Fromm on Spinoza, Marx and Freud, in relation to determinism vs. choice of alternatives and the nature of good and evil

Beginning on page 181 in Erich Fromm’s book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil (1964):

Hitler had a real possibility of winning the war—or at least, of not losing it so disastrously—if he had not treated the conquered populations with such brutality and cruelty, if he had not been so narcissistic as never to permit strategic retreat, etc. But there were no real possibilities outside of these alternatives. To hope, as he did, that he could give vent to his destructiveness toward the conquered populations, and satisfy his vanity and grandiosity by never retreating, and threaten all other capitalist powers by the scope of his own ambitions, and win the war—all this was not within the gamut of real possibilities.

The same holds true for our present situation: there is a strong inclination toward war, caused by the presence of nuclear weapons on all sides and by the mutual fear and suspicion thus engendered; there is idolatry of national sovereignty; a lack of objectivity and reason in foreign policy. On the other hand, there is the wish, among the majority of the populations in both blocs, to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear destruction; there is the voice of the rest of mankind, which insists that the big powers should not involve all others in their madness; there are social and technological factors which permit the use of peaceful solutions, and which open the way to a happy future for the human race. While we have these two sets of inclining factors, there are still two real possibilities between which man can choose: that of peace by ending the nuclear arms race and the cold war; or that of war by continuing the present policy. Both possibilities are real, even if one has greater weight than the other. There is still freedom of choice. But there is no possibility that we can go on with the arms race, and the cold war, and a paranoid hate mentality, and at the same time avoid nuclear destruction.

In October, 1962, it seemed as if the freedom of decision had already been lost, and that the catastrophe would occur against everybody’s will, except perhaps that of some mad death-lovers. On that occasion mankind was saved. An easing of tension followed in which negotiations and compromises were possible. The present time—1964—is probably the last time at which mankind will have the freedom to choose between life or destruction. If we do not go beyond superficial arrangements which symbolize good will but do not signify an insight into the given alternatives and their respective consequences, then our freedom of choice will have vanished. If mankind destroys itself it will not be because of the intrinsic wickedness of man’s heart; it will be because of his inability to wake up to the realistic alternatives and their consequences. The possibility of freedom lies precisely in recognizing which are the real possibilities between which we can choose, and which are the “unreal possibilities” that constitute our wishful thoughts whereby we seek to spare ourselves the unpleasant task of making a decision between alternatives that are real but unpopular (individually or socially). The unreal possibilities are, of course, no possibilities at all; they are pipe-dreams. But the unfortunate fact is that most of us, when confronted with the real alternatives and with the necessity of making a choice that requires insight and sacrifices, prefer to think that there are other possibilities that can be pursued; we thus blind ourselves to the fact that these unreal possibilities do not exist, and that their pursuit is a smoke-screen behind which fate makes its own decision. Living under the illusion that the non-possibilities will materialize, man is then surprised, indignant, hurt, when the choice is made for him and the unwanted catastrophe occurs. At that point he falls into the mistaken posture of accusing others, defending himself, and/or praying to God, when the only thing he should blame is his own lack of courage to face the issue, and his lack of reason in understanding it.

We conclude, then, that man’s actions are always caused by inclinations rooted in (usually unconscious) forces operating in his personality. If these forces have reached a certain intensity they may be so strong that they not only incline man but determine him—hence he has no freedom of choice. In those cases where contradictory inclinations effectively operate within the personality there is freedom of choice. This freedom is limited by the existing real possibilities. These real possibilities are determined by the total situation. Man’s freedom lies in his possibility to choose between the existing real possibilities (alternatives). Freedom in this sense can be defined not as “acting in the awareness of necessity” but as acting on the basis of the awareness of alternatives and their consequences. There is never indeterminism; there is sometimes determinism, and sometime alternativism based on the uniquely human phenomenon: awareness. To put it differently, every event is caused. But in the constellation previous to the event there may be several motivations which can become the cause of the next event. Which of these possible causes becomes an effective cause may depend on man’s awareness of the very moment of decision. In other words, nothing is uncaused, but not everything is determined (in the “hard” meaning of the word).

The view of determinism, indeterminism, and alternativism developed here essentially follows the thought of three thinkers: Spinoza, Marx, and Freud. All three are often called “determinists.” There are good reasons for doing so, the best being that they have said so themselves. Spinoza wrote: “In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which also has been determined by a cause, and this last by another cause and so on to infinity.” Spinoza explained the fact that we subjectively experience our will as free—which for Kant as for many other philosophers was the very proof of the freedom of our will—as the result of self-deception: we are aware of our desires but we are not aware of the motives of our desires. Hence we believe in the “freedom” of our desires. Freud also expressed a deterministic position; belief in psychic freedom and choice; he said indeterminism “is quite unscientific. . . . It must give way before the claims of a determinism which governs even mental life.” Marx also seems to be a determinist. He discovered laws of history which explain political events as results of class stratification and class struggles, and the latter as the result of the existing productive forces and their development. It seems that all three thinkers deny human freedom and see in man the instrument of forces which operate behind his back, and not only incline him but determine him to act as he does. In this sense, Marx would be a strict Hegelian for whom the awareness of the necessity is the maximum of freedom.

Not only have Spinoza, Marx, and Freud expressed themselves in terms which seem to qualify them as determinists; many of their pupils have also understood them in this way. This holds particularly true for Marx and Freud. Many “Marxists” have talked as if there were an unalterable course of history, that the future was determined by the past, that certain events had necessarily to happen. Many of Freud’s pupils have claimed the same point of view for Freud; they argue that Freud’s psychology is a scientific one, precisely because it can predict effects from foregoing causes.

But this interpretation of Spinoza, Marx, and Freud as determinists entirely leaves out the other aspect in the philosophy of the three thinkers. Why was it that the main work of the “determinist” Spinoza is a book on ethics? That Marx’s main intention was the socialist revolution, and that Freud’s main aim was a therapy which would cure the mentally sick person of his neurosis?

The answer to these three questions is simple enough. All three thinkers saw the degree to which man and society are inclined to act in a certain way, often to such a degree that the inclination becomes determination. But at the same time they were not only philosophers who wanted to explain and interpret; they were men who wanted to change and to transform. For Spinoza the task of man, his ethical aim, is precisely that of reducing determination and achieving the optimum freedom. Man can do this by self-awareness, by transforming passions, which blind and chain him, into actions (“active effects”), which permit him to act according to his real interest as a human being. “An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a distinct and clear picture thereof.” Freedom is not anything which is given to us, according to Spinoza; it is something which within certain limitations we can acquire by insight and by effort. We have the alternative to choose if we have fortitude and awareness. The conquest of freedom is difficult and that is why most of us fail. As Spinoza wrote at the end of the Ethic:

I have thus completed all I wished to set forth touching the mind’s power over the emotions and the mind’s freedom. Whence it appears how potent is the wise man and how much he surpasses the ignorant man who is driven only by his lusts. For the ignorant man who is not only distracted in various ways by external causes without ever gaining the true acquiescence of his spirit, but moreover lives, as it were, unwitting of himself, and of God, and of things, and as soon as he ceases to suffer [in Spinoza’s sense, to be passive], ceases also to be.

Whereas the wise man, in as far as he is regarded as such, is scarcely at all disturbed in spirit, but, being conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, never ceases to be, but always possess true acquiescence of his spirit.

If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result, seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Spinoza, the founder of modern psychology, who sees the factors which determine man, nevertheless writes an Ethic. He wanted to show how man can change from bondage to freedom. And his concept of “ethic” is precisely that of the conquest of freedom. This conquest is possible by reason, by adequate ideas, by awareness, but it is possible only if man makes the effort with more labor than most men are willing to make.

If Spinoza’s work is a treatise aiming at the “salvation” of the individual (salvation meaning the conquest of freedom by awareness and labor), Marx’s intent is also the salvation of the individual. But while Spinoza deals with individual irrationality, Marx extends the concept. He sees that the irrationality of the individual is caused by the irrationality of the society in which he lives, and that this irrationality itself is the result of the planlessness and the contradictions inherent in the economic and social reality. Marx’s aim, like Spinoza’s, is the free and independent man, but in order to achieve this freedom man must become aware of those forces which act behind his back and determine him. Emancipation is the result of awareness and effort. More specifically, Marx, believing that the working class was the historical agent for universal human liberation, believed that class-consciousness and struggle were the necessary conditions for man’s emancipation. Like Spinoza, Marx is a determinist in the sense of saying: If you remain blind and do not make the utmost efforts, you will lose your freedom. But he, like Spinoza, is not only a man who wants to interpret; he is a man who wants to change—hence his whole work is the attempt to teach man how to become free by awareness and effort. Marx never said, as is often assumed, that he predicted historical events which would necessarily occur. He was always an alternativist. Man can break the chains of necessity if he is aware of the forces operating behind his back, if he makes the tremendous effort to win his freedom. It was Rosa Luxemburg, one of the greatest interpreters of Marx, who formulated this alternativism thus: that in this century man has the alternative of choosing “between socialism and barbarism.”

Freud, the determinist, was also a man who wanted to transform: he wanted to change neurosis into health, to substitute the dominance of the Ego for that of the Id. What else is neurosis—of whatever kind—but man’s loss of freedom to act rationally? What else is mental health but man’s capacity to act according to his true interest? Freud, like Spinoza and Marx, saw to what degree man is determined. But Freud also recognized that the compulsion to act in certain irrational and thus destructive ways can be changed—by self-awareness and by efforts. Hence his work is the attempt to devise a method of curing neurosis by self-awareness, and the motto of his therapy is: “The truth shall make you free.”

Several main concepts are common to all three thinkers: (1) Man’s actions are determined by previous causes, but he can liberate himself from the power of these causes by awareness and effort. (2) Theory and practice cannot be separated. In order to achieve “salvation,” or freedom, one must know, one must have the right “theory.” But one cannot know unless one acts and struggles. It was precisely the great discovery of all three thinkers that theory and practice, interpretation and change are inseparable. (3) While they were determinists in the sense that man can lose the battle for independence and freedom, they were essentially alternativists: they taught that man can choose between certain ascertainable possibilities and that it depends on man which of these alternatives will occur; it depends on him as long as he has not yet lost his freedom. Thus Spinoza did not believe that every man would achieve salvation, Marx did not believe that socialism had to win, nor did Freud believe that every neurosis could be cured by his method. In fact, all three men were skeptics and simultaneously men of deep faith. For them freedom was more than acting in the awareness of necessity; it was man’s great chance to choose the good as against the evil—it was a chance of choosing between real possibilities on the basis of awareness and effort. Their position was neither determinism nor indeterminism; it was a position of realistic, critical humanism.18

This is also the basic position of Buddhism. The Buddha recognized the cause of human suffering—greed. He confronts man with the choice between the alternative of retaining his greed, suffering, and remaining chained to the wheel of rebirth, or of renouncing greed and thus ending suffering and rebirth. Man can choose between the two real possibilities: there is no other possibility available to him.

We have examined man’s heart, its inclination for good and evil. Have we reached the ground that is more solid than we were on when we raised some questions in the first chapter of the book?

Perhaps; at least it may be worthwhile to sum up the results of our inquiry.

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state, and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. Yet evilness is not only human, but tragic. Even if man regresses to the most archaic forms of experience, he can never cease being human; hence he can never be satisfied with evilness as a solution. The animal cannot be evil; it acts according to its built-in drives which essentially serve his interest for survival. Evilness is the attempt to transcend the realm of the human to the realm of the inhuman, yet it is profoundly human because man cannot become an animal as little as he can become “God.” Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them, to feed his evil imagination.19 The idea of good and evil expressed here corresponds essentially to the one expressed by Spinoza. “In what follows, then,” he says, “I shall mean by ‘good’ that which we certainly know to be a means of approaching more nearly to the type of human nature which we have set before ourselves [model of human nature, as Spinoza also calls it]; by ‘bad’ that which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in approaching the said type.” Logically, for Spinoza, “a horse would be as completely destroyed by being changed into a man, as by being changed into an insect.” Good consists of transforming our existence into an ever increasing approximation to our essence; evil into an ever increasing estrangement between existence and essence.

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes man an enemy of life, precisely because he cannot leave the prison of his own ego. Living this way is living in “hell.”

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil. If both inclinations are still in some balance he is free to choose between alternatives which in themselves are determined by the total situation in which he finds himself. If, however, his heart has hardened to such a degree that there is no longer a balance of inclinations he is no longer free to choose. In the chain of events that lead to the loss of freedom the last decision is usually one in which man can no longer choose freely; at the first decision he may be free to choose that which leads to the good, provided he is aware of the significance of his decision.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to choose for his own action. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate, and often a rationalization for the authorities’ desire to punish him. Precisely because evil is human, because it is the potential of regression and the loss of our humanity, it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. It always remains man’s heart. We all are determined by the fact that we have been born human, and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices. We must choose the means together with the aims. We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good—but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved by the distress of another human being, by the friendly gaze of another person, by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass. If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good. Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his “life” will be ended. If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members, then the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.

[Footnote 18: The position of alternativism described here is essentially that of the Hebrew Bible. God does not interfere in man’s history by changing his heart. He sends his messengers, the prophets, with a threefold mission: to show man certain goals, to show him the consequences of his choices, and to protest against the wrong decision. It is up to man to make his choice; nobody, not even God, can “save” him. The clearest expression of this principle is expressed in God’s answer to Samuel when the Hebrews wanted a king: “Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit ye protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.” After Samuel has given them a drastic description of Oriental despotism, and the Hebrews still want a king, God says: “Hearken to their voice and make them a king” (I Sam. 8:9, 22). The same spirit of alternativism is expressed in the sentence: “I put before you today blessing and curse, life and death. And you chose life.” Man can choose. God cannot save him; all God can do is to confront him with the basic alternatives, life and death—and encourage him to choose life.]

[Footnote 19: It is interesting to note that the word for the good and evil impulse is Jezer, which in biblical Hebrew means “imaginings.”]

[Italicized emphases his; bold mine. Original footnotes included.]

Stopping on page 195 (end of book).

Since my internet went down for a few days, I used my spare time to do some transcribing, this being the first excerpt out of two completed.