Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm

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Human existence and the quest for freedom are from the beginning inseparable. Every time an individual tries to free himself from his circumstances, he stands alone in facing a threatening world. In the name of freedom, his life loses structure and stability.

Feelings of anxiety, insecurity and doubt tend to arise once an individual severes the bonds that tie him to his reality. Yet, he gains a chance to develop himself and become the master of his own fate by going through a process of mastery of nature and integration of his individuality.

Most people cannot stand the mental and emotional weight of this process, and so they optimize their life to conform with the expectations of others. By being identical with millions of other people, they don’t need to feel alone and anxious any more. But the price they pay is high.

When an individual renounces his spontaneity and individuality, his life is thwarted. While being alive biologically, the individual is dead emotionally and mentally.

The realization of the self and mastery of freedom is accomplished through the realization of a man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities.

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Book Notes

Man’s brain lives in the twentieth century; the heart of most men lives still in the Stone Age. The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. They need myths and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself.

Human existence and freedom are from the beginning inseparable. One particularly telling representation of the fundamental relation between man and freedom is offered in the biblical myth of man’s expulsion from paradise. The myth identifies the beginning of human history with an act of choice, but it puts all emphasis on the sinfulness of this first act of freedom and the suffering resulting from it. Man and woman live in the Garden of Eden in complete harmony with each other and with nature. There is peace and no necessity to work; there is no choice, no freedom, no thinking either. Man is forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He acts against God’s command, he breaks through the state of harmony with nature of which he is a part without transcending it. From the standpoint of the Church which represented authority, this is essentially sin. From the standpoint of man, however, this is the beginning of human freedom.

→ We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.

→ What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom. Everybody in the earlier period was chained to his role in the social order. A man had little chance to move socially from one class to another, he was hardly able to move even geographically from one town or from one country to another.

→ Personal, economic, and social life was dominated by rules and obligations from which practically no sphere of activity was exempted. But although a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need, for doubt.

→ There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy. But within the limits of his social sphere the individual actually had much freedom to express himself in his work and in his emotional life.

→ [Then the Renaissance came and] The medieval social system was destroyed and with it the stability and relative security it had offered the individual. Now with the beginning of capitalism all classes of society started to move. There ceased to be a fixed place in the economic order which could be considered a natural, an unquestionable one. The individual was left alone; everything depended on his own effort, not on the security of his traditional status.

→ With the rise of capitalism these medieval principles gave way more and more to a principle of individualistic enterprise. Each individual must go ahead and try his luck. He had to swim or to sink.

In the name of “freedom” life loses all structure; it is composed of many little pieces, each separate from the other and lacking any sense as a whole. The individual is left alone with these pieces like a child with a puzzle; the difference, however, is that the child knows what a house is and therefore can recognize the parts of the house in the little pieces he is playing with, whereas the adult does not see the meaning of the “whole,” the pieces of which come into his hands. He is bewildered and afraid and just goes on gazing at his little meaningless pieces.

→ How does an individual overcome the feeling of insignificance in comparison with the overwhelming power of the world outside of himself?

[The most common strategy is that] the individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness. This mechanism can be compared with the protective coloring some animals assume. They look so similar to their surroundings that they are hardly distinguishable from them. The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self.

Modern man is ready to take great risks when he tries to achieve the aims which are supposed to be “his”; but he is deeply afraid of taking the risk and the responsibility of giving himself his own aims. Intense activity is often mistaken for evidence of self determined action, although we know that it may well be no more spontaneous than the behavior of an actor or a person hypnotized. When the general plot of the play is handed out, each actor can act vigorously the role he is assigned and even make up his lines and certain details of the action by himself. Yet he is only playing a role that has been handed over to him.

→ By conforming with the expectations of others, by not being different, these doubts about one’s own identity are silenced and a certain security is gained. However, the price paid is high. Giving up spontaneity and individuality results in a thwarting of life. Psychologically the automaton, while being alive biologically, is dead emotionally and mentally. While he goes through the motions of living, his life runs through his hands like sand.

We believe that the realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.

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