My guest today, Brad Gregory, is a professor of history at Notre Dame University. He’s a leading scholar of the Reformation, Martin Luther, the 95 Theses nailed to the church door, and all that. But here’s the thing. I imagine that if you’re my typical listener, you’re saying to yourself, “I have no interest in Martin Luther.” Well, to be honest, I would have said the exact same thing until I met Brad Gregory.
GREGORY: When history is reduced to lists of names and dates and important battles and treaties and so forth, that’s when the blood is sucked out of it, so to speak.
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Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
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Early in my career, I had the incredible opportunity to be part of something called the Harvard Society of Fellows. It’s more or less the most amazing academic boondoggle you could ever find. Three years with no obligations except to talk about ideas with some of the most brilliant academics on the planet. That’s where I met a young Brad Gregory, and even in that rarefied company, he stood out as a superstar.
LEVITT: Brad. It must be more than 20 years since we last spoke. And one of the best things about having this podcast, is that it’s given me a good reason to reflect on the question of who the most interesting thinkers I’ve been lucky enough to encounter in my life and then gives me an excuse to reach out. And without a doubt, you are on that short list of amazing thinkers.
GREGORY: That is without a doubt, the most flattering introduction anybody has ever given me, Steve.
LEVITT: So, let’s start by going back to an event that I suspect you’ve completely forgotten. So, you and I, we were both part of a group called the Harvard Society of Fellows. We were both just a few years out of grad school and it came time for you to apply to tenure track jobs. And you got invited by the Stanford history department to fly out and audition for an assistant professor job. And in preparation for that, you asked the other young people in the Society fellows — people like me — to come and listen to you give a practice job talk. With absolute dread and the anticipation that this was going to be the most boring 90 minutes of my entire life, out of pure loyalty, I agreed to attend. Your area of expertise at that time was Christian martyrs. And honestly, I would have been hard pressed to come up with a subject area of less interest to me. And then you got up and you started to speak I know there’s a long shot, but you don’t, by any chance, remember how your job talk began?
GREGORY: I do more or less remember the way that I started that talk. And indeed, my doctoral dissertation in my first book is about Catholic and Protestant and radical-Protestant — Anabaptist — martyrs mostly in the 16th century in Western Europe. And I started the talk with three anecdotes, one from the first two Augustinian friars who were executed in Brussels in 1523.
LEVITT: But the way you did it, basically it was something like this. In like a hushed voice, you said “August 14th, 1574, the dawn was breaking. It was a cloudy day, a man adorned in a red hat strode forward and spoke.” I’m exaggerating, but it was something very much like that.
GREGORY: You’re probably giving me more dramatic credit than I deserve but I would have tried to set the scene and the date and give a sense of the three dimensionality of it as an event, as nearly as we can tell from the surviving sources. A good historian is somebody who evokes and enables us to understand that even though somebody might have lived dozens or hundreds or thousands of years ago, the three dimensionality — the lived reality of their human lives — were every bit as real as the lives that we’re living now. When history is reduced to lists of names and dates and important battles and treaties and so forth, that’s when the blood is sucked out of it, so to speak. And I think that’s partly why people don’t like it.
LEVITT: What you just said is so incredibly insightful because it exactly captures what I saw that day, which is it brought the characters to life, and it had me literally on the edge of my seat. Now, another example of things you did, which I found mind-blowing is people would ask questions and I kept thinking, Brad’s going to fall down on a question. And then your answers revealed a mastery of the subject matter that was completely foreign to me. It was not the way I operate. I was very much superficial in my understanding of whatever subject matter I brought myself to. And I just remember walking out of that talk and thinking, well, there’s a whole set of possibilities that I hadn’t imagined for communication in an academic setting. And it’s been deeply influential on how I’ve lived my life, which I’m sure is shocking to you, but it’s really a true statement.
GREGORY: I hope whatever small influence I might’ve had on your life, Steve, has been mostly positive, but you make a great point. All of us who pursue careers in the academy and who enter into the disciplinary porthole of graduate school — which means becoming really good at something really specific — when we then encounter and learn from people who are deeply engaged in the same big world of scholarship, but in totally different ways of knowing different kinds of questions, different sorts of evidence, different sorts of argument, it is mind blowing and it’s exciting. And certainly, our experience in the Society of Fellows was a cornucopia of that, right? Because we’re surrounded by these unbelievable mathematicians and physicists and biologists and literature scholars — and even the occasional economist.
LEVITT: So, the Society of Fellows was an honorary position, essentially that was given to young scholars who were deemed to have a lot of merit. And we were given three years with no obligations. So, we were prohibited from teaching, and we were drawn from all disciplines across, all of academia. I shouldn’t say we had no obligations because we had one obligation, and that was to show up at an incredibly fancy Monday night dinner with some of the most illustrious scholars in the world who were the senior fellows, who were brilliant beyond all compare. And the physical setting was like a Hollywood movie set because the table was from Oliver Wendell Holmes and then there was a port trolley. A sterling silver trolley, a little miniature train, on which the very expensive bottles of port would be put, and people would pull this little train around the table. And if I remember correctly, the wine budget was something like $60,000 a year. So, this was a crazy place that really seemed like it had been transported whole cloth from a different era.
GREGORY: It was just extraordinary, like you said, in every respect. The room itself, the ambience, the food, and the wine and above all, really the seriousness and just the sheer stimulation of the intellectual exchange of conversations was extraordinary.
LEVITT: I’ve rarely in my life felt as out of place as I was at the Society of Fellows. Five of us were sitting around the table just having a good conversation. And then someone said something that I didn’t understand, and everyone burst out laughing. I turned to the person next to me and I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.” And then they said it again. And I said, “I don’t know what that means.” And they said, “It’s a pun in Greek,” but the fact that I was in a conversation and all five of them knew Greek well enough to understand a pun? That would happen on a weekly basis where I would just shake my head and say, “What am I doing here?”
GREGORY: I remember times when certain of our physicist colleagues, for example, would be going on about what it was that they were working on. They were talking about something with respect to particles and so forth or equations and stuff. And I’m just sitting there like, “They might as well just be making noise. I mean, sheer noise out of their mouths. Cause I have no idea whatsoever.”
LEVITT: So you, Brad, and all of the other junior and senior fellows deeply enjoyed the expensive wines that were being served. And knowing the limitations of my own palette, thought it was such a waste of money because I couldn’t tell the difference between a $5 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle of wine. So, I mentioned once, “Hey, it seems so silly that you’re spending three or $4,000 a year on wine for me.” And our stipends were not generous. So, we weren’t exactly getting rich doing this. I said, “Hey, why not offer everyone two options — one is to get to drink the fancy wine, and the other people get to drink $5 wine and you just give them an extra $3,000 in your pocket?”
GREGORY: This is the economist speaking.
LEVITT: We had these wine tastings every week on Tuesdays, and I just got so tired of all the snobbery. I said, “Hey, could I be in charge of one of the wine tastings?” I said, “We’ll do a blind wine tasting, I think it would be fun to do a blind wine tasting.” And so, I collected some fancy bottles from the wine cellar, and then I went to the liquor store that was right next door to our office. And I picked up the cheapest bottle of wine — $4.99 of the same varietal that we were drinking the hundred-dollar version. And I put them into unlabeled decanters, and I had everyone taste each of those four and write down on a piece of paper the rating from one to 10. And then I took a minute while everyone else drank to go and tally the results. And it was really incredible because people not only didn’t just have no preference for the expensive wine over the cheap one. They had no sense whatsoever, which was which. It was just complete proof that nobody in that room had any idea what they were drinking. In my very juvenile economic conquest kind of way came bounding back in the room with great joy in my voice, as I revealed to everyone that they were complete counterfeits. And one particular senior fellow, one of the very esteemed professors, was getting redder and redder in the face and finally, he stood up and he said, “This is ridiculous. I’ve got a cold. How could I be expected to tell the difference between wines?” So, and he stormed out of the room and did not talk to me for the remaining two years that I was at the society.
GREGORY: I have told that anecdote so many times over the years because I just thought it was such a send-up of this person who really fancied himself an extraordinary connoisseur of fine wine.
LEVITT: But it shows how little I understood. Because the joy and the fun of the place came in many ways from the pomp and the circumstance. I look back, I think, why was I so hell bent on destroying it?
GREGORY: Oh no, the Society of Fellows definitely needs moments like that to keep people grounded.
LEVITT: I would be such a better junior fellow today. I’m so much more curious and open-minded than I used to be. When I was young, I was just devoted to economics. I had a deep belief that economics could give the answer to anything. I think it’s too bad that the best educational opportunities are wasted on the young. Do you have any of the same feelings?
GREGORY: It’s a really interesting point. My view is a bit different, not because I think I was so expansively minded at the time, but I think, partly, that could be a difference in our kind of principal disciplinary training. I do think economics tends to make really smart, young economists think in quite narrow ways. Your great virtue, to my mind, is that you saw that it didn’t only have to be applied to narrowly economic issues. History is different as a discipline in that respect because it is inherently a study and a kind of thinking on multiple levels, of relating different kinds of human realities to one another, change over time. And so, maybe that fosters a different approach. I have an active and probably promiscuous and irresponsible interest in a lot of different disciplines. I had a couple of degrees in philosophy. I studied in Belgium for three years. And so, I think that also gave me a capacity for abstract thought. So, even if I had no clue what the physicists were talking about in technical terms, I at least knew how to place physics in relationship to chemistry, biology, the earth sciences, and the social sciences, and whatnot. And probably also because of my interest in theology, which lends itself to, at least in principle, an attempt to try to understand how different kinds of knowledge and the pursuit of truth fits together.
LEVITT: The remarkable feature about the Society of Fellows is that it exposes young scholars to people from such a wide variety of disciplines. And once I left for Chicago, I would say 95 percent of all my future academic interactions were with economists. You were more or less the only historian I’ve ever engaged with on a weekly basis.
GREGORY: Well, I feel honored even more, Steve.
LEVITT: I have my own theories, but why do you think economists and historians have such a hard time talking to one another?
GREGORY: My sense is, and you correct me if I’m wrong about what I say about economists and then vice versa. My impression is that economists grow exasperated by the tendency of historians to say about virtually any question: “that’s complicated” or “it depends on what you mean,” or “with respect to what part of the population?” In other words, even before an attempt to answer the question, they’re already complicating it and muddying the waters, so to speak. Historians — and again, this is a bit of a caricature, but you’ll recognize it, I think — they sometimes get impatient with the way in which economists seem to think that any and all forms of intentional human behavior can be modeled, quantified, and churned through some kind of a quantitative analysis in a way that is related in one sense or another to calculative or instrumental rationality.
LEVITT: I think you put that really well. The words I would use, which are very close to what you use, is that economics values simplicity and universality.
LEVITT: That’s what makes an economic argument powerful. And historians value complexity and institution specific. So, I talked recently to Claudia Goldin, who’s an eminent economic historian and she was on the podcast, and we talked about some of the same issues about why economists and historians don’t get along so well. And her explanation was that economists believe in markets and historians think that markets are kind of black magic. What do you think of that characterization?
GREGORY: I wouldn’t say that, although that is a memorable image for the market. I would say two things. One, by “believe in the market,” I think that means many economists think that the markets are a really good thing and that the more market behavior and deregulation we have the better. Most historians are less likely to share that view. That’s A. B, economists, because they value the universality and the simplicity that you were talking about before, they tend in their modeling to extrude markets from their embeddedness in institutions, in the complexities of custom and culture and social considerations and so forth — all those things that in one way or another, you guys like to call externalities. Historians, it’s not that we don’t believe in markets, it’s just we think markets are a lot messier and they are a lot less pure and they’re a lot less admirable, let’s say, in their overall effects than many economists tend to think.
LEVITT: I think that’s a fair statement and probably a direction in which many economists have moved over the last 25 years.
GREGORY: That’s right. It’s a lot different than, say, it would have been in the 1980s or ‘90s.
LEVITT: I think another thing that economists really struggle with that makes us seem like we’re going down the wrong path is we haven’t figured out how to incorporate power into our models. And I’m guessing you would say that power is central to almost any historical worldview.
GREGORY: No question about it. And I say this even as a scholar, most of whose career has been focused primarily on the study of religion. I would look at religion in a structurally analogous way to what I just said about the market. It’s connected. It’s embedded. It’s not separable. It’s connected to power. It’s connected to socioeconomic relationships. It’s connected to cultural assumptions. Historians are simply uncomfortable with abstraction. We have the same kinds of problems with, say, sociologists, or political scientists. “I’m just going to focus on these political institutions.” And we’re like, “Well, you can’t because those political institutions don’t exist in a vacuum.”
LEVITT: Is there a discipline that is closest to history? So, for economics, it turns out the biologists, especially the evolutionary biologists, are almost clones of the economists. It’s almost like you’re talking to an economist when you talk to a biologist. Is there any parallel to that in history?
GREGORY: I know what you mean about the certain kinds of parallels in terms of competition for scarce resources and which species went out because of which kinds of advantageous mutations and so forth. I would say, one of the closest disciplines to history is anthropology, especially cultural anthropology. If anything, anthropologists are even more sensitized to sometimes dramatic differences among human beings. The difference between anthropology on the one hand, and history on the other, is historians — we kick in as soon as we’ve got some written materials. So, cuneiform and protocuneiform really in the late fourth millennium before the common era is when history starts because we have some written records, some clay tablets to work with. Before that it’s paleoanthropology and archaeology, but they would say to historians, “Oh, you guys are studying the recent past, the last 5,000, 5,500 years. That’s nothing.” The vast majority of the time that human beings, Homo sapiens, has existed at least 200,000 years. And maybe it could be pushed back to 300,000 now. They extend the range of trying to understand the human past in even more capacious ways, than historians do, but I think there are a lot of parallels between cultural anthropologists in particular and a lot of historians.
LEVITT: I will say, I find talking to cultural anthropologists even harder than talking to historians. Now one of the things that was really important for me intellectually, I met an anthropologist named John Comaroff and for idiosyncratic reasons, we ended up being part of a group and talking on a fairly regular basis. And I have to say, every time he began to talk about something, I would shake my head and I’d say, “This guy is off his rocker.” But by the end of the conversation, I would say, “That’s actually interesting. I understand what he’s saying. And it makes sense. And it’s brilliant.” And that was an important moment for me because I think that was one of the earliest occasions on which I became less of an economic elitist.
GREGORY: Yeah, dogmatist.
LEVITT: Yeah, economic dogmatist because despite having spent time at the Society of Fellows with incredibly brilliant people, I just still had it in my head that economics had the answers. Being able to go to the extreme with this anthropologist and to be convinced that he had something to say — I changed my path. And after that, I sought out anyone who I thought was really smart and I was willing to hear what they had to say, even if they use different words and different models. And I look back at how I squandered my time at the Society of Fellows. And I really wish I had had that openness and that sense, that wisdom essentially to try to learn more from the other people there rather than to be amused by our differences.
GREGORY: They were like these strange specimens of other human beings who hadn’t quite seen the econometric light.
LEVITT: I started by talking about how you had given this unbelievable job talk. And I remember at the end of your speech, my primary thought was, “I feel so sorry for the other people who are applying to that job at Stanford, because there is no way anybody is going to get the job other than Brad.” And indeed, you did get that job. And that speech was no fluke. You’re an incredible communicator. You’ve won all sorts of teaching awards. And I’m just curious, what kind of advice would you give to people to help them make great oral presentations the way you do?
GREGORY: Well, you’re again, laying on the flattery thick. Years ago, when I was in my second year at Stanford, I won the university’s highest teaching award. So, I was like, “I guess I’m good at this because only took me two years.” I was invited to give a talk exactly about this: “You won a teaching award so tell us your secrets. What should I do?” And, I remember at the time, and I still think I would go with this formulation. I refer to teaching, and this goes for articulate effective communication I think more broadly, as a disciplined passion. If it’s just disciplined but there’s no passion or intensity or sense that this is important, your audience isn’t going to care. However, it also has to be disciplined because if it’s just ranting and raving, we can get that, just go and look on the internet. Our society’s filled with a whole lot of ranting and raving and it’s not disciplined. It’s not based on anything except somebody’s emoting or anger. So, when you’re teaching and when you’re a scholar where you’re a social scientist, a scientist, you have a responsibility to be conveying things responsibly, coherently, and in ways that can be comprehended. And that also means really knowing, as well as you can, the intended audience.
LEVITT: I’ve always found for me, it’s extremely important to do my practicing out loud, that there’s real limits to what you can do in your head. And when you actually say things, you learn a lot about whether you’ll be able to deliver effectively. Is that your experience as well?
GREGORY: Yes. When I gave that job talk at Stanford, which was a couple of weeks after the junior fellows heard the run-through, it was literally the first lecture I’d ever given. I had never given a lecture before. So, I really had no idea. And I think I was incredibly prepared. By the time I delivered it, I really did have it memorized, essentially. As I’ve described it to some of my own graduate students when they go for a job talk, I say, “You want to have this so well-rehearsed that you can feign spontaneity.”
LEVITT: I remember when I was in grad school, one of the young professors was a gentleman named John Gruber and he was about to give a presentation to the economics faculty at M.I.T. And this was in the old days when we used overhead projectors and acetates. And so, he put his little folder of his presentation down on the table, and then he went to the bathroom. The lecture is being given in a room where a business school class was being held just before. As the professor who was teaching the business school class gathered up all his notes, he grabbed John Gruber’s folder with all of his overheads and carried it away. So, John Gruber came in, he’s like, “Where are my notes? Where are my notes?” And was in a panic and didn’t know what to do, but the older faculty said, “John, just do your best and give the talk as best you can without any notes.” And he gave this amazing talk because he knew his material so well, he didn’t need any of the props and he would get to table seven and say, “Okay, so table seven, I don’t have it in front of me, but if you look at the third column and I think it’s the sixth number down, that’s going to be 2.74. That’s a really important number.” And I actually wondered later whether maybe he had orchestrated the whole thing. So, what I do tell my graduates is I said, “Look, if you can do it, it would be awesome to be so prepared that you can feign spontaneity by somehow getting someone to, like, turn the power off right before you have to speak so that it seems like you’re not ready to do it, but in fact, you can do it well.
GREGORY: I confess I’ve never done anything deliberate along those lines.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with historian Brad Gregory. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Brad’s research on the theologian Martin Luther.
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LEVEY: Hey, Levitt.
LEVITT: Hey Morgan. How are you? You a football fan? You going to be watching the super bowl this Sunday?
LEVEY: I did win the Freakonomics Radio fantasy football league this year, but I usually am more interested in the snacks during the Super Bowl than I am the actual game.
LEVITT: Let me say I was not invited to be part of the fantasy football league. You did not beat me.
LEVEY: OK, well, let’s bring you in next year because I’m pretty confident in my skills. So, we had three listeners, a couple of guys named John and one named Peter write in about the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders NFL game that happened in early January. This was a regular season game, but there were some very unusual circumstances. The winner of the game would go to the playoffs and the loser would not. However, if the teams tied, they’d both go to the playoffs. Now this is similar — not quite exactly — but it’s similar to a situation in game theory called the prisoner’s dilemma, which we covered in our episode with Robert Axelrod. If the teams both just took a knee on every play and let the time run out, the teams would tie, and they both make the playoffs. But instead, the teams played the game. The Raiders won and went to the playoffs, and the Chargers were out for the season. So, our listeners wanted to know if it would have made more sense to just take a knee, let the time run out and tie, and both go to the playoffs instead of actually playing out the game.
LEVITT: So that was a really unusual circumstance. Not only were listeners writing in, but my text messages were lighting up like crazy with former students. Everybody in the economics world was very attuned to this rare circumstance. So, would it have made sense to do nothing? You start thinking about incentives and obviously in the short run, both teams making the playoffs, they had an incentive to collude, really, to make sure that they tied. But on the other hand, in the longer-term perspective, I think there are real sanctions — not formal sanctions, but informal sanctions — that come in sport when people are known not to try. Now had this been a sport where ties were more common — so in soccer, I almost guarantee you, if this had been soccer, they would have found a way to tie probably zero to zero. And everyone would have rolled their eyes, but it would have been fine. Or if it had been chess. So, chess is a game that has a lot of draws. Chess is actually renowned for having enormous amounts of collusion and cheating going on. In chess there would have been a draw for sure. I can guarantee you that, but one of the things I’ve learned from my research on Sumo wrestling is that when there’s a lot of scrutiny, there’s a lot of pressure to do what’s perceived as right. And because everybody understood the stakes that were at play here, there was enormous scrutiny, and everybody was talking about the tie. It made it much harder for the teams to do what they probably really wanted to do but couldn’t figure out a way to pull off.
LEVEY: But this tie was served up on a silver platter for them, because at the end of the game, they were tied 32-32, and yes, the Raiders went on to win in overtime, but at that point, it’s like, maybe we should just kneel for the remainder of this overtime.
LEVITT: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. In those last 10 minutes, I’m sure it’s on the top of everyone’s mind. How can we just get out of here with a tie? But on the other hand, there’s a real difficulty in a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma of getting cooperation, because there’s always the incentive of the person on the other side to try to screw you. It’s incredibly hard to support collusion in a one-shot game. Whether the teams were actually colluding, and the Raiders stabbed the chargers in the back, or whether both teams were playing hard, we’ll have to wait until the coaches write their memoirs to really get the answer to that one.
LEVEY: Well, thank you everyone who wrote in. Enjoy the Super Bowl this weekend. If you have a question for us, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for our show. Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
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I promised at the top of this episode that Brad was so good at what he does that he could take a subject as distant and dry as the Reformation and make it fascinating. Let’s see if he can make good on that promise.
LEVITT: You’ve written a book called Rebel in the Ranks, which is about Martin Luther. Could you just paint a picture of Martin Luther, this figure who so profoundly influenced the path of humanity? Was he an obvious person to trigger the Reformation?
GREGORY: Luther is not somebody that, even a year before he starts to become a public figure — at the very end of the year 1517 — nobody would have been able to predict that this guy is going to say things and write things and do things that within a decade are going to start to turn things upside down in the German-speaking parts of central Europe. Luther is an Augustinian friar. So, he’s a member of a religious order. He’s taken essentially monastic vows. He is an extremely devout, introspective, serious Augustinian. He’s intellectually very astute. And he also has deep pastoral concern for the lay parishioners — men and women — who are in his care. And it’s really out of that pastoral concern that events get started in late 1517 in a kind of unanticipated back and forth way, within about three years, lead him from being essentially completely obscure and known only in a couple of towns in central Germany to being, by the end of 1520, arguably the most famous man in Europe.
LEVITT: So, how does he do it?
GREGORY: One of the things that Luther does that is genuinely unprecedented — no one had done this before — is to talk about, in a very strident and insistent way, controversial religious matters. Really difficult theological matters about the relationship, for example, between human effort and God’s grace, and a sense of sinfulness and forgiveness and the prospect of salvation. He writes about these things in the vernacular. Not in Latin — the Latin of theologians — because then only the learned people who actually know how to read this stuff can deal with it. But if you open this up to everyone who can talk about it in German — even people that can’t read can understand when somebody else reads it aloud — you’re suddenly exposing in new ways these issues in the church — criticisms of the church’s wealth, of its power.
LEVITT: Mostly all I knew about Martin Luther before reading your book were the 95 Theses and how he nailed these to the door of the church in Wittenberg. And that was a throwing down of the gauntlet to the Pope.
GREGORY: Yeah, well, probably not.
LEVITT: So, it’s interesting that you say that the one thing I thought I knew is actually a modern myth. Can you describe that a little bit?
GREGORY: There are no contemporary references to Luther having done that. It would have been a very odd thing to do, not least because the 95 Theses, as they’re printed — it’s one of those iconic documents, like the American Declaration of Independence. So, the 95 Theses are two columns of densely printed, almost unreadable Latin. And they are technical theological statements. Even if he had done this, people would have been like, “Why the hell is that guy tacking a thing?” So, when I described this to my students, I said, “If he did it, it had all the interest and all the extraordinary, epoch-making importance of a faculty member tacking something up on the faculty bulletin board.” Notices were fixed to church doors, but that’s no big deal. I mean, that’s just sort of like, “Oh, what’s the announcement this week?” kind of thing, but there’s no reference to this at all until at least a couple of decades later. And almost certainly it’s a retrospective mythologizing. You mentioned that this was the one thing you thought you knew about Martin Luther, but almost always popular understandings of the past bear little resemblance to what a scholar or somebody who’s an expert in the period would say about it. This is one of the things I think that’s very important about the professional academic study of history and also about writing in ways that are accessible to a wide public because, as we see in the United States very acutely and in a lot of disturbing ways in recent years, there’s a public struggle and a battle over the understanding of certain aspects of the American past — any kind of responsible understanding of what’s known and really indisputable about the centrality of race and inequality and power in the history of the United States. So, this is a very long extension of your example of Lutheran — the so-called nailing of the 95 Theses, but if it happened, it was not the earth shattering, death knell of the Middle Ages that it’s sometimes taken to be.
LEVITT: I’m really amazed at the amount of detail you’re able to bring around the life of Martin Luther and his activities almost, it seems, on a daily basis, even though he was born more than 600 years ago. Could you talk about the types of sources you use and how do you go about assembling such a detailed picture of his life and times?
GREGORY: Luther is actually one of the people from that period — let’s say the very late 15th and first half of the 16th century — about whom we have more sources than almost anyone else. Luther himself wrote an enormous number of treatises. He wrote sermons that were then written down and printed. He wrote a huge number of letters, and we have letters that he received from people that he was corresponding with.
LEVITT: I’m just surprised that these letters survived 600 years. Did they survive because he was Martin Luther?
GREGORY: In some instances, yes. So, Luther is famous already by 1520, 21. So, at that point, if at a given city court, for example, in Germany or — another scholar of import receives a letter from Luther — the chances are better, that it’s going to be saved at least at the time than if it was from somebody that’s not as famous. Now, having said that, it’s far from the case that we have every single letter. but we know more about Luther than almost anybody else who lived in the 16th century, partly because of the volume of source material.
LEVITT: You argued that these events that were happening in the 1500s, they’ve had a profound impact in creating the world we live in today. Much bigger impact than, I think, people would realize. Could you briefly summarize that hypothesis? I know it’s not easy.
GREGORY: The shortest version I can give is that the unresolved doctrinal disagreements between Protestants and Catholics and among Protestants in combination with the religiopolitical conflicts — what are more popularly known as the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. I call them in my book, the “Wars of More than Religion,” again, pointing to that embeddedness and the connectedness of religion to all other aspects of life at the time, that those two things, unresolved doctrinal disagreements, and religiopolitical conflicts, wars of more than religion, those two things provide, as it were, the problem out of which the birth of modern philosophy, the beginning of the Enlightenment, the formation of modern ways of thinking and institutional formation, things we take absolutely as cornerstones, like the separation of church and state, individual religious freedom, the separation of religion from the public sphere — those inherited problems from the reformation era provide as it were the launching pad for the long-term and really unintended process of secularization by which, the exclusion eventually of religion progressively more and more from public life takes place. And that’s really the story that I’m telling. I start Rebel in the Ranks by saying, this is a book about why the reformation is still important for understanding our world today, whether or not you yourself are a Christian or a religious person at all, because the biggest paradox — the most fundamental paradox of the Reformation — is that it is an attempt at religious reform and revival that unintentionally ends up over the very long-term, up into the 20th and the early 21st century, bringing about an unintended secularization of Western society.
LEVITT: It seems like the real winner from Martin Luther’s work was capitalism. Is that a fair statement?
GREGORY: That’s a very big part of my argument. It’s the Dutch — with really the world’s first global trading empire in the early part of the 17th —century that start to capitalize. It’s no accident that they are creating the first world global trading empire and that they extend the greatest religious toleration to people anywhere in Western Europe at the time. Because what the Dutch figure out is that religious toleration is good for business.
LEVITT: And then I think the British embrace that. And then America finally, of course.
GREGORY: Precisely. I teach a course at Notre Dame — in fact, I’m teaching it this spring semester — called “Christianity, Commerce, and Consumerism: the last 1000 years.”
LEVITT: So that’s a big bite you’re not modest.
GREGORY: Not modest And I tell the students in the first day of class, I say, “I know that it’s a thousand years of that seems crazy. And it’s even crazier because we’re really only going to try to answer one question this whole semester, but it’s going to take a thousand years and we’re going to have to talk about not only religion, but politics, economics, culture, science, et cetera. And the question is, how is it that a religious tradition in which avarice, greed, was a deadly sin gave rise to the most acquisitive societies in the history of the world?”
LEVITT: And how would Martin Luther like the world he helped create if he were here talking with us today?
GREGORY: What would surprise him is the world is still around. Luther himself expected the end of the world in his own lifetime. But what he would regard as the extraordinary selfishness, self-interestedness, competitiveness, disregard for the vulnerable and so forth, Luther would regard as very much in line with his view about human inclinations. One of the really amazing things about the modern era is that so many aspects of what were regarded in traditional Christianity as vices and sins have been held up and reversed in terms of their valuation. Competition is good. Self-interest is perfectly natural, et cetera. Luther would disagree with both of those and would probably interpret many of the problems in the contemporary world as an expression of disregard for fundamental Christian teachings and ways of seeing the world.
LEVITT: I had wanted to talk to you about being a specialist because one of the themes that’s come up on different episodes of this podcast is how many of the people who’ve been so successful have been generalists, and I was actually expecting to ask you about what it was like to be a specialist and to really focus on one thing, but I have the feeling your answer would be “No, I’m not a specialist at all.”
GREGORY: Yeah, I am not.
LEVITT: “Relative to my colleagues, I’m really a generalist.”
GREGORY: That is absolutely the case. In some ways, to be honest with you, there are moments when I almost feel like I’m betraying my field because I am just not that Reformation scholar who is going to write another monograph about what happened to the city of Ghent between 1560 and 1600. I’ve always been interested in trying to see bigger pictures and comparative understandings of the past. I’m now embarked on a project that — it’s going to take me several years, I’m sure, and it makes Unintended Reformation look like a micro history. The current project the working title is “The Way of the World: Power, Wealth, and Civilization from the Last Ice Age to the Anthropocene.” It is a long-term complex, re-interpretation in certain ways of how we have ended up in the situation of really grave, planetary environmental concern. So, I’ve spent really the last year reading and writing almost entirely about the ancient world, which has just been fantastic. I’m quite confident that I can pull this off, even though it is an absurdly ambitious project, but, you know, that’s why we get up each day. because it’s exciting. And the life of the mind, if it doesn’t cease to enchant, there really is nothing else like it. Can you believe they — they pay us for this? It’s incredible.
LEVITT: I always ask my guests for advice, and you seem especially well situated to offer advice on what listeners can do to lead a good life, a life worth living. What sort of advice would you give?
GREGORY: I’m smiling to myself and half chuckling because, I teach, a two semester honors humanities seminar to first year students at Notre Dame. And I absolutely love to teach this class. Some students call it humanities bootcamp. But one of the questions that animates that class is, what should we live for and why? It’s another way of saying: what should people do to lead a good life? I think one should seek the good in other people. One should be wise enough to understand that the direct and narrow pursuit of one’s own interests is unlikely to be rewarding and satisfying in the longer term. And that there is an enormous amount of wisdom in self-denial and sacrifice as the way toward genuine meaning and purpose in one’s life.
Did you listen carefully to Brad Gregory’s definition of living a good life? He said you should put aside the narrow pursuit of one’s own interests and recognize the wisdom and self-denial and sacrifice. He suggests behaving essentially in the exact opposite way from how economists assume people behave. And I have to say, I more or less agree with him. There’s a ton of evidence to support the view that happiness and contentedness are more strongly influenced by close human relationships and a sense of belonging than by financial status or what you own. So, does that make the economic way of thinking wrong or evil? No. Economics isn’t a moral code. It’s a framework for making sense of the actions we see in the world, for predicting how people will behave. And I don’t know of another framework that does as good a job of that as economics. But just because you think like an economist, it doesn’t mean you have to behave like the people in our models. It’s a subtle point, but it took me a long time to realize that — probably too long. But it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
GREGORY: And this is why people don’t trust economists.
- Brad Gregory, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.
- “Think Cheating in Baseball Is Bad? Try Chess,” by David Waldstein (The New York Times, 2020).
- Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, by Brad Gregory (2017).
- “Martin Luther shook the world 500 years ago, but did he nail anything to a church door?” by Katherine Arcement (The Washington Post, 2017).
- “Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling,” by Mark Duggan and Steve Levitt (The American Economic Review, 2002).
- “Claudia Goldin: What’s “Greedy Work” and Why Is It a Problem?” by People I Mostly Admire (2021).
- “Robert Axelrod on Why Being Nice, Forgiving, and Provokable are the Best Strategies for Life,” by People I Mostly Admire (2021).
- “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” by Freakonomics Radio (2010).