Back to Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm has wandered into deep water at this moment and he’s really pissing me off (he’s SO worried about that!). He’s stereotyping the Middle Ages and has bought into the myth of the Italian Renaissance. I have to remember that since 1941 a whole lot of archeological science has emerged, and he could not know. But I like a little humility in my philosophers and the factual awareness that most of what we can know about, say, the 13th century is conjecture. He also seems to be floating along on that fallacy that the present (and by association, the future) is/will be more advanced than the past. That depends a LOT on what “advanced” means. BUT we humans have to believe in progress, I guess, but, again, that depends a lot on what progress means, the area in which progress is happening. I’m all for antibiotics and vaccines and the dramatic reduction in intestinal worms in civilized populations, but I’m not sure our addiction to our cellphones is healthy or progress. Progress seems to be always a mixed blessing.

It’s going to be tough going for me with Fromm now because, well, I have a different bias. My bias is that we really don’t know a lot more about the past than we know about the future. Much of what we know is what we have from the words of others and they could be 1) lying, 2) angry, 3) exceptional, 4) drunk, 5) tripping — we don’t know. A little humility in the face of human “development” is, to me, the first imperative of a historian but Fromm isn’t a historian, so I guess I have to cut him slack.

Last night I watched a documentary on Chaco Canyon that blew me away. I’ve been there and it’s strange. I’ve visited many Anasazi sites and most of them feel like “People lived here and did interesting things.” Those things were visible everywhere — from ball courts to theaters to piles of ancient trash, but Chaco? It felt weird. Last night I learned that it is now believed to be a gigantic, precise, celestial, observatory where few people actually LIVED but where people went at certain times of the year to celebrate rituals. I believe that — it’s in an area with a very hostile climate. You can learn more here at The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.

The other thing Fromm is doing that I am very skeptical about is he is choosing facts and creating definitions that “prove” his argument. That’s not cool but we all do it.

All this said, I also read some lovely, intriguing stuff I want to share. Among the good things he says about the Middle Ages is, “Although there was no individualism in the modern sense (I think that’s an overgeneralization, but…) of unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life (ah, OK) there was a lot of concrete individualism in real life.” I’m intrigued by two things in this passage; one is that the modern sense of individualism means “unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life” and the idea of “concrete individualism.”

If Fromm and I were to sit down and talk about this, I’d say, “I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that whatever era into which we’re born, we are born with limitations, the first being the era into which we were born. Humans don’t live in vast swaths of time. We have three days just like we humans have always had three days. And don’t give me that life-expectancy stuff. I’m onto that. Our choices are limited by the culture into which we’re born, our gender, our parents’ views, their level of wealth, the opportunities that exist in our world in the moments of our lives. No human is so free they have ‘unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life.’ Maybe our societies are not as fixed and stratified as most medieval societies, but that kind of freedom of choice? Doesn’t exist. As for ‘Concrete Individualism’? Isn’t that the most important? Do you mean integrity?” I wonder what he would say.

I’m not sure I would tell him I dreamed of playing centerfield for a professional baseball team, but I was not free to “choose” that. I remain skeptical about his dichotomy between “negative” and “positive” freedom, but I’m not him, and I’m mostly open-minded.

Two paragraphs at the end of the preceding chapter struck a chord with me. Here goes…

“…the history of mankind is one of conflict and strife. Each step in the direction of growing individuation threatened people with new insecurities. Primary bonds once severed cannot be mended; once paradise is lost, man cannot return to it. There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.

And if that doesn’t happen? Fromm is ready…”However, if the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world that promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of freedom.”

It made me think of the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, whose work I loved back in the 80s. First was the title of one of Kundera’s books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera; the title was so intriguing and, to me, pointed to just what Fromm has described, that being itself is so volatile, so “light,” (we ARE light in a sense) that it can be unbearable. “Being” could, maybe, be equated to Fromm’s idea of “individuation”? I don’t know, but… Being an autonomous “self” is difficult. My unmarried Aunt Martha took so much shit from the family just for that choice she had made. Just that. In a way Kundera did reach this in another novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting when he writes about the “circle dance.”

“That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back. It is not by chance that the planets move in circles and that a rock coming loose from one of them goes inexorably away, carried off by centrifugal force. Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles.”

― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kundera’s point is that if you CHOOSE (as he did) to leave the circle you cannot choose to return. The circle closes. He’s writing about the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia (as was), but it could be any social/political system that offers an escape from freedom, as Fromm writes about.

I think we experience this in a lot of ways that don’t have anything to do with politics, anyway, I have. Doors close, another limitation put on our freedom of choice. When that last happened to me, I ended up here. What were my limitations? Money, first and maybe that was all. Within my limitations I had to find a place where I would like to live. I was not “free.” I was “free to choose” within that parameter. Did that make me “free” from having to live in a million dollar home in California?

So far, I don’t know. Fromm has me both nodding and shaking my head. I’m not sure this is anything new. I’m free to think that. 😉

For “concrete individualism” I offer Emerson: These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

7 thoughts on “Back to Escape from Freedom

  1. This thought popped into my non-philosophical head, mostly related to the Emerson quote (which, while new to me, is apropos to your discussion and well chosen): the physics of tension. Perhaps becoming an individual with some measure of freedom means pulling away from the weight of culture, convention, social expectations. I doubt the tension ever ends – the rope one tugs on toward freedom never completely severs – but maybe the load lightens with time and practice.

    • I like your idea and I agree. I think Fromm might be going to the same place, too, discussing people who succeed in individuation. I love his description of that, making one’s own connections with the world rather than the world defining the connections — but the world will always define some of them. I mean, here I am going to quilt shows because I like my friends. The ONE job we have with each other is pretty similar to a dog’s job with a human; companionship. Fromm explained earlier how people can’t really live without the help and understanding of other people. The three of us KNOW we need each other for a lot — shoveling the sidewalk, moral support when the husband gets cancer, someone to listen when you have to talk about how long it is taking to get your dentures, just to have someone to talk to. We didn’t choose each other, and in another place wouldn’t know each other, but proximity and the need for human connection created a friendship. “Freely” chosen? In a way, no; in another, yes. But basically, we all live better with it than without.

      You might love “Self-Reliance” and “The Poet” oh, and “Nature.” To me, Emerson’s most beautiful essays, inspiring and affirming.

      “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.” Emerson, “Nature” 💚

  2. @ Freedom and cellphones. Right now I am in Morocco. Great hotel huge pool perfect weather. So far I did not see a single person under 30 swimming. They sit at the pool and everyone holds a cellphone and is busy with that. Great restaurants also offering wonderful local dishes. The same people make photos of their burgers to share that on social media. Of course they would say that they are “free”.

    • That sounds fantastic. Not the cellphone bit, but the rest of it. I know it’s probably sick, but those videos where people fall off cliffs and die while they’re looking at the cell phones seem to me both funny and a kind of Darwinian justice.

  3. I have to agree with your assessment of individual freedom. Fromm writes from a masculine point of view. At the time of his book, he was not considering the reality of women in society and the disparity between his choices and those they were given… Sparky is checking this book out from the library for me – but there is a waiting list! I think a class at the university must be reading it. How else to explain a waiting list for a book from 1941?!

    • I don’t think gender mattered at all to Fromm’s thesis. He seems to be looking at human progress in far larger terms, but seriously. If I’d been allowed to play centerfield for a pro-ball team, I’d never have gotten on. I’m too little. Some years ago one of my students — whose bro pitched for the Cardinals — brought me a pro bat. I could barely lift it and it was almost as long as I am tall. 😀 Another concrete limitation to my ball playing aspirations. Because… “You can’t always get what you want…” etc.

  4. Freedom has its practical limits. You’re not free to to that which you can’t do.

    Fill in the blank with any physical, social, cognitive, age, or economic limits we have that we simply cannot overcome. No, we are NOT limitless and only restricted by our mental chains. That only has currency because a lot of people really do shortchange themselves in terms of choices.

    That’s stuff we tell little children before society and physical reality sets in so they don’t cut their options off prematurely. Keeps the ones who might be president or play pro ball from quitting early. I think most people go through a massive downsizing in their dreams as they discover the real world.

    We get on by adjusting what we want out of life to stay within those limits. I wouldn’t mind being president but I’m not going to pretend that its possible if only I believe and try hard enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.