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Review of Escape from Freedom
by Robert Waxman

     In Escape from Freedom, Fromm explains why the individual chooses to escape from freedom.

1) Fromm analyzes the role of psychology and character-structure as active forces in social, economic, and political processes. He agrees with Hobbes’ position that personality traits such as self-interest, greed, hostility, and lust for power are driving forces in man. At the beginning of the book, Fromm wants to know if man’s desire for freedom is an innate aspect of his being, or a result of living in a specific type of society. He wants to know if freedom is an ideal that man is striving to attain, or if it is too much for him to tolerate. Fromm is trying to determine if man is naturally attracted to freedom or submission. To make this determination, he examines the psychological make-up of man, and offers compelling arguments about man’s desire to either seek freedom or avoid it. These topics are discussed throughout the paper.

2) According to Fromm, the idea of adaption is important. He tells us there is a difference between ‘static adaptation’ – adapting to a new habit, leaving the whole character unchanged; and ‘dynamic adaptation’ – adapting to the necessities of a situation, resulting in repression of emotional responses (p. 15). 

3) Fromm agrees with Balzac who says “man has a horror for aloneness” (p. 20). Man cannot live without cooperating with others in a group. Cooperation is needed for: his survival, defending himself, battling the forces of nature, and being productive in his work. When he becomes self-conscious he becomes aware of himself as an individual. As an individual, he feels a sense of belonging, which gives his life meaning and direction. Without meaning, he would doubt everything around him and cease to live life.  

4) Fromm says man gains freedom from his “original oneness”, and has the potential to act “in the spontaneity of love and productive work” (p. 23). However, if man chooses security by forming ties with the outside world he will destroy his freedom and the integrity of the self (p. 23).    

5) Fromm says man’s biological weakness is the condition of the human culture (p. 33). Man is the weakest of all animals at birth. He must adapt to his surroundings by learning, not by instinct. At a certain point in human evolution, he separates himself from nature. Fromm says “human existence and freedom are from the beginning inseparable” (p. 32). However, Fromm calls this type of freedom - negative freedom, “Freedom is not used in its positive sense of ‘freedom to’ (self-realize and act spontaneously through love and work), but in its negative sense of ‘freedom from’ (instinct, and interpersonal dependencies)” (p. 32). Negative and positive freedom will be discussed in more detail later in this paper.

6) Fromm identifies five basic human needs: relatedness, rootedness, creativity, identity and frame of orientation. 

a) Relatedness: we are aware of our separateness and have a need to overcome it, however, we can choose not to overcome it and become a narcissist.

b) Rootedness: we need to feel as though we have a home and not live as an outsider, however, we may choose never to leave home and become fearful of the outside world.

c) Creativity: we want to create by expressing who we are, however, we can choose to stifle our creativity and choose to hate, destroy and feel powerful.

d) Identity: we need a sense of identity to define the “I am” of our individuality, however, we can choose to conform and become part of a group to mask our true identity.

e) Orientation: we need our illusions, myths, fantasies, religions and philosophies to give our lives structure. These cultural fictions form psychological frameworks that define who we are, and what boundaries we have. We can try convincing ourselves that these fictions have meaning, or we can try finding real meaning through love, creativity and human understanding.

7) When speaking about the emergence of the individual, Fromm also defines the following terms:

a) Individuation: in childhood we become educated causing frustrations and prohibitions which change the mother-child relationship. The individual can become hostile, dangerous and antagonistic. As the child grows-up his personality develops, but his original identity is lost as he becomes separated from his primary relationships. 

b) Authority: the child does not yet view his parents as separate entities. They are still a part of his world, and submission to them is different from the submission that exists between two fully separated individuals.

c) Self Strength: the child’s ‘will’ and reason start to develop. There is an organization and integration of the personality as a whole called “the self” (p. 29). Fromm says “one side of the growing process of individuation is the growth of self strength” (p. 29). 

d) Growing Aloneness: after leaving the security of the symbolic ‘Garden of Eden’, the child becomes aware of being separate from others. Separation causes him to feel powerless and anxious. He stands alone facing the world.

8) At this stage in human development, Fromm says we are tempted to relinquish our individuality by hiding in the outside world (p. 29). This form of submission may comfort the individual temporarily, but he gives up his strength and integrity of the self. Subsequently, the individual’s insecurities will increase and turn into hostility and rebelliousness. As an alternative, Fromm speaks about a “spontaneous relationship to man and nature”. This type of relationship is better than submission, because the individual connects to the world without giving up his individuality. Fromm says love and productive work are embedded within the personality, and by connecting to the world, the self can express itself and experience growth. However, Fromm’s idea of self-expression is not an antidote for curing the despair of isolation and powerlessness.

9) Man seeks freedom from nature, but he is tied to the outside world. These ties block his “development as a free thinking, self-determining, and productive individual” (p. 35). However, if man finds his identity through nature, he will gain security and alleviate the pain of isolation and uncertainty.

10) The development of human freedom grows with the individual’s “strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings” (p. 36). However, the effects of growing individuality are isolation, lack of meaning and power, insecurity, and insignificance and powerlessness.

11) The development of personality structure is understood by studying its origins. By analyzing and contrasting capitalism and individualism, we arrive at an understanding of a “new spirit” in the personalities of those living in this social system (p. 38)

12) The first half of the book examines the development of the individual from the Middle Ages to the Reformation to the capitalist society. Fromm warns against authoritarian rule and points out the benefits of capitalism as a system allowing the individual to express his unique qualities. The Middle Ages were characterized by a lack of individual freedom (p. 41). Man was not free, but he was not alone or isolated. Like the Indian caste system, he was placed into a social order at birth and his life had meaning and certainty. He was not an individual, but understood his place in the societal hierarchy. He felt a sense of belonging and knew what was expected of him.  During this time, man experienced “a great deal of individualism in real life”, and had the freedom to express his individuality through work and his emotional life. However, this societal structure gives man security, but robs him of his self awareness. In a feudal system, the individual is only conscious of himself as a member of his group or class. However, the individual is not yet aware of his individuality (as we understand it today), so he is not deprived of his freedom (p. 43). As the medieval society became weaker, individualism within all social classes began to blossom. This development in human behavior allowed the middle and lower classes to acquire wealth based on individual achievement. This new economic opportunity for the masses threatened wealthy capitalists who had nothing to gain from the break-down of the feudal system (p. 44).        

13) During the Italian Renaissance, economic and cultural developments allowed the individual to emerge from the class system. However, as man broke away from his group, he lost his security and certainty of life. During the Reformation, man suffered from emptiness and powerlessness which had its roots in Protestant doctrines and newly found freedoms (p.74).

14) Psychologically, faith has two different meanings (p. 78). It either affirms one’s life or increases doubt. Fromm says doubt is the starting point of modern philosophy, and those in power wanted to silence it (p. 78). He says doubt disappears when man does not feel isolated, and finds a meaningful place in the world (p.79). 

15) New religious doctrines taught man to accept his evil nature, and only by complete submission would he be loved by God. This idea made the individual feel insignificant and powerless in the hands of God, and he lost self-confidence and dignity. Psychologically, he lost spiritual salvation and spiritual purpose outside himself (being good and going to God) (p.83).

Both Luther and Calvin had the same psychological appeal; they taught man to feel and express freedom. However, this type of freedom had to be achieved through man’s complete submission to the Church and God. Only then, could he overcome insignificance and powerlessness (p. 87).       

16) During the Reformation, as capitalism began to spread, man experienced an increased sense of independence and freedom. However, those in the middle class did not gain much power or security from these new freedoms (p. 100). Instead, freedom brought isolation and personal insignificance. Protestantism gave expression to man’s feelings of resentment and insignificance. These religious doctrines taught people to despise and distrust themselves and others (p. 100). Fromm says Protestantism satisfied the needs of “frightened, uprooted and isolated” individuals who were adjusting to the social dynamics of a new world (p. 101). This new character structure led to compulsive working, thriftiness, spiritual pursuits, and sense of duty. These qualities pushed capitalism forward and satisfied the needs of man’s new personality. The social process molded man’s new character and new ways of thinking in religion, economics, politics, and philosophy (p. 101). Man’s new character structure was satisfying, stabilizing and compatible with these new modes of thought.

17) In modern society, the individual is the center of his activities. Fromm says self –interest and egotism are his most powerful motivating forces (p. 109). Man’s purpose over the last four-hundred years has been to think and act for his own benefit. Whatever he thinks his purpose is - it is not – it is the purpose of the organization or group. Capitalism affirms man’s role as a productive member of the group, but this way of life leads to a negation of the self. Capitalism leads to subordination of the individual, because the individual is working for profit. Man’s incentive is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, and spend as little as possible. By accumulating capital, he is becoming a servant to the organization he has helped to build. However, once again, man feels insignificant and powerless (p.112).

18) Even though it seems modern man is asserting the self, his ‘real’ self is “weakened and reduced to a segment of the total self-intellect and will power” (p.116). Therefore, he is excluding all other parts of his personality. Fromm says, self-confidence is a “feeling for the self”, but it is only a reflection of what others think about the individual (p. 119). If man feels unpopular, he views himself as a nobody. These feelings of low self-esteem harm the personality because he feels inferior to others.

19) At the end of Chapter Four, Fromm says man tries to escape from freedom because he feels alone, fearful and confused under the capitalist system. Fromm says there comes a time when the individual can no longer tolerate the social, economic and family pressures of his daily routine. He must either escape from freedom or progress from negative to positive freedom.  

20) Fromm describes three types of freedom:

a) Authoritarianism: the tendency to relinquish the independence of one’s individual self, or fuse oneself with someone or something outside of oneself to gain strength the individual is lacking (p. 141).     

Fromm says, “In authoritarian philosophy the concept of equality does not exist” (Fromm, 1941, p. 173). In this case, the individual sees two types of people: those who have power, and those who have none. Fromm says this person may have “sado-masochistic strivings” and wants to cling to dependant relationships and objects (p. 173). However, he may reject this mindset, and want to become an authority figure and give structure to others.  In either case, this individual is attempting to escape from freedom. In an authoritarian system, Fromm says masochism is an attempt to lose oneself, and in the process, lose one’s freedom (p. 152). Fromm defines sadism as having complete mastery over another person and making that person a helpless object. The sadist wants absolute control over another, and wants to be seen as a god. He also wants to humiliate, enslave and cause pain to another. Fromm says masochistic and sadistic tendencies are found in the same type of individual (p. 143). The masochist and sadist are both trying to escape from aloneness and powerlessness. They are both free in the negative sense – alone, and living in a world filled with alienation and hostility (p. 151). Psychologically, masochism and sadism allow people to escape from isolation and weakness of the self. These two personality types are symbiotic. They both are seeking a uniting of their own self with another self, and each loses their integrity as one becomes dependent on the other (P. 158). 

b) Destructiveness: Fromm says the individual who is feeling powerless may choose destructiveness as a method of eliminating any object that makes him this way (Fromm, p.1941, p. 179). If this person is destroying everything around him, he remains alone in the world and will not be destroyed by it. He may turn to destructive ways such as brutality, terrorism, addictions, etc. to cope with his powerlessness. Fromm says there are two types of destructiveness (p. 180). One type results from a specific situation and is not pathological; the other is a persistent destructive tendency waiting to be expressed. The first type is a reaction to emotional feelings or ways of life that one is identified with. It is a defensive mechanism of lashing-out as the individual defends his way of thinking, feeling or acting. The second type requires no reason for behaving destructively, and is considered irrational. Sometimes, the person’s own self is the object of destructiveness. This type of behavior can lead to physical illness or suicide (p. 180). If the individual’s power to destroy is blocked, he may turn the destructiveness inward and try to destroy himself. Fromm says “the amount of destructiveness in an individual is proportionate to the amount of expansiveness that is curtailed” (p. 183). Therefore, an individual’s destructiveness is caused by the suppression of his individuality. Fromm says, “Destructiveness is the outcome of an unlived life”; a way of escaping freedom for those feeling isolated and helpless (p. 184).

c) Automaton Conformity:  Fromm says this system at automaton conformity is the most common method for of escaping from freedom (Fromm, 1941, p. 187). It is most often found in the culture of a democracy, where the individual is constantly being pressuring to conform (p. 241).

If we do not draw attention to ourselves and hide among the masses, we lose our individuality. When we conform, we are not alone and cease to fear the world. Fromm says there is a big price to pay for sacrificing one’s individuality: loss of self (p. 187). This occurs when we hide in the culture or within organizations to escape from freedom. By living this way, we feel ‘normal’ and go along with the crowd. We have fewer decisions to make and feel less responsible for our lives. We do not have to acknowledge our freedom. 

21) Fromm says freedom to express our thoughts only means something if we have thoughts of our own (p. 241). This type of freedom will only last if our psychological condition helps us to establish a true sense of individuality.  However, in our culture, the individuality of the child is restricted because of suppression of spontaneity. The child is taught to have feelings that are not his own. He is also taught to suppress feelings of hostility, and not notice negative qualities of others. These attempts to alter the child’s behavior confuse him, and the explanations given to him - frighten him. This type of behavioral conditioning leads to friendliness and cheerfulness that are unnatural, automatic responses (p. 243).

22) Fromm says the individual’s greatest strengths are the integration of the personality, and knowledge of the self (p. 249). Therefore, in order to “know thyself”, the individual needs to know who he is, and why he exists.

23) Fromm examines why people think about acquiring possessions. He points out that capitalism forces man to ask himself why he needs a better job, more pay, more trips and more things. However, after achieving his goals, the individual asks himself why he is unhappy. Most people tend to dismiss these questions, continue pursuing their goals, and do not make changes in their lives. However, it is possible the individual may see a glimmer of truth: he is deluding himself into thinking he truly knows what he wants - but this is an illusion. He only knows what he is supposed to want (p. 252). Fromm says this is one of the most difficult concepts for man to understand and resolve. 

24) Fromm says we are automatons and have become prey to a new type of authority. We live by our illusions which help us feel more secure, however, the self is weakened and we feel powerless and insecure (p. 253). Man thinks and feels what he is supposed to think and feel, but he loses the self. This loss of self leads him to ask “who am I?”, but he finds no proof of his identity. So, he finds himself conforming to the expectations of others to gain a sense of security (p. 254). However, by giving up his individuality and spontaneity, he is trapped in a box of his own making. He is dead emotionally, mentally and therefore, deeply unhappy. He turns to temporary excitements in the outside world, which eventually leave him “starved for life” (p. 255).

25)     Fromm says, “Positive freedom is identical with the full realization of the individual’s potentialities, together with his ability to live actively and spontaneously” (Fromm, 1941, p. 270). By allowing himself to blossom and unfold, the individual understands his unique identity, and decides to express himself in the world. He is free to live moment-to-moment and delight in his freedom. He no longer needs to escape from freedom. He is expanding his thinking, following his creativity, and welcoming the responsibility that freedom offers. Fromm believes man can be free, live with others, quell his doubts, and have an integrated personality. Freedom can be attained through realization of the self. Fromm’s self-realization is a total realization of man’s personality through an “active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities” (p. 258). Fromm says this type of potential exists within each person, but only becomes real when expressed in the world (p. 258). He says “positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total integrated personality” (p. 258) Spontaneous activity can overcome aloneness without sacrificing the self. Love, as a spontaneous affirmation of others, is one of the most important parts of unifying with others. (p. 261).

26) Fromm says that positive freedom points to the power of the individual self and not to a higher power. Therefore, positive freedom implies there is nothing higher than man himself.

27) Fromm has misgivings about ‘democratic capitalism’, and prefers the term ‘democratic socialism’ (p. 272). He says “only in a planned economy in which the whole nation has rationally mastered economic and social forces can the individual share responsibility and creative intelligence for his work” (p.273). He argues that an economy should meet all the needs of its people. Fromm considers this form of democracy as the best form of social order, which is conducive to the development of healthy individuals. He believes “democracy is a system that creates economic, political and cultural conditions for the full development of the individual” (p. 274). Man cannot afford to lose democratic ideals or compromise democratic principles (p. 272). However, Fromm believes democracy has not gone far enough in expanding individual freedom (p. 272). He says we need to decentralize and plan for the future. He dislikes the lack of planning in a democracy, and says social problems must be solved in rational ways. He is especially critical of the few wealthy and influential individuals within a democracy that have too much economic power. He says these individuals are making important decisions for the society, but are not accountable to the people (p. 272). As an alternative, Fromm says we must have faith in the people, and in their ability to take care of the needs of each other.

28) Fromm ends the book on a positive note. He says democracy will triumph over authoritarian systems if people choose to be aggressive, expand their thinking and move forward. People living in a democracy must never forget the ideals of freedom which others have fought and died for (p. 276). However, people must keep their faith in life, truth, freedom and the “spontaneous realization of the individual self” – so, they will not want to escape from freedom (p. 276).


Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York: Rinehart & Company.