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Praetorius: A Voice Against Torture

On our About page, one will see a painting of the Heidelberg Tun, a giant wine casket which was the wonder of that capitol of irenic Calvinism. There is a charming panegyric of the Tun by a presently obscure Reformed minister, poet, and scholar, one Anton Praetorius. The poem celebrates the Tun as proof of the superiority of the Reformed religion. Praetorius meant it, but he meant it in good humor; anyone who chooses to literarily measure religious quality using the canon of giant wine casks is obviously laughing. And we use the image of the Tun in the same spirit.

But we honor the memory of Praetorius for another reason too. He was one of those brave souls, along with John Foxe before him and Christian Thomasius after him, who took the ethical insights of the Reformers, drawn from the Gospel, and deepened their understanding and demanded their uncompromising application. To be specific: Praetorius spoke out heroically against the witch craze and against torture. There is little on him available in English, but he is remembered in Germany and should be remembered by us too.

In his time, he was not completely alone; he had a remarkable contemporary, a German Jesuit named Friedrich Spee who exposed the wickedness of torture, and, what was probably of more immediate rhetorical effect, the uselessness of it, forestalling consequentialist arguments from those whose minds were corrupt enough to think in that way. Spee also noted the juridical insanity of the crimen exceptum, the notion of a crime so grave that the normal rule of law no longer applies, and which was invoked to justify the use of torture in certain cases. But while reasons of State might demand the exceptional suspension of some point of positive law, it could never suspend the natural or moral law. Spee argued that the crimen exceptum idea does in effect end up creating a situation in which the magistrate will assume and act as though the moral law itself is suspended, and that the step toward torture is a step into a Hell of juridical insanity and spiralling moral wickedness.

Praetorius and Spee are worth remembering in a time in which our own State has been shown to have engaged in immoral acts of interrogation. There is nothing new under the sun, and our ethical quandaries are those of our ancestors too. As our readers know, our method is to think and converse in concert with the ancient righteous and the ancient wise, and the spirit of the wise and righteous Anton Praetorius, at this moment especially, should be with us in our deliberations.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.

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