Erich Fromm: On Choosing Life

Erich Fromm The Heart of ManThe person who fully loves life is attracted by the process of growth in all spheres. He prefers to construct rather than to retain. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new to the security of finding confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. His approach to life is functional rather than mechanical. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, by his example: not by force, by cutting things apart, by the bureaucratic manner of administering people as if they were things. He enjoys life in all its manifestations rather than mere excitement. (47)

I love this. I am also sorry in a way that I separated it from the discussion of pathology and evil, because Fromm is no motivational poster writer. But I love that he puts as much thought into what a good life is like as he does a bad one — drawing out both sides of the dialectic. Like a good Marxist, too, Fromm looks beyond our inner psyche to the physical, material conditions needed for what he calls biophilia  or the love of life, both those that emerge from the material and emotional conditions of our relationships:

warm, affectionate contact with others during infancy; freedom, and absence of threats; teaching — by example rather than preaching — of the principles conducive to inner harmony and strength; guidance in the “art of living”; stimulating influence of and response to others; a way of life that is genuinely interesting. (51)

And those emerging from the material conditions of our society:

Abundance versus scarcity …. abolition of injusticefreedomsecurity in the sense that the basic material conditions for a dignified life are not threatened, justice in the sense that nobody can be an end for the purposes of another, and freedom in the sense that each man has the possibility to be an active and responsible member of society. (52-53)

Fromm sees a (Marxist) humanism as counter to both individual and group narcissism. He describes the Thirty Years War (I confess, I almost never think of the Thirty Years War) as a blow to humanism that Europe has still not recovered from — on the one side philosophers like Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau, Herder, Kant, Goethe, Marx —

the thought developed that mankind is one, that each individual carries within himself all of humanity, that they must be no privileged groups claiming that their privileges are based on their intrinsic superiority. (83)

Though I’ve just finished Mills’ A Racial Contract, and that adds a n interesting, and necessary, twist in the ways this has primarily been a white humanism.

As I mentioned in the last post, for Fromm the great humanist religions also, most radically in Buddhism

It is the goal of man to overcome one’s narcissism. (88)

He is hopeful:

…the idea of the equality of all men, hence of their freedom and dignity, has conquered the world, and it is unthinkable that mankind could ever return to the concepts which dominated civilized history until only a short time ago. (91)

To ‘cure’ narcissism is to transfer it from individual or group to humankind as a whole

man has the possibility to create the material conditions for a dignified life for everybody… The development of technique will do away with the need for one group to enslave and exploit another; it has already made war obsolete as an economically rational action; man will for the first time emerge from his half-animal state to a fully human one, and hence not need narcissistic satisfaction to compensate for his material and cultural poverty. (92)

Again, I think Mills demonstrates convincingly the ways that racism and white supremacy have twisted the wider notion of full humanity,

Our own awareness is usually confined to that the society of which we are members permits us to be aware. Those human experiences which do not fit into this picture are repressed. Hence our consciousness represents mainly our own society and culture, while our unconscious represents the universal man in each of us. (93)

Freedom, Determinism, Alternativism

This chart sums up beautifully the aspects of Fromm’s argument, and the psychoanalytic threads that I have left to one side to focus on narcissism.
Erich Fromm

There are long discussions about the nature of (hu)man, the essence of (hu)man (there is the relentless male pronoun in Fromm which I don’t like, but is of its time). Fromm argues that it

can be solved by defining the essence of man not as a given quality or substance, but as a contradiction inherent in human existence.(116)

He continues:

man is both body and soul… it is not enough to see this conflict as the essence of man…and that by virtue of which man is man. It is necessary to go beyond… and to recognize  that the very conflict in man demands a solution. … What can man do to cope with this fright inherent in his existence? What can man do to find a harmony to liberate him from the torture of aloneness, and to permit him to be at home in the world, to find a sense of unity?

I quite love this:

There are a number of answers … I want to stress again that none of these answers as such constitutes the essence of man; what constitutes the essence is the question and the need for an answer… (117)

There may be many answers, but only two directions:

The regressive answer … he can try to return to where he came from — to nature, to animal life… He can try and do away with that which makes him human and yet tortures him: his reason and self-awareness. (117)

the progressive solution, that of finding a new harmony not by regression but by the full development of all human forces, of the humanity within oneself. (118)

Thus there is a choice all of us have to make, a power we hold over our own lives — which brings forth the question of just how much choice do we actually have? How much power?

Whether we apply determinism to social groups and classes or to individuals, have not Freudian and Marxist analysis shown how weak man is in his battle against determining instinctive and social forces? … Yet neither Marx nor Freud were determinists in the sense of believing in an irreversibility of causal determination. They both believed in the possibility that a course already initiated can be altered. They both saw this possibility of change rooted in man’s capacity for becoming aware of the forces which move him behind his back, so to speak, and thus enabling him to regain his freedom. Both were – like Spinoza, by whom Marx was influenced considerably – determinists and indeterminists, or neither determinists nor indeterminists. Both proposed that man is determined by the laws of cause and effect, but that by awareness and right action he can create and enlarge the realm of freedom. It is up to him to gain an optimum of freedom and to extricate himself from the chains of necessity. For Freud the awareness of the un-conscious, for Marx the awareness of socioeconomic forces and class interests, were the conditions for liberation; for both, in addition to awareness, an active will and struggle were necessary conditions for liberation. (126-127)

This…we liberate ourselves. Yet still weighted down with the circumstances we are born into and the history of our times. When we make a miss-step, it is corrected through owning the mistake and then right action rather than guilt (if only liberals could learn that, it seems a very valuable post-election lesson)

“Responsibility” is mostly used to denote that I am punishable or accusable … There is another concept of responsibility, however, which has no connection with punishment or “guilt.” In this sense responsibility only means “I am aware that I did it.” In fact, as soon as my deed is experienced as “sin” or “guilt” it becomes alienated. It is not I who did this, but “the sinner,” “the bad one,” that “other person” who now needs to be punished; not to speak of the fact that the feeling of guilt and self-accusation creates sadness, self-loathing, and loathing of life. This point has been beautifully expressed by one of the great Hasidic teachers, Isaac Meier of Ger:

“Whoever talks about and reflects upon an evil thing he has done, is thinking the vileness he has perpetrated, and what one thinks therein is one caught – with one’s whole soul – one is caught utterly in what one thinks, and so he is still caught in vileness. And he will surely not be able to turn, for his spirit will coarsen and his heart rot, and besides this, a sad mood may come upon him. What would you? Stir filth this way and that, and it is still filth. To have sinned or not to have sinned – what does it profit us in heaven? In the time I am brooding on this, I could be stringing pearls for the joy of heaven. That is why it is written: “Depart from evil, and do good” – turn wholly from evil, do not brood in its way, and do good. You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.”

It is in the same spirit that the Old Testament word chatah, usually translated as meaning “sin,” actually means “to miss” (the road); it lacks the quality of condemnation which the words “sin” and “sinner” have. Similarly, the Hebrew word for “repentence” is teschubah, meaning “return” (to God, to oneself, to the right way), and it also lacks the implication of self-condemnation… (128-129)

This is the point I think — it is good action that counterbalances bad action, rather than meditations on responsibility and long sessions of I’m sorry.

Freedom is not a constant attribute which we either “have” or “have not.” In fact, there is no such thing as “freedom” except as a word and an abstract concept. There is only one reality: the act of freeing ourselves in the process of making choices. In this process the degree of our capacity to make choices varies with each act, with our practice of life. Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative… (136)

I will end with this, and the hope that we all recognise the forks in the road when we face them…

most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot live a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. (138)

[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]





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