#22 – Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm (My 100 Favorite Books)

I said yesterday that we’re at a point where all the authors on this list are my favorites.  This implied I may choose one book of theirs, but I’ve read others.  Well, there are still some of whom I have only read one book.  Its not that these authors are “one-hit wonders”.  Its just that I’ve only read one of their books.  They’re so high on my list, I guess I should read more of their work!

One such author is Erich Fromm, and his book Escape from Freedom is brilliant.  It was written decades ago but still relevant. What do we do with the freedom we have? If we look back a few centuries to the medieval era, we see people living in a structured society. There was little possibility for upward mobility and, for the most part, you had to stay in your station in life. Throughout the Reformation and into the modern age, we shook off these hierarchies and, as individuals and societies, became free.

This freedom certainly has benefits. But Fromm argues that as individuals became disconnected from the structures that once gave identity, this freedom also leads to angst and fear. We find ourselves adrift in a world, not sure where there is meaning or what we are to do. From this Fromm argues there is a fertile field for authoritarianism. Writing in the era of Hitler, Fromm spends a lot of time showing how people like Hitler could take advantage of the anxiety lower and middle class people feel to lead them to a purpose, albeit a horrible one.

Much of the book is written to set up the last chapter. I think I ran my pen drying highlighting the last chapter. He talks about how we make choices we think are free but in reality are not as we have learned what we want from the culture around us. In other words, I think I freely choose something but I learned that I wanted that thing (money, power, fame, religion, education, etc.) from the world around me. In this his book dovetails nicely with Jacques Ellul’s book Propoganda. His solution is for humans to be spontaneous, to dive into truly free choices.

As a Christian, I most appreciated how this book fits with my Christian faith. One example is when he talks about love. Much that we call love is actually an elimination of separation which leads to submission (you love someone so you let them rule over you). He speaks of love as keeping the individuality while also becoming one in some way. This made me think of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (three separate persons in one God) which is the root of Christian love (loving the other as an individual while becoming one). Also, when he asked the question how you know what choices are good, or truly free, and which are following culture or becoming subject to authoritarians, he basically said the good is self-evident. In other words, if something is done for true goodness or beauty then it is a work of true freedom. Again, as a Christian, I believe all good points to God as the ultimate good.

This book was not difficult to read though the concepts are certainly challenging. There is so much here and even though it was written decades ago, it remains relevant as authoritarians still seek to gain power and many of us still struggle with how to find meaning in the midst of being free.

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