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Erich Fromm was born in 1900 in Frankfurt. His father was a businessman and, according to Erich, very moody, which of course may have played a role in Erich's life. His mother was frequently depressed. Again, perhaps a hint of coming attractions as far as Fromm's significant accomplishments.
Like Jung, Erich came from a very religious family, in his case orthodox Jewish. Fromm himself later transformed himself into what he termed an atheistic mystic.
In his autobiography, Fromm talks about two occurrences in his early years that propelled him along his now famous path. The first involved a friend of the family's:
"Maybe she was 25 years of age; she was beautiful, attractive, and in addition a painter, the first painter I ever knew. I remember having heard that she had been engaged but after some time had broken the engagement; I remember that she was almost invariably in the company of her widowed father. As I remember him, he was an old, uninteresting, and rather unattractive man, or so I thought (maybe my judgment was somewhat biased by jealousy). Then one day I heard the shocking news: her father had died, and immediately afterwards, she had killed herself and left a will which stipulated that she wanted to be buried with her father." (Beyond the Chains of Illusion, p. 4)
As one can readily imagine, this event hit the 12-year-old Erich Fromm hard, and he found himself asking what many of us might ask: why? Later, as we know, he began finding some answers in Freud. (www.marxists.org)
The second occurrence was even of greater magnitude: World War I. At the tender age of 14, he saw the extremes that xenophobia could go to. All around him, he heard the message: The Germans are the master race; The English and their allies are cheap mercenaries. This time period truly frightened Erich Fromm, which again was a turning point for him in his work. (www.popcultures.com)
So again he wanted to understand something that appeared to him as irrational -- the irrationality of mass behavior -- and he found some answers, this time in the writings of the legendary Karl Marx.
To finish Fromm's story, he received his PhD from Heidelberg University in 1922 and began a career as a psychotherapist. He moved to the U.S. In 1934 -- a popular time for leaving Germany as we know -- and settled in New York City, where he met many of the other great refugee thinkers of the time who had gathered there, including Karen Horney, with whom he had a well-established affair. (www.harpercollins.com)
Toward the end of his career, he moved to Mexico City in Mexico to teach. He had done considerable research into the relationship between economic class and personality types there and published much. He died in 1980 in Switzerland.
As his biography above suggests, Fromm's theory is a rather unique amalgamation of Freud and Marx. Freud, as we know, emphasized the unconscious, biological drives, along with repression, with a particular focus on dreams. In other words, Freud postulated that our personalities were determined by biology and chemistry. Marx, on the other hand, saw people as determined by their society, and most especially by their socio-economic systems and stratifications.
He added to this confluence of two deterministic systems something quite different and uniqueto them: The concept of freedom. He allows people to transcend the determinisms that Freud and Marx attribute to them. In fact, Fromm makes freedom the central characteristic of human nature, and in this he was unique as a thinker.
A good analogy of socioeconomic determinism, as Marx's theory, is the traditional society of the Middle Ages. People in the Middle Ages needed no counseling; They had fate, the Great Chain of Being, to tell them what to do. Basically, if your father was a peasant, you'd be a peasant. If your father was a king, that's what you'd become. And if you were a woman, there was only one role for women.
Today, we might look at life in the Middle Ages, or life as an animal, and cringe. But the fact remains that the lack of choice represented by biological or social determinism is easy. One's life has structure, meaning, there are no doubts, no cause for soul-searching, and one fits in and never suffers an identity crisis.
Fromm describes three ways in which we escape from freedom:
Authoritarianism. One seeks to escape freedom by fusing oneself with others, by becoming a part of an authoritarian system like in the Middle Ages. There are two methods to approach this. One is to submit to the power of others, becoming passive, reactive and compliant. The other is to become an authority yourself, a person who forces structure on others. Either way, one escapes one's separate identity, according to Fromm.
Fromm referred to the extreme versions of authoritarianism as masochism and sadism, and points out that both feel obligated to play their separate roles, so that even the sadist, with all his apparent power over the masochist, is not free to choose his actions. But less restrictive types of authoritarianism are everywhere.
2. Destructiveness. Authoritarians respond to a painful existence by, in a sense, erasing themselves: If there is no me, how can anything hurt me? But others respond to pain by striking out vehemently against the world: If I destroy the world, how can it hurt me? It is this escape from freedom that accounts for much of the indiscriminate horrors of life, according to Fromm.
Fromm adds that, if a person's desire to destroy is blocked by exigent circumstances, he or she may redirect it inward. The most obvious kind of self-destructiveness is, of course, suicide. But we can also include many illnesses like drug addiction and alcoholism. He turns Freud's death instinct upside down: Self-destructiveness is frustrated destructiveness, not the other way around.
3. Automaton conformity. Authoritarians escape by hiding within an authoritarian hierarchy of sorts. There is less hierarchy to hide in (though plenty remains for anyone who desires it, and some who do not). When we need to hide, we actually hide in our mass culture instead.
The person who uses automaton conformity is akin to a social chameleon: He takes on the exact coloring of his surroundings. Since he looks like a million other individuals, he no longer feels alone. He is not alone, perhaps, but he is not himself either. The automaton conformist experiences a split between his genuine feelings and the colors he shows the world.
In fact, since humanity's "true nature" gravitates towards freedom, any of these escapes from freedom alienates us from ourselves. According to Fromm:
"Man is born as a freak of nature, being within nature and yet transcending it. He has to find principles of action and decision making which replace the principles of instincts. he has to have a frame of orientation which permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world as a condition for consistent actions. He has to fight not only against the dangers of dying, starving, and being hurt, but also against another anger which is specifically human: that of becoming insane. In other words, he has to protect himself not only against the danger of losing his life but also against the danger of losing his mind." (Fromm, 1968, p. 61)
Fromm here is discussing "true" personal freedom, rather than just political freedom (often called liberty): Most of us, whether they are free or not, tend to fixate on the idea of political freedom, because it means that we can do what we want.
When one chooses an escape from freedom, it links back to his family history, according to Frommm.
1. Symbiotic families. Symbiosis is the relationship two organisms have that cannot…[continue]
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