The Sane Society by Erich Fromm

by stephenpalmersf

First published in 1955, The Sane Society was the first of many of Erich Fromm’s books that really had an impact on me. I bought my precious second-hand Routledge copy around thirty years ago, and it still smells of damp second-hand bookshops…

I had already read a couple of his earlier books, including The Fear Of Freedom, to which The Sane Society was a kind of continuation. Fromm described the book in the foreword as trying to “show that life in twentieth century Democracy constitutes in many ways another escape from freedom, and the analysis of this particular escape, centred around the concept of alienation, constitutes a good part of this book.”

Fromm wanted to develop what he termed a humanistic psychoanalysis. He envisaged society as insane: he wanted to make suggestions for a sane society, hence the title of the book. The chapter headings all give strong clues: Are We Sane? Can A Society Be Sick? The Human Situation. Mental Health & Society. Man In Capitalistic Society (Fromm was a devotee of Karl Marx) … Roads To Sanity. But it was chapter three, The Human Situation, that most forcefully struck me. In it Fromm proposed five fundamental human needs that “stem from the existence” of human beings. They were Relatedness vs. Narcissism, Transcendence – Creativeness vs. Destructiveness, Rootedness (which he summarised using a psychoanalytic term), Sense Of Identity – Individuality vs. Herd Conformity, and Frame Of Orientation – Reason vs. Irrationality. This idea that the human condition could be deduced from the actualities of the existence of human beings was an extraordinarily strong concept to me.

Only a hundred or so years passed between Freud’s myth-shattering discovery of the unconscious and me picking up Fromm’s book; not much time for a scientific description of the human condition to be made. And indeed, twentieth century psychology seemed to consist of lots of mutually incompatible stances and developments. Were any of Skinner’s ideas valid? Freud’s? Jung’s? R.D. Laing’s? Where next to go?

At this time I was also reading the books of Nicholas Humphrey, whose social intelligence theory of human consciousness has much to recommend it. Thus was a template created in my mind: it should be possible to make scientific progress on the matter of consciousness rather than use worthless faith-based assumptions, and it should be possible to tie in that progress with the actualities of the human condition, the things we all experience in our lives, like emotion, love, perception of time, identity, meaning-framework and so on.

Not only should it be possible, it is the only way humanity is going to overcome its myriad of problems at source. For as long as we don’t understand why religion has such a strong hold over us, we won’t overcome it. For as long as we don’t understand the dynamics of emotion, we won’t understand ourselves and our reactions to world events. A full scientific understanding of the human condition is the prime necessity for permanent human progress.

Thank goodness understanding is one-way. In the West we’ve done away with much religion, only to replace it with trivial superstitions or wishy-washy agnosticism (“I’m sure there must be something out there…”) which does us no good. Science of course has had almost nothing to say on the matter of human morals, though some brave attempts have been made, eg. The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Science, most people would say, is amoral. But the modus operandi of science is to grasp that the world is real and autonomous, having existence independent of the human mind. We then have to test the real world to see how it works – we can’t impose our guesswork upon it. So let’s follow Erich Fromm’s idea of developing a full description of the human condition. I’m not sure he got it entirely right, and many commentators think he only got it a little right, but sixty years have passed since The Sane Society was published – almost as much time as between the book’s publication and Freud’s momentous discovery. We have progressed. And we can progress further.