The Sane Society
The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.
The Sane Society (1955) by Erich Fromm is a summation of his social and political philosophy wherein he critiques and psychoanalyzes the modern industrial capitalist society and its necessarily alienated, commercialized and conformed citizenry. Rather than explaining pathologies of individuals, he analyzes the pathologies of society contributing to the sickness of individuals. He counters many of Freud’s conclusions and argues from a perspective of Marxist humanism.
1 Ch. 1: Are We Sane?
2 Ch. 2: Can A Society be Sick?—The Pathology of Normalcy
3 Ch. 3: The Human Situation
4 Ch. 4: Mental Health and Society
5 Ch. 5: Man in Capitalistic Society
6 Ch. 6: Various Other Diagnoses
7 Ch.7: Various Answers
8 Ch. 8: Roads to Sanity
9 Ch. 9: Summary — Conclusion
10 External Links
Ch. 1: Are We Sane?
We… have created a greater material wealth than any other society in the history of the human race. Yet we have managed to kill off millions of our population in an arrangement which we call “war.”
A few days after the mutual slaughter is over, the enemies of yesterday are our friends, the friends of yesterday are our enemies and again … we begin to paint them in with appropriate colors of black and white.
Ch. 2: Can A Society be Sick?—The Pathology of Normalcy
The fact that millions of people share the same mental pathology does not make these people sane.
Spinoza formulated the problem of the socially patterned defect very clearly. He says: “…greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as ‘illness.'”
Just as man transforms the world around him, he so transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were.
It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health. Just as there is a folie à deux there is a folie à millions. The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same mental pathology does not make these people sane.
Spinoza formulated the problem of the socially patterned defect very clearly. He says: “Many people are seized by one and the same affect with great consistency. All his senses are so affected by one object that he believes this object to be present even when it is not. If this happens while the person is awake, the person is believed to be insane. … but if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only has annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as ‘illness.'”
These words were written a few hundred years ago; they still hold true, although the defects have been culturally patterned to such an extent now that they are not even generally thought any more to be annoying or contemptible.
The culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill.
If he [man] lives under conditions which are contrary to his nature and to the basic requirements for human growth and sanity, he cannot help reacting; he must either deteriorate and perish, or bring about conditions which are more in accordance with his needs.
That human nature and society can have conflicting demands, and hence that a whole society can be sick, is an assumption which was made very explicitly by Freud, most extensively in his Civilization and Its Discontent.
Suppose that in our Western culture movies, radios, television, sports events and newspapers ceased to function for only four weeks. With these main avenues of escape closed, what would be the consequences for people thrown back upon their own resources? I have no doubt that even in this short time thousands of nervous breakdowns would occur, and many more thousands of people would be thrown into a state of acute anxiety, not different from the picture which is diagnosed clinically as “neurosis.” If the opiate against the socially patterned defect were withdrawn, the manifest illness would make its appearance.
Ch. 3: The Human Situation
Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.
Reason is man’s instrument for arriving at the truth, intelligence is man’s instrument for manipulating the world more successfully; the former is essentially human, the latter belongs to the animal part of man.
Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare — never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.
Sect.C “Rootedness — Brotherliness vs. Incest”
Man may be defined as the animal that can say “I,” that can be aware of himself as a separate entity.
Sect.D “Sense of Identity — Individuality vs. Herd Conformity”
Just as love is an orientation which refers to all objects and is incompatible with the restriction to one object, so is reason a human faculty which must embrace the whole of the world with which man is confronted.
Sect.E “The Need for a Frame of Orientation and Devotion — Reason vs. Irrationality”
Reason is man’s faculty for grasping the world by thought, in contradiction to intelligence, which is man’s ability to manipulate the world with the help of thought. Reason is man’s instrument for arriving at the truth, intelligence is man’s instrument for manipulating the world more successfully; the former is essentially human, the latter belongs to the animal part of man.
Ch.3 Sect. E “The Need for a Frame of Orientation and Devotion — Reason vs. Irrationality”
Ch. 4: Mental Health and Society
Needs and passions which are specifically human… the need for relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, the need for a sense of identity and the need for a frame of orientation and devotion. …his destructiveness as well as his creativeness, every powerful desire which motivates man’s actions, is rooted in this specific source, not in the various stages of his libido as Freud’s construction postulated.
If one of the basic necessities has found no fulfillment, insanity is the result; if it is satisfied but in an unsatisfactory way… neurosis is the consequence.
Only if he [man] develops his reason and his love, if he can experience the natural and the social world in a human way, can he feel at home, secure in himself, and the master of his life.
Of the two possible forms of transcendence, destructiveness is conducive to suffering, creativeness to happiness.
Ch. 5: Man in Capitalistic Society
I experience myself as “I” because I doubt, I protest, I rebel.
By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. He has become, one might say, estranged from himself. He does not experience himself as the center of his world, as the creator of his own acts — but his acts and their consequences have become his masters, whom he obeys, or whom he may even worship. The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside positively.
p.120 Sect.C.2.b “Alienation”
We consume, as we produce, without any concrete relatedness to the objects with which we deal; We live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to manipulate or to consume them.
p.134 Sect.C.2.b “Alienation”
Modern man, if he dared to be articulate about his concept of heaven, would describe a vision which would look like the biggest department store in the world, showing new things and gadgets, and himself having plenty of money with which to buy them. He would wander around open-mouthed in this heaven of gadgets and commodities, provided only that there were ever more and newer things to buy, and perhaps that his neighbors were just a little less privileged than he.
p.135 Sect.C.2.b “Alienation”
Love is often nothing but a favorable exchange between two people who get the most of what they can expect, considering their value on the personality market.
The pace of science forces the pace of technique. Theoretical physics forces atomic energy on us; the successful production of the fission bomb forces upon us the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb. We do not choose our problems, we do not choose our products; we are pushed, we are forced — by what? By a system which has no purpose and goal transcending it, and which makes man its appendix.
Authority is not a quality one person “has,” in the sense that he has property or physical qualities. Authority refers to an interpersonal relation in which one person looks upon another as somebody superior to him. But there is a fundamental difference between a kind of superiority-inferiority relation which can be called rational authority and one which may be described as inhibiting, or irrational authority.
p.96 Sect.B “Nineteenth-Century Capitalism”
I experience myself as “I” because I doubt, I protest, I rebel. Even if I submit and sense defeat, I experience myself as “I”—I, the defeated one. But if I am not aware of submitting or rebelling, if I am ruled by an anonymous authority, I lose the sense of self, I become a “one,” a part of the “It.”
The mechanism through which the anonymous authority operates is conformity.
Feeling inferior stems from feeling different, and no question is asked whether the difference is for the better or the worse.
The reality behind this concept of freedom is the presence of anonymous authority and the absence of individuality.
The alienated person finds it almost impossible to remain by himself, because he is seized by the panic of experiencing nothingness.
Another aspect of alienated conformity is the leveling-out process of taste and judgement…
All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one exchanges views, and that one is ready to accept any opinion or conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as another.
Indescriminating sociability and lack of individuality is called being outgoing.
“No one, they point out, ever need face a problem alone.” We may add that it would be more correct to say that never do they face a problem.
Virtue is to be adjusted and to be like the rest. Vice, is to be different.
The new suburbs are matriarchies, yet the children are in effect so dictatorial that a term like filiarchy would not be entirely facetious.
They feel that “responding to group mores is akin to moral duty—and so they continue, hesitant and unsure, imprisoned in brotherhood.
They are all in the same boat, but… “where is the boat going? No one seems to have the faintest idea; nor, for that matter, do they see much point in even raising the question.”
These people are young, they are middle class and they move upwards, they are mostly people who in their work career manipulate symbols and men, and whose advancement depends on whether they permit themselves to be manipulated.
There is undoubtedly a difference between people who manipulate other people and people who create things…
His work is alienated and only to a limited extent a meaningful expression of his energy and reason.
A feature in the social character of modern man… constitutes one of the most striking contrasts to the social character of the nineteenth century. …the principle that every desire must be satisfied immediately, no wish must be frustrated.
It is considered immoral to keep one “love” partner beyond a relatively short period of time. “Love” is short-lived sexual desire, which must be satisfied immediately.
This lack of inhibition of desires leads to the same result as the lack of overt authority—the paralysis and eventually the destruction of the self.
I have no need to be aware of myself as myself because I am constantly absorbed having pleasure. I am—a system of desires and satisfactions… constantly stimulated and directed by the economic machine.
Having fun consists mainly in the satisfaction of consuming and “taking in”; commodities, sights, food, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies—all are consumed, swallowed.
How can we help being disappointed if our birth stops at the breast of the mother, if we are never weaned, if we remain overgrown babes, if we never go beyond the receptive orientation?
How do they deal with their troubles, which stem from the passivity of constant taking in? By another form of passivity, a constant spilling out, as it were, by talking.
When you do not let your thoughts and feelings build up pressure… they do not become more fruitful. It is exactly the same with unobstructed consumption. You are a system in which things go in and out continuously and within it is nothing, no tension, no digestion, no self.
Freud’s discovery of free association had the aim of finding out what went on in you underneath the surface, of discovering who you really were; the modern talking to the sympathetic listener has the opposite… function… to make man forget who he is… to lose all tension, and with it all sense of self.
Today the function of psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis threatens to become the tool in the manipulation of man.
Ch. 6: Various Other Diagnoses
Durkheim points out that only the political state survived the French Revolution as a solitary factor of collectivization. As a result, a genuine social order has disappeared, the state emerging as the only collective organizing activity of the social character. The individual, free from all genuine social bonds, finds himself abandoned, isolated, and demoralized. Society becomes “a disorganized dust of individuals.”
Lewis Mumford, with whose writings my own ideas have many points in common, says this about our contemporary civilization: “The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastraphes, it is not humanly interesting…
Ch.7: Various Answers
Whether we think of Burckhardt or Proudhon, of Tolstoy or Baudelaire, of Marx or Kropotkin, they had a concept of man which was essentially a religious and moral one. Man is the end, and must never by use as a means; material production is for man, not man for material production; the aim of life is the unfolding of man’s creative powers; the aim of history is a transformation of society into one governed by justice and truth—these are the principles on which explicitly and implicitly, all criticism of modern Capitalism is based.
Religion as an organization and a profession of dogma was carried on in the churches; religion in the sense of religious fervor and living faith was largely carried on by the antireligionists.
Ch. 8: Roads to Sanity
Schooling, be it transmission of knowledge or formation of character, is only one part, and perhaps not the most important part of education; using “education” here in its literal and most fundamental sense of “e-ducere”=”to bring out,” that which is within man.
I shall use “collective art,” meaning the same as ritual; it means to respond to the world with our senses in a meaningful, skilled, productive, active, shared way.
“Collective art,”… is not an individual “leisure time” occupation, added to life, it is an integral part of life. It corresponds to a basic human need, and if this is not fulfilled, man remains as insecure and anxious as if the need for a meaningful thought picture of the world were unrealized.
In order to grow out of the receptive into the productive orientation, he [man] must relate himself to the world artistically and not only philosophically or scientifically.
A relatively primitive village in which there are still real feasts, common artistic shared expressions, and no literacy at all—is more advanced culturally and more healthy mentally than our educated, newspaper-reading radio-listening culture.
The need for the creation of collective art and ritual on a nonclerical basis is at least as important as literacy and higher education.
The transformation of an atomistic into a communitarian society depends on creating again the opportunity for people to sing together, walk together, dance together, admire together—together, and not, to use Riesman’s succinct expression, as a member of a “lonely crowd.”
On the whole, our modern ritual is impoverished and does not fulfill man’s need for collective art and ritual.
It was an error of the nonbelievers to focus on attacking the idea of God; their real aim ought to be to challenge the religionists to take their religion… seriously.
It is time to cease to argue about God, and instead to unite in the unmasking of contemporary forms of idolatry.
It is not too far-fetched to believe that a new religion will develop within the next few hundred years, a religion which corresponds to the development of the human race; the most important feature of such a religion would be its universalistic character, corresponding to the unification of mankind which is taking place in this epic… its emphasis would be on the practice of life, rather than on doctrinal beliefs.
Ch. 9: Summary — Conclusion
In the 19th century inhumanity meant cruelty; in the 20th century it means schizoid self-alienation. The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots. True enough, robots do not rebel. But given man’s nature, robots cannot live and remain sane, they become “Golems”; they will destroy their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.
Fromm is here referencing a statement made by Adlai Stevenson at Columbia University in 1954, which he had quoted earlier in the work: “We are not in danger of becoming slaves any more, but of becoming robots.”
In the development of both capitalism and communism, as we visualize them in the next fifty or a hundred years, the processes that encourage human alienation will continue. Both systems are developing into managerial societies, their inhabitants well fed, well clad, having their wishes satisfied, and not having wishes that cannot be satisfied. Men are increasingly automatons, who make machines which act like men and produce men who act like machines; there reason deteriorates while their intelligence rises, thus creating the dangerous situation of equipping man with the greatest material power without the wisdom to use it.
In spite of increasing production and comfort, man loses more and more the sense of self, feels that his life is meaningless, even though such a feeling is largely unconscious. In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead; in the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.