Mar 232014


Today is the birthday (1900) of Erich Seligmann Fromm, German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist. His work is well known within academic and professional circles, but his is not exactly a household name among the general public.  Over a long and distinguished career he raised a great many questions concerning the theoretical foundations of psychoanalysis – accepting some key aspects of Freudian theory while rejecting others – and also examined individual and social problems that plagued 20th century Europe including the rise of totalitarian regimes such as fascism and Soviet communism, and the rampant greed, individualism, and alienation that accompanied capitalism.  I cannot cover too much of his work because it is dense and far reaching.  Instead I will give some of the flavor by briefly exploring two key concepts: freedom and love.  I have also embedded a 30 minute interview with him that covers many key issues.

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt am Main, the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. He started his academic studies in 1918 at the University of Frankfurt am Main with two terms of jurisprudence. During the summer of 1919, Fromm studied at the University of Heidelberg, where he began studying sociology under Alfred Weber (brother of the better known sociologist Max Weber whose work on Protestantism and Capitalism was influential on Fromm), the psychiatrist-philosopher Karl Jaspers, and Heinrich Rickert. Fromm received his Ph.D. in sociology from Heidelberg in 1922. During the mid-1920s, he trained to become a psychoanalyst through Frieda Reichmann’s psychoanalytic sanatorium in Heidelberg. He began his own clinical practice in 1927. In 1930 he joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and completed his psychoanalytical training.

After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, Fromm moved first to Geneva and then, in 1934, to Columbia University in New York. Together with Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan, Fromm belongs to a Neo-Freudian school of psychoanalytical thought. Horney and Fromm each had a marked influence on the other’s thought, with Horney illuminating some aspects of psychoanalysis for Fromm and the latter elucidating sociology for Horney. Their relationship ended in the late 1930s. After leaving Columbia, Fromm helped form the New York branch of the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1943, and in 1946 co-founded the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology. He was on the faculty of Bennington College from 1941 to 1949.

When Fromm moved to Mexico City in 1949, he became a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and established a psychoanalytic section at the medical school there. Meanwhile, he taught as a professor of psychology at Michigan State University from 1957 to 1961 and as an adjunct professor of psychology at the graduate division of Arts and Sciences at New York University after 1962. He taught at UNAM until his retirement, in 1965, and at the Mexican Society of Psychoanalysis (SMP) until 1974. In 1974 he moved from Mexico City to Muralto in Switzerland, and died at his home in 1980, five days before his eightieth birthday.


Beginning with his first seminal work of 1941, Escape from Freedom (known outside the U.S. as Fear of Freedom), Fromm’s writings were notable as much for their social and political commentary as for their philosophical and psychological underpinnings. Escape from Freedom is viewed as one of the founding works of political psychology. His second major work, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, first published in 1947, continued and enriched the ideas of Escape from Freedom. Taken together, these books outlined Fromm’s theory of human character, which was a natural outgrowth of his theory of human nature. Fromm’s most popular book was The Art of Loving, an international bestseller first published in 1956, which recapitulated and complemented the theoretical principles of human nature found in Escape from Freedom and Man for Himself—principles which were revisited in many of Fromm’s other major works.

I’m going to touch on two key issues in Fromm’s work: freedom and love.  I can’t really delve his thinking too deeply in this limited space.  Let’s consider what I say here as a series of starting points from which you can dive in deeper if you choose.  At the end of my discourse is an interview with Fromm by Mike Wallace from 1958.  It’s really compelling intellectually, for starters, but it’s also surprisingly current in its musings about love and freedom despite the fact that it is more than half a century old.

Fundamental to Fromm’s thinking is that freedom, or lack of it, is a mental and moral choice and not a simple circumstance we are at the mercy of:

Freedom is not a constant attribute which we either “have” or “have not.” In fact, there is no such thing as “freedom” except as a word and an abstract concept. There is only one reality: the act of freeing ourselves in the process of making choices.

Fromm distinguishes between “freedom from” (negative freedom) and “freedom to” (positive freedom). The former refers to emancipation from restrictions such as social conventions and rules placed on individuals by other people or institutions. This is the kind of freedom that has often been fought for historically, but, according to Fromm, on its own it can be a destructive force unless accompanied by a creative element, “freedom to” – the use of freedom to employ spontaneously the total integrated personality in creative acts. This, he argues, necessarily implies a true connectedness with others that goes well beyond the superficial bonds of conventional social interaction. It is “the spontaneous realization of the self, man unites himself anew with the world.”

Modern democracy and the industrialized nation are models Fromm praises but he stresses that the kind of external freedom provided by this kind of society can never be used to the full without an equivalent inner freedom. Fromm suggests that though we are free from obvious authoritarian influence, we can still be dominated in our thinking and behavior by ideas of “common sense,” the advice of experts, and the influence of advertising. The way to become truly free in an individual sense is to become spontaneous in our self-expression and behavior and respond truthfully to our genuine feelings. This is crystallized in his existential statement “there is only one meaning of life: the act of living it.” Fromm counters suggestions that this might lead to social chaos by claiming that being truly in touch with our humanity is to be truly in touch with the needs of those with whom we share the world. This is the meaning of a truly social democracy and the realization of the positive “freedom to” that arises only when people escape the desire to have society controlled by others, and order imposed from the outside. “Freedom to” entails order stemming from within the self.

In the process of becoming emancipated from an overbearing authority/set of values, Fromm argues, we are often left with feelings of emptiness and anxiety (like the process of growing up and taking responsibility instead of relying on our parents).  Such anxiety and alienation will not abate until we use our “freedom to” and develop some form of replacement of the old order.  However, a common substitute for exercising “freedom to” (or authenticity) is to submit to an authoritarian system that replaces the old order with another system, different in external appearance but identical in function for the individual: to eliminate uncertainty by prescribing what to think and how to act.

A major chapter Escape from Freedom deals with the development of Protestant theology, with a discussion of the work of John Calvin and Martin Luther. The collapse of the old medieval feudal/Catholic order and the rise of capitalism led to a more developed awareness that people could be separate autonomous beings and direct their own future rather than simply fulfilling an expected social role (the current modern condition). This in turn fed into a new conception of God that had to account for the new freedom to be individuals while still providing some moral authority for God. Following Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Fromm explained how Luther painted a picture of the human relationship with God that was personal and individuated and free from the influence of the church. Yet Calvin’s doctrine of predestination suggested that people could not work for salvation but have instead been chosen arbitrarily for heaven or hell before they could make any difference to their destinies. Both of these positions, argues Fromm, are responses to a freer economic situation. The first gives individuals more freedom to find holiness in the world around them without a complex church structure telling them what to do. The second, although superficially giving the appearance of a kind of determinism, actually provided a way for people to work towards salvation. While people could not change their destinies, they could discover the extent of their holiness by committing themselves to hard work and frugality, both traits that were considered virtuous by the Protestant church. In reality this made people work harder than before to “prove” to themselves that they were destined for God’s kingdom, and, thus, alleviate the anxiety created by predestination.  In that sense the Puritan work ethic was more burdensome and authoritarian than the system it replaced, even though in theory it provided people with greater individual freedom. Medieval feudal Catholicism was oppressive, but it had the advantage of fostering a sense of integrated community (with all people knowing their place in the system), and allowed for fun once in a while (on feast days).  Protestants were “liberated” from this way of life by becoming individuals who, in theory, controlled their own destinies, but they lived dreary lives devoid of fun. They had “freedom from” without “freedom to.”

Fromm’s notion of “freedom to” dovetails completely with his concept of love, that is, to escape the alienation of “freedom from” and all its negative consequences, you have to embrace the world with love. Fromm’s sense of love is consonant with a great many spiritual traditions.  It is very reminiscent of St Paul’s teachings in his epistles, for example, or the fundamental principles of zen.  Fromm conceives of love as a feeling of unity with EVERYTHING, and not just with one person or thing.  To elaborate I am going to change gears and give you some quotations from The Art of Loving to ponder.  You will be excused for mistaking him for a latter day prophet when you read these:


Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?

Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.

Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an ordination of character which determines the relatedness of the person to the whole world as a whole, not toward one object of love.

If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to all others, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.

 Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

Love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person. Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love

 Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.

Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the condition for the ability to love. [My personal favorite because I live a life of intentional solitude.]

Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort.

What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other – but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness – of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other’s sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness. He does not give in order to receive; giving is in itself exquisite joy. But in giving he cannot help bringing something to life in the other person, and this which is brought to life reflects back to him.

 Thus, we must bring love and freedom together to be happy . . . (and we would use “person” and “people” rather than “man” and “men” these days in the following quotation) . . .

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 [i.e. family]but as a free and independent individual. However, if the economic, social and political conditions 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 which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom.

This interview restates these concepts in straightforward ways that should help deepen understanding of Fromm’s ideas:

Fromm came from an orthodox Jewish background with rabbis in both his paternal and maternal lines.  Although he eventually repudiated core Judaic beliefs in God in early youth, he never abandoned interest in Torah stories and Talmudic inquiry stories, and used them often to help illustrate his ideas.  He used the story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall, for example, to help explain his concept of human freedom, and used the tale of Jonah to illustrate moral dilemmas.  So, it is fitting that I give recipes today in the tradition of Ashkenazi Jews to celebrate Fromm.  Kugel is a standard casserole in European Jewish households for Sabbath and holiday meals.  You get a two-fer because kugel can be either savory (with potatoes) to be served with the main course, or sweet (with noodles, cream, and sugar), for a dessert.


Sweet Lokshen Kugel


1 cup raisins (optional)
2 oz/400 gm wide egg noodles
6 large eggs
2 cups sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
¼ tsp salt
cinnamon and sugar for dusting
butter for greasing


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Cover the raisins (if used) with hot water and let them soak to plump whilst  preparing the other ingredients.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles, bring back to a boil, and let them cook until tender but not soft (al dente). Drain and return the cooked noodles to the pot.

In a food processor or blender, mix together the eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, sugar, melted butter, and salt.

Pour the egg mixture over the cooked noodles in the pot and stir till well to combine.

(Drain the raisins and pat them dry. Stir them into the noodles.)

Grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with butter. Pour the noodle mixture into the dish.

Top the kugel by sprinkling generously with sugar and lightly with cinnamon. Alternatively, you can use your favorite topping (streusel, crushed graham crackers, crushed cornflakes, etc.).

Bake the kugel for about 60 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking. The kugel should be set and the tips of the noodles golden brown.

Let the kugel rest for 15-20 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or cold.


Potato Kugel


6 large potatoes
1 large onion
3 eggs
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.

Peel and grate the potatoes and onion.  Add eggs and oil, mix well. Add paprika, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Pour the grated potato mix into a well-greased baking dish and bake for 1 hour.  Run under the broiler for a few minutes if the top has not turned golden.