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)

Still Trying to Escape from Freedom

I could sure use rejuvenation this morning. I don’t even want to write what I’m thinking about so I’ll go to Erich Fromm which is a stream of tedium in its own way, but kind of cool and enlightening.

Escape from Freedom is so dense that I can read about 5 pages before I’m going “Whoa. Overload.” Yesterday Fromm compared the new capitalist market economy of the 15th century with Calvinism. Who wouldn’t go “Whoa, dude, huh?”

“…the medieval market had been a relatively small one, the functioning of which was readily understood. It brought demand and supply into direct and concrete relation. A producer knew approximately how much to produce and could be relatively sure of selling his products for a proper price. Now it was necessary to produce for an increasingly large market, and one could not determine the possibilities of sale in advance.”

Here’s the kicker, “It was therefore not enough to produce useful goods. Although this was the one condition for selling them, the unpredictable laws of the market decided whether the products could be sold at all.

And here it gets weird, “The mechanism of the new market seemed to resemble the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, which taught that the individual must make every effort to be good, but that even before his birth it had been decided whether or not he is to be saved. The market day became the day of judgment for the products of human effort.”

Fromm is on the brink of his counter argument — which is that capitalism freed the individual and he offers up the usual cant (or so it seems to me). Any of us could write this, but, “…capitalism…freed man from the regimentation of the corporative system; it allowed him to stand on his own feet and to try his luck. He became the master of his fate, his was the risk, his the gain. Individual effort could lead him to success and economic independence. Money became the great equalizer of man and proved to be more powerful than birth or caste.”

To me the words “success” and “freedom” are red flags. Success? What is that? Ultimately (and will Fromm go here? I don’t know) it seems to me that each person must finally determine for him/herself whether their life has been/is a success. The ultimate success, of course, is survival. Ask any animal and you get THAT answer. That is the great irony of sentient life, an irony the church attempts to address, an irony that some people attempt to reconcile through fame and, uh, success. Oh shit. And “freedom”?

Fromm closes the chapter with a long paragraph that begins with the clearest expression we have to the question of freedom; that it is ambiguous. “The individual is freed from the bondage of economic and political ties. He also gains in positive freedom by the active and independent role which he has to play in the new system. But, simultaneously he is freed from those ties which used to give him security and a feeling of belonging…The new freedom is bound to create a deep feeling of insecurity, powerlessness, doubt, aloneness, and anxiety. These feelings must be alleviated if the individual is to function successfully.”

How has that played out in our day? My first answer is “retail therapy” or, more generally, by acquiring things. I guess I’ll find out where Fromm goes, but it seems to me that is one way we free people exercise our positive freedom, freedom TO.

Meanwhile, in my little cottage industry, working on the notecard problem with some success. The black and white notecards, ink drawings, look much BETTER printed here than by a commercial company. Who knew?

Featured photo: Shriver/Wright Wildlife Area, September 28, 2019

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.”

Who DOES Get to Say???

I haven’t had a chance to return to Escape from Freedom which is too bad because I left it very curious about where Erich Fromm was going next with his evaluation of the psychology that leads people to choose fascism. I’m also curious to see if his theory and mine are similar or widely divergent. My theory has always been that many people get frustrated with a system that’s necessarily slow and messy, and (sometimes out of desperation) they jump on a band wagon that offers quick fixes, like making something great again. The question I think Fromm is going after might be related to that, but I think it’s deeper; it’s WHY.

As I look at my own country right now, I remember some of the black and white movies about WW II and the rise of the Nazis we were shown weekly when I was in high school. One sought to explain the rise of Nazism and for me, it kind of did. I see the ultra right pushing some of the same things — notably inflation, from which we’re all suffering to some extent. It was interesting that in the not-very-good restaurant where the ladies and I ate the other day there was an “inflation cost” added to our bills. Why? So they didn’t have to change the prices on their menus. In a way that turns the menus into false advertising…

Yesterday I happened to see MTG talk to a reporter on the steps of some building. The reporter asked why MTG used the term, “Christian Nationalism,” and supported it. She pushed MTG into a defense of the term which MTG did not, at first, attempt. MTG (who lives in a dream world in which TFG is still president, likes putting others on the defensive and deflecting ideas) asked, “Who gets to say what words mean?” The reporter — who was (besides being Black) intelligent, informed and articulate, armed with excellent questions — had brought up the term in the context of its origins in Nazism. MTG argued in circles and never seemed to see she undermined herself with her own words and revealed her abysmal ignorance of history. Not surprising. But I was disturbed by “Who gets to say what words mean?”

History “gets” to say some of that, history, the context of language and human institutions. That took me back to Georges Santayana’s much quoted statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905. But, for me, more resonant are the words carved over the library entrance (old library entrance) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” It wasn’t meant in a good way…

More Discussion of Escape from Freedom

Fromm begins his book — and his argument — with his two definitions of freedom — one positive (Freedom To) and the other negative (Freedom From). I’m not sure I buy those as opposites. Freedom FROM hunger is freedom TO eat. Freedom from oppression is, uh, oh, yeah, freedom. But I’m happy to see where he goes with that (to me) rather arbitrary dichotomy. I know one thing for sure about freedom. It’s difficult to define.

Yesterday the ladies and I went to the museum to see the new exhibit which is all kinds of stuff from the olden days. The idea is to figure out what all these strange things were used for. Lyndsie (the new director) made a guide to go with the objects that are common household tools and objects for farming, things like a cream separator and a seed spreader. We had a good time. It was followed by lunch which wasn’t great.

Elizabeth is Australian and she got up early to watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. She’s long held the thought (and frequently expressed it) that the United States needs a royal family. On the drive home, I mentioned I was starting to see her point. That led to a front seat discussion about presidents and who did and did not “act presidential.” They agreed Obama acted presidential; there was dispute over whether Biden does. I was in the back so I had the privilege of listening with Fromm’s book still on my mind. I think a lot depends on what a president inherits when he takes office — and Biden inherited a mountain of shit — divided country, an insurrection, a pandemic and its resultant economic challenges, all followed hard on by a war in Europe.

When I was able to pick up Fromm’s book again — beginning a new chapter, “The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom” — I was again stunned.

“The social history of man started with his emerging from a state of oneness with the natural world to the awareness of himself as an entity separate from surrounding nature and men.”

Good god… This was a little challenging for me because I think our separation from the natural world is an illusion. We might THINK we’re free of it, but we’re not and, in this particular case, that is to say it seems to ME, that at this juncture in human history, this drive and (its corresponding illusion) is killing us. The other day, MTG said, “AOC worships the climate. I worship God.” All I could think was, “Uh they are one and the same you stoopnagle.”

Too much abuse of our world, resulting from our freedom to create an environment designed for man, might lead us to a very sinister negative freedom, that is freedom FROM life. But the bizarre end-days cult to which she clings might be all about that, after all Revelations says the world will end in fire. I don’t know. I can’t know what goes on in their twisted little minds.

Fromm went on to discuss the emergence of each of us as an individual, a process he called individuation which is the moment in which a person recognizes that he/she is a separate entity, not connected to parents, but a self of its own. As I read I thought about my own childhood and recognized the moment, though it wasn’t a “moment” so much as a process of self-definition that took about three years. It began on a train crossing Wyoming north to south and culminated in a little movie theater in Nebraska watching Lawrence of Arabia and sucking on sour cherries. The first was the opening of the question, “Who am I?” the end was, “I am no one but myself.” A book was an instrument in the beginning; a film in the completion.

I remembered the numerous times my mom said, “You and your brother were easy as little kids and then?”

Well, mom. I thought of all the times I said, “I’m not you. THIS is what I want to do.” I understood at that point that what I did might not work, but I was OK with that, I was OK with failure. My independence mattered more to me even as a kid than success.

It hurt when friends snubbed me (kids do that) and it wasn’t easy for me to make friends, but after a while that was OK, too. I didn’t feel isolated. I came to understand back then, on some level, that all the kids around me were in this process, too. That was one reason kids fight. That was a motivation behind adults organizing us into team sports where each of us would begin to focus more on a skill than in competing for identity. It seemed to me at the time — and I have no idea if it’s true — that girls were generally less determined to become selves than were the boys. Their playground games were more peaceful and sedentary; their games at home seemed to revolve around role plays of adult life. The boy’s games interested me more; I wanted individual achievement. I wanted to get better at things, run faster, hit more balls, see more, know more.

Fromm then discusses how the moment (process?) of individuation affects people (the process is inevitable). Some people are overwhelmed by the sense of solitude in the universe. Others recognize the solitude, but accept it.

“The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of its individual personality but it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which the child becomes more separate from them. This growing separation may result in an isolation that has the quality of desolation and creates intense anxiety and insecurity, it may result in a new kind of closeness and a solidarity with others if the child has been able to develop the inner strength and productivity which are the premise of this new kind of relatedness to the world.”

Whoa. Person 1 — riddled with anxiety and insecurity — will seek submission to escape that painful solitude. Person 2 won’t, having made peace with freedom, or so it goes more or less. I’m not sure, but this seems to be the argument Fromm is building. Naturally, I brought all this home to people I have known. I saw my mom in a completely different way. I saw that she never made peace with the intrinsic solitude of individuality, never found a way to live productively within it. It struck me that perhaps the foundation of freedom is just that. “I’m alone and it’s OK with me.”

Fromm makes that point.

P.S. This might be tedious, but I don’t have anyone around to talk about this with. Writing about it helps me process the ideas. The book is just under 300 pages so this won’t go on forever 😜

Beginning an Interesting Book…

A while ago I mentioned a book I’d read about in another book (ah, the great chain of reading) by Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. Yesterday I remembered I had it (ha ha) and began reading. It’s captivating. His perspective is that of a psychologist. While I’ve benefited from other’s study of psychology, I have never studied it beyond what I had to in college. The book begins (and I’m in the beginning) with a discussion of psychological explanations for human behavior and the role of the individual in society as defined by different psychological systems. From this discussion, I’ve learned that Fromm has great respect — love? — for the individual and regards individuals as dynamic forces in human culture and history.

There’s so much here. It’s truly the richest writing I’ve read in a long, long time. It was originally published in 1941 and Fromm sets freedom against Fascism which he defines as the systems that had gained ascendancy in Germany and Italy. He writes that when he wants to discuss events in Germany only, he’ll call it Nazism.

For Fromm, freedom is the property of individuals; freedom is individual, and the threat to freedom is that people don’t want it. It seems — so far — that the tension is between individual freedom and an equal desire on the part of many for submission. That’s so whack. He writes, “Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? Why then is it that freedom is for many a cherished goal and for others a threat?” As I read, I thought about the Supremes overturning Roe v. Wade, eliminating an important individual freedom from the law of the land. How do I feel about abortion? Nobody likes it. I don’t like it. I’m sorry for any woman who finds herself contemplating it. Should women have dominion over their individual bodies? Yes. Can I live with that? Yes. Apparently others can’t.

Fromm quotes John Dewey (go west young man) “The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also accordingly here — within ourselves our institutions.”

In 1997 I attended an Alice Cooper concert in Zürich. It was held in the Tonhalle. Earlier that day I’d seen photos of the very auditorium taken during the Nazi era. One of the photos was a meeting of sympathetic Swiss in the Tonhalle. I don’t know how to describe my feelings that night, with that photo still living in my mind. When Alice started singing “School’s Out,” most of the audience stood, raised their fists in the air, and sang along. I remember asking myself, “Who are we?” Same hall. The same image as in the photo. Same people a generation or two later. Same idea of uniting with others of like mind or music taste, anyway. “What makes us do this?” I saw the whole thing — Nazi rally, Alice Cooper concert — as bonding rites.

Fromm writes about this, too, about the different kinds of isolation. I think that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother blog post, but the bottom line is that people cannot live without others. Fromm explains all the kinds of possible connections and as I read, I thought of this blog. Some time back, I happened to look at my stats and saw that 2020 had the most connections. I understood that; in our enforced isolation our WordPress “neighborhood” became more important, maybe necessary.

I am not sure where Fromm is going next, but it seems at this point it might be the eternal tension between self and belonging. Not sure… I could be putting the cart before the horse. Anyway, so far I like this very much. I like his attitude toward Freud (You gave us a lot, but, dude, your ideas are flawed), I like his focus on the individual. We’ll see what happens as I continue reading — one thing for sure, this is vastly different from the contest books I read every winter.

OH, in my continued pursuit to figure out WHAT is attractive to anyone about TFG I learned yesterday about a book that’s passed out at his rallies. President Donald J. Trump, The Son of Man – The Christ. It’s very scary to me that there are people who actually believe this. From the opening:

I had long appreciated that his followers constitute a cult, but I had no idea…