Erich Fromm, an internationally renowned German psychologist and humanistic philosopher, was born in 1900 in Frankfurt, Germany. His father was a business man and, according to Erich, rather moody. His mother was frequently depressed. In other words, like quite a few of the people we’ve looked at, his childhood wasn’t very happy.
Like Jung, Erich came from a very religious family, in his case orthodox Jews. Fromm himself later became what he called an atheistic mystic.
Fromm received his Ph.D in sociology from Heidelberg in 1922, and completed his psychoanaltyical training in 1930 at the Psychoanalytical Institute in Berlin. In that same year, he began his own clinical practice and joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which moved to Geneva fleeing Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, then, in 1934, to Columbia University in New York.
Fromm taught at Columbia University as a visiting professor from 1935 to 1939 while continuing his own clinical practice. He became a a citizen of the United States on May 25, 1940. After leaving Columbia, he helped form the New York Branch of the Washington School of Psychiatry in 1943, and in 1945 the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology. He was also a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan from 1945 to 1947, and from 1948 to 1949 a visiting professor at Yale. Meanwhile, he was a member of the faculty at Bennington College, and became an adjunct professor of psychoanalysis at New York University.
Fromm lived and worked in the United States until moving to Cuernevaca, Mexico in 1950 and spending most of the rest of his life working and teaching in Mexico. When Fromm moved to Mexico City in 1950, he became a professor at the National Autonomous University in Mexico and established a psychoanalytic section at the medical school there. He taught at the university until his retirement in 1965. Meanwhile, he taught as a professor of psychology at Michigan State University from 1957 to 1961 and as an adjunct professor of psychology at the graduate division of Arts and Sciences at New York University after 1962. All the while, Fromm maintained his own clinical practice and published a series of books.
He moved to Muralto, Switzerland in 1974, and died at his home there five days before his eightieth birthday.
Central to Fromm’s world view was his interpretation of the Talmud, which he began studying as a young man under Rabbi J. Horowitz and later studied under Rabbi Salman Baruch Rabinkow while working towards his doctorate in sociology at the University of Heidelberg and under Nehemia Nobel and Ludwig Krause while studying in Frankfurt. Fromm’s grandfather and two great grandfathers on his father’s side were rabbis, and a great uncle on his mother’s side was a noted Talmudic scholar. However, Fromm turned away from orthodox Judaism in 1926 and turned towards secular interpretations of scriptural ideals.
The cornerstone of Fromm’s humanistic philosophy is his interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden. Drawing on his knowledge of the Talmud, Fromm pointed out that being able to distinguish between good and evil is generally considered to be a virtue, and that biblical scholars generally consider Adam and Eve to have sinned by disobeying God and eating from the Tree of Knowledge. However, departing from traditional religious orthodoxy, Fromm extolled the virtues of humans taking independent action and using reason to establish moral values rather than adhering to authoritarian moral values.
Beyond a simple condemnation of authoritarian value systems, Fromm used the story of Adam and Eve as an allegorical explanation for human biological evolution and existential angst, asserting that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they became aware of themselves as being separate from nature while still being a part of it. This is why they felt “naked” and “ashamed”: They had evolved into human beings, conscious of themselves, their own mortality, and their powerlessness before the forces of nature and society, and no longer united with the universe as they were in their instinctive, pre-human existence as animals. According to Fromm, the awareness of a disunited human existence is the source of all guilt and shame, and the solution to this existential dichotomy is found in the development of one’s uniquely human powers of love and reason. However, Fromm so distinguished his concept of love from popular notions of love that his reference to this concept was virtually paradoxical.
Fromm considered love to be an interpersonal creative capacity rather than an emotion, and he distinguished this creative capacity from what he considered to be various forms of narcissistic neuroses and sado-masochistic tendencies that are commonly held out as proof of “true love.” Indeed, Fromm viewed the experience of “falling in love” as evidence of one’s failure to understand the true nature of love, which he believed always had the common elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. Drawing from his knowledge of the Talmud, Fromm pointed to the story of Jonah, who did not wish to save the residents of Nineveh from the consequences of their sin, as demonstrative of his belief that the qualities of care and responsibility are generally absent from most human relationships. Fromm also asserted that few people in modern society had respect for the autonomy of their fellow human beings, much less the objective knowledge of what other people truly wanted and needed.
The culmination of Fromm’s social and political philosophy was his book The Sane Society, published in 1955, which argued in favor of communitarian socialism. Building primarily upon the works of Karl Marx, Fromm was the first political and social commentator in this school of thought to introduce the ideal of personal freedom, more frequently found in the writings of classic liberals, such as Frederic Bastiat, and objectivists, such as Ayn Rand. Fromm’s unique brand of socialism rejected both Western capitalism and Soviet communism, which he saw as dehumanizing and bureaucratic social structures that resulted in a virtually universal modern phenomenon of alienation.
Fromm was very active in American politics. He joined the American Socialist Party in the 1950s, and did his best to help them provide an alternative viewpoint to the prevailing McCarthyism of the time, a viewpoint that was best expressed in his 1961 paper May Man Prevail? An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy. However, as a co-founder of SANE, Fromm’s strongest political interest was in the international peace movement, fighting against the nuclear arms race and America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. After supporting then Senator Eugene McCarthy’s losing bid for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, Fromm more or less retreated from the American political scene, although he did write a paper in 1974 entitled Remarks on the Policy of Détente for a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee for Foreign Relations.
Fromm was married three times. His first wife was Frieda Reichmann, a physician and pscyhoanalyist, best know for her groundbreaking work with schizophrenics. Fromm and Reichmann worked together in a private clinic in Heidelberg.
Major Works of Erich Fromm
– Escape from Freedom, 1941
– Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, 1947
– Psychoanalysis and Religion, 1950
– The Forgotten Language, 1951
– The Sane Society, 1955
– The Art of Loving, 1956
– Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of his Personality and Influence, 1959
– Marx’s Concept of Man, 1961
– Beyond the Chains of Illusion, 1962
– The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, 1964
– You Shall Be as Gods, 1966
– The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, 1968
– The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1973
– To Have or to Be, 1976