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….

Why the Printing Press and the Telegraph Were as Impactful as the Internet

What makes a communications technology revolutionary? One answer to this is to ask whether it fundamentally changes the way society is organized. This can be a very hard question to answer, because true fundamental changes alter society in such a way that it becomes difficult to speak of past society without imposing our present understanding.

In her seminal work, The Printing Press as An Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein argues just that:

When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.

Today we rightly think of the internet and the mobile phone, but long ago, the printing press and the telegraph both had just as heavy an impact on the development of society.

Printing Press

Thinking of the time before the telegraph, when communications had to be hand delivered, is quaint. Trying to conceive the world before the uniformity of communication brought about by the printing press is almost unimaginable.

Eisenstein argues that the printing press “is of special historical significance because it produced fundamental alterations in prevailing patterns of continuity and change.”

Before the printing press there were no books, not in the sense that we understand them. There were manuscripts that were copied by scribes, which contained inconsistencies and embellishments, and modifications that suited who the scribe was working for. The printing press halted the evolution of symbols: For the first time maps and numbers were fixed.

Furthermore, because pre-press scholars had to go to manuscripts, Eisenstein says we should “recognize the novelty of being able to assemble diverse records and reference guides, and of being able to study them without having to transcribe them at the same time” that was afforded by the printing press.

This led to new ways of being able to compare and thus develop knowledge, by reducing the friction of getting to the old knowledge:

More abundantly stocked bookshelves obviously increased opportunities to consult and compare different texts. Merely by making more scrambled data available, by increasing the output of Aristotelian, Alexandrian and Arabic texts, printers encouraged efforts to unscramble these data.

Eisenstein argues that many of the great thinkers of the 16th century, such as Descartes and Montaigne, would have been unlikely to have produced what they did without the changes wrought by the printing press. She says of Montaigne, “that he could see more books by spending a few months in his Bordeaux tower-study than earlier scholars had seen after a lifetime of travel.”

The printing press increased the speed of communication and the spread of knowledge: Far less man hours were needed to turn out 50 printed books than 50 scribed manuscripts.


Henry Ford famously said of life before the car…

The Fear of Supernatural Punishment and Not “Big Gods,” Gave Rise to Societal Complexity

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Though larger numbers of people in developed countries are abandoning organized religion, no one can deny that religion or perhaps spirituality, has been a significant part of the human experience, historically. It’s been found in all cultures throughout the world. This leads evolutionary scientists to believe that spirituality must have played a critical role in our development. But exactly how has been difficult to discern.

Of all religions, Islam and Christianity have been the most successful. Together they account for 3.5 billion people in the world. The global population currently is a little over seven billion. To be so successful and grow so complex, you need to include the help of almost everyone in society. Freeloaders or those who go off to serve their own interests could hamper development. So how do you ensure that everyone buys in?

A previous study posited that the strong gods portrayed in Christianity and Islam helped to develop their respective societies into larger, more complex civilizations. These are omnipotent, high gods who enforce the moral code, and punish those who run afoul of it. One study out of the University of British Columbia concluded that such gods may have helped spur societal development. However, there isn’t consensus among scholars, as to whether a belief in such gods is in fact a driving force.

A New Zealand research team now says that these societies were already well on their way before “big gods,” came along. Instead, it was fear of supernatural punishment that kept everyone in line, they suggest. These included punishments from mighty gods, “fallible localized ancestral spirits,” and even, “inanimate processes like karma.”

Hindu God.

Do you need a moralizing high god for society to develop, or is a belief in supernatural punishment enough?

One problem is how to study such influences. Some cultures share lots of traits, not only because of common development, but a common ancestry, history, and so on. Following back which associations influenced what development, has traditionally, been difficult. Researchers at the University of Auckland borrowed a technique from evolutionary biology that analyzes data models, to arrive at their conclusions.

Researchers looked at 96 out of 400 indigenous Austronesian cultures. This is was a great seafaring culture of the Asia Pacific region who at one time inhabited parts of Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Madagascar, and many of the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii and Easter Island. Cultural evolution expert Joseph Watts was one of the researchers on this study. He said, “Austronesian cultures offer an ideal sample to test theories about the evolution of…