In “The Heart of Man”, Erich Fromm relates social narcissism to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Renaissance, in an illuminating discussion on the nature of periods of Renaissance which might give us clues to the nature of a New Renaissance.
Humanism and Fanaticism
When considering narcissism in large groups, such as major religions, Fromm suggests that there are counteracting forces of narcissism and anti-narcissism at work. He uses the Roman Catholic Church as an example, the personal humility that is at the heart of Christ’s teaching being at the opposite end of the scale to the intense narcissism of a church that believes it is the only chance of salvation and its officers provide the only path to God.
During the 15/16th centuries:
“The humanists within the Church and those outside spoke in the name of a humanism which is the fountainhead of Christianity. Nicholas of Cusa preached religious tolerance… Ficino taught that love is the fundamental force of all creation… Erasmus demanded mutual tolerance and democratisation of the church… Pico della Mirandola spoke of man’s dignity, reason, virtue and capacity for self perfection… They fought for tolerance and peace.”
“Against them stood the forces of fanaticism on both sides: that of Luther and that of the Church. The humanists tried to avoid the catastrophe; eventually the fanatics on both sides won. Religious persecution and war, culminating in the disastrous Thirty Years War, were a blow to humanist development from which Europe has still not recovered… [written in 1960]”
The fanatics on both sides hated each other.
“The essence of this overestimation of one’s own position and hate for all who differ from it is narcissism… “We” are good; “they” are evil…”
From the Renaissance onward, Fromm suggests that the development of group narcissism has vastly outstripped that of humanism, assuming manifold forms:
“Protestants against Catholics, French against Germans, whites against blacks, Aryans against non Aryans, communists against capitalists… psychologically we deal with the same narcissistic pheomenon and its resulting fanaticism and destructiveness.”
Over this period humanism has also developed
“In the 18th and 19th centuries – from Spinoza, Leibnitz, Rousseau, Herder, Kant, to Goethe and Marx… the thought developed that mankind is one… that there must be no privileged groups…
the evolution of scientific thought undermines narcissism… requires seeing the world as it is…”
The two world wars represented the culmination of the rise of narcissism, bringing the world to the abyss.
The New Renaissance
I won’t go further into Fromm’s analysis of the great significance of narcissism, referring the reader to his book, mentioned above.
My point is that this phenomenon of group narcissism is shown by Fromm’s suggestive history to be the great enemy of periods of Renaissance and human development – and the causative agent in destructive wars.
We should regard the present day resurgence of forms of this destructive aspect of collective human psychology with the greatest alarm and caution. It must be resisted, just as the Nazis were in their day resisted.