The Soul of Man Can
Never be Described in Words
Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980)
The following article is reproduced
from “Theosophy” magazine,
, Los Angeles
November, 1957, pp. 35-40. It first appeared
in the Saturday Review for March 16, 1957. U.S.A.
Life in its biological aspects is a
miracle and a secret, and man in his
human aspects is an unfathomable secret.
The growing popularity of psychology is interpreted by many as a sign of our approach to the Delphic ideal:
The idea of self-knowledge has its roots in the Greek and Judaeo-Christian tradition. It was part of the Enlightenment attitude. Men like James  and Freud, deeply rooted in this tradition, helped to transmit it to us. But we must not ignore other aspects of contemporary psychology which are dangerous and destructive to human spiritual development.
Psychological knowledge has assumed a particular function in capitalistic society, a function and a meaning quite different from those which were implied in “Know Thyself”. Capitalistic society is centered around the market, the commodity market and the labor market, where goods and services are exchanged freely, regardless of clan and blood relationships and other traditional standards and without force or fraud. Knowledge of the customer is of paramount importance to the seller. With the growing complexity of enterprises and capital, it becomes all the more important to know in advance the wishes of the customer, and not only to know them but to influence and manipulate them. The capital investments of modern giant enterprises are not made by hunch, but after thorough investigation and manipulation of the customer and the whole market.
Beyond “market psychology” another new field of psychology has arisen, based on the wish to understand and manipulate the employee. This is called “human relations”. It is a logical outcome of the changed relationship between capital and labor. Instead of crude warfare there is cooperation between the giant colossi of enterprise and the giant colossi of labor unions, both of which have come to the conclusion that it is in the long run more useful to compromise than to fight. In addition, we have also found that satisfied, “happy” men work more productively and provide for that smooth operation which is a necessity for big enterprises. Thus, what
did for the
rationalization of physical work the psychologists do for the mental and
emotional aspect of the worker. He is made into a thing, treated and manipulated like a thing, and so-called “human
relations” are the most inhuman ones, because they are “reified” and alienated
From the manipulation of the customer and the worker, the uses of psychology have spread to the manipulation of everybody, to politics. While the idea of democracy originally centered around the concept of clear-thinking and responsible citizens, the practice of democracy becomes more and more distorted by the same methods of manipulation which were first developed in market research and “human relations”.
While all this is well known, I want now to discuss a more subtle and difficult problem which is related to individual psychology and especially to psychoanalysis. The question is:
To which extent is psychology (the knowledge of others and of myself) possible? What limitations exist to such knowledge? And what are the dangers if these limitations are not respected?
Undoubtedly the desire to know our fellow men and ourselves corresponds to a deep need in human beings. Man lives within a social context. He needs to be related to his fellow man lest he become insane. Man is endowed with reason and imagination; his fellow man and he himself are problems which he cannot help trying to solve. The endeavor to understand man by thought is called psychology, “the knowledge of the soul”.
However, complete rational knowledge is possible only of things. Things can be dissected without being destroyed; they can be manipulated without damage to their nature; they can be reproduced. Man is not a thing. He cannot be dissected without being destroyed. He cannot be manipulated without being harmed. And he cannot be reproduced artificially. Life in its biological aspects is a miracle and a secret, and man in his human aspects is an unfathomable secret. We know our fellow man and ourselves in many ways, yet we do not know him or ourselves fully because we are not things. The further we reach into the depth of our being, or someone else’s being, the more the goal of full knowledge eludes us. Yet we cannot help desiring to penetrate into the secret of man’s soul, into the nucleus of “he”.
What, then, does it mean, that we know ourselves or that we know another person? To know ourselves means to overcome the illusions we have about ourselves. To know our neighbor means to overcome the “parataxic distortions” (transference) we have about him. We all suffer, in varying degrees, from illusions about ourselves. We are enmeshed in fantasies of omniscience and omnipotence which were experienced as quite real when we were children. We rationalize our bad motives in terms of benevolence, duty, or necessity. We rationalize weakness and fear in terms of “good causes”, our unrelatedness in terms of others’ unresponsiveness. With our fellow man we distort and rationalize just as much, except that usually we do so in the opposite direction. Our lack of love makes him appear as hostile when he is only shy. Our submissiveness transforms him into a dominating ogre when he only asserts himself. Our fear of spontaneity makes him out to be childish, when he is really childlike and spontaneous. To know more about ourselves means to do away with the many veils which hide us and our neighbor from our view. One veil after another is lifted, one distortion after another dispelled.
Psychology can show us what man is not. It cannot tell us what man, each one of us, is. The soul of man, the unique core of each individual, can never be grasped and described adequately. It can be “known” only inasmuch as it is not misconceived. The legitimate aim of psychology, as far as ultimate knowledge is concerned, is the negative, the removal of distortions and illusions, not the positive, full, and complete knowledge of a human being.
There is, however, another path to knowing man’s secret. This path is not that of thought, but of love. Love is active penetration of the other person in which my desire to know is stilled by union. In the act of fusion I know you, I know myself, I know everybody - and I “know” nothing. I know in the only way in which knowledge of that which is alive is possible for man - by the experience of union, not by any knowledge our thought can give. The only way to full knowledge lies in the act of love; this act transcends thought, it transcends words.
Psychological knowledge may be one condition for full knowledge in the act of love. I have to know the other person and myself objectively in order to be able to see his reality or, rather, in order to overcome the illusions, the irrationally distorted pictures I have of him. If I know a human being as he is, or rather if I know what he is not, then I may know him in his ultimate essence in the act of love.
Love is an achievement not easy to attain. How does the man who cannot love try to penetrate the secret of his neighbor? There is, as I have tried to show in [the book] “The Art of Loving”, one other way, a desperate one, to know the secret: it is that of complete power over another person, the power which makes him do what I want, feel what I want, think what I want, which transforms him into a thing, my thing. The ultimate degree of this attempt to know lies in the extremes of sadism, in the desire to make a human being suffer, to torture him, to force him to betray his “secret” in his suffering or eventually to destroy him. In the craving to penetrate man’s secret lies an essential motive for the depth and intensity of cruelty and destructiveness. In a very succinct way this idea has been expressed by the Russian writer Isaac Babel. He quotes a fellow officer in the Russian Civil War who has just stamped a former master to death as saying:
“With shooting - I’ll put it this way - with shooting you only get rid of a chap..... With shooting you’ll never get at the soul, to where it is in a fellow and how it shows itself. But I don’t spare myself, and I’ve more than once trampled an enemy for over an hour. You see, I want to get to know what life really is, what life’s like down our way.”
While sadism and destructiveness are motivated by the desire to force man’s secret, it can never lead to the expected goal. By making my neighbor suffer, the distance between him and myself grows to a point where no knowledge is possible. Sadism and destructiveness are perverted, hopeless, and tragic attempts to learn.
The problem of knowing man runs parallel to the theological problem of knowing God. Negative theology postulates that I cannot make any positive statement about God. The only knowledge of God is what He is not. As Maimonides put it, the more I know about what God is not the more I know about God. Or as Meister Eckhart put it: “Meanwhile man cannot know what God is even though he be ever so well aware of what God is not.” One consequence of such negative theology lies in mysticism. If I can have no full knowledge of God in thought, if theology is at best negative, the positive knowledge of God can be achieved only in the act of union with God.
Translating this principle to man, we might speak of a “negative psychology”, and furthermore say that full knowledge of man by thought is impossible, and that full “knowledge” can occur only in the act of love. Just as mysticism is a logical consequence of negative theology, love is the logical consequence of negative psychology.
Stating the limitations of psychology is to point to the danger resulting from ignoring these limitations. Modern man is lonely, frightened, and little capable of love. He wants to be close to his neighbor, yet he is too unrelated and distant to be able to be close. His marginal bonds to his neighbor are manifold and easily kept up, but a deep “central relatedness” hardly exists. To find closeness he seeks knowledge; and in search of knowledge he finds psychology. Psychology becomes a substitute for love, for intimacy, for union with others and oneself; it becomes the refuge of the lonely, alienated man instead of being a step toward the act of union.
Psychology as a surrogate becomes apparent in the phenomenon of the popularity of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis can be most helpful in undoing the parataxic distortions within ourselves and about our fellow man. It can undo one illusion after another, and free the way to the decisive act, which we alone can perform: the “courage to be”, the jump, the act of ultimate commitment. Man after his physical birth has to go through a continuous process of birth. Emerging from the mother’s womb is the first act of birth; from her breast is the second; from her arm the third. From here on the process of birth can stop; a person can develop into a socially adjusted and useful person and yet remain stillborn in a spiritual sense. If he is to develop into what he potentially is as a human being, he must continue to be born. That is, he must continue to dissolve the primary ties of soil and blood. He must proceed from one act of separation to the next. He must give up certainty and defenses and take the jump into the act of commitment, concern, and love.
What happens so often in psychoanalytic treatment is that there is a silent agreement between therapist and patient which consists in the assumption that psychoanalysis is a method by which one can attain happiness and maturity and yet avoid the jump, the act, the pain of separation. To use the analogy of the jump a little further, the psychoanalytic situation looks sometimes like that of a man wanting to learn how to swim and yet intensely afraid of the moment when he has to jump into the water, to have faith in the water’s buoyancy. The man stands at the edge of the pool and listens to his teacher explain to him the movements he has to make; that is good and necessary. But if we see him going on talking, talking, talking we become suspicious that the talking and understanding have become a substitute for the real swim. No amount or depth of psychological insight can take the place of the act, the commitment, the jump. It can lead to it, prepare for it, make it possible - and this is the legitimate function of psychoanalytic work. But it must not try to be a substitute for the responsible act of commitment, an act without which no real change occurs in a human being.
If psychoanalysis is understood in this sense, another condition must be met. The analyst must overcome the alienation from himself and from his fellow man which is prevalent in modern times. As I have said, modern man experiences himself as a thing, an embodiment of energies to be invested profitably on the market. He experiences his fellow man as a thing to be used for profitable exchange. Contemporary psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis are involved in this universal process of alienation. The patient is considered as a thing, the sum of many parts. Some of these parts are defective and need to be “fixed”, like the parts of an automobile. There is a defect here and a defect there, called symptoms. The psychiatrist considers it his function to fix them. He does not look at the patient as a unique totality.
For psychoanalysis to fulfill its real possibilities, the analyst must overcome his own alienation, be capable of relating himself to the patient from core to core, and in this relatedness to open the path for the patient’s spontaneous experience, and thus for the “understanding” of himself. He must not look on the patient as an object, or even be only a “participant observer”. He must become one with the patient, and at the same time retain his own separateness and objectivity so that he can formulate his experiences in the act of oneness and of separateness at the same time.
The final understanding cannot be expressed fully in words. It is not an “interpretation” which describes the patient as an object with its various defects, and their genesis, but it is an overall intuitive grasp; it takes place first in the analyst and then, if the analysis is successful, in the patient. This grasp is sudden. It is an intuitive act which can be prepared by many cerebral insights but can never be replaced by them. If psychoanalysis is to develop in this direction it has still unexhausted possibilities for human transformation and spiritual change. If it remains enmeshed in the socially patterned defect of alienation it may remedy this or that defect, but it will become another tool for making man more automatized and adjusted to an alienated and basically “inhuman” society.
 James: William James, North-American Psychologist and Philosopher (1842-1910) leader of the movement known as pragmatism.
Read also the article “The Power of Suggestion”, by Robert Crosbie, which is easy to find in our associated websites.
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