The higher a species on a scale of mental and physical faculties, the more flexible its patterns of action – a scale of development that culminates in Homo sapiens. Evidently our predecessors were only able to emerge from the animal kingdom by repeatedly exercising their independence to govern themselves and transcend coercive instincts. Unlike animals, which react predictably and impulsively to situations, people are able to carefully consider a course of action. ‘Human existence begins when the way to act is no longer fixed by hereditarily given mechanisms,’ notes Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom. ‘In other words, human existence and freedom are from the beginning inseparable … In the animal there is an uninterrupted chain of reactions starting with a stimulus, like hunger, and ending with a more or less strictly determined course of action … In man that chain is interrupted … he must choose between different courses of action. Instead of a predetermined instinctive action, man has to weigh possible courses of action in his mind; he starts to think.’13
Freedom is also a fundamental way we engage the world outside ourselves. While liberty in the physical environment is only one avenue for achieving a sense of causation and self-esteem, it remains the most essential, for it can be exercised immediately and spontaneously, providing a stream of direct evidence about our individual powers and supporting the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. When we are able to act upon and with the physical world, we overcome not only the modern malaise of feeling alone and isolated, but also the impotence of feeling inept and small, as if we were nothing but a particle of dust at the mercy of external forces.
When this validation of human significance is repeatedly denied, our ability to act is paralyzed, posing a real threat to our freedom. We are told by psychiatrists that we are then only able to satisfy our need for belonging by abandoning the search for autonomy and finding new submissive ties with the world. Fromm traces a whole litany of modern ills to a growing frustration over unrealized freedom: as opportunities to exercise independence wane, we need these opportunities more and more, owing to what he describes as a process of growing ‘individuation’. We have lost our earlier unity with the world: phylogenetically, as a species that has emerged from an animal state; culturally, as a society striving beyond a tribal existence; and individually, as we grow out of childhood dependence. We have lost all of these primary bonds and securities, to which we can never return, while the world simultaneously eliminates our chances to realize existence as autonomous beings.
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Among our various ‘escapes from freedom’, Fromm remarks, is a willing submission to the power of authorities or culture at large and a desire to dominate others and the objects around us in order to bear the helplessness felt in an uncontrollable environment. Equally omnipresent is the growth of human destructiveness, which provides another means for overcoming a sense of powerlessness in the world by, quite literally, destroying it – or oneself. But the most pervasive solution to a feeling of ineffectiveness is simply to accept one’s condition: to become a complacent spectator, conforming to the life of a powerless recipient of stimulation. But a steep price is paid for this existential numbing, for it demands the loss of one’s feelings of self, and discarding the self by reducing oneself to a thing.
Manifestations of all these debilitating effects, and their illusions of individuality, are by now so prevalent that we scarcely recognize them anymore. In addition to our more obvious submissions to mass behaviour, a quieter kind of subservience appears in the manipulated and passive state of a consumer society: an intellectual compliance with advertising; a materialistic obsession with commodities; and a fixation on entertainment. I don’t mean to overstate the capacity of decorating to solve these plights, but only to argue that it plays a role in their aggravation or alleviation.
The only way to overcome these problems, according to psychiatrists from Laing to Erikson, is to continually reaffirm that we are and have faith in who we are through the possibilities and responsibilities of individual action. The human self is only as strong as it is able to realize itself through its own initiatives and capacity to be operative and effective. In a similar vein, Fromm observes, ‘if the individual realizes his self by spontaneous activity and thus relates himself to the world, he ceases to be an isolated atom; he and the world become part of one structuralized whole; he has his rightful place, and thereby his doubt concerning himself and the meaning of life disappears. This doubt sprang from his separateness . where he can live, neither compulsively nor automatically but spontaneously, the doubt disappears. He is aware of himself as an active and creative individual,’ Fromm concludes, ‘and recognizes that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.’14