The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness: Erich Fromm

Fromm seems like a good character as any to provide me with my first book review, seeing that he is a member of the tribe, and was a man of eclectic interests.

Erich Fromm, a notable German-American sociologist, psychoanalyst, and academic psychologist, is recognized most widely for his contributions on the interactions between psychology and sociology. A prolific writer, and member of the Frankfurt School, he was most fascinated by the sociological factors that influence human psychology. Ascribing to a more comprehensive view than his mentor Freud, he recognized that human beings are social beings, whose motivations and beliefs are deeply rooted in their culture and society. The broad range of his intellectual influences—from Zen Buddhism to the Talmud, Martin Buber to medieval mysticism, Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud, is apparent in his extensive scholarship. Strongly influenced by Marxist ideas; he feels that man has become estranged from his true nature due to our consumer-oriented industrial society. Capitalism has turned us into automatons, and we sell ourselves and other people like commodities, through the formation of marketing personalities. This is a recurring theme in many of his works, and his prescription for societies’ many ailment lies in the restructuring of society, from a materialistic ‘having mode’, to a ‘being mode’ which is rooted in love and concerned with the shared experience and productive activity of humanity (Fromm, p. 165).

Fromm believes this lack of authentic being and selfhood, and the need to compensate for man’s lack of meaning, was a driving force behind the horrific acts of aggression and destruction that has categorized the 20st century. Having escaped Nazi Germany in 1934, he was fascinated by the dichotomy of man’s current state of freedom. In Escape From Freedom, his most influential work published in 1941, he argued that “freedom from the traditional bonds of medieval society, though giving the individual a new feeling of independence, at the same time made him feel alone and isolated, filled him with doubt and anxiety, and drove him into new submission and into a compulsive and irrational activity” (Fromm 1942, p. 89). This ensuing alienation was led Fromm to understand why people seek the security of authoritarian social systems, which at the time were ubiquitous across Europe.

The Anatomy of Destructiveness, Fromm’s last scholarly work, published in 1976, was his attempt to answer the question of man’s lust for cruelty. (He admits that in order to undertake a complete review of the subject would have taken him three more decades, thus this review of his book is from its conception incomplete.) His book is split into three parts: part one deals with the debate on the roots of man’s aggression, as analyzed through the lenses of instinctivism, behaviorism and psychoanalysis; part two engages in a lengthy survey of the evidence from research literature against the instinctivist theses; and part three with the different forms of destructiveness and aggression and their particular conditions.

The driving question Fromm seeks to answer is whether human cruelty is an innate human drive, or the result of conditioning? (A debate between the instinctivists, versus the behavioralists).

 Modern instinct theory was introduced by Charles Darwin, and supplemented by William James and William McDougal. Instincts can be described as inherent tendencies that lead us to engage in a specific pattern of behavior. According to McDougal, and the instinct theory of motivation, we are all born with a collection of biological tendencies that help us survive. Freud updates this model by grouping instincts under two overarching categories—the sexual instincts, and the instincts for self-preservation. These two forces were used to explain all of man’s behaviors. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he names them: life instincts, (eros), versus the death instincts (thanatos). This opposition between our innate drive towards disintegration, versus the innate drive towards life, was the first time Freud dealt with man’s destructive tendencies. Aggression’s role in the death instinct, as Freud envisioned, is not a reaction to an outside stimulus, rather an ever-present impulse, which is rooted in the human core. The death instinct may be expressed as a self-destructive drive, or directed outwards in the desire to destroy others. The life instinct, otherwise known as sexual instincts, or libido, is the drive for life, and pertains to our efforts for basic survival, which includes pleasure and reproduction.

The 1960’s saw an upswing in the public’s interest in the causes of violence and aggression, in part because of the publication of several popular works on the subject. The most notable of which was Konrad Lorenz’s, On Aggression, in which he uses ethology, (literally translated as the science of behavior, but Lorenz uses it to denote the study of animal behavior), to understand the reasons behind human aggression. Lorenz defines aggression as the “fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the same species” (Lorenz, 1966).

This assertion of the biological determinism of aggressiveness was one of the driving motivations that led Fromm to explore the subject of destructiveness. From the start, Fromm is extremely critical of Lorenz’s theory, and reminds the reader that most psychologists and neuroscientists reject his theory. He was troubled by the book’s overwhelmingly positive reception, and contributes its avid following to Lorenz’s fatalistic thesis. This principle allowed society to forgo introspection—violence stems from our innate animal nature, and thus there is little we can do as an individual, or society, to rid ourselves of this ‘natural’ ungovernable drive for aggression. “This theory of an innate aggressiveness easily becomes an ideology that helps soothe the fear of what is to happen and to rationalize the sense of impotence” (Fromm, p. 2).

Now that we understand the instinctivists, Fromm moves on to attack the behaviorists. Behaviorism, originally proposed by John B. Watson, proposes that human emotions had no place in trying to understand human behavior. Skinner proposed the theory of operant conditioning, which uses positive reinforcements as a way to alter and control animal and human behavior to fit ‘socially desired’ outcomes. In contrast to Lorenz, where aggression was viewed as an innate form of human behavior, Skinner believes that aggressive behaviors can be easily transformed through social conditioning. Two well-known experiments that support the behaviorist theory are the Milgram experiment, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as both studies are used to prove that man can be conditioned to commit even the most heinous acts of cruelty. Fromm takes obvious issue with the behaviorist camp, as it leaves out any consideration of mans emotional, internal world. Ignoring the intentions, aims, goals, and purposes of human behavior is essentially ignoring man’s totality. Fromm offers a few critiques of behaviorism, the one I enjoyed the most is that that behaviorism does not account for the side effects of conditioning. Yes, humans can be conditioned to be persecutors or torturers, but no amount of positive reinforcement can diminish the effects of PTSD, or other neurosis that may result.

The importance of this debate lies in the function of man’s relationship to his past and present—through instinctivistism, man is governed by his species past, and through behavoralism, man is governed by his contemporary social system. Is destruction and aggressiveness an innate human drive, or merely a result of conditioning? What relates these two theories is their omission of man’s psyche as a determining factor in the equation—a soul, or character, which imposes it’s own structure and law (Fromm, p. 69). Now that we understand the parameters of the debate, Fromm provides us with his theory: that “human destructiveness is not by animal inheritance, but by the existential condition of man, which under certain conditions results in the destructiveness and cruelty much greater than that of any animal on the basis of instincts.” This view stresses the importance of culture and society over inborn characteristics as the major determinant of individual thoughts and behaviors.

Fromm asserts that this destructiveness is expressed as one potential answer to the unanswered psychic needs of humans, which is the result of certain social conditions interacting with man’s existential needs. If destructiveness is a sort of adaptation to fulfill man’s spiritual or emotional needs, what are the conditions unique to our human existence that might drive man to engage in such destructive behavior, as witnessed through the wars of the 20th century? It is essentially the question of man’s essence, and what makes us human. This is a famous discourse which has been carried out across a broad range of disciplines, throughout thousands of years of man’s history. Fromm considers the two most fundamental processes that distinguish humans from their ancestors to be the decreasing determination of behavior by instincts, and the growth of an increasingly complex brain. This combination of circumstances had never occurred in animal evolution, and paved the way for the development of man’s unique qualities, including self-awareness, reason, and imagination. These endowments lead us to an existential dichotomy of existence— we are aware of the powerlessness and limitations of our existence, yet we must live.

Man is set apart biologically from the rest of the animal species, and this dichotomy of self-awareness and lack of instinctual guidelines puts us in a constant state of disequilibrium. We are aware of ourselves, and our own mortality—in this sense we are able to transcend nature. Yet this also implies that man is the only animal not fully at home in nature; yet we are subject to its physical laws.

The existential disequilibrium can be assuaged through certain factors, yet it returns time and again through man’s innate drive for progress. Man is defined through this fundamental contradiction, “Man is confronted with the frightening conflict of being a prisoner of nature, yet being free in his thoughts; being part of nature, and yet to be as it were a freak of nature; being neither here nor there. Human self-awareness has made man a stranger in the world, separate, lonely, and frightened. He is forced to overcome this horror [….] to find new forms of relating himself to the world to enable him to feel at home” (Fromm, p. 226).


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