Childhood, Society, and Erik Erikson

Insight and Responsibility

by Eric Erikson
Norton, 256 pp., $5.00

The career of the distinguished social psychologist, Erik Homburger Erikson, is remarkably interesting both in its own right and as a case study of the way our society handles the problems created by an exceptionally gifted scholar whose basic concerns are virtue and human growth. Erikson was a humanist before he became a scientist, and has remained one, in a society that is not notably humane. Since we nevertheless insist that the values of our culture are humane, we have had to develop effective ways of paying appropriate homage to distinguished humanists while limiting their influence on, and, gradually, their interest in, the way society actually functions. We try to find a place for them in which, like the good children of yesteryear, they can be seen but not heard. Healers like Erikson and Albert Schweitzer, who turn from careers in the arts to practice their new art on a darker continent, and who evolve into sages through the experience of practicing among peoples whose common humanity is masked by great cultural diversity, present a particularly challenging problem.

Unlike Schweitzer, Erikson is not a physician. Born in Frankfurt in 1902, he grew up as an art student and spent his young manhood as a practicing artist. When he became interested in psychoanalysis, he enrolled in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was a student of Freud. Shortly after he graduated in 1933, he came to this country and established himself first at Berkeley and in the San Francisco Bay area as a training analyst and a leading participant in studies of child growth and development then being conducted at the University of California. These studies, along with other research among the Yurok and Oglala Sioux Indians, and case material from his early clinical experience, form the basis of his first book, Childhood and Society, published in 1950.

Erikson’s psychosocial rationale cannot be summarized because, unlike that of Freud or the best of the Neo-Freudians, it is expressed in an approach to human behavior rather than in a doctrine about it. He observes at one point that all he has to offer is a way of looking at things; and this, though no reason for apology, is essentially true. It is just this way of looking at things that is valuable; and if this eludes any summary definition, it can still be characterized by some of its critical elements.

There is, first, the intrinsic psychoanalytic emphasis on the fundamental importance of developmental sequence—of having experience to grow on at the right time and in the right order. What Erikson has done is to identify the emotional polarities that are appropriate to each successive stage and to specify the developmental task that must be accomplished in each stage if the individual is to proceed to the subsequent ones without gross impediment or seriously warped growth. His most familiar piece of work, undoubtedly, is the little chart of the eight stages of man published in Childhood and Society and reproduced below. Simple as it is, the chart is slightly grandiose because the variable depicted on its abscissa is never specified; apparently, it is simple time itself. This means that it gives no more information than could be presented in a simple table listing the polarities of feeling and relationship that Erikson finds central to each stage of growth.


These are represented as boxes along the diagonal of the 8 by 8 chart—but the other 56 boxes in the 64 cell table are empty.1 We are left then, with a set of conflicting polarities, each of which is crucial to its particular age.

There is rather more in this formulation than meets the eye. By means of it Erikson stresses what most Americans seem to find incredible: that catastrophe is irreversible and atonement therefore usually presumptuous. An infant who has good reason to distrust his mother in the sense that she just isn’t there when needed, that she lets him down and cools him out, is not really going to trust anybody—ever—because he will not know what trust feels like and the occasions that might evoke it will terrify him. In order to live at all, he has to convince himself that it was unnecessary to trust anybody—and this is not true. Furthermore, this privation will warp all his subsequent stages of growth; if he cannot really trust himself he will whine and cringe when a more confident child would be walking and talking; then, in his first play group, he will cower uncertainly away from situations that other children would delightedly explore, and so on. Failure at any stage tends to precipitate failure in each of the later ones, cumulatively; success at any stage brightens chances at a later one. But, a person who achieves success at a later stage after protracted earlier failure is not repaired and made whole. We all know children who cover up years of fussy neglect by parents who had no confidence in them and no interest in anything about them but their achievement by bustling about with great compensatory bursts of industry at school. These are often the children whom teachers select to direct traffic at school crossings; in later life they may become assistant district attorneys; or efficient and officious obstetricians who are careful, for the sake of the infant, not to give the laboring mother as much sedation as she thinks she needs. But development usually works out less neatly.

The implication of Erikson’s formulation is not that psychotherapy is useless but that its purpose is not to repeal the past and make restitution for it. The most the therapist can do about the past is to help the patient to abandon it and devote his energies to the cultivation of his remaining resources and the relationships of which he is still capable. Growth—and fruitful growth—resumes and flourishes; but it is never the growth that might have been. Since we are all maimed and twisted, and none of us is fully confirmed in his potential or quite willingly permits his friends to achieve theirs, the ultimate truth of the matter is perhaps not psychoanalytic at all; though it is Viennese. We must finally agree that our life situation is always desperate but never serious. Erikson himself prefers this sentiment as expressed in the plaintive but hopeful statement of a cowboy: “I ain’t what I ought to be; and I ain’t what I’m gonna be; but I ain’t what I wuz!”

His eight-stage paradigm has a more novel use, however, than the obvious psychoanalytic function of setting the processes of growth in their proper order and relationship to the organic zones of experience. It serves its author best as a device by which he can distinguish decisively among different cultures, according to the stages of growth in which that culture is most likely to precipitate a crisis or a disaster. Middle-class American culture, for example, is superior in the way it institutionalizes the first four of Erikson’s eight stages. Our mothers usually mother their infants enough to establish trust; are patient enough in toilet training to permit young children to develop confidence in their ability to control themselves without being overwhelmed by shame; encourage initiative and industry beyond the bounds of reason in the Little League and junior science. There is every reason for American middle-class children to approach adolescence with the unconscious sense of mastery of Hannibal crossing the Alps on his favorite elephant, or however it was. And, usually, their confidence is about as justified as his.

For our society, and, indeed any mass society, is bitterly hostile and destructive to the positive goals of the succeeding stages of growth. We do not tolerate in our adolescents a firm sense of their own identity, or the impassioned, if transitory, commitments through which different identities can be tried and accepted or rejected. We are deathly afraid they will get a record that will count against them in later life; as, indeed, they will: school counselors compile it continuously, and record strong commitment as an aberration. We do not tolerate intimacy in young adults; parents and teachers fear going steady or homosexuality, as the occasion appears to warrant, and cripple the young with their fears. Fraternities and sororities are decried and put down as anti-democratic unless they transform themselves into good-natured service clubs open to all comers; they are suspected as dens of vice if they afford their young members any privacy and the members, confirmed in their viciousness, proceed very often to do what is suspected of them. Young men can find no jobs, and therefore can neither confirm their identity nor put the intimacy of which they are capable on any firm economic basis. (Despite our peculiar euphemism, it is not usually possible to achieve intimacy with anybody in the back seat of a car; you have to live with them in every sense of the phrase, and not just the erotic one.)

To speak then of an American adolescent is rather like speaking of a Mississippi salmon; the very concept is laden with unbearable frustration; the Yurok Indians, who respect salmon, would be moved to pity by the plight of so quick and vital a creature in a stream so sluggish and muddy. Nobody has written of adolescence with more insight, responsibility, and real respect and tenderness than Erikson. His papers on delinquency were the only source one could turn to for an approach that treated miscreant youths as human, and that discussed their behavior as it pertained to and affected their chances of becoming who they really were instead of concentrating on the problem of assimilating them into a law-abiding society. Erikson’s studies of delinquency are still the best in this field; his paper, “Ego Identity and the Psychosocial Moratorium,” for example, has never been equaled for insight, compassion, and, above all, for immediacy.2 This is the work of a man who was there at the time, doing what he could.

Erikson, at his best, could retain this immediacy and precision even when dealing with abstractions. His biographical study, Young Man Luther, maintains a taut and clear tension between the events of Luther’s life and his responses to them, and the psychological and social processes they reveal. One never loses sight of Luther himself, and one learns to cherish him in all his vulgarity and moral ambiguity even if one begins the book, as I did, with a strong dislike of the man. And one cannot read the following descriptive analysis of a typical young WASP, from Childhood and Society, without seeing that Erikson really cares about this boy, and understands his existential plight:

The family is Anglo-Saxon, mildly Protestant, of the white-collar class. This type of boy is tall, thin, muscular in his body build. He is shy, especially with women, and emotionally retentive, as if he were saving himself for something. His occasional grin, however, indicates a basic satisfaction with with himself. Among his peers, he can be rowdy and boisterous; with younger children, kind and circumspect. His goals are vaguely defined. They have something to do with action and motion. His ideal prototypes in the world of sports seem to fulfill such needs as disciplined locomotion; fairness in aggression; calm exhibitionism; and dormant masculine sexuality. Neurotic anxiety is avoided by concentration on limited goals with circumscribed laws. Psychoanalytically speaking, the dominant defense mechanism is self restriction….

Our boy thus became “regular,” but he also learned to associate both meals and bowels with worry and haste. His belated campaign for somatic autonomy thus started under bewildering circumstances, and this with a definite initial defect in the boy’s ability to make choices because his area of control has been invaded before he could either object or comply by reasonably free choice…It is here that the machine ideal of “functioning without friction” invaded the democratic milieu. Much political apathy may have its origin in a general feeling that, after all, matters of apparent choice have probably been fixed in advance—a state of affairs which becomes fact, indeed, if influential parts of the electorate acquiesce in it because they have learned to view the world as a place where grown-ups talk of choice, but “fix things so as to avoid overt friction”…

How does this home train this boy for democracy? If taken too literally one may hardly dare to ask this question. The boy has no political sense whatsoever. The “dignity of man” has never occurred to him. In fact, he does not even know any kind of indignation in the positive sense of becoming acutely aware of the violation of a principle, with the exception of unfairness…While this boy may grinningly join in some casual references to a lower race or class, he is not really intolerant: for the most part his life is too protected and “restricted” to bring him up against an individual decision in this matter…As far as “general citizenship” is concerned, he catches on to the school’s concept of behavior which goes by this name, but he does not connect it with politics. Otherwise, he more or less somnambulistically moves in a maze of undefined privileges, licenses, commitments, and responsibilities. He wants a vague, general success, and he is glad if he can get it in fairness, or while being unaware of unfairness. In this connection it must be said that our boy, mostly by default and because of restricted vision, and often out of carelessness, causes great harm to his less fortunate age-mates of darker shades, whom he excludes from his home, his clique, and himself, because to see them and to face them as actual human beings might cause vague discomfort…But I submit that this boy’s family life harbors more democracy than meets the eye….

Our boy is anti-intellectual. Anybody who thinks or feels too much seems “queer” to him. This objection to feeling and thinking is, to some extent, derived from an early mistrust of sensuality. It signifies some atrophy in this sphere, and then again, it is representative of a general tentativeness…

All of which fits its object like a prophetic utterance, and without the ambiguity of prophecy. In its compassionate, unsentimental precision, it leaves the reader feeling that there is really no more to be said on behalf of this boy; what insight and acceptance can give him, he has had.

Precise, unsentimental compassion is a scarce human resource; in part because, under present social conditions, it is very costly to produce and distribute. Erikson has paid far more than his share of these costs. When Childhood and Society was published he was forty-eight years old and had been in this country for fifteen years. His academic career was to remain scrappy, though distinguished, for a decade longer.

Erikson’s classic monograph, “Identity and the Life Cycle,”3 cites some twenty-three papers that he published from 1937 to 1957, as well as his two books. During this time he moved from one temporary post to another, ranging from Berkeley to M.I.T. But this period of searching is now quite past. Erikson is now Professor of Human Development at Harvard and a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. One might say that he is an individual who has spent his life both in growing up and defining himself and in observing how this development happened in himself and others. So might we all, if we were free to and less inclined through exhaustion or for-boding to make for a harbor early in our journey if only it looks safe and promising on our chart. His latest book, Insight and Responsibility published this past summer is, in effect, an Erikson Festival. It is also, one hopes, the culmination of a trend that has become discernible in much of Erikson’s more recent work and that is probably an inevitable consequence of the social role into which he has been led by his own very solid triumphs. The only way our society can cope with a true defender of growth and dignity is by making him a sage and his work a classic. By putting him on a pedestal, we make certain that he can no longer get his feet on the ground. Childhood and Society is a treasury; an inexhaustible moral resource of our time. But compare the precision and immediacy of the descriptive analysis of the young WASP quoted from Childhood and Society, above, with the following excerpt from his paper “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity.”4 Of “a certain strength inherent in the age of youth…the sense of the capacity for Fidelity” Erikson then wrote:

To summarize: Fidelity, when fully matured, is the strength of disciplined devotion. It is gained in the involvement of youth in such experiences as reveal the essence of the era they are to join—as the beneficiaries of its tradition, as the practitioners and innovators of its technology, as renewers of its ethical strength, as rebels bent on the destruction of the outlived, and as deviants with deviant commitments…Adolescent development comprises a new set of identification processes, both with significant persons and with ideological forces, which give importance to individual life by relating it to a living community and to ongoing history, and by counterpointing the newly won individual identity with some communal solidarity.

In youth, then, the life history intersects with history; here individuals are confirmed in their identities, societies regenerated in their life style. This process also implies a fateful survival of adolescent modes of thinking in man’s historical and ideological perspectives.

This is Olympian, detached. It is also, when applied to our own time, particularly misleading. A degree of detachment has always been characteristic of Erikson’s writing; as it must be of sound psychoanalytic discourse. Psychoanalytic detachment is not an expression of either scientific “objectivity” or of ethical neutrality. It is not intended either to neutralize or conceal the ethical position of the analyst, or to make up for his deficiencies if he hasn’t any. Therapeutic detachment is a clinical tool that makes it possible for the therapist to function without destroying his usefulness to the patient. It reduces the patient’s opportunity to exhaust all his energies in the transference relationship by trying to please or annoy or enlist the analyst; it also reduces the risk of the analyst continuing the destructive processes of the past by usurping the patient’s own moral space; finally it also helps to preserve the analyst from emotional exhaustion, or at least to delay it. It has become a matter of doctrine, therefore, that the analyst must, for the patient’s sake, refuse to become the patient’s partisan. In his characteristic tone Erikson states the doctrine as follows:

No, blame does not help. As long as there is a sense of blame, there are also irrational attempts at restitution for the damage done—and such guilty restitution often results only in more damage. What we would hope that the patient and his family might derive from our study of their history is deeper humility before the processes which govern us, and the ability to live through them with greater simplicity and honesty. What are they?

This quotation, from an introductory passage in Childhood and Society, refers to the emotional disorder of an individual child, and suggests the attitude the therapist should take to its demonstrable origins in the relationship between the child and his parents. Such an approach of sympathetic but detached comprehension based on respect for all the participants can be usefully applied to any set of relationships, even to those as extended or complex as aspects of industrial or international conflict, provided the various interlocking participants are behaving personally. As long as they are responding at least to images of one another—however crude or distorted—calm, impartial, realistic mediation designed to strip or melt away defensive behavior and get to the root of things is most helpful.

But the psychoanalytic stance is inappropriate and, in my judgment, evades ethical responsibility when the antagonists are not responding even to a distorted image of one another, but are simply acting a role. In the past fifteen years we have become much more aware that most of the serious evil done in this world is done by role-players and expresses no personal conviction, much less any peculiar viciousness of character. There is no neurosis here to cure; no misunderstanding to clear up; no hidden shame to be brought to light and honorably faced; no guilt that its bearer cannot lightly dismiss. In private life, to be sure, these demons retain all their old power, as particular Furies assigned by destiny to haunt particular victims in retribution for particular and personal violations of the right and obligation to be human. But to approach major social issues and their protagonists in this way is a waste of time. What, exactly, do you think Sigmund Freud could have done for Everett Dirksen? Psychoanalysts only practice on people who are acting as such, though making a mess of it.

Therefore, Erikson creates a certain moral confusion when he extends the values of psychiatric detachment—“deeper humility before the processes which govern us, and the ability to live through them with greater simplicity and honesty”—beyond psychic processes and applies them to social and institutional processes as well. The failure of judgment occurs even though he is aware of the danger and tries to guard against it. The penultimate paragraph of Childhood and Society ends by declaring that the psychiatrist’s obligation is to “set free in himself and in his patient that remnant of judicious indignation without which a cure is but a straw in the changeable wind of history.” But a curious and unusual instance of historical constancy serves to illustrate that this remnant in Erikson’s work is sometimes too small to function.

As it happens, the same Oglala Sioux community—Pine Ridge, South Dakota—that Erikson studied in the late 1930s has just been the subject of a monograph that also focuses, as he did, on the socialization of Dakota Indian children under the influence of white society5 . Its authors and Erikson largely corroborate each other’s observations; and manifestly share the same general framework of decent, humane values. Both perceive acutely the psychic destruction the Indian children undergo, though the Waxes present a better organized picture of it, documenting through classroom observations in every grade-level the reduction of eager and curious first-graders to silent, well-organized hostility against the teacher and against any possibility of learning by the time they reach high school.

One realizes, however, and with a certain shock, that nearly thirty years have passed between these studies, and that some of the adolescents Erikson saw are the grandparents of the children the Waxes observed in the beginners’ grade. Two generations, then, have already been shaped by these conditions since Erikson, in his professional capacity as a specialist in human growth and development, observed them in silent sympathy. Had he been granted equal intelligence, Dwight D. Eisenhower could have done no less.

But Erikson’s more recent, highly generalized treatment of the problems of growth-in-culture presents specific difficulties when applied to contemporary American life, quite apart from its disarming effect. What does it mean, here and now, to say that “Fidelity, when fully matured, is the strength of disciplined devotion”? With whom and what may this “…new set of identification processes, both with significant persons and with ideological forces, which give importance to individual life by relating it to a living community and to ongoing history…” link us? We must descend sharply from Professor Erikson’s present height and approach this dangerous intersection of life-history with history more closely, if we wish to see who is there and what ideological perspectives they proffer to youth as worthy of fidelity and disciplined devotion.

And there they are, our familiar personages, caught at this very intersection: Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller; Robert Kennedy and Robert Wagner. Behind Leonard Bernstein, a disheveled Euterpe cowers. There they stand, along with many others, but what do they stand for? In the age of the anti-hero, it is difficult to know.

This is the intersection in which youth, too, is trapped. Youth still depends for protection, as its own powers gradually develop, on the insight and responsibility of its elders. This time, it isn’t going to get much, not from these elders. They aren’t real enough to give it—at least, not in the form in which youth encounters them. In their public life, at least, our “significant persons” are projected images, though their insubstantial pageant never fades. They are not even meant to deceive or persuade. Their function is rather to provide clues to the underlying power structure, so that bright young men can get with it.

I am aware that by “significant persons” Erikson did not necessarily mean public figures, but persons—public or private—who had become significant in the life of youth. “Significant persons” are simply people who have come, for our own good reasons, to mean something to us. But these famous folk set the style and the moral tone of our time and place; and the individuals who actually take part in our lives and matter to us personally are, on the average, less competent rather than more trustworthy than our leaders. Fidelity cannot be “gained in the involvement of youth in such experiences as reveal the essence of the era they are to join” if the essence of that era is itself a kind of infidelity, a disciplined expediency. Confirmed in what identity? We all have so many, and change them as soon as they begin to bind.

The heart of Erikson’s comparative approach is the assumption that every culture develops its own particular style of integrity: that life in any culture makes sense on that culture’s terms and that in it, maturity leads to an appropriate wisdom. What begins as basic trust in the infant among Kalahari bushmen in Southwest Africa leads through successive developmental stages to the sagacity of the elder who cares for his people and leads them through the desert, respects them, and merits their trust. No doubt it does in the Kalahari desert; but not in Windhock, not in Pretoria; not when one is dealing with Dr. Verwoerd and his good and prosperous Arifkander Supporters.

In Childhood and Society Erikson writes:

Although aware of the relativity of all the various life styles which have given meaning to human striving, the possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his own life style against all physical and economic threats. For he knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history; and that for him all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes. The style of integrity developed by his culture of civilization thus becomes the patrimony of his soul, the seal of his moral paternity.

But suppose a society develops no style of integrity; only scattered individuals living off their moral patrimony as if it were the trees in The Cherry Orchard, sharing it as far as it will go but knowing that, under present conditions, it cannot be replaced? “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Erikson’s statement that “the possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his life against all physical and economic threats” fits few public officials as well as Governor George C. Wallace. He is not, however, a very desirable focus for “a new set of identification processes”; only a dismayingly effective one.

Integrity is a real problem in this society; as water is in Arizona or oil in Israel. Granted the absurdities of our economic system, the incoherence and irrationality of our social and political system, the qualities that lead to success in either and the value that we place on success, integrity is hound to be problematic. It rarely occurs naturally or flourishes in our social climate; we cannot refine as much of it as we need to keep us going from local or native sources. What little we do have we often waste. This being so, we need Professor Erikson’s assistance and special qualifications very badly indeed.

At this juncture, Professor Erikson’s most recent work, Insight and Responsibility, seems a digression. It is clearly the work of a professional sage. Technically, it is not a book; but a collection of six lectures, all excellent, all delivered as parts of official observances, such as a commemoration by the Universities of Frankfurt and Heidelberg of Freud’s centennial in 1956, that would have impressed even Lenny Bruce with the importance of being earnest. Their titles adequately represent the level of discourse attempted and achieved: “The First Psychoanalyst”; “The Nature of Clinical Evidence”; “Identity and Uprootedness in Our Time”; “Human Strength and the Cycle of Generations”; “Psychological Reality and Historical Actuality”; and “The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight.”

As I read these lectures, I was impressed by their wisdom and penetration; but the fact is I cannot remember exactly what they were about, or just where one left off and another began. Re-reading does not help much, either because they don’t form a structural unit, they are hard to grasp. This comment is not wholly pejorative; part of the difficulty is that Erikson has contributed so much that has been built into the foundations of contemporary thought about values and human growth that further elaborations of his position are less striking than they deserve to be. The basic ideas have been stated before—by Erikson. But part of the problem is that the reader is too much aware that he is attending a classical performance. Stylistically, Erikson has resisted the pressure of his solemn occasions very well. He is never pompous; his language is tranquil and rather graceful. His tone is humane—but very much above the struggle at that intersection. Though illumined by a gentle, elegiac glow, these six elegant chambers are quite unheated. They might have been the work of an old man; they are in fact the work of a man young enough to be the son of Pablo Casals or perhaps—it is difficult to say—Charles de Gaulle.

Ethics,” Professor Erikson tells us toward the end of his lecture on “The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight”—“cannot be fabricated. They can only emerge from an informed and inspired search for a more inclusive human identity, which a new technology and a new world image make possible as well as mandatory.” But have not ethics a humbler, though tougher origin, in the specifics of shared experience that enable us to imagine the impact of our actions and omissions on other peoples’ feelings and lives? Where history and life history intersect few general rules apply, and few general statements are useful. Those who believe they are traveling with the mainstream of history assume that they have the right of way; but, as Queen Hecuba observed to The Trojan Women, they may be mistaken. Those who station themselves at the intersection because they care for youth find that everything they have to do creates its own astonishing ethical problems and sets its own terms. The post is dangerous and exhausting; nobody keeps it longer than his life depends on it. But they do keep it that long. As Martin Luther said, to Erik Erikson and to all the world, if you gotta stay, you gotta stay.


Erik Erikson July 15, 1965

Erikson June 17, 1965

  1. 1

    In Figure 1, of his 1959 monograph, “Identity and the Life Cycle” (Psychological Issues, I, 1, p. 120) Erikson does fill in the horizontal for the one-stage—adolescence. But here, unless I misunderstand the chart, he has unwittingly changed its function. What he inserts in the boxes is a set of polarities that are partial aspects of adolescent development to which successful and appropriate growth in the earlier stages contributes; or to whose further development successful adolescence contributes in later stages of life. But what logically ought to have been inserted are the polarities that would be characteristic of a person who was trying to live at his particular chronological age while having got hung up on a failure at an earlier one.

  2. 2

    New Perspectives for Research in Juvenile Delinquency. H. W. Witmer and R. Kosinsky, eds. (Washington, U. S. Children’s Bureau Publication 356) pp. 1-3.

  3. 3

    Psychological Issues 1, 1 New York, International Universities Press 1959)

  4. 4

    Daedalus, 91, Winter, 1962

  5. 5

    Murray L. Wax, Rosalie H. Wax, and Robert V. DuMont, Jr., with the assistance of Roselyn HolyRock and Gerald One Feather, “Formal Education in an American Indian Community.” SSSP Monograph Supplement to Social Problems, 11,4 (Spring, 1946)