The Philosophy of Freedom
“They’d like to think for you and a part of you would like to let them” - Marcus Aurelius
As we all know by now, part of Stoicism is attaining freedom, freedom from passion, and freedom as defined by justice as part of the 4 virtues. I recently listened to the Philosophize This podcast and Stephen West did an amazing job at explaining Erich Fromm’s argument on positive and negative freedoms and how these two types of freedoms define the sociology of humans but how it inevitably shapes policy as well. I was so inspired by this podcast that I wanted to share it with you all as well.
So Erich Fromm was a socialist thinker at the Frankfurt School of Social Theory and Critical Philosophy, the school was founded in Germany in 1932 and while the school has its criticisms, mainly citing Marxism, there was some truth to modern day. Much of Erich’s work involves the study of authoritarianism and in Germany he was a supporter of bringing about Socialism. This took a left turn when that promise of socialism turned into the rise of the Nazi regime.
The school founders fled to the US and noticed the absurdity of consumerism and culture mob. They warned of this being the potential downfall of Capitalism and or socialistic economy. Whereby the media, culture and politics being manipulated to make society turn on itself, thus leading to an end. Now this may sound bleak, there is no certainty in this, the only thing that is certain is change, and how that change occurs will be determined by what we do today. Simply being aware and open to new knowledge helps a lot. Before we start pointing fingers at which party does this today, I want to note that there is no one political party that does this, they both do it.
I was actually reading an article by Vox that broke it down but interestingly enough, they utilized the knowledge of the Frankfurt school to try and prove that the mob culture of Trump would bring about this end, bringing about Fascism, but… are we not seeing a mob culture from the Democratic party? It goes both ways and we owe it to ourselves, to be stoic in the sense of suspending our judgement brought about by the media’s portrayal of society until we understand that within its complexity, the tactics used are the same. Navigate to understand and then form our own opinions, the opinions of the writer, talk show host, commentator. Utilizing logic and reason before giving into emotional responses.
This is just a quick breakdown of the Frankfurt school, so you can understand the topic I will be going into today.
The work by Erich Fromm that I want to focus on is freedom. He describes 2 types of freedoms, positive and negative freedoms. Describing positive freedoms as the freedoms that are given to us at birth. The freedom to speech, property, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Gaining positive freedoms comes in the form of removing physical enslavement or being controlled by an external force. Fromm then goes on to describe negative freedoms being the consequences of the choices we make based on the freedoms granted to us. An example of this in the modern world would be taking on debt by reckless spending. You made that choice, you had the freedom to do so, this is a negative to that freedom.
Little bit more of a back story, that I find very interesting, is his idea of humanity being a collective being. He argued that humanity has been going through phases of human life. Much like a human child where you are born, cared for by your family, then given some freedom, to which you become an adult and you have total freedom.
For example, at the start of human civilization, everything was handed to you. You were born a slave or in power, and for the most part you kind of stayed there. You played a role that you were born into and then your children played that role, and so on and so forth. This was given to you and in order to live in the society you had to contribute to it, else your civilization would die, your lineage would cease to exist. Yes, you thought for yourself but your life for the most part was predetermined. This is the representation of childhood.
Once human civilizations grew more and more complex, Fromm argues that we as a collective being grew out of our infancy and into our teenage years. The example may be the enlightenment to the industrial revolution, we then had laws, we have some free time on our hands but we are still controlled to a degree. However, we had a lot more choice, society would not collapse if we just stopped. Otherwise saying, there were enough hands on deck to make sure the civilization was moving.
We’ve entered a point in history now where we are now leaving our nest, so to speak. We now have utmost freedom, we have become young adults leaving our homes. This is personified by social liberty, having little to no barriers to do what you want. You can go to school, become an entrepreneur, sit at home with your parents, start an organization, start a podcast! Rise in power and fall in power. Humanity for the most part, is now experiencing negative freedoms.
The problem that we are now encountering is that many people don't want to accept these negative freedoms. We want someone to save us, we are in debt, we want the government to wipe it out, even though you chose to get in debt. You went to a university and dropped out with debt, you want the government to wipe it out, even though that was your choice.
Negative freedoms also include encountering people, understanding that freedom is not just yours, but it's your fellow man. We can all agree that as stoics we understand that if humanly capable, it is humanly possible, what I’m talking about is evil and good. It is irrational to think that people think like you, and it is also illogical to think that if someone does not agree with you, they are somehow wrong or immoral.
More often than not, people are just misunderstood. I bring up encountering people as an example because some negative freedoms seem to be brought up in such a way that if someone is being mean to you or they are not amongst the ranks of your thought process, that they deserve to be controlled by the government. Which is not a form of justice, this is just a part of the overall ideals of freedom. So you're telling me that using identifiable negative freedoms to justify bringing back chains of positive freedoms will bring back… better freedom. It's sort of an odd paradox.
Fromm uses these examples and more to describe how humanity is learning how to deal with these newfound negative freedoms. The government, or those in power are portrayed as the parents of mankind. We, on our newly embarked journey, go back to our parents when we encounter an issue, much like we would on an individual level go back to our parents for help when we are in a tough spot. Fromm argues that this consumerism, mixed with mob manipulation, and our realization of negative freedoms as a society, will inevitably bring about the end to capitalistic systems.
As a stoic, how do we go about navigating this theory? Don’t get too worried, this is just a theory.
For starters, we must accept our negative freedoms. We must be courageous in our decisions. If you remember the previous episode on Courage, you know that wise judgments followed by wise action makes the most courageous people in the face of fear and evil. Seek to live a virtuous life, seek to accept external events as natural parts of life. Utilize mistakes as opportunities for growth. This will help us come to terms with encountering our negative freedoms. We are responsible for them. While we may argue that the system is at fault, and to a degree I completely agree, this is not a means to an end as far as needing a dramatic political change.
There's a statement that I like in the consultancy world, which is, “don't seek to solve world hunger”. What this means is, we should act in small steps to make great change, the end to world hunger will inevitably follow.
As far as the political fall that Fromm mentions, we can take the words from Marcus Aurelius, “look to human history and we will be aware of the future”, this is to say that history rhymes, it follows cycles, while not exact and it will always happen in different ways. The future is inevitable, and while it may seem like we on an individual level cannot make change, you can in fact make a difference. Zeno of Citium argued that no small step is small. There are small things we can do, we really hold the power today more than at any point in history.
The phone numbers of our Representatives and Senators are available online. What do you call it? Anything. You. Want. If you feel concerned about the direction he or she is taking as far as policy, you can call them. I call them often, it takes 10 minutes to do it. Email them, their emails are there as well.
Among other things, we can share our wisdom, teach people how to use logic and reason. Now more than ever do we need to bring back not the separation between one another, but the separation between our parents, and us. Which is to say, the government and the individual.
This breakdown that Erich Fromm argues is really interesting as it speaks to the social human. In many ways he is correct in the mob mentality as he goes on to say that many people don’t believe they are being manipulated, but using marketing data, it proves him completely correct. We seek confirmation bias, but as a Stoic we shouldn't seek to be right, we should seek to become wiser. Gathering correct and factual information to make the most well informed decisions. Some facts are unfortunately difficult to swallow, at one point it was difficult to understand that we will not need our parents and yet we grow older and we know to leave the nest. We move through society with the realities that we are bound to and with that we can make the world a better place. It all starts with you, the individual.