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Erich Fromm on the Nature of Man and the Concept of Character
According to renowned psychoanalyst/philosopher Dr. Erich Fromm, man, by his very nature, has an urgent need to be oriented, to understand himself, his fellow humans, and the world around him. Another way to make this same point is that man has great fear of being isolated, alienated, and disconnected, from himself, his fellow humans, and the world around him.
In that light, to the degree that an individual develops a realistic understanding of and connection to himself, his fellow humans, and the world around him, he is sane (oriented, connected rational, and balanced). To the degree that he fails to develop such an understanding and connection, he is insane (disoriented, disconnected, isolated, and alienated).
The vehicle that allows man to connect realistically with the world of things Fromm calls reason. The vehicle that allows man to connect realistically with himself and his fellow humans, Fromm calls love. So connecting realistically with himself, his fellow humans, and the world around him requires man to develop his ability to reason and to love.
Productive VS Non-Productive Character
The ability (or inability) to develop one’s capacity to reason and to love is heavily influenced by the circumstances in which an individual is raised. At an early age one’s experiences solidify into what Fromm terms character.* Fromm divides character into two camps. Camp number one is the productive (sane, rational, healthy) character type. Camp number two are the non-productive (neurotic, psychotic, insane) character types.
The productive camp revolves around what Fromm calls a “being” orientation to life in which exploring, developing, and fulfilling man’s productive potentials is the primary focus. In contrast the non-productive orientation to life revolves around what Fromm called a “having” orientation to life in which accumulating/consuming things is the primary focus. In the having orientation human life itself (individually and collectively) is reduced to a thing that can be bought, sold, owned, controlled and manipulated by someone or something other than oneself.
Both character types exist in the form of possibilities to be developed or to be left undeveloped within all human beings. Their actualization, as we’ve already said, depends heavily on the circumstances in which the individual is raised. If one’s productive possibilities are encouraged, nurtured, and cultivated the productive character type will emerge as dominant. But if one’s productive possibilities are discouraged, stunted, perverted, or otherwise prevented from developing, the non-productive character type(s) will emerge as dominant.
Fromm’s Four Non-Productive Character Types
Fromm identifies four non-productive character types including the receptive (masochistic), the exploitative (sadistic), the hoarding, and the marketing orientations. In all four non-productive character types their lack of self-respect, (self-value, self-love) results in their inability to creatively and realistically interact with themselves, other human beings, and the world of things. This personal void causes the individual to depend on someone or something outside of himself in order to develop an orientation to life. But all humans must have an orientation (even if illusionary) in order to function. In the process the non-productive character avoids taking responsibility for his own life. To use Fromm’s phrase, he’s “escaping from freedom.”
More specifically, the RECEPTIVE character dislikes/disrespects himself and his ability to be productive. So anything of value (including his orientation to life) must come from someone or something outside himself. The receptive character type effectively attaches himself in a symbiotic fashion to someone (i.e. parent, spouse, boss, coach) or something (the state, the corporation, the church, the team) outside himself and depends on that entity to direct and define his life. The receptive character is generally referred to as masochistic.
In contrast the EXPLOITATIVE character also dislikes/disrespects himself and his ability to be productive. As the result, anything (including his orientation to life) of value must come from someone or something outside himself. The difference is that the exploitative character does not wait to receive. He takes what he wants from someone who is weaker and can be exploited. Instead of being dominated the exploitative character is the dominator. He is however, every bit as dependent on others (the exploited) as the receptive character for his value. The receptive and the exploitative characters need each other. The exploiter is generally referred to as sadistic.
The third non-productive type Fromm labels the HOARDING character. The hoarding character also perceives himself as incapable of being productive. But he’s not receptive or exploitative. Instead he SAVES everything. He’s a miser. His relationships with people are distant, untrusting, and cynical. He’s unable to give anything of himself. Yet he is still 100% dependent on entities outside himself for anything of value including his orientation to life. When anything of value that comes within his grasp he never lets go. A penny saved is indeed a penny earned.
The fourth non-productive type Fromm labels the MARKETING character. A relatively modern phenomenon, the primary characteristic of the marketing orientation is its malleability, its flexibility, its ability to change in a heartbeat depending on the demands of the market. This character type effectively worships the market (the invisible hand) as his god. He perceives himself as a commodity to be bought and sold on the free market, which in his eyes determines the value of everything including himself. His relationship to others can be characterized by the phrase “I am what you want me to be.” He’s a chameleon. The customer is always right. ***
The Antidote to the Non Productive Character Problem
Character is formed at an early age. But it’s not set in stone or irreversible. While it’s true that character is hard to change, it’s not impossible. In Fromm’s view the antidote for the non-productive (neurotic, psychotic, insane) character is the understanding and practicing of productive living. In other words the cure for the problem is to actively develop one’s own innate capacity to reason and to love (respect, revere, appreciate, value) humanity, starting with one’s self as a full-fledged, respected member of the human race.****
Developing such capacities requires understanding and practice. But as one’s productive living potential begins to emerge and to take shape, the experience of living meaningfully and purposefully becomes fulfilling in a way that the non-productive orientations can never be. The experience of being responsible for one’s own life – as much as humanly possible – becomes gratifying enough that the non-productive (extrinsically driven) motivators gradually begin to fade, lose their power, their ability to influence and control the individual’s behavior
The Productive Character Type
So now let’s focus more specifically on the productive character type. The term “productiveness” as used by Fromm* refers to a specific way in which a person relates to himself, to others, and to the world around him. It’s an orientation, a context in which human life has the potential to become meaningful, purposeful, and worth living.
Respectful, Interactive, and Creative
For Fromm, a productive relationship begins with a deep respect, a reverence for life in general, including and especially for one’s self and one’s fellow humans (regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, nationality or socio-economic status). In contrast, the lack of respect and reverence for human life (regardless of gender, ethnicity, etc.) results in the inability to connect with one’s self and one’s fellow humans. This makes the experience of productiveness impossible.
This mutually respectful, productive relationship is also interactive (in the sense that it’s something a person does, mentally or physically with others and/or things around them) instead of passive (in the sense that it’s something that’s done to a person, mentally or physically by others and/or things around them). In other words, productiveness takes at least two to tango.
This mutually respectful, interactive relationship is also creative in that it produces something new whether it’s an idea, an appreciation for, understanding of, or an actual physical entity. In this sense the experience of productiveness is Godlike in its capacity to create, recreate, and multiply itself exponentially in the lives of those who understand and practice it.
Ends and Means
The experience of productiveness is also an end in itself instead of a means to an end outside of itself. So if it’s done for sake of fame, fortune, social acceptance, or any other extrinsic reward, it’s not productiveness in the way that Fromm uses the term. That is to say, productiveness is itself the reward, the motivator. One practices productiveness because the experience itself is naturally rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful.
The Powers of Reason and Love
As we said previously, according to Fromm, reason is the vehicle with which a person actively penetrates beneath the surface, the superficial, and comes to understand the world of things. On the other hand, love is the vehicle with which a person actively penetrates beneath the surface, the superficial, and comes to understand himself and his fellow human beings.**
Thus through the power of reason, a person has the potential to penetrate, understand, and to interact productively/creatively with things around him. In the process, he has the potential to improve his own circumstances and the circumstances of his fellow humans.
Through the power of love a person has the potential to penetrate, understand, interact with, appreciate, and to connect creatively with himself and his fellow humans. The powers of reason and love are thus the vehicles through which man can express and experience productiveness.
Conditions Encourage or Discourage Productiveness
The possibility of relating to the world productively also depends on one’s circumstances. That is to say, it’s almost impossible to relate productively to the world when one is in dire need of food, drink, a roof over one’s head, or clothes on one’s back.
On the other hand, when one is not struggling under the whip of economic necessity, when such basic necessities are predictably met, the odds of relating productively are enhanced exponentially. So when he has discretionary time and a healthy upbringing, when he is legitimately free and unencumbered by culturally oriented illusions to think for himself and to choose accordingly, man has the opportunity to develop his productive potentials. He’s not naturally lazy, slothful, depraved or sinful as some contend
And historically speaking productiveness, when given the opportunity to breathe freely, has resulted in the development of human culture ranging from language and history, to religion, art, science, and sport. In other words, without discretionary time to be productive, there would be no Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, no Jesus, Allah, or Buddha, no Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Elvis, Muhammed Ali, or Robin Williams. That is to say discretionary time, not necessity, is the true mother of invention and a productive, meaningful life.
*The concepts of character and productiveness are discussed in great detail in Erich Fromm’s book entitled Man For Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics.
** In “The Art of Loving” Fromm’s best known book, the concept of love is explored in detail.
*** These four character types are simplified in order to describe the primary qualities of each type individually. But in real life they’re found in various combinations within individual people. That is to say an individual could be a marketing oriented character who is also exploitative.
****Mental illness, generally speaking, is the result of man’s productive nature being impeded. The antidote to depression, anxiety, and ennui according to Erich Fromm is productiveness.
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