Sunday, 22 January 2012 09:17

Erich Fromm: Men Of Ideas

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Erich Fromm wrote many books, well over thirty and tons of articles. However, one theme runs through all his writings: human beings are afraid of freedom. People, at the conscious level, say that they desire freedom but unconsciously are really afraid of freedom. To be free is to seem separated from God, nature, and other people. This separation makes people feel like they did something wrong. They feel that God, nature, other people would punish them for moving away from them. To avoid punishment they relinquish their freedom and return to the womb of society. People do all sorts of crazy things to be accepted by other people and by what they call God. The goal for psychology is to enable people to accept their individuation and deal with the attendant existential guilt, anxiety and depression and not seek ways to return to herd mentality, Fromm says.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Erich Pinchas Fromm (1900-1980) was born in Germany and studied sociology and later studied psychoanalysis.

Fromm appeared to have one abiding interest, an unrelenting obsession: how to encourage freedom in human beings.

As he sees it, human beings have love-hate relationship with freedom. On the one hand, they want freedom; on the other hand, they do not want to be free.

Human beings do not want to be free because of the consequences of freedom. Unable to tolerate the consequences of freedom everywhere human beings attempt to Escape from Freedom (the title of Fromm’s first and, perhaps, most important book); people try to squelch freedom.

Even in what they call their love life, marriages, relationships etc what people are really doing is finding ways to destroy their individual freedom. Man must be taught a different meaning of love; he must be shown love where freedom is not destroyed, and Fromm set out doing that in his most popular book, The Art of Love.

Erich Fromm is a Jew and came from a long line of Talmud (Old Testament part of the Bible) scholars and rabbis. He studied the Bible (the Old Testament portion of it that Jews and Christians have in common). Though at age 26 he declared himself no longer bound to religion clearly his study of the bible influenced his entire life and writing.

Fromm began his examination of the human condition by reinterpreting the story of creation in Genesis (Bible). In that story Adam and Eve are said to have disobeyed the will of God by eating a fruit that God asked them not to eat and, as a result, were cursed by God and driven from the Garden of Eden (from heaven).  Right there, this story tells us that freedom of choice is forbidden by the Christian God.

As Fromm sees it, the Judaic and Christian God is an authoritarian character who wants his children to obey him and if they disobey him punishes them.  The implication of the Adam and Eve creation myth and God’s angels chasing them out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying him is that we, as the children of God, are, therefore, expected to obey God and should be afraid to exercise freedom from our father God’s dictates knowing that he is an authoritarian, angry God who would punish us should we seek freedom (to eat any fruit we desire) from his dictates.

We can replace the term God with Nature. In this more impersonal light, Adam and Eve separated from nature. Nature is unified; nature is a whole. Human beings did something wrong by separating from nature. Nature must punish them for destroying its unity.

Human beings are those creatures who although they are part of nature feel apart from nature. We feel individuated. Each of us feels like he has individuality, is unique and isn’t connected to other people and certainly not to nature. Each of us feels man alone in the universe.

This sense of separation from nature (from God), apparently, makes us feel like we did something bad to nature (and to nature’s God). Apparently, God and nature would rather we were not differentiated from it, not separated from it.  As it were, God wants to punish us for separating from him.(as he allegedly punished Adam and Eve for disobeying him, chasing them out of the Garden of abundance and cursing them to make their living by the sweat of their labor).  For God to like and provide for us we must obey and not separate from him.

Adam and Eve separated from God, nature and feel guilty and ashamed (ashamed from being naked).  Fromm thinks that this phenomenon is repeated throughout our lives, that we seek separation from nature and God and fear doing so, for we are afraid of God punishing us. Separation makes us feel guilty. Since freedom is synonymous with separation we are therefore afraid of freedom, afraid of God’s punishment.

We separated from God and the consequence is human beings on planet earth. But knowing that separation is a sin (original sin) and is punishable by God, human beings contrived to destroy their separated lives.  In primitive society human beings, apparently, found ways to bind each other to the group. There was no individuality in the primitive group (so Fromm thought).

In primitive society, people defined themselves as members of a family, kindred, village, town, clan etc and did not see themselves as separated from those. They conformed to whatever their group would approve. They dared not have individuated thoughts and behavior for that brings about separation and punishment from the group.

Simply stated, existentially, to separate from the group is to feel like one did something wrong, to feel guilty and to expect the group (God) to punish one.

The forces of civilization, such as industrial revolution, urbanization, breakdown of families etc, on the other hand, push us away from each other. We now live in cities where we do not even know our next door neighbors. We are not connected to each other; we are strangers sharing the same space. In a word, modern life makes us individuated.

One would think that individuation would be desired since it enhances our freedom. Whereas living in a primitive band where all people minded all peoples business squelched the desire to do things differently, living in an anomic city where ones next door neighbors does not know who one is and frankly do not even care whether one is alive or dead (folk die and rot in their apartments and their neighbors only know so when they smell the rotting body) would make people happy to feel free and unchained by the group. But this is not so, Fromm said.

We are afraid of freedom, for in freedom we feel separated from other people, from God and from nature and in that state of separation feel guilty and expect punishment. Freedom makes us feel guilty and expect punishment. Therefore, we do not cherish freedom, as we should.

Instead of looking forward to freedom we do all sorts of crazy things to destroy it.  In relationships we join with each other and manage to stifle each others freedom. Two people say that they are in love, but they do not know what love is. They are two people who are afraid of freedom and are trying to escape from freedom. They form a sadomasochistic relationship where they destroy their freedom.

In our various symbiotic relationships one party acts as the authoritarian powerful one (usually the male) and the other acts as a submissive masochistic one (usually the female). Thus, two people agree (unconsciously) to destroy their nascent freedom and call what they are doing love.  They are not in love; they are at war and are attacking each other trying to destroy each others freedom. No wonder folk in these thwarting relationships are angry at each other!

Love, as Fromm sees it, is first accepting ones independence and from the position of independence doing what serves ones interests and serves other peoples interests; caring for ones self and caring for other people. Love is relating to other people in such a way that they are helped while one feels independent from them. Love is joining with other people in a mutually caring manner without destroying ones independence or the other person’s independence in a misguided desire to escape from freedom.

At the larger societal level, folk join religious groups, work groups, political parties and other associations in an effort to destroy each others freedom. Folk enter these sadomasochistic associations and have some played the role of sadists and others the role of masochists.

In the Roman Catholic Church and the Nazi party (they are the same); the leaders of the organization play the role of sadists telling the led (masochists) what to do. Those they lead gladly follow their directions. Even when they are told to do what is not in their best interests they still obey their so-called leaders.  In this light, the Catholic Church tells people that they should keep quiet while pedophilic homosexual priests abuse their six year old children!

The Nazis saw the state as the only thing that matters (Hegel said that the state is the absolute idea, making the state God) and construed the individual as existing to serve the will of the state (the will of the leaders of the nation).  Perceiving people as raw materials for attaining the leaders will, Nazis used the people to fight wars and could care less for their welfare.

Yet the people followed these authoritarian organizations! Why?  Fromm thinks that the reason is because people are afraid of freedom; people feel guilty from being free; freedom means separation from other people, from nature and from and God that makes people fearful. To separate from the whole, God, society, is to do bad and bad people are punished.

To avoid God and society’s punishment people agree to let go of their freedom and run into organizations (be it marriages or religions or political parties) that squelch their freedom.

As Fromm sees it, it was good that Adam and Eve separated from God; it is good that we are emancipated from nature. It is in freedom that our minds are liberated to think and are developed. Therefore, despite our drive to relinquish freedom we have to be taught to embrace freedom.

Fromm made these points in his first book, Escape from Freedom and essentially repeated them in his several books. Sometimes, reading his many books is boring for one feels that one is reading the same thesis, over and over again.

Essentially, Fromm’s ideology is that human beings ought to embrace their freedom and give up their wish to return to the womb of nature (to undifferentiated heaven, God, society).

Folk find all sorts of ways to warp and stunt their personalities, all in an effort to conform to the group, so as to avert the consequences of freedom. Read Loman’s character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Sales Man. In that book Miller described the quintessential American character.

Americans want to be accepted by other people (David Riesman called them “other directed” persons, W.Whyte called them organization men) and are afraid of individuation. They would do any and everything to be accepted by the group. Social rejection makes them anxious.

Americans talk about individualism as their dominant character trait but the first thing you notice about them is that they are cattle, literally; they do what their foolish leaders urge them to do; they have no will to independence.

Fromm said that the dominant character of Americans is marketing personality. Fromm also described other forms of personalities, but essentially they are all efforts to get social approval and avoid rejection.

There is one character type that Fromm called exploitative personality (what we now call antisocial personality disorder). Every observer soon notices that Americans are either narcissistic conformists or are antisocial personalities.

The antisocial personality takes from other people, exploits other people to get what he wants. He does not care for other people and does not feel guilt or remorse from exploiting others. (They did not feel bad from killing Indians and taking over their lands and using Africans to develop the land.)

Does the antisocial personality cherish freedom? Do Americans love freedom even though they claim to be the land of the free and brave? Not at all; the antisocial personality is as dependent as the conformist who warps his personality to get other folk to like him.

As Fromm sees it, the best personality is the productive personality, the person who has accepted his independence and does not feel guilty from separating from other people but finds a way to reconnect to other people by doing what serves social interests.  Such a person figures out what he likes doing and has aptitude in doing and does it as social service. He serves other people not out of guilt but because it makes sense to give to a suffering world.

Fromm’s social psychology lent itself to political activism. Indeed, he is considered a political psychologist (along with Harold Laswell).  He is a political psychologist in the sense that he points out how folk behave in social and political groups, and why they join political parties (ideally to articulate their mutual goals, but, in fact, to squelch their individuality).

Fromm was a member of the American socialist party and worked for socialist courses. However, he differentiated between Soviet socialism and what he called humanistic socialism. To Fromm, Soviet socialism and American capitalism are two sides of the same viral coin, ideologies to be expunged from this world.

Fromm was so disgusted with America that he left it for Mexico City.  (He ran to America to escape Nazi persecution.) See, the richest country in the world does not provide health insurance for fifty million Americans.

Fromm was not really a Freudian in the sense of making much ado about the unconscious and sexual matters in the unconscious. He merely used psychoanalysis and socialism to understand human beings and used his understanding to talk about building an ideal society, a society according to Karl Marx from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs, a world where folk worked only six hours a day and studied science and enjoyed the arts, having access to high culture (which, at present, only the rich has).

Fromm was an excellent scholar; he had a wealth of knowledge. His writing showed breadth of reading that is not always found in so-called psychoanalysts (and their reductionistic approach to a complex creature called man). Fromm is a welcome read. Read his many books and feast your eyes on excellent scholarship.


Fromm, Erich (1941) Escape from Freedom. New York: Rinehart.

Fromm, Erich. (1956) the Art of Love. New York: Rhinehart.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176