Roots of Individualism in Europe Essay

This essay has a total of 1195 words and 6 pages.

Roots of Individualism in Europe



Roots of Individualism in Europe

During the Middle Ages, independent thought was viewed disdainfully. Almost any idea
deviating from the status quo, largely determined by the Roman Catholic Church, was
condemned as heresy. One convicted of such a grievous offense was often excommunicated or
killed, either by means of a proper execution or by a hostile mob. However, with the
decline of the Middle Ages, the conditions arose for the birth of individualism—the
development of which can be traced through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise
of capitalism. Individualism was a radical ideological revolution that forever altered
the face of Europe and the rest of the world.

The beginning of individualism’s gradual evolution was first manifested in the Renaissance
Era. The Renaissance was a ripe time ready for change. The weakening role of the
Catholic Church led to an increase in power for the masses. Corruption plagued Church
officials and many sought theological respite elsewhere. The reemphasis of ancient Greek
and Roman texts proffered alternatives for many to satisfy their religious needs. This
helped contribute to the abolishment of the Church’s imposition of its absolute truth and
its claim to ultimate authority. As the church lost power, so did the political units.
The bonds between church and state began to erode. Feudalism declined,

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hence giving rise to new political opportunity. The noble class no longer held a monopoly
on the valued positions in society. Rather, one was able to pursue wealth and fame
through various endeavors ranging from artist to soldier.

The most empowering change of this era was the dominance of a secular attitude and the
decline of church absolutism. This secular viewpoint altered man’s reason for existence
from an otherworldly quest to an intimate, immediate appreciation for that which exists on
earth. Humanism is a primary source of individualism. Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on
the Dignity of Man” captures the essence of the humanist movement. He writes that God
gave man the ability to make of himself what he wills. Although man is capable of
depraved acts, he also possesses the profundity to distinguish him as a holy being. Pico
praises the goodness of mankind when he writes, “man is rightly called and judged a great
miracle and a wonderful creature indeed”. This Renaissance perspective varies from the
idea it replaced that held man as an intrinsically evil being. Pico’s oration,
representative of the Renaissance itself, placed a higher importance on mankind, hence
endowing members of society with a sense of pride rather than shame in their humanity. No
longer did the church determine piety and greatness, but it was the common man who was now
able to make this measurement. This represents a drastic step towards individualism.

The Reformation was an epoch that increased the right and power of the individual. As a
reaction against rampant church corruption, Martin Luther publicized complaints against
the church. Luther’s criticism sparked a revolution that resulted in the

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formation of several new religions—Lutheranism, Calvanism, Anabaptism, and Protestantism.
These new faiths undermined the church as having an absolute truth because each religion
claimed to have an absolute truth of their own, separate from their counterparts. One now
had the option to freely choose his or her faith rather than accept beliefs that were
forced upon him. Also, theology adapted from one dictatorial faith to a variety that
better suited society and its members. The people rather an establishment deemed what
theological ideas were to be embraced and rejected.

Lutheranism differs from Catholicism in the understanding and interpretation of three
major areas: determination of salvation, source of truth, and basis of the church. The
Catholic Church believed that salvation was achieved through God’s grace. In other words,
humans were at the mercy of God whether they were to be saved or not. Luther professed
that faith was the necessary element for salvation. He wrote, “Faith redeems, corrects,
and preserves our consciences so that we know that righteousness does not consist in
works… our righteousness is not in them, but in faith”. Humans, therefore, had the power
of self-determination in relation to their salvation. Through faith, one could achieve
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