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Freedom and the Individual

mcurrie's picture

           Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm begins his tale in the medieval times where everyone knew their role in life, as a peasant or lord, and where people lacked individual freedom. Then an individual finds that they are a separate entity, separate from nature, and they began to discover the world1. With this emerged individual comes freedom, but with freedom comes a feeling of aloneness and a lack of purpose. The individual goes on a quest to fill the void of being alone. The path to maintaining freedom while filling in feelings of doubt and aloneness can lead to negative freedom and positive freedom.

            On the path to negative freedom one of the mechanisms of escape from freedom, and ultimately aloneness, is authoritarianism. A person becomes a sadist or has a form of masochistic strivings. The masochistic strivings results in a person hurting and degrading themselves, “we find that people quite consciously want to suffer1.” The people submit to the outside forces of other people or nature. Since the novel was written in 1941 during WWII, Fromm concludes that people with masochistic strivings followed Nazism because they were able to submit to a higher power and join a group that share their own opinions of the world. The act of joining a group illuminates the feeling of aloneness but does not solve the underlying issue of a person’s doubt and maintaining individualism and freedom.

                 The opposite side of masochistic strivings is sadism, where an individual finds someone to have power over but “the sadist needs the person over whom he rules, he needs him very badly, since his own feeling of strength is rooted in the fact that he is the master over some one1.” They tend to harm the person that they become dependent on and when the abused starts to leave the abuser crumbles into a mass of sympathy, pleading for the abused to stay.

            The other mechanism is automation conformity where an individual becomes someone culture created. They take opinions of others unconsciously and make them their own. For example, in Germany people who were not part of the Nazis regime, would defend Nazism because they felt that by criticizing Nazism they were criticizing Germany. They up took positive opinions of Nazism and made them their own in order to defend their country and due to “the fear of isolation and the relative weakness of moral principles1”and as a result supported the Nazi regime. The interaction between the conscious and unconscious becomes more prominent with the person losing their individuality, losing their freedom, but gaining the sense of being a part of society through others. Their storyteller becomes the creation of culture with a person unconsciously acting in a way that people identify them. Through the conformity a person feels more secure. But their security is a lie. The brain unconsciously up takes an opinion that a person hears and internalizes the opinion so the person believes that they made up the opinion themselves. The brain lies to the person about where the opinion came from. This lie results in the loss of self and the individual.

            In order to maintain freedom and individuality along with eliminating the feeling of aloneness and doubt, a person can take the path to positive freedom. Through positive freedom a person sees life as an act of living it, and embraces their feeling of purpose through spontaneous acts of living. They have spontaneous activity of total integrated personality1 where they break from group thinking and use their individuality and freedom to help themselves and society. In the acts of living the person needs to become active in determining their life and that of society. Society instead of trying to create mass thinking needs to let individuals think for themselves, let their brains run free and give rise to new ideas. With the brain’s ability to create they are able to form new ideas that can be used to stabilize a new social character. With individual freedom and freedom of thoughts a person can figure out the purpose of their life through newly created ideas of the brain. Or they can “recognize that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself1.”In creating new ideas there needs to be social interactions to eliminate the feeling of aloneness and insignificance. The mass thought created by brains that limit individual’s ability to be spontaneous and find their purpose through interacting with society needs to be changed to creating a culture that allows individual freedom. With culture influencing the brain more changes for the betterment of the individual can arise.

            While reading Escape from Freedom the need for social interaction was apparent. Not only are people influenced by their own experiences, they are also influenced by their interactions with others. Part of a person’s character is shaped by their interactions with parents, friends, even strangers. Although a person needs their individuality and freedom to take chances, create new ideas, the act of living is nothing if there is no one to share it with. But the interactions with others to combat aloneness needs to be healthy in a way that both parties benefit. Unlike with masochistic and sadistic persons where their fears and need for someone overcomes their person and results in the harm of one or both of the people involved.

            In class we talked about what occurs in the individual with the I-function, vision, central pattern generators, and corollary discharge. We talked about how individual brains are wired differently from others. The class brushed upon how society influences human behavior with the brain creating a culture and the culture then influencing the brain. We never fully went into how an interaction between people influences the I-function and other functions of the brain. People are social human beings who share our lives with others. Through our interactions we may up take some opinions unconsciously and make them our own but we also think for ourselves and try to find a place in society. Fromm just explains that in order to benefit the individual in maintaining freedom and their character, society does not need to feed off a person’s weakness or aloneness, as the Nazi’s did, nor do they need to suppress a person’s character and make them into a creation of society. Instead everyone needs to have their own experiences, have their own character, and feel that even thought they are an individual they are still a part of a whole. With this culture and the individual will prosper. 



1)      Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York, NY: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc..