How you can be normal and sick at the same time

If you’re familiar with the works of psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm, or have rifled through his book The Sane Society, you would have come by the phrase, “the pathology of normalcy”. The moment I read the phrase, I logged on to Facebook with irrepressible eagerness to share it with my friends. But as I was about to do so, I paused for a second and thought to myself, why waste an immensely powerful, truthful, deep, thought-provoking, amazing, delightful, ecstatic, profound, indisputable, shocking, insightful, daring, explosive — dear reader, forgive my pathological use of adjectives — phrase on social media for a few likes and thereby bury it completely? It deserves to remain an unforgettable phrase that humanity can ponder over day and night, at home, at the workplace, at shopping malls, at social gatherings, at schools and colleges, to come to grips with the actual mental condition it is referring to, which according to Fromm is pathological and insane.


Why is Fromm so hard on us? Are we really abnormal in our normal states of being and normal interactions with one another? What a disparaging assessment of our society.

Most of us think of ourselves as normal people, good and responsible citizens, some creative and some down-to-earth, leading normal lives, occasionally feeling sad, angry, depressed, etc. There is no reason for us to believe that our mental health is anything but fine. But Fromm doesn’t think so. He pokes through the surface, looks deeper at our collective behaviour, and says things aren’t not all that awesome. According to him, society as a whole is blemished. He doesn’t say all this spitefully. Nor does his voice contain any trace of cynicism. He means well, he loves human beings. He isn’t an irrational being latching on to a chance to condemn humanity. Moreover, he was a disciple of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud initially and social philosopher Karl Marx. So, Fromm must have seen and felt something about the human psyche to come up with a verdict like that.

Fromm bases his verdict on the happenings during the 20th century.  There was greater material wealth but it didn’t bring about sanity and millions of people were killed in wars, he says and points to high rates of suicide and homicide to substantiate his view that society as a whole might be sick.

But is his view of humanity applicable only to the 20th Century and western countries, or also to the 21st Century and the world at large? To hope that it might be the former is natural for that would relieve us of the burden of looking into ourselves. Sadly, though, Fromm quotes 17th-Century philosopher Spinoza in one of his book’s chapters to indicate that the pathology is not confined to a particular period or particular location. When we read Spinoza’s word we know that the mental issue that haunts man is universal.

Then again, it would be foolhardy to believe something as true just because Spinoza had said so. So, before accepting or rejecting his view it would be wise on our part to deliberate on his words as quoted by Fromm: “… if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions,  the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as ‘‘illness’.”

Let us objectively examine the validity of Spinoza’s assertion. In the absence of such analysis I would be but a misanthrope, which I think I am not.



Yes, greed and ambition, almost all of us consider as irritants. But here is the nuance — we dislike a greedy person but worship an ambitious one. Without ambition, we might just be lifeless. Ambition propels us to action, it makes us achievers. Without it we won’t be what we are — a developed society. These are all some arguments in favour of ambition. So, if we were to accept Spinoza’s scathing condemnation of an ambitious person as being insane, all of human society is apt to take offence.

But let’s pause once again before coming to a conclusion. Should we not ask whether ambition is a healthy human trait overall? Does it leave humanity’s balance sheet in a loss or a profit? My feeling is it is more harmful than good. How so? Well, look at any ambitious man or woman. They are not only consumed by an impulse that blinds them to the pain of others who may become victims of their ambition; their very pursuit is born of the need to become great in order to prove to others that their existence has meaning. Rather destructive, no? It is understandable that lack of meaning is the driving force behind the desire to achieve success and power — everyone is looking for meaning in life.

However, here’s the kicker — what we actually lack is joy (which is, to a large degree, endogenous, or generated from within). And a truly sustainable way to acquire joy is to aim for joy that will make others also joyous. Whereas, our exogenous or outward directed ambition tends to give us an incomplete and temporary pleasure in exchange for others’ lasting pain. Ambition lacks or neglects the much-needed elements of eympathy and sympathy. An ambitious (self-interested) mind by definition has no space for others. What kind of human beings would we be if our primary driving force prevented us from affording other human beings their space? Is this not a pathological condition and doesn’t the whole world share it?

True, if great sportspersons, economists, artists and builders were not driven by their ambition, giving us the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their hard work, we would be deprived of a great deal of pleasures and comforts and, not to mention, have to face our boredom. But, as Fromm says, love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

But what is love? Does anyone know?

Source: Read Full Article