Reflections on Freedom and Virtue
October 23, 2016
Dear Readers, Whoever You May Be:
Call it a regression, but I’ve fallen into reading Iris Murdoch, new to me, and also Erich Fromm, not so new. I don’t think I have looked at one of his books since the 1970s. I used to think, as Henry Miller wrote in his novel, “The Air Conditioned Nightmare,” that freedom and health were the most important things to us. After reading Murdoch, however, I’m thinking in terms of freedom and virtue. The latter is an immense topic I shall pursue some other day.
Meanwhile, on to freedom. Fromm’s thesis, in Escape from Freedom, surrounds the emergence of individuality, as a phenomenon, toward the end of the 18th century. Before then, persons defined themselves in terms of their kingdom, their family, their occupation, etc. If you were born the son of a carpenter, for example, you never doubted you would learn the same trade as you matured. After the Enlightenment, and partially a result of the French revolution, persons experienced a freedom arguably unknown in prior human history. Women could work, for one (although that was, and remains, slow in coming). Men could decide to do something other than their fathers. Fromm argues that, although we strived for and heralded such freedom, it also left us with more alienation than we could tolerate. We have a propensity, then, to escape from freedom, to comply, to allow the culture, what some philosophers call the Big Other, to dictate who we are, how we behave, etc.
“In the course of modern history, the authority of the Church has been replaced by that of the State, that of the State by that of the conscience, and in our era [he wrote this in 1941], the latter has been replaced by the anonymous authority of common sense and public opinion as instruments of conformity” (p. 252).
In an effort to avoid conforming in this mindless way, a way Fromm believes renders us automatons, I do everything I can to avoid buying in to contemporary culture. I shop in individually owned stores as much as possible. Sadly, it is becoming more difficult than ever to do so. You can still find markets, for example, and definitely non-Starbucks coffee houses. But none of us can buy airplane tickets, say, from anything but a multi-national corporation. And these corporations actually create many of the items we purchase even from locally-owned stores.
As far as avoiding conformity goes, I advise awareness of the Big Brother that Orwell warned us about and which has become an tangible reality. Consider the media. I remember when CNN showed real news stories; now it’s all hype intended to frighten us into keeping watching so we pay attention to the commercials and buy things they say will make us feel better and safer. Have you noticed how commercials actually make you feel badly about yourself? Try it out. I feel it almost every time I watch one, and then wonder what I must buy or do to feel better. Even more dramatic, consider Google. WE are their PRODUCT! Do you see what I mean? They study our habits, from romantic to pragmatic, and sell that information to companies to enhance their abilities to manipulate us.
Fromm refers to the loss of identity as a price of freedom. He believes the identity can be reclaimed by self-exploration, integration of dissociated parts of the personality, and finding our authentic wishes, needs, and desires. (These include, but again I will discuss at some later point, the wish to give back, to help others, etc.) Fromm emphasizes how such wavering of self-awareness, such identity diffusion, creates greater motivation to conform, writing:
“This loss of identity then makes it still more imperative to conform; it means that one can be sure of oneself only if one lives up to the expectations of others. If we do not live up to this picture we not only risk disapproval and increased isolation, but we risk losing the identity of our personality, which means jeopardizing sanity” (p. 253).
How pathetic that fears for our actual sanity drive us to buy Nike shoes, to drink Starbucks coffee, and to shop at Von’s or Whole Foods markets. It’s a bitch to find yourself. The Greek poet Pindar advised persons to “become who you are.” Notice how the US Army stole almost exactly the same phrase with their, “be all that you can be.” The Army’s advice has a shaming tone to it. You read it and think, “Damn, I’m not all I can be.” I hope you’ll be more taken by Pindar’s non-shaming wisdom to find yourself, be who you are. Meanwhile, beware of the mind control more widespread than at any time in human history.
Fromm, E. (1965). Escape from freedom. New York: Holt.
Murdoch, I. (1997). Existentialists and mystics. New York: Penguin.
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