Notes on Erich Fromm's Fear of Freedom

1. Freedom - A Psychological Problem?
2. The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom
3. Freedom in the Age of the Reformation Reformation
3.1 Medieval Background and the Renaissance Medieval Renaissance
3.2 The Period of the Reformation Reformation
4 The Two Aspects of Freedom for Modern Man  
5. Mechanisms of Escape:

    5.1. Authoritarianism

    5.2. Destructiveness

    5.3. Automation Conformity

6. Psychology of Nazism Hitler
6 Freedom and Democracy  
5.1 The Illusion of Individuality  
5.2 Freedom and Spontaneity  
Appendix: Character and the Social Process


1. Freedom - A Psychological Problem?

Fromm criticises Freud for reducing social relationships to sex ("an exchange of satisfaction of biologically given needs" Fromm, E. 1942 p.9)

Contrary to Freud:

"the key of psychology is that of the specific kind of relatedness of the individual towards the world and not that of the satisfaction of this or that instinctual need per se"

"Although there are certain needs, such as hunger, thirst, sex, which are common to man, those drives which make for the difference in men's characters, like love and hatred, the lust for power and the yearning for submission, the enjoyment of sensuous pleasure and the fear of it, are all products of the social process." ( Fromm, E. 1942 p.9)

"Physiologically conditioned needs" (like hunger, thirst, the need for sleep) are compelling, but the "need to be related to the world outside oneself.. to avoid aloneness" is just as compelling. ( Fromm, E. 1942 p.13- 15).

"... different kinds of work require entirely different personality traits and make for different kinds of relatedness to others. When a man is born, the stage is set for him: He has to eat and drink, and therefore he has to work; and this means he has to work under the particular conditions and in the ways that are determined for him by the kind of society into which he is born."

The need to avoid "moral isolation" - to relate to one's society and culture "is.. rooted.. in the very essence of the human mode and practice of life." ( Fromm, E. 1942 p.9)

According to Fromm, the most decisive moment in history is the identification of "self" as opposed to "nature". At this point people become responsible for their own fate - At this point they become afraid - the "fear of freedom" begins at the point of recognizing ones own responsibility for one's own fate. (See chapter 2: The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom)

This process of "individuation" reached its peak in modern history in the centuries between the Reformation and the present. ( Fromm, E. 1942 p.9)

Historically there have been two ways of resolving the tension:

A) by taking responsibility for self within a context of reason (Renaissance liberalism in its best sense)

B) Abandoning the self. Retreat into "sado-masochistic dependence". This is the repressed form of the instinct to relate to other people it takes the cultural form of fascism

2. The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom

3.2 The Period of the Reformation

4 The Two Aspects of Freedom for Modern Man

The chapter on the Reformation argued that protestantism was

"an answer to psychic needs which in themselves were brought about by the collapse of the medieval social system and by the beginnings of capitalism"

"The analysis centred about the problem of freedom in its twofold meaning; it showed that freedom from the traditional bonds of medieval society, though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity"

Appendix: Character and the Social Process
Fromm, E. 1942 p.239-

"In studying the psychological reactions of a social group we deal with the character structure of the members of the group, that is, of individual persons; we are interested, however, not in the peculiarities by which these persons differ from each other, but in that part of their character structure that is common to most members of the group. We can call this character the social character. The social character necessarily is less specific than the individual character. In describing the latter we deal with the whole of the traits which in their particular configuration form the personality structure of this or that individual. The social character comprises only a selection of traits, the essential nucleus of the character structure of most members of a group which has developed as the result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group. Although there will be always 'deviants' with a totally different character structure, the character structure of most members of the group are variations of this nucleus, brought about by the accidental factors of birth and life experience as they differ from one individual to another. If we want to understand one individual most fully, these differentiating elements are of the greatest importance. However, if we want to understand how human energy is channelled and operates as a productive force in a given social order, then the social character deserves our main interest."

"The concept of social character is a key concept for the understanding of the social process. Character in the dynamic sense of analytic psychology is the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular mode of existence of a given society. Character in its turn determines the thinking, feeling, and acting of individuals. To see this is somewhat difficult with regard to our thoughts, since we all [240] tend to share the conventional belief that thinking is an exclusively intellectual act and independent of the psychological structure of the personality. This is not so, however, and the less so the more our thoughts deal with ethical, philosophical, political, psychological or social problems rather than with the empirical manipulation of concrete objects. Such thoughts, aside from the purely logical elements that are involved in the act of thinking, are greatly determined by the personality structure of the person who thinks. This holds true for the whole of a doctrine or of a theoretical system as well as for a single concept, like love, justice, equality, sacrifice. Each such concept and each doctrine has an emotional matrix and this matrix is rooted in the character structure of the individual."

Fromm, E. 1942 p.247-

... At this point we can restate the most important differences between the psychological approach pursued in this book and that of Freud. The first point of difference [is that] : we look upon human nature as essentially historically conditioned, although we do not minimize the significance of biological factors and do not believe that the question can I be put correctly in terms of cultural versus biological factors. In the second place, Freud's essential principle is to look upon man as an entity, a closed system, endowed by nature with certain physiologically conditioned drives, and to interpret the development of his character as a reaction to satisfactions and frustrations of these drives; whereas, in our opinion, the fundamental approach to human personality is the understanding of man's relation to the world, to others, to nature, and to himself. We believe that man is primarily a social being, and not, as Freud assumes, primarily self-sufficient and only secondarily in need of others in order to satisfy his instinctual needs. In this sense, we believe that individual psychology is fundamentally social psychology or, in Sullivan's terms, the psychology of interpersonal relationships; the key problem of psychology is that of the particular kind of relatedness of the individual towards the world, not that of satisfaction or frustration of single instinctual desires. The problem of what happens to man's instinctual desires has to be understood as one part of the total problem of his relationship towards the world and not as the problem of human personality. Therefore, in our approach, the needs and desires that centre about the [p.248] individual's relations to others, such as love, hatred, tenderness, symbiosis, are the fundamental psychological phenomena, while with Freud they are only secondary results from frustrations or satisfactions of instinctive needs.

The difference between Freud's biological and our own social orientation has special significance with regard to the problems of characterology. Freud - and on the basis of his findings, Abraham, Jones, and others - assumed that the child experiences pleasure at so-called erogenous zones (mouth and anus) in connection with the process of feeding and defecation ; and that, either by over-stimulation, frustration, or constitutionally intensified sensitivity, these erogenous zones retain their libidinous character in later years when in the course of the normal development the genital zone should have become of primary importance. It is assumed that this fixation on the pregenital level leads to sublimations and reaction-formations that become part of the character structure. Thus, for instance, a person may have a drive to save money or other objects, because he sublimates the unconscious desire to retain the stool. Or a person may expect to get everything from somebody else and not as a result of his own effort, because he is driven by an unconscious wish to be fed which is sublimated into the wish to get help, knowledge, and so forth.

Freud's observations are of great importance, but he gave an erroneous explanation. He saw correctly the passionate and irrational nature of these "oral" and "anal" character traits. He saw also that such desires pervade all spheres of personality, man's sexual, emotional, and intellectual life, and that they colour all his activities. But he mistook the causal relation between erogenous zones and character traits for the reverse of what they really are. The desire to receive everything one wants to obtain - love, protection, knowledge, material things - in a passive way from a source outside oneself, develops in a child's character as a reaction to his experiences with others. If through these experiences the feeling of his own strength is weakened by fear, if his initiative and self-confidence are paralysed, if hostility develops and is repressed, and if at the same time his father or mother offers affection or care under the condition of surrender, such a constellation leads to an attitude in which active mastery is given up and all his energies are turned in the direction of an outside source from which the fulfilment of all wishes will eventually come. This attitude assumes such a passionate character because it is the only way in which such a person can attempt to realize his wishes. That [249] often these persons have dreams or phantasies of being fed, nursed, and so on, is due to the fact that the mouth more than any other organ lends itself to the expression of this receptive attitude. But the oral sensation is not the cause of this attitude; it is the expression of an attitude towards the world in the language of the body.

The same holds true for the "anal" person, who on the basis of his particular experiences is more withdrawn from others than the "oral" person, seeks security by making himself an autarchic, self-sufficient system, and feels love or any other outgoing attitude as a threat to his security. It is true that in many instances these attitudes first develop in connection with feeding or defecation, which in the early age of the child are his main activities and also the main sphere in which love or oppression on the part of the parents and friendliness or defiance on the part of the child, are expressed. However, over-stimulation and frustration in connection with the erogenous zones by themselves do not lead to a fixation of such attitudes in a person's character ; although certain pleasurable sensations are experienced by the child in connection with feeding and defecation, these pleasures do not assume importance for the character development, unless they represent - on the physical level - attitudes that are rooted in the whole of the character structure.

For an infant who has confidence in the unconditional love of his mother, the sudden interruption of breast-feeding will not have any grave characterological consequences ; the infant who experiences a lack of reliability in the mother's love may acquire "oral" traits even though the feeding process went on without any particular disturbances. The "oral" or "anal" phantasies or physical sensations in later years are not important on account of the physical pleasure they imply, or of any mysterious sublimation of this pleasure, but only on account of the specific kind of related-ness towards the world which is underlying them and which they express.

Only from this point of view can Freud's characterological findings become fruitful for social psychology. As long as we assume, for instance, that the anal character, as it is typical of the European lower middle class, is caused by certain early experiences in connection with defecation, we have hardly any data that lead us to understand why a specific class should have an anal social character. However, if we understand it as one form of related-ness to others, rooted in the character structure and resulting from the experiences with the outside world, we have a key for under- [250] standing why the whole mode of life of the lower middle class, its narrowness, isolation, and hostility, made for the development of this kind of character structure.

The third important point of difference is closely linked up with the previous ones. Freud, on the basis of his instinctivistic orientation and also of a profound conviction of the wickedness of human nature, is prone to interpret all "ideal" motives in man as the result of something "mean"; a case in point is his explanation of the sense of justice as the outcome of the original envy a child has for anybody who has more than he. As has been pointed out before, we believe that ideals like truth, justice, freedom, although they are frequently mere phrases or rationalizations, can be genuine strivings, and that any analysis which does not deal with these strivings as dynamic factors is fallacious. These ideals have no metaphysical character but are rooted in the conditions of human life and can be analysed as such. The fear of falling back into metaphysical or idealistic concepts should not stand in the way of such analysis. It is the task of psychology as an empirical science to study motivation by ideals as well as the moral problems connected with them, and thereby to free our thinking on such matters from the unempirical and metaphysical elements that befog the issues in their traditional treatment.

Finally, one other point of difference should be mentioned. It concerns the differentiation between psychological phenomena of want and those of abundance. The primitive level of human existence is that of want. There are imperative needs which have to be satisfied before anything else. Only when man has time and energy left beyond the satisfaction of the primary needs, can culture develop and with it those strivings that attend the phenomena of abundance. Free (or spontaneous) acts are always phenomena of abundance. Freud's psychology is a psychology of want. He defines pleasure as the satisfaction resulting from the removal of painful tension. Phenomena of abundance, like love or tenderness, actually do not play any role in his system. Not [251] only did he omit such phenomena, but he also had a limited understanding of the phenomenon to which he paid so much attention: sex. According to his whole definition of pleasure Freud saw in sex only the element of physiological compulsion and in sexual satisfaction the relief from painful tension. The sexual drive as a phenomenon of abundance, and sexual pleasure as spontaneous joy - the essence of which is not negative relief from tension - had no place in his psychology.

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