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.]

“Mass culture is enlightenment in reverse gear.”

“Rick Roderick on Philosophy and Postmodern Culture,” this video being the 8th in the 8-part lecture series Philosophy and Human Values (1990).

I’ve come to adore listening to Rick Roderick’s explanations and speculations.

Becker’s take on Freud’s claims about childhood and sexuality — an excerpt from the book “The Denial of Death”

Picking back up on page 34 in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death:

The Oedipal Project

Freud often tended to understand human motives in what can be called a “primitive” way. Sometimes so much so that when disciples like Rank and Ferenzci pulled away from him they accused him of simple-mindedness. The accusation is, of course, ludicrous, but there is something to it—probably what they were driving at: the doggedness with which Freud stuck to his stark sexual formulas. No matter how much he changed later in life, he always kept alive the letter of psychoanalytic dogma and fought against a watering-down of the motives he thought he uncovered. We will understand better why in a later chapter.

Take the Oedipus complex. In his early work Freud had said that this complex was the central dynamic in the psychic life. In his view, the boy child had innate drives of sexuality and he even wanted to possess his mother. At the same time, he knew that his father was his competitor, and he held in check a murderous aggressiveness toward him. The reason he held it in check was that he knew the father was physically stronger than he and that the result of an open fight would be the father’s victory and the castration of the son. Hence the horror of blood, of mutilation, of the female genitals that seemed to have been mutilated; they testified that castration was a fact.

Freud modified his views all through his life, but he never got a full distance away from them. No wonder: they kept being “confirmed” in some intimate way by the people he studied. There was indeed something about the anus and the genitals, the physicalness of the family, and its copulations that weighed on the psyche of neurotics like an age-old stone. Freud thought that such a heavy weight must date from time immemorial, from the first emergence of humans out of primate ancestors. He thought that the guilt we each feel deep down is connected with a primal crime of patricide and incest committed in the dim recesses of prehistory; so deep is guilt ingrained, so much is it confused with the body, with sex and excrement, and with the parents. Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept. The guilt that he feels over bodily processes and urges is “pure” guilt: guilt as inhibition, as determinism, as smallness and boundness. It grows out of the constraint of the basic animal condition, the incomprehensible mystery of the body and the world.

Psychoanalysts have been preoccupied since the turn of the century with the experiences of childhood; but, strangely enough, it is only since “just yesterday” that we are able to put together a fairly complete and plausible commonsensical picture of why childhood is such a crucial period for man. We owe this picture to many people, including especially the neglected Rank, but it is Norman O. Brown who has summed it up more pointedly and definitively than anyone else, I think. As he argued in his own reorientation of Freud, the Oedipus complex is not the narrowly sexual problem of lust and competitiveness that Freud made out in his early work. Rather, the Oedipus complex is the Oedipal project, a project that sums up the basic problem of the child’s life: whether he will be a passive object of fate, an appendage of others, a plaything of the world or whether he will be an active center within himself—whether he will control his own destiny with his own powers or not. As Brown put it:

The Oedipal project is not, as Freud’s earlier formulations suggest, a natural love of the mother, but as his later writings recognize, a product of the conflict of ambivalence and an attempt to overcome that conflict by narcissistic inflation. The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God—in Spinoza’s formula, causa sui. . . . By the same token, it plainly exhibits infantile narcissism perverted by the flight from death. . . .

If the child’s major task is a flight from helplessness and obliteration, then sexual matters are secondary and derivative, as Brown says:

Thus again it appears that the sexual organizations, pregenital and genital, do not correspond to the natural distribution of Eros in the human body: they represent a hypercathexis, a supercharge, of particular bodily functions and zones, a hypercathexis induced by the fantasies of human narcissism in flight from death.

Let us take these technical gems and spread them out a bit. The Oedipal project is the flight from passivity, from obliteration, from contingency: the child wants to conquer death by becoming the father of himself, the creator and sustainer of his own life. We saw in Chapter Two that the child has an idea of death by the age of three, but long before that he is already at work to fortify himself against vulnerability. This process begins naturally in the very earliest stages of the infant’s life—in what is called the “oral” stage. This is the stage before the child is fully differentiated from his mother in his own consciousness, before he is fully cognizant of his own body and its functions—or, as we say technically, before his body has become an object in his phenomenological field. The mother, at this time, represents literally the child’s life-world. During this period her efforts are directed to the gratification of the child’s wishes, to automatic relief of his tensions and pains. The child, then, at this time, is simply “full of himself,” an unflinchable manipulator and champion of his world. He lives suffused in his own omnipotence and magically controls everything he needs to feed that omnipotence. He has only to cry to get food and warmth, to point to demand the moon and get a delightful rattle in its place. No wonder we understand this period as characterized by “primary narcissism”: the child triumphantly controls his world by controlling the mother. His body is his narcissistic project, and he uses it to try to “swallow the world.” The “anal stage” is another way of talking about the period when the child begins to turn his attention to his own body as an object in his phenomenal field. He discovers it and seeks to control it. His narcissistic project then becomes the mastery and the possession of the world through self-control.

At each stage in the unfolding discovery of his world and the problems that it poses, the child is intent on shaping that world to his own aggrandizement. He has to keep the feeling that he has absolute power and control, and in order to do that he has to cultivate independence of some kind, the conviction that he is shaping his own life. That is why Brown, like Rank, could say that the Oedipal project is “inevitably self-generated in the child and is directed against the parents, irrespective of how the parents behave.” To put it paradoxically, “children toilet train themselves.” The profound meaning of this is that there is no “perfect” way to bring up a child, since he “brings himself up” by trying to shape himself into an absolute controller of his own destiny. As this aim is impossible, each character is, deeply and in some way, fantastically unreal, fundamentally imperfect. As Ferenczi so well summed it up: “Character is from the point of view of the psychoanalyst a sort of abnormality, a kind of mechanization of a particular way of reaction, rather similar to an obsessional symptom.”

The Castration Complex

In other words, the narcissistic project of self-creation, using the body as the primary base of operations, is doomed to failure. And the child finds it out: this is how we understand the power and meaning of what is called the “castration complex,” as Freud came to develop it in his later writings and as Rank and Brown have detailed it. In the newer understanding of the castration complex it is not the father’s threats that the child reacts to. As Brown so well says, the castration complex comes into being solely in confrontation with the mother. This phenomenon is very crucial, and we must linger a bit on how it happens.

It all centers on the fact that the mother monopolizes the child’s world; at first, she is his world. The child cannot survive without her, yet in order to get control of his own powers he has to get free of her. The mother thus represents two things to the child, and it helps us understand why the psychoanalysts have said that ambivalence characterizes the whole early growth period. On the one hand the mother is a pure source of pleasure and satisfaction, a secure power to lean on. She must appear as the goddess of beauty and goodness, victory and power; this is her “light” side, we might say, and it is blindly attractive. But on the other hand the child has to strain against this very dependency, or he loses the feeling that he has aegis over his own powers.  That is another way of saying that the mother, by representing secure biological dependence, is also a fundamental threat.

The child comes to perceive her as a threat, which is already the beginning of the castration complex in confrontation with her. The child observes that the mother’s body is different from the male’s—strikingly different. And this difference gradually comes to make him very uncomfortable. Freud never tried to ease the shock of the revelations of his theory, and he called this discomfort “horror at the mutilated creature,” the “castrated mother,” the sight of genitals “devoid of a penis.” Freud’s shock effect seemed to many people to partake of caricature. The horror in the child’s perceptions seemed too contrived, too pat, too much designed to fit into Freud’s own addiction to sexual explanations and biological reductionism. Others, too, saw Freud’s way of thinking as a reflection of his own ingrained patriarchy, his strong sense of masculine superiority, which made the woman seem naturally inferior if she lacked male appendages.

The fact is that the “horror of the mutilated creature” is contrived, but it is the child who contrives it. Psychoanalysts reported faithfully what their neurotic patients told them, even if they had to pry just the right words into their expressions. What troubles neurotics—as it troubles most people—is their own powerlessness; they must find something to set themselves against. If the mother represents biological dependence, then the dependence can be fought against by focusing it on the fact of sexual differentiation. If the child it to be truly causa sui, then he must aggressively defy the parents in some way, move beyond them and the threats and temptations they embody. The genitals are a small thing in the child’s perceptual world; hardly enough to be traumatic just because they lack protuberance. As Brown so well put it, the horror is the child’s “own invention; it is a tissue of fantasy inseperable from his own fantastic project of becoming father of himself (and, as fantasy, only remotely connected with actual sight of the female genitalia). Or, put another way, we can say that the child “fetishizes” the mother’s body as an object of global danger to himself. It is one way of cutting her down to size, depriving her of her primary place in creation. Using Erwin Straus’ formula, we would say that the child splits the mother’s genitals off from her totality as a love-object; they then come to be experienced as a threat, as decay.


The real threat of the mother comes to be connected with her sheer physicalness. Her genitals are used as a convenient focus for the child’s obsession with the problem of physicalness. If the mother is a goddess of light, she is also a witch of the dark. He sees her tie to the earth, her secret bodily processes that bind her to nature: the breast with its mysterious sticky milk, the menstrual odors and blood, the almost continual immersion of the productive mother in her corporeality, and not least—something the child is very sensitive to—the often neurotic and helpless character of this immersion. After the child gets hints about the mother’s having babies, sees them being nursed, gets a good look at the toiletful of menstrual blood that seems to leave the witch quite intact and unconcerned, there is no question about her immersion in stark body-meanings and body-fallibilities. The mother must exude determinism, and the child expresses his horror at this complete dependency on what is physically vulnerable. And so we understand not only the boy’s preference for masculinity but also the girl’s “penis-envy.” Both boys and girls succumb to the desire to flee the sex represented by the mother; they need little coaxing to identify with the father and his world. He seems more neutral physically, more cleanly powerful, less immersed in body determinisms; he seems more “symbolically free,” represents the vast world outside of the home, the social world with its organized triumphs over nature, the very escape from contingency that the child seeks.

[Author’s footnote: Penis-envy, then, arises from the fact that the mother’s genitals have been split off from her body as a focalization of the problem of decay and vulnerability. Bernard Brodsky remarks about his female patient: “Her concept of woman as fecal greatly stimulated her penis envy, since the lively erectile penis was the antonym of the dead, inert stool.” . . . Phyllis Greenacre—outstanding student of the child’s experiences—had already remarked on this same equation in the child’s perception: penis = movement, therefore life; feces = inertia, therefore death. . . . This makes penis-envy very natural. Greenacre even used the apt idea of “penis-awe” to refer to the spell that the large male appendage can cast in the child’s perceptions of the father. The child, after all, lives in a world of body-power predominantly—he doesn’t understand abstract or symbolic power. So, more body equals more life. A grown woman might well experience a lingering of the same feeling. An indentation and lack of protuberance, with all that goes on inside, is different from an aggressive extension that must give less of a feeling of vulnerability. . . .]

Just have to chime in to say that I laughed the first time I read this. The thought that an extension of this sort, along with the accompanying scrotum, might be associated with less vulnerability is rather odd when one stops to consider all the tales we’ve heard of these appendages being accidentally damaged, due largely to their external placement and position on the male body. I knew a guy once who somehow managed to get his nut slammed in a school locker, leading to it having to be surgically removed. Met one other man who lost a testicle in a horrible accident, though I no longer remember what happened in that story. Then there’s always stories of men landing on the dreaded bicycle bar, or the female lover who comes down wrong when riding a man from above, or the rudeness of pets who trample on men’s laps, or the spilling of hot liquids in such a sensitive place, etc. Anyway, the penis and balls don’t strike me personally as a symbol of invulnerability, at least no more so than the woman’s physique. Darn dangling fleshy bits are always getting in the way and winding up hurt, so far as I can tell, and men don’t tend to take it very well.

Quick TMI story: I have an early memory, probably from around the age of 5 or 6 though possibly younger, when I first noticed a male family member’s genitalia after walking in on him taking a bath. All I remember is laughing hysterically and pointing, thinking it was such a funny sight, before my Grandma removed me from the room. So yeah, the “awe” didn’t come along until much later.

Returning to Becker’s book, picking back up on page 40:

Both the boy and the girl turn away from the mother as a sort of automatic reflex of their own needs for growth and independence. But the “horror, terror, contempt” they feel is, as we said, part of their own fantastic perceptions of a situation they can’t stand. This situation is not only the biological dependency and physicalness represented by the mother, but also the terrible revelation of the problem of the child’s own body. The mother’s body not only reveals a sex that threatens vulnerability and dependency—it reveals much more: it presents the problem of two sexes and so confronts the child with the fact that his body is itself arbitrary. It is not so much that the child sees that neither sex is “complete” in itself or that he understands that the particularity of each sex is a limitation of potential, a cheating of living fulness in some ways—he can’t know these things or fully feel them. It is again not a sexual problem; it is more global, experienced as the curse of arbitrariness that the body represents. The child comes upon a world in which he could just as well have been born male or female, even dog, cat, or fish—for all that it seems to matter as regards power and control, capacity to withstand pain, annihilation, and death. The horror of sexual differentiation is a horror of “biological facts,” as Brown so well says. It is a fall out of illusion into sobering reality. It is a horror of assuming an immense new burden, the burden of the meaning of life and the body, of the fatality of one’s incompleteness, his helplessness, his finitude.

And this, finally is the hopeless terror of the castration complex that makes men tremble in their nightmares. It expresses the realization by the child that he is saddled with an impossible project; that the causa-sui pursuit on which he is launched cannot be achieved by body-sexual means, even by protesting a body different from the mother. The fortress of the body, the primary base for narcissistic operations against the world in order to insure one’s boundless powers, crumbles like sand. This is the tragic dethroning of the child, the ejection from paradise that the castration complex represents. Once he used any bodily zone or appendage for his Oedipal project of self-generation; now, the very genitals themselves mock his self-sufficiency.

This brings up the whole matter of why sexuality is such a universal problem. No one has written about the problem of sexuality better than Rank in his stunning essay on “Sexual Enlightenment.” As I am going to talk about it in some detail in Chapter Eight, there is no point in repeating that discussion here. But we can anticipate it by showing how sexuality is inseparable from our existential paradox, the dualism of human nature. The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where “he” really “is”—in the symbolic inner self or in the physical body. Each phenomenological realm is different. The inner self represents the freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinite reach of symbolism. The body represents determinism and boundness. The child gradually learns that his freedom as a unique being is dragged back by the body and its appendages which dictate “what” he is. For this reason sexuality is as much a problem for the adult as for the child: the physical solution to the problem of who we are and why we have emerged on this planet is no help—in fact, it is a terrible threat. It doesn’t tell the person what he is deep down inside, what kind of distinctive gift he is to work upon the world. This is why it is so difficult to have sex without guilt: guilt is there because the body casts a shadow on the person’s inner freedom, his “real self” that—through the act of sex—is being forced into a standardized, mechanical, biological role. Even worse, the inner self is not even being called into consideration at all; the body takes over completely for the total person, and this kind of guilt makes the inner self shrink and threaten to disappear.

This is why a woman asks for assurance that the man wants “me” and not “only my body”; she is painfully conscious that her own distinctive inner personality can be dispensed with in the sexual act. If it is dispensed with, it doesn’t count. The fact is that the man usually does want only the body, and the woman’s total personality is reduced to a mere animal role. The existential paradox vanishes, and one has no distinctive humanity to protest. One creative way of coping with this is, of course, to allow it to happen and to go with it: what the psychoanalysts call “regression in the service of the ego.” The person becomes, for a time, merely his physical self and so absolves the painfulness of the existential paradox and the guilt that goes with sex. Love is one great key to this kind of sexuality because it allows the collapse of the individual into the animal dimension without fear and guilt, but instead with trust and assurance that his distinctive inner freedom will not be negated by an animal surrender.

[Bold emphasis mine — italics his.]

Okay, let’s leave off there on page 42.

“The Century of the Self”

This film is one of my personal favorites, offered by the BBC and titled “The Century of the Self”:


Key name to take away from this video: Edward Bernays, the grandfather of American public relations (a.k.a. propaganda) and nephew of Sigmund Freud. Very important information there that tells us so much about the last American century and how we as a people have wound up where we now sit.

The Various Forms of Love — an excerpt from Ch. 3 of “The Sane Society”

Having left off on page 35 of Chapter 3 with Fromm’s question “What are these needs and passions stemming from the existence of man?“, let’s pick back up there in Erich Fromm’s book The Sane Society (1955):

A. Relatedness vs. Narcissim

Man is torn away from the primary union with nature, which characterizes animal existence. Having at the same time reason and imagination, he is aware of his aloneness and separateness; of his powerlessness and ignorance; of the accidentalness of his birth and of his death. He could not face this state of being for a second if he could not find new ties with his fellow man which replace the old ones, regulated by instincts. Even if all his physiological needs were satisfied, he would experience his state of aloneness and individuation as a prison from which he had to break out in order to retain his sanity. In fact, the insane person is the one who has completely failed to establish any kind of union, and is imprisoned, even if he is not behind barred windows. The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfillment of which man’s sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena, which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the world.

There are several ways in which this union can be sought and achieved. Man can attempt to become one with the world by submission to a person, to a group, to an institution, to God. In this way he transcends the separateness of his individual existence by becoming part of somebody or something bigger than himself, and experiences his identity in connection with the power to which he has submitted. Another possibility of overcoming separateness lies in the opposite direction: man can try to unite himself with the world by having power over it, by making others a part of himself, thus transcending his individual existence by domination. The common element in both submission and domination is the symbiotic nature of relatedness. Both persons involved have lost their integrity and freedom; they live on each other and from each other, satisfying their craving for closeness, yet suffering from the lack of inner strength and self-reliance which would require freedom and independence, and furthermore constantly threatened by the conscious or unconscious hostility which is bound to arise from the symbiotic relationship. The realization of the submissive (masochistic) or the domineering (sadistic) passion never leads to satisfaction. They have a self-propelling dynamism, and because no amount of submission, or domination (or possession, or fame), is enough to give a sense of identity and union, more and more of it is sought. The ultimate result of these passions is defeat. It cannot be otherwise; while these passions aim at the establishment of a sense of union, they destroy the sense of integrity. The person driven by any one of these passions actually becomes dependent on others; instead of developing his own individual being, he is dependent on those to whom he submits, or whom he dominates.

There is only one passion which satisfies man’s need to unite himself with the world, and to acquire at the same time a sense of integrity and individuality, and this is love. Love is union with somebody, or something, outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self. It is an experience of sharing, of communion, which permits the full unfolding of one’s own inner activity.The experience of love does away with the necessity of illusions. There is no need to inflate the image of the other person, or of myself, since the reality of active sharing and loving permits me to transcend my individualized existence, and at the same time to experience myself as the bearer of the active powers which constitute the act of loving. What matters is the particular quality of loving, not the object. Love is in the experience of human solidarity with our fellow creatures, it is in the erotic love of man and woman, in the love of the mother for the child, and also in the love for union. In the act of loving, I am one with All, and yet I am myself, a unique, separate, limited, mortal human being. Indeed out of the very polarity between separateness and union, love is born and reborn.

Love is one aspect of what I have called the productive orientation: the active and creative relatedness of man to his fellow man, to himself and to nature. In the realm of thought, this productive orientation is expressed in the proper grasp of the world by reason. In the realm of action, the productive orientation is expressed in productive work, the prototype of which is art and craftsmanship. In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all men, and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence. In the experience of love the paradox happens that two people become one, and remain two at the same time. Love in this sense is never restricted to one person. If I can love only one person, and nobody else, if my love for person makes me more alienated and distant from my fellow man, I may be attached to this person in any number of ways, yet I do not love. If I can say, “I love you,” I say, “I love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.” Self-love, in this sense, is the opposite of selfishness. The latter is actually a greedy concern with oneself which springs from and compensates for the lack of genuine love for oneself. Love, paradoxically, makes me more independent because it makes me stronger and happier—yet it makes me one with the loved person to the extent that individuality seems to be extinguished  for the moment. In loving I experience “I am you,” you—the loved person, you—the stranger, you—everything alive. In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity.

Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. If I love, I care—that us, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.

Productive love when directed toward equals may be called brotherly love. In motherly love (Hebrew: rachamin, from rechem= womb) the relationship between the two persons involved is one of inequality; the child is helpless and dependent on the mother. In order to grow, it must become more and more independent, until he does not need mother any more. Thus the mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, and yet this very love must help the child to grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent. It is easy for any mother to love her child before this process of separation has begun—but it is the task in which most fail, to love the child and at the same time to let it go—and to want to let it go.

In erotic love (Gr. eros; Hebrew: ahawa, from the root “to glow”), another drive is involved: that for fusion and union with another person. While brotherly love refers to all men and motherly love to the child and all those who are in need of our help, erotic love is directed to one person, normally of the opposite sex, with whom fusion and oneness is desired. Erotic love begins with separateness, and ends in oneness. Motherly love begins with oneness, and leads to separateness. If the need for fusion were realized in motherly love, it would mean destruction of the child as an independent being, since the child needs to emerge from his mother, rather than to remain tied to her. If erotic love lacks brotherly love and is only motivated by the wish for fusion, it is sexual desire without love, or the perversion of love as we find it in the sadistic and masochistic forms of “love.”

[Italicized emphases his; bold emphasis mine.]

Leaving off on page 39. That’s enough transcribing for this afternoon.

On Defective Individuals and Sick Societies — an excerpt from Erich Fromm’s book “The Sane Society”

Tonight I will be transcribing from Erich Fromm’s book The Sane Society (1955), beginning with Chapter 2, titled “Can a Society Be Sick?—The Pathology of Normalcy,” beginning on page 21:

To speak of a whole society as lacking in mental health implies a controversial assumption contrary to the position of sociological relativism held by most social scientists today. They postulate that each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.

To speak of a “sane society” implies a premise different from sociological relativism. It makes sense only if we assume that there can be a society which is not sane, and this assumption, in turn, implies that there are universal criteria for mental health which are valid for the human race as such, and according to which the state of health of each society can be judged. This position of normative humanism is based on a few fundamental premises.

The species “man” can be defined not only in anatomical and physiological terms; its members share basic psychic qualities, the laws which govern their mental and emotional functioning, and the aims for a satisfactory solution of the problem of human existence. It is true that our knowledge of man is still so incomplete that we cannot yet give a satisfactory definition of man in a psychological sense. It is the task of the “science of man” to arrive eventually at a correct description of what deserves to be called human nature. What has often been called “human nature” is but one of its many manifestations—and often a pathological one—and the function of such mistaken definition usually has been to defend a particular type of society as being the necessary outcome of man’s mental constitution.

Against such reactionary use of the concept of human nature, the Liberals, since the eighteenth century, have stressed the malleability of human nature and the decisive influence of environmental factors. True and important as such emphasis is, it has led many social scientists to an assumption that man’s mental constitution is a blank piece of paper, on which society and culture write their text, and which has no intrinsic quality of its own. This assumption is just as untenable and just as destructive of social progress as the opposite view was. The real problem is to infer the core common to the whole human race from the innumerable manifestations of human nature, the normal as well as the pathological ones, as we  can observe them in different individuals and cultures. The task is furthermore to recognize the laws inherent in human nature and the inherent goals for its development and unfolding.

This concept of human nature is different from the way the term “human nature” is used conventionally. Just as man transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant. Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is.

The approach of normative humanism is based on the assumption that, as in any other problem, there are right and wrong, satisfactory and unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of human existence. Mental health is achieved if man develops into full maturity according to the characteristics and laws of human nature. Mental illness consists in the failure of such development. From this premise the criterion of mental health is not one of individual adjustment to a given social order, but a universal one, valid for all men, of giving a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health. Just as there is a “folie à deux” there is a “folie à millions.” The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.

There is, however, an important difference between individual and social mental illness, which suggests a differentiation between two concepts: that of defect, and that of neurosis. If a person fails to attain freedom, spontaneity, a genuine expression of self, he may be considered to have a severe defect, provided we assume that freedom and spontaneity are the objective goals to be attained by every human being. If such a goal is not attained by the majority of members of any given society, we deal with the phenomenon of socially patterned defect. The individual shares it with many others; he is not aware of it as a defect, and his security is not threatened by the experience of being different, of being an outcast, as it were. What he may have lost in richness and in a genuine feeling of happiness, is made up by the security of fitting in with the rest of mankind—as he knows them. As a matter of fact, his very defect may have been raised to a virtue by his culture, and thus may give him an enhanced feeling of achievement.

An illustration is the feeling of guilt and anxiety which Calvin’s doctrines aroused in men. It may be said that the person who is overwhelmed by a feeling of his own powerlessness and unworthiness, by unceasing doubt as to whether he is saved or condemned to eternal punishment, who is hardly capable of genuine joy, suffers from a severe defect. Yet this very defect was culturally patterned; it was looked upon as particularly valuable, and the individual was thus protected from the neurosis which he would have acquired in a culture where the same defect gave him a feeling of profound inadequacy and isolation.

Spinoza formulated the problem of the socially patterned defect very clearly. He says: “Many people are seized by one and the same affect with great consistency. All his senses are so strongly affected by one object that he believes this object to be present even if it is not. If this happens while the person is awake, the person is believed to be insane. . . . But if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as illness.”

These words were written a few hundred years ago; they still hold true, although the defects have been culturally patterned to such an extent now that they are not even generally thought any more to be annoying or contemptible. 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. Two statements can be made about this person. One is that he suffers from a defect of spontaneity and individuality which may seem incurable. At the same time, it may be said that he does not differ essentially from millions of others who are in the same position. For most of them, the culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill. It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from the defect produced by it.

Suppose that in our Western culture movies, radios, television, sports events and newspapers ceased to function for only four weeks. With these main avenues of escape closed, what would be the consequences for people thrown back upon their own resources? I have no doubt that even in this short time thousands of nervous breakdowns would occur, and many more thousands of people would be thrown into a state of acute anxiety, not different from the picture which is diagnosed clinically as “neurosis.” If the opiate against the socially patterned defect were withdrawn, the manifest illness would make its appearance.

For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work. They are often those whose individual defect is more severe than that of the average person, so that the culturally offered remedies are not sufficient to prevent the outbreak of manifest illness. (A case in point is the person whose aim in life is to attain power and fame. While this aim is, in itself, a pathological one, there is nevertheless a difference between the person who uses his powers to attain this aim realistically, and the more severely sick one who has so little emerged from his infantile grandiosity that he does not do anything toward the attainment of his goal but waits for a miracle to happen and, thus feeling more and more powerless, ends up in a feeling of futility and bitterness.) But there are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this very reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate, while at the same time they are not strong and healthy enough to live soundly “against the stream.”

The foregoing discussion on the difference between neurosis and the socially patterned defect may give the impression that if society only provides the remedies against the outbreak of manifest symptoms, all goes well, and it can continue to function smoothly, however great the defects created by it. History shows us, however, that this is not the case.

It is true indeed that man, in contrast to the animal, shows an almost infinite malleability; just as he can eat almost anything, live under practically any kind of climate and adjust himself to it, there is hardly any psychic condition which he cannot endure, and under which he cannot carry on. He can live free, and as a slave. Rich and in luxury, and under conditions of half-starvation. He can live as a warrior, and peaceably; as an exploiter and robber, and as a member of a co-operating and loving fellowship. There is hardly a psychic state in which man cannot live, and hardly anything which cannot be done with him, and for which he cannot be used. All these considerations seem to justify the assumption that there is no such thing as a nature common to all men, and that would mean in fact that there is no such thing as a species “man,” except in a physiological and anatomical sense.

Yet, in spite of all this evidence. the history of man shows that we have omitted one fact. Despots and ruling cliques can succeed in dominating and exploiting their fellow man, but they cannot prevent reactions to this inhuman treatment. Their subjects become frightened, suspicious, lonely and, if not due to external reasons, their systems collapse at some point because fears, suspicions and loneliness eventually incapacitate the majority to function effectively and intelligently. Whole nations, or social groups within them, can be subjugated and exploited for a long time, but they react. They react with apathy or such impairment of intelligence, initiative and skills that they gradually fail to perform the functions which should serve their rulers. Or they react by the accumulation of such hate and destructiveness as to bring about an end to themselves, their rulers and their system. Again their reaction may create such independence and longing for freedom that a better society is built upon their creative impulses. Which reaction occurs, depends on many factors: on economic and political ones, and on the spiritual climate in which people live. But whatever the reactions are, the statement that man can live under almost any condition is only half true; it must be supplemented by the other statement, that if he lives under conditions which are contrary to his nature and to the basic requirements for 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.

That human nature and society can have conflicting demands, and hence that a whole society can be sick, is an assumption which was made very explicitly by Freud, most extensively in his Civilizations and Its Discontents.

[Italicized emphases his; bolded emphases mine.]

That’s enough typing for one evening, leaving off on page 27.  (The rest of the chapter was transcribed later on and can be found here.)