An Epiphany in Escaping from Freedom

It’s true; Escape from Freedom is heavy going for me. I don’t want to jinx it since I’m also enjoying it, and it’s been good for me recovering my brain from Covid, but I’m glad I wasn’t assigned the book to read over the weekend! Forgive me for all these boring posts.

Writing about it as I read helps me process and understand, which makes sense as my academic training at those liberal indoctrination camps was to do just that. I’ve been wading through what I have found to be Fromm’s somewhat questionable and slanted perspective on the Middle Ages and the transition to so-called “modern times.” But I am a medievalist. I like those people. I like their way of thinking. I like their institutions and their religious philosophy. I like their literature and their artwork. I don’t think I romanticize the period, but everything I’ve studied has shown me that we just don’t know much about them, and we assume a lot — for example that they never bathed and had no toilets. Studying them opened my eyes to the fact that we all share a future bias, which is that humanity is better now than it was in the past (whatever that means).

Anyway, one important thing Fromm seems not to have considered, or forgotten, or intentionally ignored, is the impact of the Black Death on the change between Medieval times and the, uh, uh, I’m just going to call it the 16th century. I mean, when 60% of the population of Europe DIES in roughly a decade during the 14th century from the Great Mortality, the world WILL change. One of the biggest changes was that it gave bargaining power to the peasants, tradesmen and craftsmen who survived the disease. (“men” = humans) “You want my labor? You pay for it!” “You want the food I grow? You pay for it!” “You want my skills? You pay for them!” People even moved to places where they had a better opportunity.

But, Fromm seems to be ignoring that and that’s OK. It’s not my book. The Reformation is his destination; it’s what he wants to write about. He is interested in what we might call the “cult of personality.” So am I.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Church was losing its power over the people. It was a centuries long process. There are 12th and 13th century poems/minnesangs that complain about the pope’s treatment of people particularly those who live far away from Rome. The pope and the emperor(s) had been at war for generations over territory and power, wars that depended on mercenaries from Switzerland and, later, areas in what would become Germany. That ONE thing right there was a big factor in the success of the Swiss reformation in the early 16th century which ultimately led to the growth of several different protestant faiths. There was the period of the papal schism at the end of the 14th century when there were two popes — one in Italy, one in France. There were also what look to us from the long lens of time as “small” attempts to reform the church — Saint Francis — and pretty much every religious order — started out with that aim in mind. My point is that the church wasn’t a static, universally loved power over the people, not at all.

It never occurred to me before that the BIG change of the Reformation was that it put a charismatic (religious or other) leader in front of vulnerable people in contrast to the times when the church was God, God was the church and Bob’s your uncle. The plague (about which Fromm doesn’t write) would have scared the living shit out of people; it was Covid times a million. On top of that, death from the plague was gruesomely ugly, horrifying, and involved the color BLACK which we all know represents evil. People were more concerned about demonic possession than disease since disease WAS demonic possession. Fromm doesn’t write that along with the years of the Renaissance and Reformation came such leading lights as Savonarola or such noble institutions as the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunts and heavy persecution of Jews who, during the Middle Ages were, for the most part, just other people in the village.

By the 15th century, I imagine people were lost — they’d gone through a period with two popes during the Great Papal Schism; people had died all over the place and the plague didn’t completely go away; clearly God had abandoned them. As Europe picked itself up after that, many great and good things happened, no question, but there was also a spiritual and leadership gap. Religious skepticism — disillusionment — had to have been enormous. Certainly they looked for someone to blame, something to blame and they looked for something to believe in.

In beginning his discussion of the Reformation, Fromm makes sure we (meaning I) understand that he’s talking about the psychology of the leaders and the followers. I’m cool with that, and as I read I got the feeling I was about to understand the very thing I’ve been struggling with for 6 or 7 years now. And voila…

Fromm writes that psychology of the leaders of the Reformation (early 16th century) meshed with qualities in the psychology of their followers that enabled a religious revolution. He emphasizes that it wasn’t logical, but psychological, meaning that contradictions were an intrinsic part of it. Fromm writes, “The influence of any doctrine of idea depends on the extent to which it appeals to psychic needs in the character structure of those to whom it is addressed. Only if the idea answers powerful psychological needs of certain social groups will it become a potent force in history.”

Nailed it.

I give you Exhibit A. Shooting an assault rifle from a helicopter, the esteemed representative from an impoverished district in Georgia, has just (allegedly) killed a wild pig in Texas. Making America Great (Again)

21 thoughts on “An Epiphany in Escaping from Freedom

  1. And Exhibit A’s husband just filed for divorce. How they could both go on about what a great mom she is/was makes my head explode. But like the ever-popular train wreck, I still read all the news about her.

  2. BAM! There it is! Now we just need to persuade people that when they sign on to an idea (and it doesn’t pan out) that it is possible and desirable to make a course correction… Sounds like Mr. Green has had his own epiphany and course correction!

    • I think he’s onto something. I don’t think I’ll write much about what he says about Martin Luther. It would offend a LOT of people because the faith has taken its own life and direction and the name means something positive, but some of the things he has to say about the psychology of such a person are pretty resonant for our age.

        • Thank you. I’m enjoying engaging with Fromm.

          As for the Middle Ages, I was working on my first novel which is set in 13th century Zürich. Finding anything about medieval Switzerland in the US — even in an academic library that I had full access to at the time — ridiculous. Impossible. So I did what I could with what I could find and my then even more limited German. Online (this was 2005) I found a Swiss medievalist historian — Rainer Hugener — who had actually specialized in the very small part of CH where my novel is set. I emailed him. At that time, he was finishing his doctorate. He now works for the Zürich Archives.

          He was astonished that some lady in the US was interested in THAT? He asked for the novel. I sent the entire over-written badly edited manuscript. He loved it and was astonished by its accuracy. So I went to meet him and we spent a whole day in “medieval Zürich” — a kind of psychic time machine. At one point I said, “I don’t know how to find the answers to these questions” and he said, “That’s because nobody knows the answers to those questions.”

          That’s when I understood time.

          People in the US think 1879 was a long time ago. My own grandfather was already 9 years old and done with school in 1879. I was famous for a little while in Dubendorf

          • Amazing and most interesting! Once I did some research because I felt attracted by Hildegard von Bingen. She sure was a great mind in many respects. I tried to understand the circumstances of her music. Well, as Rainer Hugener said, nobody knows anything. Some 10 years ago I followed a discussion – and I am serious – in which a couple of historians just denied part of the middle ages and stated that we don’t live in the 21st century because some 100 years never existed. I have to check again how this discussion ended 😄

            • 100 years never existed! That’s hilarious. Hildegard von Bingen is very interesting, I think. One thing I laugh about when I read (even Fromm) is the idea that people in medieval times didn’t travel. They traveled a LOT. Pilgrimage was a major “industry.” Anyway, It just blows me away what people think they know. Rainer’s comment that no one knows was one of those things someone says that changes you forever.

              One thing that happened in Zürich was after Rainer and I had our time-travel day, I went back to his apartment where his girlfriend had prepared Fondue (who’s surprised). We ate and drank champagne and I said, “Do you like having an identity like you have in Switzerland?” (we don’t have in the US, where you finish school and you ARE something for probably the rest of your life) “Do you like being Swiss Medievalist Historians forever?”

              They both laughed and said, “What do you think YOU are?” We were a little drunk but I LOVED that; I LOVE having an identity (Fromm would say, “Aha! You too!”) like that, and that one in particular makes me very happy.

          • Those early days of the internet were fascinating. I wrote to a researcher in Edinburgh when I was a student (mid-90s) and he sent a long and thoughtful reply. We corresponded a few times and I discovered, like you, that I was locally famous for a brief period, when word of my idea made the rounds of a local clinic and research facility. Thanks for your insights into the Fromm book. It is sitting by my bed but (after reading a few pages) other books keep landing on top of it 😉

  3. Enlightening! And yes, he nailed it. Sadly, there are lots of people searching for something/someone to believe in so they can have a sense of belonging. Craven politicians (as well as craven religious leaders, cult leaders, influencers, conspiracy theorists, etc.) tap into that need. Beliefs and ideology don’t need to be logical, or make sense to others; so long as the searchers find a place to feel welcomed and wanted, they follow and adhere. History regularly repeats itself in this regard. We’re experiencing another regurgitation (white supremacy) in the US today. Scary.

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