Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Erich Fromm’s Sane Society

Human Existence

Erich Fromm [1900–1980], born Erich Seligmann Fromm, the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. He was a psychotherapist and humanistic philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Wikipedia writes:“Central to Fromm’s world view was his interpretation of the Talmud and Hasidism. He began studying Talmud as a young man under Rabbi J. Horowitz and later under Rabbi Salman Baruch Rabinkow, a Chabad Hasid, while working towards his doctorate in sociology at the University of Heidelberg, Fromm studied the Tanya by the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Fromm also studied under Nehemia Nobel and Ludwig Krause while studying in Frankfurt. Fromm’s grandfather and two great grandfathers on his father’s side were rabbis, and a great uncle on his mother’s side was a noted Talmudic scholar. However, Fromm turned away from orthodox Judaism in 1926, towards secular interpretations of scriptural ideals.”
Photo Credit: Verlagsgruppe Random House; 1974

The biblical story of Adam and Eve and its meaning to modern man has formed the basis of much of Erich Fromm’s work. Fromm was anti-totalitarian, particularly anti-fascist, and sought positive values of freedom. Freedom, however, is no easy matter; with freedom comes existentialist angst, which compels man to search for meaning and the reason for human existence as a “free thinking individual.”

This often takes place with the knowledge that society has becomes more technological and more conformist, which also has little patience for the individual who “can’t fit in.” (The more important societal question might be why certain individuals have not desire to fit in.) Even so, humans have a need to fit in, and a desire to conform, while also retaining a sense of individual identity or uniqueness. Even if each person is unique, he has a desire to belong to a community. Such is the internal conflict that marks the human condition.

In The Sane Society (1955), a continuation of his Escape From Freedom (1941), Fromm writes:
All passions and strivings of man are attempts to find an answer to his existence or, as we may also say, they are an attempt to avoid insanity. (It may be said in passing that the real problem of mental life is not why some people become insane, but rather why most avoid insanity.) Both the mentally healthy and the neurotic are driven by the need to find an answer, the only difference being that one answer corresponds more to the total needs of man, and hence is more conducive to the unfolding of his powers and to his happiness than the other. All cultures provide for a patterned system in which certain solutions are predominant, hence certain strivings and satisfactions. Whether we deal with primitive religions, with theistic or non-theistic religions, they are all attempts to give an answer to man’s existential problem. The finest, as well as the most barbaric cultures have the same function—the difference is only whether the answer given is better or worse. The deviate from the cultural pattern is just as much in search of an answer as his more well-adjusted brother. His answer may be better or worse than the one given by his culture—it is always another answer to the same fundamental question raised by human existence. In this sense all cultures are religious and every neurosis is a private form of religion, provided we mean by religion an attempt to answer the problem of human existence. Indeed, the tremendous energy in the forces producing mental illness, as well as those behind art and religion could never be understood as an outcome of frustrated or sublimated physiological needs; they are attempts to solve the problem of being born human. All men are idealists and cannot help being idealists, provided we mean by idealism the striving for the satisfaction of needs which are specifically human and transcend the physiological needs of the organism. The difference is only that one idealism is a good and adequate solution, the other a bad and destructive one. The decision as to what is good and bad has to be made on the basis of our knowledge of man's nature and the laws which govern its growth.(27-28)
Fromm might have escaped the strictures of organized religion, but religious thinking has not escaped him. Such thoughts are part of the Judaism that he learned in his formative years. Such is not necessarily a bad thing; it might even be considered a good thing. While conformity often carries a negative connotation (e.g., blind faith), it ought not to.

Conformity does not always lead to or suggest totalitarian thinking; faith need not be the enemy of freedom. It all depends on what one conforms to; if it is to be part of a community that does good, and this is done willingly and with desire and knowledge, there is a benefit both to the individual and to society at large. Man cannot live sanely with unanswered questions or with continuous doubt. Not for long.

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