Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
BY MARIA POPOVA
“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die.”
“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure,” Schopenhauer wrote in examining the relationship between genius and insanity, “disposes to madness.” But could what is true of the individual also be true of society — could it be that the more so-called progress polishes our collective pride and the more intellectually advanced human civilization becomes, the more it risks madness? And, if so, what is the proper corrective to restore our collective sanity?
Fifteen years after his inquiry into why totalitarian regimes rise in Escape from Freedom, Fromm examines the promise and foibles of modern democracy, focusing on its central pitfall of alienation and the means to attaining its full potential — the idea that “progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres.”
Two decades before his elegant case for setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture, Fromm weighs the validity of our core assumption about our collective state:
Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of mental illness produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our mental health. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our mental health, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane.
Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.
Fromm notes that while modernity has increased the material wealth and comfort of the human race, it has also wrought major wars that killed millions, during which “every participant firmly believed that he was fighting in his self-defense, for his honor, or that he was backed up by God.” In a sentiment of chilling pertinence today, after more than half a century of alleged progress has drowned us in mind-numbing commercial media and left us to helplessly watch military budgets swell at the expense of funding for the arts and humanities, Fromm writes:
We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen. Any suggestion that the government should finance the production of movies and radio programs which would enlighten and improve the minds of our people would be met again with indignation and accusations in the name of freedom and idealism.
Less than a decade after the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his beautiful case for why leisure is the basis of culture, Fromm adds:
We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over… Society as a whole may be lacking in sanity.
Fromm points out that we can only speak of a “sane” society if we acknowledge that a society can be not sane, which in turn requires a departure from previous theories of sociological relativism postulating that “each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.” Instead, Fromm proposes a model of normative humanism — a redemptive notion that relieves some of our self-blame for feeling like we are going crazy, by acknowledging that society itself, when bedeviled by certain pathologies, can be crazy-making for the individual…