Luther’s Intellectual Revolution

Gegenwart Reformieren These 1
Photo: © Hartmut Burggrabe

Martin Luther is to be considered as a hero of moral conviction. He proclaimed the necessity of reciprocal responsibility and of thinking with conviction about all things new.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called for the story of Luther to be told in a different way. He made this demand in the Genealogy of Morality [III, §19], the book in which his philosophy culminated. In a question, which he didn’t dare answer, he asked: “What would we do if someone told the story of this movement differently for once, if a real psychologist were to tell us about the real Luther?” The great readers of Nietzsche in the next generation – George Simmel, Thomas Mann, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch – took up the challenge. They analysed the spirit of the Reformation, spurred on by Nietzsche’s late work. In the course of interpreting Nietzsche, they came to see him as the end of the historical and intellectual process that began with Luther. 

Different interpretations

Let us look at these intellectual references today.

What did this mean for Nietzsche’s readers in the first few decades of the 20th century? What was the moral content of his teaching? And what did this have to do with Luther? Each of these readers was to focus on one of Nietzsche’s moral concepts. Simmel talked about the tragic form as a productive transformation of the guilty conscience. Thomas Mann highlighted our resistance to the immediate, to the easy and spontaneous, as a fundamental ethical strength; and Weber, with his astute judgement, considered the relationship between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. In all these interpretations, central elements of moral consideration came to the fore, for the points of view are complementary. When we look at this from a sufficient distance, we see that it is about achieving a consistent process of subjective rationalization in the course of Western history. Indeed, the question of the guilty conscience pervades the advances of civilisation from ancient Israel to the globalised present, linked to the evolutionary processes of Judeo-Christian culture from the Prophetic Movement to the founding of Christianity, from Luther to psychoanalysis.

From Luther to psychoanalysis

Luther, who Nietzsche said knew the grewliche Thier (terrible beast) of the guilty conscience better than anyone else, is a decisive event in this experience of moral rationalisation. Every process of change in civilization feels this guilty conscience with such intensity that new forms are required to treat it. Luther gave expression to the modern form of this treatment. The self-belittling instigated by the guilty conscience led Luther to initiate a counter-movement of self-affirmation. The Lutheran mediation of these two tendencies consisted in the adaptation of a new, an external perspective in which human being was seen from the point of view of divine justice, of an exterior reality that reaches into the human. The effect of this external perspective was to identify a general human guilt. The result was an egalitarian understanding of humanity, challenging privileges and proclaiming tolerance and mutual assistance. Looking at mankind from this external perspective meant not judging other people from an assumed superiority to them. 

Generalizing universal guilt

Generalizing universal guilt eradicated the special privileges of personal judgement, false authorities, the self-empowerment of the virtuous, the perfect, the superior, the penitent. It was on this basis that Luther insisted upon the necessity of an organic social ethic, of reciprocal human cooperation between equals. Those who took up this argument were equipped with a new moral purpose, whose outcome would be a shared responsibility for the fates of others. Luther was a hero of moral conviction, not a beautiful soul, preoccupied with himself. He proclaimed the necessity of reciprocal responsibility. Without him, Weber’s dream of synthesising these two forms of ethics would not have come about.
Referring to Nietzsche, Thomas Mann emphasized the ability of being wary of our first emotional impulses. And in fact Nietzsche demanded “that we should [all] open our eyes to ourselves”. This was morality. To mistrust the first look, the first delight, the first truth. Moral strength arose through resisting the immediate in all things. This anti–narcissistic movement was not new and had its roots in a fundamental knowledge that had been lost in the darkness of time. The essence for Luther, and it is also the essence of modernity, was that this negative moment was not nihilistic, but served a new way of thinking.

A new way of thinking

The new way of thinking freed itself from the inertia of tradition and opened up new possibilities. It had nothing to do anymore with the old medieval ascetic torture, but was an intellectual propaedeutic that afforded reflective advantage, self-correction and the propulsive energy that stimulated one to think confidently about all things new.
This implied looking at oneself from the outside, from the point of view of the Other, a condition for looking at everyone else as an equal. It was the comprehensive implementation of an eccentric standpoint, to use the philosopher Helmuth Plessner’s terms, upon which the future of reason and a new certainty depended. Kant would develop this point of view as the basis of Enlightenment: think for oneself, put oneself in other people’s places, consistently think in reciprocity. 

Thinking in reciprocity

The formulation of these viewpoints, of seeing things spontaneously on the one hand and seeing yourself from the outside on the other, of the direct and the reflective perspectives, the interior and the external, constituted Luther’s mental revolution. It coincided with the Copernican revolution. Both revolutions set self-criticism at the centre of things as the key to modernity. And the impact of both was felt primarily in religion, for in that epoch such concerns were discussed in this sphere. But their effect was also felt in various spheres of society, ranging from the university to jurisprudence, from science to economics.
Out of these new ways of looking at things emerged a new energy, based not on one’s own personal confidence, as was characteristic of the previous elites, the virtuosi and the perfecti, but rather on the trust in human strength once humanity is capable of simultaneously maintaining the self-critical point of view (looking at oneself from the outside, from the vantage point of God) and surmounting the propensity to desperation and self-doubt inherent in the guilty conscience. This is the core of the Sixteen Theses of Wittenberg, which translate eschatological states into existential ones. Out of this energy, modernity was born. 

Modern morality

We have reason to believe that these elements of modern morality – accepting and freeing oneself from guilty conscience, self-affirmation through the consciousness of guilt, certainty, conviction and responsibility, an eccentric and self-critical point of view – stem from Luther’s intellectual revolution. That Luther was a religious hero is obvious, but first and foremost he was an intellectual hero. Whatever the future holds for Christianity, in Lutheran thinking there lies an enlightened core that should be preserved. Only then will we grasp the intellectual revolution that has allowed us to change the course of humankind in the new spirit of modernity.
José Luis Villacañas Berlanga © José Luis Villacañas Berlanga

José Luis Villacañas Berlanga (born in Úbeda-Jaén in 1955) is a philosopher, historian and writer. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of Kant in 1981 at the University of Valencia. He has been a professor at several universities and research institutions in Spain: from 1977 to 1986 at the University of Valencia; from 1986 to 2009 at the University of Murcia; and from 1994 to 1997 at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spanish National Research Council). Since 2009 he has been the director of the Department of the History of Philosophy at the Complutense University of Madrid. His research focuses on contemporary German philosophy (Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, Reinhardt Koselleck and Hans Blumenberg). His most recent major publications are Poder y Conflicto. Un ensayo sobre Carl Schmitt (Madrid, 2008); Dificultades con la Ilustración. Ensayos kantianos (Madrid, 2012), Historia del poder político en España (Barcelona, 2014), and Teología política imperial y comunidad de salvación cristiana (Madrid, 2016), the second volume of which, Imperio, reforma y modernidad, will soon be published and consists in an analysis, in dialogue with Weber and Blumenberg, of the emergence of modern thought in the time of the Emperor Charles V.