Individuality and Conformity

The development of Western culture went in the direction of creating the basis for the full experience of individuality. By making the individual free politically and economically, by teaching him to think for himself and freeing him from an authoritarian pressure, one hoped to enable him to feel “I” in the sense that he was the center and active subject of his powers and experienced himself as such. But only a minority achieved the new experience of “I.” For the majority, individualism was not much more than a façade behind which was hidden the failure to acquire an individual sense of identity.

Fromm, Erich. P. 63, The Sane Society.


Many substitutes for a truly individual sense of identity were sought for and found. Nation, religion, class and occupation serve to furnish a sense of identity. “I am an American,” “I am Protestant,” “I am a businessman,” are the formulae which help a man experience a sense of identity after the original clan identity has disappeared and before a truly individual sense of identity has been acquired….In the United States..where there is so much social mobility…the sense of identity is shifted more and more to the experience of conformity. Fromm, Erich. P. 63, The Sane Society.


We have reached a state of individuation in which only the fully developed, mature personality can make fruitful use of freedom; if the individual has not developed his reason and his capacity for love, he is incapable of bearing the burden of freedom and individuality, and tries to escape into artificial ties which give him a sense of belonging and rootedness. Fromm, Erich. P. 71, The Sane Society.


The inauthenticity and shallowness of the “normal” personality

Today we come across a person who acts and feels like an automaton; who never experiences anything which is really his; who experiences himself entirely as the person he thinks he is supposed to be; whose artificial smile has replaced genuine laughter; whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech; whose dulled despair has taken the place of genuine pain. Two statements can be made about theis person. One is that he suffers from a defect of spontaneity and individuality which may seem incurable. At the same time, it may be said that he does not differ essentially from millions of others who are in the same position. For most of them, the culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill. It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from the defect produced by it. Fromm, Erich. P. 24, The Sane Society.


TKB note: this speaks to the conformity that Barron, Kahlil Gibran and Jesus speak to when they say the following:


As Kahlil Gibran writes, until and unless we are willing and able to process the darker side of our relationship with seeking and transacting love – the ultimate emotion – we will be locked out of the power it holds to shake us to the very root of our being, where our fears and unworthinesses in agony await our arrival as their only deliverance and salvation. The fullest embodiment of the love that is the essence of us requires the fullest embodiment of our pain in healing ways. Barron, Daniel. P. v. There’s No Such Thing as a Negative Emotion.


But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, then it is better that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.


“What is inside you that you bring forth will save you;

What is inside you that you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”

-Jesus, from the Gospel of Thomas


Fromm quotes Adlai Stevenson, who in a 1954 speech at Columbia University said, “We are not in danger of becoming slaves anymore but of becoming robots.” Fromm, Erich. P. 96, The Sane Society.


There is a universal, normative criteria for psychological health contrary to the position of sociological relativism

There is an objectivity to the “nature of man,” including his psychic i.e. non-physical qualities, according to Fromm. Fromm, Erich. P. 21, The Sane Society.


The species “man” can be defined not only in anatomical and physiological terms; its members share basic psychic qualities, the laws which govern their mental and emotional functioning, and the aims for a satisfactory solution of the problem of human existence. Fromm, Erich. P. 21, The Sane Society.


The concept of mental health depends on our concept of that nature of man. The needs and passions of man stem from the peculiar condition of his existence. Those needs which he shares with the animal – hunger, thirst, need for sleep and sexual satisfaction – are important, being rooted in the inner chemistry of the body, and they can become all powerful when they remain unsatisfied. But even their complete satisfaction is not a sufficient condition for sanity and mental health. These depend on the satisfaction of those needs and passions which are specifically human, and which stem from the conditions of the human situation: the need for relatedness, transcendence, rootedness, the need for a sense of identity and the need for a future of orientation and devotion. The great passions of man, his lust for power, his vanity, his search for truth, his passion for love and brotherliness, his destructiveness as well as his creativeness, every powerful desire which motivates man’s actions, is rooted in this specific human source, not in the various stages of his libido as Freud’s construction postulated. Fromm, Erich. P. 67, The Sane Society.


Man’s solution to his physiological needs is, psychologically speaking, utterly simple; the difficulty here is a purely sociological and economic one. Man’s solution to his human needs is exceedingly complex, it depends on many factors and last, not least, on the way his society is organized and how this organization determines the human relations within it. Fromm, Erich. P. 67, The Sane Society.


TKB: Fromm points out (pp. 29-75) that it is man’s total situation, his entire conditions of existence – including being aware of nature, of being in relation to others, of finding meaning to his life, of having the possibility of acting from conscience not merely instinct – that condition his psyche. And that…


The understanding of man’s psyche must be based on the analysis of man’s needs stemming from the conditions of his existence. Fromm, Erich. P. 32, The Sane Society.


The most powerful forces motivating man’s behavior stem from the condition of his existence, the “human situation.” Fromm, Erich. P. 34, The Sane Society.


The whole of life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself. Fromm, Erich. P. 32, The Sane Society.


When a society is sick, “normal” personality is also sick, but won’t appear that way

TKB: Fromm is one of the few psychologists that takes on this very important perspective: that the criteria of health and wellness is a socially constructed criteria so that if society is on the whole pathological, then its criteria for healthiness is also pathological. Modern capitalist bourgeois society is a perfect example of pathological as Fromm points out (below). Few other psychologists have taken this route of considering the health or illness of society, not only the individual. It started with Freud’s discussion of it in Civilization and its Discontents. The Frankfurt School (including Marcuse, Mannheim and Habermas as well as others) also pursued it. Also, Trigant Burrow, Patrick DeMare, David Bohm, Montagu Ullman and Jeremy Taylor pursued it. It is the subject of Jack Wikse’s great essay, Practical Anthropology: Studying Our Social Neurosis.


Mental health cannot be defined in terms of the “adjustment” of the individual to his society, but, on the contrary, it must be defined in terms of the adjustment of society to the needs of man, of its role in furthering or hindering the development of mental health. Fromm, Erich. P. 71, The Sane Society.


Whether or not the individual is healthy, is primarily not an individual matter, but depends on the structure of his society. Fromm, Erich. P. 71, The Sane Society.


A healthy society furthers man’s capacity to love his fellow man, to work creatively, to develop his reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of his own productive powers. An unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms man into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives him of a sense of self, except inasmuch as he submits to others or becomes an automaton.



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