1500s History: Are We Smarter?

Studying history is as humbling an experience as it is enlightening.

It is easy to become convinced of one’s own “superiority” to those living in former centuries, but an in-depth study of their lives, writings, and philosophical and theological points of view often illustrates that while the past may have had its superstitions, it also had its enlightened thinkers. And lest I become too proud of my own learning, knowing children in former centuries often possessed the equivalent of modern college educations in their teen years is humbling. Formative centuries saw children learning up to six different languages as they learned to read, and serving as ambassadors in foreign countries before the age of thirteen (John Quincy Adams) or writing and publishing Biblical translations (Greek and Latin) at age twelve (Mary Tudor).

Modernists tend to think we invented critical thinking, but reading the humanist-scholars (the intellectuals) of the 1500s reveal criticisms of outdated thinking, ideas of Church reform and the role of Christians in society, condemnations of corrupt governments and unjust laws, and the beginnings of modern psychology. The four most influential men of the period, in terms of theology, scholarly works, and religious reform, were Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Juan Luis Vives, and Martin Luther. Not only is there much documentation about their lives, many of their works and correspondence are preserved, allowing us to read their opinions for ourselves.

Most advocated for the education of women, were pacifists and held a shared abhorrence of war and capital punishment; Erasmus asserted that a truly godly society would be one of peace. Luther’s criticism of the abuses of the Church was not the first of their kind, for More and Erasmus got there before him. Erasmus’ Bible translations from the original Greek and Latin predate Luther’s, and Luther may have even used Erasmus’ translations while writing his German translation. (Though legends suggest Luther and Tyndale brought scripture into the common language, English, German, Spanish and other common language gospels were already in existence, just not widely used.)

More and Luther differed on religious reform (Luther thought division from the Church was the answer; More preferred to work inside the Church) but believed that while governments / monarchs can be corrupt and ought to be held accountable for their actions, it is necessary to have a form of civil government in place. Luther rebuked the German peasants who revolted against their masters and would not work; More believed any government that kept people in poverty, did not allow them to advance their station through education, or that forced them to become “criminals” because that was easier than keeping the law, was immoral and unjust. Erasmus and Luther had similar criticisms of the Church. Erasmus defended many of Luther’s writings until Luther’s radical ideas about the clergy went too far for Erasmus’ taste.

Also a pacifist, theologian, and scholar, Vives is considered the godfather of psychoanalysis and the father of modern psychology for his theories on individual perception, memory retention, and the state of the human soul. He believed that each day’s choices influence the eternal destination of the soul, and reveal its purpose, as well as grant insight into the motivations of the individual.

Naturally, as everyday mortals these men were not always right, and often reflected outdated beliefs of their time, but their thinking is far more advanced than we might believe when reflecting on centuries past. They were truly men of the Renaissance; and their collective and individual pursuit of knowledge changed policy across Europe, brought awareness to the deficiencies in government, challenged the concepts of church policy, advanced interest in psychology, promoted theological advancement, and influenced the education of monarchs. All in all, it’s not bad, really, for men said to be emerging from “the Dark Ages.” ♥

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