On Jumping the Gun and Missing the Apostrophe

by Ron Henzel

In Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, the Achaeans weep over the corpse of Patroclus, the beloved comrade-in-arms of Achilles, who had been killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. Achilles is particularly distraught, since he had promised Patroclus’s father, Menoetius, that he would bring him back home safely. In his grief he addresses the dead Patroclus, promising him vengeance.

So then, Patroclus, since I too am going below, but after you, I shall not hold your funeral till I have brought back here the armour and the head of Hector.

[Iliad 18.330, E.V. Rieu, translator, (New York, NY, USA and Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1950; 1981), 345.]

Although The Iliad is filled with the supernatural, the question of whether Patroclus could actually hear Achilles’ promise does not come up. There’s a good reason for that: Achilles was employing a rhetorical device for the benefit of the living who overheard him; he was not trying to communicate with Patroclus.

Toward the end of Act 3, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius, Brutus, and company had just departed, leaving Marc Antony alone with the dead body of Julius Caesar.

Antony addresses the corpse,

O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with these butchers! / Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times. / Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

[William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New York, NY, USA: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911), 965.]

His soliloquy goes on for another 17 lines, speaking to the dead Caesar. He pronounces curses on his murderers and predicts that Caesar’s spirit will return to “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war,” but there is no reason to assume that Antony believes that Caesar can actually hear him.

A Manner of Speaking

When people try to communicate with the dead, we call it “necromancy.” That is not what is going on in these two scenes from our Western literary heritage. Rather, these are two examples, widely acknowledged in literary circles, of the rhetorical device known as “apostrophe” (yes, it’s spelled and pronounced the same as the punctuation mark). Apostrophe occurs when someone speaks to a person who is absent as though that person were present, and it occurs throughout ancient, medieval, and modern literature. We also find it in Scripture. When King David cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, ESV), he was engaging in grief-stricken apostrophe.

With apostrophe, the addressee does not have to be dead, nor does it even need to be a person. It simply needs to be something that is not actually present to the speaker—such as, for example, death itself, as when John Donne wrote “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so.” It is even at work when the speaker mistakenly believes that the addressee is absent.  So when Juliet, thinking her lover was absent, cried out, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” she was employing apostrophe.

By its very nature, apostrophe obviously does not intend actual communication between the speaker and addressee.  Nor is apostrophe difficult to spot, or easy to confuse with something quite different: say, for example, the act of praying to the dead. Distinguishing between these two is not complicated. Unlike the act of praying to the dead, in apostrophe no petitions are given; the absent (or in this case, dead) are not asked for anything. They are merely addressed as if present.

Simple, right?

At Least, So You Would Think

Just a few days ago (on Friday, April 29, 2016), Roman Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong accused Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) of “praying” to his friend and fellow Reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) the year after Melanchthon had died. In a blog post titled, “John Calvin Prayed to (Dead) Philip Melanchthon,” Armstrong essentially alleged that he found an instance of Calvin practicing (perhaps a Protestant version of) what Roman Catholics call “the intercession of the saints,” in which requests are made to dead Christians who in turn pass them on to God based on (a) the belief they can hear us and (b) the belief that their righteousness will help the request to prevail with God.

With a cynical brevity that is breathtaking for its sloppiness, Armstrong simply posts an incomplete quote from one of Calvin’s theological treatises, with no substantive comment, as if that were all the proof necessary:

O Philip Melanchthon! for I appeal to you who live in the presence of God with Christ, and wait for us there until we are united with you in blessed rest . . . I have wished a thousand times that it had been our lot to be together!

The citation is from page 258 in Calvin: Theological Treatises, edited by J.K.S. Reid (although Armstrong does not cite Reid’s name properly), and reprinted in 2000 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Slam dunk, right?

In case we don’t believe him, Armstrong links to an image of the page on Google Books. But then he provides another link, this time to a volume containing a 19th century translation of the same source, also on Google Books. He prefaces this second link with the words, “The same prayer (or whatever one thinks it is) is found in…” as if to disclaim that he is not absolutely saying that this is what the bold-lettered title of his blog post declares it to be: a prayer from Calvin to the late Melanchthon.

Yeah, right.

Ready, Fire, Aim!

As it turns out, at this point in his very real and ongoing war against Protestantism, Armstrong was not using real ammunition. Nor did he have a clear view of his immediate target.

Not only is there nothing in the words he quoted from Calvin to suggest it was a prayer, but if Armstrong had bothered to check Reid’s introduction, he would have found those words referred to as Calvin’s “moving apostrophe to Melanchthon,” (Reid, ibid., 21). And if he had checked the index of his 19th century source, he would have discovered it listed as “Calvin’s solemn apostrophe to [Melanchthon],” (Henry Beveridge, translator, Calvin’s Treatises on the Sacraments [Edinburgh, UK: Calvin Translation Society, 1849], 2:587). What has been obvious to readers for at least the past 167 years was wholly lost on Armstrong.

The notion that Calvin would lapse into a prayer to Philip Melanchthon so soon after publishing the final editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Latin: 1559; French: 1560) is analogous to the idea that Bernie Sanders would endorse Donald Trump for President the day after he loses the Democrat nomination. In the third book of those Institutes, Calvin referred to the intercession of the saints as “the height of stupidity, not to say madness,” something that was invented by man and had “no support in God’s word,” (Institutes 3.20.21, John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans., [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press], 2:879), and which had progressed to “a manifest disposition to superstition” (Institutes 3.20.22; ibid., 2:880). Any kind of communication with the dead is impossible, since “when the Lord withdrew them from our company, he left us no contact with them [Eccl. 9:5-6], and as far as we can conjecture, not even left them any with us.” (Institutes 3.20.24, ibid., 2:883.) And yet Armstrong would have us believe that a year after Calvin applied the final tweaks to the extended section of the Institutes in which he thoroughly denounced this practice (3.20.21-27) he engaged in it himself!

As a former Roman Catholic, I find it somewhat shocking that a zealous son of the Vatican cannot distinguish an example of apostrophe from a genuine prayer to a dead saint. It was never difficult for me. All one need do in order to find out what real prayers to dead saints look like is to consult an authentic historical source, such as the prayers of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109).

When Anselm prayed to the Virgin Mary, he made specific requests. He asked her to cleanse him from his sins: “let this filth be washed from my mind, let my darkness be illuminated, my lukewarmness blaze up, my listlessness be stirred,” (The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, Benedicta Ward, ed. and trans., [London, UK and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1973], 116). When he prayed to the Apostle Peter he begged for assurance “that I am received, healed, and cherished,” (ibid., 138). He asked the Apostles Paul and John to intercede for him before God: “St Paul, pray for your son,” (ibid., 155); “John, whose intercession I ask,” (ibid., 167). He pleads with St. Stephen that if he will only speak up for him, “I am sure the most loving God will remit the whole of my evil deeds,” (ibid., 177). He asks St. Nicholas to “stir up my spirit, excite my heart, move my mind according to my need,” (ibid., 188). To St. Benedict he prays, “Help me! I beg you to be my protector,” (ibid., 199). To Mary Magdalene he implores, “in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity,” (ibid., 202).

Prayers are not merely addresses; they are petitions. That, in fact, is the whole purpose of the doctrine of the intercession of the saints.

But nothing like this is found in Calvin’s address to Melanchthon. It lasts all of a paragraph, and it ends with a quote from a letter that Melanchthon had written to Calvin. Calvin does not ask Melanchthon to intercede for him before God, or apply some of his own merits to Calvin, as we find in Anselm’s prayers. He simply recalls the support Melanchthon had given to him during his lifetime, and moves on to the next paragraph where he recalls his own response to what Melanchthon wrote. The apostrophe is already over by this point, and it includes no petitions, no request, no pleas. The reason for this is simple: it’s not a prayer.


When I first began writing this, I did not see any comments on Armstrong’s blog post. That has changed, and I notice that the issue of apostrophe has been called to his attention. He is not responding very positively to it.

Go figure.