This is the second essay in a series of three which will all address the issue of where Mankind might be headed in the future. This essay is based on one of the world's most prominent students of Freud, Eric Fromm.
To understand Fromm’s view of where Man is likely headed, we need to become familiar with how Fromm sees the fundamental nature of man. The following material is drawn from Eric Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1973, Picador, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y., 10010.
An Existential Problem
Fromm’s central tenet is that Man has an existential problem: He is an animal…but unlike any other animal. He is part of nature, but separate from it due to his brain, and specifically his self-consciousness, imagination, creativity and rationality. He is also different from other animals in that his behavior and thoughts are not nearly as pre-determined by what is wired into his DNA…he is not ruled by instincts nearly as much as other animals.
While this at first sounds rather good, providing us with a lot of choices rather than being a slave to our body’s programming, Fromm says this situation also brings with it a very significant problem—we are no longer in harmony with Nature:
“Self-awareness, reason, and imagination have disrupted the ‘harmony’ that characterizes animal existence. Their emergence has made man into an anomaly, the freak of the universe. Being aware of himself, he realizes his powerlessness and the limitations of his existence. He is never free from the dichotomy of his existence: he cannot rid himself of his mind, even if we would want to; he cannot rid himself of his body as long as he is alive—and his body makes him want to be alive. P 253
This situation makes man extremely uncomfortable. He makes great efforts to reduce the conflict, but this just leads to more problems:
“Man, in his history, changes his environment, and in this process he changes himself. His knowledge increases, but so does his awareness of his ignorance; he experiences himself as an individual, and not only as a member of his tribe, and with this his sense of separateness and isolation grows. He creates larger and more efficient social units, led by powerful leaders—and he becomes frightened and submissive. He attains a certain amount of freedom –and becomes afraid of this very freedom. His capacity for material production grows, but in the process he becomes greedy and egotistical, a slave of the things he has created.
Every new state of disequilibrium forces man to seek for new equilibrium. Indeed, what has often been considered man’s innate drive for progress is his attempt to find a new and if possible better equilibrium.” P 254
This situation sounds pretty bleak. In fact it sounds like man is rather trapped. But man is quite ingenious. As Fromm further investigates the situation, he finds that some men have found quite positive ways to cope with the situation. But before jumping to that point of the story, let’s examine Fromm’s detailed analysis of the situation.
Needs arising from man’s existential predicament
Fromm says that man’s existential conflict described above produces psychic needs common to all men. Some of these needs are:
Man needs a map of his world, a series of stories that explains the world he sees around him and his place in it.
“Man needs a map of his natural and social world, without which he would be confused and unable to act purposefully and consistently. He would have no way of orienting himself and of finding for himself a fix point that permits him to organize all the impressions that impinge upon him.” P 259
Man also needs goals: Ideas that tell him where to go and what to do.
Animals, Fromm says, don’t have to worry about this because their instincts provide both maps and goals. But we have to make our own. Many people have trouble doing this and yet the need remains very strong and demanding. This explains “…the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs.” P260
Man needs to be devoted to some thing or someone.
“… He needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for his…values.” P 260
“He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the differences in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary existential need demanding fulfillment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.” P 261
Devotion integrates energies in one direction; elevates man beyond his isolated, individual existence, gives meaning to life, and provides transcendence (a feeling of being part of something bigger; a feeling of being related to others).
Man needs to see that he, personally, is making a difference in his world, that he is able to have some effect on it.
Man needs to experience unity to the greatest extent possible, within himself, between himself and others, and between himself and nature.
Man needs excitement.
Fromm says that man requires, both biologically and psychologically, a minimum amount of stimulation to survive and to thrive.
Needs are addressed through Man’s character
How does man meet these needs? He has created what Fromm calls a “character.” This character essentially takes the place of our missing instincts and provides a means by which man can address each of the above needs.
What does Fromm mean by “character?” A man’s character is his unique system of ideas and beliefs that help him make sense of the world and guide his actions. They can be seen as psychic perspectives, from which a man interprets his world and guides his behavioral choices. A man’s character is multi-dimensional, meaning that there are usually several guiding perspectives at work. Fromm believes that there are a relatively small number of such perspectives and that they are shared by all men. For example, your character might be mostly that of a loving person, or a hating person, or someone who is creative, or someone who is destructive. Which perspective will be most dominant, and how the perspectives will combine and interact, Fromm says, is largely based on one’s external environment
Environment Breeding Destructiveness
Fromm identifies several aspects of civilization—both ancient and modern—that cultivate the negative, life-destroying aspects of man’s character. We’ll talk about some of them in a moment, but first, it’s important to look without flinching at how far down that path some men have gone:
“Man differs from the animal by the fact that he is a killer; he is the only primate that kills and tortures members of his own species without any reason, either biological or economic, and who feels satisfaction in doing so. It is this biologically non-adaptive and non-phylogenetically programmed ‘malignant’ aggression that constitutes the real problem and the danger to man’s existence as a species….” P 26
Fromm lays responsibility for this tragic development at the feet of civilization. He claims that before civilization, when men were still hunters and gatherers, there was little aggression beyond that involved with hunting. He depicts this period of Man’s history as primarily a time of cooperation and sharing. Yet ironically, just when Man’s agricultural knowledge increased to the point where he was able to create a food surplus and many of his biological needs were taken care of, this was when serious problems began to arise which would put Man on a path towards destructiveness.
Fromm argues that in order to make progress toward civilization, Man had to create social systems that crippled the lives of many:
“In order to create the necessary leisure to enable men to become philosophers and scholars, to build works of art like the Egyptian pyramids—briefly, in order to create culture, man had to have slaves, make war, and conquer territory.” P 293
As well, in order for some men to advance intellectually, artistically and scientifically, men “at the top” of society created circumstances that were physically and psychologically damaging to many others, denying freedom to entire groups of people and preventing their spiritual growth. The effect was to create a small group of “enlightened” and prosperous and powerful people whose lives held great promise and possibility, and also a very substantial group of people whose lives were severely constrained and who had very little power to effect change. This circumstance led many to fulfill their basic needs through violence and destruction. These character traits answered these men’s need to understand one’s environment (who are the good guys and who are the bad guys); to be devoted to something (one’s king or leader); to be able to make a difference (to distinguish oneself in battle), and to have excitement (the thrill of putting one’s life on the line in order to obtain vanquish one’s enemy, obtain booty, take slaves).
The generally negative impact of civilization did not stop at some remote time in the past. Fromm thinks the process is still with us today. He sees several aspects of modern civilization that are cultivating the negative, destructive portions of Man’s character. For example, our industrial/technological is increasingly separating us from each other and from nature. This separation breeds violence. Since Fromm was writing in the early 1970s, one can only wonder what he would think of our situation today, with so much of our time being spent communicating over smartphones and living in the virtual reality of the Web.
Other aspects of modern civilization that Fromm believes are cultivating destructiveness are:
The hyper-materialism of modern culture,
The growing infrequency of face-to-face interactions with others,
The growing economic/educational/opportunity divide between those at the top and those further down the social ladder and
The mass media.
Fromm has quite a bit to say about the media. He see the media has highly intrusive. That is, in many countries the mass media are nearly omni-present. They create a symbolic environment in which men live their lives, establish their values and pursue their goals. He feels the media’s formulaic formats and stories, repeated over and over, provide ready-made patterns that pretend to give meaning to our lives. And while media consumption can occupy our time and our conscious minds, down deep, Fromm says, there’s still a longing for something truly meaningful. The suggested patterns wear thin and fail. Unfortunately, the media also provide a solution for this problem and one that he sees as increasingly spilling over into the real world. That is, a lot of media content caters to Man’s need for excitement and feelings of power through ever-more-violent plots and special effects. Violence is offered up as a solution to boredom and meaninglessness. It provides a much quicker and simpler “fix” than more life-affirming solutions such as becoming an artist or a poet. Little did Fromm know, back in the 1970s, how much more pervasive the media would become.
Fromm also notes how warfare is becoming increasingly technological, which separates soldiers from the results of their actions. Sitting in a plane far above a battlefield, he says, they do not directly contact the horrible consequences of their bombs. Obviously, this trend has continued since the time Fromm was writing. He had no inkling of such things as drones and the ability of soldiers to be housed in command posts literally on the opposite side of the world, watching video monitors as their drones rain down death in faraway lands. He had no idea that one day teenagers would spend hours, addicted to the violence of video games.
Fromm also spoke of the growing economic/opportunity divide he saw occurring worldwide. He notes that in some countries, its citizens have nearly all their physical needs met, and have the luxury of pursuing (or not) intellectual and cultural activities. He also notes that in these same fortunate countries, greed is often rampant, as the acquisition of possessions, land and power simply breeds a desire for more and more of the same. And on the other hand, he vividly describes how many people live in societies where they are still just struggling for the basics of survival, and have very little opportunity to influence their environments, let alone develop their human potentials.
In this context Fromm warned of the rise of demagogues. He explained their growing success at recruiting followers by noting that for people who are still struggling for mere survival, the violent methods that today’s demagogues endorse promise a quick solution to their problems. The demagogues directly address Man’s very deep-seated needs for maps of the world (by providing very clear cut views of what is right and wrong), specific goals (e.g. creating a worldwide Caliphate), to devote oneself to a person or cause, and the need to be effectual—to have a chance to make a difference in the world.
Fromm also spoke of Man’s very critical need for excitement. He observes that because so many of Man’s basic needs are met in modern societies, there is a great deal of chronic boredom. This boredom, he says, can easily lead to either passive aggression (e.g. becoming addicted to crime reporting; violent movies or tv shows), or outright aggression. This is because aggression in either form produces the needed excitement. Perhaps this is a partial explanation of why violent extremist groups from the Mid-East are finding it possible to recruit young men and women from developed Western countries.
Love and Unity
Against this rather gloomy view of human history Fromm points out that Man has another side, a more positive and life-affirming side. Many men have strong aspirations to achieve “higher goals.” Great teachers (religious and secular) throughout history have encouraged their brothers and sisters to strive for freedom, dignity, solidarity, and creativity and truth. These are often in opposition to the dominant culture, and yet still hold great appeal. For many people these goals are extremely motivating. Fromm says that these strivings have been one of the strongest motivations to bring about social and cultural change.
Fromm also notes that that despite many outward differences, at their core all the world’s great religions all have a common message: That it is possible for man to regain his unity with his environment, his fellow man and his maker by fully developing human reason and love. This message, he notes, flourished around the first millennium BC in many parts of the world including China, India, Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. It has periodically cropped up ever since in these and many countries around the world.
And yet, over the past 40,000 years, the years in which modern man has existed and has biologically changed almost not at all, strivings for these higher goals has been largely defeated. Why?
Fromm sadly admits that this is because the greed and power lust of those in control of their societies are able impress their self-centered will, either through force or seduction, on the rest of humanity. This undermines the full development of the positive, life-affirming human potentialities, and yields victory to the powers of oppression and destruction.
Writing in the early 1970s, Fromm sounded very pessimistic about Man’s future. The reason for this was that while Man’s central existential problem (his rationality,self-awareness and lack of instincts that together separate him from Nature) can be address through both positive and negative aspects of Man’s character, Fromm believed that for the most part civilization and technological “progress” has had the effect of cultivating our negative character potentials and that this showed little evidence of changing in the future.
Fromm did offer one small glimmer of hope. He observed that we now have the means to provide for all the biological needs of all men on Earth. So if we really want to, he said, we could make this happen and then press on to creating culture that is life-affirming for everyone.
“It is legitimate to imagine that man will complete the full circle and construct a society in which no one is threated: not the child by the parent; not the parent by the superior; no social class by another; no national by a super-power. To achieve this aim is tremendously difficult for economic, political, cultural and psychological reasons….but the empirical study of all data shows that a real possibility exists to build such a world in a foreseeable future if the political and psychological roadblocks are removed.” P 482
I am afraid that to my ears, this is just rather thin wishing and hoping. If Fromm had lived to see the progression of our technology, including the rise of the Internet and smartphones and clones and drones, he would be quite a bit more pessimistic than he was in the ‘70s. If he had lived to see how, over the past 50 years, the world’s rich and powerful have become even more so, his pessimism would no doubt be deepened. And though he was quite right in saying that we now have the technical ability to feed all humanity, still millions are going hungry and dying from exposure to the elements. If he could see how cultures have continued to stifle the economic, psychological and spiritual development of masses of people, I can only guess that he would foresee even more aggression and destruction in Man’s future.
With this rather bleak view under our belts, we’ll push on to our final writer, Charles Mathews, and then attempt a synthesis.