Luther on Rulers and History

MattPhillips“A prince must also be very wise and not always try to impose his will, even if he has the right and the best of all reasons to do so.  For it is a far nobler virtue to put up with a slight to one’s own rights than [it is to risk damage] to life and property, where this is to the advantage of the subjects.  As we know, worldly rights are valid only with respect to the things of this world.” Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, in Luther’s Works, vol. 44, p. 94.

Dr. Luther wrote these words in his discussion of the Fourth Commandment (Thou shalt honor thy father and mother) in this famous treatise from 1520.  In this section Luther examines obedience to governmental officials and the proper behavior of temporal rulers.

“Therefore, it is absolutely foolish to say, I have a right to it and will therefore take it by force and hold on to it, although all sorts of misfortune may come to others in doing so.  In this connection we read of Caesar Augustus that he did not want to wage war, however right he was, unless there were sure indications of greater benefit than harm, or at least of a bearable harm.  He said that war can be likened to to fishing with a golden net–you never catch as much as you risk losing.” Ibid.

Luther referred to Caesar Augustus as a positive example for rulers.  In this case, he uses Caesar Augustus’ worldly wisdom regarding the risks of war.  The ruler must always know that his actions (even when justified) may lead to his own ruin and the ruin of his people.  Luther concludes that a good ruler must be willing to sacrifice his own will for the needs for his subjects.

“He who drives a cart must act differently than if he were walking alone.  When he is on his own he can walk, jump, and do what he likes, but when he is driving he must control and guide so that the horse and cart can follow.  He has to pay greater regard to the horse and cart than to himself.  A prince is in the same position.  He stands at the head and leads the multitude, and must not go or do as he wants but as the multitude are able.  He has to pay more regard to their needs and necessities than to his own will and pleasure. When a prince rules according to his own mad will and follows his own opinion he is like a mad driver who rushes straight ahead with his horse and cart through bushes, hedges, ditches, streams, uphill and downdale [sic], regardless of roads and bridges.  He will not drive for very long.  He is bound to smash up.” Ibid., pages 94-95.

An evil prince neglects his people or exploits them for selfish gain.  If he is not educated properly his actions will lead to destruction.  What is the solution?  Study history!

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “it would be of the greatest value to the ruling class if from their youth up they were to read, or have read to them, history books, both sacred and secular.  They would find in these books more by way of example about the art of ruling than in all the law books…Historical examples give and teach much more than laws and statutes.  In the former a particular historical experience teaches, in the latter, untried and uncertain words.” Ibid., p. 95

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Luther on Rulers and History — 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for the Luther quotes, which I’m sure will come in handy in the future. Would you be familiar with a book by Steven Ozment, “The Serpent and the Lamb”? I plan to read it sometime, but wonder what your assessment might be, if you have read it. Thanks

  2. You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince ever rarer. They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls. They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace. Our God is a great lord and ruler; this is why he must also have such noble, highborn, and rich hangmen and constables. He desires that everyone shall copiously accord them to riches, honor, and fear in abundance. It pleases his divine will that we call his hangmen gracious lords, fall at their feet, and be subject to them in all humility, so long as they do not ply their trade too far and try to become shepherds instead of hangmen. If a prince should happen to be wise, upright, or a Christian, that is one of the great miracles, the most precious token of divine grace upon that land. Ordinarily the course of events is in accordance with the passage from Isaiah 3 [:4], “I will make boys their princes and gaping fools shall rule over them”; and in Hosea 13 [:11], “I will give you a king in my anger, and take him away in my wrath.” The world is too wicked, and does not deserve to have many wise and upright princes. Frogs must have their storks. – Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed (1523)

  3. Carl,

    Don’t steal my thunder. There will be more in the future along these lines. That’s a great quote too. 🙂

  4. Well, we don’t have Caesar Augustus or a prince as a ruler in the U.S., although some politicians (and their spouses) pompously act like they are.

    In the U.S. the people are the government, electing and appointing representatives according to federal, state and local constitutions.

    If Luther’s phrase, “generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth,” has any application in the U.S., it would best fit 51.1% of the voters in the last presidential election.

    In the meantime, Dr. Phillips is to be complimented in avoiding the fabled “wise Turk” quote Luther didn’t say.

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