BMCR 2018.07.03

Cicero in Heaven: The Roman Rhetor and Luther’s Reformation. St Andrews studies in Reformation history

, Cicero in Heaven: The Roman Rhetor and Luther's Reformation. St Andrews studies in Reformation history. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. xxi, 291. ISBN 9789004355156. $144.00.


This book treats the reception of Cicero in Lutheran education. It discusses Cicero and his reception through Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the development of Cicero’s position within Lutheran pedagogy. The core argument is that Luther’s appreciation of Cicero was crucial for the subsequent importance of the Roman writer.

In chapter 1 Springer traces ancient rhetoric back to the speeches in the Homeric epics, to Gorgias, Plato and Aristotle. Romans initially had a sceptical attitude to Greek rhetoric that changed only with Cicero, who wrote the basic theoretical works on rhetoric in Latin. Springer discusses the five traditional parts of rhetoric in a synthetic manner, sometimes fast forwarding to Luther, Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (first complete edition in 1684) and modern American rhetoric. Springer contrasts Cicero’s style with Caesar’s, though emphasizing that “Caesar, no doubt, could also wax copiously eloquent when appropriate” (p. 14). That Cicero’s style did not impress all contemporaries equally is not surprising, although the “leisurely and loosely structured” style (p. 17 n. 67) quoted by Springer as an attribute of Cicero is in reality attributed to Brutus by Cicero (in Tac. Or. 18. 5). Importantly, Springer claims that already in Cicero’s lifetime Latin became fixed. With an ever-increasing distance from “natural language” (p. 18), the “overawed linguistic successors” (p. 19) of Cicero thus were not capable of surpassing the achievement of Cicero. The rest of the chapter is about Cicero’s importance for the Latin of Christian Antiquity, the Middle Ages und Humanism. According to Springer it was due to a moderate Ciceronianism, such as the one propagated by Erasmus, that Reformation writings, “contrary to what might be expected, […] were often quite lively and far from dry or tedious” (p. 52)— despite their being written in Latin! Chapter 2 portrays Luther as a “German Cicero”. Luther’s appreciation of the Roman orator is no less due to his Latin (Luther several times compares his own Latin unfavourably to that of humanists) than to Cicero the philosopher and steadfast orator in the face of danger. Proceeding from Cicero’s orations against Marc Antony, as futile as they were dangerous, Springer introduces a lengthy discourse about parrhesia, the virtue of speaking according to one’s convictions in the face of danger (p. 100), for which he gives contemporary examples such as Luther’s own appearance before Charles V.

Chapter 3 discusses Cicero and the Wittenberg reformers. Springer insists both on the continuity of the educational principles of earlier humanism and on the intentionality of Cicero’s central role in Lutheran education from early on. Cicero did not “occupy a guaranteed educational position […] by default” (p. 101). Springer offers a rapid overview of Ciceronianism in the Quattrocento, when Cicero was appreciated as “a great Latin stylist and a paragon of pagan moral virtue” (p. 103). According to Springer, Luther was “deeply committed to […] a refined version of a traditional liberal arts education” with an emphasis on Latin; without the “whole-hearted endorsement from the undisputed leader of the Lutheran Reformation” (p. 103) of the liberal arts, Cicero might not have survived in subsequent Lutheran education. A substantial part of the chapter is devoted to Luther’s insistence on the necessity of institutionalized education at all levels, with a curriculum that included the ancient languages. The paragraph about Cicero himself in this context is surprisingly short (pp. 121-122). The remaining parts of the chapter are dedicated to Melanchthon, the development of the latter’s own style, and theory and practice of his educational principles.

Chapter 4 traces the continued role of Cicero in Protestant teaching (with some pages dedicated to Jesuit schooling) up to the twentieth century, a veritable tour de force beginning with Johannes Sturm in Strassbourg and leading up to the United States, the Latinity of its Founding Fathers and twentieth-century developments.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to Anti-Ciceronianism, beginning with some sceptical comments by Luther, mainly about Cicero the politician and philosopher, and connecting them with the German (often Protestant) Philhellenism of the nineteenth century.

This book covers many topics on which this reviewer is no specialist, and the resumé given here cannot but leave out many twists and turns. I will only offer some comments on the central thesis, that without Luther’s positive appreciation of Cicero as a writer, philosopher, and politician the latter would have had a much less important or even no role in subsequent Lutheran education. From my point of view this is not supported by Springer’s material. Undoubtedly, Luther appreciated humanist methods of ‘textual criticism’ and felt that humanists had prepared an important aspect of the Reformation. Springer supports this uncontroversial assertion with quotations from Luther’s comments in the margins of a copy of his Homer (p. 108 n. 23; it is actually an Ovid, see WA 48, 28). Unfortunately Springer overlooked that the Latin quote he refers to is not actually by Luther (who wrote his – much shorter – comment in German); the Latin text in the Weimar edition (WA) is the embellishment of an overzealous editor of Luther. However, the general sentiment is quite correct: Luther believes in the importance of humanism—but as a precursor to the restitution of Christian doctrine, not as a corpus of knowledge in itself.

As for Cicero, I do not see that there was anything distinctive in Luther’s use of Cicero that forced contemporaries or subsequent generations of readers to take notice. What all the examples have in common is that for Luther Cicero—on account of his preeminent role in discourses about language in the period leading up to the Reformation— was a set piece reusable in many contexts: that earthly wisdom cannot bring salvation, that some heathens might be or have been saved despite the absence of Christian faith, etc. Cicero as Latin model is hardly special for either Luther or Reformation writers in general, and Luther shows neither interest in nor acquaintance with the finer points of the Ciceronian debate of the turn of the sixteenth century. In this connection I miss a distinction between language learning as part of education and language use later in life. That Cicero is central for (advanced) language acquisition is an undisputed tenet of the schoolbook of the early sixteenth century, Niccolò Perotti’s Basics of Grammar (Rudimenta grammatices). Perotti advocates unbridled imitation of only one writer, of Cicero, mostly by the preferred method of the time, by rote-learning. The important role of Cicero in Lutheran as well as Jesuit teaching is thus hardly surprising; this is simply the appropriation of modern pedagogical methods. This pedagogical approach was followed in Latin schools all over Europe, to the extent that a Danish student who could recite Cicero’s Pro Sexto Roscio by heart got the surname Amerinus. Quite another matter is the style of Latin as a language of communication; here a much wider range of registers was available. Neither the Danish student we just mentioned (later a physician and poet) nor Perotti (a church administrator and grammarian) is known for his Ciceronianism, each instead employing a stylistic diversity in his writing adapted to topic and audience. The regretful statements of both Luther and Melanchthon about the poverty of their Latin are significant not as testimonies to their modesty, but as self-assured assertions of stylistic independence. While accepting the leadership of Cicero or classical authors in general in writing Latin, they are no longer hemmed in by a narrowly understood imitative style.

Some of the finest insights of the book are hidden under titles this reviewer found misleading, such as “Bach, the Latin Teacher” (pp. 164sqq), in chapter 4 (“Cicero Refused to Die”). The title is alluring, were it not for the fact that Bach seems neither to have had the qualifications (their absence was a contentious topic in the discussions of the board that eventually selected him as the next cantor) nor the inclination to teach Latin, let alone Cicero, and immediately hired a substitute for this part of his duties as Thomaskantor (a fact established beyond doubt by Bach specialists and actually not doubted by Springer). Thus Bach is irrelevant as far as Cicero in pedagogy is concerned. Instead, Springer leads us on a circuitous route via Telemann and Geminiani to Bach the composer and to a discussion of the presence of rhetorical elements in Church music, exemplifying this with the Crucifixus of Bach’s High Mass. In spite of the flaws in its central argument, there is much of value in this work. Finely tuned and sensitively presented insights like those in the author’s treatment of rhetorical elements in church music appear throughout the book. Its elegant prose is eminently readable; the wide variety of tidbits of information offered is pleasantly surprising as well as entertaining. As far as Luther is concerned, the book also dazzles with a copious selection of quotations which will be useful for the future researcher. The educated public as well as the specialist reader will find enlightenment and entertainment in this book.