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A New “Dialogue of the Dead”: Triangulating Erasmus, Luther, and Lucian

Brandon Bark

Stanford University

Lucian's entanglement in Reformation politics has remained somewhat understudied. But it is no coincidence that at the nadir of their tumultuous relationship, Martin Luther, in his Tischreden, uses no single term more frequently to vilify Erasmus than "Lucianist". The story is more complicated than that Luther and members of his circle always responded univocally against Lucian and, more specifically, Erasmus' translations of Lucian, or themselves did not incorporate Lucianic elements into their own writings. Rather, I propose to demonstrate that Luther's and Erasmus' reading of Lucian responded to particular developments in their relationship, and that, vice-versa, their relationship pivoted around these variant readings. Given Luther's earlier tolerance and even approval of Erasmus' writings--particularly his Adagia, which borrowed heavily from Lucian--it makes little sense to read Luther's much later disavowal of Lucian as a reaction against Lucian qua Lucian, but qua Erasmus, who, through his Latin translation of much of the corpus, had distilled his particular version of Lucian to early modern readership, so strongly, arguably, that one could scarcely conceive of Lucian apart from Erasmus' translation or Erasmus' ethical and political views. Conversely, it may also be possible to argue that Erasmus became almost dogmatically undogmatic and evasive, and looked to (his interpretation of) Lucian to validate this indirect approach, the more he met hardening Reformationist resistance. 

A nuanced understanding of the role of their relationship in governing their reading, and vice-versa, is important not just for Luther and Erasmus studies, but extends into our understanding of the intellectual microcosms and movements that emerged around these men. Other humanists and Reformationists (not mutually exclusive), like Pirckheimer and Melanchthon, also hugely affected Lucian's reception, and their views were affected in turn by Luther and Erasmus. Erasmus became increasingly nervous that Luther impliciated the cause--"my cause", according to Erasmus--of true learning, and sought to distinguish textual criticism and publication of Classical texts as a uniquely humanist goal separate from the opportunistic exploitation of these texts by Reformationists. Not only did communities of intellectuals and public figures spring up around the conflict between Luther and Erasmus, but the communities that emerged were divided by their very understanding of community, with Lucian caught in the middle. Erasmus favored satirically backbiting againt the status quo, while Luther regarded Lucianic satire as too weak, cowardly, and "Erasmian".

Session/Panel Title

Imagining the Future through the Past: Classical and Early Modern Political Thought

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