This is the thirty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXVI: Machiavelli, More, Luther
It has been said there is no surer sign that an intellectual adversary is defeated than when he stops attacking your ideas and starts attacking you. Martin Luther writes in his Letter to Pope Leo X, “when we can repel the truth by no other pretence, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, intemperance, to our adversaries.”
Anybody who follows political news should be aware that this is the standard tactic of all of the most prominent politicians and pundits. (Obviously not the ones that you like and support. You are far to intelligent to fall for such an obvious logical fallacy. And your favorite politicians and talking heads are too upright to stoop to such petty tactics.) Rather than throughly rebutting and defending ideas, these people simply attack the ideas’ proponents. Consider this representative hypothetical:
A: “We should have a flat tax.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”
It is easy, in such a case, to identify the ad hominem and dismiss it as irrelevant. So what if A is a philanderer? That tells us nothing about whether his proposed tax policy is good bad or indifferent. B’s attack is totally unrelated to A’s proposal.
However, one of the most popular forms of ad hominem can be harder to spot. The appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque or whataboutism) often appears to be on point. For example:
A: “We should support traditional family values.”
B: “A is a philanderer.”
In this case, B’s statement seems relevant. The fact that A is a philanderer certainly appears to bear on the topic of family values. This appeal to hypocrisy is so attractive precisely because it has the semblance of logical refutation. But on closer inspection, the response does not actually refute A’s statement. Rather, it simply attacks A personally. It is totally possible that A’s statement about family values is right, no matter how bad of a spouse A is personally.
The biggest problem with analyzing ad hominem attacks is that if they are true, they may actually have some decision-making value. Whether A is a philanderer does not directly bear on the merits of his tax plan, but it does call into question whether he can be trusted to direct public funds. If his spouse cannot trust him, how can the voters?
(By the way, this example is particularly fertile ground ground for the appeal to hypocrisy. Politicians across the spectrum have bashed opponents for marital infidelity while defending members of their own ranks on the grounds that their personal lives do not effect their ability to govern. Whether they are right when they bash or right when they defend is not important for our purposes. At best, the very fact that they are inconsistent calls into question their motives. At worst it calls into question their reasoning powers. But in any event, it doesn’t really tell us anything about any substantive arguments, only about the people making them.)
And of course, this is true of most ad hominem attacks. Calling somebody a hypocrite, racist, or misogynist is not a refutation of any of their particular ideas or positions; it is merely a personal attack. But if the allegation of hypocrisy, racism, or misogyny is true, it (quite reasonably) makes us question their motives, reliability, and capacity.
The key, as I see it, is to readily identify ad hominem attacks, and give them the weight that they deserve. In the context of a debate of actual issues, that weight extremely low. When possible, ideas should be assessed on their own merits, not on those of their proponents.
Beer of the week: Julius Echter Hefe-Weissbier – This wheat beer from Würzburger Hofbräu is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, a leader of the Counter-Reformation, who used his power as Prince-Bishop of Würzburg to combat Lutheranism. I doubt he’d like me pairing this beer with a reading in which Luther writes that the Catholic Church “stinks in the nostrils of the world.”
As for the beer, it is hazy and orangish. The foam consists of large, quickly dissipating bubbles. The aroma has some of the classic banana notes of a German hefeweizen. Ultimately, the flavor is a bit underwhelming. This beer is pretty good, but not great.
Reading of the week: Martin Luther to Pope Leo X – It is no mere coincidence that this post was inspired by a Luther reading. Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post addressing a particular ad hominem criticism of Luther. In this letter, he follows up his statement about ad hominem attacks with several paragraphs of blatant ad hominem criticisms, ending with calling the Catholic Church “the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.” What a hypocrite!
Question for the week: Do you know of any politicians or pundits who consistently stick to the issues and avoid the ad hominem tactic?
The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.
The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.
I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.
Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.
No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.
Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.
Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.
Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?
The last time that I quoted Martin Luther online, I got a single response: “He was an anti-Semite.” Since I had somehow never heard that before, I decided to do a bit of research on the topic.
Apparently, in the early 1520’s Luther wrote that “we must receive [the Jews] cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.” That sounds like an enlightened and reasonable position.
By the early 1540’s, however, Luther wrote that Synagogues and Hebrew schools should be burned to the ground and that rabbis should be executed if they insist on preaching. He also proposed that the Jews should have their writings and wealth confiscated by the state. That does not sound enlightened and reasonable. That sounds awful, really.
I have a hard time understanding how somebody could make such a dramatic shift, but by the end of his life, Luther was apparently a full-blown anti-Semite. This is a truly disturbing revelation. But the next question is a much harder one: why does it matter?
The response “he was an anti-Semite” is a simple ad hominem attack. Even if it is true, the statement does not reach the merits what Luther said. So what value is it? A man I know once saw an elderly Jean-Paul Sartre get off a bus in Paris. He told me that when he saw how old and ugly Sartre was, he immediately thought, “nothing he says can be right.” Obviously, how Sartre looked had no direct bearing on the quality and validity of his writing. Similarly, one could argue that whether or not Luther was an anti-Semite has no bearing on the validity of his writing.
On the other hand, if we agree that antisemitism is not only reprehensible but it shows a fundamental flaw in morals or logic, then Luther’s writings are necessarily suspect. If Luther makes a claim that it is moral and good to steal from or even kill others because of their religious beliefs, how can any of his moral writings be trusted?
Although compelling, that argument is inadequate. Writings should be judged with a critical eye no matter what we think we know about the author. The knowledge that the author has certain biases or prejudices may be helpful in discovering flaws in the writing, but they do not make an otherwise solid piece of writing not worth the reading. The hypocrisies or vices of the author are not necessarily imputed to the work itself. If so, what book would not be guilty of something?
Further, it seems clear that Luther changed his mind about the Jews at some point in his life. So does his antisemitism only taint everything after that change? Or does a late-in-life sin ruin everything that came before it?
As a final thought: Luther was a beer drinker. Does that mean that beer must be bad because it was favored by an anti-Semite? Or does his beer drinking do something to cancel out the prejudice?
Beer of the week: Wernesgrüner Pils – This German Pilsner is reasonably good. I think that it is quite comparable to Pilsner Urquell (which happens to be the beer that I paired with the last Luther reading on this blog.) The aroma is typical pils with a hint of grass. I would like a bit more malt in the body and some more bitterness from the hops, but overall Wernesgrüner is not bad at all.
Reading of the week: Letter to Jerome Weller from Martin Luther – Written in 1530, this letter gives a little insight into the mind of Luther after he wrote the pro-Jewish passage quoted above but before he started advocating arson. This letter is an acknowledgement that nobody is perfect and that obsession over small transgressions is counter-productive to living a good life. Luther advises that when the devil has you worried that all of your little sins will damn you, “drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating.” Show the devil that you have faith that your sins can’t destroy you.
Question of the week: Could an author do anything so bad that you determined never to read any of his work, regardless of its quality?
In The Gift of the Magi (which is conveniently linked here and is a wonderfully short story), O. Henry says that “of all who give gifts these two [characters] were the wisest.” This is almost immediately after talking about the characters as “two foolish children.” So what is it that makes them both foolish and wise?
If you are not familiar with this wonderful short story, I won’t spoil it for you. Although the story is over a hundred years old, I am sensitive to the idea of spoilers in the works of writers such as Henry who employ so much irony. But without spilling the plot, what is both foolish and wise about the young couple in the story is their love. Love is what makes them sacrifice for each other. To make a sacrifice for someone you love seems thoroughly noble and right, but it is also foolish. It is foolish because the person who loves you doesn’t want you to deprive yourself of anything for his sake. Putting yourself out for the sake of somebody who wants nothing more than your happiness is foolish. And beautiful.
In truth, any gift, big or small is a good gift if it is given in love. The cliche “it’s the thought that counts” is not quite right. It is not the “thought” but the love that counts. Martin Luther wrote in A Treatise on Good Works that it is love and the belief in that love that makes men and women do things together “with joyful, peaceful, confident hearts.” And that applies to all of their interactions great and small, including giving gifts. It is only when they doubt themselves or their love that they attach especial significance to how great a work or gift is. “Where there is doubt, search is made for what is best; then a distinction of works is imagined whereby a man may win favor; and yet he goes about it with a heavy heart.”
So, as you do your frantic last minute Christmas shopping, believe in yourself and in your love for the people for whom you are shopping. It is the love that matters and the love makes all gifts special. Or give cash, everybody likes cash.
Beer of the Week: Pilsner Urquell – My Secret Santa at work got me a “Premium Beer Collection” 12-pack. The pack included three each of Pilsner Urquell, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite, and Icehouse. “Premium” is a subjective concept, but the gift definitely came from the heart and I am positively thrilled, even with the Icehouse. Pilsner Urquell is actually a personal favorite of mine. The name means “Pilsner from the original source.” This beer is the original golden lager. After so many cheap Korean beers with almost no color to them, this beautiful glass of beer excited me. But it didn’t have the strong smell of noble hops that I expected. Neither did it have the crisp hoppy finish. I don’t know if it is because they came from a can or they changed the formula to better suit this market, but this particular brew is not the original; it’s an IMPOSTOR! Even so, I really enjoyed it. Without the strong hop flavor of the original, this beer showed a very pleasant depth of malty sweetness that was satisfying despite it’s simplicity.
Reading of the Week: A Treatise on Good Works by Martin Luther – The question of whether heaven is attained through faith and works or faith alone is one of the principle issues that drove the Reformation. Luther argued that for a man with faith all works are good works, so there is no need to seek out and perform special works for salvation. Taking a strong anti-utilitarian stand, he also asserts that all acts (no matter how “useful” or “good” they may seem) done without faith or in doubt “are not good works, and are all lost.”
Question of the Week: If you get any gifts for Christmas that are given in love, you should count yourself lucky. But is it even luckier if you are able to give a gift, however small or simple, in love?