The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil
Professional philosophers have seldom done all the work of philosophy. (There are people who doubt whether today they are doing any of it.) At various times the aspirations and perspectives of society have been articulated by mathematicians, priests, scientists, lawyers, and men of letters, and, in our time, particularly by psychiatrists. Whatever the preoccupation of the academies, the ideas of Freud and his successors have undeniably had a profound influence on our conceptions of human nature and destiny.
By profession Erich Fromm is a psychoanalyst, but his calling is philosophy, at least in aims if not in methods. “The analyst is not a theologian or a philosopher and does not claim competence in those fields,” he once wrote, “but as a physician of the soul he is concerned with the very same problems as philosophy and theology: the soul of man and its cure.” The Heart of Man is the most recent of a series of books in which Fromm diagnoses and prescribes for the modern “sickness of soul”: Escape from Freedom, Man for Himself, Psychoanalysis and Religion, The Sane Society, The Art of Loving, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, and The Dogma of Christ. (In one or two other books he is also a physician for the body politic, but, as might be expected, in these much less of the philosophic temper is in evidence.)
Fromm has little use, however, for those who, like Jung and the “existential psychoanalysts,” mix metaphysics into their psychology. His philosophy comes out in his conclusions, without (he thinks) infecting his premises. What he shares with the existentialists is the basic tenet that the statement, “Man is not a thing” is “the central topic of the ethical problem of modern man.” The existentialists hold that the difference between man and things is that what a man is (his essence) is what he makes of himself in his concrete existence, while what things are is predetermined. Fromm rightly sees that human potentialities are limited and their actualizations guided by human nature and its needs.
Fromm’s conception of man, like Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s, from both of whom he borrows so much, is biologically rather than metaphysically based. Where the existentialists see man’s salvation in his capacity for commitment, for decision and action, Fromm looks to man’s capacity for awareness, for realism and rationality. With Freud and Marx he shares the postulate that to understand is to transcend: consciousness of who and what we are reveals our true interests and directs us to their fulfillment. This intellectualist bent makes Fromm much easier to read than the existentialists and most others who write of sickness of soul. But there are two philosophic faults (of which Whitehead and Russell are said to have accused each other): to be simple-minded and to be muddle-headed. Fromm’s simplifications are not always improvements over the muddles.
His starting-point is that ethical norms are based on the nature of man, not on revelation or on man-made rules. The aim of man’s life is “the unfolding…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.