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This week for my independent study, I finally sat down and finished Erich Fromm’s 1947 treatise on humanistic ethics: Man For Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. Erich Fromm, a prolific writer on psychology, philosophy, politics, and ethics, clearly can’t be adequately represented by a small excerpt from one published work . . . but I thought I would, nevertheless, give you a flavor of his thinking by sharing a passage from Man for Himself in which he responds to one of the criticisms of his humanistic philosophy which foregrounds the capacity (“potentiality”) of human beings: that is, “what about the problem of evil?”

“The opponents of humanistic ethics,” he writes, “claim that man’s [1] nature is such as to make him inclined to be hostile to his fellow man, to be envious and jealous, and to be lazy, unless he is curbed by fear. Many representatives of humanistic ethics [have] met this challenge by insisting that man is inherently good and that destructiveness is not an integral part of his nature” (213). As Fromm points out, this leaves us with the problem of what destructiveness and where it comes from, if we reject it as an inherent part of human nature (since, self-evidently, human beings demonstrate a capacity for violence).

Our first step in approaching the problem of destructiveness is to differentiate between two kinds of hate: rational, “reactive” and irrational “character-conditioned” hate [2]. Reactive, rational hate is a person’s reaction to a threat to his own or another person’s freedom, life, or ideas. Its premise is a respect for life . Rational hate has an important biological function: it is the affective equivalent of action serving the protection of life; it comes into existence as a reaction to vital threats, and it ceases to exist when the threat has been removed; it is not the opposite but the concomitant of the striving for life [which Fromm believes is the most fundamental human drive].

Character-conditioned hate is different in quality. It is a character trait, a continuous readiness to hate, lingering within the person who is hostile rather than reacting to a stimulus from without . . . [a phenomenon] of such magnitude that the dualistic theory of love and hate as the two fundamental forces [of human life] seems to fit the facts. (216-17, emphasis in the original).

Fromm asks then (somewhat rhetorically) whether, given the evidence, he is forced to concede that theories maintaining destructiveness is a fundamental part of human nature (he uses Freud’s work as an example) are, indeed, correct. No, he responds to himself, he is not. He posits that both capacities (creativity and destruction) are present in human beings as potentialities which need certain conditions to manifest; furthermore, he argues that the capacity for productive, life-promoting creativity, is a primary capacity, whereas the capacity for destruction is secondary, realized only when the conditions for the primary are not met:

Both the primary and the secondary potentialities are part of the nature of an organism . . . the “secondary” potentiality comes into manifest existence only in the case of abnormal, pathogenic conditions. . . . man is not necessarily evil but becomes evil only if the proper conditions of his growth and development are lacking. The evil has no independent existence of its own, it is the absence of good, the result of the failure to realize life (219-20).

While I am skeptical about the division between rational/irrational used here, and find Fromm’s reliance on psychoanalytic language frustrating at times, his basic concept of human beings has a lot of (ahem) potential for re-imagining our most basic assumptions concerning human nature.

In the wake of the Second World War, many people — across diverse fields of inquiry — were wrestling with the question of what “human nature” was — and could be — with a sense of great urgency. Fromm offers us one such example; I’ll look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks to come.


[1] after my post on Goodman last week, it is worth noting that Fromm specifically, in the introduction to Man for Himself, defines his use of the word “man” as a universal pronoun for “human being.”

[2] Fromm uses “character” in a very specific sense, elaborated on elsewhere in the book and in his other work, and here is indicating a basic orientation toward life versus a reaction to a specific incident.