The Human Situation - Human Nature and Character

Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics - Erich Fromm 2013

The Human Situation
Human Nature and Character

That I am a man,

this I share with other men.

That I see and hear and

that I eat and drink

is what all animals do likewise.

But that I am I is only mine

and belongs to me

and to nobody else;

to no other man

not to an angel not to God—

except inasmuch

as I am one with Him.

Master Eckhart, Fragments

One individual represents the human race. He is one specific example of the human species. He is “he” and he is “all”; he is an individual with his peculiarities and in this sense unique, and at the same time he is representative of all characteristics of the human race. His individual personality is determined by the peculiarities of human existence common to all men. Hence the discussion of the human situation must precede that of personality.

a. Man’s Biological Weakness

The first element which differentiates human from animal existence is a negative one: the relative absence in man of instinctive regulation in the process of adaptation to the surrounding world. The mode of adaptation of the animal to its world remains the same throughout; if its instinctual equipment is no longer fit to cope successfully with a changing environment the species will die out. The animal can adapt itself to changing conditions by changing itself—autoplastically; not by changing its environment—alloplastically. In this fashion it lives harmoniously, not in the sense of absence of struggle but in the sense that its inherited equipment makes it a fixed and unchanging part of its world; it either fits in or dies out.

The less complete and fixed the instinctual equipment of animals, the more developed is the brain and therefore the ability to learn. The emergence of man can be defined as occurring at the point in the process of evolution where instinctive adaptation has reached its minimum. But he emerges with new qualities which differentiate him from the animal: his awareness of himself as a separate entity, his ability to remember the past, to visualize the future, and to denote objects and acts by symbols; his reason to conceive and understand the world; and his imagination through which he reaches far beyond the range of his senses. Man is the most helpless of all animals, but this very biological weakness is the basis for his strength, the prime cause for the development of his specifically human qualities.

b. The Existential and the Historical Dichotomies in Man

Self-awareness, reason, and imagination have disrupted the “harmony” which characterizes animal existence. Their emergence has made man into an anomaly, into the freak of the universe. He is part of nature, subject to her physical laws and unable to change them, yet he transcends the rest of nature. He is set apart while being a part; he is homeless, yet chained to the home he shares with all creatures. Cast into this world at an accidental place and time, he is forced out of it, again accidentally. Being aware of himself, he realizes his powerlessness and the limitations of his existence. He visualizes his own end: death. Never is he free from the dichotomy of his existence: he cannot rid himself of his mind, even if he should want to; he cannot rid himself of his body as long as he is alive—and his body makes him want to be alive.

Reason, man’s blessing, is also his curse; it forces him to cope everlastingly with the task of solving an insoluble dichotomy. Human existence is different in this respect from that of all other organisms; it is in a state of constant and unavoidable disequilibrium. Man’s life cannot “be lived” by repeating the pattern of his species; he must live. Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can be discontented, that can feel evicted from paradise. Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape. He cannot go back to the prehuman state of harmony with nature; he must proceed to develop his reason until he becomes the master of nature, and of himself.

The emergence of reason has created a dichotomy within man which forces him to strive everlastingly for new solutions. The dynamism of his history is intrinsic to the existence of reason which causes him to develop and, through it, to create a world of his own in which he can feel at home with himself and his fellow men. Every stage he reaches leaves him discontented and perplexed, and this very perplexity urges him to move toward new solutions. There is no innate “drive for progress” in man; it is the contradiction in his existence that makes him proceed on the way he set out. Having lost paradise, the unity with nature, he has become the eternal wanderer (Odysseus, Oedipus, Abraham, Faust); he is impelled to go forward and with everlasting effort to make the unknown known by filling in with answers the blank spaces of his knowledge. He must give account to himself of himself, and of the meaning of his existence. He is driven to overcome this inner split, tormented by a craving for “absoluteness,” for another kind of harmony which can lift the curse by which he was separated from nature, from his fellow men, and from himself.

This split in man’s nature leads to dichotomies which I call existential25 because they are rooted in the very existence of man; they are contradictions which man cannot annul but to which he can react in various ways, relative to his character and his culture.

The most fundamental existential dichotomy is that between life and death. The fact that we have to die is unalterable for man. Man is aware of this fact, and this very awareness profoundly influences his life. But death remains the very opposite of life and is extraneous to, and incompatible with, the experience of living. All knowledge about death does not alter the fact that death is not a meaningful part of life and that there is nothing for us to do but to accept the fact of death; hence, as far as our life is concerned, defeat. “All that man has will he give for his life” and “the wise man,” as Spinoza says, “thinks not of death but of life.” Man has tried to negate this dichotomy by ideologies, e.g., the Christian concept of immortality, which, by postulating an immortal soul, denies the tragic fact that man’s life ends with death.

That man is mortal results in another dichotomy: while every human being is the bearer of all human potentialities, the short span of his life does not permit their full realization under even the most favorable circumstances. Only if the life span of the individual were identical with that of mankind could he participate in the human development which occurs in the historical process. Man’s life, beginning and ending at one accidental point in the evolutionary process of the race, conflicts tragically with the individual’s claim for the realization of all of his potentialities. Of this contradiction between what he could realize and what he actually does realize he has, at least, a dim perception. Here, too, ideologies tend to reconcile or deny the contradiction by assuming that the fulfillment of life takes place after death, or that one’s own historical period is the final and crowning achievement of mankind. Still another maintains that the meaning of life is not to be found in its fullest unfolding but in social service and social duties; that the development, freedom, and happiness of the individual is subordinate to or even irrelevant in comparison with the welfare of the state, the community, or whatever else may symbolize eternal power, transcending the individual.

Man is alone and he is related at the same time. He is alone inasmuch as he is a unique entity, not identical with anyone else, and aware of his self as a separate entity. He must be alone when he has to judge or to make decisions solely by the power of his reason. And yet he cannot bear to be alone, to be unrelated to his fellow men. His happiness depends on the solidarity he feels with his fellow men, with past and future generations.

Radically different from existential dichotomies are the many historical contradictions in individual and social life which are not a necessary part of human existence but are man made and soluble, soluble either at the time they occur or at a later period of human history. The contemporary contradiction between an abundance of technical means for material satisfaction and the incapacity to use them exclusively for peace and the welfare of the people is soluble; it is not a necessary contradiction but one due to man’s lack of courage and wisdom. The institution of slavery in ancient Greece may be an example of a relatively insoluble contradiction, the solution of which could be achieved only at a later period of history when the material basis for the equality of man was established.

The distinction between existential and historical dichotomies is significant because their confusion has far-reaching implications. Those who were interested in upholding the historical contradictions were eager to prove that they were existential dichotomies and thus unalterable. They tried to convince man that “what must not be cannot be” and that he had to resign himself to the acceptance of his tragic fate. But this attempt to confuse these two types of contradictions was not sufficient to keep man from trying to solve them. It is one of the peculiar qualities of the human mind that, when confronted with a contradiction, it cannot remain passive. It is set in motion with the aim of resolving the contradiction. All human progress is due to this fact. If man is to be prevented from reacting to his awareness of contradictions by action, the very existence of these contradictions must be denied. To harmonize, and thus negate contradictions is the function of rationalizations in individual life and of ideologies (socially patterned rationalizations) in social life. However, if man’s mind could be satisfied only by rational answers, by the truth, these ideologies would remain ineffective. But it is also one of his peculiarities to accept as truth the thoughts shared by most of the members of his culture or postulated by powerful authorities. If the harmonizing ideologies are supported by consensus or authority, man’s mind is appeased although he himself is not entirely set at rest.

Man can react to historical contradictions by annulling them through his own action; but he cannot annul existential dichotomies, although he can react to them in different ways. He can appease his mind by soothing and harmonizing ideologies. He can try to escape from his inner restlessness by ceaseless activity in pleasure or business. He can try to abrogate his freedom and to turn himself into an instrument of powers outside himself, submerging his self in them. But he remains dissatisfied, anxious, and restless. There is only one solution to his problem: to face the truth, to acknowledge his fundamental aloneness and solitude in a universe indifferent to his fate, to recognize that there is no power transcending him which can solve his problem for him. Man must accept the responsibility for himself and the fact that only by using his own powers can he give meaning to his life. But meaning does not imply certainty; indeed, the quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. If he faces the truth without panic he will recognize that there is no meaning to life except the meaning man gives his life by the unfolding of his powers, by living productively; and that only constant vigilance, activity, and effort can keep us from failing in the one task that matters—the full development of our powers within the limitations set by the laws of our existence. Man will never cease to be perplexed, to wonder, and to raise new questions. Only if he recognizes the human situation, the dichotomies inherent in his existence and his capacity to unfold his powers, will he be able to succeed in his task: to be himself and for himself and to achieve happiness by the full realization of those faculties which are peculiarly his—of reason, love, and productive work.

After having discussed the existential dichotomies inherent in man’s existence we can return to the statement made in the beginning of this chapter that the discussion of the human situation must precede that of personality. The more precise meaning of this statement can be made apparent by stating that psychology must be based on an anthropological-philosophical concept of human existence.

The most striking feature in human behavior is the tremendous intensity of passions and strivings which man displays. Freud more than anyone else recognized this fact and attempted to explain it in terms of the mechanistic naturalistic thinking of his time. He assumed that those passions which were not the obvious expressions of the instinct of self-preservation and of the sexual instinct (or as he formulated it later of Eros and the Death instinct) were nevertheless only more indirect and complicated manifestations of these instinctual-biological drives. But brilliant as his assumptions were they are not convincing in their denial of the fact that a large part of man’s passionate strivings cannot be explained by the force of his instincts. Even if man’s hunger and thirst and his sexual strivings are completely satisfied “he” is not satisfied. In contrast to the animal his most compelling problems are not solved then, they only begin. He strives for power, or for love, or for destruction, he risks his life for religious, for political, for humanistic ideals, and these strivings are what constitutes and characterizes the peculiarity of human life. Indeed, “man does not live by bread alone.”

In contrast to Freud’s mechanistic-naturalistic explanation this statement has been interpreted to mean that man has an intrinsic religious need which cannot be explained by his natural existence but must be explained by something transcending him and which is derived from supernatural powers. However, the latter assumption is unnecessary since the phenomenon can be explained by the full understanding of the human situation.

The disharmony of man’s existence generates needs which far transcend those of his animal origin. These needs result in an imperative drive to restore a unity and equilibrium between himself and the rest of nature. He makes the attempt to restore this unity and equilibrium in the first place in thought by constructing an all-inclusive mental picture of the world which serves as a frame of reference from which he can derive an answer to the question of where he stands and what he ought to do. But such thought systems are not sufficient. If man were only a disembodied intellect his aim would be achieved by a comprehensive thought-system. But since he is an entity endowed with a body as well as a mind he has to react to the dichotomy of his existence not only in thinking but also in the process of living, in his feelings and actions. He has to strive for the experience of unity and oneness in all spheres of his being in order to find a new equilibrium. Hence any satisfying system of orientation implies not only intellectual elements but elements of feeling and sense to be realized in action in all fields of human endeavor. Devotion to an aim, or an idea, or a power transcending man such as God, is an expression of this need for completeness in the process of living.

The answers given to man’s need for an orientation and for devotion differ widely both in content and in form. There are primitive systems such as animism and totemism in which natural objects or ancestors represent answers to man’s quest for meaning. There are non-theistic systems like Buddhism, which are usually called religious although in their original form there is no concept of God. There are philosophical systems, like Stoicism, and there are the monotheistic religious systems which give an answer to man’s quest for meaning in reference to the concept of God. In discussing these various systems, we are hampered by a terminological difficulty. We could call them all religious systems were it not for the fact that for historical reasons the word “religious” is identified with a theistic system, a system centered around God, and we simply do not have a word in our language to denote that which is common to both theistic and non-theistic systems—that is, to all systems of thought which try to give an answer to the human quest for meaning and to man’s attempt to make sense of his own existence. For lack of a better word I therefore call such systems “frames of orientation and devotion.”

The point, however, I wish to emphasize is that there are many other strivings which are looked upon as entirely secular which are nevertheless rooted in the same need from which religious and philosophical systems spring. Let us consider what we observe in our time: We see in our own culture millions of people devoted to the attainment of success and prestige. We have seen and still see in other cultures fanatical devotion of adherents to dictatorial systems of conquest and domination. We are amazed at the intensity of those passions which is often stronger than even the drive for self-preservation. We are easily deceived by the secular contents of these aims and explain them as outcomes of sexual or other quasi—biological strivings. But is it not apparent that the intensity and fanaticism with which these secular aims are pursued is the same as we find in religions; that all these secular systems of orientation and devotion differ in content but not in the basic need to which they attempt to offer answers? In our culture the picture is so particularly deceptive because most people “believe” in monotheism while their actual devotion belongs to systems which are, indeed, much closer to totemism and worship of idols than to any form of Christianity.

But we must go one step further. The understanding of the “religious” nature of these culturally patterned secular strivings is the key to the understanding of neuroses and irrational strivings. We have to consider the latter as answers—individual answers—to man’s quest for orientation and devotion. A person whose experience is determined by “his fixation to his family,” who is incapable of acting independently is in fact a worshiper of a primitive ancestor cult, and the only difference between him and millions of ancestor worshipers is that his system is private and not culturally patterned. Freud recognized the connection between religion and neurosis and explained religion as a form of neurosis, while we arrive at the conclusion that a neurosis is to be explained as a particular form of religion differing mainly by its individual, non-patterned characteristics. The conclusion to which we are led with regard to the general problem of human motivation is that while the need for a system of orientation and devotion is common to all men, the particular contents of the systems which satisfy this need differ. These differences are differences in value; the mature, productive, rational person will choose a system which permits him to be mature, productive and rational. The person who has been blocked in his development must revert to primitive and irrational systems which in turn prolong and increase his dependence and irrationality. He will remain on the level which mankind in its best representatives has already overcome thousands of years ago.

Because the need for a system of orientation and devotion is an intrinsic part of human existence we can understand the intensity of this need. Indeed, there is no other more powerful source of energy in man. Man is not free to choose between having or not having “ideals,” but he is free to choose between different kinds of ideals, between being devoted to the worship of power and destruction and being devoted to reason and love. All men are “idealists” and are striving for something beyond the attainment of physical satisfaction. They differ in the kinds of ideals they believe in. The very best but also the most satanic manifestations of man’s mind are expressions not of his flesh but of this “idealism,” of his spirit. Therefore a relativistic view which claims that to have some ideal or some religious feeling is valuable in itself is dangerous and erroneous. We must understand every ideal including those which appear in secular ideologies as expressions of the same human need and we must judge them with respect to their truth, to the extent to which they are conducive to the unfolding of man’s powers and to the degree to which they are a real answer to man’s need for equilibrium and harmony in his world. We repeat then that the understanding of human motivation must proceed from the understanding of the human situation.