Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm
I came across the title of Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic, Escape From Freedom, about twenty years before I actually read the book. It was a title that took on its own life in my mind. Over the years, I imagined its meaning, how human beings find freedom almost intolerable and seek escape in a variety of ways – drugs, alcohol, television, conformity, and perhaps most disturbingly at this historical moment, the rigid ideologies of religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Judaic, or Moslem. And, of course, let’s not forget the Marxists and free market ideologues, all those who insist on reducing the living magic of the world into a tight little box. Dogma is the opposite of freedom.
Recently, I found a copy of Fromm’s book at a library sale; I devoured it with interest, and it more than lived up to my expectations. Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900, Fromm, who was Jewish, came to the United States in 1933 to escape the Nazis and teach at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. Escape From Freedom is loosely focused on Fascism, the social/psychological reasons why Germans accepted Hitler, but the work ranges far and wide and is every bit as applicable today as when it was written. This is the first book in years I found myself underlining, and I bet you will too – intriguing ideas that suddenly illuminate whole areas of human experience.
Fromm starts Escape From Freedom in the European Middle Ages, societies in which everyone knew their place. There was no freedom, no individualism, but a certain comfort to live in a fixed universe. All this began to fall apart with the start of modern capitalism in the 14th century. Suddenly, man had new opportunities to live unfettered lives, but they also had insecurity, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness, worries that too often led to hostility and resentment. This is the downside of freedom, the lack of security, a sense of living and dying without clearly established boundaries. Human beings seek the illusion of certainty, and here lies the temptation to exchange our freedom for some dictator or canned philosophy that tells us exactly what we must, and mustn’t, do.
Sado-masochism is the psychological mechanism Fromm describes for those persons who can not bear to live on their own, but must have either someone to order about, or to be ordered – “symbiosis” is the word he gives for this sort of mutual dependency. In The Art of Loving, perhaps Fromm’s most popular book, he goes on to talk about symbiosis in terms of couples, who is “up” in a relationship, and who is “down” – arriving at the notion that only two free individuals can truly love, rather than simply use one another. With Escape From Freedom, he concentrates more on the social aspects of this idea.
And what about life in the United States, land of supposed “freedom?” In the final chapter, Fromm takes a hard look at his adopted country and shows how conformity and the acceptance of unanalyzed cultural norms are the current form of escape. We are driven by advertising and implanted ideas of what constitutes success and failure that are every bit as much a slave master as an actual dictator. In fact, freedom is not easy; it takes a personal commitment, a real quest for knowledge to arrive finally at a place where we have creative, living relationship with the world.
Erich Fromm’s conception of freedom bears much in common with Zen Buddhism – as one of his later books, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, makes clear. He urges us simply to live in the moment, to love, work, and be connected, without preconceptions, with all living things.
Escape From Freedom should be basic reading for anyone who wants to understand human life on our planet. This is a book that overflows with brilliant, lucid ideas that will change how you think about your life. Luckily, it is available today in a variety of editions, hardcover and soft, and will hopefully remain so forever.