Individual growth versus group dynamics (an excerpt from “Psychoanalysis and Religion”)

Picking up again in Erich Fromm’s book Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950; 1971 edition), beginning on page 80:

To cut through the navel string, not in the physical bu in the psychological sense, is the great challenge to human development and also its most difficult task. As long as man is related by these primary ties to mother, father, family, he feels protected and safe. He is still a foetus, someone else is responsible for him. He avoids the disquieting experience of seeing himself as a separate entity charged with the responsibility for his own actions, with the task of making his own judgments, “of taking his life in his hands.” By remaining a child man not only avoids the fundamental anxiety necessarily connected with the full awareness of oneself as a separate entity, he also enjoys the satisfactions of protection, warmth, and of unquestioned belonging which he once enjoyed as a child; but he pays a high price. He fails to become a full human being, to develop his powers of reason and of love; he remains dependent and retains a feeling of insecurity which becomes manifest at any moment when these primary ties are threatened. All his mental and emotional activities are geared to the authority of his primary group; hence his beliefs and insights are not his own. He can feel affection but it is animal affection, the warmth of the stable, and not human love which has freedom and separateness as its condition. The incestuously orientated person is capable of feeling close to those whom he is familiar with. He is incapable of relating himself closely to the “stranger,” that is, to another human being as such. In this orientation all feelings and ideas are judged in terms not of good and evil or true and false but of familiar and unfamiliar. When Jesus said, “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law,” he did not mean to teach hatred of parents but to express in the most unequivocal and drastic form the principle that man must break incestuous ties and become free in order to become human.

The attachment to parents is only one, though the most fundamental, form of incest; in the process of social evolution other attachments in part replace it. The tribe, the nation, the race, the state, the social class, political parties, and many other forms of institutions and organizations become home and family. Here are the roots of nationalism and racism, which in turn are symptoms of man’s inability to experience himself and others as free human beings. It may be said that the development of mankind is the development from incest to freedom. In this lies the explanation for the universality of incest tabus. The human race could not have progressed had it not guided the need for closeness into channels away from mother, father, and siblings. Love for a wife is dependent on overcoming the incestuous strivings; “therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife.” But the significance of the tabu on incest goes far beyond this. The growth of reason and of all rational value judgments requires that man overcome the incestuous fixation with its criteria of right and wrong based on familiarity.

The integration of small groups into larger ones, and its biological consequences, would have been impossible without incest tabus. No wonder that an aim imperative from the standpoint of social evolution has been safeguarded by forceful and universal tabus. But while we have traveled a long road toward overcoming incest, mankind has by no means succeeded in its conquest. The groupings to which man feels incestuously tied have become larger and the area of freedom has become greater, but the ties to those larger units which substitute for the clan and the soil are still powerful and strong. Only the complete eradication of incestuous fixation will permit the realization of the brotherhood of man.

To sum it up, Freud’s statement that the Oedipus complex, the incestuous fixation, is the “kernel of neurosis” is one of the most significant insights into the problem of mental health when we free it from its narrow formulation in sexual terms and understand it in its broad interpersonal significance. Freud himself has indicated that he means something beyond the sexual realm. In fact, his view that man must leave father and mother and grow up to face reality constitutes his main argument against religion in The Future of an Illusion, wherein his criticisms of religion is that it keeps man in bondage and dependence and thus prevents him from attaining the paramount task of human existence, that of freedom and independence.

It would of course be a mistake to assume that the foregoing remarks imply that only those who are “neurotic” have failed in this task of self-emancipation, while the average well-adjusted person has succeeded in it. On the contrary, the vast majority of people in our culture are well adjusted because they have given up the battle for independence sooner and more radically than the neurotic person. They have accepted the judgment of the majority so completely that they have been spared the sharp pain of conflict which the neurotic person goes through. While they are healthy from the standpoint of “adjustment,” they are more sick than the neurotic person from the standpoint of the realization of their aims as human beings. Can theirs then be a perfect solution? It would be if it were possible to ignore the fundamental laws of human existence without damage. But that is not possible. The “adjusted” person who does not live by the truth and who does not love is protected only from manifest conflicts. If he is not engrossed in work he has to use the many avenues of escape which our culture offers in order to be protected from the frightening experience of being alone with himself and looking into the abyss of his own impotence and human impoverishment.

All great religions have proceeded from the negative formulation of incest tabus to more positive formulations of freedom. Buddha had his insights in solitude. He makes the extreme demand that man rid himself of all “familiar” ties in order to find himself and his real strength. The Jewish-Christian religion is not as radical as Buddhism in this respect but it is not less clear. In the myth of the Garden of Eden man’s existence is described as one of complete security. He is lacking in knowledge of good and evil. Human history begins with man’s act of disobedience which is at the same time the beginning of his freedom and the development of his reason. The Jewish and particularly the Christian traditions have stressed the element of sin but have ignored the fact that it is the emancipation from the security of Paradise which is the basis for man’s truly human development. The demand to sever the ties of blood and soil runs through the entire Old Testament. Abraham is told to leave his country and become a wanderer. Moses is brought up as a stranger in an unfamiliar environment away from his family and even from his own people. The condition for Israel’s mission as God’s chosen people lies in their leaving the bondage of Egypt and wandering in the desert for forty years. After having settled down in their own country, they fall back into the incestuous worship of the soil, of idols, and of the state. The central issue of the teachings of the Prophets is the fight against this incestuous worship. They preach instead the basic values common to all mankind, those of truth, love, and justice. They attack the state and those secular powers which fail to realize these norms. The state must perish if man becomes tied to it in such a way that the welfare of the state, its power and its glory become the criteria of good and evil. The concept that the people must go into exile again and can return to their soil only when they have achieved freedom and ceased the idolatrous worship of soil and state is the logical culmination of this principle which underlies the Old Testament and particularly the messianic concept of the Prophets.

Only if one has outgrown incestuous ties can one judge one’s own group critically; only then can one judge at all. Most groups, whether they are primitive tribes, nations, or religions, are concerned with their own survival and upholding the power of their leaders, and they exploit the inherent moral sense of their members to arouse them against outsiders with whom there is conflict. But they use the incestuous ties which keep a person in moral bondage to his own group to stifle his moral sense and his judgment, so that he will not criticize his own group for violations of moral principles which if committed by others would drive him into violent opposition.

It is the tragedy of all great religions that they violate and pervert the very principles of freedom as soon as they become mass organizations governed by a religious bureaucracy. The religious organization and the men who represent it take over to some extent the place of family, tribe, and state. They keep man in bondage instead of leaving him free. It is no longer God who is worshiped but the group that claims to speak in his name. This has happened in all religions. Their founders guided man through the desert, away from the bondage of Egypt, while later on others have led him back toward a new Egypt though calling it the Promised Land.

The command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, with only slight variations in its expression, the basic principle common to all humanistic religions. But it would indeed be difficult to understand why the great spiritual teachers of the human race have demanded of man that he should love if love were as easy an accomplishment as most people seem to feel. What is called love? Dependence, submission, and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable,” domination, possessiveness, and the craving for control are felt to be love; sexual greed and the inability to stand solitude are experienced as proof of intense capacity for love. People believe that to love is simple but that to be loved is most difficult. In our marketing orientation people think they are not loved because they are not “attractive” enough, attractiveness being based on anything from looks, dress, intelligence, money, to social position and prestige. They do not know that the real problem is not the difficulty of being loved but the difficulty of loving; that one is loved only if one can love, if one’s capacity to love produces love in another person, that the capacity for love, not for its counterfeit, is a most difficult achievement.

[Italicized emphases his; bold emphases mine (if this Mantra theme will quit jacking with my stylesheet changes anyway)]

Stopping on page 86.

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