Reveals Human Destructiveness
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
every intense fear, anger or sense of injury results in hate-filled
aggression that makes itself felt in suicide bombings. “Malignant
destructiveness” Erich Fromm calls it. That was over 30 years
ago in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Holt Rinehart Winston),
but in the wake of the horrors of September 11th Fromm’s remarkable
book takes on new significance, both for what it says about the
human propensity for “evil” and for what it implies about malignancy
rooted in an apocalyptic theology that sanctions such killings.
Fromm, who died in 1980, was more than a psychoanalyst indebted
to Freud. “Social philosopher” would be more apt. Deeply concerned
about the increasing violence he saw in the world, particularly
manifest in the psychic cripples, Stalin, Himmler and Hitler (Fromm’s
chapters on them are particularly fascinating), Fromm set out
to analyze theories about man’s persistent inhumanity to man:
is man evil by nature or by nurture? Does evidence lie primarily
with the Konrad Lorenz instinctivists or with the Skinner behaviorists?
With a fairness not often found in passionate research, Fromm,
who admirably concedes what he does not or cannot know, tips toward
those who argue that malignant aggression is not innate.
A substantive part of this scholarly but readable inquiry into
the causes and sadistic, egomaniacal manifestations of aggression
is historical, overlaid with psychoanalytic theory that could
easily be called revisionist Freudian were it not for the fact
that, as Fromm shows, Freud revised himself, most notably in Civilization
and Its Discontents, coming to believe that the death instinct
was more primary than the Oedipal.
It is impossible and dishonorable to reduce Fromm’s deeply complex
and extensive thesis to a few hundred words, but pressed to do
so this is it: Man, alone of mammals, is the only primate who
feels intense pleasure in killing and torturing, but not all men,
not all cultures, not all times prove that man is instinctively,
pathologically aggressive. Early primates lived in manageable,
relatively war-free matriarchal societies, but the more civilized
man became, the more aggression went from “benign” (natural) to
“malignant” (vengeful). Man is an existential animal, gifted with
reason and imagination that make him aware of his environment
and self-aware of his freakish separation from it, the only animal
in the animal kingdom that knows that birth is an accident and
Man longs for lasting oneness, unable to achieve. Most work out
their passions, but those who don’t revert to instinctive ways
and become the very unifying gods or idols created to save them
from themselves. Such men are not mad but narcissistic, necrophiliac,
delivering “justice,” seeking revenge, clever enough to exploit
and manipulate masses living under intolerable conditions. For
such destructive messiahs and those whom they convince to follow
them, the malignant is seen as benign and natural, and the natural
is seen as desirable and necessary. For him, Fromm says, with
his social uprootedness, thirst for revenge, worship of hate,
especially for his country’s abandonment of its feudal ways for
corrupt capitalism, the world would pay. Bin Laden? No,the assassin
of the liberal German foreign minister in 1922. The more the world
changes . . . .
Still, despite the grim and overwhelming history of civilization,
there is reason to hope. The future of an illusion? Well, man
is a dreaming animal. Were hope not possible, however, it might
be said that Erich Fromm would not, could not, have written this
book. Or that we would not read it and not be moved to think about
what we might do to bring light and warmth to this darkening planet.
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