Erich Fromm – The Sane Society (Questions)

The human race had the wisdom to create science and art; why should it not be capable to create a world of justice, brotherliness and peace? The human race has produced Plato, Homer, Shakespeare, and Hugo, Michelangelo and Beethoven, Pascal and Newton, all human heroes whose genius is only the contact with the fundamental truths, with the innermost essence of the universe. Why then should the same race not produce those leaders capable of leading it to those forms of communal life which are closest to the lives and the harmony of the universe?

Leon Blum (1872-1950, French Prime-minister)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980)

In The Sane Society German-American social psychologist and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, poses the question whether modern society offers man the best opportunities to live in harmony with himself and his surroundings. And if not, what modern society fails to see and how we may rectify our errors. 

This presentation of his thoughts will land in two articles; the present article that highlights some central ways modern society alienates man and what this means for his mental health. In the next article I will present some suggestions for how man and society may move in a direction that will help man develop into full maturity.

Are We Sane?

Man has created enormous material growth, but also killed millions of people in an arrangement we call “wars.” Every participant in these wars firmly believed that he was fighting a just war against a cruel, irrational enemy. But a few years after the mutual slaughter is over, the enemies of yesterday are our friends and the friends of yesterday our enemies. 

Our direction of economic affairs is no more encouraging. We live in an economic system where a particularly good crop can be an economic disaster, where our markets regularly „crash“ and where economists look with some apprehension to a time when we stop producing weaponry. We have a high degree of literacy and writing skills, yet, we are flooded with mind numbing entertainment and sadistic fantasies. We have more sparetime than our ancestors dared dream of but have no idea what to do with it. 

And despite the prosperity, those democratic, peaceful and prosperous countries in the West have a very high number of suicides. Could it be that modern society satisfies our material needs, but leaves us with a feeling of intense boredom in which suicide and alcoholism are pathological ways of escaping the boredom? 

Can a Society Be Sick?

As with any other problem there are good and bad solutions to the problem of human existence. Mental health is achieved if man develops into full maturity according to the characteristics and laws of human nature. The criteria for mental health, therefore, is not that man adapts to a given social order but that man finds a satisfactory answer to the problems of human existence.

What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naïvely assumed that the fact that a majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. But one million people sharing the same vices do not turn them into virtues. And, yet, a defect in the social pattern, that one shares with others, means that he may not view this trait (or himself) as defect and so his sense of security is not threatened. Quite the contrary, his very defect may have been raised to a virtue by his culture, and thus may give him an enhanced feeling of achievement.

The Human Situation

The key to humanistic psychoanalysis

The evolution of man is based on the fact that he has lost his original home, nature, and that he can never become an animal again. Instead, he must emerge fully from his natural home and create a new home, by making the world a human one and becoming truly human himself. 

This process is a lifelong birth where one abandons one secure and relatively well known state for a new state one does not yet master. At every step we are afraid again always battling two conflicting tendencies: to emerge from the womb or return to the womb, to nature, to certainty and security. 

Man’s Needs – as they stem from the conditions of his existence 

Love vs. Submission and Dominion 

Man would go insane if he could not find new ties with his fellow man to replace the old ones, regulated by instincts. There are a number of ways in which this union can be sought and achieved. Man can attempt to become one with the world by submission to someone or something. In this way he transcends the separateness of his individual existence by becoming part of somebody or something bigger than himself and experiences his identity in relation to the power he has succumbed to. Another way to overcome isolation lies in the opposite direction: Man can try to unite with the world by having power over it, by making others a part of himself. Both submission and dominion, however, are doomed to fail because they destroy man’s experience of integrity and freedom. Rather than developing one’s own individual being one becomes dependent on those to whom one submits, or whom one dominates. 

Only one passion satisfies man’s need to unite himself with the world while still granting a sense of integrity and individuality, and this is love. The experience of love does away with the necessity of illusions. Love can be different experiences but they all share that mystical experience of union. In the act of loving I am one with All, and, yet, I am myself.

Transcendence – Creativeness vs. Destructiveness 

In the act of creation man transcends himself as a creature, raises himself beyond the passivity and accidentalness of his existence and into the realm of purposefulness and freedom. Here are the roots to love, art, religion and material production. 

But there is also another answer:

If I cannot create life, I can destroy it. By destroying life I also transcend life. Thus, the ultimate choice for man, inasmuch as he is driven to transcend himself, is whether to create or to destroy, to love or to hate. The enormous power of the will for destruction is rooted in the nature of man, just as the drive to create is rooted in it. To say that man is capable of developing his primary potentiality for love and reason does not imply a naïve belief in man’s goodness. Destructiveness is a potentiality, but only an alternative to creativeness. 

Erich Fromm

Rootedness – Brotherliness vs. Incest 

The most elementary of the natural ties is the tie of the child to the mother. The child begins life in the mother’s womb and continues his dependency long after birth. The child, in these decisive first years of his life, has the experience of his mother as the fountain of life, as an all-enveloping, protective, nourishing power. Mother is food, love, warmth, earth. To be loved by her means to be alive, to be rooted, to be at home. 

Growing up means to leave the protective orbit of the mother, yet, we often encounter a deep longing for the security and sense of belonging the relation to the mother once bestowed among average adults. This may result in a mother fixation where the person is afraid to be weaned from the mother’s breasts, that is, to become his own master. This incestuous bond with the mother can be replaced by the family, the clan, church or nation, that assumes the function of the mother. The individual leans on them, feels rooted in them, has his sense of identity as a part of them, and not as an individual apart from them. 

While motherly love is either there or not, fatherly love kan be created. Since males are not burdened with pregnancy and birth, nurturing and taking care of children he creates a world of ideas, principles and man-made things which replace nature as a ground of existence and security. This can give grounds for reason, conscience and brotherhood but can also give way to domination, suppression, inequality and submission.

The revolutions of the 17th and 18th century can be seen as an expression of such ideas. They were not, however, able to transform freedom from (random authoritarian submission) to freedom to (authentic being in accordance with man’s nature). Instead, average man today obtains his sense of identity from belonging to a nation or a group rather than as a ”son of man”. Thus, the temptation for man to bind himself to blood and earth are strong both with regards to motherly values (a sense of belonging) and fatherly values (a sense of purpose and meaning). 

Sense of Identity – individuality vs. Herd Conformity 

Man must be in a position to sense his self, his ”I” as the subject of his actions. In the middle ages one was a farmer or a lord and when this system collapsed the question arose ”Who am I?”

Western culture went in the direction of creating the basis for the full experience of individuality by making the individual free politically and economically. By teaching him to think for himself and freeing him from an authoritarian pressure, one hoped to enable him to feel “I” in the sense that he was the center and active subject of his powers. But only a minority achieved the new sense of “I.”

The majority sought and found many replacements for a true feeling of identity as an individual. Nation, religion, class and occupation serves to provide a sense of identity and instead of the pre-individualistic clan identity a new herd individuality has developed in which the sense of identity rests on the sense of an unquestionable belonging to the crowd. That this uniformity and conformity are often not recognised as such, and are covered by the illusion of individuality, does not alter the facts. 

Beware that the feeling of identity is not a mere philosophical problem, but stems from the very conditions of human existence. People are willing to risk their life, abandon love and freedom and sacrifice their thoughts just for the sake of being one of the herd, to fit in and again experience a feeling of identity, no matter, how illusory. 

The need for a frame of orientation – Reason vs. Irrationality  

Just like man needs to be able to feel his own identity, so he must be able to navigate intellectually in the world and make sense of the many confusing phenomena that surrounds him. Whether he believes in the power of a totem animal, in a rain god, or in the superiority and destiny of his race, his need for some frame of orientation is satisfied – no matter, whether the system he turns to is true or false. In the first degree what is important is to have a system of orientation; in the second degree to be in contact with reality through common sense.

Mental Health and Society 

The most popular conception today wants us to believe that contemporary Western societies, in particular, the ”American way of life,” agrees with mankind’s deepest needs and that adaptation to this form of life means mental health and maturity. From this perspective maturity is defined as the ability to stick to a job, to give more than is asked for, to be reliable, persistent, to be able to work with other people under organisation, authority, independence, and tolerance. 

From Hobbes to Freud one encounters a presumption of a basic and unalterable contradiction between human nature and society, a contradiction which follows from, respectively, man’s demand for sexual satisfaction and his urge for destruction (Freud) and the assumption of fundamental hostility between all human beings (Hobbes and Freud).

Based on his conception of man Freud had to arrive at a picture of a conflict between civilisation and mental health and happiness. Primitive man is healthy and happy because he is not frustrated in his basic instincts, but lacks the blessings of culture. Civilised man is more secure, enjoys art and science, but he is bound to be neurotic because of the continued frustration of his instincts. 

We recognise Freud’s view of man as, overall, driven by competition and nonsocial behaviour among most writers that find that those qualities, that are typical of man under modern capitalism, are dictated by nature. Within biology Darwin voiced a similar principle and the Manchester School transferred it to the sphere of economics. But, writes Fromm:

Both positions, the ‘adjustment view’ and the Hobbes-Freudian view of the necessary conflict between human nature and society, imply the defence of contemporary society and they both are one-sided distortions. Furthermore, they both ignore the fact that society is not only in conflict with the asocial aspects of man, partly produced by itself, but often also with his most valuable human qualities, which it suppresses rather than furthers.

Man In Capitalistic Society 

The Social Character

By ”social character” we refer to the nucleus of the character structure which is shared by most members of the same culture. The members of a society have to behave in the sense required by the social system. It is the function of the social character to shape the energies of the members of society in such a way that their behaviour is not a matter of conscious decision, but one of wanting to act as they have to act.

The Structure of Capitalism and the Character of Man

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century capitalism

The common features of capitalism are, briefly: 1) the existence of politically and legally free men that; 2) sell their labor to the owner of capital on the labor marker by contract; 3) the existence of a commodity market by which mechanism prices are determined and the exchange of the product is regulated; 4) the principle that each individual acts with the aim of seeking a profit for himself, and yet that, 5) by the competitive action of many, the greatest advance is supposed to accrue for all. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries technic and industry were just starting to develop and medieval culture had a considerable influence on the economic practices of this period. For instance, it was considered unchristian and unethical for one merchant to try to lure customers from another by lowering prices or any other inducement. Similarly, people in that period were skeptical toward new machines if they threatened to take away work from man. Behind was the principle that society and its economy exist for man and not man for them. No economic progress was supposed to be healthy if it hurt any group within the society. 

Nineteenth-century capitalism

During the 19th century the belief in man as the ultimate goal changed radically to the ruthless exploitation of the working man. It was now believed to be a natural or a social law that millions of workers were living at the point of starvation and all former restrictions – legal and moral – were abandoned. As the division of labour intensified the capitalistic principle, that each one seeks his own profit and thus contributes to the happiness of all, became the guiding principle of human behaviour. Now the anonymous laws of growth ruled – the individual capitalist does not expand because he wants to but because he has to. In this function of the economic law which operates behind the back of man and forces him to do things without freedom to decide, we see the beginning of a constellation which comes to its fruition only in the twentieth century.

In feudal society the lord had a divine right to demand services and things from his peasants, but he was also bound by custom to provide them with a certain standard of living. In the 19th century this changed dramatically. Now the working man’s labour was purchased on a free market and was to be used to its full effect by the buyer. There was no sense of reciprocity or obligations; everything was decided by the law of the market

Any social system in which one group of the population is commanded by another, especially, if the latter is a minority, must be based on a strong sense of authority. But there is a fundamental difference between a teacher’s rational authority and a slave owners’ inhibiting or irrational authority. The teacher’s authority is built on a wish for identification. The slave, on the other hand, will tend to suppress the feeling of hatred and even replace it with a feeling of blind admiration in order to dissolve the painfull and dangerous feeling of hatred and soften the feeling of humiliation. In time this deepens the gulf, while the gulf between teacher and student in time disappears. 

The reform movements of the 19th century emphasized the need to abolish exploitation, Freud wanted to reduce sexual repression and the liberals believed that complete freedom from authorities would usher in a new millenium. Although they differ from one another they all believed that by abolishing exploitation, sexual repression or irrational authority, man would enter a new era of freedom, happiness and progress. 

Half a century later working man is not exploited to the same degree, his economic progress has increased, former authorities have been torn down and we have experienced a sexual revolution. It all sounds promising, yet, it is obvious that the fulfillment of the ideals of the 19th century in no way has led to the expected results. In fact, it seems that in spite of material prosperity, political and sexual freedom, the world in the middle of the 20th century is mentally sicker than in the 19th century. There is no overt authority which intimidates us, but we are governed by fear of the anonymous authority of conformity. We do not submit to anyone personally, we do not fight battles with authority, but we have no independent convictions and almost no individuality or I-feeling.

We are not in danger of becoming slaves any more, but of becoming robots.

Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965, American politician)

How can we on this back ground clearly regard the special pathological problem of our times?

Twentieth-century Society

Social and economic changes

The 20th century has seen an enormous concentration of capital and power and increase of functionaries. Similarly, we’ve witnessed a growing separation between management and ownership (via stocks).

Another fact concerns mass production and consumption. In the 19th century there was a tendency towards savings and moderation. Today we are encouraged to purchase as much as possible. Also, we all work together; everyone is part of the whole and at night the stream flows back again from the same news, the same entertainment.

The disappearance of feudal factors means the disappearance of irrational authority. Nobody is supposed to be higher than his neighbour by birth, God’s will or some natural law. If one person is commanded by another, it is because the commanding one bought the labour of the other person on a free and open market. But with the disappearance of irrational authority so disappeared rational authority. If the market and the agreement rules the conditions between people there is no need to know what is right or wrong. All we need to know is that the conditions are reasonable and that things work

What kind of people, then, do our society need? What is the ”social character” suited to 20th century capitalism? 

We need people who co-operate smoothly in large groups; who want to consume more and more, and whose tastes are standardized and easily manipulated. We need people that experience themselves as free and independent – and yet are willing to be commanded to do what is expected for them to fit into the social machine without friction.

Characterological changes

The process of quantification and abstractification 

The medieval artisan produced goods for a relatively small and known group of customers and his prices were determined so they permitted him to live in a style traditionally commensurate with his social status. In contrast, the modern business enterprise rests upon complicated calculations and numbers that must be determined in the abstract. This abstraction involves the products themselves, customers, thousands of shareholders, employees etc. Moreover, the specialization of labour means that an operator performs a very specific task with no appreciation for or understanding of the production as a whole.

This process of quantification and abstractification has transcended the realm of economic production, and spread to the attitude of man to things, to people, and to himself. Thus, in contemporary Western culture we almost exclusively refer to the abstract qualities of things and people, and neglect relating oneself to their concreteness and uniqueness. Instead of forming abstract concepts where it is useful, everything, ourselves included, are turned into abstractions. This is especially clearly in connection with modern means of mass destruction. A person may be incapable of harming one person but with the switch of a button he may kill millions because the switch of a button and the death of thousands have no real connection. The action is no longer his but has gained its’ own life and responsibility, so to speak.


By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person does not experience himself as the center of his world, as the creator of his own acts – rather, his acts and their consequences have become his master, whom he obey, or whom he may even worship. We can speak of idolatry or alienation when one is subject to irrational passions. The person who is mainly motivated by his lust for power, does not experience himself any more in the richness and limitlessness of a human being, but becomes a slave to one partial striving in him, which is projected into external aims, by which he is “possessed.” 

Alienation has always existed but in modern society it is almost total; it pervades the relationship of man to his work, to the things he consumes, to his fellow man and to himself. Both big business and government administrations are conducted by a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are specialists in the administration of things and of men but due to the bigness of the apparatus they’re part of the relationship to the concrete people is one of complete alienation. And yet bureaucrats are considered indispensable and given an almost godlike respect; if they disappeared, people worry, everything would fall apart. 

Likewise, consumption is as alienated as production. We acquire things via money but those money represent labour in an abstract form that may just as well have been acquired via hard work as through luck, fraud or inheritance etc. Moreover, it takes no effort to spend money and I can use them to buy things I won’t or can’t use or even destroy. The act of consumption should be a meaningful, human, productive experience where all of our senses are involved. In our culture there is little of that. We drink a Coca-Cola add, we buy into the fiction of the dental paste and thus consumption in the main is a satisfaction of artificially stimulated fantasies, a fiction far from our concrete, real self. Often there is not even the pretence of use. We simply acquire things to have them.

Our way of consumption inevitably means that we are never satisfied since it is not our own real, concrete self that consumes a real, concrete thing. Instead we develop an ever growing need for more stuff. Originally consumption was a means to an end, that of happiness. Today consumption is an aim in itself and this goes for things as for how we spend our leisure time. 

In any productive and spontaneous activity, something happens within myself while I am reading, looking at scenery, talking to friends etc. I am not the same after the experience as I was before. In the alienated form of pleasure nothing happens within me; I have consumed this or that; nothing is changed within myself, and all that is left are memories of what I have done. The tourist with his camera is a great symbol of an alienated appreciation of the world. The camera sees for the tourist and the outcome of his travels is a series of pictures, a replacement of the experience he could have had but didn’t have. 

Likewise, we regard economic depressions and wars like societal disasters reminiscent of natural catastrophes, They are, however, a clear testimony to our alienation. We create our economic and social orders, yet, we reject any responsibility for their consequences. The arrangements have run wild and their leaders are like a person on a runaway horse, who is proud of managing to keep in the saddle, even though he is powerless to direct the horse. 

Today, modern man’s relation to his fellow man is like the relationship between two abstractions, two living machines who use each other. The employer uses those he employs, the salesman his customers, the spouse their partner in the pursuit of happiness. Everybody is to everybody else a commodity. 

Underneath it all, our private dealings with our fellow men are governed by the principle of egotism, “each for himself, God for us all.” God, however, is as alienated as the world as a whole. Hardly anyone is worried about his soul or salvation. What causes concern and worry is the private, separate sector of life, not the social, universal one which connects us with our fellow men. 

Even on the most primitive steps of man’s history we find attempts to make a connection with the actual reality via artistic and religious endeavours. For instance, rituals or the Greek drama where man’s existential problems were depicted in artistic and dramatic form. Here the problems are acted out that are thought out in philosophy and theology. But what is left of such dramatization of life in modern culture? Almost nothing. Man hardly ever gets out of the realm of manmade conventions and things and hardly ever breaks through the surface of his routine, aside from grotesque attempts to satisfy the need for a ritual as we see it practiced in lodges and fraternities. The closest we come are sports competitions that illustrates the fight between victory and defeat but it is a primitive and restricted aspect of human existence, reducing the richness of human life to one partical aspect. Millions of people are fascinated by and go to movies in which crime and passions are the two central themes. All this is not simply an expression of bad taste and sensationalism, but of a deep longing for a dramatization of ultimate phenomena of human existence, life and death, crime and punishment, the battle between man and nature. But while the Greek drama dealt with these problems on a high artistic and metaphysical level, our modern “drama” and “ritual” are crude and do not produce any cathartic effect.  

Various other aspects 

Anonymous Authority – Conformity

Authority in the middle of the twentieth century has changed its character; it is no longer overt authority, but anonymous, invisible, alienated authority. Nobody makes a demand, neither a person, nor an idea, nor a moral law. Yet we all conform as much or more than people in an intensely authoritarian society would. Authority is invisible just like the laws of the market and just as unassailable. Parents do not give commands anymore, they suggest. Business leaders do not order, they suggest. Even in the army one should feel part of a team. 

The mechanism through which the anonymous authority operates is conformity: I ought to do what everybody does; I must conform. This need not to be different is very significant for the alienated person that cannot accept himself, because he isn’t himself. The only way to achieve a sense of identity, therefore, is to adapt to conformity.

The Principle of Non-frustration 

A modern principle is that no wish must be frustrated and should be satisfied immediately. But if I do not postpone the satisfaction of my wish (and if I am conditioned only to wish for what I can get), I have no conflicts, no doubts; no decision has to be made; I am just busy. Having fun today consists mainly in the satisfaction of consuming; commodities, sights, food, drinks, people, lectures – all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one big breast and we are sucklers and eternally disappointed because we are never weaned off. Instead we remain overgrown babies that never go beyond the receptive orientation. 

Free Association and Free Talk

Freud’s discovery of free association had the aim of finding out what went on underneath the surface, of discovering who you really were. Nowadays, however, psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis have become tools in the manipulation of men. The specialists in these fields tell you what the ”normal” person is and, correspondingly, what is wrong with you. Mass media does the priming but the crowning achievement of manipulation is modern psychology. What Taylor did for industrial work, psychologists (with many exceptions) does for the whole personality – all in the name of understanding and freedom. 

Reason, Conscience, Religion  

On the surface, common sense, conscience and religion prosper. But common sense presupposes an ”I” and while we excel in abstract problems we exhibit an astonishing lack of reality sense for all that really matters: For the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling and serious thought. 

And how can we expect ethics and conscience to develop when the principle of life is conformity? By nature conscience runs counter to conformity and our main concern is to fit in. 

Similarly, religion has become just another product. We have shoved away awareness of the fundamental problems of human existence. We are not concerned with the meaning of life, but with the solution to it; to invest life successfully. A majority of us believe in God and take it for granted that God exist. The rest take it for granted God does not exist. In either case, we take God for granted.


Man has been defined as ”the animal that produces”. In the process of work, that is, the molding and changing of nature outside of himself, man molds and changes himself. Man emerges from nature by mastering her. Work is not just a useful activity but carries with it a profound satisfaction.

Thus, there is no split between work and play, or work and culture. But with the collapse of the medieval society the meaning and function of work changed. Work now became a duty, a road to salvation and a road to riches. For most, though, it became simply forced labour. 

Today the religious attitude towards work has changed. Modern man does not know what to do with himself and is driven to work in order to avoid an unbearable boredom. But work has ceased to be a moral and religious obligation. Instead work has become isolated and alienated from the working person whose role is essentially a passive one. And where we should be discussing ”man’s industrial problem” we discuss “industry’s human problem.”

The alienated and profoundly unsatisfactory character of work results in two reactions: one, the idea of complete laziness; Everything must be made easy and unhindered. The other, a deep-seated, though often unconscious hostility toward work and everything and everybody connected with it is even more serious. Many a business man feels himself the prisoner of his business and the commodities he sells; he has a feeling of fraudulence about his product and a secret contempt for it. He hates his customers who force him to put up a show, his competitors because they threaten him, and himself because he watches his life slip by with no other meaning than the momentary intoxication of success.


The introduction of the general right to vote was a disappointment for those who thought that it would contribute to converting citizens into responsible, active and independent personalities. How can people express ”their” will if they have no will or convictions, if they are alienated automatons whose taste, opinions and preferences are manipulated by the big conditioning machines?

So called ”free elections” do not have to express the ”will of the people” any more than people’s choice of an intensively advertised toothpaste means that it also lives up to its’ promised qualities. It simply means that the propaganda has worked. 

Erich Fromm

That’s why political parties aim for personalities rather than messages. And why citizens consider big political questions with the same intensity they consider leisure-hour interests that have not yet attained the rank of hobbies. These things seem so far off and one feels oneself to be moving in a fictitious world. We have our phrases, our wishes and daydreams but, ordinarily, they do not amount to what we call ”a will.” 

As such, the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. Politics are conveyed in a manner so that one avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people. And since it is hard to determine the effects, it works. 

Alienation and mental health

Love, security and sexual satisfaction are generally accepted as the three criteria for human health but in an alienated world they mean something different than what might be expected. For instance, people increasingly feel that they should have no doubts and that they should always feel ”secure.” But because of the conditions of existence we can never feel sure about anything. Just as a sensitive and alive person cannot avoid being sad, he cannot avoid feeling insecure. The psychic task which a person can and must set for himself, is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity, without panic and undue fear. 

Love also has a different meaning in an alienated world. In an alienated world love is regarded as a business enterprise; two persons that join interest and support one another in a hostile and alienated world. Happiness is another popular concept. Today happiness is mostly identified with pleasure; Man free of sorrow and worries. But this definition of happiness runs counter to the person who is alive and sensitive and who cannot avoid feeling sorrow and misery many times throughout life. 

If we want to define happiness by its opposite, we must define it not in contrast to sadness, but in contrast to depression. Depression is the inability to feel; the sense of being alive, but dead. A depressed person would be greatly relieved if he could feel sad. 

Happiness results from the experience of productive living, and the use of love and reason to unite us with the world. It follows that happiness cannot be found in the state of inner passivity which pervades the life of alienated man. The average man today may have a good deal of fun and pleasure, but, fundamentally, he is bored. Few things are as painful as boredom, and consequently every attempt is made to avoid it. 

It can be avoided in two ways; by being productive, or by trying to avoid its manifestations. That’s why the average man today chases after fun and pleasure. He senses his depression and boredom when he is alone with himself. Hence, our amusements serve the purpose of making it easy for him to run away from himself and from the threatening boredom by taking refuge in the many ways of escape which our culture offers him. But covering up a symptom does not do away with the conditions which produce it.

This is why the alienated person cannot be healthy. Since he experiences himself as a thing, an investment, to be manipulated by himself and others, he is lacking in a sense of self. This lack of self creates deep anxiety because he is always dependent on approval of others. The alienated person feels inferior whenever he suspects himself of not being in line. Since his sense of worth is based on approval of his conformity, his “I” and self-esteem feels threatened by any feeling, thought or actions which could be suspected of being a deviation. Yet, he cannot help deviating and, hence, must feel afraid of disapproval all the time. 

This feeling of disapproval causes a permanent feeling of guilt. Guilt for not having worked hard enough, for doing bad things, even for doing good things. Guilt of not being totally like the rest. And yet, at the same time man feels guilty because he senses his gifts or talents, his ability to love, to think, to laugh, to cry, to create, he senses that his life is the one chance he is given, and that if he loses this chance he has lost everything. Modern man lives in a world with enormous comfort – yet he senses that, chasing after more comfort, his life runs through his fingers like sand and he cannot help feeling guilty for the waste, for the lost chance.

Erich Fromm

Thus, alienated man feels guilty for being himself, and for not being himself, for being alive and for being an automaton, for being a person and for being a thing. 

Various Other Diagnoses

Since the 19th century man has considered the world a place of business and we speak of our demigods, modern industry, as if they were living entities. But it is necessary to assign to economic activity its proper place as the servant, not a master of society. 

It is probable that the work a man does represents his most important function in the society; but unless there is some sort of integral social background to his life, he cannot assign a value to his work. 

In the material and scientific spheres we have been careful to develop knowledge and technique; in the human and socio-political, we have contented ourselves with haphazard guessing and opportunist fumbling. The major error of the last century has been the assumption that a total society can be organised upon an economic motive, upon profit. But the corporation can offer only bread or cake. If the corporation is to survive, it will have to be endowed with a moral role in the world, not merely an economic one. 

Perhaps the most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilisation is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, it is not humanly interesting. In the end, modern civilisation can produce only a mass man: incapable of choice, incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree, but increasingly irresponsible. The handsomest encomium for such creatures is: “They do not make trouble. Their highest virtue: They do not stick their necks out.” 

We must never abandon the material benefits we have gained from technology and mass production and specialisation of tasks, But we shall never achieve the ideals of America if we create a class of workers denied the satisfactions of significant work. Part of the task assigned to management is the provision of working conditions which will release the creative instinct of every worker, and which will give play to his divine-human ability to think. The propaganda apparatus must be curtailed. A new public opinion must be created privately and unobtrusively. The existing one is maintained by the press, by propaganda, by economic interests.  This unnatural way of spreading ideas must be opposed by the natural one, which goes from man to man and relies solely on the truth of our thoughts and the hearer’s receptiveness for new truth.  

Closing Remarks

I hope this introduction to Erich Fromm has peaked your interest and I invite you to read my upcoming article where I will present some measures Erich Fromm suggest to look into if we want to create a society that better enables man to achieve mental health.

For another interesting perspective on alienation please find here a link to an article on alienation and accelleration by Hartmut Rosa that revolves around a number of the same themes, for instance, workaholism and our never waning hope that work will provide a meaning to our lives. Also if you want to learn about another famous writers’ take on alienation you can here find a link to Franz Kafka’s take on the modern.

The Skeleton-Man Show Death: The High Price of Living

In my new show Death: The High Price of Living I introduce the audience to the existential tradition. You can find more information about the show here that is specifically targeted educational institutions and companies, for instance, as a fun and engaging event at the yearly company art club assembly.

For BOOKING please contact