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
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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.