Mind/Brain Candy

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure,” Schopenhauer wrote in examining the relationship between genius and insanity, “disposes to madness.” But could what is true of the individual also be true of society — could it be that the more so-called progress polishes our collective pride and the more intellectually advanced human civilization becomes, the more it risks madness? And, if so, what is the proper corrective to restore our collective sanity?

That’s what the great German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in his timely 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library).

Fifteen years after his inquiry into why totalitarian regimes rise in Escape from Freedom, Fromm examines the promise and foibles of modern democracy, focusing on its central pitfall of alienation and the means to attaining its full potential — the idea that “progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres.”

Erich Fromm

Two decades before his elegant case for setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture, Fromm weighs the validity of our core assumption about our collective state:

Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of mental illness produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our mental health. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our mental health, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane.

Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a

Fromm notes that while modernity has increased the material wealth and comfort of the human race, it has also wrought major wars that killed millions, during which “every participant firmly believed that he was fighting in his self-defense, for his honor, or that he was backed up by God.” In a sentiment of chilling pertinence today, after more than half a century of alleged progress has drowned us in mind-numbing commercial media and left us to helplessly watch military budgets swell at the expense of funding for the arts and humanities, Fromm writes:

We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen. Any suggestion that the government should finance the production of movies and radio programs which would enlighten and improve the minds of our people would be met again with indignation and accusations in the name of freedom and idealism.

Art by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn

Less than a decade after the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his beautiful case for why leisure is the basis of culture, Fromm adds:

We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over… Society as a whole may be lacking in sanity.

Fromm points out that we can only speak of a “sane” society if we acknowledge that a society can be not sane, which in turn requires a departure from previous theories of sociological relativism postulating that “each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.” Instead, Fromm proposes a model of normative humanism — a redemptive notion that relieves some of our self-blame for feeling like we are going crazy, by acknowledging that society itself, when bedeviled by certain pathologies, can be crazy-making for the individual.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

One key source of that tension between sanity and insanity, Fromm argues, is our misconception of “human nature” as a single, static monolith, when in fact the nature of the human experience is varied and dynamic. In a sentiment which Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert would echo half a century later in his famous aphorism that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Fromm writes:

Just as man* transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant….

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

“The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.”

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

In her memoir, the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel recounted frequently having to “measure the ground with poles” when she first began making astronomical observations in the 1780s. It seems odd that something as grand and lofty as studying the heavens would necessitate something this humble and earthbound, but this seemingly mundane task is important for two reasons — it reminds us that astronomers were the original measurers of everything we know, but it also raises the question of what the ground was measured in. For it wasn’t until a generation later that the measures of the world were standardized, thanks to the French astronomers Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, who set out to unite humanity by creating a single measure: the meter, arguably the most impactful mathematical concept since the invention of zero, central to everything from the speed of light and our basic understanding of the universe to the daily practicalities of shoe sizes, doorframe dimensions, and driving speed limits. Over and over during their seven-year quest for peace through mathematical perfection, they stumbled and fell and got back up, nearly losing their heads to the guillotine on multiple occasions as they toiled to create an equalizing measurement that would “encompass nothing that was arbitrary, nor to the particular advantage of any people on the planet.”

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain

Historian Ken Alder tells the story of Delambre and Méchain’s ambitious, improbable, and heroic feat in The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (public library). He casts the stakes:

In June 1792 — in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality — two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made his way south. Each man left the capital in a customized carriage stocked with the most advanced scientific instruments of the day and accompanied by a skilled assistant. Their mission was to measure the world, or at least that piece of the meridian arc which ran from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona. Their hope was that all the world’s peoples would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure. Their task was to establish this new measure — “the meter” — as one ten-millionth…

The Planetary Society Has a Few Tips for the President

Article Image

As the CEO of The Planetary Society, Bill Nye has written an open letter to President Trump, highlighting the need for prioritizing space research, and for supporting NASA’s space exploration efforts in particular. Bill Nye offers the president a comprehensive five-point plan for steering NASA’s objectives and orientation during his tenure:

1. Keep Mars as the Goal
Mars became the central objective of NASA’s efforts during the previous administration, and Bill Nye urges a continued focus on the same path. It is also important to insist on Mars because there are voices in the Trump administration that want to divert resources away from the Red Planet and focus on exploration of the moon. A vocal example of this is Newt Gingrich who has advocated “a permanent moon base”. For Bill Nye and The Planetary Society, a diversion of efforts to the moon would mean that a manned mission to Mars might be delayed by a generation.

2. Orbit Mars First
This point has emerged from earlier work at The Planetary Society, such as workshops on solving problems of inhabiting Mars, which have found that orbital engagement should precede a full landing on the Red Planet. This was the original strategy for the moon landing, where Apollo VIII orbited the moon and Apollo XI landed on it. The Planetary Society has suggested that in an orbital-first strategy, humans can be stationed in Mars’ orbit by 2033, and thereafter landed on the Mars surface by 2039.

3. Expand NASA’s Scientific Programs
Bill Nye draws attention to the ‘jobs’ element of NASA’s contribution, pointing out that there are tens of thousands of high-skilled jobs in engineering, manufacturing, and the pure sciences, that exist specifically thanks to NASA’s scientific programs. The report recommends that “at least 30 percent of NASA’s total budget be committed to its Science Mission Directorate,” and that we don’t forget two things: our curiosity and safety. A budget commitment to the science mission “will help humanity better understand its origins, protect us from solar storms, search for life beyond Earth, as well as understand our changing climate,” says the report. NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, has already stated that because of Trump’s proposed budget, the agency “will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).” Here’s why that matters. Trump signed the ‘NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017’ on March 21, which seems to favor stability over progress, leaving…

Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It

Beloved Artist Agnes Martin on Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness and How to Transcend It

Perhaps the greatest paradox of human life is that although happiness is the most universal of our longings, it is unobtainable by striving. Every seeming end we seek — love, money, purpose, the perfect cappuccino — we seek as a means to happiness, and yet happiness defies the usual laws of effort and achievement: The more ferociously we try to attain it, the more it eludes us.

How to break out of this paradox and transcend our self-imposed limitations in the pursuit of happiness is what artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) examines in a set of notes prepared for a 1979 lecture at the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe, included in Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (public library) — the wonderful monograph that gave us Martin on inspiration, interruptions, and the ideal atmosphere for creative work.

Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin at her studio in New Mexico, 1953 (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)

Martin was deeply influenced by the Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki. Reminiscent of the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei — roughly translated as “trying not to try” — Martin’s ideas are formulated in a Zen-like style of profound simplicity evocative the Tao Te Ching, and speak to the difficult art of holding life with unattached awareness. She writes under the heading “The Current of the River of Life Moves Us”:

What we really want to do is serve happiness.
We want everyone to be happy, never unhappy even for a moment.
We want the animals to be happy. The happiness of every living thing is what we want.
We want it very much but we cannot bring it about.
We cannot make even one individual happy.
It seems that this thing that we want most of all is out of our reach.
But we were born to serve happiness and we do serve it.
The confusion is due to our lack of awareness of real happiness. Happiness is pervasive.
It is everywhere… When we are unhappy it is because something is covering our minds and we are not able to be aware of happiness. When the difficulty is past we find happiness again.
It is not that happiness is all around us. That is not it at all. It is not this or that or in this or that.
It is an abstract thing.
Happiness is unattached. Always the same. It does not appear and disappear. It is not sometimes more and sometimes less. It is our awareness of happiness that goes up and down.
Happiness is our real condition.
It is reality.
It is life.
In this life, life is represented by beauty and happiness.
If you are completely unaware of them you are not alive.
The times when you are not aware of beauty and happiness you are not alive.

[…]

By awareness of life we are inspired to live.
Life is consciousness of life itself.
The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.

Agnes Martin, Summer 1964

Martin considers the artist’s task as a midwife of awareness:

The life of an artist is…

Discovery of Speeding Galaxies May Challenge Einstein’s Gravity and Dark Matter

Article Image

A present-day near-miss of two spiral galaxies NGC 5426 and NGC 5427, which is possibly comparable to the early flyby of the Andromeda Galaxy past our own Milky Way. Courtesy of © Gemini Image Gallery.

A discovery of fast-moving galaxies, 10 million light years wide, may cause physicists to re-examine Einstein’s theory of relativity. A team from University of St. Andrews in Scotland found the enormous ring of galaxies speeding away from our galaxy much faster than existing physics modeling predicts. In fact, the scientists believe the galaxies are moving so quickly that they are calling this expansion “a mini Big Bang”.

Dr. Hongsheng Zhao and PhD student Indranil Banik co-authored the study, which came from investigating 54 galaxies in what’s called “the Local Group” of the Universe. The scientists explain the unexpected conclusions by proposing that at some point 7 to 11 billion years ago the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy came so close to our own Milky Way Galaxy that they created a “tsunami-like wake,” scattering smaller galaxies with a sling-shot-like effect.

“If Einstein’s Gravity were correct, our Galaxy would never come close enough to Andromeda to scatter anything that fast,”

No Vaccination? No Daycare, Say Australian Legislators

Article Image

A children’s doctor injects a vaccine against measles, rubella, mumps and chicken pox to an infant on February 26, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Australia might soon ban unvaccinated children from attending preschools and daycare. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull didn’t mince words on the proposed law, dubbed “No Jab, No Play.”

“This is not a theoretical exercise – this is life and death,” he said. “If a parent says ‘I’m not going to vaccinate my child’, they’re not simply putting their child at risk, they’re putting everybody else’s children at risk too.”

Australia has been moving toward stricter vaccination laws for years. In 2015, the federal government stripped welfare and tax benefits from parents of unvaccinated children, a move that led to an increase of about 200,000 child vaccinations.

Vaccination laws that restrict unvaccinated children from attending schools already exist in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. But Turnbull and the Australian Medical Association want to enforce them nationwide.

“If you, as a parent, expect the community to support you by either welfare payments or access to care, then you need to do your bit to contribute to that community by protecting other children,” Michael Gannon, president of the Australian Medical Association, told Fairfax Media.

Still, some think Australia’s this strong-arm legislation could empower the anti-vaccination movement.

“People without any previous interest in vaccination may defend anti-vaccination activists and join their cause because they are concerned about the threat to civil liberties,” said Julie Leask, a professor and researcher at the University of Sydney.

Like in the U.S., there’s a small but loud movement of anti-vaccination Australians (or “vaccination skeptics“) who believe vaccines cause autism and other medical problems – despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe. These beliefs can permeate entire communities and facilitate outbreaks of Victorian-era diseases.

Anti-vaxxer protest

(Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM)

One anti-vaccination mother living in a suburb outside of Sydney recently proposed starting a daycare center for unvaccinated children.

“Many families are concerned about vaccinating. Yes it’s in response to No Jab No Play,” the post read. Alarmingly, some were supportive of the idea, suggesting they open similar daycares in nearby cities.

Such a move could put whole communities at risk by weakening herd immunity.

Herd immunity is all about strength in numbers. Society becomes protected from outbreaks when enough people are…

When Paris Doesn’t Meet Expectations, Some Seek Hospitalization for Syndrome

Article Image

Paris Syndrome sounds like a condition a college freshman that has read too many Jane Austen books might develop. While the name implies something young and idealized, it can be a very serious disorder that, in the tourist season of 2011, affected twenty tourists visiting the city of lights, according to The Atlantic.

The idea of Paris is a perfect one: used in the backdrop of romantic movies, or to show how heavenly a perfume might smell in commercials. Paris is an alleged heaven on earth. Bridges are pictured over shimmery rivers in front of romantic sunsets, and when a person goes they expect to have a lovely honeymoon experience. Paris Syndrome exists specifically because there is a distance between reality and those expectations.

Paris Syndrome, which on average affects about a dozen tourists per year, hurts Japanese travelers more than anyone else. It has become such a problem that the Japanese Embassy in the city itself created a hotline for the very purpose of helping out its citizens. The line is available 24 hours a day, and aims to help those flustered by their unmet expectations. The hotline helps tourist get past their culture shock, or even seek hospitalization for those that need it.

The film industry is partly to blame for Paris Syndrome but there is one other reason…

Why the Internet Is the Greatest Achievement of Any Civilization, Ever

Article Image

Growing up, my father often complained about the rising cost of our cable subscription. The bills got higher, the number of stations increased, yet the amount of television we watched rarely changed. The ‘value-added’ networks didn’t add much value. As the number of networks increased the actual worth of television only seemed to decrease.

Much has changed. The amount of content—the word that has replaced ‘art’ and ‘creation’ in recent years—is staggering, leaving an unfathomable amount of unwatchable television in the queue. Yet many have claimed this to be a ‘golden era of television.’ It’s hard to disagree.

While the administrative bureaucracies behind major movie studios take fewer risks, cable TV studios, many now free from the burden of bundling, are pushing boundaries. Shows like HBO’s ‘The Young Pope’ and ‘The Leftovers,’ the BBC’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Sherlock,’ and Hulu’s ‘The Path’ take chances only found in independent movies.

Is Your Life Really Yours? How ‘The Attention Merchants’ Got Inside Our Heads Tim Wu

Play Video

Play

Mute

Current Time 0:00

/

Duration Time 0:00

Loaded: 0%

Progress: 0%

Stream TypeLIVE

Remaining Time -0:00

Playback Rate

1

  • Chapters

Chapters

  • descriptions off, selected

Descriptions

  • subtitles off, selected

Subtitles

  • captions settings, opens captions settings dialog
  • captions off, selected

Captions

Audio Track

Fullscreen

This is a modal window.

Caption Settings Dialog

Beginning of dialog window. Escape will cancel and close the window.

TextColorWhiteBlackRedGreenBlueYellowMagentaCyanTransparencyOpaqueSemi-TransparentBackgroundColorBlackWhiteRedGreenBlueYellowMagentaCyanTransparencyOpaqueSemi-TransparentTransparentWindowColorBlackWhiteRedGreenBlueYellowMagentaCyanTransparencyTransparentSemi-TransparentOpaque

Font Size50%75%100%125%150%175%200%300%400%

Text Edge StyleNoneRaisedDepressedUniformDropshadow

Font FamilyProportional Sans-SerifMonospace Sans-SerifProportional SerifMonospace SerifCasualScriptSmall Caps

DefaultsDone

Is Your Life Really Yours? How ‘The Attention Merchants’ Got Inside Our Heads

Wu_tim_square

Tim Wu

Author, The Attention Merchants

09:21

As consumer watching habits shift and producers rush in to fill their needs, the question of creative value has been a constant. The NY Times’ Farhad Manjoo, for one, believes the expanding opportunities offered by the digital revolution are saving culture, pushing art forward in interesting, new multi-disciplinary platforms. Manjoo thinks today is “the beginning of a remarkable renaissance in art and culture.”

“In just about every cultural medium, whether movies or music or books or the visual arts, digital technology is letting in new voices, creating new formats for exploration, and allowing fans and other creators to participate in a glorious remixing of the work. This isn’t new; from blogs to podcasts to YouTube, the last 20 years have been marked by a succession of formats that have led to ever-lower barriers for new and off-the-wall creators.”

There is truth to this, though Manjoo comes off as overoptimistic regarding the number of success stories. He points to a handful of Patreon phenoms who are earning their living as independent creators thanks to monthly subscribers. The technology exists and they have taken advantage of it—a certain benefit for those working from the ground up. The problem of rising to the top of the tens of thousands of Patreon users remains, however.

Which is a different scenario than the cable bundling model. In the old days (the eighties, in my case) small networks were able to exist thanks to behemoths like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. This model still works for networks like ESPN, which gets six to seven dollars for every subscription, the highest paid network today. Their success allows smaller players to stay in the game.

ESPN provides a…

Would You Drink Sewage Beer? New Brew Uses Treated Sewage Water.

Article Image

Bottoms up! A Southern Calfornia brewery is taking its beer from toilet to tap.

San Diego’s Stone Brewing has started making a beer using treated sewage water. The beer, called Full Circle Pale Ale, was recently unveiled for a tasting at their brewery. The beer was made using the recycled water from Pure Water San Diego, a program that has set out to provide one-third of San Diego’s water supply through its treatment system by 2035.

Stone Brewing logo, Fair Use usage
Stone Brewing logo, Fair Use usage

Stone Brewery is one of the largest (top 10) craft breweries in the United States and has made a concerted effort towards environmental sustainability. By brewing Ful Circle Pale Ale, which will be available for sale soon, the brewery is testing consumer demand for a process with clear environmental benefits. The result, however, may be less about taste buds (water doesn’t dramatically change the flavor of beer) and more about human psychology.

Would You Drink the Beer?

When you read that the Full Circle Pale Ale was made using treated sewage water, your first reaction was probably not, “That sounds delicious!” As earlier pieces in Big Think have discussed (“Our Sense of Disgust Is Holding Back Life-Saving Innovation“), the thought of drinking treated sewage water often triggers a sense of disgust–even though…

Buddhist Monks in China Have Offset 40 Million Tons of Greenhouse Gases

Article Image

Tibetan Buddhist monks take part in a special prayer during Monlam or the Great Prayer rituals at the Labrang Monastery, Xiahe County, Amdo, Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A newly released study shows that by eating a vegetarian diet, Buddhists in China annually prevent roughly 40 million tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of 9.2% of all the greenhouse gases produced each year by France.

As reported in Lion’s Roar, the study, by Ampere A. Tzeng from Arizona State, was published in the Journal of Contemporary Buddhism. Called “Vegetarian Diets: A Quantitative Assessment,” it may provide further impetus for a trend that’s already underway: More and more Buddhists are going vegetarian. In Tibetan Buddhism, a number of voices have spoken out in favor of eliminating animals from one’s diet, including the head of the Kagyu school, and “the world’s happiest man,” Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard.

Not all Buddhists in China or anywhere else are vegetarian, and certainly vegetarians are in the minority among the Chinese, who are famously omnivorous. On a visit to Guangzhou, a local man told me that, “The Chinese will eat anything…

Pin It on Pinterest

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news from our network of site partners.

You have Successfully Subscribed!