Prof. John Bacon TIME \@ "d MMMM yyyy" 4 October 2012
Existentialism: What is it to be Human?
We begin life in a world not of our choosing. Nor is our genetic makeup, the society we become part of, or our family a choice we make. Existentialists are famous for pointing out that life is hard. The physical world can bring us pain as well as pleasure; the social world can lead us into heartbreak and loneliness as well as love and intimacy, and the personal world, especially, houses our anxiety and guilt. These difficult aspects are not merely possibilities in life; they are inevitable. Existentialists may seem preoccupied with death; however, it is in facing our own death that we are most likely to come to an understanding of our life. Humans, it appears, are the only creatures that are aware of their own mortality. When we become aware of our mortality, we may at first shrink from it and try to forget its reality by becoming enveloped in the day-to-day activities of the social world around us. Unfortunately, this will not do. Avoiding death is avoiding life. Existentialists believe that most of us, most of the time, live out our lives in denial of our full humanity, with its anxiety, guilt, and death. It is with this definition of existentialism that I choose to write about Erich Fromm.
Erich Fromm was born in Frankfort, Germany on March 23, 1900. He was the only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. Growing up Jewish in a Christian community he suffered acts of “anti-Semitism and feelings of clannishness from both sides. Fromm describes his father as moody and anxious and his mother highly neurotic and depression prone, and himself as an unbearable neurotic child. That combination piqued his interest for studying the reasons behind human reactions.
This interest became more prominent during his adolescence. Driven by a deeply religious up bringing, Fromm became engrossed in the teachings of the “Old Testament.” He became fascinated with the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and Jonah’s mission to Nineveh. He was moved by the “visions” about the “end of days.” “Nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall learn war any more.” (1993 Journal) The international peace movement, which Fromm, later as an adult would become significantly involved in, would incorporate these words.
It was also during his adolescence when two major events would take place in Fromm’s life that made him ask “how is it possible?” The first was when a 25-year-old friend of the family committed suicide after the death of her widowed father, with whom she spent all her time. He admits to being quite attracted to her and that he loathed the unattractive father. He could not understand how a beautiful young woman would prefer to be buried along side her father than to being alive and open to the pleasures of life.
The second event was World War I. Fromm was in English class when his seemingly peace-loving instructor proclaimed that his favorite law was “if you want peace then prepare for war. Fromm and his fellow classmates were told to learn the heart of the British National Anthem over the summer. When Fromm returned to