This September marked the 50th year since I began my professional career in Ethical Culture. It was in 1969, at the age of 21, that I began my work as a leader-in-training at the New York Ethical Society, and I conclude that I was probably the youngest person to do so in the history of our movement. Since that time, I have long lost count of how many platform addresses I have rendered, but it is probably between 500 and 600. And if truth be told, I think it quite extraordinary, and much to their credit, that in the early years of my career, people two, three, and even four times my age would actually come out to hear what I had to say.
Back then, and throughout my long tenure, I have always taken my commitment to the Sunday morning address very seriously. In the mind of our founder, Felix Adler, and in mine as well, it is the central defining activity of Ethical Culture. It is the experience that expresses what we are and the occasion from which our message goes forth. And it is the weekly event that helps to bind us together as a community.
Throughout the years, I have guided myself by a list of principles when thinking about what to say on Sunday mornings. First, I am committed to trying to say something new and original with each address and I have never given the same address twice at the same Society. And, while I am sure I could dig into my archives and pull out a talk I gave 30 years ago and no one would know the difference, my ethics and my conscience would simply not allow it.
Second, I don’t believe in talking down to my audience. While the platform address should not be an academic lecture, and at its best should strive to inspire, I recoil at the idea of giving talks that are simplistic, platitudinous, or dopey, or strive to uplift the emotions while being devoid of intellectual content. Ideas matter. And it is my bias that our addresses should give those who come to hear them something to think about, and at their best discuss with others over the dinner table, so to speak. When I hear that that, in fact, does happen, I consider it a very high compliment.
Working out intellectual or philosophical problems
And lastly, and this is my own personal proclivity, I try to steer clear of talking about myself. We are about ethics and ethical ideals—private ethics, social ethics, public ethics, and I am very self-conscious not to make my addresses self-centered. But in a certain sense this is only overtly true. At a deeper level, the vast majority of my talks are really autobiographical, in the sense that I use the occasion of creating the address to challenge myself with the purpose of working out intellectual or philosophical problems that I myself am struggling with, and that tension becomes a stimulus to my creativity.
But now, after having been at this for half a century, I feel the time has come to occasionally begin to look back and perhaps wander into some more personal experiences that inform my thinking, and that is what I want to do this morning
This morning, I want to talk about one specific thinker more than any other who is responsible for having molded and given direction to my values and my life, both personally and professionally. In fact, it is absolutely and totally true that this thinker was responsible for my becoming a leader in the Ethical Culture movement, which, needless to say, has not been an insignificant portion of my life.
The figure who had such a penetrating influence on my life was the American social psychologist Erich Fromm, who was born in 1900 and died in 1980.
But Fromm would not have made such a significant impression on me in my early life experience had I not been disposed to receive his ideas and find them attractive and relevant to where I was at a critical time in my life. So I need to begin there, and this involves being personal.
Extremely unhappy adolescence
Fromm became very important to me because my adolescence was an extremely unhappy one. I was the older of two children, and my mother, who loved me dearly, and whom I honor as a sincerely ethical person, died when I was 12 years old. The cause of my mom’s death, when she was 47, was probably a cerebral hemorrhage that she suffered at home. She was taken to the hospital, where she died after about 10 days, me having never seen her again after the ambulance took her away.
My father was always remote. Born in 1903, he was 10 years older than my mother and spent his childhood in abject poverty in a shtetle in the Ukraine. Except for three years of Hebrew and religious training, my father had absolutely no formal education, though in his wandering, he managed to pick up seven languages. Characteristic of men from that time and place, he spoke very little of his background and I know almost nothing about his life before my time. He did tell me once that he witnessed pogroms in his village and had suffered from typhoid fever as a child. He must have traveled around Europe as a teenager, separated from his older siblings, and settled in Cuba in the early 1920s, probably after the doors of immigration to the United States were closed. He became in Havana a haberdasher and a successful middle-class businessman, in what were probably the best years of his life. In 1946, he relocated to the United States, soon met the woman who was to be my mother, quickly married, and I was born in 1948, when my father was 45 years old.
My father spoke with a thick accent, was very formal and formally dressed, was humorless, and never assimilated to America and its values. As mentioned, he was remote, I believe self-absorbed, and had no sensitivity to the needs and feelings of a child. I experienced him as a somewhat intimidating figure, especially compared to my mother’s embracing warmth and love.
After my mother’s death, my father proved totally incapable of maintaining a viable household for me and my younger brother. He fell apart physically, mentally, and emotionally. He became a tyrant who went into fits of rage, and because he was pathologically extremely anxious about money, and as an expression of his increasing emotional illness, was not beyond histrionically feigning heart attacks if I were ask him for 35 cents for school lunch money and accuse me of trying, in effect, to kill him. It was a tough environment for a withdrawn and vulnerable 14-year-old to bear. Because I was the older, he took out his rage on me primarily and demanded that I do all the housework, which, as a child, was beyond my capabilities. In his later years, he became increasingly mentally incoherent and developed one of the earliest diagnosed cases of myesthenia gravis, a neuro-muscular disorder that impaired his ability to see as well as walk and left him very frightened. My greatest impulse was wanting to escape a miserable and frightening environment , which I did through taking long, solitary walks in my neighborhood in Queens. For the last three years of his life, my father was in a nursing home, which created the unusual situation of two minor children living alone in an apartment without any adult supervision, care, or, needless to say, love.
I was always a hyper-sensitive child and this unusual situation emotionally took its toll on me. There were no alternative adult figures I could look to for nurturance, and so through my adolescence, I was extremely lonely and very depressed. It was a condition that lasted until my early twenties, and as with all children who had a difficult start, it left its scars.
Throwing myself into books
Not surprisingly, I looked for anchorages to cling to to try to pull myself out of my emotional condition, and because of my family background and my temperament, I focused my energy on schoolwork and developing my intellectual capabilities, which included throwing myself into books as a mechanism of escape from the torrents of my inner life. I became a voracious reader, which set the tone for the rest of my life. I read both very long works of fiction, from “Moby Dick” to “Ben-Hur,” to Dostoievsky, to all of John Steinbeck, as well as endless non-fiction. In college, which I started when I was 16, I majored in Latin and Greek, which demanded a lot of rigor and attention to the details of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. It was a way of giving structure to my life, while shutting out the world.
It was around this time that I began reading the psychologists, especially those who became identified with the humanistic psychology movement, such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, and I read a good deal of Freud ,as well. It was through this interest, spurred by my personal needs, that I discovered the works of Erich Fromm, which provided for me a kind of emotional lifeline and a psychology that appealed to a sense of hope that I looked to to leverage myself out of my feelings of deprivation and misery. In short, the appeal of Fromm’s thought was not merely for me intellectual, but very personal, almost as a vehicle to personal salvation in a psychological sense.
I simply found Erich Fromm’s ideas immensely captivating and I couldn’t get enough of them. Within a short period time, I devoured all of his popular writings. Fromm, although technically very capable, wrote primary for the general public in a style that was extremely accessible and engaging, logically comprehensive and coherent ,while not being simplistic. While easy to grasp, I sensed that behind his writing there was a theoretical intelligence and creativity.
Apparently, I was not the only person for whom Erich Fromm had great appeal. Fromm had taught at Columbia and other universities but came to feel that academia was too narrow, and that the problems of the day required that he address public audiences. According to the forward in a recent biography by Lawrence Friedman, a Harvard scholar, it’s noted that Fromm:
“…directed his books toward a broad public…and the way they were received was nothing short of spectacular. Their sales were not in the thousands, but in the millions. Indeed, only one of his books sold fewer than a million copies. The record was set by The Art of Loving, which since its publication more than half a century ago has sold more than 25 million copies and still sells well today. His emphasis on the importance of love, his hatred of war, his commitment to democratic socialist values, his searching critique of consumerism and materialism, and his overarching humanism has made him one of the most admired figures of the twentieth century.”
His philosophy responded to my loneliness
For a kid who was lonely and miserable, Fromm’s writing provided a way out. His philosophy responded to my loneliness with an image of loving social relations and the power and warmth of the human bond. More importantly, for an adolescent who was withdrawn and felt himself a victim of horrible circumstance, he demonstrated that one had the resources within oneself to mold one’s own life and to live a life that was fulfilling and productive. Fromm had written, “Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of the self.” And his biographer, Lawrence Friedman, who noted, for Fromm, “reduced to its essence, the productive life was rational, spontaneous, creative, and loving, if not exuberant.” The centerpiece of Fromm’s philosophy was the living of a productive life. For Fromm, the very purpose of life is simply to live life to the fullest, and I became determined to do so. It was thoughts such as these that, to a forlorn kid, was simply music to my ears and filled me with hope. They also gave my life a sense of purpose and direction. In short, I became committed to getting beyond my condition by setting goals for myself (I have always ben very goal-oriented) in the service of living an energetic and full life, sometimes, admittedly, going to extremes. And so, for example, I drove to Alaska when I was 21; fulfilled a wanderlust by traveling to every continent; through rigorous devotion and hard work, I acquired three graduate degrees from one of the world’s greatest universities, and, not least, married a wonderful woman with six children, all inspired by the humanistic project of living a full and active life. I dare say most 24-year-old men would flee from a young woman with six children. Beyond love and attraction, I embraced it as an opportunity.
But digging deeper, I feel a need to explain the basis of Fromm’s social psychology. Erich Fromm saw himself as an exponent of the contributions of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Fromm was a social thinker, but by profession a psychoanalyst, for whom Freud in the early and mid-20th century was the reigning authority. Though Fromm pays great homage to Freud, and he traveled in psychoanalytic circles, he is really more interested in using Freud as a foil to demonstrate how his own thought departs from Freud’s and his own understanding of human nature improves upon that of the master.
Fromm also borrows from the thought of Karl Marx, not so much Marx the economist, but Marx the social thinker, whom Fromm interprets as a humanist. Indeed, he sees Marx as an intellectual hero, and it is my view that his humanistic interpretation of Marx, though valuable in some aspects, is greatly overstated.
Fromm’s departure from Freud
The launching point for Fromm’s psychology is his departure from Freud. Freud’s understanding of human behavior is tightly rooted in human biology, especially man’s instinctual nature, especially his libidinal and sexual drives, as well as aggression. In simplest terms, our characters are sublimated expressions of our instinctual and libidinal natures.
It is Fromm’s salient contribution that our characters are not formed in reaction to our biological drives, and in this regard Fromm introduces his governing concept of what he calls “social character.”
First and foremost, human beings are social beings. We live our lives with others, we need others for our survival, and we form our own characters in our social relations with others. In short, according to Fromm, it is not our libidinal energy that shapes our individual personality, but our lives are shaped by the social structure and culture in which we live. As Fromm put it, “Socially produced drives are specifically human and have to be explained as reactions toward a particular fit of social conditions and not as ‘sublimations of instincts.’ “
By positing that our characters are formed by the nature of our social relations, Fromm by no means was suggesting that the human being is a tabula rasa that is passively molded by society and our social relations.
Rather, he believed that there is such a thing as human nature that propels us forward and, in this regard, rests his philosophy of human nature on the thought of Aristotle and Spinoza, and his view of human nature is central to his thought. It is also an idea that had captivating appeal to me and still does.
In Fromm’s view, as with all living thing, we have an innate propensity, as he puts it, to develop or unfold our latent potentialities. As living beings we all have an inborn propensity to expand our powers in the service of becoming the kinds of people we become. We all have an organic drive to actualize or realize our potentials, just as an acorn has the natural propensity to become a mighty oak.
In simplest terms, for Fromm, fulfillment or happiness is equated with the successful unfolding or realization of our potentials. Contrawise, when our potentials are stunted or go unrealized we find ourselves unhappy and unfilled. And the power lis within us and not outside of us to set our course on the successful realization of our potentials—our physical, intellectual, emotional, and sexual potentials.
In his own words:
“To be alive is a dynamic not a static, concept. Existence and the unfolding of the specific powers of an organism are one and the same….The aims of a man’s life, therefore, is to be understood as the unfolding of his powers according to the laws of his nature.
Man, however, does not exist in general. While sharing the core of qualities with all members of his species, he is always an individual, a unique entity, different from everybody else. He differs by the particular blending of character, temperament, talents, dispositions, just as he differs in his fingertips. He can affirm his human potentialities, only by realizing his individuality.
The duty to be alive is the same as the duty to become oneself, to become the individual one potentially is.
Vice is irresponsibility to oneself
To sum up, good in humanistic ethics is the affirmation of life, the unfolding of man’s powers. Virtue is responsibility toward his own existence. Evil constitutes the crippling of man’s powers; vice is irresponsibility toward himself.
But rather than this being an individual, go-it-alone process, Fromm affirms that human nature is inherently social. For as he notes, “…it is one of the characteristics of human nature that man finds his fulfillment and happiness only in relatedness to and solidarity with his fellow men.”
In short, Fromm’s project and his ethics are humanistic to the core and the project of living is something that takes place over a lifetime, and for Fromm, it is an art. As he beautifully states:
“…not only medicine, engineering, and painting are arts; living itself is an art—in fact, the most important and at the same time the most difficult and complex art to be practiced by man. Its practice is not this or that specialized performance, but the performance of living, the process of developing into that which one is potentially. In the art of living, man is both the artist and the object of his art; he is the sculptor and the marble; the physician and the patient.”
That image, that we have it within us to fashion our own lives and as we fashion our lives, we are both the artist and the objects of our art, has always resonated with me very powerfully and it is a refrain that I still return to often after more than 50 years. The person who so develops her or his own life Fromm refers to as the productive character and the aim of developing a productive character is, he declares, the purpose and end of life. Speaking personally, again, for a kid beaten down by life, these ideas that spoke to my own role in developing my life and doing so in a social context, which also laid out the purpose of life, namely to live it to the fullest, were truly inspiring, or as we might say today, they were empowering ideas.
Freud had once said that success in life is manifested most of all in love and work, and I want to speak briefly about work, which brings me to this very place.
Without work, we do not survive
In his philosophy of work, Fromm borrowed most of all from Karl Marx’s early thought. Fromm was greatly taken by Marx’s earliest major writings, which were titled “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.” In those brief essays, Marx lays out his theory of alienation. Work is central to our existence. Without work, we do not survive and so what we do and the conditions under which we work are central to what we become. According to Marx, under capitalism, the worker is subject to a four-fold type of alienation. He or she is alienated from the means of production in that the means of production are owned and managed by the owners and the ruling class. The worker is also alienated from the products of his or her labor. He does not own what he produces. Thirdly, he or she is alienated from his or her fellow worker and ultimately, the worker is alienated from herself in that by being chained to an assembly line or to a desk toiling for endless hours, the worker is not exercising his or her own interests, gifts, or potentials. Work, under capitalism, to a great extent is alienated drudgery.
For Marx and for Fromm, work is central to what we become. In simplest terms, when we work we are extending our powers to mold the world outside of ourselves. And when we so exercise our powers to transform the world outside of ourselves, we reciprocally or dialectically transform ourselves. In other words, and in briefest terms, the primary purpose of work is not to accumulate wealth, become rich, or even make a living. The primary purpose of work is to, again, express ourselves; it is to unfold our latent potentialities and to mold our characters.
And this insight become the source of greatest personal consequences for me. Here, I am not exaggerating in the slightest. When I entered that stage of life when I went into the work force, I never gave a second thought to making money. In fact, I set the stage for that values orientation by majoring in college in classical Greek and Latin, which hardly are fields one enters into if becoming rich is one’s foremost priority.
In fact, I chose a career in Ethical Culture leadership because I believed it came closest in the real world to the Frommian ideal of enabling me, as best as I could imagine, to live out my values, ideals, and interests in the service of building my character, in other words becoming the kind of person I want to be. Two things have resulted from following out Erich Fromm’s neo-Marxist philosophy of work. The first is that I have been amazingly fulfilled in my work, a statement that, tragically, few people, I conclude, can make. Here is a vocation where I can follow my own interests, engage myself deeply with other people and a community, develop my intellectual, social, and moral potentials and fulfill my vocational pursuits with my integrity intact. Erich Fromm has led me to a very privileged work life and I don’t regret it for a moment. The second result is that I am not rich. But, as Fromm would be quick to say, that’s not the point of life, anyway.
So far, I have been discussing Fromm’s personal psychology and his philosophy of work. I want to conclude with a brief review of his social philosophy, which I think remains relevant to our current moment.
‘Escape From Freedom’
In 1941, during the war, Fromm wrote “Escape From Freedom,” which attempted in part to explain in psychological terms the emergence of Fascism. For Fromm, Fascism and Nazism did not arise simply on the power of authoritarian leaders and hateful ideology, but because of the social characters of masses of people who were ready to embrace them.
As individuals, we all grow in our freedom and independence from our parents, and though we cherish freedom, the downside of freedom can lead to being alone and isolated. For Fromm, the condition of isolation generates anxiety that is simply intolerable. As a result, people have a propensity to seek mechanisms to “escape from freedom.” The first approach reflects Fromm’s ideal. He notes:
“By one course, the person can progress to “positive freedom,” he can relate himself spontaneously to the world of love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities; he can thus become one again with man, nature, and himself, without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self. The other course open to him is to fall back, to give up his freedom, and to try to overcome his aloneness by eliminating the gap that has arisen between himself and the world. …This course of escape is characterized by its compulsive character, like every escape from threatening panic; it is also characterized by the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self.”
Escaping anxiety leads to embracing authoritarian personalities
This mechanism of escape leads to what Fromm calls the “authoritarian personality” that can take the form of a sadistic person who seeks to make others dependent on himself or herself, to exploit others, or to cause pain to others by humiliating and embarrassing them. The sadistic personality can rationalize his control over others by claiming that “I am so wonderful and unique, that I have a right to expect that other people become dependent on me.”
The flip side of the sadistic personality structure is the masochist, that is, people who feel themselves insignificant and show a marked dependence on powers outside of themselves, on other people, institutions, or nature. It was Fromm’s view that social, economic, and historical conditions in Germany before the war generated large swaths of the German population with this authoritarian character orientation. Thus they were primed to be led and manipulated by a demagogic and dictatorial leader.
In the 1950s, and looking to American society, Fromm was to use parallel ideas to try to explain how corporate capitalism reduces the worker to what he referred to as “automaton conformity,” in which one’s individuality is submerged and one becomes as a cog in the machine, so to speak. It was the America of Willy Loman, of the person who may be materially well off, but spiritually impoverished. It was a society in which materialism, consumerism, conformity, and passivity robbed people of being in touch with their own unique identities, of people’s dependence on themselves as the active centers of their powers and experiences rather than to find it by conforming with others. By contrast, Fromm was arguing that a sane society consisted of citizens who were self-directed. As such, they depended on their own capacities to love, and to create, to think and reason, and to feel connected to themselves and to others.
Their thinking can be applied today
In the 1950s, Fromm was not the only one to think this way. He borrowed from the sociologists David Reisman and Richard Hofstadter and the anthropologist Margaret Meade and many others who were writing about the loss of productive individualism and the atrophy of democracy in the face of materialism and conformity brought on by mass society and corporate capitalism. In our time, such thinkers and their critique of America deserve, I believe, another look. They may have written 70 years ago, but much of their thinking can be applied to our current situation and our concern about the vitalization of democracy in the face of the juggernaut of corporate power and the blandishments of materialism that diminishes sensitivity to more humanistic and abiding moral values.
Erich Fromm’s answer on the political level made him a type of social prophet. His response to the crushing power of the corporate state that generates mindless consumerism, materialism, and conformity was the emergence of a democratic socialist humanism that would enable human flourishing as individuals and in solidarity with others. And, peaking again in personal terms, Fromm’s humanistic vision of society, since I encountered him in the 1960s, a period, to say the least, of fervent political idealism, has framed my own political and social vision, however utopian it may be, and however it may ultimately elude our grasp. At its base, again, is a society that recognizes human flourishing as its highest purpose and aim.
In closing, let me say that we change as we grow. Since I read Erich Fromm and was inspired by him as a teenager, I have encountered many other thinkers and lived through my own life experiences. As a result, there is much in his thinking that I have moved beyond. One fault is that in his presentation he always and with great enchanting power speaks of the human being in ideal terms. In other words, he has little positive regard for the human being in his fallen state, so to speak. We are all imperfect and always will be and yet there is little in his thinking that allows for that and in that sense, there is a type of moralism in his philosophy in that he sets goals for both individuals and society that can never truly be met. One can never live up to his standard of the fully developed person. There is beauty in the human condition, even though we are less than perfect, and there is need for self-acceptance in our imperfections. Yet Fromm’s philosophy leaves little room for that. There are other issues, such as a paucity of discussion in his thought of our social obligations to others, which has become more of a mainstay of my mature thinking. And I could mention other points of departure that I have embraced.
That is now. But back then, when I was young and impressionable, and very much in need, I was inspired, and Erich Fromm more than anyone else made me a humanist and set me on my life’s course. And as I look back, I conclude that I could have done a lot worse.
Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, delivered this platform address on Dec. 1, 2019.