Erich Fromm’s Conception of the Art of Being

Category: Virtue
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2020
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Fromm situates the role of social psychology as attempting to resolve the Marxian dialectical contradiction that history constructs ‘man’ while placing ‘man’ as the main source of such a construction [that being the construction of history]. In addition to this, Fromm focuses on the manner in which one can understand how passions and anxieties are molded by the social process. The importance of social psychology, within this context is thereby evident if one considers that the function of social psychology is to show how those energies [passions and anxieties] become productive forces capable of molding the social process [that of the social construction of man as well as man’s construction of history]. Fromm recognizes that social character refers to that part of the character structure of individuals which is common to most members of a particular social group, developed in response to their conditions of life. Character is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of needs to social reality, and, in its turn, character conditions the thinking, feeling, and acting of individuals.

Despite his use of the word ‘determines’, Fromm consistently stresses the dynamism of human nature whereby individuals and groups are able to resist the seduction of certain enslaving adaptations and open up the possibility of positive freedom through self-realization. The concept of social character helps to explain the link between the material basis of society and the ideological superstructure. It is, in this sense, the intermediary between the socio-economic structure and the ideas and ideals prevalent in society. The economic basis conditions social character, which determines the ideas and ideals of a class or a group. In turn, these ideas help to mould the social character and, indirectly, influence the economic structure.

In comparison to Freud’s notion of human psychology, Fromm was able to keep open the possibility that, on the basis of what we all share as human beings, we are capable of creating a society in which the prevalent relationship of domination and submission is rejected in favor of a relationship of solidarity (Fear 228). His analysis of the psychology of socio-economic change in various social classes from the time of the Reformation through to the twentieth century reveals a variety of ways of suppressing the freedom which was on offer as a result of the break from the political, economic, and spiritual shackles that bound people in pre-modern times. According to Fromm, modernity involves a breakdown of old securities which is so frightening that different social groups resort to belief systems and movements which bind them to new forms of domination and submission.

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In relation to Fromm’s conception of human existence within the context of the aforementioned conditions, Fromm considers the notion of existence [ethical existence] in terms of virtuosity. Fromm notes, “The virtuous or vicious character rather than single virtues or vices is the true subject matter of ethical inquiry” (Man 33). Character ethics reach back to the philosophy of Ancient Greece, and Fromm’s debt to Aristotle is freely acknowledged.

The abandonment of the idea of an essential human nature striving towards a telos leaves conventional moral philosophy the impossible task of deriving moral precepts from a view of ‘untutored’ human nature (MacIntyre 54-55). Fromm explicitly criticizes this internalized authoritarianism wherein the pursuit of one’s own happiness has no positive ethical value as supreme happiness can only be found in the fulfillment of one’s duty (Man 121-3).

This idea that there is a natural propensity for evil and that the moral law is necessary to suppress it is anathema to Fromm, for whom loving one’s self and loving one’s neighbor is not a phenomenon transcending humanity but rather an inherent attribute of that humanity (Fear 98-99). Fromm notes that it is the power by which we relate to and enable solidarity with our fellowmen. Within this contextual background what is human nature for Fromm.

In The Art of Being, he poses the question of what it is that distinguishes the human being from other animals. For Fromm self-awareness, reason and imagination merely disrupt the harmony which characterizes animal nature. The human being is at once part of nature and yet transcends the rest of nature. Reason drives us to endless striving for new solutions to the problems which we continuously need to confront.

The human life is one of unavoidable disequilibrium in which there can be no return to a pre-human state of harmony with nature but only a development of reason towards mastery of nature, including human nature. Only by recognizing that the only meaning to life is that which is given by humans through productive living can the possibility develop of achieving happiness through the full realization of the faculties which are peculiarly human. In Man for Himself, he cites Aristotle and Spinoza as the leading humanist philosophers, but also endorses Marx’s comment in Capital that it is vital to distinguish between human nature in general and human nature as modified in each historical period.

For Fromm, humanistic ethics is based on the principle that ‘good’ is what is good for us as human beings and ‘evil’ is what is detrimental to us, and the sole criterion of ethical value is human welfare. ‘Good’ is regarded as the affirmation of life through the unfolding of man’s powers and ‘virtue’ is regarded as responsibility to our own existence, whereas ‘evil’ is perceived as the crippling aspect of our power and vice is an instance of our irresponsibility toward ourselves.

Drawing on Aristotle and Spinoza, Fromm commends ‘productiveness’ and the ‘productive orientation’, involving the full development of the human capacities for creativity, love, and reason. Failure to live in this way results in ‘dysfunction and unhappiness’ for the individual the occurrence of which leads to a ‘socially patterned defect’. Hence, in the aforementioned work [The Art of Being] Fromm notes that it is important to recognize the existing law [universal law] that governs all forms of human relations. Such a law ensures the necessity that we should be mindful that “there is no contact between human beings that does not affect” all human beings (13).

In To Have or To Be? he contrasts the being mode with the having mode. The being mode is a situation in which activities are productive in the sense of being consciously directed at the enrichment of human existence, as opposed to the having mode in which activity is directed to acquiring wealth and power over others (33). Although he accepts that the having mode is socially dominant, he argues that, only a small minority are governed entirely by it. There are still aspects of most people’s lives in which they are genuinely touched by non-instrumental feelings for their fellow human beings.

One of the problems in establishing pictures of the productive individual and the being mode is that psychoanalysis has traditionally focused on neuroses rather than well-being. The problem is made more complex by the theoretical move from the consideration of the mental health of the individual to that of society. Utopian thinking traditionally addresses the possibility of a happy society, but often this is seen merely as the removal of anxiety caused by material oppression or deprivation. Despite these difficulties, a clear picture of the emancipated individual in the free society does emerge from Fromm’s work, with the emphasis on a productive disposition and social relations infused with solidarity and love.

In relation to this, how is it possible to understand Fromm’s conception of the necessity to enable the individual to live a life of virtue [and hence to ‘realize’ his being or his existence] within a world dominated by various forms of simulacra enabled by mass media? In order to ensure the realization of an individual’s existence [and hence that of his being] psychology’s role, in this sense, involves the production and implementation of various methods that will enable an individual to develop his virtue and as a result of this develop the existence of solidarity and love within society.

Such methods include that of enabling self-awareness amongst individuals. Self-awareness in this sense must be understood in relation to the manner in which man stands as a social constructor of both man and culture [and hence society] beyond being a mere political, ideological, or religious individual. Art of Being, in this sense, [in relation to and along Fromm’s philosophy] opts to enable the realization and the affirmation of the self through the development of virtue in order to ensure the existence of solidarity within the human community.

Works Cited

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Being. London: Routledge, 1993.

The Fear of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1984.

Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. New York: Routledge, 1990.

To Have or to Be? London: Routledge, 1993.

McIntyre, Alasdaire. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Np, 1995.

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Erich Fromm’s Conception of the Art of Being. (2017, Feb 06). Retrieved from

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