From Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom, or what I call the origin of fame, celebrity and greed. First published in 1942 but more relevant today than in 1942

What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of

individual freedom. Everybody in the earlier period was chained to his role in the

social order. A man had little chance to move socially from one class to another,

he was hardly able to move even geographically from one town or from one country

to another. With few exceptions he had to stay where he was born. He was often not

even free to dress as he pleased or to eat what he liked. The artisan had to sell

at a certain price and the peasant at a certain place, the market of the town. A

guild member was forbidden to divulge any technical secrets of production to

anybody who was not a member of his guild and was compelled to let his fellow

guild members share in any advantageous buying of raw material. Personal,

economic, and social life was dominated by rules and obligations from which

practically no sphere of activity was exempted.



But although a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and

isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the

social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole,

and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need, for doubt. A person

was identical with his role in society; he was a peasant, an artisan, a knight,

and not an individual who happened to have this or that occupation. The social

order was conceived as a natural order, and being a definite part of it gave man a

feeling of security and of belonging. There was comparatively little competition.

One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood

determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher

in the social hierarchy. But within the limits of his social sphere the individual

actually had much freedom to express his self in his work and in his emotional

life. Although there was no individualism in the modern sense of the unrestricted

choice between many possible ways of life (a freedom of choice which is largely

abstract), there was a great deal of concrete individualism in real life.

There was much suffering and pain, but there was also the Church which made this

suffering more tolerable by explaining it as a result of the sin of Adam and the

individual sins of each person. While the Church fostered a sense of guilt, it

also assured the individual of her unconditional love to all her children and

offered a way to acquire the conviction of being forgiven and loved by God. The

relationship to God was more one of confidence and love than of doubt and fear.

Just as a peasant and a town dweller rarely went beyond the limits of the small

geographical area which was theirs, so the universe was limited and simple to

understand. The earth and man were its centre, heaven or hell was the future place

of life, and all actions from birth to death were transparent in their causal interrelation.



Although society was thus structuralized and gave man security, yet it kept him in

bondage. It was a different kind of bondage from that which authoritarianism and

oppression in later centuries constituted. Medieval society did not deprive the

individual of his freedom, because the “individual” did not yet exist; man was

still related to the world by primary ties. He did not yet conceive of himself as

an individual except through the medium of his social (which then was also his

natural) role. He did not conceive of any other persons as “individuals” either.



The peasant who came into town was a stranger, and even within the town members of

different social groups regarded each other as strangers. Awareness of one’s

individual self, of others, and of the world as separate entities, had not yet

fully developed.



The lack of self-awareness of the individual in medieval society has found

classical expression in Jacob Burckhardt’s description of medieval culture:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness– that which was turned

within as that which was turned without–lay dreaming or half awake beneath a

common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession,

through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was

conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or

corporation–only through some general category.



The structure of society and the personality of man changed in the late Middle

Ages. The unity and centralization of medieval society became weaker. Capital,

individual economic initiative and competition grew in importance; a new moneyed

class developed. A growing individualism was noticeable in all social

(Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of The Renaissance in Italy, Allen and Unwin,

1921, p. 129) classes and affected all spheres of human activity, taste, fashion, art,

philosophy, and theology.


I should like to emphasize here that this whole process had a different meaning

for the small group of wealthy and prosperous capitalists on the one hand,

and on the other hand for the masses of peasants and especially

for the urban middle class for which this new development meant to some extent

wealth and chances for individual initiative, but essentially a threat to its

traditional way of life. It is important to bear this difference in mind from the

outset because the psychological and ideological reactions of these various groups

were determined by this very difference.


The new economic and cultural development took place in Italy more intensely and

with more distinct repercussions on philosophy, art, and on the whole style of

life than in Western and Central Europe. In Italy, for the first time, the

individual emerged from feudal society and broke the ties which had been giving

him security and narrowing him at one and the same time. The Italian of the

Renaissance became, in Burckhardt’s words, “the first-born among the sons of

Modern Europe”, the first individual.


There were a number of economic and political factors which were responsible for

the breakdown of medieval society earlier in Italy than in Central and Western

Europe. Among them were the geographical position of Italy and the commercial

advantages resulting from it, in a period when the Mediterranean was the great

trade route of Europe; the fight between Pope and emperor resulting in the

existence of a great number of independent political units; the nearness to the

Orient, as a consequence of which certain skills which were important for the

development of industries, as for instance the silk industry, were brought to

Italy long before they came to other parts of Europe. Resulting from these and other

conditions, was the rise in Italy of a powerful moneyed class the members of which

were filled with a spirit of initiative, power, ambition. Feudal class stratifications

became less important. From the twelfth century onwards nobles and

burghers lived together within the walls of the cities. Social intercourse began

to ignore distinctions of caste. Birth and origin were of less importance than wealth.



On the other hand, the traditional social stratification among the masses was

shaken too. Instead of it, we find urban masses of exploited and politically

suppressed workers. As early as 1231, as Burckhardt points out, Frederick II’s

political measures were “aimed at the complete destruction of the feudal state, at

the transformation of the people into a multitude destitute of will and of the

means of resistance, but profitable in the utmost degree to the exchequer.



The result of this progressive destruction of the medieval social structure was

the emergence of the individual in the modern sense. To quote Burckhardt again:

In Italy this veil (of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession) first melted

into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the

things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time

asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual,

and recognized himself as such. In the same way the Greek had once distinguished

himself from the barbarian, and the Arabian had felt himself an individual at a

time when other Asiatics knew themselves only as members of a race.



Burckhardt’s description of the spirit of this new individual illustrates what we

have said in the previous chapter on the emergence of the individual from primary

ties. Man discovers himself and others as individuals, as separate entities; he

discovers nature as something apart from himself in two aspects (op.cit..p. 5. ; op.cit., p. 129.)

: as an object of theoretical and practical mastery, and in its beauty, as an object of

pleasure. He discovers the world, practically by discovering new continents and

spiritually by developing a cosmopolitan spirit, a spirit in which Dante can say:

“My country is the whole world.”


(Please note, the following is an extended side note on Burckhardt’s work by Fromm.

I think it’s necessary in order to demonstrate that Burckhardt’s work has been given a serious

critical examination.

Burckhardt’s main thesis has been confirmed and enlarged by some authors, it has been

repudiated by others. More or less in the same direction go W. Dilthey’s Weltanschauung

und analyse des Menschen seit Renaissance und Reformation, in Gesammelte Shriften,

Teubner, Leipzig, 1914) and E. Cassirer’s study on “Individuum und Cosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance”.

On the other hand, Burckhardt has been sharply attacked by others. J. Huizinga has pointed out (Das

Problem der Renaissance in Wege der Kulturgeschichte, Drei Masken Verlag, Munchen,

1930, p. 89 ff.; cf. also his Herbst des Mittelalters, Drei Masken Verlag,

Munchen, 1924) that Burckhardt has underrated the degree of similarity between the

life of the masses in Italy and in other European countries during the late Middle

Ages; that he assumes the beginning of the Renaissance to be about 1400, while

most of the material he used as an illustration for his thesis is from the

fifteenth or the beginning of the sixteenth century; that he underrates the

Christian character of the Renaissance and overrates the weight of the heathen

element in it; that he assumes that individualism was the dominant trait of

Renaissance culture, while it was only one among others; that the Middle Ages were

not lacking individuality to the degree which Burckhardt has assumed and that

therefore his way of contrasting the Middle Ages with the Renaissance is

incorrect; that the Renaissance remained devoted to authority as the Middle Ages

had been; that the medieval world was not as hostile to worldly pleasure and the

Renaissance not so optimistic as Burckhardt has assumed; that of the attitude of

modern man, namely his striving for personal accomplishments and the development

of individuality, nothing but the seeds existed in the Renaissance; that already

in the thirteenth century the troubadours had developed the idea of nobility of

the heart, while on the other hand the Renaissance did not break with the medieval

concept of personal loyalty and service to somebody superior in the social hierarchy.


It seems to me, however, that even if these arguments are correct in detail, they

do not invalidate Burckhardt’s main thesis. Huizinga’s argument actually follows

this principle: Burckhardt is wrong because part of the phenomena he claims for

the Renaissance existed already in the late Middle Ages in Western and Central

Europe, while others came only into existence after the end of the Renaissance

period. This is the same kind of argument which has been used against all concepts which

contrast medieval feudal with modern capitalistic society; what has been said about this

argument above also holds true for the criticism against Burckhardt.

Burckhardt has recognized the essential difference between medieval and modern culture.



He may have used “Renaissance” and “Middle Ages” too much as ideal types

and spoken of differences which are quantitative as though they were qualitative;

yet it seems to me that he had the vision to recognize clearly the peculiarities and

dynamics of those trends which were to turn from quantitative into qualitative

ones in the course of European history. On this whole problem see also the excellent

study by Charles E. Trinkhaus, Adversity’s Noblemen, Columbia University Press,

New York, 1940, which contains a constructive criticism of Burckhardt’s work by

analyzing the views of the Italian humanists on the problem of happiness in life.

With regard to the problems discussed in this book, his remarks concerning insecurity, resignation, and

despair as a result of the growing competitive struggle for self-advancement are

particularly relevant (p. 18).



The Renaissance was the culture of a wealthy and powerful upper class, on the

crest of the wave which was whipped up by the storm of new economic forces. The

masses who did not share the wealth and power of the ruling group had lost the

security of their former status and had become a shapeless mass, to be flattered

or to be threatened–but always to be manipulated and exploited by those in power.



A new despotism arose side by side with the new individualism. Freedom and

tyranny, individuality and disorder, were inextricably interwoven. The Renaissance

was not a culture of small shopkeepers and petty bourgeois but of wealthy nobles

and burghers. Their economic activity and their wealth gave them a feeling of

freedom and a sense of individuality. But at the same time, these same people had

lost something: the security and feeling of belonging which the medieval social

structure had offered. They were more free, but they were also more alone. They

used their power and wealth to squeeze the last ounce of pleasure out of life; but

in doing so, they had to use ruthlessly every means, from physical torture to

psychological manipulation, to rule over the masses and to check their competitors

within their own class.



All human relationships were poisoned by this fierce life-and-death struggle for the

maintenance of power and wealth. Solidarity with one’s fellow-men–or at least

with the members of one’s own class– was replaced by a cynical detached attitude;

other individuals were looked upon as “objects” to be used and manipulated, or

they were ruthlessly destroyed if it suited one’s own ends.



The individual was absorbed by a passionate egocentricity, an insatiable greed

for power and wealth. As a result of all this, the successful individual’s relation to his own self, his

sense of security and confidence were poisoned too. His own self became as much an

object of manipulation to him as other persons had become. We have reasons to

doubt whether the powerful masters of Renaissance capitalism were as happy and as

secure as they are often pictured. It seems that the new freedom brought two

things to them: an increased feeling of strength and at the same time an increased

isolation, doubt, skepticism (Cf. Huizinga, p. 159) and– resulting from all these–anxiety.



It is the same contradiction that we find in the philosophic writings of the humanists. Side

by side with their emphasis on human dignity, individuality, and strength, they

exhibited insecurity and despair in their philosophy.

(Cf. Dilthey’s analysis of Petrarch, op. cit. p.19 ff., and Trinkhaus, Adversity’s Noblmen)

This underlying insecurity resulting from the position of an isolated individual

in a hostile world tends to explain the genesis of a character trait which was, as

Burckhardt has pointed out, characteristic of the individual of the Renaissance

and not present, at least in the same intensity, in the member of the medieval

social structure: his passionate craving for fame.



If the meaning of life has become doubtful, if one’s relations to others and to oneself do not offer

security, then fame is one means to silence one’s doubts. It has a function to be

compared with that of the Egyptian pyramids or the Christian faith in immortality: it elevates one’s

individual life from its limitations and instability to the plane of

indestructibility; if one’s name is known to one’s contemporaries and if one can

hope that it will last for centuries, then one’s life has meaning and significance

by this very reflection of it in the judgments of others. It is obvious that this

solution of individual insecurity was only possible for a social group whose

members possessed the actual means of gaining fame.



It was not a solution which was possible for the powerless masses in that same culture

nor one which we shall find in the urban middle class that was the backbone of the Reformation.



We started with the discussion of the Renaissance because this period is the

beginning of modern individualism and also because the work done by historians of

this period throws some light on the very factors which are significant for the

main process which this study analyses, namely the emergence of man from a pre

individualistic existence to one in which he has full awareness of himself as a

separate entity. But in spite of the fact that the ideas of the Renaissance were

not without influence on the further development of European thinking, the

essential roots of modern capitalism, its economic structure and its spirit, are

not to be found in the Italian culture of the late Middle Ages, but in the

economic and social situation of Central and Western Europe and in the doctrines

of Luther and Calvin.



The main difference between the two cultures is this: the Renaissance period

represented a comparatively high development of commercial and industrial

capitalism; it was a society in which a small group of wealthy and powerful

individuals ruled and formed the social basis for the philosophers and artists who

expressed the spirit of this culture.



The Reformation, on the other hand, was essentially a religion of the urban middle

and lower classes, and of the peasants. Germany, too, had its wealthy business men,

like the Fuggers, but they were not the ones to whom the new religious doctrines appealed,

nor were they the main basis from which modern capitalism developed. As Max Weber has shown,

it was the urban middle class which became the backbone of modern capitalistic

development in the Western World. According to the entirely different social

background of both movements we must expect the spirit of the Renaissance and that

of the Reformation to be different.  In discussing the theology of Luther and

Calvin some of the differences will become clear by implication. Our attention

will be focused on the question of how the liberation from individual bonds

affected the character structure of the urban middle class; we shall try to show

that Protestantism and Calvinism, while giving expression to a new feeling of

freedom, at the same time constituted an escape from the burden of freedom.



(The practice and theory of the letter of indulgence seems to be a particularly

good illustration of the influence of growing capitalism. Not only does the idea

that one could buy one’s freedom from punishment express a new feeling for the

eminent role of money, but the theory of the letter of indulgence as formulated

in 134-3 by Clemens VI also shows the spirit of the new capitalistic thinking.

Clemens VI said that the Pope had in his trust the limitless amount of merits

acquired by Christ and the Saints and that he could therefore distribute parts of

this treasure to the believers (cf R. Seeberg, op. cit., p. 621 ). We find here

the concept of the Pope as a monopolist owning an immense moral capital and using

it for his own financial advantage–for his “customers'” moral advantage.



To sum up: the medieval Church stressed the dignity of man, the freedom of his

will, and the fact that his efforts were of avail; it stressed the likeness

between God and man and also man’s right to be confident of God’s love. Men were

felt to be equal and brothers in their very likeness to God. In the late Middle

Ages, in connection with the beginning of capitalism, bewilderment and insecurity

arose; but at the same time tendencies that emphasized the role of will and human

effort became increasingly stronger. We may assume that both the philosophy of the

Renaissance and the Catholic doctrine of the late Middle Ages reflected the spirit

prevailing in those social groups whose economic position gave them a feeling of

power and independence. On the other hand, Luther’s theology gave expression to

the feelings of the middle class which, fighting against the authority of the

Church and resenting the new moneyed class, felt threatened by rising capitalism

and overcome by a feeling of powerlessness and individual insignificance.

Luther’s system, in so far as it differed fro in the Catholic tradition, has two

sides, one of which has been stressed more than the other in the picture of his

doctrines which is usually given in Protestant countries. This aspect points out that

he gave man independence in religious matters; that he deprived the Church of her

authority and gave it to the individual; that his concept of faith and salvation is one of subjective

individual experience, in which all responsibility is with the individual and none

with an authority which could give him what he cannot obtain himself.



There are good reasons to praise this side of Luther’s and of Calvin’s doctrines, since they

are one source of the development of political and spiritual freedom in modern

society; a development which, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, is inseparably

connected with the ideas of Puritanism. The other aspect of modern freedom is

the isolation and powerlessness it has brought for the individual, and this aspect has its

roots in Protestantism as much as that of independence. Since this book is devoted mainly

to freedom as a burden and danger, the following analysis, being intentionally one-sided, stresses that

side in Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines in which this negative aspect of freedom

is rooted: their emphasis on the fundamental evilness and powerlessness of man.



Luther assumed the existence of an innate evilness in man’s nature, which directs

his will for evil and makes it impossible for any man to perform any good deed on

the basis of his nature. Man has an evil and vicious nature (“naturaliter et inevi

ta bilker mola et vitiato natura”). The depravity of man’s nature and its complete

lack of freedom to choose the right is one of the fundamental concepts of Luther’s

whole thinking. In this spirit he begins his comment on Paul’s letter to the


The essence of this letter is: to destroy, to uproot, and to annihilate all wisdom

and justice of the flesh, may it appear–in our eyes and in those of others–ever

so remarkable and sincere . . . What matters is that our justice and wisdom which

unfold before our eyes are being destroyed and uprooted from our heart and from

our vain self.’



An even more radical expression of man’s powerlessness was given by Luther seven

years later in his pamphlet “De servo arbitrio,” which was an attack against

Erasmus’ defence of the freedom of the will.



Thus the human will is, as it were, a beast between the two. If God sit

thereon, it wills and goes where God will; as the Psalm saith, “I was as a beast

before thee, nevertheless I am continually with thee” (Ps. 73. 22, 23). If Satan

sit thereon, it wills and goes as Satan will. Nor is it in the power of its own

will to choose, to which rider it will run, nor which it will seek; but the riders

themselves contend, which shall have and hold it. Luther declares that if one does not like

to leave out this theme (of free will) altogether (which would be most safe and

also most religious) we may, nevertheless, with a good conscience teach that it be

used so far as to allow man a “free will”, not in respect of those who are above

him, but in respect only of those beings who are below him . .. Godward man has no

“free will”, but is a captive, slave, and servant either to the will of God or to

the will of Satan.1




The doctrines that man was a powerless tool in God’s hands and fundamentally evil,

that his only task was to resign to the will of God, that God could save him as

the result of an incomprehensible act of justice–these doctrines were not the

definite answer a man was to give who was so much driven by despair, anxiety, and

doubt and at the same time by such an ardent wish for certainty as Luther.




He eventually found the answer for his doubts. In 1518 a sudden revelation came to

him. Man cannot be saved on the basis of his virtues; he should not even meditate

whether or not his works were well pleasing to God; but he can have certainty of

his salvation if he has faith. Faith is given to man by God; once man has had the

indubitable subjective experience of faith he can also be certain of his

salvation. The individual is essentially receptive in this relationship to God.

Once man receives God’s grace in the experience of faith his nature becomes

changed, since in the act of faith he unites himself with Christ, and Christ’s

justice replaces his own which was lost by Adam’s fall. However, man can never

become entirely virtuous during his life, since his natural evilness can never

entirely disappear,


Luther’s doctrine of faith as an indubitable subjective experience of one’s own

salvation may at first glance strike one as an (1 op. cit., p. 79.

This dichotomy–submission to powers above and domination over those below–is,

as we shall see later, characteristic of the attitude of the

authoritarian character. ( “Sermo de duplici institia” (Luthers Werke, Weimar

ed. Vol. II)  extreme contradiction to the intense feeling of doubt which was characteristic of

his personality and his teachings up to 1518. Yet, psychologically, this change

from doubt to certainty, far from being contradictory, has a causal relation. We

must remember what has been said about the nature of this doubt: it was not the

rational doubt which is rooted in the freedom of thinking and which dares to

question established views. It was the irrational doubt which springs from the

isolation and power -lessness of an individual whose attitude towards the world is

one of anxiety and hatred. This irrational doubt can never be cured by rational

answers; it can only disappear if the individual becomes an integral part of a

meaningful world. If this does not happen, as it did not happen with Luther and

the middle class which he represented, the doubt can only be silenced, driven

underground, so to speak, and this can be done by some formula which promises

absolute certainty. The compulsive quest for certainty, as we find with Luther, is

not the expression of genuine faith but is rooted in the need to conquer the

unbearable doubt, Luther’s solution is one which we find present in many

individuals today, who do not think in theological terms: namely to find

certainty by elimination of the isolated individual self; by becoming an

instrument in the hands of an overwhelmingly strong power outside the individual.



For Luther this power was God and in unqualified submission he sought certainty.

But although he thus succeeded in silencing his doubts to some extent, they never

really disappeared; up to his last day he had attacks of doubt which he had to

conquer by renewed efforts towards submission. Psychologically, faith has two

entirely different meanings. It can be the expression of an inner relatedness to

mankind and affirmation of life; or it can be a reaction formation against a

fundamental feeling of doubt, rooted in the isolation of the individual and his

negative attitude towards life. Luther’s faith had that compensatory quality.



It is particularly important to understand the significance of doubt and the

attempts to silence it, because this is not only a problem concerning Luther’s and,

as we shall see soon, Calvin’s theology, but it has remained one of the basic problems of modern man.



Doubt is the starting-point of modern philosophy; the need to silence it had a most powerful stimulus on the

development of modern philosophy and science. But although many rational doubts

have been solved by rational answers, the irrational doubt has not disappeared and

cannot disappear as long as man has not progressed from negative freedom to

positive freedom. The modern attempts to silence it, whether they consist in a

compulsive striving for success, in the belief that unlimited knowledge of facts

can answer the quest for certainty, or in the submission to a leader who assumes

the responsibility for “certainty”–all these solutions can only eliminate the

awareness of doubt. The doubt itself will not disappear as long as man does not

overcome his isolation and as long as his place in the world has not become a

meaningful one in terms of his human needs.



What is the connection of Luther’s doctrines with the psychological situation of

all but the rich and powerful towards the end of the Middle Ages? As we have seen,

the old order was breaking down. The individual had lost the security of certainty

and was threatened by new economic forces, by capitalists and monopolies; the

corporative principle was being replaced by competition; the lower classes felt

the pressure of growing exploitation. The appeal of Lutheranism to the lower

classes differed from its appeal to the middle class. The poor in the cities, and

even more the peasants, were in a desperate situation. They were ruthlessly

exploited and deprived of traditional rights and privileges. They were in a

revolutionary mood which found expression in peasant uprisings and in

revolutionary movements in the cities. The Gospel articulated their hopes and

expectations as it had done for the slaves and labourers of early Christianity,

and led the poor to seek for freedom and justice. In so far as Luther attacked

authority and made the word of the Gospel the centre of his teachings, he appealed

to these restive masses as other religious movements of an evangelical character had done before him.



Although Luther accepted their allegiance to him and supported them, he could do

so only up to a certain point; he had to break the alliance when the peasants went

further than attacking the authority of the Church and merely making minor demands

for the betterment of their lot. They proceeded to become a revolutionary class

which threatened to overthrow all authority and to destroy the foundations of a

social order in whose maintenance the middle class was vitally interested. For, in

spite of all the difficulties we earlier described, the middle class, even its

lower stratum, had privileges to defend against the demands of the poor; and

therefore it was intensely hostile to revolutionary movements which aimed to

destroy not only the privileges of the aristocracy, the Church, and the

monopolies, but their own privileges as well.



The position of the middle class between the very rich and the very poor made its

reaction complex and in many ways contradictory. They wanted to uphold law and

order, and yet they were themselves vitally threatened by rising capitalism. Even

the more successful members of the middle class were not wealthy and powerful as

the small group of big capitalists was. They had to fight hard to survive and make

progress. The luxury of the moneyed class increased their feeling of smallness and

filled them with envy and indignation. As a whole, the middle class was more

endangered by the collapse of the feudal order and by rising capitalism than it

was helped.



Luther’s picture of man mirrored just this dilemma. Man is free from all ties

binding him to spiritual authorities, but this very freedom leaves him alone and

anxious, overwhelms him with a feeling of his own individual insignificance and

powerlessness. This free, isolated individual is crushed by the experience of his

individual insignificance. Luther’s theology gives expression to this feeling of

helplessness and doubt. The picture of man which he draws in religious terms describes

the situation of the individual as it was brought about by the current social and economic evolution.

The member of the middle class was as helpless in face of the new economic forces as Luther

described man to be in his relationship to God.



But Luther did more than bring out the feeling of insignificance which already

pervaded the social classes to whom he preached–he offered them a solution. By

not only accepting his own insignificance but by humiliating himself to the

utmost, by giving up every vestige of individual will, by renouncing and

denouncing his individual strength, the individual could hope to be acceptable to

God. Luther’s relationship to God was one of complete submission. In psychological

terms his concept of faith means: if you completely submit, if you accept your

individual insignificance, then the all-powerful God may be willing to love you

and save you. If you get rid of your individual self with all its shortcomings and

doubts by utmost self-effacement, you free yourself from the feeling of your own

nothingness and can participate in God’s glory. Thus, while Luther freed people

from the authority of the Church, he made them submit to a much more tyrannical

authority, that of a God who insisted on complete submission of man and

annihilation of the individual self as the essential condition to his salvation.

Luther’s “faith” was the conviction of being loved upon the condition of

surrender, a solution which has much in common with the principle of complete

submission of the individual to the state and the “leader”.



Luther’s awe of authority and his love for it appears also in his political

convictions. Although he fought against the authority of the Church, although he

was filled with indignation against the new moneyed class–part of which was the

upper strata of the clerical hierarchy–and although he supported the

revolutionary tendencies of the peasants up to a certain point, yet he postulated

submission to worldly authorities, the princes, in the most drastic fashion.


He says:



“Even if those in authority are evil or without faith, nevertheless the authority

and its power is good and from God. ., . Therefore, where there is power and where

it flourishes, there it is and there it remains because God has ordained it.”



Or he says:


“God would prefer to suffer the government to exist, no matter how evil, rather

than allow the rabble to riot, no matter how justified they are in doing so.

A prince should remain a prince, no matter how tyrannical he may be. He beheads

necessarily only a few since he must have subjects in order to be a ruler.”




The other aspect of his attachment to and awe of authority becomes visible in his

hatred and contempt for the powerless masses, the “rabble”, especially when they

went beyond certain limits in their revolutionary attempts. In one of his

diatribes he writes the famous words:



“Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly,

remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.

It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him he will

strike you, and a whole land with you.”



Luther’s personality as well as his teachings shows ambivalence towards authority.

On the one hand he is overawed by authority–that of a worldly authority and that

of a tyrannical God–and on the other hand he rebels against authority–that of

the Church. (Reimerbrief, ] 3,1, 1 “Against ihe Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1S25): Works of Martin

Luther, translation: C. M. Jacobs. A. T. Holman Company, Philadelphia, 1931. Vol.

X. iy p. 411. Cf. H Marcuse’s discussion of Luther’s attitude towards freedom in

Autorit t und Familie, F. Alcan, Paris, 1926)



He shows the same ambivalence in his attitude towards the masses. As

far as they rebel within the limits he has set he is with them. But when they

attack the authorities he approves of, an intense hatred and contempt for the

masses comes to the fore. In the chapter which deals with the psychological

mechanism of escape we shall show that this simultaneous love for authority and

the hatred against those who are powerless are typical traits of the

“authoritarian character”.



At this point it is important to understand that Luther’s attitude towards secular

authority was closely related to his religious teachings. In making the individual

feel worthless and insignificant as far as his own merits are concerned, in making

him feel like a powerless tool in the hands of God, he deprived man of the

self confidence and of the feeling of human dignity which is the premise for any firm

stand against oppressing secular authorities.



In the course of the historical evolution the results of Luther’s teachings were still

more far-reaching. Once the individual had lost his sense of pride and dignity,

he was psychologically prepared to lose the feeling which had been characteristic of the medieval

thinking, namely, that man, his spiritual salvation, and his spiritual aims, were

the purpose of life; he was prepared to accept a role in which his life became a

means to purposes outside himself, those of economic productivity and accumulation

of capital.



Luther’s views on economic problems were typically medieval, even more

so than Calvin’s, He would have abhorred the idea that man’s life should become a

means for economic ends. But while his thinking on economic matters was the

traditional one, his emphasis on the nothingness of the individual was in contrast

to, and paved the way for, a development in which man not only was to obey

secular authorities but had to subordinate his life to the ends of economic




In our day this trend has reached a peak in the Fascist emphasis

that it is the aim of life to be sacrificed for “higher” powers, for the leader or

the racial community.



Calvin’s theology, which was to become as important for the Anglo-Saxon countries

as Luther’s for Germany, exhibits essentially the same spirit as Luther’s, both

theologically and psychologically. Although he too opposes the authority of the

Church and the blind acceptance of its doctrines, religion for him is rooted in

the powerlessness of man; self-humiliation and the destruction of human pride are

the Leitmotiv of his whole thinking Only he who despises this world can devote

himself to the preparation for the future world.




On the whole, it seems safe to say that Calvin’s adherents were recruited mainly

from the conservative middle class,’ and that also in France, Holland, and England

his main adherents were not advanced capitalistic groups but artisans and small

business men, some of whom were already more prosperous than others but who, as a

group, were threatened by the rise of capitalism. To this social class Calvinism had

the same psychological appeal that we have already discussed in connection with Lutheranism.

It expressed the feeling of freedom but also of insignificance and powerlessness of

the individual. It offered a solution by teaching the individual that by complete submission and

self humiliation he could hope to find new security.

Calvin’s theory of predestination has one implication which should be explicitly

mentioned here, since it has found its most vigorous revival in Nazi ideology: the

principle of the basic inequality of men. For Calvin there are two kinds of

people– those who are saved and those who are destined to eternal damnation.

Since this fate is determined before they are born and without their being able to

change it by anything they do or do not do in their lives, the equality of mankind

is denied in principle. Men are created unequal. This principle implies also that

there is no solidarity between men, since the one factor which is the strongest

basis for human solidarity is denied: the equality of man’s fate. The Calvinists

quite naively thought that they were the chosen ones and that all others were

those whom God had condemned to damnation. It is obvious that this belief

represented psychologically a deep contempt and hatred for other human beings–as

a matter of fact, the same hatred with which they had endowed God. While modern

thought has led to an increasing assertion of the equality of men, the Calvinists’

principle has never been completely mute. The doctrine that men are basically unequal

according to their racial background is confirmation of the same principle with a different

rationalization. The psychological implications are the same.

The state of anxiety, the feeling of powerless-ness and

insignificance, and especially the doubt concerning one’s future after death,

represent a state of mind which is practically unbearable for anybody.

Almost no one stricken with this fear would be able to relax, enjoy life, and be indifferent

as to what happened afterwards. One possible way to escape this unbearable state of

uncertainty and the paralysing feeling of one’s own insignificance is the very trait which

became so prominent in Calvinism: the development of a frantic activity and a striving to do something.

Activity in this sense assumes a compulsory quality: the individual has to be

active in order to overcome his feeling of doubt and powerlessness. This kind of

effort and activity is not the result of inner strength and self-confidence; it is

a desperate escape from anxiety.

Hostility or resentment also found expression in the character of relationships to

others. The main form which it assumed was moral indignation, ‘which has

invariably been characteristic for the lower middle class from Luther’s time to

Hitler’s. While this class was actually envious of those who had wealth and power

and could enjoy life, they rationalized this resentment and envy of life in terms

of moral indignation and in the conviction that these superior people would be

punished by eternal suffering.’ But the hostile tension against others found

expression in still other ways. Calvin’s regime in Geneva wascharacterized by

suspicion and hostility on the part of everybody against everybody else, and

certainly little of the spirit of love and brotherliness could be discovered in

his despotic regime. Calvin distrusted wealth and at the same time had little pity

for poverty. In the later development of Calvinism warnings against friendliness

towards the stranger, a cruel attitude towards the poor, and a general atmosphere

of suspiciousness often appeared.




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