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Preaching to Laymen in their Own Language – Johannes Geiler von Keysersberg, Sermon on the Ants (March 20, 1508)

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Now I come to a fifth point. You say, "I think that the rulers are to blame that all estates live in such an evil manner. Why is that so?" If the rulers took initiative and acted correctly, the subjects would follow them, for the ruler is like a lead ram. He goes in front of the priests, and where he leads, all the other sheep follow. A ruler is just like a lead ram, and he should lead his subjects to follow him. St. Gregory says, when the shepherd goes over rocks and cliffs and over sharp rocky ground, the sheep fall down and die. But when the shepherd leads his sheep over broad fields, where they can graze, they will be safe. It is the same with rulers. Therefore, you ask, "What shall we do, if we have such wicked rulers and shepherds? When a teamster has poor horses, how can he travel well, and when those up top on the wagon are so miserable and feckless, how should it be with those who sit in the back of the wagon?" I answer you and say that your rulers are a major reason why life in the cities is so wicked and why so much injustice is done. They are, however, [not] the whole reason. If you have the power of free will, the ruler cannot take it from you or force you. When he commands or forbids you to do something, what more can he do to you? And when you do wrong, he can punish you, but no more, for you are an unreasonable person. If the ruler was the whole cause of your going astray, you would commit no sin thereby, and God would not punish you for it. The rulers are, indeed, a major cause of the trouble, but not the whole cause. You say, "But it is proper that the rulers go before." Truly, it should be so, but it is not so. Yes, the rulers and subjects ought to speak to one another, as used to be done, for the old folks were no fools. There were fools in olden days, too, and some of them did foolish things, just as you do. But you should not bother with how people used to behave or how they behave now. You should worry about how people should behave, as Seneca says: "No one is concerned for what is done, but for what should be done." And, truly, if the rulers led as they should do, the world would be better than it is. Dear God, when the head is sick and diseased, all the members become weak and powerless.

You as a subject will not be excused, however, according to whether your ruler is wicked or good. If you will excuse yourself by following the ruler when he is wicked, why don't you follow him when he is good? You don't want to, because you have become accustomed to doing evil, so that it is difficult for you to do good. He who is accustomed to rise early in the morning, rises up with joy. But the lazybones and slugabed, he turns over three times and finds it hard to get up. "Yes," you say, the harder a good work seems to me, the harder it is to do, the more meritorious it is. No, no, the difficulty comes half from your being unaccustomed and half from your lack of skill. When it is hard to do right, because you are not accustomed to doing it, the difficulty does not increase your merit for doing it, which must be measured by the deed itself. Otherwise, if the difficulty of the deed made it more deserving, you would have deserved more pay at the beginning than after you had been doing it for ten or twenty years. It was tough for you at the beginning, and the longer you do it, the easier it becomes, and when you've done it for twenty years, you do it with joy and pleasure, it should be less meritorious—but this is not so.*

Therefore, now you know why there cannot be a general reformation. It is difficult, but not impossible. There is no hope that things will improve. And how the rulers are not the whole cause, but the greatest cause, of wicked living. You now know, too, how corrupt all estates are, and how the lesser ones are broken down.

* This passage illustrates two main points of late medieval Catholic moral theology, the emphasis on habit and the dependence of merit, or grace, on both intention and act, not on act ("works") alone. The discussion is developed further two paragraphs below – trans.

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