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About The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current | View Entire Issue (Dec. 12, 1973)
Fromm attacks old theories
in book on human aggression
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by
In his quixotic search for human nature,
Erich Fromm now has pierced the dragon of
human cruelty and aggression with his new
book on destructiveness.
Fromm begins by arguing that "most
notions of human nature have been mistaken."
He then attacks both instinctivists and
behaviorists as being mistaken and spends
almost half the book criticizing instinctivists
like Konrad Lorenz, who argues in his book On
Aggression that people's destructiveness has
been inherited from animal ancestors;
therefore, it is innate.
Drawing from neurophysiology, animal
behavior, paleontology and anthropology,
Fromm argues convincingly against the
predominant instinctivist approach to
aggression. Perhaps the reason he spends almost
200 pages on the subject is because he argues so
Unfortunately, in doing so he almost forgets
unassuming B.F. Skinner and his belief that
there are no innate human traits, because
everything is the result of social conditioning.
Perhaps the reason is that Fromm has no able
arguments for Skinnerian behaviorism. Except
for a few passing pages, behaviorism largely is
Questions immediately begin to arise,
however, when Fromm begins his own theories
on aggression. The first problem is with
Fromm's definition of aggression.
He believes there are two types of
aggression: benign and malignant. Benign
aggression includes biologically adaptive
responses "to threats to vital interests; it is
common to animals and men; it is not
spontaneous or self-serving but reactive and
defensive." After his criticism of Lorenz, one
wonders how he now can admit to this
"innately" benign aggression.
Fromm defines malignant aggression as
"biologically nonadaptive, characteristic only
of man;. . . its main manifestations-killing and
cruelty are pleasureful without needing any
other purpose; it is harmful not only to the
person who is attacked but also to the
Unfortunately, as Fromm details his
" faftWftWW IttnlgTr VggPession 't bcbmeV a '
'veV'broaa one." 'For' example,' under W
heading of pseudoaggression are incidents like
that of "the firing of a gun which accidentally
hurts or kills a bystander."
Fromm fails to answer why we have guns in
the first place. This avoidance of what seem to
be main points to me is a problem throughout
Other exemptions from malignant aggression
are people who fulfill certain religious needs
through ritual cannibalism or blood sacrifices.
Attempting to defend these acts as benign
aggression surely would find dissidents among
the victims of various Middle Age inquisitions
or Aztec human sacrifices.
To attempt to pass off this type of cruelty as
"reactive and defensive" only can be regarded
Fromm agrees with the popular idea that to
kill, a person must decide the other person is
nonhuman. Evidence for this, he says, is that
we called Germans krauts in World War II and
the Vietnamese gooks. He fails to explain
adequately how this applies to murders, which
overwhelmingly are among families or
Although indebted to Freud, Fromm is not
reluctant to emphasize social or cultural
influences on aggression. He feels that crowding
and the disturbance of hierarchy are the causes
of most aggression, the latter being the major
cause. Hence, as a society becomes more
advanced in terms of division of labor and
ownership of property, it becomes more
violent. This seems good at first, until one
recalls that crime rates have fluctuated in large
cities like New York for years. In light of this,
Fromm's causes become too simplistic.
Fromm contributes a new idea in his
definition of necrophilia when he adds that not
only is it an attraction to all that is dead,
destroyed or decaying, but also a love of all
that is mechanistic.
American society then is suffering from
necrophilia as shown by its worship of parking
lots, computers and automation. Following this
condemnation are the overused lectures on
death machines in Vietnam and the
self destructiveness of drug addiction which are,
by now, in the repertoire of every preacher,
politician and reformer in the United States.
Fromm finally combines all this in a
psychoanalysis 'of Adolf Hitler as a clinical case
of" necrophilia and malignant aggression. While
being both interesting and provocative, the
study is weak because Fromm has only one
reliable source for Hitler's youth and early
childhood. Considering Fromm's neo-Freudism,
the use of only one source for psychoanalysis
especially is questionable.
Despite the many criticisms, Fromm has
written a thought-provoking and controversial
book. Unfortunately, his dragon of
de$tructiv;ne:s has turned out to be a windmill.
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Wednesday, december 12, 1973
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