Erich Fromm

A Frame of Orientation and Devotion




In this extract from The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm highlights two basis needs of every human being: (1) the need to make sense of the world in which he/she lives bey constructing a frame of orientation, and (2) the need to have goals in life, whatever they might be, to which dedicate time and energies for their achievement.



Man's capacity for self-awareness, reason, and imagination - new qualities that go beyond the capacity for instrumental thinking of even the cleverest animals - requires a picture of the world and of his place in it that is structured and has inner cohesion. Man needs a map of his natural and social world, without which he would be confused and unable to act purposefully and consistently. He would have no way of orienting himself and of finding for himself a fixed point that permits him to organize all the impressions that impinge upon him. Whether he believed in sorcery and magic as final explanations of all events, or in the spirit of his ancestors as guiding his life and fate, or in an omnipotent god who will reward or punish him, or in the power of science to give answers to all human problems - from the standpoint of his need for a frame of orientation, it does not make any difference.

His world makes sense to him, and he feels certain about his ideas through the consensus with those around him.
Even if the map is wrong, it fulfills its psychological function.
But the map was never entirely wrong - nor has it ever been entirely right, either. It has always been enough of an approximation to the explanation of phenomena to serve the purpose of living. Only to the degree to which the practice of life is freed from its contradictions and its irrationality can the theoretical picture correspond to the truth.

The impressive fact is that we do not find any culture in which there does not exist such a frame of orientation. Or any individual either. Often an individual may disclaim having any such overall picture and believe that he responds to the various phenomena and incidents of life from case to case, as his judgement guides him. But it can be easily demonstrated that he takes his own philosophy for granted, because to him it is only common sense, and he is unaware that all· his concepts rest upon a commonly accepted frame of reference.

When such a person is confronted with a fundamentally different total view of life he judges it as "crazy" or "irrational" or "childish," while he considers himself as being only logical.
The need for the formation of a frame of reference is particularly clear in the case of children. They show, at a certain age a deep need for a frame of orientation and often make it up themselves in an ingenious way, using the few data available to them.

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. Part of the answer lies in the suggestive influence of leaders and in the suggestibility of man. But this does not seem to be the whole story. Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. The animal has no such problems. Its instincts provide it with a map as well as with goals. But man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective - and not only proclaimed - values. He needs such an object of devotion for a number of reasons. The object integrates his energies in one direction. It elevates him beyond his isolated existence, with all its doubts and insecurity, and gives meaning to life. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects of man's devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal that makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and of being productive and courageous.
He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary existential need demanding fulfillment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.


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