This article is based on a talk given at Aarhus University, Denmark, at a conference on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, May 21, 2017. Part I on the Lutheran phase of the Reformation is here.
The Calvinist Phase and Political Corruption
The Calvinist phase of the Reformation was less the work of princes than of the grassroots organization of individual communities of believers throughout Europe, and the behavior changes this entailed. Its effect on political development was therefore less in the enforced consolidation of national states, than in the normative viewers of power-holders within states. Philip Gorski (2003) has provided two rather different examples of this, in the Netherlands and in Prussia.
Contemporary theorizing about political corruption seeks to put the phenomenon in a principal-agent framework. Hierarchical organizations are seen as authority structures in which a principal delegates decision-making power to tiers of agents; corruption occurs when the agents begin pursuing their own interest at the expense of the principal. Fighting corruption is then seen as a matter of aligning the agents’ incentives with those of the principal.
This economic framework is adequate for understanding certain forms of corruption, but it does not answer one very fundamental problem when applied to politics: namely, what if the principal himself or herself is corrupt, and seeks to use political power not on behalf of the public, but for private purposes? State modernity is built around the distinction between public and private, and the idea that governments are instituted to serve public rather than private purposes. Contemporary rational choice political science has a hard time explaining state modernity, since predatory rent-seeking is always a live option for rulers in place of honest public stewardship. Without a normative belief in something like public interest and moral individual behavior on the part of rulers, it is impossible to truly modernize a state.
This is where Calvinism played a critical role through what Gorski labels a “disciplinary revolution.” The Protestant Reformation located the source of social control within the individual, rather than in external social institutions like the Church and its rituals. Calvinism reinforced this view through its doctrine of predestination, which paradoxically motivated believers to regard their own personal behavior as a sign of divine election.
In the Netherlands, the introduction of Calvinism passed social control from a large hierarchical institution not so much to individuals as to local congregations, which took on the responsibility for regulating social behavior. Gorksi points out that the Netherlands did not exhibit many of the characteristics associated with modern state-building: it did not create a strong centralized bureaucracy or uniform rules governing the whole of its territory. The United Provinces remained more of an alliance than a state, with power further devolved to individual communities within it.
Nonetheless, these communities were able to exert enormous social control over their members, which Gorski measures through indicators like rates of crime, adultery, civil disorder, and through personal accounts that compared Dutch orderliness very favorably with that of other cities like Paris at the time. This type of self-disciplined behavior applied to political and not just personal life in the Netherlands, and aggregated upwards. There was no powerful central government able to extract taxes, as in the case of England; rather, Dutch local communities agreed to pay high levels of taxes to support common interests like ship-building. Gorski shows that Dutch military spending in the 16th and 17th centuries was one of the highest in Europe on a per capita basis, reflecting not just the wealth of the United Provinces, but also the acquiescence of Dutch elites in national projects aimed at the common good of national independence.
The second channel through which Calvinism promoted development of modern states was through a top-down process in Prussia. The latter country is famous, of course, for the project of modern state-building undertaken by the Hohenzollern dynasty, beginning with the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm’s effort to centralize authority in the wake of the Thirty Years War. What is sometimes less well known is the fact that the Hohenzollern family were Calvinists in a largely Lutheran society. Modern state-building often requires creating an impersonal administration through a cadre of new officials with no family or personal ties to the citizens over whom they preside. This occurred in Prussia as the Hohenzollerns’ distrust of the established nobility led them to import Calvinist and Huguenot administrators from the Netherlands and France, and to use them in key posts. The Prussian state achieved a high degree of autonomy from the surrounding society because it was confessionally separated from it; absolutism came to Prussia not simply over fiscal issues but because the Hohenzollerns wanted to overcome the Lutheran estates’ resistance to the spread of Calvinism.
Calvinist self-discipline was most critical however in setting a strict moral code within Prussia’s burgeoning bureaucracy. This was the most true during the reign of Friedrich Wilhelm I, the Great Elector’s grandson, who ruled from 1713-40. Friedrich Wilhelm was called the “soldier king” who was known for his personal austerity, thrift, and intolerance of corruption. He imposed military discipline on his own household and bureaucracy, turning the grounds of his palace into a parade ground and imposing severe austerity on his court. Recruitment into the Prussian bureaucracy became ruthlessly meritocratic, as indicated by the large number of non-aristocrats who were promoted to high positions. Frederick William implemented a wide-ranging system of surveillance over the accounts of his subordinates and ruthlessly punished any that were caught stealing from the treasury. These normative constraints became a deeply entrenched tradition in the Prussian administrative system, protected in later years by the bureaucratic autonomy it had achieved.
The Reformation and the Origins of Modern Identity
The second major political consequence of the Protestant Reformation was the way in which it laid the groundwork for the eventual emergence of the concept of identity, and of what we today call identity politics. In this respect, Martin Luther himself was a key figure.
The concept of identity has not always existed, but emerged only as societies started to modernize a few hundred years ago. While it originated in Europe, has subsequently spread and taken root in virtually all societies around the globe. The term identity did not come into widespread use until the 1950s, but the foundations for it were laid centuries earlier.
The idea of identity begins with a perceived disjunction between one’s inside and outside. That is, one comes to believe that one has a true or authentic identity hiding within oneself that is somehow at odds with the role one is assigned by one’s surrounding society. The modern concept of identity places a supreme value on authenticity, on the validation of that inner being which is somehow not being allowed to express itself. It is on the side of the inner and not the outer self. Oftentimes an individual may not understand who that inner self really is, but has only the vague feeling that he or she is being forced to live a lie. This can lead to an obsessive focus on the question “Who am I, really?” The search for an answer produces feelings of alienation and anxiety, and can only be relieved, in the end, when one accepts that inner self and receives public recognition for it.
Hence the concept of identity would not even arise in most traditional human societies. For much of the last 10,000 years of human history, the vast majority of human beings lived in settled agrarian communities. In such societies, social roles are both limited and fixed: there is a strict hierarchy based on age and gender; everyone had the same occupation (farming or raising children and minding a household); one’s entire life was lived in the same small village with a limited circle of friends and neighbors; one’s religion and beliefs were shared by all; and there was virtually no possibility of social mobility—moving away from the village, choosing a different occupation, or marrying someone not chosen by one’s parents. In such societies, there is neither pluralism, diversity, nor choice. Given this lack of choice, it did not make sense for an individual to sit around and brood over the question “Who am I, really?”
In the West, the idea of identity was born, in a certain sense, during the Protestant Reformation, and it was given its initial expression by Martin Luther. Luther received a traditional theological education and received a professorship at Wittemburg; for ten years, he read, thought, and struggled with his own inner self. In the words of Elton (1963), Luther
…found himself in a state of despair before God. He wanted the assurance of being acceptable to God, but could discover in himself only the certainty of sin and in God only an inexorable justice which condemned to futility all his efforts at repentance and his search for the divine mercy.
Luther sought the remedies of mortification recommended by the Catholic Church, before coming to the realization that there was nothing he could do to bribe, cajole, or entreat God. He understood that the Church acted only on the outer person—through confession, penance, alms, worship of saints—none of which could make a different because Grace was bestowed only as a free act of love by God.
Luther was one of the first Western thinkers to articulate and valorize the inner self over the external social being. He argued that Man has a twofold nature, an inner spiritual one, and an outer bodily being; it was only the inner man that could be renewed, since “no external thing has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or freedom.” As he noted in Christian Freedom:
faith alone can rule only in the inner man, as Romans 10[:10] says, ‘For man believes with his heart and so is justified,’ and since faith alone justifies, it is clear than the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man. (Luther 19??)
This recognition—central to subsequent Protestantism—that faith alone and not works would justify man, in one stroke undercut the raison d’etre for the Catholic Church. The Church was an intermediary between Man and God, but it could shape only the outer man through its rituals and works. Luther was of course horrified by the decadence and corruption of the Medieval Church, but the more profound insight was that the Church itself was unnecessary and, indeed, blasphemous in its efforts to coerce or bribe God.
Martin Luther however stands very far from more modern understandings of identity. He celebrated the freedom of the inner self, but that self had only one dimension: faith, and the acceptance of God’s grace. It was, in a sense, a binary choice: one was free to choose God, or not. One could not choose to be a Hindu or Buddhist, or decide that one’s true identity lay in coming out of the closet as a gay or lesbian. Luther was not facing a “crisis of meaning,” something that would have been incomprehensible to him (Taylor 1989); while he rejected the Universal Church, he accepted completely the underlying truth of Christianity.
The conversion of Luther’s concept of the inner self possessing moral freedom would have to pass through several other thinkers before it would evolve into the modern concept of identity. Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy sought to ground Luther’s inner freedom on reason alone, free from scriptural authority; the categorical imperative was an expression of this freedom. However, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who played the key role in secularizing Luther’s idea of inner moral freedom by pointing, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, to man’s “perfectibility” and the sentiment de l’existence as the core of the inner self. He understood the whole of human history to be a progressive effort at the corruption of this innocent selfhood that existed in the state of nature. Society introduced competition and comparison, and hence the emotions of pride and envy that ultimately served to alienate social man from his true being. The solution to this lay either in a social contract that reunited the inner person with the rest of society through a “general will,” or else an individual escape through solitude and contemplation, as in Rousseau’s late work Promenades d’un Reveur Solitaire.
The concept of identity blossoms in the 19th century into much broader moral valorization of both autonomy and authenticity. This took a variety of paths—towards the celebration of the artist and creative genius that lies at the root of what is today called expressive individualism, or towards the emergence of collective identities that legitimated modern nationalism. In the latter project, the philosopher Johan Gottfried Herder was critical. He argued that the critical inner self that was being suppressed by a corrupt external society was the “genius” of a people’s folk traditions. When coupled with the identity confusion surrounding economic modernization—the uprooting of settled peasant communities and the urbanization of European societies—the grounds for modern nationalism were laid. European nationalism was the first major expression of what we today call identity politics, in which groups seek public recognition of identities that they believe to be undervalued or otherwise marginalized.
It is, of course, very unfair to blame Martin Luther for the kind of aggressive nationalism that would engulf Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was primarily concerned with knowledge of God and inner salvation. And yet, his connection to later nationalism is not a trivial one. He was a brilliant polemicist who wrote in vernacular German, which when coupled with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press led to his pamphlets and sermons being read widely throughout the German-speaking world. The Luther Bible played a role in establishing a common German language, much like Cranmer’s slightly later Book of Common Prayer for the English, and hence a distinctive German national identity. And finally, the uptake of Lutheran doctrine by German princes reflected their own resentment of having to share sovereignty with a Catholic emperor with a power base in Spain, and with an Italian Pope. The political unification of Germany would wait another three centuries, but the cultural unification took off during the Reformation.