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A Critical Paper: Anthony Esquibel 1

The Sane Society: A Critical Review

Chapter 4 in The Sane Society by Erich Fromm (1955) provides a perspective on mental

health on the basis that Freud's theory on human nature encourages capitalism (pp. 76) and is too

“asocial” (pp. 75). The author suggests that there should be focus not only on “the inhibiting

impact” (pp. 77) of physiological needs but also an emphasis on the inhibition of what Fromm

calls “man's most valuable human qualities” (pp. 77). He provides a much more socially based

framework for facilitating the progress of the human condition.

The Sane Society presents the idea that if psychological needs aren't satisfied in a

satisfactory way, that neurosis will occur (pp. 68). This premise is basic and appealing to

intuition which makes it easy to agree with. Human beings have sets of individual needs, not just

desires, that are essential to a healthy mentality. It is when Fromm describes how these needs are

to be met that issues are raised. For example, he says that if individuals relate to others

symbiotically or in an “alienated way” (pp. 68) it has a negative impact. These descriptors are

characteristic of extroversion and introversion. It follows that social interaction style is

dependent on these conditions rather than a universal standard as the author suggests. This

section also refers to “all forms of identity based on the experience of the group” being “weak”

which is an unjustified dichotomy. If someone who is mentally unhealthy were to associate with

(and thus base identity on the experiences of) a mentally healthy group of people,it can benefit

the unhealthy individual under the right circumstances.

The definition that Fromm presents for mental health has many aspects; some of which are

agreeable and some that aren't. One obvious flaw can be seen when he states that mental health

is “characterized by the ability to love and create” (pp. 69). Love is a vague concept and any

definition he could provide would only be subject to endless debate. “The ability to create” (pp.

69) is nearly as ambiguous as the concept of love is. To create life? In this case, most of the
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population has this ability and can be considered one step closer to being mentally healthy. To

create art? Trouble? Fromm's definition doesn't account for the many types of creations there

are. And how would the term “ability” be relevant in both cases? Everyone may have the ability

to do so but it wouldn't always be of personal importance that they use it. On the other hand, it is

hard to deny the importance of an external and internal “grasp of reality” (pp. 69). Individuals

should accept everything about their environment and any delusions about the surroundings can

lead to being mentally unhealthy.

The author states that this definition is concurrent with the principles of the “great spiritual

teachers of the human race” (pp.69) . These teachings may not contain all the answers necessary

for personal growth, but it can be agreed upon that understanding the philosophies behind them

can contribute to further psychological insight. It is rather illuminating that the various

preachings share so much in common despite what appears to be such stark contrasts in

religions. Mental health science can benefit from studying the underlying appeal of these archaic

ideologies and the amount of truth they contain.

Fromm challenges the nineteenth century approach, accusing it of crediting “important

psychic phenomena” (pp. 70) to physiological processes and then stating that personality should

be based primarily on “conditions of human existence” (pp. 70). Although there is the possibility

that certain psychological concepts may not have roots in organics, it is faulty logic to assume

that all socio-psychological concepts fit this description. It also is wrong to insist that social

interactions should be the only “basic empirical datum” (pp. 70) to draw from in the field of

psychology, as the author suggests. This should only be the approach for those concepts that

currently lack physiological evidence until genetic research can prove otherwise. Neglecting to
A Critical Paper: Anthony Esquibel 3

acknowledge the genetics of personality would prevent researchers from seeing the limits that an

individual is able to change within.

Fromm compares the evolution of self to the evolution of mankind to support the

assertion that primitive man wasn't mentally unhealthy; he just hadn't encountered the necessary

“cultural conditions” (pp. 71) to facilitate the change needed. This conclusion is based on the

claim that man has “not changed at all” in the past hundred-thousand years on an organic level.

In fact, research (McAuliffe, 2009) has demonstrated much faster rates of evolution in the past

10,000 years than during any time for our race before. There is cultural evolution occurring but

it isn't the only form that is responsible for the progress mankind has made.

While there were faults within The Sane Society's definition of mental health and

analogy, there are many enlightening ideas in how a healthy society is defined by Fromm. In

fact, the definition of an unhealthy society provided describes today's culture. Societal flaws

such as turning “man into an instrument of...exploitation” and stripping the individual of a

“sense of self” (pp. 73) can be observed in everyday life. Capitalism and corporate America are

breeding monotonous robots under the guise of innovation and pop culture. Flashy new products

and clothing trends give the impression that materialistic possessions equate to happiness when

they only lead to further disappointment. A society would be healthier if it catered more to the

mental health of the population than it did to financial gain and acquisition. The view that a

good worker demonstrates “maturity” (pp.73) is rightfully challenged in this regard. Personal

growth (such as maturity) in this day and age is defined as one's position on the corporate ladder

and not by the understanding of self or internal happiness. Once society can come to terms with

this inherent flaw in capitalism and abandon it, society will be much better off as a whole.
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The theories proposed by Freud and economists about mankind's inherent nature only

further capitalism, Fromm suggests (pp. 77). He believes that society creates these

characteristics, thus by changing society it would also alter the nature of mankind through the

aforementioned cultural evolution . This approach appears to encourage redefining the very

essence of what mankind embodies. An analysis which leads to questioning sources of behavior

and distinguishing the organically based from the socially internalized. The logic behind this

perspective implies a vicious cycle between society and human nature. Society pressures

individuals to achieve on a minimal level in order to survive, and the population distribution of

capitalism requires that a small percentage live below this level. This group of individuals are

forced to fulfill their basic needs through illegal and often chaotic means, which in turn affects

the rest of the population through a ripple effect. As mentioned earlier, capitalistic marketing

thrives on giving the consumers the impression of happiness through possession. The majority

feel the pressures placed on the few, and consumerism is mistakenly seen as an escape or a

relief. The impoverished minority perceive the majority as happier and desire the same goods.

The cycle begins again with this group attempting to achieve goods through illegal means.

Capitalism shouldn't be placed “beyond the reach of criticism” (pp. 77) and is a major factor in

modern society's psychology.

An important conclusion that can be drawn from “Chapter 4: Mental Health and

Society” is that the counseling of mental health should not only consider how individuals act

with society but how the structure of society suits individual needs. If the structure of society

doesn't cater to the psychological needs of the people than the only viable solution is that the

structure needs to change. Until this happens, counselors need to address how to encourage the

values that Fromm listed such as identity, and healthy reality perception. Encouraging the
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positive traits while inhibiting the negative ones is presented as the optimal means of achieving a

healthy self suitable for dealing with an unfit society. A society's success should not be

determined by the size of it's army or by the amount of products exported but rather by the

overall mental health of its citizens. Consumerism has created a dependency on what it creates,

so a downturn in the economy is also a turn for the worse in mental health. Once individuals are

taught to properly attribute happiness to inner properties over external goods, this tragic bond

can be broken.
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References

Fromm, Erich. (1955). The sane society. New York, NY: Holt.

McAuliffe, Kathleen. (2009, February 09). They don't make homo sapiens like they used to.

Discover, Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2009/mar/09-they-dont-make-

homo-sapiens-like-they-used-to