THE RIGHT TO HERESY OR, HOW JOHN CALVIN KILLED A CONSCIENCE
ONE of the most momentous experiments of all time began when this lean and harsh man entered the Cornavin Gate. A State was to be convened into a rigid mechanism; innumerable souls, people with countless feelings and thoughts, were to be compacted into an all-embracing and unique system. This was the first attempt made in Europe to impose, in the name of an idea, a uniform subordination upon an entire populace. With systematic thoroughness, Calvin set to work upon the realization of his plan to convert Geneva into the first Kingdom of God on Earth. It was to be a community without taint, without corruption, disorder, vice, or sin; it was to be the New Jerusalem, a centre from which the salvation of the world would radiate. This one and only idea was to embody Calvin's life; and the whole of his life was to be devoted to service of this one idea. The iron ideologist took his sublime utopia most seriously, most sacredly; and never during the quarter of a century throughout which his spiritual dictatorship lasted, did Calvin doubt that he was conferring immense benefits upon his fellow-men when he asked them to live "rightly," which to him meant that they should live in accordance with the will and the prescriptions of God.
At first sight this may seem simple enough. But on closer examination doubts arise. How is the will of God to be recognized? Where are His instructions to be found? In the gospels, answered Calvin; there, and there only. In Holy Writ, which is eternal, God's will and God's word live and breathe. These sacred writings have not been preserved for us by chance. God expressly transformed tradition into scripture, that his commandments might be plainly recognizable, and be taken to heart by men. This evangel existed before the Church and was superior to the Church; and there was no other truth outside or beyond ("en dehors et au dela"). Consequently, in a truly Christian State, God's word, "la parole de Dieu," was the supreme expression of morality, thought, faith, law, and life; the Bible, as a book, embodied all wisdom, all justice, all truth. For Calvin the Bible was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. All decisions in all matters must be based upon its texts.
By thus making the written word the supreme authority of mundane behaviour, Calvin seemed to be repeating the well-known primal demand of the Reformation. In reality he was making a huge step beyond the Reformation, and was breaking wholly away from its original circle of ideas. For the Reformation began as a movement to secure peace in spiritual and religious matters. It purposed to lay the Gospels in every man's hands without restriction. Instead of the pope in Rome and the councils of the Church, individual conviction was to shape Christianity. "Freiheit des Christenmenschen," freedom of the Christian man, inaugurated by Luther was, however, together with every other form of spiritual freedom, ruthlessly tom away from his fellow-mortals by Calvin. To him the word of the Lord was absolutely clear; and he therefore decreed that interpretations of God's word or glosses upon the divine teaching other than his own were inadmissible. As stone pillars support the roof of a cathedral, so must the words of the Bible sustain the Church that she may for ever remain stable. The word of God would no longer function as the logos spermatikos, as the eternally creative and transformative truth, but merely as truth interpreted once and for all by the ecclesiastical law of Geneva.
Calvin thus inaugurated a Protestant orthodoxy in place of a papistical one; and with perfect justice this new form of dogmatic dictatorship has been stigmatized as bibliocracy. One book was henceforward lord and judge in Geneva. God the legislator, and his preacher who was the sole interpreter of divine law, were judges in the sense of the Mosaic dispensation; were judges over the kings and over the people, were equipped with a power which it was sinful to resist. None but the interpretations of the Consistory were valid; they, and not decrees of the Town Council, were to be the bases of legislation in Geneva. They alone could decide what was allowed and what was forbidden; and woe unto him who should venture to challenge their ruling. One who denied the validity of the priestly dictatorship was a rebel against God; and the commentary on Holy Writ would soon be written in blood. A reign of force which originates out of a movement towards liberty is always more strenuously opposed to the idea of liberty than is a hereditary power. Those who owe their position as governors to a successful revolution become the most obscurantist and intolerant opponents of further innovation.
All dictatorships begin with the attempt to realize an ideal, but an ideal takes form and colour from the persons who endeavour to realize it. Inevitably, therefore, Calvin's doctrine, being a spiritual creation, bore a physiognomical resemblance to its creator; and one need merely glance at his countenance to foresee that this doctrine would be harsher, more morose and oppressive, than any previous exegesis of Christianity. Calvin's face resembled one of those lonely, remote, rocky landscapes in the Alps, which may wear the expression of divinity, but about which there is nothing human. Whatever makes our life fruitful, joyful, flowerlike, warm, and sensual (in the good meaning of that misused term), is lacking to this unkind, unsociable, timeless visage of the ascetic. Calvin's long, oval face is harsh and angular, gloomy and inharmonious. The forehead is narrow and severe above deep-set eyes which glimmer like hot coals; the hooked nose masterfully projects from between sunken cheeks; the thin-lipped mouth rarely smiles. There is no warm flush upon the wasted, ashenhued skin. It seems as if fever must, like a vampire, have sucked the blood out of the cheeks, so grey are they and wan, except when, in fleeting seconds, under stress of anger, they become hectic. Vainly does the prophet's beard (and all Calvin's disciples and priests did their best to follow the fashion set by their master) strive to give this bilious countenance the semblance of virile energy. The sparse hairs, like the skin of the face to which they are attached, have no sap in them; they do not flow majestically downwards, like the beard of Moses in the old paintings, but sprout thinly, a mournful thicket growing on ungrateful soil.
A dark and cheerless, a lonely and tensed face! It is hardly credible that anyone should want to have the picture of this grasping and hortatory zealot hanging upon the walls of his private rooms. One's breath would grow cold if one were continually to feel these alert and spying eyes fixed upon one in all one's daily doings. No store of individual cheerfulness could stand up against it. Zurbaran would probably have best succeeded in portraying Calvin, in the same style of Spanish fanaticism as that in which he represented the ascetics and the anchorites, dark upon a dark background; men who dwelt in caves far from the world, for ever looking at the Book, with, as other implements of their spiritual life, the death's-head and the Cross; men plunged into a chill, black, unapproachable loneliness. Throughout life Calvin was guarded by this respect for human unapproachability. From earliest youth he wore sable raiment. Black was the biretta which crowned the low forehead, this headdress being half-way between the hood of a monk and the helmet of a soldier. Black was the flowing cassock, which reached to the shoes, the robe of a judge whose business it is to punish men unceasingly, the gown of the physician who must ever be trying to heal sins and ulcers. Black, always black; always the colour of seriousness, death, and pitilessness. Never did Calvin present himself in any other guise than that symbolic of his office; for he wished to be seen and dreaded by others in no other representation than that of God's servant, in the vesture of duty. He had no desire that others should love him as a man and a brother.
But if he was harsh to the world, he was no less harsh to himself, keeping the strictest discipline, allowing to the body, for the sake of the spirit, no more than the absolute minimum of food and rest. His night's sleep lasted for three hours, or four at most; he ate one frugal meal a day, hurriedly, an open book before him. He took no walk for pleasure, played no games of any kind, sought no form of relaxation, shunning, above all, those things he might genuinely have enjoyed. He worked, thought, wrote, laboured, and fought, in splendid devotion to the spirit; but never for an hour did he live his own private life.
Calvin never knew what it was to enjoy youth, he was so to say born adult; another and fundamental characteristic was his total lack of sensuality. The latter quality was a grave danger to his doctrinal teaching. The other reformers believed and declared that man could serve the divine purpose most faithfully by gratefully accepting God's gifts; essentially healthy and normal, they delighted in their health and in their power of enjoyment; Zwingli left an illegitimate child behind him in his first parish; Luther once said laughingly: "If the wife does not want it, the maid does"-one and all, they were men ready to drink deep and to laugh heartily. In contrast Calvin completely suppressed the sensual elements in his nature, or allowed them to appear only in the most shadowy fashion. Fanatically intellectual, he lived wholly in the word and in the spirit. Truth was truth to him only when it was logical and clear and consistent. He understood and tolerated the orderly alone, detested the disorderly. Bigotedly sober, he never asked or derived pleasure from anything which can make a man drunken: wine, woman, art, or God's other jolly gifts to earth. The only time in his life when, to comply with the prescriptions in the Bible, he went a-wooing, he was not impelled by passion, but by the conviction that as a married man he would probably do better work. Instead of looking around and making his own choice, Calvin commissioned his friends to find him a suitable spouse, with the result that this fierce enemy of the sensual narrowly missed becoming contracted to a light woman. At length, in his disillusionment, he married the widow of an Anabaptist whom he had converted; but fate denied him the capacity for being happy or rendering a woman happy. The only child his wife bore him died within a few days of its birth; and when, some years later, his wife left him a widower, though he was no more than forty, with many years of a man's prime to live, he had done with marriage and with women. He never touched another woman, devoting himself wholly to the spiritual, the clerical, the doctrinal.
Nevertheless, a man's body makes its claims no less than does the mind, and takes a cruel revenge on him who neglects it. Every organ in our mortal frame utters an instinctive demand for a full use of its natural capacities. From time to time the blood needs to circulate more freely, the heart to beat more forcibly, the lungs to expand, the muscles to bestir themselves, the semen to find its natural destination; and he who continually encourages his intellect to suppress these vital wills, and fights against their satisfaction, is faced sooner or later by a revolt of the organs. Terrible was the reckoning which Calvin's body exacted from its disciplinarian. The nerves of the ascetic who tries to pretend or to persuade himself that they do not exist, emphasize their reality by perpetually tormenting the despot; and perhaps few masters of the spiritual life have suffered more distresses than did Calvin, because of the revolt of the flesh. One indisposition followed hard upon another. In almost every letter from Calvin's pen we read of some mischievous surprise-attack by an enigmatic malady. Now he talks of migraines, which keep him in bed for days; then of stomach-ache, headache, inflamed piles, colics, severe colds, nervous spasms, hemorrhages, gallstones, carbuncles, transient fever, rigors, rheumatism, bladder trouble. He was continually having to call in the doctor; his body seemed so frail that every part of it was likely to give way under strain, and to become a centre of revolt. With a groan, Calvin once wrote: "My health resembles a long-drawn-out dying."
But this man had taken as his motto, "per mediam desperationem prorumpere convenit" (to fight his way with renewed energy out of the depths of despair); and he refused to allow his indispositions to rob him of a single hour of labour. This turbulent body was to be perpetually resubjugated by his domineering spirit. If fever ran so high as to prevent his crawling to the pulpit, he would have himself carried to church in a litter, and preach notwithstanding. When he could not attend a sitting of the Town Council, he would summon the members to meet in his own house. If he were lying in bed, with chattering teeth and covered by four or five heated quilts, trying to arouse a sense of warmth in his poor shivering body, he would still have in the room two or three secretaries, and would dictate to each by turns. If he went to spend a day with a friend in the near-by countryside, in search of change of air, his secretaries would drive with him in his carriage; and hardly had the party arrived when trains of messengers would be hastening to the city and back again. After each spell of illness he would seize the pen once more and resume his life of toil. We cannot conceive of Calvin as inactive. He was a demon of industry, working without a pause. When other houses were still fast asleep, long before dawn the lamp would already be lighted in his study; and would go on burning for hours after midnight, when all the rest of Geneva had sought repose. To those who looked up at his window towards sun-down or sun-up, it seemed as if this lonely lamp were ever burning. The amount of work he turned out was incredible, so that we cannot but think he must have kept four or five brains simultaneously engaged. It is no exaggeration to say that this confirmed invalid did actually do the work belonging to four or five different professions. His basic office, that of preacher at the cathedral of St. Pierre, was only one office among many which, animated by a hysterical will-to-power, he gradually got possession of; and although the sermons he delivered in the cathedral filled, as printed volumes, a bookshelf, and although a copyist found his time fully occupied in transcribing them, they are but a small fraction of his collected writings. As chairman of the Consistory, which never came to a decision without his pulling the strings; as compiler of countless theological and polemic treatises; as translator of the Bible; as founder of the university and initiator of the theological seminary; as perpetual adviser of the Town Council; as political general-staff officer in the wars of religion; as supreme diplomat and organizer of Protestantism--this "Minister of Holy Writ" guided and conducted all the other ministries of his theocratic State. He supervised the reports of the preachers that came to hand from France, Scotland, England, and Holland; he directed propaganda in foreign parts; through book-printers and book-distributors he established a secret service which extended its tentacles over the whole world. He carried on discussions with other Protestant leaders and negotiations with princes and diplomats. Daily, almost hourly, visitors arrived from foreign parts. No student, no budding theologian, could pass through Geneva without seeking Calvin's advice and paying his respects. His house was like a post office, a permanent source of information as regards political and private affairs. With a sigh he once wrote to a friend saying that he could not recall ever having had two consecutive hours during his official career to devote without interruption to his work.
From the most distant lands such as Hungary and Poland there daily poured in dispatches from his confidential agents, and he had to give personal advice to countless persons who applied to him for help. Now it was a refugee who wanted to settle in Geneva and arrange for his family to join him there. Calvin sent round the hat, and made sure that his coreligionist should secure welcome and support. Now it was someone who wanted to get married, now another who wanted to get divorced; both paths led to Calvin, for no spiritual event could occur in Geneva without his approval. If only lust for autocracy had been confined to its proper sphere, to the things of the spirit! Calvin, however, recognized no limit to his power, for, as a theocrat, he considered that everything mundane must be subordinated to the divine and the spiritual. Fiercely he laid his overbearing hand upon everything in the city and in the State. There is hardly a day, in the records of the sittings of the Town Council, in which we do not find the remark: "Better consult Maitre Calvin about this." Nothing could escape his watchful eyes; and even though we cannot but regard the incessant labours of this active brain as miraculous, such an asceticism of the spirit brings with it perils innumerable. Whoever completely renounces personal enjoyment will, voluntary though his renunciation be, come to regard renunciation as a law to be imposed upon others, and will try to impose by force upon others what is natural to him but unnatural to them. Take Robespierre as an example; the ascetic is always the most dangerous kind of despot. One who does not share fully and joyfully in the life of his fellows will grow inexorable towards them. Discipline and unsympathetic severity are the fundamentals of Calvinist doctrine. In Calvin's view man has no right, holding up his head and glancing frankly in all directions, to march undaunted through the world. He must always remain in the shadow of "the fear of the Lord," humbly bowing before the conviction of his hopeless inadequacy. From the outset Calvin's puritanical morality led him to regard cheerful and unconstrained enjoyment as "sinful." Everything that can bring adornment and give impetus to our earthly existence, everything that can happily release the soul of its tensions, that can uplift, enfranchise, and relieve us of our burdens, is condemned by the Calvinist code as vain, void, and superfluous. Above all, these harsh judgments attach to art. Even in the religious realm, which has for ages been intimately associated with mysticism and ritual, Calvin enforces his own ideological matter-of-factness. Without exception, everything that can interest the senses, or can make the feelings pliable and uncertain, is swept ruthlessly aside; for the true believer must not approach the Throne with the strongly moved soul of an artist, clouded by the sweet aroma of incense, befooled by music, led astray by the beauty of what are wrongfully supposed to be pious pictures and sculptures.
Only when perfectly clear, is the truth the truth. God's word can rarely be God's word unless it is absolutely plain. Away, then, with idolatry! Throw pictures and statues out of the churches. Away with coloured vestments. Free the Lord's Table from mass-books and gilded tabernacles. God has no need of the ornate. Away with wanton junketings which numb the spirit: let no music, no sonorous organ, play during divine service. Even the church bells, thenceforward, had to be still in Geneva, for the true believer does not need to be reminded of his duty by the clang of metal. Piety is never preserved by things external to the spirit; never by sacrifices and spendings; but only by inward obedience. Clear out elaborate ceremony from the church; clear out emblems and ritual practices. Make an end of feasts and festivals. With one stroke Calvin erased fetedays from the calendar. The celebration of Easter and Christmas, begun by the early Christians in the Roman catacombs, was abolished in Geneva. Saints' days were no longer recognized. All the old-established customs of the Church were prohibited. Calvin's God did not want to be celebrated, or even to be loved, but only to be feared.
It was presumptuous for man to try to draw nearer to God through ecstasy or uplifting of the spirit, instead of serving from afar with perpetual veneration. Herein lay the deepest significance of the Calvinist revaluation of values.
Wishing to elevate the divine as high as possible above the world, Calvin threw the worldly down into the lowest depths. Wishing to give supreme dignity to the idea of God, he degraded the idea of man. The misanthropic reformer regarded mankind as an undisciplined rabble, a rout of sinners; and he never ceased to contemplate with horror and detestation the perpetually swelling current of mundane pleasures which life brings from a thousand sources to persons of less ascetic temperament. How incomprehensible has been God's decision, Calvin groans again and again, to create His creatures so imperfect and immoral, perpetually inclined towards vice and sin, incapable of recognizing the divine, and impatient to plunge once again in the deep waters of sin. Disgust seizes him when he contemplates his brothers in the faith. Never perhaps has a great founder of a religion used such degrading terms in his description of mankind: "bete indomptable et feroce," and, yet worse, "une ordure." Again, in his lnstitutio: "If we contemplate man only in respect of his natural gifts, we find in him, from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet, no trace whatever of goodness. Whatever in him is a little praiseworthy comes from the grace of God .... All our justice is injustice; our service, filth; our glory, shame. Even the best things that rise out of us are always made infect and vicious by the uncleanness of the flesh, and are always mingled with dirt."
Obviously one who, from the philosophic standpoint, regards man as an unsuccessful and abortive piece of workmanship on God's part will never be willing, as theologian and statesman, to concede that God can have given such a creature a jot of liberty or independence. Ruthlessly the Almighty must deprive this corrupt and greedy creature of the right of self-determination, for "if we leave man to his own devices, his soul is capable of naught but evil." Once for all, we must rebuke the spawn of Adam for the presumptuous notion that he has any right to develop his relationship to God and to the world here below in accordance with his own personality; and the more harshly we repress such presumption, the more we subordinate and bridle man, the better for him. No liberty, no freedom of the will, for man could only misuse such privileges. He must forcibly humble himself before the greatness of God. We must render him sober, we must frighten him, rebuking his presumption, until he unresistingly accepts his position in the pious and obedient herd, until he has merged in that herd all that is individual within him, so that the individual, the extraordinary, vanishes without leaving a trace.
To achieve this draconian suppression of personality, to achieve this vandal expropriation of the individual in favour of the community, Calvin had a method all his own, the famous Church "discipline." A harsher curb upon human impulses and desires has hardly been devised by and imposed upon man down to our own days. From the first hour of his dictatorship this brilliant organizer herded his flock, his congregation, within a barbed-wire entanglement of paragraphs and prohibitions, the so-called "Ordinances," simultaneously creating a special department to supervise the working of terrorist morality. This organization was called the Consistory, its purpose being defined, ambiguously enough, as that of supervising the congregation or the community "that God may be honoured in all purity." Only to outward seeming was the sphere of influence of this moral inspectorate restricted to the religious life. For, owing to the intimate association of the secular or mundane with the philosophical in Calvin's totalitarian conception of the State, the vestiges of independence were henceforward to come automatically under the control of the authorities. The catchpoles of the Consistory, the "anciens," were expressly instructed to keep watch upon the private life of everyone in Geneva. Their watchfulness must never be relaxed, and they were expected to pay attention "not only to the uttered word, but also to opinions and views."
From the days when so universal a control of private life was instituted, private life could hardly be said to exist any longer in Geneva. With one leap Calvin outdistanced the Catholic Inquisition, which had always waited for reports of informers or denunciations from other sources before sending out its familiars and its spies. In Geneva, however, in accordance with Calvin's religious philosophy, every human being was primarily and perpetually inclined to evil rather than to good, was a priori suspect as a sinner, so everyone must put up with supervision. After Calvin's return to Geneva, it was as if the doors of the houses had suddenly been thrown open and as if the walls had been transformed into glass. From moment to moment, by day and by night, there might come a knocking at the entry, and a number of the "spiritual police" announce a "visitation" without the concerned citizen's being able to offer resistance. Once a month rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, had to submit to the questioning of these professional "police des moeurs." For hours (since the ordinances declared that such examination must be done in leisurely fashion), white-haired, respectable, tried, and hitherto trusted men must be examined like schoolboys as to whether they knew the prayers by heart, or as to why they had failed to attend one of Master Calvin's sermons. But with such catechizing and moralizing the visitation was by no means at an end. The members of this moral Cheka thrust fingers into every pie. They felt the women's dresses to see whether their skirts were not too long or too short, whether these garments had superfluous frills or dangerous slits. The police carefully inspected the coiffure, to see that it did not tower too high; they counted the rings on the victim's fingers, and looked to see how many pairs of shoes there were in the cupboard. From the bedroom they passed on to the kitchen table, to ascertain whether the prescribed diet was not being exceeded by a soup or a course of meat, or whether sweets and jams were hidden away somewhere. Then the pious policeman would continue his examination of the rest of the house. He pried into bookshelves, on the chance of there being a book devoid of the Consistory's imprimatur; he looked into drawers on the chance of finding the image of one of the saints, or a rosary. The servants were asked about the behaviour of their masters, and the children were cross-questioned as to the doings of their parents.
As he walked along the street, this minion of the Calvinist dictatorship would keep his ears pricked to ascertain whether anyone was singing a secular song, or was making music, or was addicted to the diabolic vice of cheerfulness. For henceforward in Geneva the authorities were always on the hunt for anything that smacked of pleasure, for any "paillardise"; and woe unto a burgher caught visiting a tavern when the day's work was over to refresh himself with a glass of wine, or unto another who was so depraved as to find pleasure in dice or cards. Day after day the hunt went on, nor could the overworked spies enjoy rest on the Sabbath. Once more they would make a house-to-house visitation where some slothful wretch was lying in bed instead of seeking edification from Master Calvin's sermon. In the church another informer was on the watch, ready to denounce anyone who should enter the house of God too late or leave it too early. These official guardians of morality were at work everywhere indefatigably. When night fell, they pried among the bushes beside the Rhone, to see if a sinful pair might be indulging in caresses; while in the inns they scrutinized the beds and ransacked the baggage of strangers. They opened every letter that entered or left the city; and the carefully organized watchfulness of the Consistory extended far beyond the walls of the city. In the diligence, in public rowing-boats, in ships crossing the lake for the foreign market, and in the inns beyond the town limits, spies were everywhere at work. Any word of discontent uttered by a Genevese citizen who might be visiting Lyons or Paris would infallibly be reported. But what made the situation yet more intolerable was that countless unofficial spies joined their activities as volunteers to those who were properly appointed to the task. Whenever a State inaugurates a reign of terror, the poisonous plant of voluntary denunciation flourishes like a loathsome weed; when it is agreed on principle that denunciations shall be tolerated and are even desirable, otherwise decent folk are driven by fear to play the part of informer. If it were only to divert suspicion "of being on the side of the devil instead of God," every Genevese citizen in the days of Calvin's dictatorship looked askance at his fellows. The "zelo della paura," the zeal of dread, ran impatiently ahead of the informers. After some years the Consistory was able to abolish official supervision, since all the citizens had become voluntary controllers. The restless current of denunciations streamed in by day and by night, and kept the millwheel of the spiritual Inquisition turning briskly.
Who could feel safe under such a system, could be sure that he was not breaking one of the commandments, since Calvin forbade practically everything that might have made life joyful and worth while? Prohibited were theatres, amusements, popular festivals, any kind of dancing or playing. Even so innocent a sport as skating stirred Calvin's bile. The only tolerated attire was sober and almost monkish. The tailors, therefore, were forbidden, unless they had special permission from the town authorities, to cut in accordance with new fashions. Girls were forbidden to wear silk before they reached the age of fifteen years; above that age they were not allowed to wear velvet. Gold and silver lace, golden hair, needless buttons and furbelows, were equally under the ban, and the wearing of gold ornaments or other trinkets was against the regulations. Men were not allowed to wear their hair long; women were forbidden to make much of their tresses by curling them and training them over combs. Lace was forbidden; gloves were forbidden; frills and slashed shoes were forbidden. Forbidden was the use of litters and of wheeled carriages. Forbidden were family feasts to which more than twenty persons had been invited; at baptisms and betrothal parties there must not be more than a specified number of courses, and sweets or candied fruits must not be served. No other wine than the red wine of the region might be drunk, while game, whether four-footed or winged, and pastry were prohibited. Married folk were not allowed to give one another presents at the wedding, or for six months afterwards. Of course, any sort of extra-conjugal intercourse was absolutely forbidden; and there must be no laxity in this respect even among people who had been formally engaged.
The citizens of Geneva were not allowed to enter an inn; and the host of such a place must not serve a stranger with food and drink until the latter had said his prayers. In general the tavern-keepers were instructed to spy upon their guests, paying diligent heed to every suspicious word or gesture. No book might be printed without a special permit. It was forbidden to write letters abroad. Images of the saints, other sculptures, and music were forbidden. Even as regards psalm-singing, the ordinances declared that "care must be taken" to avoid allowing attention to wander to the tune, instead of concentrating it upon the spirit and the meaning of the words; for "only in the living word may God be praised." The citizens, who before Calvin's coming had regarded themselves as free burghers, were now not even allowed to choose the baptismal names of their children. Although for hundreds of years the names of Claude and Amade had been popular, they were now prohibited because they did not occur in the Bible. A pious Genevese must name his son Isaac, Adam, or the like. It was forbidden to say the Lord's Prayer in Latin, forbidden to keep the feasts of Easter and Christmas. Everything was forbidden that might have relieved the grey monotony of existence; and forbidden, of course, was any trace of mental freedom in the matter of the printed or spoken word. Forbidden as the crime of crimes was any criticism of Calvin's dictatorship; and the town-crier, preceded by drummers, solemnly warned the burghers that "there must be no discussion of public affairs except in the presence of the Town Council."
Forbidden, forbidden, forbidden; what a detestable rhythm! In amazement one asks oneself what, after so many prohibitions, was left to the Genevese as permissible. Not much. It was permissible to live and to die, to work and to obey, and to go to church. This last, indeed, was not merely permitted, but enforced under pain of severe punishment in case of absence. Woe unto the burgher who should fail to hear the sermons preached in the parish to which he belonged; two on Sunday, three in the course of the week, and the special hour of edification for children. The yoke of coercion was not lifted even on the Lord's Day, when the round of duty, duty, duty, was inexorable. After hard toil to gain daily bread throughout the week, came the day when all service must be devoted to God. The week for labour, Sunday for church. Thus Satan would be unable to gain or keep a footing even in sinful man; and thus an end would be put to liberty and the joy of life.
But how, we ask, could a republican city, accustomed for decades to Swiss freedom, tolerate a dictatorship as rigid as had been Savonarola's in Florence; how could a southern people, fundamentally cheerful, endure such a throttling of the joy of life? Why was an ascetic like Calvin empowered to sweep away joy from thousands upon thousands? Calvin's secret was not a new one; his art was that which all dictators before and since have used. Terror. Calvin's was a Holy Terror. Do not let us mince matters: force that sticks at nothing, making mock of humaneness as the outcome of weakness, soon becomes overwhelming. A despotically imposed systematic reign of terror paralyses the will of the individual, making community life impossible. Like a consuming disease, it eats into the soul; and soon, this being the heart of the mystery, universal cowardice gives the dictator helpers everywhere; for, since each man knows himself to be under suspicion, he suspects his neighbours; and, in a panic, the zealots outrun the commands and prohibitions of their tyrant.
An organized reign of terror never fails to work miracles; and when his authority was challenged, Calvin did not hesitate to work this miracle again and again. Few if any other despots have outdone him in this respect; and it is no excuse to say that his despotism, like all his qualities, was a logical product of his ideology. Agreed, this man of the spirit, this man of the nerves, this intellect, had a hatred of bloodshed. Being, as he himself openly admitted, unable to endure the sight of violence or cruelty, he never attended one of the executions and burnings which were so frequent in Geneva during the days of his rule. But herein lies the gravest fault of fervent ideologists. Men of this type, who (once more like Robespierre) would never have the pluck to witness an execution, and still less to carry it out with their own hands, will heedlessly order hundreds or thousands of death sentences as soon as they feel themselves covered by their "Idea," their theory, their system. Now Calvin regarded harshness towards "sinners" as the keystone of his system; and to carry this system unremittingly into effect was for him, from his philosophical outlook, a duty imposed on him by God. That was why, in defiance of the promptings of his own nature, he had to quench any inclination to be pitiful and to train himself systematically in cruelty. He "exercised" himself in unyieldingness as if it had been a fine art.
"I train myself in strictness that I may fight the better against universal wrongdoing." We cannot deny that this man of iron will was terribly successful in his self-discipline to make himself unkind. He frankly admitted that he would rather know that an innocent man had been punished than that one sinner should escape God's judgment. When, among the numerous executions, one was prolonged into an abominable torture by the clumsiness of the executioner, Calvin wrote an exculpatory letter to Farel: "It cannot have happened without the peculiar will of God that the condemned persons were forced to endure such a prolongation of their torments." It is better to be too harsh than too gentle if "God's honour" is concerned--such was Calvin's argument. Nothing but unsparing punishment can make human behaviour moral.
It is easy to understand how murderous must be the effects of such a thesis of the pitiless Christ, and of a God whose honour had perpetually to be "protected." What was the result likely to be in a world that had not yet escaped from the Middle Ages? During the first five years of Calvin's rule, in this town which had a comparatively small population, thirteen persons were hanged, ten decapitated, thirty-five burned, while seventy-six persons were driven from their houses and homes--to say nothing of those who ran away in time to avoid the operations of the terror. So crowded were the prisons in the "New Jerusalem" that the head jailer informed the magistrates he could not find accommodation for any more prisoners. So horrible was the martyrdom not only of condemned persons but also of suspects that the accused laid violent hands upon themselves rather than enter the torture chambers. At length the Council had to issue a decree to the effect that "in order to reduce the number of such incidents, the prisoners should wear handcuffs day and night." Calvin uttered no word against these abominations. Terrible was the price which the city had to pay for the establishment of such "order" and "discipline"; for never before had Geneva known so many death sentences, punishments, rackings, and exilings as now when Calvin ruled there in the name of God. Balzac, therefore, is right when he declares the religious terrorism of Calvin to have been even more abominable than the worst blood-orgies of the French Revolution. "Calvin's rabid religious intolerance was morally crueller than Robespierre's political intolerance; and if he had had a more extensive sphere of influence than Geneva, he would have shed more blood than the dread apostle of political equality."
All the same it was not by means mainly of these barbarous sentences and executions and tortures that Calvin broke the Genevese sentiment of liberty; but, rather, by systematized petty tyranny and daily intimidation. At the first glance we are inclined to be amused when we read with what trifles Calvin's famous "discipline" was concerned. Still, the reader will be mistaken if he underestimates the refined skill of Master Jehan Calvin. Deliberately he made the net of prohibitions one with an exceedingly fine mesh, so fine that it was practically impossible for the fish to escape. Purposely these prohibitions related to trivial matters, so that everyone might suffer pangs of conscience and become inspired with a permanent awe of almighty, all-knowing authority. For the more caltrops that are strewed in front of us on our everyday road, the harder shall we find it to march forward freely and unconcernedly. Soon no one felt safe in Geneva, since the Consistory declared that human beings sinned almost every time they drew breath.
We need merely turn the pages of the minute-book of the Town Council to see how skilful were the methods of intimidation. One burgher smiled while attending a baptism; three days' imprisonment. Another, fired out on a hot summer day, went to sleep during the sermon: prison. Some working men ate pastry at breakfast: three days on bread and water. Two burghers played skittles: prison. Two others diced for a quarter-bottle of wine: prison. A man refused to allow his son to be christened Abraham: prison. A blind fiddler played a dance: expelled from the city. Another praised Castellio's translation of the Bible: expelled from Geneva. A girl was caught skating, a widow threw herself on the grave of her husband, a burgher offered his neighbour a pinch of snuff during divine service: they were summoned before the Consistory, exhorted, and ordered to do penance. And so on, and so on, without end. Some cheerful fellows at Epiphany stuck a bean into the cake: twentyfour hours on bread and water. A burgher said "Monsieur" Calvin instead of "Maitre" Calvin; a couple of peasants, following ancient custom, talked about business matters on coming out of church: prison, prison, prison. A man played cards: he was pilloried with the pack of cards hung round his neck. Another sang riotously in the street: was told "he could go and sing elsewhere," this meaning that he was banished from the city. Two boatmen had a brawl, in which no one was hurt: executed. Two boys who behaved indelicately were sentenced first of all to burning at the stake; then the sentence was commuted to compelling them to watch the blaze of the faggots.
Most savagely of all were punished any offenders whose behaviour challenged Calvin's political and spiritual infallibility. A man who publicly protested against the reformer's doctrine of predestination was mercilessly flogged at all the crossways of the city and then expelled. A book-printer who, in his cups, had railed at Calvin was sentenced to have his tongue perforated with a red-hot iron before being expelled from the city. Jacques Gruet was racked and then executed merely for having called Calvin a hypocrite. Each offence, even the most paltry, was carefully entered in the records of the Consistory so that the private life of every citizen could unfailingly be held up against him in evidence.
It was inevitable that so unsleeping a terror should, in the end, banish a sense of dignity and a feeling of energy both from individuals and from the masses. When, in a State organization, every citizen has to accept that he will be questioned, examined, and condemned, since he knows that invisible spies are watching all his doings and noting all his words; when, without notice, either by day or by night, his house is liable to "visitations"-then people's nerves give way, and a sort of mass anxiety ensues, which extends by infection even to the most courageous. The strongest will is broken by the futility of the struggle. Thanks to his famous "discipline," Calvin's Geneva became what Calvin wanted: joyless, shy, and timid, with no capacity for resisting Master Calvin's will.
After a few years of this discipline Geneva assumed a new aspect. What had once been a free and merry city lay, as it were, beneath a pall. Bright garments disappeared, colours became drab, no bells rang from the church towers. no jolly songs re-echoed in the streets, every house became as bald and unadorned as a Calvinist place of worship. The inns were empty, now that the fiddlers could no longer summon people to the dance, now that skitties could no longer be played, now that dice no longer rattled gaily on the tables. The dance-halls were empty; the dark alleys, where lovers had been wont to roam, were forsaken; only the naked interiors of the churches were the places, Sunday after Sunday, for gloomy-visaged and silent congregations. The town had assumed a morose visage like Calvin's own, and by degrees had grown as sour as he, and, either from fear or through unconscious imitation of his sternness, as sinister and reserved. People no longer roamed freely and light-heartedly hither and thither; their eyes could not flash gladly; and their glances betrayed nothing but fear, since merriment might be mistaken for sensuality. They no longer knew unconstraint, being afraid of the terrible man who himself was never cheerful. Even in the privacy of family life, they learned to whisper, for beyond the doors, listening at the keyholes, might be their serving men and maids. When fear has become second nature, the terrorstricken are perpetually on the look-out for spies. The great thing was--not to be conspicuous. Not to do anything that might arouse attention, either by one's dress or by a hasty word, or by a cheerful countenance. Avoid attracting suspicion; remain forgotten. The Genevese, in the latter years of Calvin's rule, sat at home as much as possible, for at home the walls of their houses and the bolts and bars on their doors might preserve them to some extent from prying eyes and from suspicion. But if, when they were looking out of the window, they saw some of the agents of the Consistory coming along the street, they would draw back in alarm, for who could tell what neighbour might not have denounced them? When they had to go out, the citizens crept along furtively with downcast eyes and wrapped in their drab cloaks, as if they were going to a sermon or a funeral. Even the children, who had grown up amid this new discipline, and were vigorously intimidated during the "lessons of edification," no longer played in the debonair way natural to healthy and happy youngsters, but shrank as a cur shrinks in expectation of a blow. They flagged as do flowers which have never known sufficient sunlight, but have been kept in semi-darkness.
The rhythm of the town was as regular as that of a clock, a chili tick-tock, never interrupted by festivals and fetedays-monotonous, orderly, and dependable. Anyone visiting Geneva for the first time and walking through its streets must have believed the city to be in mourning, so cold and gloomy were the inhabitants, so mute and cheerless the ways, so oppressive the spiritual atmosphere. Discipline was wonderfully maintained; but this intolerable moderation that Calvin had forced upon Geneva had been purchased by the loss of all the sacred energies, which can never thrive except where there is excess and unrestrained freedom. Though Geneva produced a great number of pious citizens, earnest theologians, and distinguished scholars, who made the city famous for all time, still, even two centuries after Calvin, there were in this town beside the Rhone no painters, no musicians, no artists with a worldwide reputation. The extraordinary was sacrificed to the ordinary, creative liberty to a thoroughly tamed servility. When, at long last, an artist was born in Geneva, his whole life was a revolt against the shackling of individuality. Only through the instrumentality of the most independent of its citizens, through Jean Jacques Rousseau, was Geneva able to liberate itself from the strait-jacket imposed upon it by Calvin.
Chapter Three: Enter Castellio Return to "HERESY" Table of Contents
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