Thursday, May 25, 2023


Back when I was in my last two years of college at St. Meinrad Seminary in 1964-1966, we were required to major in Philosophy. To escape that eventuality, we had to take extra courses if we wanted to graduate with a different major. I chose English Literature. I don't remember much about either that long ago, but I do remember that the philosopher Eric Fromm was "hot" at that time. I am sure I owned one of his book, but I am not sure which one. Just recently, I got a bit curious about reading him again when I read about an old work of his - Escape From Freedom. I ordered a "used copy" of this work published in1941.

Erich Fromm was born March 23, 1900 and died March 18, 1980. He was a German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist and humanistic philosopher. He was a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the U.S.

Escape From Freedom caught my eye because Eric Fromm escaped from the rise of the autocratic Nazi era when so many German people surrendered (or were forced to surrender) their freedom to an autocrat rather than endure the burdens that went with freedom when times got hard. Even though it was written 82 years ago, it sounded very prophetic at this time in American politics.

The central thesis of this book is this: if humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom and democracy, it will surely turn to authoritarianism. Once the individual faces the world outside himself as a separate entity, two courses are open to him since he has to overcome the unbearable state of powerlessness and aloneness. (1) He can be determined to grow in his ability to handle his personal freedom in a society of free people without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self. (2) The other course open to him is to escape - to fall back, to give up his freedom out of fear, unbearable anxiety and panic surrendering it to some authoritarian figure who can take over the responsibility - a cult leader or anyone who can say, "I alone can fix it!" People who choose the second option show a marked dependence on powers outside themselves, on other thought-to-be stronger people or newly evolving organizations.

Another mechanism of escape from the responsibilities of freedom is destructiveness. They feel they can escape the feelings of their own powerlessness by destroying the institutions that protect democracy and freedom. This destruction is another desperate attempt to save themselves from being crushed by the responsibilities and the riskiness of their own freedom.

A third mechanism of escape from freedom is to become an "automaton of conformity," giving up critical thinking and parroting, as one's own thinking, whatever the leader or the group tells them to think and no one else! Whether what they are told is true or not, they are relieved from the hard work of having to search for truth on their own.

This book is as timely now as it was when it was first published in 1941. Few books have thrown such light upon the forces that are shaping modern society or have penetrated so deeply into the causes of the decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarian systems. If the rise of democracy set some people free, at the same time it gave birth to a society in which the individual feels alienated and dehumanized. Can this explain why America is now divided right down the middle?

This book is not an "easy read," but it is worth the effort! Do the work if you are able. Even a little background in psychology, sociology and philosophy will most certainly help. Even though it was published in 1941, to me it is prophetic! It strikes me as true of Germany in 1941 and it strikes me as true in the United States in 2023. I just hope we can wake up before it is too late!

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