Looking back on the individuals I consider influences, it’s hard to choose someone more influential than Erich Fromm. No writer of fiction was he, but a psychologist who wrote books of social psychology. A brief summary of his works and ideas are in order.
While being at least agnostic and probably an atheist, Fromm appreciated the wisdom which arose from the world’s great religions. He was a scientist who realized that the intellect cannot provide man with the ultimate answers to his existence, that those answers were to be found through direct experience. He explained the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from The Garden Of Eden as the human experience of developing an awareness of mortality. Man, having eaten from the tree of knowledge, is now more than an animal and is thus cut off from his animal connection to nature. Permanently exiled from the Garden of Eden, he must find a new relationship to nature, allowing for his intellect and all his human qualities. This is a difficult journey, one which we are often willing to turn from, to return to a simpler state, to regress to our childish nature. But there is no turning back, and attempting to do so makes for an inability to face life on its terms, leading to neuroses and the limiting of our human powers and qualities. Life is a constant state of being born, we are constantly growing and becoming what we are to the utmost of our potentiality.
According to Fromm, Love is the only answer to the human condition of separation, the separation of man from nature as well as the separation of the child from the parent. And as each individual is confronted with the human condition, so too are societies confronting the same issues. Societies are sick or healthy to the degree that they enable the individual to grow both independently and as loving members of the society. Indeed, Fromm would claim that humans who do not learn to become individuals, to become themselves, are incapable of truly loving others. The person who is not developed loves incompletely. He sees the beloved either as he would an all-giving mother or as a possession to be owned. Neither way does he perceive the other as a human being, and so will always be deluded, never feeling comfortable in a relationship.
Fromm, who studied under Freud, describes the individual’s ability to relate to the world around him according to his growth as a person, or maturity level. If a person has not progressed beyond his relationship with his mother (i.e. a helpless child who must be nourished), he feels helpless. If he has not progressed beyond his relationship with his father (i.e. the need to accomplish in order to earn his father’s approval), he is uncaring and unable to relate to his own emotions. In a parallel manner, primitive man worshipped a mother god, one who he could not influence but did not judge him. As civilizations evolved, humanity began to worship a male god, one who set forth rules that, if obeyed, would enable the person to find favor with his deity. But the mature individual is one who does not seek to make of god an image, either male or female. To him, God is the personification of all goodness, one that can be appreciated through direct experience, but never defined by something so small as the human intellect. Thus, the ultimate revelation of religion is a nameless God, as described in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, it was a sin even to mention the name of God. Similarly, Fromm quotes Lao Tzu, who says, “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.”
With these thoughts giving a basic background to the human condition, Fromm then went on to interpret modern societies. He differed from most of those in his field who believed a healthy individual is one who is able to fit in well with the society in which he exists. Fromm believed that fitting into a society that was not healthy or sane was not a satisfactory response for a sane person. And writing as he did in the 1950’s, he found any society that accepted the possibility of nuclear war was not sane.
If anyone is interested in his works, I’d recommend The Art Of Loving as a good entry point, followed by The Sane Society. I found it difficult giving a synopsis of Erich Fromm’s ideas, so infused are my own by them. I do them scant justice in this brief summary.
I usually am greatly humbled in my attempts to further the ideas of people such as Erich Fromm, knowing that intellectually I will never be able to contribute the effort and talent they posessed. But if through my work I can shine some light upon those who have influenced me, perhaps I am doing some good. And in one respect I have something that Erich Fromm did not have—a new era upon which to apply the insights of people much more intelligent and insightful than myself. His stamp upon my writing is inescapable to anyone familiar with his work. His thoughts apply even more today than they did when they were written, an idea that is disturbing but speaks to his genius.