Psychology Classics

Young Man Luther
Erik Erikson

If you have ever used the term 'identity crisis' you have psychologist Erik Erikson to thank - he invented the term.

Erikson's focus on identity was shaped by his own background. The product of a brief affair between his married Jewish mother, Karla Abrahamsen, and an unidentified Danish man, the author grew up in Germany as Erik Homberger, the surname of his physician stepfather. At school he was teased for being Jewish, while at the synagogue he was pilloried for his 'Nordic god' appearance: tall, blonde and blue-eyed. When three half-sisters came along, this only intensified his feeling of being an outsider. In his late thirties, upon taking up US citizenship, Homberger changed his surname to 'Erikson', that is, son of himself.

While Erikson paid particular attention to the formation of identity in adolescence, his great contribution was to note that the question 'Who am I?' will for the average person raise itself many times over the course of a lifetime. Freud had identified five stages of psychological development from infancy to the teenage years, but Erikson went further to cover the whole 'life cycle', with eight 'psychosocial' stages from birth to old age. As one stage ends, we experience a crisis when our identity comes into question, and at these points we can choose either growth or stagnation. Each choice, he said, lays another cornerstone in the structure of the adult personality. In fully appreciating the intensity of these turning points, Erikson shattered the myth that life after we turn 20 is one long flat line of stability.

Erikson is famous for another reason. Although Freud had written a celebrated study of Leonardo da Vinci, it was Erikson's books on Gandhi and Martin Luther that established a new genre, 'psychobiography', or the application of psychological analysis to famous people's lives.

In Luther he found an example of identity crisis par excellence.      

The Luther story in brief

Though hard to understand now, the Christian Europe of Luther's childhood and adolescence was preoccupied with the 'Last Judgment', a final accounting of one's life in which all sins would be balanced against the good. People lived in fear of going to Hell, and prayed relentlessly for the souls of those who had died. Public torture of criminals was common, as was caning and whipping of children in school. The theme of life was total obedience: to one's elders, to the Church, to God.

Into this “world-mood of guilt and sadness” as Erikson describes it, Martin Luther was born (1483). His father had come from peasant stock, but through hard work had become a small capitalist with an ownership stake in a mine. Through great thrift, Hans Luther had created a nest egg for his son's education. Martin would become a high-ranking lawyer, thereby vaulting the family out of its humble origins forever. He duly went to Latin school and did well, and at 17 entered university. In 1505 he graduated and enrolled in law school.

But while at home for the summer break, Martin was almost struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Already having misgivings about the life path laid out for him, he took the event as a sign and vowed to become a monk. His parents were devastated, but in 1501 he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

At first, all went well, as he enjoyed the holy atmosphere of the monastery. However, like any young man he was tempted by sexual thoughts and consumed by guilt. As the many Luther biographers tell it, he had some kind of panicked fit in the choir of his monastery church, crying out, 'I am not!' Erickson sees the event as indicating a classic identity crisis. He had left behind the secular career (not to mention marriage) his father had so wanted him to follow; yet now, after a promising 'Godly' beginning, the monastery path now seemed wrong as well, despite his desperate efforts to cling to his vows. He was caught in a terrible no man's land of identity. Whatever he thought he was, it is painfully clear he was not.

Yet Martin stayed with the Church, ascending quickly. He became a Doctor of Theology, and by 1515 was a vicar in charge of eleven monasteries. All the time, though, a gap was growing between his understanding of genuine spiritual faith and his perception of the Church. According to medieval Catholic doctrine, sins required some kind of worldly punishment, which could be alleviated by doing 'good works'. Even this responsibility could be sidestepped by the purchase of 'indulgences', pieces of paper sold by the Church that poured money in its coffers. Yet this issue was just the tip of the iceberg for Luther. Quite radically, he had come to the belief that the authority of the Bible (the 'Word') was far more important than the authority of an institution.

Things came to a head when, in October 1517, he nailed a document – the famous 95 Theses – to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, outlining the areas where the Church had to reform. The document was a bombshell, but might never have had the impact it did were it not for the recent invention of the printing press, which enabled this and Luther's later writings to be spread far and wide. Anyone, from peasant to prince, who had a gripe with the status quo, now had a focus. Luther became a celebrity, and his rebellion sparked off the Reformation.

Erikson's interpretation

If Luther became the great rebel who changed the face of religion and the world, what took him so long? Rebellion is usually manifested in one's younger years, but Luther was 34 by the time he properly spoke out against the Church.

Erikson's explanation is that young people must first believe in something intensely before they turn against it, and Luther was desperate to believe in the Church's divine authority. He may never have become the Church's most vocal critic unless he had first gone through the experience of complete devotion and attachment. Erikson comments that great figures in history often spend years in a passive state. From a young age they may feel that they will create a big stamp on the world, but unconsciously wait for their particular truth to form itself in their minds, until they can make the most impact at the right time. This was the case with Luther.

Erikson gives much space to a psychoanalytical discussion of Luther's relationships with his father. He surmises that Martin's courage in standing up to the Holy Roman Church can only be understood in the context of his initial disobedience to his father. Perhaps surprisingly, Erikson suggests Luther was not rebellious by nature (in fact in many ways he was reactionary), but having once disobeyed the major figure in his life, this put him on a trajectory of disobedience.

Erikson's most intriguing point is that, yes, Luther changed the world via his theological position, but that position was the result of the working out of his own personal demons and identity crises. Was he Luther the good monk, Luther the good son, or Luther the great reformer?

His need to work through his own neuroses relating to guilt, combined with a deep feeling for justice, resulted in a deep personal conviction that happened to be writ large on history.

Erikson likens major identity crises to a 'second birth', an idea he got from William James. While the once-born person 'rather painlessly fit themselves and are fitted into the ideology of their age', twice-born people are often tortured souls who seek healing in some total conversion experience that will give them direction. The positive aspect of the twice-born is that if they do successfully transform themselves, they have the potential to take the world along with them. It took a while for Luther to work out who he was, but once he had not even the Pope could stop him.

The importance of time out

Erikson considered it extremely important whether or not a society is able to accommodate youthful identity crisis. He wrote about the concept of 'moratorium', a period of time or an experience that a culture deliberately creates so a young person can 'find themselves' before embarking on proper adulthood. Today, a person may take a 'gap year' between finishing school and starting college. In Luther's time a period in the monastery gave many young men an opportunity to decide 'what one is and is going to be'.

What would have happened if Martin had done what his father wanted and entered the legal profession? He may have done well in a conventional sense, but never fulfilled his potential.

Erikson remarks that the real crisis in a person's life often comes in their late twenties, when they realize they are overcommitted to some path they feel is 'not them', even if they entered it enthusiastically in the first place. Their very success has put them into a hole that may require all their psychological strength to climb out of.

Erikson's broader point is that if you have a culture in which at certain vital junctures, people feel pressured to choose stagnation over growth, society at large will suffer. All wise cultures acknowledge the youthful identity crisis and seek to accommodate it. Though troublesome in the short term, the new ideas and energies that are unleashed by these personal turning points can bring rejuvenation, not just to he person experiencing it but to the wider community.

Luther's final crisis

Even at the height of his fame and power, Luther was still writing to his father trying to defend and justify his actions – and like his dad, in middle age and later he became something of a reactionary. The firebrand ended up in middle-class comfort, defending Germany's system of princely government and urging the peasants to accept their station in life. In outlook and habits, he remained a 'provincial' rather than a super-worldly figure. He became just as his father had wanted him to be: influential, well off, married.

You would have thought this would be the happiest time in Luther's life. In fact it ushered in what Erikson calls the mature adult crisis of 'generativity', in which one asks, has whatever I have created been worth it? Would I do it all over again, or have I wasted my years? Luther's first crisis was of pure identity; this one, Erikson notes, was of integrity. Despite being a 'great man', Luther still had to go through this phase, as every older adult inevitably does.

Erikson's point is that the issue of identity is never completely solved. When one aspect of us achieves wholeness, there is still some larger self that is trying to make sense of experience. Luther's life might be characterized as a succession of statements to himself of 'what he is not'. That, in a way, is the easy half of identity formation. We are still left with the task of deciding what we are.

Final word

How a person changes their conception of themselves over a lifetime is one of the most intriguing questions in psychology, because identity – who or what we know ourselves to be, or at least hope we are - is so fundamental.

There is a tendency to belittle someone going through an identity crisis, to emphasize the 'normality' of it. Yet Erikson's observation of Luther could be said of all of us in the same position: “He acts as if mankind were starting all over with his own beginning as an individual...To him, history ends as well as starts with him...” This may sound like the self-absorption of the adolescent, yet at all ages a person must come to some kind of resolution about where they stand in relation to the world. Unless society does what it can to assist successful passage through the major life turning points, not only will the cost be mental illness, but also the loss of potential.

The obvious danger of psychobiography is that you can read too much into a person's childhood and its effect on later life. However, the connection that Erikson makes between a severe childhood and domineering father on the one hand, and the tenor of the times in which Luther lived, is convincing. He shows that Luther's personal crises could not be separated from the social changes happening around him, and that the whole Reformation could be seen as Luther's personal issues getting worked out on a global scale. It was his own conscience, for instance, that drove him to reposition the Church as secondary to a person's direct relationship with God. And as a true believer, Luther's insistence on faith above 'good works' also reshaped Christendom.

Psychology matters, Erikson was trying to say, because history is essentially the acting out of individual psychologies.



Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books

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Erik Homberger Erikson

Born in Frankfurt in 1902, Erikson was cared for by his mother alone until her marriage to Theodor Homberger, Erik's paediatrician. The family moved to Karlsruhe in southern Germany, where Erik's three sisters were born. After school he traveled around Europe for a year before enrolling in art school. He taught art for a while in Vienna, where he met his wife Joan Serson, his life-long collaborator. In 1927 he began studying psychoanalysis at the Vienna Psycholanalytic Institute, working under Anna Freud and specializing in child psychology.

In 1933, Erikson moved to the United States, in the process changing his name. He taught for three years at Harvard Medical School and also became Boston's first child analyst. At Harvard he was strongly influenced by his friendships with anthropologists Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. He later had positions at Yale, the Menninger Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, California, and the Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Erikson's well-known studies of the Lakota and Yurok Native American peoples were made while he was at the University of California at Berkeley. After leaving Berkeley he worked in private practice for many years before returning to Harvard.

The author's breakthrough work was Childhood and Society (1950), a wide-ranging study of individuals and cultures that won the Pulitzer prize and America's National Book Award. Other books include Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) Gandhi's Truth (1970) and The Life Cycle Completed (1985).

Erikson died in 1994. ©2015 All rights reserved.
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