‘the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart.

Erich Fromm

The German-born humanistic philosopher and social psychologist Erich Fromm spent most of his working life trying to understand the human condition – and its predicament. He came to the conclusion that only a fundamental change in our character, in the way we do things, will save us from a psychological and economic disaster. He saw clearly what was on the cards if human nature was to continue along the same lines, and without making a change in its current course. In the several decades since Fromm’s writings – he died on March 18th, 1980 – we have seen how our human trajectory has taken us on a course toward these converging lines of breakdown. In Fromm’s thinking, it is necessary, in fact critical, that human civilization makes a shift from a ‘having’ mode to a ‘being’ mode.

Fromm recognized that the more a person has, the less they are attracted to making active and constructive efforts. He saw a clear relation between the ‘having’ of possessions – the contentment of the accumulation of goods – and inner laziness. And it was this inner laziness that would ultimately form a vicious circle, reinforcing the need to stay in the ‘having’ mode. He stated that,

…modern man has many things and uses many things, but he is very little. His feelings and thinking processes are atrophied like unused muscles. He is afraid of any crucial social change because any disturbance in the social balance to him spells chaos or death – if not physical death, the death of his identity. [i]

The modern person, suggested Fromm, is afraid to lose their sense of identity. Any form of drastic social change spells a break-up of many incumbent social norms upon which their social persona – i.e., identity – is constructed. What many people have yet failed to grasp is that the social persona, their much-beloved character, is a social construct formed out of a sophisticated and complex array of cultural conditioning and programming. What the average person fears to lose is the artificial ‘sense of self’ which has been grafted onto them through years of socialization. It is thus a false fear – yet a fear all the same. This distinction, between a person’s social persona and their genuine self, forms a site of contradiction and contestation that is at the base of much social fragmentation. We need to free life from its contradictions before we can form a map that corresponds to a more wholesome and balanced form of reality.

Fromm’s book Fear of Freedom (1941 – published in US as Escape from Freedom) put forth the idea that a struggle for freedom had been created between the interior world of an individual and their external institutions. The personal fear of social isolation and uncertainty is thus eliminated by seeking an outside power to give their power and dependency to. Eventually, a person becomes an instrument in the hands of structures, institutions, and forms of power external to them. The only other alternative is to seek a form of self-independence based on personal trust and belief. Yet such self-beliefs are constantly undermined by authoritative institutions in the modern world. As Fromm says – ‘the structure of modern society affects man in two ways simultaneously: he becomes more independent, self-reliant, and critical, and he becomes more isolated, alone, and afraid.’[ii]

The majority of people have not fully reconciled themselves to be at peace with a state of being. This is becoming more evident now as people are forced to experience ‘self-isolation’ and to stay indoors as precautions against the 2020 pandemic. This is causing great personal unrest and psychological discomfort as so many people have been conditioned to a life of exterior distraction and attention. We are fascinated, noted Fromm, by the wielding of powers outside ourselves yet are blinded to the condition of our own inner restraints in the form of compulsions and fears. It is these individual and social conditions that make for the suppression of human life and its proclivity for control and destruction.

In his Fear of Freedom, Fromm proposed that our inherent – and often unrecognized – fear of personal freedom and self-independence, resulted in the following escape mechanisms:

  • Automaton conformity: changing one’s ideal self to conform to a perception of society’s preferred type of personality, losing one’s true self in the process; Automaton conformitydisplaces the burden of choice from self to society;
  • Authoritarianism: giving control of oneself to another. By submitting one’s freedom to someone else, this act removes the freedom of choice almost entirely.
  • Destructiveness: any process which attempts to eliminate others or the world as a whole, all to escape freedom.[iii]

Fromm saw that a collective form of ‘destruction of the world’ was a last, desperate attempt by people as a way to save themselves being crushed by their unprocessed fears. In a stark yet highly prescient observation he wrote – ‘Because we have freed ourselves of the older overt forms of authority, we do not see that we have become the prey of a new kind of authority. We have become automatons who live under the illusion of being self-willing individuals.’[iv]

The solution to this crisis, according to Fromm, is a shift from the materialist-capitalism ‘Having’ society to a humanist-centred form of ‘Being’ society.

To Have or To Be?

The growth of a humanistic society that places value on the agency of human beings requires the dramatic shift from a possession-centric lifestyle to a lifestyle where the value of individual and collective well-being is central. That is, a shift from the values of selfishness and egotism to those of compassion, collaboration, connection, and conscious communication. And yet we must admit that until now mostly ‘merchants of salvation’ have profited from satisfying the demands of people for sensations of well-being. The danger here is that the superficial satiations of well-being only serve to strengthen the inner chains within us. Again, Fromm perceptively remarked that,

The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion-apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free. He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?[v]

The ultimate question remains – how could such a large-scale shift in our way of life and attitude be made possible?

Fromm suggests the following conditions that would be necessary to stimulate such a fundamental shift in human nature:

  1. We are suffering and are aware that we are.
  2. We recognize the origin of our ill-being.
  3. We recognize that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
  4. We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we must follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life.[vi]

These may appear to be simplistic conditions, yet clear recognition of the human predicament is paramount. Fromm initially calls on a need to ‘change our present practice of life,’ which, on first reading, sounds naïve. Yet Fromm was not blind to the difficulties of the situation and the obstructions people would likely place as excuses to refrain from such a course of action. He noted that – ‘yet another explanation for the deadening of our survival instinct is that the changes in living that would be required are so drastic that people prefer the future catastrophe to the sacrifice they would have to make now.’[vii]

Fromm was insistent that insight separated from practice remains ineffective. That is, if we don’t put into action the thoughts and ideas that we have, we shall attain nothing. The two must correspond and be in relation to form the third force of actualization – thought (passive) with action (active) forms a manifested result (integral whole). The problem that faces people today is that their passage to radical, yet necessary, social change lies blocked by a pervasive infrastructure of authoritarian control dictated by advanced forms of technological surveillance and data-management. The path to a Being society is obstructed by the rapid rise of a modern political establishment increasingly close to a technocracy.

Still, the power of the incumbent system did not stop Fromm, in his time, from discussing the need for a new society to be formed that would itself encourage the emergence of the new human being. He outlined the following traits as being the qualities of this new human:

  • A willingness to give up forms of ‘having’ in order to truly ‘be’
  • A sense of identity, security, and confidence based on one’s self – what one ‘is’ – and with a need for relation with the world around instead of a desire to possess and control the world around oneself.
  • An acceptance of the fact that nobody and nothing outside of oneself can give meaning to life – yet this independence in turn creates a full responsibility to care and share with others.
  • Being fully present where one is.
  • Joy and happiness come from giving and sharing rather than greed, hoarding, and exploitation.
  • Love and respect for life in all its manifestations – in the recognition that things and power do not bring satisfaction and meaning but rather those things which are part of a living ecology.
  • The need to reduce greed, hate, and delusions – to liberate oneself from these traps.
  • To live in a state where illusions have no power over oneself – no need to worship external idols.
  • Developing a heightened capacity for love, compassion, and understanding – without falling into sentimentalized emotions.
  • Letting go of one’s narcissism and ego-centric ideals – to recognize one’s fallibility as a human being.
  • Making the full growth of oneself and of one’s fellow beings as the supreme goal of living – and knowing that to reach this goal requires discipline and respect.
  • To develop one’s imagination not as an escape from circumstances but as a means to create a vision of the real possibilities inherent within humankind.
  • To not deceive others as well as not allowing oneself to be deceived by others – better to be innocent than naïve.
  • To get to know the full depth of oneself, including the darker, shadow side.
  • To develop a sense of the interrelatedness of all life – and to give up on the idea of wishing to conquer, control, and manipulate the environment.
  • To develop a sense and meaning of freedom that is not random but a real possibility, consciously directed and within a responsible framework that is free from greed and selfish desire.
  • To recognize that decay and destructiveness are the consequences that come from anti-growth and artificial forms of control.
  • To recognize that perfection can be an ambition based in greed, and to allow a state of beingness that has imperfections.
  • To accept that happiness is forever in the process of ‘ever-growing aliveness’ – and that living as fully as one can is a pleasant satisfaction as part of this journey.

These are high ideals indeed, yet not beyond the capacity of the human being. Until now, many instances of human freedom have, in the words of Fromm, been more successful in establishing the freedom of whim rather than the freedom of will. That is, where ‘whim’ responds to the question of ‘why not?’ – implying that a person does something simply because there is no reason for not doing it. Yet the active aspect of ‘will’ is a constructive response to the need for doing something. Reasons must have meaning, and through exercising our will we give ourselves meaning. Through human will, we can exercise our concentration, focus, and directed intention. We can provide our activities with conscious attention and give force to our actions. This in turn helps us to be centred, grounded, and balanced.

However, a person cannot be a force for change in their lives if they remain chained to the conditioned perceptions that propagate the mainstream consensus narrative. First, we are required to cleanse our lens of personal perception. I shall turn to this subject in my next series of essays.

For now, we are left with the question that begs for our attention – is it time to have or to be?

[i] Fromm, E. (1993). The Art of Being. London, Constable, p96

[ii] Fromm, E. (1960). The Fear of Freedom. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p90

[iii] Fromm, E. (1960). The Fear of Freedom. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[iv] Fromm, E. (1960). The Fear of Freedom. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p177

[v] Fromm, E. (1993). The Art of Being. London, Constable, p7

[vi] Fromm, E. (1978). To Have or To Be. London, Abacus, p165

[vii] Fromm, E. (1978). To Have or To Be. London, Abacus, p20