Ruling the World Through Reading Books

“The world is indeed a sick thing; it is the kind of fur on which neither hide no hair is any good.  The healthy heroes are rare, and God provides them at a dear price.  Still the world must be ruled, if men are not to become wild beasts.  So things in the world in general remain mere patchwork and beggary; it is a veritable hospital, in which princes, lords, and all rulers lack wisdom and courage–that is, success and direction from God–even as the sick person lacks strength and power.  So here one must patch and darn and help oneself with the laws, sayings, and examples of the heroes as they are recorded in books.  Thus we must continue to be disciples of those speechless masters which we call books.” Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101 [:1], in Luther’s Works, vol. 13, p. 164.  Cicero_opera1555

In this commentary Dr. Luther sought to advise the new ruler of Electoral Saxony on being a Christian prince.  John Frederick followed his father, John the Steadfast, as Elector of Saxony.  His support of the Reformation led to his military defeat to Emperor Charles V, subsequent imprisonment,  and loss of much of his territory.

Written in 1534, Dr. Luther advised the new prince on how to rule properly.  He drew upon biblical texts but also from ancient Greek and Roman writings.  Luther advises rulers to turn to the heroes of the past and to their wisdom.  After the statement recorded above, Luther continued:

“Yet we never do it as well as it is written there; we crawl after it and cling to it as to a bench or to a cane.  In addition, we also follow the advice of the best people who live in our midst, until the time comes in which God again provides a healthy hero or a wondrous man, in whose hand all things improve or at least fare better than is written in any book.” Ibid.

Originally published at


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.


Ruling the World Through Reading Books — 4 Comments

  1. “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Ecclesiastes 12:11-12

  2. “I will rather lose my head and suffer Wittenberg to be battered down than submit to a demand that violates my conscience.” Elector John Frederick the Magnanimous

    I’d like to hear Joel Osteen preach a sermon on this.

  3. Dear Dr. Phillips,

    You may have noted elsewhere that the “reading of books” that Luther prescribed, if found in the present curriculum, would be found in the academic department of History. Here we find those great men and great women of the past who accomplished great things, and through the historical disciplines, we found out how and why they did such things. Not only in the History field per se, but also in the History adjuncts, e.g., the History of Science, the History of Music, the History of Architecture, the History of Governments, etc.

    By the way, in your field and mine, a new book has been published this year on the Holy Roman Empire; see ; at ca. $25 for hardback at Barnes and Noble, it is a steal for that size book. If it has good reviews, I’d say it is worth getting for your own library, unless you have a similar book of older vintage on the subject.

    Blessings on your labors as you prepare for a new year of studies!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  4. @Martin R. Noland #3

    I got the text for a class in “History of Printing” the day before I came down with a bug.
    I spent a quiet weekend reading the whole book; it was a good review of the Reformation.
    [The Prof, being one of the few openly Christian men on staff, discussed printing’s contribution to the Reformation in class, too.]

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