The Fear of Freedom

A great number of our decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision, whereas we have actually conformed with expectations of others, driven by the fear of isolation and by more direct threats to our life, freedom, and comfort.1
Erich Fromm

The other book I picked up while in Singapore was Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom. It’s a relatively short book that contemplates how we relate to freedom and security. Before jumping to my notes, a bit of context is helpful for understanding the book itself.

Like his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School,2 Fromm grew up a German Jew during the early 1900s. In the face of Hitler’s rise he relocated first to Switzerland and later the United States until the 1950s. This kept him safe and allowed him to continue his work. In 1942 Fromm published The Fear of Freedom which focuses on two forces: the development of capitalism plus the rise of Italian and German authoritarianism.

Much of the book is straightforward reading, though parts do skew toward the complex. It’s also remarkably relevant reading for the modern era. Economic and political developments of the last 20 years mean much of what Fromm considers has a modern application. From labor relations to social isolation to authoritarian governments there’s much that’s still top of mind in 2018.

Despite its short length the book is tough to succinctly summarize. There were, however, a couple high-level concepts I took away.


A thread throughout the book concerns how we balance freedom and security. Fromm holds that the more we gain the more we have only one choice in front of us. We can have spontaneity in our love and work, and thus face the insecurity, anxiety, and isolation that brings. Or we can embrace security, and thus impinge our freedom and individuality.


Part of our struggle to balance individualism and security stems from the past feudal social order. This was thought to be a natural order of things. And we had a sense of certainty and security in our place. The dominant social order did not deprive individuals of their freedom as “the individual” did not yet exist.

With the Renaissance and rise of Capitalism we became consumed with an insatiable greed for power and wealth. Our work was increasingly done with no share in the enterprise. Work became a supreme value and there was a deep restlessness that developed alongside a preoccupation with time. Everything in life depended upon a given individual’s effort and we couldn’t even be certain about the basic supply and demand relationship in the market.

Calvanism sowed the seeds for a modern approach to work. Effort and work were not to change one’s fate, which was predetermined. Instead our frantic effort was instead a reassurance against an unbearable feeling of powerlessness. Fromm argues this may be our most important psychological change since the Middle Ages.

  1. The Fear of Freedom, pg. 171.[]
  2. More on them in a bit as I recently read Grand Hotel Abyss.[]