Escape From Freedom Summary

Erich Fromm

Escape From Freedom

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Escape From Freedom Summary

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Escape from Freedom, published as The Fear of Freedom outside North America, is a nonfiction book by German psychoanalyst and author Erich Fromm. First published in 1941, the book explores humanity’s shifting relationship with freedom, with a particular emphasis on the personal consequences of its absence. Published during World War II and in the middle of Hitler’s rise to power, the book features a special focus on the psychosocial conditions that helped Nazism rise to power. Exploring themes of human psychology, what it truly means to be free, and the cyclical nature of history, Escape from Freedom is considered one of the best sociopolitical studies of the twentieth century and is studied extensively in sociology and history classes. It has been consistently in print and reissued multiple times since its release.

Fromm explores his concept of freedom, distinguishing between “freedom from,” which he calls negative freedom, and “freedom to,” called positive freedom. The former refers to freedom from restrictions placed on individuals by society, which has often been fought for socially. However, Fromm argues that on its own this can be a destructive force unless accompanied by a creative element. This creative element is “freedom to,” the use of freedom to spontaneously use the total integrated personality in creative acts. This allows for a true connectedness with others that goes beyond typical social interaction. Fromm says, “In the spontaneous realization of the self, man unites himself anew with the world.”

Freedom from authority often leads to feelings of hopelessness, which Fromm compares to infants in the normal course of child development. These feelings are alleviated when we use our “freedom to” and replace the old order with something new. Without exercising “freedom to,” the public often submits to an authoritarian system that seems different on the surface but oppresses the public in the same way as the old order. It functions by eliminating uncertainty and prescribing what to think and how to act. Fromm classifies this as a dialectic historical process, where the original situation is the thesis and freedom from it is the antithesis. Synthesis occurs when a new system replaces the original order and provides security, but this new system may not always be an improvement. Fromm asserts that society is predisposed to submit to negative freedom.

Fromm argues freedom became an important issue in the twentieth century and has not always held a prominent place in people’s thinking. It is not always enjoyable and contains complications. Fromm focuses a major chapter in the book on the development of the Protestant faith, especially focusing on the works of John Calvin and Martin Luther. This was one of the earliest examples of the collapse of an old social order and the rise of capital, leading to a more developed awareness of people’s autonomy and ability to determine their own future. This led to a new conception of God that had to balance freedom with moral authority. Luther portrayed Man’s relationship with God as personal and free from the influence of the church. Calvin, meanwhile, argued for predestination and said that salvation was already determined by fate. Both of these led to people feeling more freedom in their personal and economic lives by not tying them to the morality of an established church. This actually led people to commit themselves more to prove their worthiness of God’s salvation.

Fromm argues that as “freedom from” is not an enjoyable experience in itself, many people fail to use it successfully, attempting to minimize its negative effects by developing thoughts and behaviors that provide the feeling of security. These usually fall into three categories. The first is authoritarianism, which contains both sadistic and masochistic impulses. The authoritarian seeks to gain control over people to gain control over the world and seeks a “worthwhile” leader or authority. Destructiveness bears a similarity to sadism, but rather than seeking to control everything, it has a specific focus on destroying anything that it cannot bring under its control. The third coping mechanism is conformity, seen when people unconsciously incorporate the normative beliefs and thoughts of their society, feeling as if they are their own. This allows them to avoid the anxiety of genuine freethinking and feel as if they are part of a greater whole.

The final segment focuses on freedom in the twentieth century. Fromm looks at the character of Nazi ideology and suggests that the psychological conditions of Germany after the First World War led to a desire for a new order that would restore the national pride. This manifested in National Socialism. Fromm argues that Hitler had an authoritarian personality that both led him to want to rule over Germany in the name of a supposed higher ideal, and made him an appealing avatar for a struggling middle class needing a sense of pride and certainty. Although Fromm argues that authoritarian regimes spring from negative freedom, he asserts that the work of cultural evolution cannot be fully undone by these slides into authoritarianism. He praises modern democracy and the structure of the industrial nation but warns that external freedom cannot be fully embraced without an equivalent internal freedom. The way to become free as an individual is to be spontaneous in personal behavior. He ends with the statement, “There is only one meaning of life: the act of living it.”

Erich Fromm was a German psychoanalyst and author best known for his concept of the five basic character orientations. The author of dozens of works between 1922 and his death in 1980 (with five additional works published posthumously), he was one of the founders of the William Allison White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology in New York City.