Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm is an exploration of the abstract concept of freedom. For Fromm, freedom is not to be confused with mere physical, political, or intellectual liberties; although he acknowledges that these are parts of what makes up a free human life. Instead, the idea of true empirical freedom entails two main components: (1) an existential element and (2) a social element.
The existential component focuses on the individual psyche and subjective experience. According to Fromm, it is crucial for individuals to experience their own existence as being separate from everyone else’s in order to have any kind of genuine freedom at all. On this basis, every person has the capacity to develop one’s own set values out of his or her own subjective experiences.
However, Fromm asserts that history has shown that this freedom can prove to be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the capacity for every person to become an “autonomous self” allows each human being to live authentically, without having their life dictated by external forces like religion or culture. Yet at the same time, because everyone is completely free to choose his or her own values (or even no values at all), anarchy and nihilism are also definite possibilities; which results in nothing more than meaningless chaos if enough individuals decide not to take up any responsibility for anything beyond themselves.
The second part of what constitutes empirical freedom involves a social component. This element is on how individuals relate with one another and how much one person’s freedom impacts the freedoms of others. For Fromm, it is not enough for each individual to have complete liberty concerning his or her own values and choices; instead, mutual respect and tolerance between individuals in society is necessary in order to maintain a “free” community. On this basis, he argues that an important step toward greater free societies involves everyone feeling responsible for their neighbour’s well-being.
Fromm also explains why he believes it has been historically difficult to establish such world communities which guarantee individuals’ freedoms: what makes life bearable at all (even when we often feel like we don’t want to be alive) is our desire for happiness, but because there are countless ways in which people can achieve pleasure and thus feel fulfilled, there is no possible way to create a worldwide social system that equally provides everyone with what he or she wants. Thus, the only solution Fromm envisions for this problem is for humanity as a whole to develop a genuine interest in understanding and meeting each other’s needs cooperatively.
In general, Escape From Freedom offers an insightful critique of modern society which explains how it can be difficult to maintain one’s own freedoms without infringing on those of others. In particular, Fromm’s thoughts about how personal responsibility plays into individual freedom are particularly well articulated.