Saturday, July 29, 2017
Book Review 394: Out of the Flames
You wouldn’t guess it, even with help from the lengthy subtitle, but “Out of the Flames” is about the loss that all people suffer from religious bigotry.
Michael Servetus suffered directly, roasted alive at Geneva in 1553. The rest of the world, or at least the European part of it, lost because this remarkable man had discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood, described in a few pages of a book about theology — specifically, an anti-trinitarian study.
Because religious believers hate ideas, the sentence against Servetus condemned all his books to be burned as well, and most were. Only three copies of the “Christianismi Restitutio” survived.
The medical pages were not recognized until much later, putting off the recognition of circulation and — as the husband and wife team Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone say — the modernization of medicine for 75 years.
Servetus deserves to be better known. He was among those brave thinkers who lifted the cloud of superstition that blinded men’s eyes (still does, for millions) and made modern life possible. He ought to be honored along with Lorenzo Valla, Galileo, Voltaire and Darwin, but not many know even his name.
It is a measure of the hold that superstition and hatred still hold over too many people that when a monument to Servetus was proposed at Geneva, the city authorities turned it into a monument to his murderer, John Calvin. This was as late as the 20th century.
Even without the moral lesson, Servetus’s life was a riproaring tale, worthy of Dumas. He was condemned to atrocious death by both Catholics and Protestants, yet lived and worked clandestinely under their noses for over 20 years.
Servetus was probably the finest scholar of his time. He knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic and so was able to read the Scriptures as they were. He concluded — as all equally well-equipped scholars (like Newton) have — that there is no warrant for the Trinity in Holy Writ.
That idea was confected at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Obviously, no Christian church, reformed or not, could allow such an idea to escape. Thus, murder and book burning.
On a human level, one of the second-best scholars of the time was Calvin, but Calvin was no match for Servetus and he hated and feared the Spaniard. The Goldstones’ account of the trial focuses on the irregularities.
Calvin used his religious position to override all the protections in the law. Servetus, a scholar of law as well as of theology and medicine, pointed out the highhandedness, but the Christian community was thoroughly immoral. No one had the courage or morality to speak out. Even the Catholics, who normally would have happily burned Calvin, were pleased to cooperate.
The first 200 pages of “Out of the Flames” concerns the murder of Servetus. The remaining third is a bibliographical whodunit. (The Goldstones had written earlier books about books.)
Both stories proceed at a leisurely pace. The authors surmise, correctly, that almost all of this will be unfamiliar to most.
Thus, when a Hungarian count visits London and picks up a copy of “Christianismus Restitutio" and takes it back to Transylvania, there is a digression about the background of Transylvanian Unitarianism, with bits about Habsburg politics and much else besides.
The book concludes with a review of a better-known story, the introduction of scientific medical schools in the United States by William Osler, a bibliophile who sought his own copy of “Christianismus” but never found one.
In fact, all the copies destined for the market were destroyed. The three survivors were all connected with the trial, including Calvin’s copy.
Servetus was too brave and honest to live. He really believed in the Bible, which makes him different from today’s evangelicals, none of whom believe it. The Goldstones write: “But much as Salman Rushdie was to discover four and a half centuries later, underestimating the zeal of one’s religious opponents can be dangerous.”