreto, a group who worked extensively in the Archdiocese of Kolkata, India. A year later, she departed Ireland to become a member of the Loreto nunnery in Darjeeling, India. Once there, she observed firsthand the privation that marred the city’s slums.

    In 1946, she would recollect, she experienced a “call within a call,” receiving what she believed to be heavenly inspiration to begin a new phase in her life, one dedicated to serving the sick and needy. That year she established a new religious order called the Missionaries of Charity (M.C.), which furnishes food for the poor, manages housing, schools, orphanages, and youth centers, and operates hospitals for lepers and the destitute who are terminally ill. Since its creation, the M.C. has founded centers all over the world. In 1950, the Roman Catholic Church formally recognized her new religious order. Under her leadership, the M.C. has assisted sundry peoples from indigent South Africans to Christians and Muslims locked in combat in war-ravaged Lebanon during the early 1980s, to the destitute living in New York City’s Harlem district. Pope Paul VI went so far as to invite Mother Teresa to Rome to establish an M.C. presence there in 1968. One is making headway in the world when the Pope specifically asks for your assistance!

    Throughout it all, she continued to assist the poor of India. She established in 1952 the “Place for the Pure of Heart”—a home in Kolkata to which terminally ill people could go and pass away with dignity. Regardless of her own religious views, she insisted that the volunteers and employees of “Place for the Pure of Heart” respect the religious views of those who showed up seeking haven in their final days. And at her direction and under her leadership a leper colony entitled “Town of Peace” was created outside Asansol in West Bengal.

    As she grew older she felt the ravages of time catching up to her. She actually stepped down as superior general of the M.C. in April 1990, but the members of the organization voted her back, and she resumed her duties in September. A few months subsequent to resigning as head of the M.C. permanently in 1997, Mother Teresa, aged eighty-seven, passed away only a few days after Princess Diana of Britain. By the time of her death, missions of her order could be found in more than ninety countries and the order had expanded to comprise about four thousand nuns and hundreds of thousands of workers and volunteers. Hers was a purpose driven life.