Erich Fromm’s theory of the human condition begins with the insight that freedom itself can sometimes be the cause of fear and anxiety, forcing us to find ways to “escape from freedom”. Authoritarianism, destructiveness and automaton conformity are, according to Fromm, three ways how we try to cope with the freedom we fear.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
The problem of freedom
It is surprising to see freedom identified as a problem, isn’t it? And why would we want to “escape from freedom”?
We usually think that freedom must be something unequivocally good. All over the world people are fighting for their freedom. Being imprisoned, losing one’s freedom, is a heavy punishment that we reserve only for the worst offenders in our society. Slavery seems almost unimaginably cruel to us, not only because slaves in the past have been mistreated, but primarily because they weren’t free. (By the way, slaves were not always mistreated. In ancient Greece and Rome, there were all kinds of slavery, and some of them looked much better than some modern employment contracts). And finally Kant identified human autonomy (which essentially means human freedom) as the basic, defining feature of what makes us special and distinguishes us from animals. So how can this precious thing, our freedom, be a problem?
People weren’t always as free as we are today. In the Middle Ages, one didn’t have much choice about how to live one’s life. You were born into a gender role, a social caste, even a job. The son of a miller became a miller, whether he wanted to or not (this is where our surnames come from). This all began to change during the Renaissance (~15 and 16th centuries), when the big cities offered more social mobility and more choices and material wealth to their citizens. Suddenly, people were free to redefine themselves, to start a trade, to make money, and to use this money in order to advance in society. The old structures of inherited status began to crumble away and slowly the citizens got used to enjoying freedoms that they never had before. This process went on through the centuries, always progressing towards more equality, more rights, more choice, more freedom, up to the present day.
In the industrialised West, we now enjoy more freedom and more material wealth than ever before. But are we therefore happier?
This is the question that Fromm uses as his starting point. Think about it for a moment. If suddenly a genie came out of an Arabian lamp and granted you total freedom from all restrictions that society imposes upon you, how would this feel? Would this only be a source of happiness?
No, says Fromm. Freedom comes with another, often overlooked side. Being free also means having to take responsibility. It also means being more isolated and alienated from others. There is comfort in being unfree. Think of a small child, having no possessions, no own dwelling, not even the ability to make its own food or to decide how to spend its time. Every hour of its life is planned and managed by parents, schools, uncles and aunties, by the needs of its body, by the incomprehensible rules of a world that the child cannot even begin to understand. Still, as long as they are not suffering from extreme deprivation or poor health, small children are generally some of the happiest human beings: cheerful, relaxed, entirely free from anxiety and stress. How can this be?
Being embedded in a bigger world that takes away our decisions from us gives security and peace to our lives, says Fromm. The less we have to decide, the less we are to blame if things go wrong. Often, the low-paid employees in a company are the most cheerful and friendly people, while its managers are plagued by fear of failure, by stress, heart attacks, anxiety and sleeplessness.
What is Alienation?
One of his best known concepts of Marxism is the idea of “alienation” that describes how human beings get estranged from their work.
The process from embeddedness to freedom is one that everyone goes through in their own, individual life. As children, we are all safe and fully unfree. Later, as we step out of childhood, we have to increasingly make our own choices: to choose our friends, our lovers, later a field of study or a job. These are extremely wide-ranging decisions that will have consequences for the rest of our lives. Shall I start smoking or not? Shall I be cool or nerdy? Shall I study philosophy or get a well-paying job? Shall I move out of my parents’ house and to where? And as we grow older, we have to make more and more terrible choices. In the beginning, we’re only responsible for our own welfare. But suddenly we find ourselves responsible for the lives, the health and the survival of others: for our children, who blindly trust us to keep them alive, as if we knew what we are doing. Should I buy my kids this plastic toy, or will the chemicals in it make them die of cancer in twenty years? Should I feed them tuna, or explain to them why we should leave the tuna alone? And how am I going to feed them if I make some silly mistake and lose my job?
More and more, we realise that freedom is not only a blessing but also a heavy burden. And if we cannot handle it, we might wish to “escape from freedom,” which is the title of one of Erich Fromm’s books.
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Ways of escape
Fromm identifies three ways in which many people try to escape from that unwanted and threatening freedom.
One is authoritarianism, the attempt to give up one’s individuality and to become part of a collective, an authoritarian system that will tell us what to do. This can happen in two ways: we can either submit to the power of others, becoming passive like children and following the instructions that we are given. Or we can ourselves become authorities in such a system, the people who will lead others. In both cases, we would escape our own, separate identity and we would become part of a larger group that would either dictate or validate our choices.
The second way is what Fromm calls destructiveness. Being afraid of what the world might do to harm them, some will strike out against it, in order to destroy it first. We see examples of that all around us: in everyday brutality, vandalism, humiliation, crime and terrorism, says Fromm. Of course, we should probably not judge every kind of terrorism and crime in the same way. A father who steals food from a supermarket in order to feed his children is not a destructive vandal. And neither is a terrorist who is attacking a military installation in order to free his country from foreign occupation. But we all know the kinds of people Fromm has in mind here.
The third way of escaping from freedom is automaton conformity, as Fromm calls it. “Automaton” here means “robot”. This kind of escape is particularly suited to our modern, Western societies, which don’t offer many authoritarian hierarchies in which one could hide. So we hide in our mass culture instead. This is the same observation that we already saw in Richard Taylor’s book chapter: that for some people, life consists only in dressing like others do, in watching the same TV programs (Breaking Bad?), reading the same books (Harry Potter) and consuming the same culture as everyone else.
“If I look like, talk like, think like, feel like… everyone else in my society, then I disappear into the crowd, and I don’t need to acknowledge my freedom or take responsibility,” writes Fromm.
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How to apply this thought
So let us see how we cope with our freedom in our own lives. Do we cherish it? Do we make the best use of it? Or do we hide behind the power and the authority of others, behind violence and destructiveness, or behind mass culture, in the attempt to disappear and to get rid of that freedom that scares us?
Of course, it is hard to look at our own problems directly and to self-diagnose what’s wrong with out lives. Still, if we want to live truly happy lives, we will have to learn to accept our freedom and to use it as an opportunity, as a rare and precious thing, rather than as something to be feared.
Somewhat paradoxically, “freedom” itself can sometimes be a way to escape from freedom.
Let us also look at the ways which each one of us uses to escape from the responsibility and anxiety of being free. There are so many different ways in which we may settle into a life that’s unfree but comforting: a relationship to someone who is strong and authoritarian; a life that follows the expectations of our surroundings in every detail; a life that is built upon imitating a role model; a life that is so busy that it doesn’t leave any space for bigger choices; a life without a family of one’s own. The latter, what today is often fashionably called the “nomadic” life, could be argued to sometimes be just another form of fleeing from responsibility. If all I have is my van or my sailboat, then I have escaped much of what is difficult in human life: the anxiety and the burden of having a family, the need to earn enough money, the problems of long-term human relationships, the judgement of society, the sometimes difficult relations to relatives and friends. Somewhat paradoxically, “freedom” itself can sometimes be a way to escape from freedom.
If the whole of my life is reduced to sailing a boat across the empty Pacific ocean, then it would be strange to say that I have “achieved freedom.” The freedom to do what, exactly? In the middle of the ocean, my freedom is reduced to a handful of immediate choices: to eat or not to eat; to put up this sail or that; and to turn the boat this way or that. That’s all. We can see how this might be attractive, but it is nothing more than another way of escaping freedom, of escaping the complexities of life as a grown-up member of our difficult, dangerous, and often infuriating societies. Freedom, properly understood, is not only the freedom from the constraints of our social lives; it must, and Aristotle would surely agree with Fromm here, always also be the freedom towards doing what we consider valuable, good, and worth fighting for.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.