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Erich Fromm : Escape from Freedom

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Erich Fromm in 1975 reading "Let Man Prevail"

(Photo by Rene Burri / Magnum)

Extracts from :

Erich Fromm

Escape from Freedom



"Behind a front of satisfaction and optimism modern man is deeply unhappy ; as a matter of fact, he is on the verge of desperation. He desperately clings to the notion of individuality; he wants to be "different", and he has no greater recommendation of anything than that "it is different".

We are informed of the individual name of the railroad clerk we buy our tickets from; handbags, playing cards, and portable radios are "personalized", by having the initials of the owner put on them. All this indicates the hunger for "difference" and yet these are almost the last vestiges of individuality that are left. Modern man is starved for life.

But since, being an automaton, he cannot experience life in the sense of spontaneous activity he takes as surrogate any kind of excitement and thrill: the thrill of drinking, of sports, of vicariously living the excitements of fictitious personson the screen. What then is the meaning of freedom for modern man ? He has become free from the external bonds that would prevent him from doing and thinking as he sees fit. He would be free to act according to his own will, if he knew what he wanted, thought, and felt. But he does not know. He conforms to anonymous authorities and adopts a self which is not his. The more he does this, the more powerless he feels, the more is he forced to conform.

In spite of a veneer of optimism and initiative, modern man is overcome by a profound feeling of powerlessness which makes him gaze towards approaching catastrophes as though he were paralysed. Looked at superficially, people appear to function well enough in economic and social life; yet it would be dangerous to overlook the deep­seated unhappiness behind that comforting veneer. If life loses its meaning because it is not lived, man becomes desperate. People do not die quietly from physical starvation; they do not die quietly from psychic starvation either.


Does our analysis lend itself to the conclusion that there is an inevitable circle that

leads from freedom into new dependence ? Does freedom from all primary ties make

the individual so alone and isolated that inevitably he must escape into new bondage ?

Are independence and freedom identical with isolation and fear ? Or is there a state of

positive freedom in which the individual exists as an independent self and yet is not

isolated but united with the world, with other men, and nature ?

We believe that there is a positive answer, that the process of growing freedom does

not constitute a vicious circle, and that man can be free and yet not alone, critical and

yet not filled with doubts, independent and yet an integral part of mankind. This

freedom man can attain by the realization of his self, by being himself.

What is realization of the self ? Idealistic philosophers have believed that self­-realization can be achieved by intellectual insight alone. They have insisted upon splitting human personality, so that man's nature may be suppressed and guarded by his reason. The result of this split, however, has been that not only the emotional life of man but also his intellectual faculties have been crippled. Reason, by becoming a guard set to watch its prisoner, nature, has become a prisoner itself ; and thus both sides of human personality, reason and emotion, were crippled.

We believe that the realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man's total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.

We approach here one of the most difficult problems of psychology: the problem of

spontaneity. Spontaneous activity is free activity of the self and implies, psychologically, what the Latin root of the word, sponte, means literally: of one's free will. By activity we do not mean "doing something", but the quality of creative activity that can operate in one's emotional, intellectual, and sensuous experiences and in one's will as well.

One premise for this spontaneity is the acceptance of the total personality and the elimination of the split between "reason" and "nature"; for only if man does not repress essential parts of his self, only if he has become transparent to himself, and only if the different spheres of life have reached a fundamental integration, is spontaneous activity possible.


Small children offer another instance of spontaneity. They have an ability to feel and

think that which is really theirs; this spontaneity shows in what they say and think, in the feelings that are expressed in their faces. If one asks what makes for the attraction small children have for most people I believe that, apart from sentimental and conventional reasons, the answer must be that it is this very quality of spontaneity. It appeals profoundly to everyone who is not so dead himself that he has lost the ability to perceive it.

As a matter of fact, there is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession. Most of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or the welling up of love for another person­ in these moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.

In all spontaneous activity the individual embraces the world. Not only does his

individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified. Only those

qualities that result from our spontaneous activity give strength to the self and

thereby form the basis of its integrity. The inability to act spontaneously, to express

what one genuinely feels and thinks, and the resulting necessity to present a pseudo

self to others and oneself, are the root of the feeling of inferiority and weakness.

Whether or not we are aware of it, there is nothing of which we are more ashamed

than of not being ourselves, and there is nothing that gives us greater pride and

happiness than to think, to feel, and to say what is ours.


Positive freedom as the realization of the self implies the full affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual. Men are born equal but they are also born different. The growth of the basis of the self is blocked and a pseudo self is superimposed upon this

self which is­­as we have seen­­essentially the incorporation of extraneous patterns of

thinking and feeling. Organic growth is possible only under the condition of supreme respect for the peculiarity of the self of other persons as well as of our own self. This respect for and cultivation of the uniqueness of the self is the most valuable achievement of human


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