On the dual strivings of human nature and power — an excerpt from “The Heart of Man” by Erich Fromm

I’m still in the mood to reflect back on Erich Fromm’s writings, so I’ll continue on with transcribing, this time picking up his book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil (1964), beginning on page 7:

Man—Wolf or Sheep?

There are many who believe that men are sheep; there are others who believe that men are wolves. Both sides can muster good arguments for their positions. Those who propose that men are sheep have only to point to the fact that men are easily influenced to do what they are told, even if it is harmful to themselves; that they have followed their leaders into wars which brought them nothing but destruction; that they have believed any kind of nonsense if it was only presented with sufficient vigor and supported by power—from the harsh threats of priests and kings to the soft voices of the hidden and not-so-hidden persuaders. It seems that the majority of men are suggestible, half-awake children, willing to surrender their will to anyone who speaks with a voice that is threatening or sweet enough to sway them. Indeed, he who has a conviction strong enough to withstand the opposition of the crowd is the exception rather than the rule, an exception often admired centuries later, mostly laughed at by his contemporaries.

It is on this assumption—that men are sheep—that the Great Inquisitors and the dictators have built their systems. More than that, this very belief that men are sheep and hence need leaders to make the decisions for them, has often given the leaders the sincere conviction that they were fulfilling a moral duty—even though a tragic one—if they gave man what he wanted: if they were leaders who took away from him the burden of responsibility and freedom.

But if most men have been sheep, why is it that man’s life is so different from that of sheep? His history has been written in blood; it is a history of continuous violence, in which almost invariably force has been used to bend his will. Did Talaat Pasha alone exterminate millions of Armenians? Did Hitler alone exterminate millions of Jews? Did Stalin alone exterminate millions of political enemies? These men were not alone; they had thousands of men who killed for them, tortured for them, and who did so not only willingly but with pleasure. Do we not see man’s inhumanity to man everywhere—in ruthless warfare, in murder and rape, in the ruthless exploitation of the weaker by the stronger, and in the fact that the sighs of the tortured and suffering creature have so often fallen on deaf ears and hardened hearts? All these facts have led thinkers like Hobbes to the conclusion that homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to his fellow man); they have led many of us today to the assumption that man is vicious and destructive by nature, that he is a killer who can be restrained from his favorite pastime only by fear of more powerful killers.

Yet the arguments of both sides leave us puzzled. It is true that we may personally know some potential or manifest killers and sadists as ruthless as Stalin and Hitler were; yet these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Should we assume that you and I and most average men are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and that our “true nature” will become apparent once we rid ourselves of those inhibitions which until now have prevented us from acting like beasts? This assumption is hard to disprove, yet it is not entirely convincing. There are numerous opportunities for cruelty and sadism in everyday life in which people could indulge without fear of retaliation; yet many do not do so; in fact, many react with a certain sense of revulsion when they meet cruelty and sadism.

Is there, then, another and perhaps better explanation for the puzzling contradiction we deal with here? Should we assume that the simple answer is that there is a minority of wolves living side by side with a majority of sheep? The wolves want to kill; the sheep want to follow. Hence the wolves get the sheep to kill, to murder, and to strangle, and the sheep comply not only because they enjoy it, but because they want to follow; and even then the killers have to invent stories about the nobility if their cause, about defense against the threat to freedom, about revenge for bayoneted children, raped women, and violated honor, to get the majority of the sheep to act like wolves. This answer sounds plausible, but it still leaves many doubts. Does it not imply that there are two human races, as it were—that of wolves and that of sheep? Furthermore, how is it that sheep can be so easily persuaded to act like wolves if it is not in their nature to do so, even providing that violence is presented to them as a sacred duty? Our assumptions regarding wolves and sheep may not be tenable; is it perhaps true after all that the wolves represent the essential quality of human nature, only more overtly than the majority show it? Or, after all, maybe the entire alternative is erroneous. Maybe man is both wolf and sheep—or neither wolf nor sheep?

The answer to these questions is of crucial importance today, when nations contemplate the use of the most destructive forces for the extinction of their “enemies,” and seem not to be deterred even by the possibility that they themselves may be extinguished in the holocaust. If we are convinced that human nature is inherently prone to destroy, that the need to use force and violence is rooted in it, then our resistance to ever increasing brutalization will become weaker and weaker. Why resist the wolves when we are all wolves, although some more so than others?

The question whether man is wolf or sheep is only a special formulation of a question which, in its wider and more general aspects, has been one of the most basic problems of Western theological and philosophical thought: Is man basically evil and corrupt, or is he basically good and perfectable? The Old Testament does not take the position of man’s fundamental corruption. Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God are not called sin; nowhere is there a hint that this disobedience has corrupted man. On the contrary, the disobedience is the condition for man’s self-awareness, for his capacity to choose, and thus in the last analysis this first act of disobedience is man’s first step toward freedom. It seems that their disobedience was even within God’s plan; for, according to prophetic thoughts, man just because he was expelled from Paradise is able to make his own history, to develop his human powers, and to attain a new harmony with man and nature as a fully developed individual instead of the former harmony in which he was not yet an individual. The Messianic concept of the prophets certainly implies that man is not fundamentally corrupt and that he can be saved without any special act of God’s grace. But it does not imply that this potential for good will necessarily win. If man does evil he becomes more evil. Thus, Pharaoh’s heart “hardens” because he keeps on doing evil; it hardens to a point where no more change or repentance is possible. The Old Testament offers at least as many examples of evil-doing as of right-doing, and does not exempt even exalted figures like King David from the list of evil doers. The Old Testament view is that man has both capacities—that of good and that of evil—and that man must choose between good and evil, blessing and curse, life and death. Even God does not interfere in his choice; he helps by sending his messengers, the prophets, to teach the norms which lead to the realization of goodness, to identify the evil, and to warn and to protest. But this being done, man is left alone with his “two strivings,” that for good and that for evil, and the decision is his alone.

The Christian development was different. In the course of the development of the Christian Church, Adam’s disobedience was conceived as sin. In fact, as a sin so severe that it corrupted his nature and with it that of all of his descendants, and thus man by his own effort could never rid himself of this corruption. Only God’s own act of grace, the appearance of Christ, who died for man, could extinguish man’s corruption and offer salvation for those who accepted Christ.

But the dogma of original sin was by no means unopposed in the Church. Pelagius assailed it but was defeated. The Renaissance humanists within the Church tended to weaken it, even though they could not directly assail or deny it, while many heretics did just that. Luther had, if anything, an even more radical view of man’s innate evilness and corruption, while thinkers of the Renaissance and later of the Enlightenment took a drastic step in the opposite direction. The latter claimed that all evil in man was nothing but the result of circumstances, hence that men did not really have to choose. Change the circumstances that produce evil, so they thought, and man’s original goodness will come forth almost automatically. This view also colored the thinking of Marx and his successors. The belief in man’s goodness was the result of man’s new self-confidence, gained as a result of the tremendous economic and political progress which started with the Renaissance. Conversely, the moral bankruptcy of the West which began with the First World War and led beyond Hitler and Stalin, Coventry and Hiroshima to the present preparation for universal extinction, brought forth again the traditional emphasis on man’s propensity for evil. The new emphasis was a healthy antidote to the underestimation of the inherent potential of evil in man—but too often it served to ridicule those who had not lost their faith in man, sometimes by misunderstanding and even distorting their position.

As one whose views have often been misrepresented as underestimating the potential of evil within man, I want to emphasize that such sentimental optimism is not the mood of my thought. It would be difficult indeed for anyone who has had a long clinical experience as a psychoanalyst to belittle the destructive forces within men. In severely sick patients, he sees these forces at work and experiences the enormous difficulty of stopping them or of channeling their energy into constructive directions. It would be equally difficult for any person who has witnessed the explosive outburst of evil and destructiveness since the beginning of the First World War not to see the power and intensity of human destructiveness. Yet there exists the danger that the sense of powerlessness which grips people today—intellectuals as well as the average man—with ever increasing force, may lead them to accept a new version of corruption and original sin which serves as a rationalization for the defeatist view that war cannot be avoided because it is the result of the destructiveness of human nature. Such a view, which sometimes prides itself on its exquisite realism, is unrealistic on two grounds. First, the intensity of destructive strivings by no means implies that they are invincible or even dominant. The second fallacy in this view lies in the premise that wars are primarily the result of psychological forces. It is hardly necessary to dwell long on this fallacy of “psychologism” in the understanding of social and political phenomena. Wars are the result of the decision of political, military, and business leaders to wage war for the sake of gaining territory, natural resources, advantages in trade; for defense against real or alleged threats to their country’s security by another power; or for reason for the enhancement of their own personal prestige and glory. These men are not different from the average man: they are selfish, with little capacity to renounce personal advantage for the sake of others; but they are neither cruel nor vicious. When such men—who in ordinary life probably would do more good than harm—get into positions of power where they can command millions of people and control the most destructive weapons, they can cause immense harm. In civilian life they might have destroyed a competitor; in our world of powerful and sovereign states (“sovereign” means not subject to any moral law which restricts the action of the sovereign state), they may destroy the human race. The ordinary man with extraordinary power is the chief danger for mankind—not the fiend or the sadist. […]

[Bold emphases mine]

Stopping on page 14.

[Edited for typos on Dec. 11th, 2014. Apologies for the delay in re-proofreading.]

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