If human beings cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities of being free, wrote the philosopher Erich Fromm in his book, Escape From Freedom, then they inevitably escape from freedom and turn to authoritarianism. If the rise of democracy set some people free, it also gave birth to a society in which the individual feels alienated and dehumanized.
Our times do not push me into argument, they challenge me to think and be aware of what I think and what I believe. That, I see, is a gift.
Humans are the world's most complex creatures, writes Fromm.
We have reduced the average working hours to less than half of what they were a hundred years ago. We have more free time than our forebears even imagined. But what has happened? Do we know how to use the newly gained free time, or do we waste and try to kill the time we have saved. We are glad when another day is over.
Are we happier than people used to be, even people who died young and lived hard lives?
We are the only creature on the planet who knows what we are, or that we will die. Self-awareness, reason and imagination disrupt the "harmony" that characterizes the existence of animals, and that compels me to live with them and study them. Man's consciousness has made him into an anomaly, the freak of the universe.
We do not live in harmony, not with nature, or quite often, with one another. We are the only species that kills for no reason.
We are part of nature, subject to its physical laws and unable to alter them, but at the same time we transcend nature. Humans, writes Fromm, "are homeless, yet chained to the home he shares with all creatures. Cast into this world at an accidental place and time, he is forced out of it, again accidentally."
Being aware of himself, he realizes his powerlessness and the limitations of his existence. He visualizes his own end: death. He cannot rid himself of his mind and he cannot rid himself of his body, which insists that he remain alive.
Reason, the great blessing of humankind, is also its great curse, it forces us to cope with the insoluble task of understanding our own life. In this respect, human existence is different from that of all other organisms, it exists in a state of constant and unavoidable disequilibrium.
Man's life cannot "be lived" by simply repeating the pattern of his species, like other animals; he must live. Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can be evicted from paradise. He cannot go back to the pre-human state of harmony with nature; he must proceed to develop his reason until he becomes the master of nature, and of himself.
Man is adrift, writes Fromm, he has lost his original home, nature – and he can never return to it, can never become an animal again. There is only one path for him to take: to emerge fully from his natural home, to find a new home – one which he creates, by making the world a human one and by becoming truly human himself. This drama is unique in the animal world.
It is not easy to be a human being. It is not easy to be free, freedom is a painful, even awesome responsibility. Many people run from it.
Fromm spent much of his life studying why it is that people have so often chosen totalitarian forms of government over the freedom they think they want and say they want. Fascism, Naziism and Stalinism all have one thing in common, he found. The offered the atomized individual a new refuge and security.
These systems, he found, were the result of alienation, not politics.
The individual is made to feel powerless and insignificant, but also taught to project all of his human powers and goals onto the figure of a leader, or the state, or a fatherland, to whom he has to submit and whom he must and does worship. He choses to escape from the burdens and challenges of freedom into a new kind of worship, a new kind of idolatry.
Almost all of the achievements of reason and individuality, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, are sacrificed on the altars of new idols, says Fromm.
"All human beings," he wrote, "whatever their position in society, are suffering from the process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egos, they feel insecure, lonely and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society."
There is a lot for me to think on in that, because I believe in reflects my own life, even if I was rarely conscious of it.
Man is afraid of freedom, writes Fromm, so he built new and sometimes evil systems to replace it.
These new systems of the 20th century, all enemies of freedom, even responses to it, were built on shameless and even flagrant lies, both with regard to the programs and their goals and to their leaders. In their speeches and promises, their leaders claimed to practice a kind of Socialism – great jobs for everyone, wonderful health care and opportunity, the purging of outsiders – when what they were really doing was the destruction of everything that is part of the socialist or democratic tradition.
Mussolini, a cowardly braggart, presented himself as a symbol of manliness and courage. Hitler, an evil prophet of doom, was universally praised as the builder of a prosperous and powerful new state. Stalin a cold-blood, murderous schemer, called himself the loving father of his people.
So there is this pattern in the world, writes Fromm, of working people embracing their very own exploitation and destruction, because freedom by its very nature is insecure and unpredictable and vulnerable.
These countries are different from ours, according to the historians. Those countries were weak and powerless, with no real history or commitment to freedom. Those peoples never had the chance to commit themselves to the challenges and responsibilities of freedom, which we are struggling with here.
When people escape from the challenge of freedom, writes Fromm, it is because the individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence on society. But he does not accept this dependence, or see it as a positive thing, as a natural tie, or as a protective force. Rather, he he sees society as a natural threat to his rights, or even to his economic existence and well being.
Freedom them becomes an enemy, not a sacred goal.
I think my responsibility as a citizen is to practice my values, rather than argue them. To devote myself in some measure to society. I need to know history and remember its lessons, without becoming a prisoner of them. I need to be aware of what is happening around me, but not submit myself to the tyranny of continuous and disturbing news.
Fromm argues that as long as the individual has adjusted to his society, he is a sane and healthy citizen. The creators of democracy had a concept of man who was essentially spiritual and religious. Moral men.
Man, wrote Fromm, is the end, and must never be used as the means. The aim of life is the liberation and unfolding of our creative powers. The aim of government is justice and truth, not the pursuit of wealth and power.