From the vantage-point of centuries, it can be difficult to remember that the magisterial Reformers–or, indeed, any other historical figures–were actual human beings, made of the same stuff as we are, subject to the same joys and sorrows we share. In Act 3 of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says, of Jews and Christians:
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is?
The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of sixteenth century figures and twenty-first century figures. Men like Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or Philip Melanchthon, were not just brains in books. They had friends. They had enemies. They had successes. They had failures. They had wives. They had children, too; and they lost them.
Below is a snapshot in two parts that reminds us of such things: excerpts of two letters, separated by about a year in the late 1520s, of Philip Melanchthon to his friend Joachim Camerarius, who was involved in, among other things, the drafting of the Augsburg Confession.1
Both have to do with Renaissance intellectual disputes as well as the progress of Melanchthon’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. But both are also deeply personal.
In the first, from 8 June 1528, Melanchthon congratulates Camerarius on the birth of his daughter, which occurred not too long after the birth of his own son Georg in 1527.2
8 June 1528
I rejoice with you concerning the birth of your little daughter, and I entreat Christ to preserve both her, and you, her father, and her mother. For since the author of your union is God, and since it is by his kindness that you have received offspring–for so it is written, “Behold, children are an inheritance of the Lord”3–we ought both to hope and to beg that he will be present to us as our protector. It is right that you conceive this hope4 together with the name of “father” and the anxieties that belong to fatherhood.
It is a lovely passage.
It was not long, however, before Melanchthon’s joy for his friend was supplemented with sorrow for himself. For his own son Georg died the following year. His grief affected him so deeply, he remarks, that he could not speak of it to his friend. We read of his in a letter of 28 August 1529:
28 August 1529
I am unable to write anything to you about my most bitter griefs. I lost my son Georg, a very fine boy; this has been added to my other miseries and tribulations with which I am tormented at this time.
We ought not to allow chronological distance to obscure the humanity of historical figures we love–or loathe. Instead, we should remember that we are joined to them by a common nature in our joys, our weaknesses, and our griefs. Such remembrance brings them down to earth, yes; but it also raises us up to them. They are not disembodied tomes thundering unassailable propositions from on high. They are our fathers and brothers.
- For more on Camerarius, see my discussion of Theodore Beza’s poem in honor of Camerarius’s death in “Written Monuments: Beza’s Icones as Testament to and Program for Reformist Humanism,” in Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition, ed. W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes, 34-6.
- All translations are my own.
- Psalm 127.3.
- The phraseology may sound strange, but I leave it as is because Melanchthon is using the verb concipere (“to conceive, think, perceive, entertain”) to pun on the “offspring” language in the preceding sentences. He wishes the father Camerarius to “become pregnant” with hope.