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Michael Massing's Book about Erasmus and Luther (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) April 5, 2018: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) of Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). I know that Ong's thought is not everybody's cup of tea. Nevertheless, I like to call attention to Ong's thought because his thought provides a broad conceptual framework for discussing Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's brilliant review of Michael Massing's new book about Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546).

First, I will contextualize Ong's life and work. Next, I will discuss Massing new book. Finally, I will discuss Goldstein's brilliant review and connect certain points she makes with certain points in Ong's thought.


Now, the Jesuit order in the Roman Catholic Church was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who is also famous for compiling the book of instructions for guided imagistic meditation known as the Spiritual Exercises. As part of their Jesuit training, all Jesuit novices in the first year of the two-year Jesuit novitiate make a 30-day retreat in silence (except for the daily conferences with the retreat director) following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Later in their Jesuit training, after they have completed their years of theological studies, Jesuits go through a third year of novitiate-like training (known in Jesuit parlance as the tertianship year), during which they make another 30-day retreat in silence following the Spiritual Exercises.

For example, Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, twice made a 30-day retreat in silence following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. And so did the Victorian Jesuit classicist and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Ong discusses Jesuit spirituality extensively in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

Now, making a 30-day retreat in silence following the instructions in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola involves deep introspection about one's own life -- and talking honestly about oneself to the retreat director. That kind of introspection and talking about oneself can be likened to the process of introspection and talking about oneself in Freudian psychoanalysis. There is a family resemblance between the two processes. But each of those two processes of introspection is undertaken within a different conceptual framework.

Early Jesuits became famous as educators in Europe and as missionaries to India, China, South America, and North America. See John W. O'Malley's book The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1993).

In Ong's encyclopedia entry on Renaissance humanism, he sees the early Jesuits' educational endeavors as part of the larger movement of Renaissance humanism. In other words, the early Jesuit educators did not continue the so-called Aristotelian tradition of logic instruction that dominated the arts curriculum in medieval universities. In the arts curriculum in medieval universities, and in the colleges founded by the early Jesuits, the teenage male students were approximately in the same age range as teenage students in American secondary education today. In the medieval universities, there were three advanced courses of professional study in law, medicine, and theology. The longest of these three was theology. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) taught theology. In the colleges founded by the early Jesuits, the early Jesuit educators taught the philosophy and theology of Aquinas. He was one of the most famous medieval Aristotelians. Consequently, his philosophy is customarily referred to as Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy.

See Ong's "Humanism" in volume seven of The New Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by William J. McDonald (McGraw-Hill, 1967, pages 215b-224b); reprinted in volume four of Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1999, pages 69-92).

Now, Ong's massively researched doctoral dissertation involved the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic), focused on the French logician and Renaissance humanist educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). Ong's dissertation was published, slightly revised, in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958:

(1) Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, Ong's most densely packed book-length study;

(2) Ramus and Talon Inventory, Ong's briefly annotated listing of 750 or so volumes (most in Latin) that he tracked down in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe.

Coincidentally, over the last five years as pope, Pope Francis has repeatedly urged people to engage in what he styles as encounter and dialogue. But why does he urge this? Does he think that encounter and dialogue would be the remedy to some problem? If that is the case, what exactly is the problem? I know, I know, the problem is a lack of encounter and dialogue. But why is this lack a problem? What are the dangers inherent in not engaging in encounter and dialogue? Are the dangers of not engaging in encounter and dialogue perhaps related to the dangers inherent in the sense of certitude that not only theists but also atheists might embrace?

In any event, one part of Ong's multi-variate epistemological account of our Western cultural and religious history in his densely packed 1958 book involves the influence of the Gutenberg printing press that emerged in the mid-1450s. In his 1958 book, Ong works with the visual-aural epistemological contrast that he acknowledges (page 338, note 54) borrowing from the French philosopher Louis Lavelle (1883-1951). Ong claims that the burgeoning demand for printed books dovetailed with the burgeoning demand for formal education to accentuate visualist tendencies that had for centuries been associated in Western culture with learning to read and write and with studying the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic). (The early Jesuits founded schools in Europe and elsewhere to respond to the burgeoning demand for formal education.)

The Canadian Renaissance specialist and convert to Catholicism Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943) had also studied the history of the verbal arts in Western culture. Consequently, he was poised to grasp Ong's account of the visual-aural epistemological contrast. Subsequently, McLuhan borrowed the visual-aural epistemological contrast to further detail our Western cultural and religious history in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962).

Even though the scope of Ong's multi-variate account of the visual-aural epistemological contrast in his 1958 book about Ramus and Ramism is wide-ranging, Ong further developed his sweeping epistemological account in his book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University. In his 1967 book, Ong expresses hope about the potential positive influence of the communications media that accentuate sound.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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