22 Dec The picture of the Middle Ages has been distorted in two ways. (ERICH FROMM) | Part B’
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 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.
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.” (Op. cit., p. 129.) 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: 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.”
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 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.
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 (op. cit., p. 139.), 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.
Escape from Freedom