Martin Luther: Why the Reformation Failed

How Protestantism came to be

Paleoconservatives, Catholic priests and Romantics idealise the Middle Ages. When discussing the effects of the reformation, the focus is almost always on the subsequent religious wars, especially the Thirty Years' War. However, few people know that the reformation caused deep psychological problems among Protestants, not because of the wars but because of its nature.

It is commonly believed that the Reformation was a blessing that ended the horrors of the Middle Ages, and the blame for the subsequent religious wars lies entirely with the Catholic Church, which did not want to accept the changes and loss of power. We will not touch on this issue today and focus solely on the psychological effects of the Reformation.

During the Middle Ages, man had no freedom: neither economic, psychological, nor political. Serfs were essentially enslaved. The modes of economic interaction were fixed. Even prices were controlled. The economies of many countries during the Middle Ages were much like the planned economies of socialist countries.

It's funny that there are people who find a lot of positive things about the Middle Ages. Allegedly then people were more straightforward and less selfish. You can't judge this because there were no sociological studies or any other attempts to record what ordinary people were thinking. The reason is simple - no one saw the need to investigate what serfs were thinking and how they behaved.

The very socio-economic structure of society did not allow people to move up the social ladder and, for example, from ordinary peasants to the business elite. People did not have the right to choose a profession of their choice or to start a business and be responsible for their actions. There was no incentive for entrepreneurship. Kings and nobility in all countries created artificial monopolies with high prices to guarantee themselves high incomes. Even if serfs stood out in war, they still received no incentives and no opportunity to become officers.

Because of serfdom, a person was not even allowed to move geographically. The only possible upside was the certainty of the future, as there was no risk of losing one's job and, apart from wars, there were no major upheavals.

Most medieval people had no opportunity for self-expression and creativity through work. Even artists and craftsmen overwhelmingly did not do what they themselves wanted to do, but what their customers or masters told them to do. Competition is one of the engines of progress, not only economic but also intellectual.

Thus, there was no incentive for economic growth. All capital was concentrated in royal and noble families. Any noticeable increase in wealth was immediately channelled into wars.

All suffering from poverty, wars and the arbitrary behaviour of elites was justified as a necessary payment for the original sin of Adam and Eve and as devotion to God.

Because of the strict and narrow geographical boundaries, man was confined to his own small world and had no opportunity to travel, learn about other cultures and enrich his inner world. The extremely limited worldview gave no chance for cultural enrichment.

No wonder that even medieval philosophy is now considered marginal, although its predecessors in the person of Roman and Greek philosophers are not considered marginal. This suggests that the reason is not that knowledge in many sciences is becoming obsolete in itself, but that medieval philosophy has been subjected to total criticism by all other philosophical trends.

The low level of education and intellectual environment is illustrated by the fact that in the fifteenth century, during the Reconquista, the Spanish took a small Arab town, and the library of that town had a greater variety of books than the rest of Europe combined. This library, among other things, had books by ancient Greek and Roman authors that were not available in the Middle Ages.

Nor was there even schooling, let alone higher education. The exception were religious schools, which in addition to ideological processing also taught reading and writing, but this cannot be called a full-fledged education. Given the presence of slavery, man was not perceived as an individual. He was perceived as a commodity and as an economic unit. The social disconnect was so strong that even within the same town, members of different professions interacted socially, reducing interaction between them to economic relations without personal contact.

What's wrong with the Reformation

Why did the reformation fail?

The first and perhaps most significant reason is that the Reformation focused mainly on the religious aspects of society without addressing the underlying social and economic issues. The Protestant Reformation, which began in the 16th century under the leadership of Martin Luther, emphasised reforming church practices, rituals and doctrine, which was certainly important, but did not address social inequality, serfdom and poverty.

Although it is generally accepted among economists, sociologists, cultural studies and anthropologists that the Protestant ethic played a key role in making Protestant countries wealthy, nevertheless this wealth was acquired in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whereas the Reformation began in the sixteenth century.

Secondly, the Reformation itself caused new social and psychological problems. The splitting of the church, conflicts between believers, and the rise of fanaticism in some areas were all a consequence of religious change rather than its solution. This led to increased social disunity and aggravation of psychological problems at the level of the individual and society as a whole.

The third reason relates to the fact that many of the structures of power and social organisation rooted in the Middle Ages were not radically changed after the Reformation. For example, serfdom, although it became less rigid after some reforms, still continued to exist and to exert psychological pressure on the peasant masses. Moreover, the new Protestant work ethic said that hard work was God-ordained, which meant that peasants had to work even harder, thus exhausting themselves physically even more.

  1. The Reformation, especially in the context of Protestantism, emphasised the doctrine of predestination - the notion that man's fate was already predetermined by divine forces. This created internal conflict in people, as many began to doubt their ability to control their lives and their actions, feeling subject to an inevitable course of events.
  2. At the same time, the Reformation reinforced the idea of individual responsibility to God for one's actions. This led to feelings of deep guilt and fear of doing something wrong or not conforming to the norms and teachings of the church. People were faced with contradictory feelings: on the one hand, they realised their inability to change their predetermined fate, and on the other hand, they felt responsible for their actions.
  3. These contradictory teachings led to internal conflicts and search for identity among people. They sought to understand how to have within themselves the concept of predestination and individual responsibility, which led to constant inner tension and a search for meaning in their lives.

Finally, it is important to note that psychological problems are deeply rooted and cannot be solved by religious changes alone. Erich Fromm in his writings emphasised the importance of individual freedom, responsibility and self-determination for the psychological health and well-being of society as a whole. These aspects were not adequately addressed and resolved at the time of the Reformation.

The Reformation did not change the most important thing - it did not enable the individual to engage in self-reflection without mental constraints, without the pursuit of guilt due to original sin. Without the fear of going to hell or being burned at the stake for suspicion of serving the devil. Only through free self-reflection can a person realise the problems that lie beyond the material plane, and only through free self-reflection can he realise that he needs to do something about it.

Key Findings:

  • The Middle Ages was one of the worst periods in human history and was characterised by extremely unfavourable conditions for the psyche of the population of Europe.
  • The Reformation initially gave people hope for change, but in reality it not only failed to solve any of man's socio-economic problems, but also exacerbated some psychological problems, particularly guilt over their actions.
  • The Reformation caused a mass feeling of learned helplessness because it promoted the predetermination of man's fate, and thus the impossibility of correcting sinful actions or habits, and as a consequence, the punishment for these sins in the form of eternal torment in hell.


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