Dr. Faustus

The macabre, and especially the theme of selling one’s soul to the Devil, has been a very popular theme in Western literature since the 1580s. Many movies, plays, and songs feature this theme, and all trace their origins to a book that centered around the story of Dr. Faustus. The tale tells of a man who conjured up a demon, named Mephistopheles, and eventually made a bargain to have 24 years of good fortune, knowledge, and worldly pleasure. At the end of the 24 years Faustus would have to give up his soul to Satan and face eternal suffering, but he was deceived by Mephistopheles into thinking that his payment would not be so painful. This tale is the origin of the recurring theme of bargains with the Devil in Western literature.

Dr. Faustus was deceived by Mephistopheles, a fact to which he admitted later on in chapter nine. He was granted the ability to foresee events and to create accurate almanacs and horoscopes concerning them. He visited hell, traveled through the stars, and went on a world tour to visit many countries. Faustus was also able to conjure up long dead people, but these were not the actual spirits of the dead people, just demons imitating them. Charles V wanted to catch a glimpse of Alexander the Great, so Dr. Faustus arranged it so he could. Many things of this type did Faustus do with the unseen assistance of Mephistopheles.

As his days wore out, Dr. Faustus became increasingly distressed. He realized that he had been deceived and blinded by the promise of great power. In the final days Mephistopheles deceived him once more, saying that Satan would give Faustus a body that would be totally insensitive to the tortures of hell. On his last night he called together his friends to tell them of what he had done, and to convince them to never follow his path. He realized what he had done was wrong, but he was totally unable to bring himself to repent. In the end he was horribly killed and thrown onto a dung-heap, his body twitching. The demon had lied, and Satan had his due.

This theme of selling one’s soul for worldly benefits has come down through the ages. Many examples of modern entertainment exhibit this trend, including the play that this book was made into, the many adaptations of the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, the 1986 film Crossroads, the well-known song The Devil Went Down to Georgia, among many others. It seems as though the story of Dr. Faustus started a trend that has persisted to this day, and has tapped into a desire among some for the dark side of things.

Montaigne’s Essays

Montaigne, a French writer from the 16th century, is regarded as the father of the essay. His essays were quite compelling to read, but there were aspects of them that were rather dry and hard to understand. He published his works in two volumes, containing a total of 107 essays. A statesman, he gave up politics in order to write. He was somewhat of a skeptic, and is quoted famously as saying “What do I know?”. He remains very influential, and his engaging style has allowed him to endure the centuries.

A very compelling writer in many respects, Montaigne was famous for his pithy aphorisms, many of which have come down through the ages, such as “Saying is one thing and doing is another”. A relatively short work, the essay does not generally require a huge investment of time to read. This is one of the reasons the essay gained much popularity in the beginning. Montaigne also made many references to his own personal life, digressing into anecdotes and little stories that engaged the reader. For these reasons Montaigne’s essays were very compelling and have drawn in many readers.

The essays in Montaigne’s books were not related to each other. They were all completely separate entities, discussing many and various topics. Having no universal theme, they were just many individual discussions. It may be hard to find an ultimate purpose to his essays, but it is easy to read them individually. If they were all entwined and built up to a final conclusion, then they could not have been enjoyably read as separate little works. Considered very self-indulgent at the time, his frequent references to his own personal life seem charming and entertaining to modern readers. His aphorisms were clever, but they often occurred in the midst of very difficult and dry sentences. For example, in his essay That the Soul Expends Its Passions On False Objects, Where the True Are Wanting, there was a paragraph about how vision needs something to see, rather than to go off into infinity. Long and cumbersome, this sentence was unfortunately not the only one of its kind:

This But, in good earnest, as the arm when it is advanced to strike, if it miss the blow, and goes by the wind, it pains us; and as also, that, to make a pleasant prospect, the sight should not be lost and dilated in vague air, but have some bound and object to limit and circumscribe it at a reasonable distance.

This passage is admittedly hard to follow, and is not an example of the wonderful pithy style with which Montaigne has charmed so many.

Groundbreaking works of literature, the essays of Montaigne were a new genre that influenced very many people. Montaigne inserted anecdotes and little stories from his own life and the lives of many historical figures, prominent and obscure, that made his essays quite enjoyable. There were sections that were somewhat dry, but they were more than compensated for by the pithy aphorisms and interesting anecdotes that carried his works down through the ages.

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was a political thinker in England who was critical of the idea of absolute power held by a king. He had the idea of a “state of nature”, which was a society that lacked a government power, or rather preceded any established authority. In the state of nature everyone enjoys natural rights, derived from natural law. People have the ownership of themselves, and from this Locke derived the legitimacy of private property. He said that people can acquire property by “mixing their labor” with previously unowned property. What this means is that the thing which is desired has been in some way enhanced or improved so that it may be more useful. However, the state of nature has what Locke called “inconveniences”, such as the fact that there would be no universally recognized body of law that people could appeal to, there would be no authority to enforce this law, and people would have to be judges in their own cases. Locke said that society remedies theses inconveniences with government. In the establishment of a government, the people give up a portion of the rights that they would enjoy in the state of nature to the government so that they could enjoy the rest of their rights more securely. Locke went further to say that the government of an absolute monarch fails to remedy the inconveniences of the state of nature, chiefly because the monarch must be a judge in his own cases. Since there is no higher authority than a king in an absolute monarchy, the king has no one to appeal to if he has a dispute with one of his subjects. John Locke was a very important thinker, and his ideas have come down through the ages and have influenced modern political thought.

Life Under Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell (1599- 1658) was a member of the English Parliament in the 17th century, and was given the title “Lord Protector” after the execution of king Charles I in the English Civil War. Cromwell led the New Model Army against the royalist forces during that conflict and was victorious. Scotland was upset by the dissolution of the Stuart monarchy and tried to proclaim Charles II, Charles I’s son, as king, so Cromwell invaded in 1650. He had previously invaded Ireland, bring destruction and bloodshed in his wake. He had political reasons for invading Ireland, which was seen as a threat, but he also had extreme detest for Catholicism. He was a Puritan, and his religious convictions no doubt played a major role on the ruthless nature of this military campaign. Catholicism was outlawed in Ireland, and priests were given three days’ notice to leave the country. Anyone caught harboring a priest risked execution, and children could be taken to England to receive a protestant education. Cromwell was named “Lord Protector” in 1653, an office which existed for only a very short time after Cromwell’s death. Cromwell wanted to instill piety and morality in the people, so he took action by closing theaters and discouraging music and the arts. Life under a ruler who tried to force “virtue” down the throats of his people was unpleasant, to say the least, and the population was growing bitter. Even the Anglican church of England came under Puritan persecution. This growing dissatisfaction with Cromwell’s policy was the reason that in 1660, after his death in 1658, the people welcomed with open arms the restoration of the Stuart monarchy by Charles I’s son, Charles II.

The Levellers

The Levellers were a political group in England in the 17th century, and they are widely considered the first libertarians. They are sometimes confused with another political group, the Diggers, who were communist. The Levellers believed in a fundamental right of all mankind, and that is the right to self-ownership. Everyone has the ownership of his own body and mind, and no one can interfere with this. They believed that no man can enslave another, and no man can harm or murder another as this to would violate that right. They also believed in the right for one to own private property, free trade, free contracts, and religious toleration. Some key Leveller figures include Richard Overton, John Lilburn, and William Walwyn.

Rhetoric in the ‘Acts and Monuments’ of John Foxe

The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, first published in 1563,  told a detailed history of the Protestant religion and of the martyrs for Christianity. In his book Foxe effectively used rhetoric to achieve various ends, producing eloquent arguments in the mouths of his subjects that were pro-Protestant and against Queen Mary and Catholicism.

In the story of Lady Jane Grey, Foxe painted a picture of an extremely intelligent and well-spoken young woman. A protestant, she was named successor to the crown of England by her cousin, king Edward VI, while he was on his deathbed. However, Edward’s half-sister, Mary, was proclaimed Queen instead and Lady Jane Grey was sent to the tower of London and sentennced to death for high treason. Before her execution, Queen Mary sent her chaplain, John Fecknam, to try to convince her to convert to Catholicism. Foxe described the debate that followed, showing Lady Jane Grey to have a strong command of the English language and an extremely firm grasp of the bible. In the debate, Fecknam could not get anywhere with her. They did not discuss the political issues involving her claim to the throne (for which she admitted guilt), but focussed entirely on theological issues. Lady Jane Grey was only 17, and yet she had enough understanding of the bible to successfully debate an adult who had spent nearly his entire life studying theology. Either she was a master of rhetoric and had an uncommon knowledge of the bible, or Foxe was slightly distorting just how savvy Lady Jane Grey was in favor of his powerful Protestant convictions.

Foxe described the executions of Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and Chaplain to Edward VI, in great detail. This acute attention to detail was perhaps a way to give his writing more historical credibility. Probably the most memorable quote from the book comes from this section. Latimer was recorded saying to Ridley in Acts and Monuments, “We shall of this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out”. He was referring to their eminent execution, which was to burned at the stake. Latimer was extremely eloquent if Foxe accurately documented this phrase.

Finally, we come to the execution of Thomas Cranmer, a figure who was instrumental in the Protestant reformation in England. He was Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I (for a short time). When Mary brought Catholicism back to England she executed many Protestants, including Thomas Cranmer. In 1553 he was put on trial for treason and sentenced to death. He was moved from his prison to the house of the Dean of Christ Church, which was a very different experience. In this place he was treated as a guest, not a prisoner, and engaged in scholarly debate with Catholic clerics. In Foxe’s account, some of them tried to persuade him to renounce his Protestant beliefs, promising him that the Queen would be lenient towards him and that he may escape death if he made a recantation. At this point Foxe’s account and historical fact parted ways. Foxe wanted to paint a very dramatic picture of Cranmer and Queen Mary, so he omitted some things from his otherwise extremely detailed narrative. He told the story of a weary and broken former Archbishop who had held on until the end, but had finally succumbed under pressure and recanted:

But at last, when they made no end of calling and crying upon him, the archbishop, being overcome, whether through their importunity, or by his own imbecility, or of what mind I cannot tell, at length gave his hand.

However, according historical fact, Cranmer recanted not once at the very end, but a total of five times, the first four only around a month after he had been moved to the house of the Dean of Christ Church. Foxe wanted a dramatic story, and frankly, four recantations within two months of being installed in a comparatively luxurious facility could simply not make the cut. Foxe wanted to portray Queen Mary as a deceiver because she went ahead with the execution even though various clerics had made certain promises to Cranmer. He was told to make a final public recantation at his execution so he prepared a speech. Towards the end of his speech he very memorably deviated from his prepared text, and renounced his previous recantation(s). He was liberated by the fact that Mary could do nothing more to punish him but kill him, which was about to take place. He said with great eloquence that he would punish the offending hand that wrote the recantations by thrusting it into the fire first, which, according to Foxe he did. Foxe made Mary the ultimate loser in this story, because in the end she could not do anything about Cranmer’s reversal. The story did indeed concern actual historical events, but Foxe did some doctoring to make it much more dramatic.

John Foxe told the histories of the martyrs of Protestantism, but he shifted them around a bit to get his across his convictions. He may have made Lady Jane Grey slightly more eloquent and knowledgeable than she was, or perhaps he did not. He may have over dramatized Latimer’s famous quote, or perhaps he did not. However, one thing is for sure: He definitely altered the story of the imprisonment and execution of Thomas Cranmer for dramatic effect and to showcase his particular beliefs. Foxe was biased in favor of the protestant cause, and used his skills rhetoric to emphasize certain aspects of history in a book that remains compelling to read to this day.


Utopian Thought in the Sixteenth Century

In the 16th century, there were many writers who explored a new idea, called Utopianism. These writers described an ideal society, one in which everyone worked in harmony, with no concern for his or her personal gain, but only for the common good. The governments of these countries would be wise and understanding, but would also be absolute. These societies were not “free”, but were managed and guided in almost every way by a more or less omnipotent government.

The mindset of Western Civilization at this period in time was changing. During the Renaissance, philosophers, artists, writers, etc. were looking to the past glories of ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. As personified by the humanist Petrarch in the 14th century, the Renaissance was very critical of the present and extremely fond of the ancient past. This began to change in the 16th century, when writers became less and less enthused about their past and more and more obsessed with attaining perfection in the future. Some well-known writers of the 16th who explored Utopian societies were Tommaso Campanella, who wrote The City of the Sun and who believed that countries should not trade because it could lead to war; Francis Bacon, who wrote The New Atlantis; and Thomas More, who coined the word “Utopia” in his somewhat satirical book of the same name.

What was the cause of the shift from reflection on the past to perfection in the future? During the 16th century, people became more and more interested in travel to the “new world”. With all the adventures and conquests of land and gold came the realization that the way Western Civilization was organized was not the only way a society could be run. The famous writer and inventor of the essay, Michele Montaigne, wrote an essay, ‘On Cannibals’, in which he described his Utopia, the native civilizations of South America. He absolved cannibalism by contrasting the behavior of the natives in eating each other with some of the horrible things done to fellow humans during the French Wars of Religion, which were admittedly worse. He said their wars were not for land or power, but completely for honor and glory. This essay was a great example of the new mindset of the 16th century. It looked to new societies and to new systems, becoming increasingly more critical of the current system in Europe.

The conquest of the New World brought to Western Civilization self-evaluation and a realization that there were “other” societies that functioned as well. With these revelations, people started abandoning the glories of the past in favor of finding their perfect existence on earth, their Utopia.

The Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War was the bloodiest religious conflict in Europe, costing around 8 million lives. It lasted from 1618 to 1648, and originated in religious rivalries between the protestants and the Catholics, but morphed into a more political conflict between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Ferdinand II of Bohemia (1578-1637), a devout Catholic, took actions against the protestants in revoking some of their privileges. These actions lead to the Defenestration of Prague in 1618 in which two royal officials and a secretary were thrown out of a window by Protestants. Ferdinand did not adopt a policy of religious toleration, and was declared deposed as king of Bohemia in the Bohemian Revolt (1618-1620). A protestant, Frederick V, was then declared king. This worried the Catholic Hapsburgs because the office of Holy Roman Emperor was elected by several offices called electorates. The office of king of Bohemia was an electorate, and Frederick V was already an elector, so he would now have two votes for the election of the next Holy Roman Emperor. There were only seven votes, and two of them were already protestant. That means that there would be a four-to-three protestant majority. In addition to this new balance of power, Frederick launched an anti-Catholic campaign, destroying altars and sacred images. Ferdinand responded by bringing in the Imperial army. In the ensuing conflict, the protestant forces suffered several defeats.

The war following the Bohemian revolt was divided into into several stages. The firs was the Danish stage, lasting from 1624 to 1629, in which king Christian IV of Denmark entered the conflict. Ferdinand II asked for the help of Albrecht Von Wallenstein, a military leader and nobleman. With Wallenstein Frederick had successes, and was persuaded that he could carry out the edict of restitution, which would bring back Catholic lands. He dismissed Wallenstein, but Wallenstien knew that he would be needed again for the Swedish threat. Next was the Swedish phase, which lasted from 1630 to 1635. The protestant Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, allied with Catholic France against the Holy Roman Empire. Just as Wallenstien predicted, he was recalled by Ferdinand to deal with Gustavus. Gustavus was killed at the battle of Lützen in 1632, even though the Swedish forces prevailed. Wallenstein was killed on official orders by Ferdinand after it appeared that he was seeking power for himself. The last stage was the Franco-Hapsburg phase, in which the war shifted to a more direct conflict between France and the Holy Roman Empire.

The war ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which was ultimately a protestant victory. The protestants were allowed freedom of worship in public at special times, and freedom in private all the time. The Important long-term consequence of the Thirty Years’ war was that religion now fell into the background in European affairs. There was no longer a Christendom to which everybody belonged, and there was no longer the universal authority of the Catholic Church (and of the Pope) that could intervene in relations between countries. Conflicts like the Thirty Years’ War and the French Wars of Religion contributed to the secularization of world affairs.