Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In 2002, I read this review of "Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World", and I was determined to read it as soon as I could. Well, there are a lot of good books out there, so I didn't get around to picking up a copy until this spring, and I finally read it this summer.

It was well worth the wait. "Out of the Flames" is a page-turner that tells the story of Michael Servetus, a 16th-century Spanish physician and theologian whose religious writings would form the foundation of Unitarianism. They would also get him branded a heretic by John Calvin and, in 1553, burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva.

Servetus' great sin was to reject the Holy Trinity--which he regarded as a man-made contrivance, unsupported by Scripture--and to insist that Jesus was not divine by birth but was made divine by the word of God. Even for the fathers of the Reformation, this was a bridge too far, making Servetus an enemy of Protestants and Catholics alike.

"Out of the Flames" is divided into three parts, and the first two provide an account of the life of Servetus and his relationship to Calvin who, in his jealousy and resentment, was Salieri to Servetus' Mozart. (Though unlike Salieri, Calvin's place in history has far eclipsed that of his rival.) Authors Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone also provide a concise and compelling history of the Reformation and the origins of the publishing industry, which was crucial in spreading the ideas of religious reform throughout Europe.

Servetus himself wrote and edited several books, including "Christianismi Restitutio", which ultimately led to his undoing. The book laid out Servetus' religious doctrine but veered briefly into a discussion of human anatomy, in which Servetus described what would have been a revolutionary medical discovery: He had correctly determined how the circulatory system functioned, knowledge that was lost to medical science until the British physician William Harvey, independent of Servetus, discovered it more than 60 years after Servetus' death.

Even by the standards of the 16th century, Servetus' trial was a travesty of justice. He was prosecuted under the laws of Geneva, though he was not a citizen of that city and unlike its residents had not sworn allegiance to Calvin and his church. In the ultimate act of hippocrisy, Calvin, himself a heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church, initially had Servetus arrested by the Catholic Inquisition in France. Servetus escaped imprisonment but inexplicably stopped in Geneva on his way to Italy, and he was recognized while attending church. The Goldstones write that his execution lasted a half-hour, and that he was conscious as the flames roasted his flesh.

"Christianismi Restitutio" was chained to Servetus at the stake, and after his death, Calvin ordered every last copy found and destroyed. Three copies, however, are known to have survived, and in the final part of their book the Goldstones recount how each copy was discovered, and how it fueled interest in Servetus and his ideas in successive generations of European and American thinkers.

Here "Out of the Flames" becomes a detective story, and a well-told one at that. Nonetheless, like many fictional detective stories, the tale is convoluted at times, and I often flipped to the index to remind me which famous book collector donated which copy of Servetus' book to which great European library. Still, the book zips along, buoyed by the Goldstone's witty prose and judicious use of historical detail.

"Out of the Flames" is something of a who's who of Reformation and Enlightenment thinkers, and the Goldstones demonstrate how Servetus, either through his own writings or his influence on the Unitarian church, inspired some of the greatest minds of the past 400 years: Voltaire, Gottfried Leibniz, Joseph Priestly, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Osler, to name a few.

Servetus, despite his tragic end--perhaps because of it--is indeed an inspiration to all those who celebrate freedom of conscience, and these days, we need all the inspiration we can get. "Out of the Flames" also is a testament to the power of the written word, which, the Goldstones write, "has allowed ideas to travel from place to place, from age to age. ...The power of unleashed expression is not unique to the electronic age."

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