Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm

Book cover

I heard about this book from a blog and am very glad I picked it up. It contains insights for people interested in social history as well as people interested in personal development. The main issue that Fromm grapples with is the incredible appeal of authoritarianism/fascism, methods of social organization that subordinate the individual to the collective.

Although the distinction between negative liberty (“freedom from”) and positive liberty (“freedom to”) is often ascribed to Isaiah Berlin and his lecture/essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), Fromm clearly delineates the two ideas in this book, which predates Berlin’s lecture by 17 years! After reading Fromm’s book, I went back to read Berlin’s lecture, and was surprised to find no mention at all of Fromm!

At any rate, I think Fromm gets at some very deep truths in this book. He draws a parallel between the development of an individual human and the development of human society. Each develops along both dimensions of liberty–external restrictions on the individual are gradually removed, and individual power and initiative gradually increase. If development along these two dimensions proceeded at the same rate, Fromm says, there wouldn’t be any problem. The issue is that each develops at an irregular rate, in fits and starts, as it were. This means that often, “freedom from” outpaces “freedom to”–we have more (negative) freedom than we know what to do with. This can be a very frightening situation for the individual, because it raises all kinds of existential angst. A common, yet dysfunctional, reaction is to seek out some context that submerges the individual, so as to take away this frightful responsibility. Fromm cites the rise of fascist states as an example of this, but also, the rise of Calvinism, which responded to the freeing of the individual from the church with the radical subordination of the individual to the unknowable whims of God. Reflecting on my own life, I can also see examples of the sort of fears and responses that Fromm is talking about.

When I was in college, I was on a student committee that gave a teaching award to a professor whose best-known class was on the Frankfurt School (of which Fromm was a part). Now I really wish I had taken that class!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars