In response to:
Childhood, Society, and Erik Erikson from the May 6, 1965 issue
To the Editors:
I would like to modify and comment on several points made in Edgar Friedenberg’s thoughtful essay on Erik Erikson’s work (NYR, May 6). Such a long essay requires a lengthy response.
Friedenberg’s chief contention is that Erikson has assumed an Olympian pose which makes him of limited value in understanding the social ills of the contemporary world and, more importantly, in suggesting meaningful solutions. In addition to saddling Erikson with a super-Olympian responsibility, Friedenberg also seems to prove his own admission that “I cannot remember exactly what [these lectures in Insight and Responsibility] were about.”
For example, Friedenberg, in citing Erikson’s analysis of ethics, proposes that “ethics [have] a humbler, though tougher origin, in the specifics of shared experience that enables us to imagine the impact of our actions and omissions on other persons feelings and lives.” Yet, as his primary example of ethical behavior, Erikson describes Gandhi’s leadership in a strike of millworkers. “What interests us here is the fact that Gandhi, from the moment of his entry into the struggle, considered it an occasion not for maximum reciprocal coercion resulting in the usual compromise, but as an opportunity for all—the workers, the owners and himself—’to rise from the present conditions.”’ Gandhi announced his principle: “That line of action is alone justified which does not harm either party to a dispute.” Erikson explains: “By harm he meant…an inseparable combination of economic disadvantage, social indignity, loss of self-esteem and latent vengeance.” I submit that Erikson (through Gandhi—the subject of a forthcoming major work) is making, somewhat poetically, the point for which Friedenberg is seeking.
Friedenberg says Erikson’s comparative approach is based on “the assumption that every culture develops its own particular style of integrity.” He questions Erikson’s relevance in a “society that develops no style of integrity.” Erikson, however, is very much aware of the pitfalls of an integrity-less society. In order to make his point, Friedenberg has had to ignore the large amount of material in which Erikson analyzes primitive and modern civilizations, in order to depict dysfunctional as well as functional units. In addition, much of Erikson’s current work is an implicit and explicit commentary on Americans’ problems of integrity. His major thesis in Insight and Responsibility is that the psychoanalytic perspective makes it incumbent on a comprehender to suggest more satisfactory relationships within a society or among many societies.
Friedenberg suggests that Erikson has failed to do this. As a student of Professor Erikson, acquainted with his current work and his personal qualities, I would differ strongly with Friedenberg’s contention. Erikson’s current interests are diverse and all seem related to the contemporary world scene. Far from giving a “classical performance,” Erikson is passionately concerned about the problems of Negro identity, the civil rights movement and is, in fact, a member of the executive board of SNCC. His sensitive insights into and deep concern about the plight of the colored person is matched by his understanding of the psychological problems faced by the underdeveloped countries today. Erikson is convinced that the employment of violent means will be catastrophic and has embraced the non-violent civil-disobedience methods of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thoreau. In the actions of these men, he finds his formulation of the golden rule: “a mutuality which strengthens the other…the doer is activated in whatever strength is appropriate to his age, stage, and condition.” The implications of this rule for such diverse activities as aid to underdeveloped countries from developed ones or conveying to one’s students the accrued knowledge from one’s own life are compelling.
It is to such “significant persons” as Gandhi, not Robert Kennedy or Robert Wagner, that Erikson feels youth can look today. I think I speak for many of my contemporaries (and perhaps even for my senior, Mr. Friedenberg) when I state that we look not only to the above men, but toward Erik Erikson, as a thinker and as a human being who can “give importance to the individual life by relating it to living community and to ongoing history.” (Daedalus, 91, Winter, 1962.)