On Disobedience

by Erich Fromm
A pretty slight collection of four essays by Fromm, most of which are simple rehashes of what he said much more convincingly in Escape from Freedom and The Sane Society. It serves as a decent introduction to Fromm’s thought although a newcomer might just as easily be interested in The Art of Loving or the aforementioned “Escape.”

I have to admit, the pervasive Cold War references in this book left me with the continual impression that HarperPerennial published it in 2010 as a mere money-grab; it’s certainly not timely, nor does it offer any new insights into Fromm’s very impressive collection of works. That said, it is memorable for some beautiful Bertrand Russell quotes in the 2nd (and most interesting) essay “Prophets and Priests.” For your pleasure, here they are:

“Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim’s heart.” 28-9

“As geological time is reckoned, Man has so far existed only for a very short period — 1,000,000 years at the most. What he has achieved, especially during the last 6,000 years, is something utterly new in the history of the Cosmos, so far at least as we are acquainted with it. For countless ages the sun rose and set, the moon waxed and waned, the stars shone in the night, but it was only with the coming of Man that these things were understood. In the great world of astronomy and in the little world of the atom, Man has unveiled secrets which might have been thought undiscoverable. In art and literature and religion, some men have shown a sublimity of feeling which makes the species worth preserving. Is all this to end in trivial horror because so few are able to think of Man rather than of this or that group of men? Is our race so destitute of wisdom, so incapable of impartial love, so blind even to the simplest dictates of self-preservation, that the last proof of its silly cleverness is to be the extermination of all life on our planet?” 32-3

And the last quote is Fromm’s recording of Miguel de Unamuno’s public response to a Fascist slogan after a speech by Franco’s General Astray at a university function in Franco-era Spain, for which he was immediate removed from his post at the university:

“Just now I heard a necrophilous and senseless cry: ‘Long live death!’ And I, who have spent my life shaping paradoxes which have aroused the uncomprehending anger of others, I must tell you, as an expert authority, that this outlandish paradox is repellent to me. General Millan Astray is a cripple. Let it be said without any slighting undertone. He is a war invalid. So was Cervantes. Unfortunately there are too many cripples in Spain just now. And soon there will be even more of them if God does not come to our aid. It pains me to think that General Millan Astray should dictate the pattern of mass psychology. A cripple who lacks the spiritual greatness of a Cervantes is wont to seek ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.” [At which point Astray yells “Down with intelligence!”] . . . But Unamuno went on, “This is the temple of the intellect. And I am its high priest. It is you who profane its sacred precincts. You will win, because you have more than enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right in the struggle. I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain. I have done.” 35

Original Review


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