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The Fear of Freedom

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Freedom in history

Freedom, argues Fromm, became an important issue in the 20th century, being seen as something to be fought for and defended. However, it has not always occupied such a prominent place in people’s thinking and, as an experience, is not necessarily something that is unambiguously enjoyable.

A major chapter in the book deals with the development of Protestant theology, with a discussion of the work of Calvin and Luther. The collapse of an old social order and the rise of capital led to a more developed awareness that people could be separate autonomous beings and direct their own future rather than simply fulfilling a socioeconomic role. This in turn fed into a new conception of God that had to account for the new freedom while still providing some moral authority. Luther painted a picture of man’s relationship with God that was personal and individuated and free from the influence of the church, while Calvin’s doctrine of predestination suggested that people could not work for salvation but have instead been chosen arbitrarily before they could make any difference. Both of these, argues Fromm, are responses to a freer economic situation. The first gives individuals more freedom to find holiness in the world around them without a complex church structure. The second, although superficially giving the appearance of a kind of determinism actually provided a way for people to work towards salvation. While people could not change their destinies, they could discover the extent of their holiness by committing themselves to hard work and frugality, both traits that were considered virtuous. In reality this made people work harder to ‘prove’ to themselves that they were destined for God’s kingdom.

Escaping freedom

As ‘freedom from’ is not an experience we enjoy in itself, Fromm suggests that many people, rather than using it successfully, attempt to minimise its negative effects by developing thoughts and behaviours that provide some form of security. These are as follows:

  1. Authoritarianism: Fromm characterises the authoritarian personality as containing both sadistic and masochistic elements. The authoritarian wishes to gain control over other people in a bid to impose some kind of order on the world, but also wishes to submit to the control of some superior force which may come in the guise of a person or an abstract idea.
  2. Destructiveness: Although this bears a similarity to sadism, Fromm argues that the sadist wishes to gain control over something. A destructive personality wishes to destroy something it cannot bring under its control.
  3. Conformity: This process is seen when people unconsciously incorporate the normative beliefs and thought processes of their society and experience them as their own. This allows them to avoid genuine free thinking, which is likely to provoke anxiety.

Freedom in the 20th century

Fromm examines democracy and freedom. Modern democracy and the industrialised nation are models he praises but it is stressed that the kind of external freedom provided by this kind of society can never be utilised to the full without an equivalent inner freedom. Fromm suggests that though we are free from totalitarian influence of any sorts in this kind of society, we are still dominated by the advice of experts and the influence of advertising. The way to become free as an individual is to be spontaneous in our self-expression and in the way we behave. This is crystallised in his existential statement “there is only one meaning of life: the act of living it”. Fromm counters suggestions that this might lead to social chaos by claiming that being truly in touch with our humanity is to be truly in touch with the needs of those with whom we share the world.

Source: Erich Fromm, Escape from freedom