Review: Luther's Aesop

Luther’s Aesop. By Carl P.E. Springer. Early Modern Studies 8. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011. Click here.


When Luther arrived at Coburg to await news of “God’s cause” at Augsburg in 1530, he brought along three projects for translating and editing: the Psalter, the Prophets, and a collection of Aesop’s fables. Carl Springer, professor of classics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, wants to know why, in one of the most critical and stressful moments of his career, Luther took time to edit an edition of moralistic tales from a pagan philosopher. What about Luther does his engagement with Aesop tell us? What does Luther tell us about Aesop and the place of classical literature in the Reformation?

Springer’s book is timely in that it challenges the typical portrayal of Luther: a man “dangling precariously between the powerful forces of life and death, God and the devil” (4). Springer by no means questions this picture of Luther as pastor and theologian, yet he argues that the attention given to Luther’s Anfechtungen and heroic faith in the past century has caused many to pass by the Reformer’s deep appreciation for antiquity. Springer notes:

Readers of standard histories of the Reformation or studies devoted to Luther’s life and thought will not learn much from them about Luther’s fascination with Aesop…Many of the most popular recent biographies [including Oberman, Bainton, and Brecht] have also tended to stress his theological orientation and achievements and have had relatively little to say about his interest in Aesop or other representatives of the classical tradition. (3)

Scholars either ignore Luther’s efforts to creatively weave the classical and Christian traditions together or else they flatly deny that Luther had anything to do with Athens. Luther’s disgust for Aristotle and other pagans for their vapid philosophy without Christ is hard to miss. But, as Springer points out, one must also account for Luther’s fondness and happy use of the classical authors, such as Cicero, Virgil, and Aesop.

In the book’s first chapter, “Wittenberg and Athens,” Springer dissects the notion that Luther discarded the classics of pagan antiquity or liberated himself from his classical education. Instead he offers a strong apology for Luther as classicist, actively engaged in the classical literature, who was shaped by the ancients’ worldview and put the great books to work in his own writing. Springer demonstrates convincingly that Luther’s fondness for antiquity was not mere passive familiarity, but that Luther actively studied the classics and reflected on Latin poetry to compose some of his own (nearly thirty poems in the Weimarer Ausgabe).

Chapter two surveys Luther’s references to Aesop throughout his life and offers the reader eighty-six examples of how Luther understood, taught, and applied these fables. Erasmus, for example, is the nightingale who, to the hungry fox’s dismay, is made of nothing more than feathers and song. Alexander the Great is the greedy dog who stole a steak, only to lose it snatching at another reflected in the water below. Luther refers, in his Open Letter on Translating, to Aesop’s fable about the ass in the lion’s skin to give a colorful depiction of his opponents’ translating ability: “To be sure, an ass does not have to sing much; one can recognize him very well as it is by his ears” (54).

In chapter three, Springer examines Codex Ottobonianus Lat. 3029, that is, Luther’s edited yet unfinished collection of thirteen Aesopic fables (plus one non-Aesopic fable about a Wittenberg lawyer) from Coburg, which mysteriously found its way into the Vatican Library and surfaced in 1887. Springer offers the reader a fresh translation of Luther’s preface to his edition of Aesop and kindly adds the original in the footnotes. He does the same in chapter four, where he aptly translates and comments on Luther’s thirteen Aesopic fables. Springer is able to demonstrate Luther’s rare gift for story-telling as he guides the reader through the language, style, and meaning of Luther’s Aesop.

The final chapter, “Luther as Aesop”, draws some comparisons between Luther and Aesop as storytellers. Springer demonstrates how Luther, like Aesop, used simple fiction and the company of animals to communicate the truth to his hearers. Luther placed himself and others in his tales, spoke with the animals and God, and explained the earthly and heavenly realm in anthropomorphic terms. “Indeed,” writes Springer, “one could describe all of Luther’s theology as anthropomorphic insofar as it is built on the fundamental Christian principle that God himself took on the form of a man” (163).

Springer’s book succeeds in showing why Luther made Aesop a priority. The book also succeeds in challenging Luther scholars to take the Reformer’s interest in the classics more seriously. Yet it is written in such a way that will delight the literature enthusiast, give deeper appreciation for the simplicity and power of a good fable, and perhaps even encourage parents to crack open Aesop for the kids. Preachers, too, will have a terrific resource for vivid, biting, and amusing illustrations all in one place. For those who are able to enjoy Luther’s Latin and German, the appendices include other versions of the fables, as well as a selection of Luther’s Latin poetry. Springer has served up a nourishing yet thoroughly delicious dish.

Jason D. Lane

Mequon, Wisconsin