The Swiss and Human Thought

THE Swiss have had always a natural bent towards the heterodox. They have the spirit of that exile from Erin who, landing in New York and being asked as to the state of his political soul, demanded : ” Is there a government here ? If so I am agin it.” Some of the minor Swiss heterodoxies have been of great value in urging the world to think. Was it not a Swiss doctor (Tronchin) who first preached the gospel of fresh air, preached it so successfully that he managed to open the windows of the Palace of Versailles itself ? And another Swiss doctor (Tissot) who dared to tell well – to – do people that their chief cause of ill – health was over-feeding ? The open window and the sparing platter are part of the commonplaces of hygiene today. When first suggested in Switzerland they had an almost impious novelty.

As far back as the fifteenth century the Council of Basel set up an opposition Pope, Duke Amadeus VIII. of Savoy (which cannot be separated in history from Switzerland in those days). He was crowned Pope at Basel in 1440. After nine years he gave up being an opposition Pope. His was a mild note of dissent to that which was to come later, when Switzerland provided the most startlingly new theological ideas of the Reformation and of the Revolution. Zwingli and Calvin : Rousseau and Voltaire—those are four names of men intimately associated with Switzerland who were destined to have a vast effect on the thought of the world, in regard both to moral and social ideas. Two of them were Swiss born, two Swiss by adoption.

Ulrich Zwingli was born at Wildhaus in the Canton St. Gall, which had before sheltered that stormy saint, Columban, and his disciple Gall. Zwingli was educated at Basel and Vienna, and was, while at Basel, a friend of Erasmus. In 1506, having taken holy orders, he became pastor of Glarus and at once began to show a reforming spirit. His indignation was aroused first at the mercenary wars in which Swiss soldiers engaged—he had accompanied Swiss forces into Italy as chaplain on two occasions—and so sternly did he inveigh against participation in such wars that he had to give up his pastorate at Glarus and take refuge at Einsiedeln Abbey. There he turned his attention to the abuses of the Church, and his reforming sermons soon attracted wide attention. Rome seems to have viewed his outbreaks against her discipline more with sorrow than with anger, and he was frequently tempted with offers to accept high office in the Church in Italy. He refused, and in 1518 became pastor of Zurich and began definitely his career as a Church reformer. He was not a follower of Luther. Still less was he a follower of Calvin, who settled in Geneva in 1538. Zwingli was a moral and social as well as a religious reformer, and his system of thought was at once more advanced in idea than that of Luther and less narrow in method than that of Calvin. At Zurich he set up a theocratic Republic of austere simplicity, but not of the savage gloom of the later Calvinist regime at Geneva.

Earnestness of religious opinion smothered national patriotism in the mind of Zwingli. He organised a ” Christian League ” of the Protestants of Switzerland and some of the German Protestant cities. The Roman Catholics then formed a defensive alliance with Ferdinand of Austria, an ally of the Vatican. Zurich declared war on the Catholic Forest Cantons. The Swiss were obviously reluctant, however, to engage in this fratricidal religious war. At Kappel, where the Roman Catholic and Protestant armies lay facing each other, a band of the Catholics got hold of a large bowl of milk, and, lacking bread, they placed it on the boundary line between Zug and Zurich. At once a group of Zurich Protestant men came up with some loaves, and both parties ate cheerily together the Milchsuppe, forgetting the duty to slaughter one another for the love of God urgently impressed upon them by their Christian pastors. At Solothurn, again, a religious war was breaking out, and indeed the first shot had actually been fired, when Schultheiss Nicolas von Wengi, a Roman Catholic, threw himself before the mouth of a cannon, and exclaimed, ” If the blood of the burghers is to be spent, let mine be the first ! ” Wengi’s party at once desisted, and matters were settled peacefully.

At a later period, alas, religious fervour waxed stronger, and Swiss Protestant and Swiss Catholic killed one another with almost as much savagery as modern Balkan Peninsula Christians, wrangling as to whether the path to Heaven runs through an Exarchate or a Patriarchate Church.

Zwingli attempted to reconcile the differences between the Lutheran Protestants and his own followers ; and there was a famous Conference between the two reformers at Marburg at the invitation of the Landgrave Phillip of Hesse. The attempt was a vain one. But Zwingli went on with a plan he had formed to unite in diplomacy, if not in the exactness of religious belief, all the Protestant States of Europe. In the development of this plan civil war within Switzerland was fomented, and Zwingli was killed in 1531 fighting with the Protestant forces of Zurich against the Roman Catholics of the Forest Cantons. Zurich was badly defeated in the battle, and militant Protestantism received for a while a check. Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli, did not concern himself with politics to any great extent, but perfected the Zwinglian system of religious thought. Bullinger will be best remembered to English-speaking people as the friend and correspondent of that Lady Jane Grey who was sacrificed on the scaffold by Queen Mary of England. Three letters from Lady Jane Grey to him are still treasured at Zurich. Of Bullinger’s treatise on ” Christian Marriage ” dedicated to her, she translated a portion into Greek, and presented it as a Christmas present to her father. Bullinger’s sermons and letters were to her, she wrote once, ” as most precious flowers from a garden.” She asked his advice as to the best method of learning Hebrew, and regarded him as ” particularly favoured by the grace of God.” At the block she took off her gloves and desired that they should be sent on to her Swiss friends.

Calvin was not Swiss-born, but reached Basel in 1535 as an exile from France. He had been destined for the Roman Catholic priesthood, changed his plans and became a lawyer, and at Paris was drawn into the orbit of the French Reformation. Persecuted in France, he retired to Switzerland, and in 1535 published his Christianae Religionis Institutio, which set forth his gloomy system of religious faith with, as its most startling belief, the idea that God pre-destined certain people for eternal salvation and certain others for eternal damnation. In 1536, at the invitation of a local Reformer named Farel, Calvin settled in Geneva. It was at the time the head of ” French ” Switzerland, as Zurich was the head of ” German ” Switzerland, and was a gay pleasure – loving city. The at-tempt to impose upon the Genevan citizens the gloomy austerities of Calvinism led to frequent riots, and at last the civil government banished both the apostles of sadness, Calvin going to Strasburg. In 1541 he was back at Geneva with an understood commission to reframe the religious and social life of the city. He set to work with grim fanaticism, aiming at a ” Kingdom of God on Earth ” framed on the lines of the old Judaic theocracies, with himself as the prophet and autocrat.

Very terrible was the tyranny of this gloomy presbyter, though the state he set up won the unqualified admiration of John Knox, that kindred soul who carried to Scotland the tenets of Calvinism and set up there a similar theocracy. ” They liked a preacher who could weep and howl well in the pulpit,” records Buckle, describing the reign of Calvinism in Scotland. In Geneva there was, according to John Knox, ” the most perfect School of Christ that was ever in the earth since the days of the Apostles.” The whole populace was expected to weep and howl in abasement before a terrible God. No human pleasure was too paltry to escape the ban of these ministers of gloom. Some of the statutes of Geneva at the time are humorous to read nowadays, mournful as was the spirit they showed at the time. A few examples of the prohibitions current in Calvin’s time :

That no Citizen, Burger, or Inhabitant of this City dareth be so hardy to go from henceforth to eat or drink in any Tavern.

That none be so hardy to walk by night in the Town after nine of the clock, without candlelight and also a lawful cause.

That no manner of person, of what estate, quality or condition soever they be, shall wear any chains of gold or silver, but those which have been accustomed to wear them shall put them off, and wear them no more upon pain of three score shillings for every time.

That no women, of what quality or condition soever they be, shall wear any verdingales, gold upon her head, quoises of gold, billiments or such like, neither any manner of embroidery upon her sleeves.

That no manner of person, whatsoever they be, making brideales, banquets, or feasts shall have above three courses or services to the said feasts, and to every course or service not above four dishes, and yet not excessive, upon pain of three score shillings for every time, fruit excepted.

Theatres, the dressing of the hair, music, games, skating, dancing, were all forbidden ; so were pictures and statues. A governing body called the Consistoire, with Calvin at its head, had the right to send its spies into every home to detect ungodliness. When the plague came to the city to match with a physical ill this moral blight, Geneva became a very hell upon earth. Torture was used to extort confessions from the accused. Whilst the plague was at its worst the sword, the gallows, the stake were always busy. The jailor asserted that his prisons were filled to excess, and the executioner complained that his arms were wearied. Within a period of three years there were passed fifty-eight sentences of death, seventy-six of banishment, and eight to nine thousand of imprisonment, on those whose crime was infringement of the Church statutes. Offences against himself personally Calvin treated as blasphemy, and blasphemy was punishable with death.

Upon the death of Calvin the government of Geneva fell into the hands of Beza, a man of more human feeling, and Calvinism modified a little of its savage gloom. Later the influence of the Zwinglians exercised a further moderating influence, and the Swiss Reformed Church began to get a little of the spirit of the New Testament.

After the fame of the Reformers had waned Switzerland drew the attention of all Europe to her cities again by the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire, the chief makers, I should say, of the French Revolution. Rousseau was the son of a watchmaker of Geneva and was born in 1712. He was a turbulent child and ran away from home to France at the age of sixteen. He returned to his native city a quarter of a century later. Rousseau was a revolutionary critic of society, and his Origin of Inequality, Emile, and The Social Contract attacked all the foundations of the then existing society. The last named formed the basis of the Constitution of 1793. In La Nouvelle Heloise, a romance the scenery of which is laid at Vevey and Montreux, Rousseau argued for a return to more natural methods of living. That romance gave the stimulus to the romantic works of Goethe and Schiller.

Voltaire was a Swiss by adoption and not by birth. He did not settle down at Ferney near Geneva until he was sixty years of age (1751) : but that left him twenty-four years of life to spend there. Fear of the French Court sent him out of France. He seemed to have carried no fear with him. He braved the Consistory of Geneva —then still upholding much of the Calvinist tradition—and actually established a theatre in the gloomy city. Apart from the crowds of distinguished visitors whom Voltaire’s reputation brought to Geneva, he was a useful citizen. He was the sponsor of two important local industries. On his estate at Ferney he bred silkworms, and presently he had weavers from Geneva to weave stockings of silk. The first pair was sent to the Duchesse de Choiseul. His correspondence with the Duchesse would turn a modern advertiser green with envy. Voltaire also started a watch manufactory, and again he advertised his watches in cunning letters and circulars to such people as Catherine the Great. In a short time the Ferney watchmaker’s export trade spread every-where, even to China and to North Africa.

Voltaire, Rousseau—these two names kept all eyes on Switzerland for a generation, and brought to Switzerland practically all the serious thinkers of the day. There was one notable exception. Boswell records a vain pilgrimage that he made to Ferney. His mission was to reconcile Voltaire and Johnson. Voltaire described Johnson as a ” superstitious dog.” Johnson, asked by Boswell if he thought Rousseau as bad a man as Voltaire, said, ” Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.” Dr. Johnson never went to Geneva. He would have paid as little homage to Calvinism as to Voltairism.