Philosophy, Psychology, Videos

Freedom and Anxiety: The Inner God vs The Inner Worm

The following is a transcript of this video.

“Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?”

Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Man is a creature forever pulled between two extremes, between what some have called our inner god and our inner worm. Our inner god represents our powers of imagination and our symbolic awareness which together grant us the ability to project into the future and to envisage almost limitless possibilities. Our inner god offers us the gift of psychological freedom. It shows us what we could be and tells us that the creation of our destiny is at least partly in our hands, if we can but move forward into the realm of the possible. But alongside our inner god exists our inner worm and this is the side of us which fears freedom and keeps us tied, like all other animals, to a limited set of behaviors and a limited set of possibilities. Unfortunately, for many it is our inner worm, not our inner god, which is the ruling factor of our life. We fear psychological freedom more than we desire it, and in this video we are going to investigate why.

“Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

If psychological freedom entails the ability to envisage constructive ways to change to our life and to then act upon these possibilities, why should we fear this? According to Dostoevsky one of the main reasons for this is due to the intimate connection between freedom and anxiety – for anxiety follows freedom as its shadow. Our ability to project into the future and to imagine how things could be makes us aware of better ways of living, but we can never be certain if the pursuit of the possible will contribute more to our salvation or more to our suffering. We may be godlike in our ability to conceive of the possible, but we lack the omniscient power to know if we are correct in what we see and if we are capable of achieving what we desire. And so our inner god wants to pursue the possible but our inner worm fears what will become of us if we do. This strange mixture of desire and dread that arises in the face of the possible creates an inner conflict which for Kierkegaard is the essence of anxiety. For as he put it, anxiety

“…is a desire for what one dreads, a sympathetic antipathy. Anxiety is an alien power which lays hold of an individual, and yet one cannot tear oneself away, nor has a will to do so; for one fears, but what one fears one desires. Anxiety then makes the individual impotent.”

Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety

Or as Rollo May explained:

“Anxiety is the state of man…when he confronts his freedom…Whenever possibility is visualized by an individual, anxiety is potentially present in the same experience…Such possibilities, like roads ahead which cannot be known since one has not yet traversed and experienced them, involve anxiety…To Kierkegaard, the more possibility…an individual has, the more potential anxiety he has at the same time.”

Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

To protect ourselves from the anxiety which accompanies psychological freedom, the 20th century psychologist Erich Fromm proposed that we enact behavioral strategies in order to flee from freedom. He called such strategies “mechanisms of escape” and argued that these mechanisms of escape are primarily motivated by masochistic strivings. In popular culture masochism is typically associated with sexuality, but Sigmund Freud isolated a more prevalent form of masochism which he termed moral masochism, and which the psychoanalyst Anita Weinreb Katz defined as:

“…any behavioral act, verbalization, or fantasy that – by unconscious design – is physically or psychically injurious to oneself, self-defeating, humiliating, or unduly self-sacrificing.”

Anita Weinreb Katz, Paradoxes of Masochism

On the surface moral masochism appears puzzling. For how can a longing for submission, for humiliation and suffering and for the belittlement of one’s self, be felt as a worthy objective to strive for? But Fromm thought the riddle of moral masochism can be solved when viewed as an attempt to escape from the anxieties of freedom by submitting to a powerful Other. Whether the masochist submits to an external god, a church, a nation, the state, a leader, an ideology, a company, a significant other, a drug or an inner compulsion, the objective, according to Fromm, is always the same. The masochist cannot bear the anxieties of choice – of possibility and freedom – and so happily he hands over the reins of his soul to a master. Or as Fromm wrote:

“The masochistic person, whether his master is an authority outside of himself or whether he has internalized the master as conscience or a psychic compulsion, is saved from making decisions, saved from the final responsibility for the fate of his self, and thereby saved from the doubt of what decision to make. He is also saved from the doubt of what the meaning of his life is or who “he” is. These questions are answered by the relationship to the power to which he has attached himself. The meaning of his life and the identity of his self are determined by the greater whole into which the self has submerged.”

Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Moral masochism is ruinous to psychological health. The extreme dependency the masochist develops for a powerful Other leads to infantilization and the enthusiastic acceptance of chains. “The rejection of freedom does not leave a man unpunished. It turns him into a slave of necessity.” (Viktor Gorskii) Yet a masochistic flight from freedom also has wider social and political effects. For it is easy to find numerous examples of societies who citizens feared freedom to such a degree that the only means of escape they saw was to submit to a powerful Other in the form of an authoritarian regime.

“…people grasp at political authoritarianism in the desperate need to be relieved of anxiety.”

Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety

In her book The Quest of our Lives, the author Ida Wylie notes a telling comment from a young German slightly before the horrors of World War II:

“We Germans are so happy. We are free from freedom.”

Ida Wylie, The Quest of our Lives

The negative social effects of moral masochism are not only seen in mass submission to an authoritarian regime. For a more covert mechanism of masochistic escape exists, and this involves submission to the tyranny of the majority, or what Fromm labelled as obedience to “…common sense, science, psychic health, normality, public opinion.” (Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom) The strategy behind this mechanism of escape involves identifying ourselves so thoroughly with whatever society deems “self-evident”, “normal”, and “expected”, that we are saved from having to formulate and commit ourselves to our own principles, values, beliefs, and ways of life. We repress our awareness of possibilities and accept only that which is socially-given. This mechanism of escape may protect us from the anxieties of freedom, but the more we obey the tyranny of the majority the more we lose our self and the more society becomes inhabited by automatons who ostracize all who dare to deviate from the status-quo. As Rollo May wrote: 

“. . .there is no political freedom that is not indissolubly bound up to the inner personal freedom of the individuals who make up that nation, no liberty of a nation of conformists, no free nation made up of robots.”

Rollo May, Freedom and Destiny

Given that moral masochism makes us weak and servile and promotes the enslavement of a society, we must ask: what can we do to develop the strength to bear the anxiety that freedom elicits and to move forward into life instead of remaining stagnant? How can we re-ignite the god within? Remembering that psychological freedom is the awareness of possibilities plus the courage to move forward into the possible, Kierkegaard suggested that one way to become free is to recognize that when it comes to the decision of whether to pursue the possible, it is always better to take the risk and to “venture” into the unknown.

“Freedom lies in being bold.”

Robert Frost

Or as Kierkegaard echoed:

“…by not venturing, it is so dreadfully easy to lose that which it would be difficult to lose  in even the most venturesome venture…For if I have ventured amiss – very well, then life helps me by its punishment. But if I have not ventured at all – who then helps me?”

Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death

In choosing a life of venturing, in embracing the possible even though this means inviting uncertainty into our life, we will not be tempted to resort to moral masochism. Rather, in venturing we continually expand the confines of our comfort zone, we learn how to remain resilient in the face of failure, and we cultivate courage, self-reliance, independence, and hence, self-respect. And so but one question remains: will we embrace our inner god and choose a life of courageous venturing, or will we succumb to our inner worm, flee from the anxieties of freedom, and seek out someone or something to call master? “The first act of freedom is to choose it.” (William James, The Will to Believe), wrote the psychologist William James. And the second is to take the actions that are necessary to be free and realize that life is short and the greatest suffering comes not to those who are bold but to those who remain cowardly.

“The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore. Unlike the mediocre, intrepid spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible. It is with an iron will that they embark on the most daring of all endeavors, to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown.”

Attributed to Ferdinand Magellan

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Oberhausen - Gasometer - Der schöne Schein - The Ancient of Days (William Blake) 01 ies
William Blake - Nebuchadnezzar (Tate Britain)
William Blake Milton in His Old Age 1816-1820
Empyrean Light
William Blake - Nebuchadnezzar - Google Art Project
William Blake - The First Book of Urizen, Plate 12 (Bentley 22) - Google Art Project
Edith Villiers, later Countess of Lytton by George Frederic Watts DYK crop
Edvard Munch, Selvportrett fra klinikken
Айвазовский И. К. (1887) А. С. Пушкин на берегу Чёрного моря
Henry Scott Tuke - The Look Out
Giovanni Fattori 069
Ladislav Mednyánszky - Kneeling Convict - O 4930 - Slovak National Gallery
José de Ribera - Saint Onufri - WGA19388
Spagnoletto San Sebastiano Museo di Stato di San Marino
The art Bible, comprising the Old and new Testaments - with numerous illustrations (1896) (14780798074)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Two Lovers - Google Art Project
William Powell Frith The lovers
Emperor by Ivan Makarov
Edvard Munch - Workers on their Way Home - Google Art Project
Two Gentlemen Bowing to One Another, Each Supposing the Other to Be in a Higher Position
Aivazovsky - Puskin at the Black Sea coast
Winslow Homer - Looking Out (1875)
DSCF2316 Dante perdu
Nikolaj Alexandrowitsch Jaroschenko 001
Man with a Knapsack by Winslow Homer
William Blake - Europe. A Prophecy, Frontispiece Proof Impression - Google Art Project