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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 71. Calvin as a Humanist. Commentary on Seneca.


"L. Annei Se | necae, Romani Senato | ris, ac philosophi clarissi | mi, libri duo de Clementia, ad Ne | ronem Caesarem: | Joannis Caluini Nouiodunaei commentariis illustrati ... | Parisiis ... 1532." 4°). Reprinted 1576, 1597, 1612, and, from the ed. princeps, in Opera, vol. V. (1866) pp. 5–162. The commentary is preceded by a dedicatory epistle, a sketch of the life of Seneca.

H. Lecoultre: Calvin d’après son commentaire sur le "De Clementia" de Sénèque (1532). Lausanne, 1891 (pp. 29).


In April, 1532, Calvin, in his twenty-third year, ventured before the public with his first work, which was printed at his own expense, and gave ample proof of his literary taste and culture. It is a commentary on Seneca’s book On Mercy. He announced its appearance to Daniel with the words, "Tandem jacta est alea." He sent a copy to Erasmus, who had published the works of Seneca in 1515 and 1529. He calls him "the honor and delight of the world of letters."409409    "Litterarum alterum decus ac primae deliciae." In his dedicatory letter to Claude de Hangest, April 4, 1532, which is also printed in Herminjard, II. p. 411. It is dedicated to Claude de Hangest, his former schoolmate of the Mommor family, at that time abbot of St. Eloy (Eligius) at Noyon.

This book moves in the circle of classical philology and moral philosophy, and reveals a characteristic love for the best type of Stoicism, great familiarity with Greek and Roman literature.410410    He freely quotes Aristotle, Plutarch, Virgil, Livy, Ovid, Horace, Pliny, Quintilian, Curtius, Macrobius, Terence, Diogenes Laërtius, and especially his favorite Cicero, whom he was for some time in the habit of reading through once a year. Lecoultre gives in an appendix a list of the works quoted by Calvin. He thinks that he was already then at heart a Protestant. masterly Latinity, rare exegetical skill, clear and sound judgment, and a keen insight into the evils of despotism and the defects of the courts of justice, but makes no allusion to Christianity. It is remarkable that his first book was a commentary on a moral philosopher who came nearer to the apostle Paul than any heathen writer.

It is purely the work of a humanist, not of an apologist or a reformer. There is no evidence that it was intended to be an indirect plea for toleration and clemency in behalf of the persecuted Protestants. It is not addressed to the king of France, and the implied comparison of Francis with Nero in the incidental reference to the Neronian persecution would have defeated such a purpose.411411    "Quum Nero diris suppliciis impotenter saeviret in Christianos." Op. V. 10. Henry, Herzog, Dorner, and Guizot assume an apologetic aim; while Stähelin and Kampschulte deny it.

Calvin, like Melanchthon and Zwingli, started as a humanist, and, like them, made the linguistic and literary culture of the Renaissance tributary to the Reformation. They all admired Erasmus until he opposed the Reformation, for which he had done so much to prepare the way. They went boldly forward, when he timidly retreated. They loved religion more than letters. They admired the heathen classics, but they followed the apostles and evangelists as guides to the higher wisdom of God.



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