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Modern Man and the Future
From September 6 through 11, 1961, an International Congress for Psychoanalysis and Its Continued Development took place in Düsseldorf, West Germany. Aside from Fromm, participants included a group of "non-orthodox" psychoanalysts from Germany (W. Schwidder, F. Heigl, and F. Riemann of the German Psychoanalytical Society, to name only three), the Netherlands (A. J. Westerman Holstijn), Switzerland (H. Binswanger and M. Boss of Dasein Analysis), and the United States (G. Chrzanowski and H. Stierlin). On September 6, before these same 300 non-orthodox psychoanalyses, Fromm presented a lecture (published in his German Gesamtausgabe, 1966b) on the "Fundamental Positions of Psychoanalysis." A second, public lecture by Fromm took place on September 9. Its title was "Modern Man and His Future." This lecture contained a condensed version of Fromm's diagnose of the age at the beginning of the 1960s, before he had developed the concept of "necrophilia." The present text, published here for the first time in English, is a transcription of a tape of that lecture. Fromm delivered the lecture largely without the use of a manuscript.
To talk today [in 1961] on the topic "Modern Man and His Future" means not only that one must ask what the future of man will be, but also whether man will have any future whatsoever. At the same time, this question about the fixture pertains not only to modern man and his civilization; in view of the growing destructive force of atomic weapons, the issue concerns man's life on this Earth in general. Certainly this is the first time in the history of man that one must pose such a question. The atomic bomb is modern society's worst symptom of disease.
What do I mean by "modern man"? By this, one can mean either man of today—that is, all men of the twentieth century—or man in the Western industrialized countries as opposed to man in Asia, Africa, and the non-industrialized parts of the world. In asking what I mean by "modern man," it becomes clear that something in the historical situation has also changed for the first time: People of the non-industrialized countries are more and more quickly coming to resemble the people of the West. Western man has exported his technology and certain ideas to the as-vet-non-industrialized countries. Yet because the West seems to be losing, or has already lost, the power over the world that it had for centuries, it is engaged in transforming the entire world according to its own Western development.
When I speak of the West's own development, then I primarily mean Western technology and industry, as well as the Western idea of historical progress and of a historical goal. Nationalism, a relatively recent Western product, is also a part of the development of the West. These ideas have established themselves in the East often in the form of a perverted Marxism or Socialism.
What is happening today is perhaps something similar to when Christianity was grafted from Rome onto a pagan Europe. Rome did, indeed, lose its political power, yet it had imbedded its culture, its ideas, and its forms of organization in foreign soils. These soils were at that time much more primitive than today's pre-industrial peoples are in comparison to the West.
Stages in the Development of Western Man
To give a complete overview of the most important stages of Western development within the confines of a lecture can be accomplished here only by suggestion and schematically, yet the overview is a prerequisite for understanding what will follow.
(1) The first stage in the development of Western man spans the time from approximately 1500 B.C. until the beginning of the Christian age. This stage is characterized by man's great turn from idolatry to humanistic religion. I will come back to what I mean by "idolatry"; I only want to say here that by idolatry I mean that form of man's search for unity in which he returns to nature, to his own "animalness," submitting himself. He submits himself to nature, to the work of his own hands (in the form of idols made of gold and silver or of wood) or he submits himself to other people.
The turn from idolatry to humanistic religion presumably begins with the religious revolution of Akhnaten [or Amenophis IV, Egyptian emperor, 1375-1358 B.C.] and then continues in Mosaic religion, in Taoism, in Buddhism, and in the Classical period of Greek philosophy. All these developments are directed toward a salvation of man, by means of which man seeks a new unity not, as in the primitive religions of totemism or of animism, through gods of nature and idols made by his own hands, but through pressing forward and finding a new unity with the world by man's complete development. The first stage in the development of Western man is made with the turn toward humanistic religion during these fifteen centuries that, seen historically, are nothing more—to use the words of the writers of the Psalms—than a "watch in the night."
(2) The second stage is reflected in the notion of a historical redemption, such as one finds in the message of prophetic messianism. Very simply stated, prophetic messianism developed the following idea: Man was at one with nature in Paradise, but he was—like the animals—without consciousness of his self. In the act of disobedience against God's commandment, or—we may say—in the ability to say "No," man becomes aware of his self and takes the first steps into freedom. With this step, human history is made for the first time. Man's original harmony with nature is broken. Man is driven from Paradise and is hindered from returning by two angels with flaming swords.
According to this prophetic-messianic notion, history is, in a sweeping sense, a history of reconciliation; it is the history of man's development toward his humanity, toward the development of his specifically human qualities of reason and of love. Once man has completely and fully developed himself, he finds a new harmony, a harmony of the developed, reasonable, self-aware, loving individual who becomes one with the world and yet is an individual. The new harmony is the old harmony, yet on a different level. It is a harmony—yet one entirely different from the harmony man had before his departure from Paradise.
(3) In Christianity, this new prophetic-messianic notion of history as "reconciliation" is transferred from the soil of Palestine to Europe. In the process, its form—the form of the prophetic-messianic notion—is changed somewhat. The most important change is that man's salvation, the changing of humanity, does not take place within history but, rather, transcends it. The Kingdom of God is understood not in a messianic sense, as it is by most of the biblical prophets—namely, as a change of this world—but rather as the establishment of a new, spiritual world that transcends this world!
In spite of this modification, the Christian doctrine of reconciliation is a continuation of the thought of prophetic messianism and is, in this sense, distinct from other doctrines of reconciliation, such as Buddhism, since, according to the Christian doctrine, reconciliation is always a collective reconciliation, a salvation of humanity and not merely of the individual. Even if the Christian doctrine of salvation alters a crucial point of the messianic idea of salvation, insofar as a salvation beyond history replaces a historical one, it must nevertheless be emphasized that the history of Christianity has repeatedly given impetus to the historical liberation of man—particularly within pre- and post-Reformation Christian sects.
(4) The message of the Gospel, the Good News, is led historically into the current of the Catholic Church. Here, in the Catholic Church, a union of great historical significance was achieved: The Jewish notion of reconciliation, in the form of prophetic messianism, was coupled with the Greek idea of science, of theory. This union of the prophetic-messianic notion of reconciliation with Greek thought—let us say, the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato—constituted something new, something that grew to fruition in Europe over the course of 1,000 years. This process of fruition lasted from the end of pagan Rome [in the 4th century] until the end of the European Middle Ages. For approximately 1,000 years, Europe was pregnant with a Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian legacy. Then, after 1,000 years, something new was born from the loins of Europe: modern society.
(5) Modern society begins with the Renaissance. According to Carl Jacob Burckhardt's famous formulation, the Renaissance is characterized by the discovery of the individual and of nature. Perhaps instead of saying "discovery," one should more precisely say "re-discovery," since it is the rebirth of much that Greek and Roman antiquity felt about man and nature. The Renaissance was also the birth of a new science.
The Renaissance continued to maintain the messianic-prophetic vision in a new form: in the form of utopia. If prophetic messianism saw the perfect society—the good, humane society—standing at the end of time, the Renaissance utopia sees the good society standing at the end of space, somewhere in an as-yet-undiscovered part of the earth. One needs to mention here the utopias of Thomas More, who created the word "utopia" for this kind of vision, of Tommasso Campanella, and of the German Johann Valentin Andreä. From the Renaissance until the end of the nineteenth century, Western thought can be characterized by, among many other things, the fact that utopia as a special version of the messianic vision occupies a central place. In fact, the same can also be said of the ideas of Karl Marx, except that Marx always resisted any suggestion of utopia and never gave it the positive expression that the great utopic writers accorded it ...
The man of the Renaissance becomes aware of his power and begins to free himself from the shackles of nature and to dominate it. In the course of subsequent centuries, the new science and the new attitude toward life lead to a true discovery of the world, to a new technology and industry, and to the world's domination by man. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the new humanism reaches its apogee. Western thought is centered on man, on humanity, and on humaneness. In religious attitudes, theistic concepts recede, yet religious experience as reality is stronger than at any other time except the thirteenth century. The American historian Carl L. Becker has rightly emphasized that the eighteenth century was not less religious than the thirteenth, even if the eighteenth expressed the same religious experience in a different language and in different concepts.
The nineteenth century seemed to draw near to an age of fulfillment: Man had grown to fruition from the end of the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The age of fulfillment was supposed to produce the man who dominated nature, would eradicate war, and would produce—as a means to humanity's development—material affluence. The messianic vision of the good society, of the human society, appeared to come to fruition in the nineteenth century. Until the First World War, European humanity was ruled by its belief in the fulfillment of these hopes and ideas. These same hopes and ideas had lost neither their power nor their influence even from the time of the prophets.
What has happened since then? What happened to Western man in the last 60-odd years? There were two world wars, there was the inhumanity of Hitler's system and of Stalinism, and there is the immediate danger of man's total obliteration. If, for centuries, man had hope for the future, he nearly abandoned it after 1914.
I have spoken of the birth process of new societies. I would almost like to say that twentieth-century man seems to be a miscarriage. What has happened, so that everything has seemed to break down at the moment when man appeared to stand at the crowning pinnacle of his historical endeavors?
We know some things about the development that has led to this. What began in the nineteenth century continued in the twentieth with ever-increasing intensity and speed: the growth of the modern industrial system, which led to more and more production and to increased consumer orientation. Man became a collector and a user. More and more, the central experience of his life became I have and I use, and less and less I am. The means—namely, material welfare, production, and the production of goods—thereby became ends. Earlier, man sought nothing but the means for a better life, one that was worthy of human dignity.
The natural bonds of family solidarity and of community dissolved without new ones having been found. Modern man is alone and anxious. He is free, but he is afraid of this freedom. He lives—as the great French sociologist Émile Durkheim has said—in anomie. He is characterized by division or baseness, which makes of him not an individual but an atom, and which no longer individualizes him but atomizes him. "Atom" and "individual" mean the same thing: The first word comes from the Greek, the second from the Latin. The meanings that the words have acquired in our language, however, are opposed. Modern man hoped to become an individual; in reality, he became an anxious atom, tossed to and fro.
The priorities of the industrial system are balance, quantification, and accounting. The question is always: What is worthwhile? What brings profit?
It is necessary to ask such questions in the realm of industrial production. Yet the principles of accounting, of balance, and of profit were, simultaneously, applied to man and have expanded from economics to human life in toto. Man has become an enterprise: His life is his capital and his task seems to be to invest this capital as well as possible. If it is well invested, then he is successful. If he invests his life poorly, then he is without success. He himself thus becomes a thing, an object.
We cannot lie to ourselves about this knowledge: When one becomes an object, one is dead, even if one—seen physiologically—is still living. And if one is spiritually dead, although still physiologically alive, then one is not only subject to decay but becomes dangerous—dangerous to oneself and dangerous to others.
People of the nineteenth century were certainly different from those of the twentieth. People of the earlier century were used to either accepting authority or to rebelling against it. Samuel Butler's novel The Way of All Flesh (1903) is an excellent illustration of the rebellion of a nineteenth-century man fighting against authority in both the family and in the state. Nineteenth-century man felt it to be a moral duty to collect and to preserve. As is so often the case, this moral idea had its foundation in the methods of production of nineteenth-century society. It was important to accumulate capital.
In the twentieth century, greater and greater criticism arose against certain ideas that had played a large role in the life of the previous century. Today the primary issue is not the competition of people among one another and the antagonisms that result from the spirit of competition. Quite the contrary: People today form a team, a well-oiled group that works smoothly together, since this is the only way that large enterprises can function. Modern industry and economics have effectively developed to the point that, as a requisite for operation, they need people who become consumers, who possess as little individuality as possible, and who are ready to obey an anonymous authority while suffering from the illusion of being free and subject to no authority.
Modern man seeks succor, so to speak, from the Big Mother of the company or of the state and becomes a perpetual infant who, however, can never be satisfied, because he does not develop his possibilities as a person. In the case, particularly, of eighteenth-century France, one already saw that man cannot truly be happy. The words to describe this condition are thus characteristically French: one speaks of a mal du siècle and of malaise, in order to characterize the distress in a world that is becoming increasingly atomized and more and more senseless. As Èmile Durkheim has shown, it is also characteristic that the onset of suicide as a mass phenomenon has to do with this atomization of man and with the process whereby his existence becomes senseless.
Alienation as a Disease of Modern Man
I would now like to discuss somewhat more thoroughly what, in my opinion, is at the crux of this malaise, of this mal du siècle. The disease from which modern man suffers is alienation. The concept of alienation had sunken into oblivion for decades, but it has lately become popular again. Hegel and Marx once used it, and one could rightly say that the philosophy of existentialism is essentially a rebellion against man's growing alienation in modern society.
Excerpted from On Being Human by Erich Fromm, Rainer Funk. Copyright © 1994 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 2, 2013