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Erich Fromm: A Secular Jewish Prophet for Our Times

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 9, 2013: The German-born Jew Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst, talented author, global intellectual gadfly for psychoanalytic thought, and peace activist. He was a self-styled democratic socialist who supported Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy. According to Lawrence J. Friedman, Fromm's 1960 article "The Case for Unilateral Disarmament" in a special issue of the journal DAEDALUS deeply influenced John F. Kennedy's thinking about the arms race and peace.

 

By coincidence, I happened to have read Friedman's biography of Fromm shortly before I read Thurston Clarke's remarkably well-written book JFK'S LAST HUNDRED DAYS: THE TRANSFORMATION OF A MAN AND THE EMERGENCE OF A GREAT PRESIDENT (Penguin Press, 2013). As a result, I noted that Clarke did not mention Fromm's 1960 article that deeply influenced JFK's thinking.

 

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According to Friedman, Fromm was a secular Jew as an adult who had been deeply influenced earlier in his life by the ancient Hebrew prophets such as Amos and Isaiah of Jerusalem and Hosea. In his bent toward prophesy based on psychoanalytic thought, Fromm advocated secular humanism and Buddhist meditation, neither of which presupposed the existence of the transcendent divine ground of being. But his secular humanism was strikingly similar in spirit to the sense of the covenant expressed by the ancient Hebrew prophets Amos, Isaiah of Jerusalem, and Hosea.

 

In general, I am in favor of the spirit of the covenant expressed by Amos, Isaiah of Jerusalem, and Hosea. Evidently, so is President Barack Obama. However, as is well known, certain conservative Americans tend not to favor the spirit of the covenant, preferring instead their own understanding of individualism and libertarianism.

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Fromm worked with the contrast of biophilia (love of life) versus necrophilia (love of death and destructiveness). Lawrence J. Friedman commemorates Fromm's prophesying in favor of love in the title of his biography, THE LIVES OF ERICH FROMM: LOVE'S PROPHET (Columbia University Press, 2013). Friedman is also the author of MENNINGER: THE FAMILY AND THE CLINIC (1990) and IDENTITY'S ARCHITECT: A BIOGRAPHY OF ERIK H. ERIKSON (1999).

 

As Friedman reports, Pope John-Paul II was favorably impressed with Fromm's book TO HAVE OR TO BE (1976). Sadly, however, Pope John-Paul II turned Fromm's psychoanalytic interpretation of biophilia versus necrophilia into a Roman Catholic slogan about a culture of life versus a culture of death, which he then interpreted as somehow supporting Roman Catholic religious superstitions about distinctively human life supposedly beginning at the moment when a sperm fertilizes an egg. The pope's unfortunate self-serving appropriation of Fromm's contrast of biophilia versus necrophilia shows that there is much room for debate about what exactly constitutes biophilia.

 

On a personal level, Fromm argued that the optimally outcome of the inner struggle of biophilia versus necrophilia involved the emergence of a productive personal character.

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In his posthumously published book of 31 short meditations titled THE WAY TO LOVE (reissued by Image, 2012), Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1930-1987), the Jesuit spiritual writer from India works with the contrast of self-glorification versus self-fulfillment, which aligns with Fromm's necrophilia versus biophilia. Our sense of self-glorification arises from necrophilia. But our experience of self-fulfillment arises from our experience of biophilia. For both Erich Fromm and Anthony de Mello, our cultural conditioned ego-consciousness is a closed system because of all of its attached defenses. However, as we grow beyond on defenses, our ego-consciousness is able to open up and function as a more open system.

 

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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