How to stay Positive when Freedom is Negative

In Medieval Europe the social world reflected the natural world in a grand yet rigid hierarchy. The psychological benefit of this was a deep sense of security and belonging. One had a fixed place inside a closed world, a world with closure where freedom as we know it didn’t really exist.

Neither did anxiety. Or at least it was kept to a minimum because, as Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

This was starting to change in Europe by the 14th century as the old-guard structure started to break up and the Commercial Revolution started to, well, start. This provides the economic groundwork for the emergence of Capitalism and a whole new psychological atmosphere.

The sense-of-closure that knit together the Medieval world unravels and all the loose strands swarm around the mind-of-the-land and the land-of-the-mind. “Freeeeeeedom…” reigns and it feels kind of constricting.

Well to be more precise, there’s at least two kinds of freedom:

  1. Negative Freedom: the freedom from something; the absence of some pressure.

2. Positive Freedom: the freedom to something; the presence of something.

The freedom that emerges from the collapse of the Feudal society is largely negative freedom. It’s an absence of pressure, a freedom from the authoritarian Church and fixed social relations. It’s also a freedom from the psychological security of that fixed situation. This is where the predicament comes in, freedom is a burden.

And what beast is to carry this burden — us.

I have tried to show that the collapse of the medieval society threatened the middle class; that this threat resulted in a feeling of powerless isolation and doubt; that this psychological change was responsible for the appeal of Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines; that these doctrines intensified and stabilized the characterological changes; and that the character traits that thus developed then became productive forces in the development of capitalism which in itself resulted from economic and political changes.

The above is taken from Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom.

First published in 1941, it gives us a psycho-historical context for understanding why Fascism and other authoritarian systems become so popular and appealing during the 20th century.

Negative Freedom

shattered egg

We become free from the cushy local markets and the safety of a priest-mediated relationship with God. The new situation that opens up is one in which we compete with everyone and must face God alone. All these supra-personal forces leave us feeling alone, isolated and with a spirit of restlessness in a time when time literally speeds up because the church bells now toll more frequently.

The doctrines of Luther and Calvin appeal to a new middle class and teachings on the evilness and powerlessness of people fuel this new anxious character structure.

In an attempt to overcome the crippling worldview of stern folks like John Calvin (remember predestination?), people scratch at the compulsive twitch to work-work-work. The desire to do something, no matter what it is, takes over.

Work becomes an aim in itself rather than a means to some deeper meaning. Busyness takes on a high moral value, a value that is incredibly useful to the growth of a new type of economy.

This is one way to escape, to sort of lose oneself in excessive busyness regardless of its aim. The overwhelming pressures that guide a post-Feudal society create a whole host of escape plans. With futility we seek to reconstruct the security known in previous times.

Unfortunately, the new bonds that come in to try and reconstruct the old bonds of security come in the form of authoritarian structures. This creates a dynamic where:

  1. The submissive person/s renounces their “self”, adopts a “pseudo-self” and conforms like an automaton to the will of the group in order to gain secondary strength.
  2. The dominant person/s becomes a cauldron of suppressed hate for both self and other and exploits others in order to, as Fromm writes, “incorporate anything eatable in them”.

Needles to say, no one really wins in a situation like that. So is there another way to deal with the burden of freedom?

Positive Freedom


Life has an inner dynamism of its own; it tends to grow, to be expressed, to be lived. It seems that if this tendency is thwarted the energy directed toward life undergoes a process of decomposition and changes into energies directed toward destruction…. The more the drive toward life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive toward destruction the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. [emphasis mine]

Now there’s something to mentally chew on as your stroll down the angst-y roads near you. To counter the inertia of that destructive unlived life, Fromm talks about “positive freedom”.

The practitioners of negative freedom come to know secondary strength whereas those who practice positive freedom come to know a genuine strength that involves the total personality. It comes about, as Fromm writes, from a way of relating “spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensual, and intellectual capacities”. Its power comes from paying attention to the inner dynamism of life by embracing the world through the spontaneity of love and work.

A type of love that is not the love we usually think of. It is…

…not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as a spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self.

A type of work that is not the work we usually think of. It is…

…not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man’s hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation

The goal is to be an active and creative person, one who, as Fromm writes, “recognizes that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.”