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Erich Fromm on the Alienation of Modern Man

In The Sane Society, we have a work of piercing clarity that should unsettle most people. That is, if they haven’t already completely lost the spark of individuality, the intimate knowledge of their own conscience.

Fromm, the psychoanalyst was urgently concerned with the development of modern man, and the societal conditions that could either lead him into the productive use of his own human powers, or down into crushing conformity.

He was writing 40 years ago, and we can say that the situation is decidedly worse today.

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Modern propaganda is all about making people love their servitude. You can give them stock options, a white picket fence, fast food, and some trash TV, and most people will forget that they have never been free.

In fact, the countries that have made the most progress in material comfort and prosperity have the highest levels of mental unbalance.

Testaments to this are the 40 million Americans now suffering from clinical depression.

And those are just the ones who are taking medication. How much more is going untreated?

In the view of Erich Fromm, the fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make those vices into virtues.

In his words:

“Today we come across a person who acts and feels like an automaton; who never experiences anything which is really his; who experiences himself entirely as the person he thinks he is supposed to be; whose artificial smile has replaced genuine laughter; whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech; whose dulled despair has taken the place of genuine pain.”

That was forty years ago! This describes a majority of the people with whom you come into contact during your waking hours. You might even see yourself in that description. Please, look again.

If TV, movies, and other entertainment were removed for only a short time, many people would be thrown into neurosis.

“Man had to be molded into a person who was eager to spend most of his energy for the purpose of work, who acquired discipline, particularly orderliness and punctuality, to a degree unknown in most other cultures”

Basically, modern man hides his despair by becoming who he thinks society wants him to be. By striving after things that everyone else tells him that he wants, and by never trusting himself to come up with an original thought.

And naturally, the same goes for women. Both sexes are affected by this modern attitude.

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Human qualities like friendliness and kindness are turned into commodities for exchange on the marketplace. And truth be told, in the bland existence of modern man, there is not much love or hate to be found in human relations of our day.

To this, Fromm says:

“The aim of life is to live it intensely, to be fully born, to be fully awake. To emerge from the ideas of infantile grandiosity into the conviction of one’s real though limited strength; to be able to accept the paradox that every one of us is the most important thing there is in the universe – and at the same time not more important than a fly or a blade of grass. To be able to love life, and yet to accept death without terror; to tolerate uncertainty about the most important questions with which life confronts us – and yet to have faith in our thought and feeling, inasmuch as they are truly ours. To be able to be alone, and at the same time one with a loved person, with every brother on this earth, with all that is alive; to follow the voice of our conscience, the voice that calls us to ourselves, yet not to indulge in self hate when the voice of conscience was not loud enough to be heard and followed. The mentally healthy person is the person who lives by love, reason, and faith, who respects life, his own, and that of his fellow man.”

How can I even add to that? The humanism that flows from Fromm onto the page is enough to, as Kafka says, take an axe to the frozen sea inside us.

Simply, man is the end, and must never be used as the means.

“If people live under conditions which are contrary to their nature and to the basic requirements of human growth and sanity, he cannot help reacting; he must either deteriorate and perish, or bring about conditions which are more in accordance with his needs.”

According to Fromm and indeed many others, human needs, after basic physiological needs have been met, can be summarized as follows:

 Human Needs:

-Relatedness

-Transcendence

-Sense of Identity

-Frame of Orientation and Devotion

And yet there is this certain abstractification present today whereby men and women see themselves and others as things.

They say things like “He’s worth a million dollars”, as if his cumulative human qualities can be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.

It also has a special significance with respect to human conflict.

In such times as these, there is no real connection between pushing a button and people being killed. I seriously doubt that a pilot who has released bombs from the air which go on to kill hundreds of children inside a school would be capable of slapping even one defenseless infant.

But things have no “Self”, and men who have become things can have no self.

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If you ask a computer what it is, provided it could respond, it would say something like “I’m a computer”. If you ask a person what they are, odds are, you’d get a response like “I’m a banker”, or “I’m a salesman”, or “I’m a truck driver”.

Total alienation.

Because what you DO, and who you ARE, are two different things.

I never tell people that I AM a human rights activist or I AM a bouncer. I say that “I work AS a bouncer”, or “I work AS a human rights activist”. Two different things.

To Fromm, the chief problem for the individual is to find a new relatedness to man and nature after having been separated from his primary ties. Ties to his parents after being sent into the world, ties to nation and state, ties to society at large.

When people fail to live up to this challenge, you see people who are, quote:

“willing to risk their lives, to give up their love, to surrender their freedom, to sacrifice their own thoughts, for the sake of being one of the herd, of conforming, and thus acquiring a sense of identity, even though it is an illusory one”

Further,

“Man can fulfill himself only if he remains in touch with the fundamental facts of his existence, if he can experience the exaltation of love and solidarity, as well as the tragic fact of his aloneness and of the fragmentary character of his existence.”

To the alienated personality, the questions of whether a life is “worth living” or if someone is a “success” or a “failure” makes life out to be a sort of enterprise which should show a profit. This is fundamentally at odds with what Fromm postulates as the ideal conception of man’s possibility.

Importantly, Fromm asks:

“Who will tell whether one happy moment of love, or the joy of breathing on a bright morning and smelling the fresh air, is not worth all the suffering and effort which life implies?”

Life is a unique gift and challenge, not to be measured in terms of anything else, and no sensible answer can be given to the question whether it is “worth living” because the question does not make any sense.

The aim of life is to unfold man’s love and reason, and every other human activity has to be subordinated to this aim. Financial considerations and what may be important to the “marketing character” have to be secondary to the real conditions for man’s continuous evolution.

41+5T+IleoL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_But the contemporary system needs people who feel “happy”, who have no doubts, who have no conflicts, who are guided without the use of force.

Hence, the alienated person finds it almost impossible to remain by himself, because he is seized by the panic of experiencing nothingness.

It’s time to break free from these illusory bonds. Conscience depends on nonconformity and we desperately need our consciences to be working for our benefit. For the benefit of all humanity.

Is it surprising that in a culture where popular news outlets spew all that garbage that teenagers have no problem beating people to death?

Is it any wonder that most people are too beaten-down and responsive to marketing to put forth any original opinions of their own? Instead, they repeat things that they have heard from others, while thinking that it is their own original thought.

Are we to misinterpret the fact that we care only about our own narrow in-group and not about what happens to ourselves as a civilization?

According to Fromm:

“The mentally healthy person is the productive and unalienated person; the person who relates himself to the world lovingly, and who uses his reason to grasp reality objectively; who experiences himself as a unique individual entity, and at the same time feels one with his fellow man; who is not subject to irrational authority, and accepts willingly the rational authority of conscience and reason; who is in the process of being born as long as he is alive, and considers the gift of life the most precious chance he has.”

Society should be responsible for the education of not only children, but people of every age.  No serious change in the structure and function of society will occur unless change is promoted across many spheres of life simultaneously.

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What we do now echoes in eternity. Just as there were 14 billion years leading up to now, there may well be billions of years left for us as a civilization.

Provided that we don’t destroy ourselves in the meantime.

There are alternatives. And they all include original thought. They include using our collective conscience to decide how we want to live as a civilization. And then we need to do what we can, as much as we can, as individuals.

I’ll give the last word to Erich Fromm:

“As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost.”

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

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HELPFUL LINKS:

Erich Fromm – The Sane Society

Erich Fromm – The Art of Being

Erich Fromm – The Art of Loving

AUTHOR BIO:

Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, boxer, and writer who reads 200 books per year and throws 300 punches per minute. His website, Godlike Discipline, is dedicated to raising money for causes like Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch, among others. It’s also dedicated to helping people tackle their biggest willpower challenges. He also like death metal, and so, consequently doesn’t get many second dates. Here he is on a horse.

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2 Comments on Erich Fromm on the Alienation of Modern Man

  1. Great article Matt and a good read. “Because what you DO, and who you ARE, are two different things” I totally agree. It’s a shame most people never take the time to dig deep and find out what they really ‘are’. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks! And absolutely. Fromm was really trying to drive that point home. Self-reflection is SO important (I think), and well worth the time that you devote to it.

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