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When studying the facets of Western Civilization, a few recurring questions must be analyzed. Will those in power abuse it? Unfortunately, yes. Does freedom spawn intellectual, technological and social progress? For the most part, yes. Was Martin Luther, in historical terms, a “bad ass?” Carter Lindberg states in his book The European Reformations, “An initial move to control the complicated and multifaceted reality of the Reformation is to define the terms used for it and the era it covers.” In order to secure Luther in the annuals of history as a “bad ass”, one must not only clarify the characteristics of that title, but also view his accomplishments in a 21st Century frame of reference. First, it should be determined which historical figures might fall into the category of being labeled a “bad ass.” At this point, the common characteristics of a historical “bad ass” will become evident. Second, after determining these characteristics, they then must be applied to Luther and the result will be forthcoming.
Possible historical “bad asses” (chronologically): Hammurabi, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Marc Antony, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Augustus Casear, Muhammad, William the Conqueror, Genghis Kahn, Leonardo da Vinci, Magellan, Louis XIV, Thomas Jefferson, Vâclav Havel, Roberto Baggio and Bill Clinton. Just looking at this shortlist, it’s noticeable that most of these men were in a position of power. Except for Socrates, Jesus, Leonardo, Magellan and Baggio, these individuals were in a position of direct political or military authority and in some cases both. Let’s take a more detailed look at Alexander, Hannibal, Jesus, Muhammad and Magellan.
Alexander the Great- Son of King Phillip of Macedonia. He was tutored by Aristotle and despite his classical education became one of the greatest military geniuses ever. At the time of this death, Alexander commanded an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean basin to Persia. Glenn Blackburn, author of Western Civilization: A Concise History Vol. 1, gives this description of Alexander. “Some historians believe that he was simply a great military leader who knew well how to fight and conquer.
Others see Alexander as what he claimed to be, an apostle of Greek culture who used Greek language and institutions to unify a cosmopolitan empire” (p.82). Alexander’s greatness was even acknowledged in the motion picture Die Hard. The films antagonist, Hans Gruber remarks, “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept.
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Hannibal- Carthaginian general in Punic Wars against Rome. During the Second Punic War he marched his forces, which included about two dozen elephants, over the Alps with intentions of attacking Rome from the north. Blackburn credits Hannibal with invading and ravaging Italy, but eventually conceding victory to Rome. Despite his failure, his creativity, boldness and radical ambitions easily place him in the “bad ass” category.
Jesus of Nazareth- Touted in the Bible as the Son of God, he is responsible for the development of Christianity. His life and ministry is documented in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Jesus was very influential and all powerful, but his actions wouldn’t place him above the previous mentioned individuals on a “bad ass” scale. He did die for the sins of the world, a bold gesture, but other than attacking tax collectors he was nonviolent. Even though he was trailed all over the Holy Land by 12 disciples and an uncountable number of Galileans, his actions might not reap him the reputation of being a “bad ass.”
Muhammad- The father of Islam, who, according to Blackburn, almost exclusively transformed the traditional Arabic world. This 7th Century prophet as been labeled by some historians as being the most influential person in human history. His efforts to infuse Islam into Arabic society was counter by basically the status quo. Although this new religion spread more through military conquest than Christianity, Muhammad was more responsible for the success of his religion than Jesus was to his. But going from a small town merchant to ‘God’s last and greatest prophet’ is in itself pretty glamorous.
Ferdinand Magellan- A relentless Portuguese explorer who is credited with being the first man to circumnavigate the earth and in doing so proved that the world was round. “It was in fact the crowning triumph of the age, the final, decisive blow to the past” (Reader p. 294). The bold and fearless leadership that Magellan demonstrated on his voyage is quite remarkable. He overcame, on several occasions, dissenters and mutineers before he died, some might say foolishly in the Philippines. Despite this, his expedition was one of the most outstanding voyages of exploration ever recorded.
What traits have emerged that are common among these five historical “bad asses?” Each of these individuals were determined to rise above their opposition. This can be attributed to focus, but will would be the correct word to describe it. Obviously there are different degree of will and not all the people on the initial “bad ass” list would be characterized as having it. Will and particularly iron-will can be linked to boldness, which was used to describe several of these figures. Being bold doesn’t necessarily indicate that a person lacks intelligence, education or expertise. That is certainly the case with these five. All of them also were in a position of considerable power. No matter what type of position they held, they were extremely influential over the people that followed their leadership. To review, the common characteristics of a historical “bad ass” are: determination, will, boldness, intelligence/expertise and influential.
Martin Luther had a problem with the Roman Catholic Church. His grievances against the Church arose gradually throughout his life. His main objection was over the selling of indulgences (a remission, granted by the Church, of the penalties of sin). His frustration had reached its peak in 1517, when a indulgence seller named Johann Tetzel began to preach, wrongly, that indulgences would remove a sinners guilt as well as his penalty (Blackburn p.250). At this time, Luther had been an Augustinian monk and was a faculty member at the University of Wittenberg, where he had receive his Doctorate in Theology five years earlier. He composed his arguments against Tetzel and hung them on the door of the local church. The drafting of theses/arguments/points of debate was common protocol in the 16th Century and Luther’s actions were not out of the ordinary.
But when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, he didn’t realize that he was starting a religious reformation that would hammer and split the oldest and most established religious institution on the planet. The Ninety-five Theses (Latin) were translated into German and via Gutenberg’s printing press were spread throughout Germany. The Roman Catholic Church and Christianity would never be the same and Luther faced the fact that he had reached the point of no return. It was at this point that his character kick in and his “bad ass” qualities emerged.
Luther’s opposition against the Catholic Church was not the safest of endeavors. At this point in time, the punishment for speaking against the Church was death at the stake. He was endangering his life by preaching against the Church, but he held to his convictions. Two of the most powerful men in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, wanted Luther to recant, at the Diet of Worms, his statements about the Church.
His determination and shear will helped him to overcome the powers that opposed him.
Luther, knowing full well the consequences of his noncompliance, boldly continued to resist the forces that wanted him to reverse his teachings. He still thought that the Church was overly organized and wealthy that it hindered the individual Christian (Blackburn p. 251). Luther, while under the protection of Prince Fredrick The Wise, used his intellect to make it easier for the common man to worship outside of the Church. His translation of the Bible into German, at this time, not only propelled the Reformation, but was influential in the formation of the German language. Luther also influenced the conception of the model German family for centuries to come. But his influence is still felt today in the Protestant sect of Christianity, which is what hepled pioneer.
In comparison to other historical figures, Luther was a “bad ass.” His accomplishments were achieved with those characteristics previously described. His importance in Western Civilization is almost immeasurable due to the magnitude of influence that he had on it.
Although not all historians would conquer with the initial “bad ass” list or the qualities that make up a “bad ass,” it could safely be said that Martin Luther was one of the most important people in the history Western Civilization.