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Erich Fromm Psychology and Religion

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1 Erich Fromm Psychology and Religion
in the Search for Personal Wholeness Johann Maree Summer School, UCT. Jan. 2012

2 Biographical sketch Fromm was born in Germany in 1900, the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. He studied the Old Testament intensively under Talmudic scholars. He gave up the practice of Judaism at the age of around 26 and declared himself a non-theist. He became acquainted with Buddhism at the same time and studied it in great depth later in his life.

3 Other Influences on Fromm
Besides religion there were three other major influences on Fromm’s thinking and life. The first was Sigmund Freud. Fromm studied psychology and received extensive training in Freudian psychoanalysis after doing his PhD. He joined the Institute for Social Development at Frankfurt University where he taught psychoanalysis.

4 Other Influences on Fromm 2
The second impact on Fromm’s life was Nazism. Due to its rise in Germany the Frankfurt Institute had to emigrate to the United States of America in 1934 as did Fromm. His brush with Nazism led him to write Fear of Freedom (1942) in which he argued that sado-masochistic fear of freedom enabled Hitler’s rise to power.

5 Other influences on Fromm 3
The third major influence on Fromm’s thinking was Karl Marx. In the work of Marx he saw ‘the key to understanding history’ and the ‘radical humanism expressed in the messianic vision of the Old Testament prophets.’ Much of Fromm’s writing on modern society drew on Marxism, including the concept ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement’.

6 Fromm’s works Fromm’s writing spans a wide field covering psychology, religion, politics and ethics. We shall look at only two major themes of his writing: love and religion. We shall investigate Fromm’s insights on love and religion while keeping in mind the objective of the course: the search for personal wholeness.

7 Love Fromm starts his exposition on love by arguing that to be human is to be aware of oneself as a separate entity, but this creates a sense of aloneness and separateness. The only way to overcome this ‘prison of aloneness’ is through love, mature love. Mature love is ‘union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.’

8 Love is an activity Fromm goes further by saying that love is active: ‘Love is an action, the practice of human power.’ The activity that love engages in is giving, giving of oneself, of one’s life. This does not necessarily mean sacrificing one’s life for another – although it could – but also giving of one’s joy, interests, understanding, humour, and sadness.

9 Love comes from strength
One of Fromm’s most important themes about love is that it can only come from a productive person by which he means a person who has the capacity, potency and strength to give unreservedly: ‘Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power.’

10 Five types of love Fromm distinguishes between five different types of love: Brotherly love Motherly love Erotic love Self-love Love of God

11 Brotherly and motherly love
By brotherly love Fromm means love of neighbour including the stranger. He enriches it further by saying that brotherly love incorporates the sense of responsibility, care, respect and knowledge that furthers the life of another human being. Motherly love is unconditional love like that of a mother for her child.

12 Erotic love Erotic love ‘is the craving for complete fusion, for union with one other person. It is by its very nature exclusive and not universal.’ It is not ‘falling in love’ nor just sexual desire, but based on a love that inspires the wish for sexual union. It is the fruit of love.

13 Self-love Love of oneself, says Fromm, is rooted in one’s capacity to love, ‘the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom.’ Love for oneself and love for another are not mutually exclusive, they are ‘inseparably connected’.

14 Love of God Love of God also springs from the need to overcome the anxiety of separateness by the experience of union. Our love of God is based on our understanding of the nature and character of God which has changed over time. This will be dealt with in the section on religion.

15 The practice of love Love is an art and has to be practised like any other art. The practice of love requires discipline, concentration, patience, and a supreme concern to master the art. To concentrate with regards to others means primarily to be able to listen, to take what the other person has to say seriously.

16 Love means overcoming narcissism
For the narcissistic person there is only one reality, that of his or her own thought processes, feelings and needs. The only reality for the newly born infant is its own body and needs – ‘primary narcissism’ as Freud called it. This state of narcissism is slowly overcome by a growing awareness of reality outside. The child can only begin to love when it feels that the needs of another person are as important as its own.

17 To be or to have Fromm draws an important distinction between a being mode of existence and a having mode of existence. The having orientation has ‘greed for money, fame, and power’ as the dominant theme of life. Happiness lies in being superior to others. The being orientation entails ‘aliveness and authentic relatedness to the world.’ Happiness lies in loving, sharing, giving.

18 Religion Fromm’s definition of religion is as follows: ‘I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.’ It opens the door for a wide interpretation of what constitutes religion: including secular ideologies and devotion. He believed that everybody has a need for religion.

19 Authoritarian and humanistic religions
Fromm makes a fundamental distinction between authoritarian and humanistic religions. The principle of authoritarian religion is that a person is controlled by a higher power outside her- or himself. It entails surrender to a transcending power. Its main virtue is obedience and its cardinal sin is disobedience.

20 Humanistic religion Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is centred around humanity. Humans must develop their powers of reason in order to understand themselves, their relationship to others, and their position in the universe. They must develop their powers of love for others as well as themselves and experience the solidarity of all living beings.

21 Illustrations of humanistic religion
Early Buddhism and Christianity, the teachings of Isaiah, Jesus, Socrates and Spinoza provide examples of humanistic religion for Fromm. The spirit of Jesus’ teachings is humanistic as was the early Church. But once Christianity became the religion of the rulers of the Roman Empire an authoritarian trend became dominant. However, the conflict between the authoritarian and humanistic principles in Christianity never ceased.

22 Fromm’s evolutionary account of human beings
The first key stage in the process of human evolution came when instinct no longer governed action and humans became aware of themselves. This birth process may have lasted for hundreds of thousands years, but what matters is that a new species was born, transcending nature, as humans became aware of themselves as separate species.

23 Consequences of self-awareness
The emergence of self-awareness was due to the emergence of reason. It is reason that overrides instinct. This self-awareness brought about a crucial change in the human situation. Humans were still part of nature, subject to her physical laws, yet transcended the rest of nature. This made humans ‘homeless’ and alienated them from nature and from themselves.

24 The problem and the solution
Human beings face a problem that has to be solved and from which there is no escape. ‘Man cannot go back to the pre-human state of harmony with nature; he must proceed to develop his reason until he becomes the master of nature, and of himself. There is only one way he can take: to emerge fully from his natural home, to find a new home – one which he creates, by making the world a human one and becoming truly human himself.’

25 Human destiny Human destiny is now to go through alienation in order to overcome it. We must take responsibility for and work toward the new harmony between ourselves and between nature and ourselves. We are left to ourselves. Nobody can do for us what we will not do for ourselves.

26 Development of religion
Within this evolutionary process Fromm weaves a development of the human understanding of religion and God. His account is based on anthropology and Judaic religion. In the first stage of emerging self- awareness humans find security by going back to nature. Their primitive religion is based, for instance, on animal totems.

27 Two more stages of development
At a later stage of development, once humans have developed artisanal and artistic skills, they transform the products of their own hands into gods. This is the stage of idol worship. At a still later stage humans give their gods the form of human beings – just think of all the Greek and Roman gods. Fromm argues there was a matriarchal phase that preceded a patriarchal one.

28 From matriarchal to patriarchal religion
During the matriarchal phase there is a mother goddess whose love is unconditional and loves everyone equally. In the subsequent patriarchal phase fatherly love makes demands and establishes the principle of conditional love, depending on obedience and performance.

29 Evolution of the Judaic God
Fromm maintains that the fatherly aspect of God’s love depends on the degree of maturity reached by human understanding. In the beginning of the Old Testament we find a despotic, jealous God who considers the humans he created as his property and entitled to do with them what he pleases. So he drives them out of paradise and destroys them in the flood.

30 From despotic God to loving father and beyond
Simultaneously with the flood a new phase commences. God makes a covenant with Noah that he will not destroy the human race again. This, claims Fromm, transforms God from the figure of a ‘despotic tribal chief’ into a loving father and, beyond that, into a symbol of his principles, those of justice, truth and love.

31 God’s revelation to Moses
For Fromm the most striking incidence of this transformation lies in the biblical story of God’s revelation to Moses. He tells Moses that his name is “I am becoming that which I am becoming.” “I- am-becoming” is my name. The “I-am- becoming” means that God is not finite, not a person, not a “being”. The most adequate translation would be “my name is nameless.”

32 The maturing idea of monotheism
And so the paradox is reached that ‘the more I know what God is not, the more knowledge I have of God.’ This, for Fromm, is ‘the maturing idea of monotheism.’ God becomes the nameless One, ‘referring to the unity underlying the phenomenal universe, the ground of all existence; God becomes truth, love, justice. God is I, inasmuch as I am human.’

33 The truly religious person
‘The truly religious person, if he follows the essence of the monotheistic idea, does not pray for anything, does not expect anything from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or his mother; he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitation, to the degree of knowing that he knows nothing about God. Eventually he does not speak about God.’

34 To love God ‘To love God, if he were going to use this word, would mean, then, to long for the attainment of the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which “God” stands for in oneself.’ (Fromm)

35 Evaluation of Fromm Critical:
Fromm’s writing can at times be very loose. He can make sweeping statements without providing evidence in support. Annette Thomson says that Fromm’s appeal lies in inspiration rather than in presenting empirical findings. Fromm also holds views that contradict each other and he does not try to resolve the contradictions.

36 Evaluation of Fromm 2 Fromm can be quite unfair in the way he presents other people’s arguments, particularly those with whom he disagrees. He tends to oversimplify and distort, setting up a straw man that can easily be torn apart. Fromm tends to be weak on details. He is great at pointing the way to the stars, but not so good at illuminating the obstacles on the way there.

37 Evaluation of Fromm 3 Appreciative:
What I value most about Fromm is his religious courage and his faith in humanity. His religious courage enabled him not to shy away from where his logic lead him: that humanity has reached a stage in evolution where we have come to realise that God does not intervene in our natural and social world, nor in the vast universe, nor in our private experiences.

38 Evaluation of Fromm 4 Fromm makes it clear that we are now responsible for the wellbeing of the world we live in. We are able to destroy it and we are capable of saving it for ourselves and future generations. It is up to us as humanity to decide which path we choose. Whereas the first primitive human beings stood in awe of nature and worshipped it as a god, humanity now stands in the relationship of god towards nature in that its fate is in our hands.


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