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"Alienation as a Disease of Modern Man", by Erich Fromm

Dernière mise à jour : 6 mai 2023

Erich Fromm

On being human


Alienation as a Disease of Modern Man

I would now like to discuss somewhat more thoroughly what, in my opinion, is at the crux of this malaise, of this mal du siècle. The disease from which modern man suffers is alienation. The concept of alienation had sunken into oblivion for decades, but it has lately become popular again. Hegel and Marx once used it, and one could rightly say that the philosophy of existentialism is essentially a rebellion against man’s growing alienation in modern society.

What, exactly, is alienation ?

Within our Western tradition, what is meant by alienation has already played a large role — albeit not as the concept “alienation” but rather as the concept “idolatry,” in the sense employed by the prophets. Many people naively assume that the difference between so-called idolatry and the monotheistic belief in one true god is merely a numerical matter: The pagans had many gods, while the monotheists believed in only one.

This, however, is not the essential difference. According to the prophets of the Old Testament, the essential point is that the idolator is a person who prays to the product of his own hands. He takes a piece of wood. With one part, he buds himself a fire in order, for example, to bake a cake; with the other part of the wood, he carves a figure in order to pray to it. Yet what he prays to are merely things. These “things” have a nose and do not smell, they have ears and do not hear, and they have a mouth and do not speak.

What occurs in idolatry ?

If one understands idolatry as prophetic thought does, then what occurs is precisely what Freud called transference. In my view, transference, as we know it in psychoanalysis, is a manifestation of idolatry: A person transfers his own activities or all of what he experiences — of his power of love, of his power of thought — onto an object outside himself. The object can be a person, or a thing made of wood or of stone. As soon as a person has set up this transferential relatedness, he enters into relation with himself only by submitting to the object onto which he has transferred his own human functions. Thus, to love (in an alienated, idolatrous way) means: I love only when I submit myself to the idol onto which I have transferred all my capacity for love. Or: I am good only when I submit myself to the idol onto which I have transferred my being good.

This is the case with wisdom, strength — indeed, with all human characteristics. The more powerful an idol becomes — that is, the more I transfer on it — the poorer I become and the more I am dependent on it, since I am lost if I lose that onto which I have transferred everything that I have.

In psychoanalysis, transference is not essentially different from this. Of course, psychoanalysis is usually concerned with paternal and maternal transferences, because a child sees in its father and mother those persons onto whom it transfers its own experiences.

What is essential, however, is not the fact that the child transfers onto his father and mother, but rather the phenomenon of the transference itself — whereby the immature person is searching for an idol. If the person has found an idol to whom or to which he can pray during his entire life, then he need not despair. This is one of the reasons why, in my view, many people so enjoy going to an analyst and never want to leave, and why entire societies choose for themselves so-called leaders who are just as hollow and sent as the idols of antiquity, yet who exhort people to transference in order to bind those people to themselves.

Of course, neither Baal nor Astarte exists in modern society. And because we commonly confuse names with things, we are only too happily convinced that things do not exist if their names no longer turn up. In reality, however, we today live in a society that, in comparison to that of earlier centuries, is much more pagan and much more idolatrous.

For Hegel and Marx, “alienation” means that a person has lost himself and has ceased to perceive himself as the center of his activity. A person has much and uses much, but he is little: “The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life — and the greater is the saving of your alienated being.” A person is not only little, he is nothing, because he is dominated by the things and circumstances that he himself has created. He is the magician’s apprentice, Golem. Modern man is controlled by the products of his own hands. He himself becomes a thing. He is nothing, yet he feels big when he feels at one with the state, with production, with the company.

Modern man is constituted by the things that he creates. To illustrate this with an everyday observation: When one sees in person someone whom one knows only from television, one says, “He looks just like he does on television!” Reality is the TV picture; and the correctness of one’s perception of how that person really looks is measured against that reality. If he looks like he does on television, then the perception of reality is true. Reality lies in the thing outside, and the real person is only a shadow of this reality.

Modern man’s perception of reality is fundamentally different from that of the people in the [Hans Christian Andersen] fairy tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In reality, the emperor is naked, but everyone except the little boy believes he sees the wonderful garments. Everyone is convinced from the beginning that the emperor must have wonderful garments (so he denies his own perception-seeing the emperor naked-and maintains a false image of the emperor).

This phenomenon, of seeing the emperor’s garments although he is naked, has existed for many millennia. This is how even the stupidest people were able to become regents. They proclaimed their belief that they were wise-and it was, for their people, usually already too late by the time the ruler had to prove his wisdom. In the fairy tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor still exists. The issue is only that he is in reality naked, although people believe that he is wearing clothes. Today, though, the emperor is no longer present! Today, man is real only insofar as he is standing somewhere outside. He is constituted only through things, through property, through his social role, through his “persona”; as a living person, however, he is not real.

Atomic weapons are an extremely dramatic and horrible symbol of what alienation is. They are the product of man. They are indeed an expression of his greatest intellectual achievements, yet they control us. And it has become very questionable whether we will ever control them. We living people who want to live are becoming powerless, although we are, seemingly, omnipotent humans. We believe that we control, yet we are being controlled — not by a tyrant, but by things, by circumstances. We have become humans without will or aim. We talk of progress and of the future, although in reality no one knows where he is going, and no one says where things are going to, and no one has a goal.

In the nineteenth century, one could say : “God is dead.” In the twentieth, one must say that man is dead. Today, this adage rings true: “Man is dead, long live the thing !” Perhaps there is no more ghastly example of this new inhumanity than the presently planned idea for a neutron bomb. What will a neutron weapon do ? It will destroy everything that lives and will leave everything that does not live — things, houses, streets — intact …"

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