Today, we face a culture that has fallen under the spell of the “cult of self,” but this malady is not unique to our era. In the early 16th century, Martin Luther proposed a remedy for this psychological ailment.
If Luther were Batman, then fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon would be his Robin. However, unlike the traditionally cheerful Robin, Melanchthon suffered from “melancholia,” or depression. During Melanchthon’s bouts of depression, Luther would direct him extra nos, or “outside of himself,” toward Christ and everything Christ implied, including his church, the sacraments, and the Scriptures.
Five hundred years later, Luther’s advice could not be more timely. Depression and suicide are on the rise. The problem encompasses even the youngest members of society, with preschoolers receiving diagnoses of depression. Despite pharmaceutical innovations to manage depression, many people also seek escape through the misuse of opioids and marijuana.
The problem now, as in Luther’s day, is simple. The problem is us. The enemy is our devotion to the “self.”
The Rise of the Self in the Early Middle Ages
Far from being a time of intellectual darkness, rigid ecclesiastical teaching, and oppressive mores, the early medieval period was a time of intense dynamism. Contact with other cultures, expanding trade networks, the rise of the university, and relative peace allowed for cultural flourishing.
Some scholars point to the 12th century as the time when the self became an increasingly important concept. One clever scholar even points to the rising popularity of the mirror as the turning point in Western history. During the 1300s, several movements emphasizing the self flourished, cultivating the opportunity for Luther to discover a different path.
The first of these movements was “Scholasticism,” an intellectual movement which worked with a Neoplatonic translation of Aristotle. Neoplatonism was the self-help philosophy of the ancient world, putting the focus on the self’s journey from multiplicity to the “One,” or beatific vision of God. Monasticism, under the practical influence of Benedictine discipline and the intellectual tradition erected by philosophers like Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius, had long established Neoplatonism as the intellectual framework for considering theological and philosophical questions. When Aristotle reached European intellectuals via Arab translations in the 12th century, the major intellectual movement to emphasize the self began to develop.
The second such movement was the “cult of Eros,” which arose in conjunction with the Gnostic movement of Catharism. The religion of love, or “amor,” nicely contrasted with the church of Rome —“Roma” is even amor spelled backward.
After the Cathar movement was brutally suppressed, many scholars argue, the troubadour movement sublimated Catharism’s Gnostic doctrinal themes in its erotic literature. The troubadour’s “Lady” became a stand in for the Gnostic Sophia, or the Cathar Mary. As the self seeks salvation from this sad world, it finds that salvation in the divine feminine.
Joachim of Fiore established a third movement, when he laid down the theology that gave rise to the many millenarian movements of the 1300s. His view that a new age was dawning helped to contribute to the rise of the self.
This new age would be an “age of the Spirit” to replace the church age of the Son, even as the church age of the Son replaced the Old Testament age of the Father. In the age of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit would have direct contact with the self. No longer would the church mediate between God and any individual; the self would have direct access to God, cooperating with God to bring about the dawning new age.
The fourth movement was initiated by the rediscovery of Hermeticism, a more practical Gnosticism that employed magic as a means of self-discovery. From Hermeticism came alchemy, for instance, which sought to rarefy the golden soul from the leaden constraints of the flesh and reconstitute that soul through enlightened thinking.
Each of these movements put high demands on the self. One can see how Luther absorbed this emphasis on the self through his vocation as a monk, and how such emphasis on the self led to the pathologies that gave rise to his despair. More broadly, the influence of these movements helps to explain Melanchthon’s tendency to bouts of depression: despair and depression — melancholia — are the self’s chief works.
Melancholy Entails Longing for Something More
Hermeticist Giordano Bruno (celebrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson as a prophet of modern cosmological understandings) understood the melancholic disposition as a necessary byproduct of the Gnostic seeker. The melancholic soul is more prone to vacatio, that habit of leaving the body behind to drift into thoughts, imaginations, and fantasies.
Bruno’s critical insight is that depression has a seductive sweetness to it, because it rests in an unmet yearning for something this world can never provide. At best, this “something” can emerge in the consciousness through the phantasm, appearing to the soul through art or poetry, giving the self a constant yearning for a horizon it can never quite attain.
The Sufis, Islamic Gnostics, embrace melancholy in similar fashion, one Sufi claiming that “Longing can so easily be misunderstood as a psychological problem, even a depression. One who suffers it can feel rejected and isolated, not realizing that longing is the greatest gift because it does not allow us to forget Him whom he heart loves.” We’re back to the cult of eros, which explains how our word “passion” evolved.
The idea is the enlightened self suffers a pained, Christlike longing to be reunited to Sophia, the archetypal Gnostic messenger from the great beyond, who reaches down and saves us from this corrupt world ruled by demons. This Sophia is the subject of poems of the troubadours, of the Romantic poets, and even of modern rock ballads.
Under this Gnostic perspective, the cross becomes an emblem of the self’s dying to this world, not because of the self’s sins, but because the self exists in the first place. Humans should not be divided, existing as multiple individuals, imprisoned in the flesh. We should exist as pure, disembodied “self” beings in a harmonious otherworld. Achieving this requires death, a bittersweet, pained exit from our flesh and blood existence.
This Sophia archetype reveals her face in flesh and blood stand-ins, leading to a “hook-up” view of sexuality. In a hook-up culture, the impassioned lover is in love with love. No flesh and blood lover can fully incarnate this archetype; so the lover melancholically goes from one partner to the next.
Those addicted to pornography or Tinder embody this Gnostic ideal, sadly moving from one disembodied phantasm to the next, ever on the hunt for that bitter-sweet, illusive love.
A cocktail of insufficiently explored psychic energies has been unleashed in a world spending untold hours a day in a media-generated, disembodied fantasy-land. Understanding Gnosticism and the rising cult of the self in the West allows us to better understand our Neognostic age.
Luther would say in rising rates of suicide and depression occur because people “curve in” on themselves, wallowing in a narcissistic pursuit of self-fulfillment, something no different than the mystical Neoplatonic program of the old monks. In a strange way, we have a new monasticism, the isolation of self through media, which can only result in the same pathologies Luther recognized in himself.
Of course, our understanding of love and marriage would be completely perverted if we contemplate it in the disembodied context of digital media. We’re becoming a society of Romeos, finding our only release from the bondage of Eros in death. Being in love with love is to love a mirage of our projected, idealized self. Such a pursuit is not only exhausting, but wholly lacks true fulfillment.
How Martin Luther’s Advice Can Save a Love-sick West
Returning to Luther’s counsel to Melanchthon: “Get outside yourself!” For Luther, this meant getting out of the monastery, getting married, and being “other”-directed. His doctrine of vocatio was the answer to vacatio. That is, one’s vocation — as a father, mother, child, employee, pastor, lay person, etc. — directed one’s attention away from self toward neighbor.
Re-establishing external reality as a sanctified locus of our focus (I claim that phrase first, Jesse Jackson!) offers the remedy our culture needs, as well as a healthy critical approach to the new fantasy worlds inaugurated by digital media.
Our culture suffers from lack of attention to external reality. Younger generations don’t know how to garden, work on cars, engage in basic conversation, or care for others. The trades suffer from the younger generation’s lack of interest, despite the promise of huge incomes. These problems arise because young people mainly engage the world through an internalized, two-dimensional, manufactured reality.
Christians especially should consider the implications of a God who became flesh, who sanctifies the glorious and distinct beings comprising external reality. He, after all, is the “Logos,” or Being, who brought about and secures the “logoi,” or beings, of the created external order. Because of him, our “neighbor” becomes an object of love, not a character in our own psychic dramas. He draws us out of ourselves and into himself, the glorious “other.”
Get outside yourself! For the Christian, reclaim the historic, orthodox, non-gnostic understanding of Christ, and heed the call away from self and the media-manufactured fantasy world. Turn to your neighbors and the external world. Perhaps you’ll also find that joyful draw toward the Logos which, with genuine catechesis, can save your soul.