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The Heart of Erich Fromm

The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil

by Erich Fromm, Religious Perspectives, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen
Harper & Row, 156 pp., $3.75

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 of his powers according to the laws of his nature”; all our achievements “make sense only if they are means to one end: the full birth of man, as he becomes fully himself, fully human.”

But Fromm insists we must know what our human nature is: evil is rooted in ignorance. Conventional morality laments that “people are too much concerned with their self-interest”; the trouble is rather that “they are not concerned enough with the interest of their real self.” When this real self is too much hidden from us, we act un-naturally, destroying both ourselves and others: depravity is disease, “Neurosis itself is, in the last analysis, a symptom of moral failure”; conversely, “mental health is achieved if man develops into full maturity according to the characteristics and laws of human nature.”

Man is by nature good, but behaving naturally is not easy: the forces of evil are also strong, and disease itself has a natural basis. There is a “syndrome of decay” as well as of growth, and its prominence, especially in our time, makes Fromm reject a “sentimental optimism.” The syndrome of decay is marked by dependency, narcissism, and above all the love of death. (He cites Hitler as the best documented example of a man suffering from this syndrome.)

Growth is creation, and decay, destruction. “The man who cannot create wants to destroy,” for only by doing one or the other can he “transcend his role as a mere creature,” do something rather than be done by. At the extremes, the lover of life is a saint and the lover of death is insane: “most people are a particular blend.” We exploit others, or reduce what is most human to a mere commodity (“the marketing orientation”): the act of love becomes an exchange of favors. Even our selfishness is not self-love but an exploitation of the self by the self (the smoker who “cannot” quit) or a succession of deals with the self (the compulsive drinker). In contrast is the “productive orientation” expressed in the syndrome of growth: “the active and creative relatedness of man to his fellow man, to himself, and to nature.” This orientation leads to “spontaneous” activity, in which we act rather than merely being acted upon: to be productive is to think, to love, to work. These are the distinctively human capabilities, as noted by philosophers from Plato to Spinoza.

Productiveness,” I must admit, has the merit of a more objective locus than the “creativity” so fashionable today. But to my ears it connotes more labor than love, more plodding than love, more plodding than the free play of ideas and materials. Fromm has nothing to say about art and very little about science (and that mostly hostile). For him “productiveness” is everything: “to be alive means to be productive”; it is the only meaning of life, even “the basis of rational faith.” Our productive powers are those whose full use gives us joy, as distinct from the “satisfaction” of needs and the “gratification” in achievement. Love (“genuine” love, that is) is “rooted in productiveness”—whether causally dependent on productiveness or logically implied by it is unclear: Fromm’s conceptual framework is loosely jointed. The aim of analytic therapy is “to help the patient gain or regain his capacity for love.” In admirable opposition to the self-improvement cult, Fromm emphasizes that the primary problem is loving rather than being loved.

As to particulars, however, his analysis is disappointingly conventional: “Love is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself (but self-love also can be genuine), under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.” Its components are “care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge,” of both self and another. What Fromm contributes to this familiar material is his treatment of it as constituting “an attitude, an orientation of character” rather than a relationship to a specific person. “Had it any been but she, and that very face…” is romantic nonsense.

But Fromm has his own romanticism in the centrality he assigns to loneliness (a theme that runs from Rousseau through Carlyle and Nietzsche, to say nothing of the existentialists): “The deepest need of man is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.” Life is at bottom a predicament from which we are rescued by love; but most of us remain imprisoned in a “symbiotic union” of mutual dependency (or even—in the pathological extreme—of a mutually destructive sadomasochism). Between these two romanticisms—the grand passion and the great escape—I think there is little to choose.

Fromm is best at, and is best known for, his analysis of the interplay of dependency and freedom. He gives to the philosophical treatment of human freedom by the Stoics, Spinoza, and Kant a new psychological depth and substance. The outcome, that freedom is “acting on the basis of the awareness of alternatives and their consequences,” is in striking accord with the conception of John Dewey, though with Fromm’s European background he rarely refers to the American pragmatists. The character-structure of the free man, Fromm tells us, is under constant pressure from social forces as well as from inner compulsions. We escape from freedom either by submission to a leader, as in the Fascist countries, or by the conformity “prevalent in our own democracy.” Fromm has unceasingly emphasized (and perhaps by now, hopefully, over-emphasized) the importance in our society of anonymous, invisible authority. The growth of bureaucracy and regimentation, and the dehumanizing effect of sheer organization constitute what he sees as the greatest threat to freedom (on both sides of the iron curtain): “the danger of the future is that men may become robots.”

The fully mature, productive, free, and loving personality—this, he tells us, is an ideal of religion as well, though it is couched in another idiom. The goal is to overcome our fundamental narcissism, transcend nature by becoming aware of what we truly are. Ours is a secular culture basically because we refuse to face the contradiction within ourselves of being in nature and simultaneously transcending it. Yet we must face the contradiction one way or another. Reversing Freud’s interpretation of religion as a collective neurosis, Fromm sees neurosis as “a private form of religion,” a way of coming to terms, however inadequately, with our humanity. Our religion has become an empty shell, idolatrous because it expresses only a neurotic dependency. To be sure, religion has always served as an opiate—Fromm owes as much to Marx as to Freud. “God is always the ally of the rulers”; religion helps the majority “accept emotionally their class situation,” and gives the minority “relief from guilt feelings caused by the suffering of those whom they oppress.” But religion also reflects “man’s spiritual evolution,” his groping realization of the potentialities in his humanity. The attack on religion was once a fight for rationality and freedom; “today the lack of faith is the expression of profound confusion and despair.”

For this despair too Fromm has his diagnostic formula. It is due to alienation, “the fact that man does not experience himself as the active bearer of his own powers and richness, but as an impoverished ‘thing,’ dependent on powers outside of himself.” Bureaucratic industrialism has robbed man’s life of meaning, making of him “a cog in a large machine, an automaton.” Throughout the Western world, our problem is boredom. Fromm sees modern man as “actually close to the picture Huxley describes in his Brave New World: well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self.” Here a reader might object that the war against poverty is by no means won even in America, and that a psychoanalyst surely should be aware of how much sexual dissatisfaction exists in society; Fromm is often carried away in the sweep of his own generalizations. Despair, in short, is the inevitable outcome of the attempt to cope with our moral aloneness by anything other than the “productive orientation.” In the syndrome of decay we cope with despair by yielding to the idolatry of political leaders and the state, or of national or religous identity. Instead of transcending the self we destroy it in a group narcissism.

And we are all of us sinners: what Fromm is describing he calls the “pathology of normalcy.” Here Fromm’s critique reaches a climax: it is society as a whole that is sick. Fromm does an important service, I believe, in countering the cynicism of viewing mental health as only relative to the culture (“what we think is insane would be quite sane among the…”). The question is always what kind of society the individual is “adjusted” to, and even more fundamentally, whether he is adjusted to himself and to the real world. Objectivity and rationality, and the capacity to love and to create, are not brought into being merely by cultural definition. A society can encourage or thwart the development of these capacities. It is a sick society if its members are crippled, and crippled by the institutions and patterns of the society. This is the sickness that Fromm sees everywhere, so pandemic that “the real question is why most people do not become insane.” As is so often the case in philosophy, his question is more rewarding than the answer he gives over and over again: what “truly overcomes potential insanity is the full, productive response to the world.”

Yet in its broadest terms I do not know that any better answer has been given, and surely few have been presented with more reasonable eloquence. For his banner Fromm might well choose e. e. cummings’ marvelous line, “the single secret still is man.” Fromm calls his position “normative humanism,” and certainly humanity needs all the friends it can get. One of Fromm’s many epigrams runs: “In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead; in the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.” Man is surely at least on the critical list.

The task Fromm sets us is that defined by Emerson: things are in the saddle and ride mankind; we must put man back into the saddle. Our choice, as he sees it, is between barbarism, even without the occurrence of nuclear war, or “a renaissance of our humanist tradition.” We have defeated the belief in the legitimacy of human inequality; we must now surmount the group narcissism that threatens to replace it. Ultimately, a new religion is called for, universalistic and humanistic, whose God will be “a symbol of man’s own powers which he tries to realize in his life.” But it is hard to pray to “our Powers and the Powers of our fathers…” Fromm tries to avoid the fallacy of “psychologism”—assuming that all the problems of modern man can be understood just in psychological terms. He insists that changes must be made simultaneously in all spheres—political, economic, social, and religious, as well as psychological. But what he says about these other factors is often naive: we must rewrite history textbooks, and make movies “which foster pride in the development of the human race.” He does not see that the difficulties often lie in the interrelations among these factors—how will we get the movies to be shown in Communist China?

It is Fromm’s clinical insights rather than his theoretical constructions that are the more impressive. He proposes to substitute the philosophical framework of “dialectical humanism” for Freud’s mechanistic materialism. But Freud was at any rate a scientist, as science was conceived in his day. Fromm extols the scientific attitude, but then insists that we cannot understand man by the methods of science: “the knowledge of man is possible only in the process of relating ourselves to him.” In his own account of this process it is impossible to distinguish observation from inference, empirical data from speculation, description from explanation.

The fundamental issue, on which all else depends, is the logic by which values are deduced from facts. Fromm’s central thesis is that “moral norms are based upon man’s inherent qualities,” upon his nature. But human nature is much more indeterminate than Fromm acknowledges. Growth and maturation are not enough to define value: cancers also “grow.” Freud’s concept of “regression,” which has a factual reference, is given an illicit valuational sense by being contrasted with what is “progressive” (who can deny that “progress” is good?). Fromm’s value premises are concealed by his Platonist semantics: words mean only what the user has decided beforehand is ideal for things of that kind. We must become fully “human,” “mature,” “productive,” “loving,” and so on; what Fromm does not value is not really “human” and “mature.”

Yet his values are admirable, and even more admirable is the courage of his commitment to them. Fromm’s final assessment of the modern world is this: “Most facts seem to indicate that man is choosing robotism, and that means, in the long run, insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity.” It is this faith that is Fromm’s greatest virtue, and for it he deserves our admiration.

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