Friday, February 26, 2010

Erik Erikson Believed That Martin Luther Was a "Manic-Depressive" (Bipolar)

By Dave Armstrong (2-26-10)

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was a well-known psychologist and author of the famous book, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958). I hadn't realized that he regarded Martin Luther as a "manic-depressive" (current fashionable term: bipolar disorder). Here is what he wrote about it in his book:

I will not claim that the clinical form which this martyrdom assumed in Luther's middle age, namely, a severe manic-depressive state, could have come about without a specific constitutional make-up. But I would point out, as I did with regard to Martin's identity crisis, the life-stage which provided the scene for this breakdown. (p. 243)

In its excess, Luther's obscenity expresses the needs of a manic-depressive nature which has to maintain a state of unrelenting paranoid repudiation of an appointed enemy on the outside in order to avoid victimizing and, as it were, eliminating itself. (p. 246)

Luther then tasted fully the danger of this stage, which paradoxically is felt by creative people more deeply than by others, namely, a sense of stagnation, experienced by him in manic-depressive form. (p. 260)

Previously, at least four Catholic biographers of Luther (Heinrich Denifle, Albert Maria Weiss, Hartmann Grisar, and Paul J. Reiter: a psychiatrist) were of the same opinion. Erikson, however, was Jewish, so the ubiquitous accusation of "Catholic bias" doesn't realistically apply to his analysis.

I myself have not taken a position one way or the other as to whether Luther was bipolar. I have cited in two papers many historians who note his undeniable bouts with severe depression:

Luther's Frequent Depression, Spiritual Crises, and Erroneous Projection Onto St. Paul of His "Evangelical Experience"

Did Martin Luther Suffer From (Probably Biochemically Produced) Serious Psychological Maladies (Particularly Recurring Severe Depression)?

In the first I wrote:

I don't maintain any particular position as to Luther's mental health, though I understand that it is pretty much the consensus of historians that he at least suffered fairly regular (if not cyclical) bouts with severe depression, . . . But even if he were bipolar or whatever, so what? Millions suffer from this malady, and it is now known to be largely if not wholly chemical in nature. One cannot be held responsible for chemicals in one's brain going awry. . . .

I hasten to add that I wouldn't hold serious depression or wrestling with the devil or the dark night of the soul, or tormented conscience per se against anyone, having experienced, years ago, severe depression and existential angst myself (shortly after that I converted to evangelical Protestantism and have never experienced it again).

And in the second:

I don't judge the man, if indeed he suffered from significant psychological difficulties (as appears to be the case), in all likelihood caused by (as we now know) biochemical imbalances. I'm the parent of two special needs children, and I surely don't blame them or look down on them because of factors beyond their own control.


Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

About 18 months over on the CARM “Luther” thread, I posted several Erikson quotes. Predictably, James Swan “informed” me that it is not possible to psychoanalyze historic figures:

“psycho historical analysis.....cannot comprehend a 16th century medieval worldview.”

I’m sure that James would have been singing a different tune if Erikson’s comments about Luther had been positive but of course they were not. One of the objections about both Erikson’s comments (and mine usually) is that we, in the 21st century, simply cannot fully understand the mind of the 16th century.

Erikson however tells us that we can:

“He (Luther) indulged himself as he grew older in florid self-revelations of a kind which can make a clinical biographer feel that he is dealing with a client.......for Luther is one of those autobiographers with a histrionic flair who can make enthusiastic use of even their neurotic suffering, matching selected memories with the clues given to them by their avid public to create their own official identities.” Erikson, “Young Man Luther”, pg 16

If anyone could psychoanalyze Luther from the massive volume that he wrote, much of which was about his “feelings” about things, it would be Erikson. The picture that he paints of Luther is not one which is consistent with the “Legend” that Protestantism has built around Luther.

“According to the characterology established in psychoanalysis, suspiciousness, obsessive scrupulosity, moral sadism, and a preoccupation with dirtying and infectious thoughts and substances go together. Luther had them all. One of Martin’s earliest reported remarks (from his student days) was a classical obsessive compulsive statement:

“the more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get”. Ibid, pg 61

When I began to study Luther I could not understand how he could have possibly been SO confident that He, in opposition to virtually ALL of Christianity, could have been SO “right”. However, the better I understand him, the more empathy I have developed. In so many ways he was completely unaware of himself and why he was so driven. Certainly he didn’t intend to tear a third of Christianity away from the Church that Christ established for us all. However, he did and he did so on the basis of a faulty understanding of not only Himself, but Catholic Theology, the Teachings of the Fathers, and Church History. Of course none of this conforms to the “Legend” that Protestantism has built around Him.

As you well know, it is very difficult to get Protestants to discuss the facts about Luther, at least the Real Luther of history.

God Bless You James, Tim MD

Dave Armstrong said...

Interesting observations; thanks. I think it is not that big of a deal. We know he suffered from severe depression. No one can doubt that. Certainly other strange traits could suggest a corresponding manic phase. It's not that different. We know now that all this is chemical anyway. It's not Luther's fault.

To me, then, it is little different from saying he suffered from an ulcer, though it could have an effect on his ideas and logic.

Phil said...

“psycho historical analysis.....cannot comprehend a 16th century medieval worldview.”

Well he was slightly off... by about half a century. He might as well say that we are living in the Rocking 1950s and that this blog is an ice cream parlour. Besides, I think that a Medieval scholastic mind would have probably been much more logical than the Renaissance Luther's mind.

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

While I agree that Luther cannot be blamed for his psychological ailments, undoubtedly he was not the only Manic Depressive Theologian of the last 2000 years, and unless I have missed something significant, none of the rest of them “produced” a Movement that ultimately wrested away 1/3rd of Christianity from Christ’s Church.

Luther does not deserve to be personally criticized for his “ailments”, but by the same token, many Protestants simply cannot praise Him enough, to the point of (some of them) slobbering. IF Luther was actually doing God’s Will in altering several dozen of the Teachings of the Church, well......then, that praise is justified. However, if, as I believe, he was leading hundreds of millions into heretical beliefs, then He should receive some criticism, “ailments” or not.

As a supposedly well trained Theologian, and especially as a monk and a Priest, he was trained to understand himself so that he could make a correct and complete confession, something that he took extremely seriously. As such, supposedly, he should have recognized that his psychological makeup and his extraordinary fears made him unsuited for the role of the “Reformer” whom God had “chosen” to redefine Christianity. Unfortunately, it was exactly his psychological makeup and especially those fears that compelled him to challenge everyone and everything that had preceded him. The very things that should have made him cautious drove him to abandon caution and ultimately become much more inflexible than the system that he opposed.

The issue that really needs to be discussed is whether Luther’s “unique” psychological problems affected his theological opinions. Of course Luther’s defenders claim that his “problems” had no impact whatsoever on his teachings. After all:

“Look how well He (and Protestantism) turned out. Sure he was arrogant, excessively self-reliant, judgmental, contradictory, waffling, and extremely reliant on his “feelings”.......... but none of those traits “transferred” over into Protestantism. Right?”

A few other comments from Erikson and Erikson only (Sola Erik if you will) further reveal Luther’s “fitness” as a “Reformer”:

“It seems entirely probable that Martin’s life at times approached what we might call a borderline psychotic state in a young man with prolonged adolescence and reawakened infantile conflicts”, pg 148

“It would be hard, indeed, to describe the Martin of the middle monastery years as a great young man, although Protestant biographers have given their all to this impossible task.” Pg 149

Tim MD said...

“Luther was one of those addicts and servants of the Word who never knew what they were thinking until they hear themselves say it, and who never know how strongly they believe what hey say until somebody objects.” Pg 169

In other words, Luther normally spoke first, thought second, and only when pressed, studied last. He had such extreme confidence in his Feelings, that he presumed that anything that He said, MUST be from God.

“Luther’s theology contains an unsolved personal problem which is more accessible to psychoanalysis than is the theology itself. This unsolved personal problem becomes obvious later, when he suddenly changed course of his life endangers the identity which he had won as lecturer and preacher; and even more obvious when the crisis of middle age brings to the fore again that inner store of self-hate, and that murderous intolerance of disobedience which in the lectures on the Psalms had been relatively balanced – within Luther’s identity as a lecturer........

The study of Luther’s earliest lectures (on the Psalms) shows that in his self-cure from deep obsessive struggles he came, almost innocently, to express principals basic to the mastery of existence by religious and introspective means. As he stated in his notes for the lectures on Romans, in which he came much closer to perfection as a professor and to clarity as a dogmatist: “Perfect self-insight is perfect humility; perfect humility is perfect knowledge; perfect knowledge is perfect spirituality.” Pg 221.

Of course, as opposed to his opponents, Luther claimed “perfect knowledge” in regards to, if nothing else, the Interpretation of Scripture. However, we know that he was one of the least humble people in history and is probably the least humble of any Theologian in 2000 years. By his own logic then, perfect self-insight, perfect knowledge, and perfect spirituality was, in his case, FAR from probable, and YET, Protestantism has pretty much “bet the farm” on Him.

You may think that I am being a little harsh with Luther, but as you well know, I am FAR kinder to Him than he was to his opponents. I am well aware that he was driven, almost against His Will, to become a “Reformer”, and while he should have recognized his true nature, he did not. My “problem” is not so much with Luther but with those who, even today, are much less than honest about the Real Luther and his “fitness” to be even a decent Theologian. More so I have problems with those who, at the very least, “represent” Luther in an intellectually dishonest manner. I do understand though why, in defense of Protestantism in general, they feel forced to do so.

The question is not whether we should “blame” Luther for his “conditions”, but whether he was doing God’s Will in opposing the Church of his day to the point of “discovering” an entirely new set of doctrinal beliefs. I would suggest that his “problems” did very much affect his Theological opinions.

God Bless You Dave and Thank You For Your Amazing Contributions in Dispelling the Luther “Myth”, Tim

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Tim,

The issue that really needs to be discussed is whether Luther’s “unique” psychological problems affected his theological opinions.

Yes, I agree, as I noted in my last comment by saying, "it could have an effect on his ideas and logic."

I've written at least one paper, in fact, exploring this:

Luther's Frequent Depression, Spiritual Crises, and Erroneous Projection Onto St. Paul of His "Evangelical Experience"

I think there are other things, too, that seem to flow from his own conditions (or plausibly could, anyway).

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave:

You said: “I think there are other things, too, that seem to flow from his own conditions (or plausibly could, anyway).”

I think that that makes you, potentially, THE Master of the Understatement.

If you “expand” Luther’s “conditions” to include what he “knew” that he really didn’t know, the whole of Him becomes more understandable. As examples of the kind of things that Luther misunderstood or was not aware of:

The True Teaching of the Catholic Church regarding Salvation.
The Catholic understanding of Original Sin

The teachings of Hus and the findings of the Council of Constance against him.

The discussions of the previous 100 years regarding the Authority of the Bishop of Rome, as was evidenced in the 95 Theses. Eck especially understood them better.

A very minimal understanding of Thomas Aquinas.

A very tilted understanding (at best) of Augustine.

A belief that Tertullian was the earliest of the Church Fathers.

The Catholic Teaching on Indulgences.

The historical basis for the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

Church History in general.

The role, rights, authorities and latitudes of the Catholic Theologian, Priest, Professor.

In addition, Luther was, to say the least, “unsure” of the NT Canon, ultimately questioning the “authenticity” of James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelations. Luther was unaware that James the Apostle wrote James and instead attributed it to “some second century Christian”, which of course was convenient as it pertained to James’s comments on “faith alone”.

When you combine all of these educational “deficits” and misunderstandings with Luther’s obsessive need to “achieve” assurance of His Salvation while on earth, you have a potentially “toxic” Theological “brew”.

Many of these educational inadequacies were due to Luther’s training as a student at Erfurt where Humanism and Nominalism ran rampant. Part of the problem can also be attributed to the nature of the education possible at the University of Wittenberg, which did not even begin to form a library (at the rate of 50 books/year) until the year that he received his Doctorate.

Given that Luther so misunderstood so many things, it is pretty difficult to take him seriously as a Theologian. Had he understood the actual Catholic Teaching on Original Sin and Salvation and then differed with that.......well that would have been one thing. But he, as a supposedly well trained Catholic Theologian, misunderstand those Catholic Teachings and as a result, he challenged that which he did not correctly comprehend. In addition, the issues on which he was so poorly educated were crucial to his “problems” with Catholic Teachings. After all, if you misunderstand, even in the Catholic “sense”, Original Sin, Sin, and Salvation, how are you every going to get anything else “right”.

All of this leads to the question as to why anyone was influenced by Luther’s theology, but as we know, the reasons had much more to do with civil unrest than it did dissatisfaction with Catholic Doctrinal Teaching.

God Bless You Dave, Tim (still not an MD but still from MD)

Dave Armstrong said...

I agree pretty much again.

The Catholic Church is not without much blame for all of this. It was a decadent period, and nominalism had run rampant for a few hundred years. If we had gotten our act together, say, a hundred years earlier, perhaps the whole thing could have been avoided. But likely something revolutionary would have come up later on, that would have had roughly the same effect.

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

I agree. The Church laid itself open to the kind of criticism that Luther offered, at least on matters involving the application of Doctrine. The abuses were significant and what is strange about that is that it shouldn't be necessary for Protestantism to exaggerate them. But they do anyway as if it bolsters their case regarding Doctrine. They were "bad enough" as they were, but then those abuses on matters of application do not affect the Teaching of the Church on Infallibility, (believe it or not), that is unless you wish to force Protestant “theology” onto Catholic Theology and then judge it by that.

I don't think there is any doubt that some form of "revolution" would have come about without Luther. After all, those kinds of things (intended “reforms”) had been taking place constantly for 1500 years. The Church had dealt with most of them pretty effectively until Luther. Even the “break away from the EOC” was relatively “contained” because they managed to take with them enough of the Truth to keep them from splintering into tens of thousand of sects in a few hundred years. As the Fathers taught, the greater the heresy, the more prone it was to splintering, which does not speak well for Luther’s “efforts”.

Once the printing press was invented though, I believe the die was cast. It was only a matter of time until someone came up with “something” that was going to exceed the level of heresy found in the previous "revelations"; something that was going to appeal to the masses and their new found “intellectual independence”. Never mind that even in Luther’s time, only a very small percentage of people could read, Sola Scriptura still “rules”. Right?

In my mind it was Luther's Sola Scriptura and then the corresponding and inevitable extrapolation to the “right" to interpret individually that threw the bottle stopper away forever. At that point, the genie couldn’t even be located, much less "recontained", no matter how much Luther tried. In retrospect, and even at the time, anyone with a lick of sense could have predicted that. Luther was warned of this dozens of times before he was excommunicated, but then he didn’t take criticism all that well and charged ahead anyway.

Tim MD said...

IF the Church had gotten it's act together earlier, it might have delayed the inevitable, but it would have taken place anyway, only probably in a different form. It certainly wouldn't have Luther's "theological fingerprints" on it the way it does today, and it probably wouldn’t so very much reflect his personality in it’s approach to God the world.

What I find interesting is that many of the very people who unknowingly “follow” Luther in his SS + Private or Denominational Interpretation (and the whole Priesthood of All Believers), would be “found” by Him to be heretics (with a capitol “H”) and would be deemed by Him to be “unsaved”. Yet no matter how greatly Protestantism reflects Luther’s contradictory nature, there seems to be very little desire on the part of the rank and file to dig into the Truth about the man Himself and His impact on their personal opinions.

It seems to me that Protestantism, especially today, demonstrates the “pull” (on the ego) associated with the Luther’s (unintended) concept that the Holy Spirit leads ME into all Scriptural Truth (or at the very least MY denomination, or at the very-very least, leads me Personally into the “best denomination”). But then as Catholics, that’s what we are “supposed” to think. Right?

What Protestantism in general fails to want to deal with is that the Catholic “sense” of Interpretation of Scriptures makes a LOT more sense than does the Holy Spirit leading all of these various conflicting denominations into (also conflicting) doctrinal beliefs.

Luther had “made up his mind” (although unconsciously) to rebel against the Church long before the Indulgence Controversy, which was only the “Presenting Issue”. His “complaints” about the manner in which Indulgences were being practiced would NEVER have gone “so far” if he had been better educated about Catholic Theology and had had a better understanding of the Fathers and of Christian History. If not Indulgences, he would have “found” something else, again unconsciously, and THAT would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back (weak and "troubled" as it was).

We now return you to your regular programming, which means that you are “released” to do the productive stuff that you do.

God Bless You Dave, Tim (still a Fan)

Dave Armstrong said...

Great posts!

I do find it highly ironic that virtually all of the leading anti-Catholics today (being from the Zwinglian / Calvinist tradition -- or even with Anabaptist influence) would be regarded by Luther as damned heretics, whereas he I would have some chance of being a Christian in his eyes (like, e.g., Staupitz).

Dave Armstrong said...

My latest project, btw, is the book on Calvin, that I am feverishly working on. I hope to have it done within a week at the latest.

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

Speaking of Staupitz, what the heck was that guy thinking? He knew Martin's psychological maladies better than anyone, including Martin Himself, and yet, he "forced" him to obtain his Doctorate in Theology and to become a Professor responsible for molding young impressionable minds?

First of all, it seems to me that he was forced to "get Marty out of Erfurt" quickly, and secondly, he must have been desparate to "replace himself" at Wittenberg. He did leave rather suddenly as you know. Staupitiz should have shown better judgment, but then at least he never really bought into Luther's "program", much to Marty's dismay.

God Bless You Dave, Tim

Dave Armstrong said...

I dunno. There has always been a history of eccentric professors, no? LOL

Tim MD said...

Hi Dave,

Yep. Guys like Crossan give me heartburn. What disturbs me to no end is that people like him are allowed to teach at "supposedly" Catholic Universities. Do you know if he was ever censured or anything? I can't seem to find out.

As for another Professor: I was really shocked when I read about Hus. The similarities with Luther's background and to a lesser degree, personality, were pretty spooky.

Dave Armstrong said...

I don't know about Crossan. I don't follow the liberals' shenanigans much.

Tim MD said...

Crossan (John Dominic), Professor of Church History at DePaul until he retired in 1995. Has written a couple of dozen books not worthy of the money (unlike yours of course). I bought one once and had to learn this the hard way.

Founding member of the Jesus Seminar which teaches Christ as NOT being God but only a Jewish cynic who was "really bright", and charismatic but illiterate. This as opposed to Luther who was a Catholic “cynic”, really bright, charismatic, and literate. I guess Marty “wins” that one. Crossan also denies the Gospel accounts, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. A real Gem that one.

I have heard that he was censured by the Pope, meaning that he was no longer allowed to teach or write (as a Catholic), but have not been able to confirm it. This is not to imply that he would care if he were censured. Obviously he would not, but would probably appreciate the notoriety in that it would increase his “stature” within his group of “Christian Historians and Theologians.”

He is sometimes represented to me as being a “reputable Catholic Historian” but then I don’t really dialogue with the same “class” of Protestant Apologists that you do.

The Jesus Seminar has about 150 members who sit, in Council, and vote on all of this "historical stuff" using colored beads or some such nonsense. Many of the people I dialogue with would KILL for a "seat at the table". Most of the 150 are Protestants but in my mind if you deny the divinity of Christ, then none of them are really Christians at all.

They do though demonstrate how far "off message" one can get when they follow Luther's "Gospel" and extrapolate it to it's "logical" conclusions.

God Bless You, Tim

PS: I do NOT want to keep you from your important work. Please feel free to break this off if you need to.

Dave Armstrong said...

Yeah, I know who he is. I didn't know about what you asked.

Unknown said...

Preparing for class I was looking for Erikson's book on Luther and saw your discussion. I have not read through this thread of comments.

I valued several points from Erikson's book. The most significant was the ground breaking Luther did historically providing the proper soil and fertilizer for Adolf Hitler's succession into power! He lines this up well in the book!

Worth noting and considering! Thank you for discussing a TOPIC that needs to be discussed again and again! Like so many of "good intentions" that gain momentum their new authority awakes a GIANT!

Unknown said...

Preparing for class I was looking for Erikson's book on Luther and saw your discussion. I have not read through this thread of comments.

I valued several points from Erikson's book. The most significant was the ground breaking Luther did historically providing the proper soil and fertilizer for Adolf Hitler's succession into power! He lines this up well in the book!

Worth noting and considering! Thank you for discussing a TOPIC that needs to be discussed again and again! Like so many of "good intentions" that gain momentum their new authority awakes a GIANT!

rumblingstrings said...

A lot of ad hominem attacks and arguing in bad faith going on.
All people to different extents are subject to their own neuroses, someone can be wrong on some things and right on others, and even the worst people can make true statements. Even if one could know exactly why a person holds certain ideas, it would not prove or disprove those ideas.
Investigating Luther's psychology is very interesting and important in discussing Luther as a person. Concluding that his message is errant because of his psychological state is fallacious.
That being said I'm sure many of you have sound reasons to disagree with Luther, I just take issue with the leap that somehow his psychology proves or disproves his ideas.