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The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism*

Paul Zweig


The Wheel of Fortune is a favorite image in medieval iconography. It is an emblem of earthly insecurity, and it corresponds to a permanent anxiety in the medieval mind: a fear of unforeseeable change, of the disasters, famines, and wars which cast a shadow of apprehension over the medieval world. The Wheel of Fortune was a reminder that the greatest success, poised at the summit of the ascending arc, would be shattered tomorrow as the wheel spun full circle. Thus the legend inscribed on one anonymous image of fortune: "I have no kingdom; I will reign, I reign, I have reigned." Success was already an omen of disaster; a good year, by the logic of inconstancy, was the harbinger of a bad one. Huizinga, in his history of the declining Middle Ages, speaks of "wars and brigandage, scarcity, misery and pestilence." This mood of insecurity, symbolized by the Wheel of Fortune, lies behind the medieval dream of a divinely inspired social order. It explains the eagerness with which the Pseudo-Dionysian vision of spheres, hierarchies, and angels was adopted in the thirteenth century. "This world," condemned to perpetual change, was the realm of unreality. Misfortune and change were the work of the devil. Anything, therefore, which violated the harmony, any initiative contrary to the spoken Authorities of order, was sinful. The whole notion of sin became highly "legalistic": a question of broken rules, while "virtue," divorced from any practical experience of "grace," became an act of conformity, a "spontaneous" agreement with the framework of the official reality. The cult of Authority, during the Middle Ages, is undoubtedly rooted in this feeling of worldly insecurity. Obedience to the traditional models absolved men from responsibility for their own fates. It is a reaction described by Mircea Eliade in The Myth of the Eternal Return: the heroic model stands at the entrance to culture, an "archetype" whose authority comes from an absolute fullness of being. In "primitive" cultures, all life is regulated on the model of this mythical hero; the society is ruled by repetition. By repeating the original gestures of the hero, man neutralized time and leapt outside of change; he returned to the harmony of the "former times," by abdicating everything that was "merely" personal.

During the Middle Ages, Boethius, Augustine, the Bible, and later Aristotle, became heroic Authorities: bulwarks against new thought and against the harsh insecurity that men continued to feel. This meant, in effect, a culture based on suppressed individuality. The Church, whose obsession with orthodoxy became exacerbated at this time, gained a repressive energy unequaled before. Its antiworldly morality taught that the body was a prison, the passions a highroad to hell. Without strict obedience to Church ritual and dogma, the spirit was doomed to follow the way of its flesh into perdition. It was a simple morality, fitted to the tendency of the medieval mind to see violent contrasts in the world: Light and Darkness, Summer and Winter, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, Matter and Spirit.

The ground was well prepared for the dualist heresies of the thirteenth century, for there was an implicit Manichaeism in the way people grasped their experience of the world. The thirteenth century was a time of awakening energies. The repressive medieval vision, rooted in the cult of authority, gathered momentum now, at first condemning even the new Aristotelian spirit. It was this "police force" mentality, as Burckhardt put it, that would eventually animate the Inquisition' and witch hunts of later centuries. But this strengthening of authority drew its new harshness from a more general awakening that stirred all of European culture and led, in particular, to a revival of heretical movements unprecedented since the days of the early Church. For centuries, it would seem, the peoples of Europe had ceased to respond to their own experience. Instead they had been content to transcribe the wisdom surviving from a time when everything human and divine bad been decided once and for all. In those former days–the half-mythical memories of Rome–the world had been younger and therefore richer in signs for man.

By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, the rootless society of the early Middle Ages bad acquired a measure of stability; the feudal order had gathered riches and momentum; the Authorities of the religious and secular branches had ramified with renewed vigor. First, pioneers like Abelard, and then the Schools themselves, fortified by a new familiarity with the Aristotelian corpus, began to extend the scholastic method, to interrogate, and to follow their personal dialectics to conclusions that were often of doubtful orthodoxy. A whole tradition of vernacular literature, owing little or nothing to classical models, began to gain an audience, outside of the increasingly specialized circles of Latin culture.

The resurgence of heresy belongs to this atmosphere of renewed energies. These defections from the orthodox vision of the Schoolmen challenged the discrepancy between the dream and the reality; between the Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies and the repressive world they were meant to justify. In this unstable atmosphere of resistances, defections, and mystical enthusiasm, the undermining spirit of the individual-that creature suspect above all to the medieval mind-began to exercise itself and transmit its new experience to the modern world.

Little evidence remains of the heresies which spread through Europe for more than two centuries. The Church was a thorough-going persecutor, manipulating its secular arms with skill and consummate brutality. It dismantled the heretical sects, brought them to trial, refuted their arguments in due scholastic style, and then left behind pyres of their burned books, and more pyres for the unrepentant heretics themselves, who often leapt joyfully into the flames, like the martyrs of the early Church itself. What we know of the heresies comes, most often, from copious papers of accusation compiled by the Inquisitors, whose method of question, argument, and refutation led them to give more or less honest accounts of the doctrines they accused. This is supplemented by occasional surviving documents, which more often than not verify the accuracy of the Church records. Of all the Neognostic heresies which agitated Europe during these centuries, surely the most curious is that sect of wandering spiritual anarchists, the Heretics or Brethren of the Free Spirit.

In their lives as well as in their doctrine the Brethren expressed a spirit of subversive egotism which has rarely been surpassed; its effect was to undermine completely the medieval vision of a divinely inspired universal order. Not until the far more literary visionaries of the nineteenth century-Emerson, Stirner, Nietzsche, et al.- had begun to write, have such antisocial doctrines been expressed and widely adhered to. The Brethren of the Free Spirit offered their initiates nothing less than a prospect of self-deification, accompanied by an extreme spiritual libertinism, which, for centuries, scandalized more timid believers. From the ninety-seven counts of accusation against the Brethren made by Albertus Magnus[1] during the late thirteenth century-one of the first traces we have of the heresy to the outraged texts of Richard Baxter, the English puritan, who accused them of every "abominable filthiness of life," the Brethren of the Free Spirit willfully shocked the religious and moral sensibilities of their contemporaries.

The movement itself is difficult to trace and has, on the whole, been neglected by historians. During the repeated waves of repression that harassed the heretics during the fourteenth century, they disguised themselves so well that it became hard to distinguish them from many other groups practicing voluntary poverty. The Church was puzzled by the spread of the movement but also by its elusiveness. Papal delegates were often warned against bringing innocent victims to the stake in their zeal to stamp out the offenders. Unlike the Cathars[ 2] in Southern France, who founded a secular power and provoked a political response from the Church, the Brethren of the Free Spirit were able to disappear in the confusion of minor orders that prevailed during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They preserved their antinomian doctrine by infiltrating groups of wandering beggars known as Beghards and Beguines, who traveled throughout medieval Germany crying Brot durch Gott ("Bread for the love of God").

Their elusiveness, however, was not only a response to the persecuting monolith of the Church. The very nature of their doctrine led the heretics to live outside of society, for that doctrine embodied, essentially, a flight from social order and responsibility. The Brother of the Free Spirit was taught to assume, in and through his own exalted sensuality, a lasting communion with the highest of all Authorities: God Himself. Their doctrine of an emotionally charged divine knowledge belongs to the same current of Neoplatonic thought which, from Scotus Erigena on, had inspired more orthodox mystics such as Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, and Suso.

But the antiworldly bias of the heretics led them to blur the distinctions between God and man, as the early Gnostics had also done; they preached instead a more radical form of illumination in which the divine source and its earthly receptacle became one. The heretic underwent a permanent transfiguration of his very flesh, such as no mystic, in the usual sense, had ever aspired to. Illumination is usually described as overpowering but brief. For a moment, the self is dissolved into the sea of its God. Later the mystic recalls this flash of erotic harmony, as it continues to shed its Light over his stay in the body.

In the Christian as in the Buddhist traditions, the mystic reconciles his intense solitude with a life of good works, within the framework of the Church and of the existing society. Like St. Theresa and St. Francis, he founds monasteries; like Eckhart, he preaches. He may bring new insights and fresh attitudes to his work; he may give free reign to a spirit of criticism and innovation; but he makes terms with the world and in particular with his Church, however imperfect they may be.

The heretic of the Free Spirit accepted no compromise with the world. When, after long discipline and fasting, he had achieved unity with God, he believed his illumination was anchored permanently in the flesh, elevating his entire life onto a plane of mystical transparency. The experience of mystical knowledge was entirely renewed for the Brethren of the Free Spirit. Instead of succumbing to the weight of his "creatureliness"-a sense of the infinite nothingness of self-the heretic never ceased to exalt his transfigured individuality. With God's help, the self was transformed into a durable focus of the divine light which then could be, as Christ bad been, a kind of God on earth.

In the Liber Manualis Albertus Magnus accuses the heretics of rejecting "Christ's divinity, the authority of Scripture and Church, the value of the sacraments," because they claimed to have become more divine than Christ Himself. According to their doctrine, Albertus continues, "Man must abstain from exterior things, and follow only the signs of the spirit within." By peeling away the constraint of earthly law and necessity, the soul "can become God; the soul is eternal and can, through self-exaltation, become the principle of universal life." They believed, therefore, that "it was enough to act like Christ in order to equal Him, and to outdo in saintliness all those revered by the Church."

One result of this strange doctrine was a theory of mystical libertinism, in which self-indulgence and erotic freedom become signs of godliness. According to the indictment of Albertus Magnus, the heretic claims that "we become God in all the powers of our being, down to the last elements of our body; we must give to the body everything it violently desires." It becomes an act of cosmic piety to satisfy one's needs, a mystical joy to obey the wildest caprice of the emotions. Like the Gnostics before them, the heretics invoked St. Paul's doctrine of grace: "To the pure all is pure." But they interpreted it in keeping with their system of mystical license. Adultery, blasphemy, lying, and even murder were no longer considered to be sins. On the contrary, if they were done freely, in a state of illumination, they were so many signs that God was acting inside the ego.

During the fourteenth century, after cruel repression had forced the movement underground, a certain Johann of Brunn recanted after having lived for twenty-eight years among the heretical Beghards in Cologne. He entered the Dominican order, where he was asked, as penitence, to write a complete confession of his errors. Johann had been living with his wife in the town of Brunn, when he felt called to lead "the perfect life." He took the advice of a friend and went to live in Cologne with a community of Beghards who were widely known for their piety and observance of the Christian life. Before he was accepted in the group, however, he had to sell all his belongings and take a vow of voluntary poverty. He was then given a ragged tunic and told to beg his livelihood in the streets of Cologne, crying the watchword of the heretical Beghards, Brot durch Gott. The discipline at first was hard. He was taught to stifle every movement of the will; to spend his days in continual prayer and meditation; to engage only in acts which were distasteful to him.

But when he finally crossed the threshold of initiation, all constraint was lifted. "The free man had the right to give in to all his desires, to satisfy all his caprices: his own nature blossomed in all the works of nature. God was in him totally and corporally; all his movements were divine." Once this inner freedom was achieved, Johann continues, all humanity was thought of as a servile mass to be manipulated at will. The Brethren could steal from the weak and crippled, or "kill whoever bothered them." They lied to priests, gaining thereby a great reputation for piety. The hospices of these mendicant brothers were used for secret orgiastic ceremonies, in which God was said to descend into the very heat of the erotic excitement. The anti-worldly vision of the heretics differed from that of other medieval dualists in another important detail. Though the material world was considered to be evil, the Brethren of the Free Spirit felt that they were endowed with a mission of rehabilitation. Since their own wills were godly, they could lead worldly things back toward the light, by desiring them and using them. By indulging their desires, they not only demonstrated the presence of God in their ego, they also did a work of redemption, spreading God into the world which He had abandoned.

Johann's confession resembles the outcries that were raised in England three centuries later against the doctrines of the Ranters, who were probably the last resurgence of the medieval heresy. The Episcopalian, Edward Hyde, makes his Ranter opponent claim "that they are very God, infinite and Almighty as the very God is… That the acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing, and the like open wickedness, are in their own nature as holy and righteous as the duties of prayer and giving of thanks ... That all the women of the world are but one woman's husband in unity; so that one man may be with all the women in the world for they are her husband in unity…" Other texts by and against the Ranters give a picture of the movement consistent with Hyde's accusations. Surprisingly enough, the Ranters were often linked with another, more respectable group, the Quakers. The two sects seem to have been rivals for the same clientele; indeed, the Quakers have been credited with outbidding the libertarians and drawing off many of their adepts. The "inner light" of the Quakers, their experience of violent possession, is not unlike the gnosis of the Free Spirit; though the Quakers, of course, rejected any hint of the antinomian conclusions drawn by the heretics.

Other texts by and against the Ranters give a picture of the movement consistent with Hyde's accusations. Surprisingly enough, the Ranters were often linked with another, more respectable group, the Quakers. The two sects seem to have been rivals for the same clientele; indeed, the Quakers have been credited with outbidding the libertarians and drawing off many of their adepts. The "inner light" of the Quakers, their experience of violent possession, is not unlike the gnosis of the Free Spirit; though the Quakers, of course, rejected any hint of the antinomian conclusions drawn by the heretics.

We come now to the final audacity of the heretical vision. The Brethren of the Free Spirit did not hesitate to pursue the logic of their gnosis to its furthest extreme. Once the self had become a permanent vessel for the divine energy, it was only a step to believing that the energy originated there where it seemed to appear. Once more the self was transfigured. It had been a lens through which God expressed His light, or a receptacle harboring the divinity on earth; now it became the very light itself, the original source of all godliness. To the more exalted heretics, God Himself was an appendage to the divine will of the ego: "When God created all things, I created all things with Him ... I am more than God." The mystic Ruysbroeck puts the following words into the mouth of his heretical opponent:

When I dwelt in my original being and in my eternal essence, there was no God for me. What I was I wished to be, and what I wished to be I was. It is by my own free will that I have emerged and become what I am... God can know, wish, do nothing without me. With God I have created myself and I have created all things, and it is my band that supports heaven and earth and all creatures... Without me nothing exists.

There is undoubtedly a kind of madness in the libertarian attitudes of the Brethren. Modern psychology has given clinical names to such "delusions of grandeur" which seem to cross the line into psychosis and give rise to entirely unsocial modes of behavior. We remember that Schreber, in Freud's case history, believed that his body had become the focus of divine rays; and the crank libertarian mystic Jean Antoine Boullan, whose cult swept through eastern Europe during the nineteenth century, was found to be "a typical paranoiac, obsessed by delusions of grandeur and persecution."

The extreme unsocial behavior of the Brethren draws on energies that are normally repressed by civilized morality. It expresses a refusal of society which we associate with extreme neurosis or psychosis. Yet to call the permanent illumination of the Brethren madness is to blur several important distinctions. For one thing, the heretics organized their lives according to doctrines which were taught, either orally or by means of special documents, from generation to generation. They "learned" their mad response to the world, and shared it with other Brethren toward whom their behavior remained perfectly "normal." The utter solitude and the ego disintegration which characterize psychotics were in no way part of their experience. The English psychoanalyst, R. D. Laing, points out that a number of extreme schizoid personalities preserve their "contact" with reality by adhering to some sect, or esoteric group, whose bizarre doctrines they appropriate for themselves.

By "sharing" their system of experience they remain whole, and live their lives this side of complete isolation. Strindberg is a literary example of one who was able to make such a choice: during his entire life his strange delusions and obsessive psychological insecurity brought him close to the limits of sanity, until he found a "system" of metaphysical doctrines in the work of Swedenborg (and later the Cabalists) which allowed him to organize his madness by expressing and communicating it. Similarly, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, living in a world whose obsession with insecurity we have already described, fortified themselves by their doctrine of mystical exaltation.

A more important distinction, however, bas to do with the attitude of medieval society toward the heretics. The failure of historians to trace definite limits to their influence is instructive here, for it emphasizes not only the elusiveness of the movement but the widespread attraction it exercised over large numbers of people. The heresy is hard to pin down because it expressed an omnipresent mood, apt to crystallize almost anywhere.

Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, still found traces of the Brethren in Germany toward the end of the fifteenth century, a hundred years after the fanatical policing of Charles IV had sent hundreds of heretics to the stake. Trithemius was convinced that the founder and first adept of the heresy was a certain Tanchelm, a wild "messiah" who appeared near Antwerp during the twelfth century at the head of a ragged horde and claimed to be a reincarnation of Christ. The relation between Tanchelm and the sect of the Almoricians, who were brought to justice in Paris some sixty or seventy years later, remains a mystery. Yet the doctrines of the Almoricians leave no doubt as to their heretical allegiance. Again no link has been detected between the Parisian sect and the dominant form of the movement in Germany during the next two centuries. Nor can any be found between the German movement and the Ranters, in seventeenth-century England.

Apparently something in this strangely subversive doctrine was so attractive to medieval society that the heresy was able to flourish throughout a large portion of Europe, despite the greatest of difficulties. If the Brethren of the Free Spirit were mad, the madness was closely linked to the nature of medieval society and religion, for it awakened a new and vigorous response in those who needed to resist the oppressive authority of the feudal order. Here is where the distinction between "mental illness" and the self-exalted mood of the heretics becomes interesting. Distinctions of this kind have been made before.

The connection between neurosis and history was brilliantly analyzed by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in Young Man Luther; while, as long as a century ago, the French historian Jules Michelet described the psychic and social energies released by those medieval madwomen, les sorcières. But it is modern anthropology that has done most to broaden our understanding of the dialogue between madness and society. Claude Levi-Strauss points out that the shaman, who is a source of sacred power in certain societies, must by all Western standards be described at best as an unstable character and at worst as a psychotic delusive. Yet such a description, though true enough, entirely misses the point, he says. The shaman's folly is alive with meaning for his fellow tribesmen; it is a powerful madness, feeding its energy into precise rituals and thereby helping to preserve the spiritual health of the community. The shaman, because he is "mad," cannot live in normal society; but his madness traces a limit within which others can lead their lives, assured of that mysterious energy which the shaman has guaranteed them.

Between the shaman and the Brother of the Free Spirit there is this common genius: each enabled society to recognize a meaning in his madness; to discover its meaning and madness in his own. The idea of the exemplary neurosis or psychosis has been largely discussed in recent years. Luther's neurotic crises, and the language he found to resolve them, stirred a similar impulse in the men of his time. His religious genius enabled him to broaden the terms of his anxiety, making his problem theirs, and his solution theirs as well. The same can be said for the Heretics of the Free Spirit. Their doctrine of permanent illumination expressed a need that was everywhere on the point of being recognized; a need that had been held in suspension in the work of men like Scotus Erigena and Amaury de Bène, awaiting a voice that could dramatize it for the popular imagination. With Tanchelm, and so many anonymous heretics, that voice was found.

We find that we have qualified our initial verdict of psychosis and accepted a more puzzled sense of the relationship between certain kinds of behavior and the society in which they appear. It is useful to make such distinctions now, for the charge of insanity has often been brought against the men who will be considered in these pages. The "madness" of Whitman, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, even Pascal, has caused a great deal of ink to flow. And the diagnoses which have been made are probably correct, as far as they go. The problem is that they do not go far enough. The conversation of psychotics is, according to popular opinion, meaningless. This has not always been the case. The shaman's madness was charged with meaning for his people. During the Middle Ages, the Inquisitors did not mistake the importance of the antinomian heretics. The heretical doctrine was considered aberrant and excessive, but its meaning was not underestimated; it had to be stamped out but also refuted. Important theologians like Albert the Great countered the heretics' arguments point by point. Even the great Duns Scotus was tempted to enter the lists against them, not to accuse them of incoherence but of grave error. It is possible, in fact, to make a different "diagnosis" of the Free Spirit, one having nothing to do with mental illness.

The heresy can also be understood as an extreme resistance to every principle of order in medieval society. Against the mediation of the Church and the scholastic obsession with dogma, the Brethren offered an emotionally charged communion with God and the Gnostic experience of divine knowledge. Against a secular community in which every soul was completely identified with its place and social function, the Brethren offered the subversion of all social functions without exception. Against a Cosmos of interlocking hierarchies, rising in orderly fashion toward God, the Brethren offered a world of chaos in which the only traces of Light and order were found in their own wills and passions. Against the vision of man as the smallest unit-the microcosm-in a vast macrocosm which was the source of his humanity, the Brethren offered a self-generated, self-exalted individual who was the source of all Light in a darkened world. Between the Pseudo-Dionysian dream and the quicksand on which, for centuries, daily experience had been raised and demolished, there had opened a gap wide enough for desperation to enter, provoking new thoughts in the minds of those who had begun to doubt. A popular belief, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, held that no soul had entered Paradise since the splitting of the Churches. It is from this mood of desperation, in a world abandoned by grace, that the antiworldly, antiauthoritarian dualism of the heresies drew its strength. In the light of medieval experience, it could be argued that the heretics were far closer to the reality than were the Schoolmen with all their pomp and magnificence.


1 Albertus Magnus was also known as Albert of Cologne (1206 -1280). He was one of the widest-read and most learned men of his time. As a member of the Dominican order, he publicly defended the Dominicans against their many detractors. He engaged in extensive preaching toward the end of his life, mostly in and around Bavaria. It was in his Inquisitorial capacity as a Dominican that he confronted the Heretics of the Free Spirit.

2 The Cathars were a heretical Christian sect that flourished in many parts of western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their stronghold was southern France where, for one hundred years, they managed to supplant the orthodox Church almost entirely. The Cathars inherited the radical dualism of the early Gnostics, probably through a chain of obscure historical influences-neognostical sects are known to have survived for one thousand years in parts of eastern Europe. The Church of the Cathars declined in the thirteenth century, after Simon de Monfort led a crusade against them (the Albigensian Crusade), burning and destroying all of their strongholds in southern France. The Dominicans were first formed by the Catholic Church in order to combat the influence of the Cathars, using methods of Inquisition conceived for that purpose. The Dominicans also imitated the piety and poverty for which the Cathars were known.

The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism

Paul Zwieg
Princeton University Press, 1960

Excerpts appearing on these pages are from the Paperback Edition (Princeton, 1980)

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