Social Psychologist Erich Fromm Diagnoses Why People Wear a Mask of Happiness in Modern Society (1977)

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine. —Erich Fromm

There are more think pieces published every day than any one person can read about our current moment of social disintegration. But we seem to have lost touch with the insights of social psychology, a field that dominated popular intellectual discourse in the post-war 20th century, largely due to the influential work of German exiles like Erich Fromm. The humanist philosopher and psychologist’s “prescient 1941 treasure Escape from Freedom,writes Maria Popova, serves as what he called “‘a diagnosis rather than a prognosis,’ written during humanity’s grimmest descent into madness in WWII, laying out the foundational ideas on which Fromm would later draw in considering the basis of a sane society,” the title of his 1955 study of alienation, conformity, and authoritarianism.

Fromm “is an unjustly neglected figure,” Kieran Durkin argues at Jacobin, “certainly when compared with his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.” But he has much to offer as a “grounded alternative” to their critical theory, and his work “reveals a distinctly more optimistic and hopeful engagement with the question of radical social change.” Nonetheless, Fromm well understood that social diseases must be identified before they can be treated, and he did not sugarcoat his diagnoses. Had society become more “sane” thirty-plus years after the war? Fromm didn’t think so.




In the 1977 interview clip above, Fromm defends his claim that “We live in a society of notoriously unhappy people,” which the interviewer calls an “incredible statement.” Fromm replies:

For me it isn’t incredible at all, but if you just open your eyes, you see it. That is, most people pretend that they are happy, even to themselves, because if you are unhappy, you are considered a failure, so you must wear the mask of being satisfied, of happy.

Contrast this observation with Albert Camus’ 1959 statement, “Today happiness is like a crimenever admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” Were Fromm and Camus observing vastly different cultural worlds? Or is it possible that in the intervening years, forced happinessakin to the socially coerced emotions Camus depicted in The Strangerhad become normalized, a screen of denial stretched over existential dread, economic exploitation, and social decay?

Fromm’s diagnosis of forced happiness resonates strongly with The Stranger (and Billie Holiday), and with the image-obsessed society in which we live most of our lives now, presenting various curated personae on social media and videoconferencing apps. Unhappiness may be a byproduct of depression, violence, poverty, physical illness, social alienation… but its manifestations produce even more of the same: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose.” If you’re unhappy, says Fromm, “you lose credit on the market, you’re no longer a normal person or a capable person. But you just have to look at people. You only have to see how behind the mask there is unrest.”

Have we learned how to look at people behind the mask? Is it possible to do so when we mostly interact with them from behind a screen? These are the kinds of questions Fromm’s work can help us grapple with, if we’re willing to accept his diagnosis and truly reckon with our unhappiness.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Baruch Spinoza: The “Philosopher’s Philosopher”

The so-called Enlightenment period encompasses a surprisingly diverse collection of thinkers, if not always in ethnic or national origin, at least in intellectual disposition, including perhaps the age’s most influential philosopher, the “philosopher’s philosopher,” writes Assad Meymandi. Baruch Spinoza did not fit the image of the bewigged philosopher-gentleman of means we tend to popularly associate with Enlightenment thought.

He was born to a family of Sephardic Portuguese Marranos, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism but who reclaimed their Judaism when they relocated to Calvinist Amsterdam. Spinoza himself was “excommunicated by Amsterdam Jewry in 1656,” writes Harold Bloom in a review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: “The not deeply chagrined 23-year-old Spinoza did not become a Calvinist, and instead consorted with more liberal Christians, particularly Mennonites.”




Spinoza read “Hebrew, paleo-Hebrew, Aaramaic, Greek, Latin, and to some degree Arabic,” writes Meymandi. “He was not a Muslim, but behaved like a Sufi in that he gave away all his possessions to his step sister. He was heavily influenced by Al Ghazali, Baba Taher Oryan, and Al Farabi.” He is also “usually counted, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three major Rationalists,” Loyola professor Blake D. Dutton notes at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a thinker who “made significant contributions in virtually every area of philosophy.”

One might say without exaggeration that it is impossible to understand Enlightenment thinking without reading this most heterodox of thinkers, and in particular reading his Ethics, which is itself no easy task. In this work, as Alain de Botton puts it in his School of Life introduction to Spinoza above, the philosopher tried “to reinvent religion, moving it away from something based on superstition and direct divine intervention to something that is far more impersonal, quasi-scientific, and yet also, at times, serenely consoling.”

One might draw several lines from Spinoza to Sagan and also to Wittgenstein and other modern skeptics. His critiques of such cherished concepts as prayer and a personal relationship with a deity did not qualify him as a religious thinker in any orthodox sense, and he was derided as an “atheist Jew” in his time. But he took religion, and religious awe, very seriously, even if Spinoza’s God is indistinguishable from nature. To imagine that this great, mysterious entity should bend the rules to suit our individual needs and desires constitutes a “deeply distorted, infantile narcissism” in Spinoza’s estimation, says de Botton.

For Spinoza, a mature ethics instead consists in finding out how the universe works and accepting it, rather in the way of the Stoics or Nietzsche’s use of the Stoic idea of amor fati. It is within such acceptance, what Bloom calls Spinoza’s “icy sublimity,” that true enlightenment is found, according to Spinoza. Or as the de Botton video succinctly puts it: “The free person is the one who is conscious of the necessities that compel us all,” and who—instead of railing against them—finds creative ways to live within their limitations peacefully.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

88 Philosophy Podcasts to Help You Answer the Big Questions in Life

The big questions of philosophy, simmering since antiquity, still press upon us as they did the Athenians of old (and all ancient people who have philosophized): what obligations do we really owe to family, friends, or strangers? Do we live as free agents or beings controlled by fate or the gods (or genes or a computer simulation)? What is a good life? How do we create societies that maximize freedom and happiness (or whatever ultimate values we hold dear)? What is language, what is art, and where did they come from?

These questions may not be answered with a brute appeal to facts, though without science we are groping in the dark. Religion takes big questions seriously but tells converts to take its supernatural answers on faith. “Between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land,” writes Bertrand Russell, “exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.” Philosophy reaches beyond certainty, to “speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable.” And yet, like science, “it appeals to human reason rather than authority.”




The concerns of philosophy have narrowed since Russell’s time, not to mention the time of Socrates, put to death for leading the youth astray. But professors of philosophy still raise the ire of the public, accused of seducing students from the safe spaces of sacred dogma and secular utility. “To study philosophy,” wrote Cicero, “is nothing but to prepare oneself to die.” It is a poetic turn of phrase, and yes, we must confront mortality, but philosophy also asks us to confront the limits of human knowledge and power in the face of the unknown. Dangerous indeed.

Should you decide to embark on this journey yourself, you will meet with no small number of fellow travelers along the way. Bring some earphones, you can hear them in the trove of 88 philosophy podcasts compiled on the philosophy website Daily Nous. “How many philosophy podcasts are there?” asks Daily Nous, who brings us this list. “Over 80, and they take a variety of forms.” See 15 below, with descriptions, see the rest at Daily Nous, and enjoy your sojourn into “no man’s land.”

See the full list here. And explore our collection of 200 Free Online Philosophy Courses here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Japanese Traditions of Sashiko & Boro: The Centuries-Old Craft That Mends Clothes in a Sustainable, Artistic Way

The state of our troubled planet dictates that disposables are out.

Reusables are in.

And anyone who’s taught themselves how to mend and maintain their stuff has earned the right to flaunt it!

A quick scroll through Instagram reveals loads of visible mending projects that highlight rather than disguise the area of repair, drawing the eye to contrasting threads reinforcing a threadbare knee, frayed cuff, ragged rip, or moth hole.




While some practitioners take a freeform approach, the most pleasing stitches tend to be in the sashiko tradition.

Sashiko—frequently translated as “little stabs”—was born in Edo period Japan (1603-1868), when rural women attempted to prolong the life of their families’ tattered garments and bedding, giving rise to a humble form of white-on-indigo patchwork known as boro.

While sashiko can at times be seen serving a purely decorative function, such as on a very well preserved Meiji period jacket in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, its primary use was always one born of necessity.

As Austin Bryant notes on Heddels, a news and education website dedicated to sustainable goods:

Over generations of families, these textiles would acquire more and more patches, almost to the point of the common observer being unable to recognize where the original fabric began. As they recovered after the end of World War II, to some the boro textiles reminded the Japanese of their impoverished rural past.

Keiko & Atsushi Futatsuya are a mother-and-son artisan team whose posts on sashiko and boro go beyond straightforward how-tos to delve into cultural history.

According to them, the goal of sashiko should not be aesthetically pleasing rows of uniform stitches, but rather “enjoying the dialogue” with the fabric.

As Atsushi explains in an Instagram post, viewers seeing their work with a Western perspective may respond differently than those who have grown up with the elements in play:

This is a photo of a “Boro-to-be Jacket” in the process. This is the back (hiding) side of the jacket and many non-Japanese would say this should be the front and should show to the public. The Japanese would understand why it is a backside naturally, but I would need to “explain” to the non-Japanese who do not share the same value (why we) purposefully make this side as “hiding” side. That’s why, I keep sharing in words. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but the thousand words may be completely different based on their (free) interpretation. In sharing the culture, some “actual words” would be also very important.

To try your hand at sashiko, you will need a long needle, such as a cotton darning needle, white embroidery thread, and—for boro—an aging textile in need of some attention.

Should you find yourself sliding into a full blown obsession, you may want to order sashiko needles and thread, and a palm thimble to help you push through several weights of fabric simultaneously.

You’ll find many patterns, tips, and tutorials on the Futatsuya family’s Sashi.co YouTube channel.

via Vox

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Cornel West’s Course on W.E.B. Du Bois, the Great 20th Century Public Intellectual

A giant of 20th century scholarship, W.E.B. Du Bois’ career spanned six decades, two World Wars, and several waves of civil rights and decolonial movements; he saw the twentieth century with more clarity than perhaps anyone of his generation through the lens of “double consciousness”;  he wrote presciently about geopolitics, political economy, institutional racism, imperialism, and the culture and history of both black and white Americans; we find in nearly all of his work piercing observations that seem to look directly at our present conditions, while analyzing the conditions of his time with radical rigor.

“An activist and a journalist, a historian and a sociologist, a novelist, a critic, and a philosopher,” notes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Du Bois “examined the race problem in its many aspects more profoundly, extensively, and subtly” than “anyone, at any time.” And there is no one more fluent in the vernaculars, literatures, and philosophies Du Bois mastered than Cornel West, who lays out for us what this means:

Du Bois, like Plato, like Shakespeare, like Toni Morrison, like Thomas Pynchon, like Virginia Woolf…. What do they do? They push you against a wall: heart, mind, soul. Structures and institutions, vicious forms of subordination, but also joyful and heroic forms of critique and resistance.

West begins his course on Du Bois—delivered in the summer of 2017 at Dartmouth—with this description (things get going in the first lecture at 3:15 after the course intro), which gestures toward the comparative, “call and response,” discussion to come. All nine lectures from “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois” (plus an additional public talk West delivered at the university) are available at Dartmouth’s Department of English and Creative Writing site, as well as this YouTube playlist.

The course follows the movement of Du Bois’ complex historical philosophy and pioneering use of scholarly autobiography—(what West calls the “cultivation” of a “critical self”)—through a number of themes, from “Du Bois and the Catastrophic 20th Century” to, in the final lecture, “Revolution, Race, and American Empire.” It begins with 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois first wrote of double consciousness and penned the famous line, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”

West puts close readings of that seminal work next to “subsequent essays in [Du Bois’] magisterial corpus, especially his classic autobiography Dusk of Dawn (1940),” the course description reads. The latter text is not only a Bildung, a “spiritual autobiography,” Du Bois called it, but also a critical analysis of science and empire, whiteness, propaganda, world war, revolution, and a conceptualization of race that sees the idea’s arbitrary illogic, in the “continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced.” These ideas became formative for anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and Pan-African movements.

Du Bois first formed his “radical cosmopolitanism,” as Gunter Lenz writes in The Journal of Transnational American Studies, during his studies in Germany, where he arrived in 1892 and found himself, he wrote, “on the outside of the American world, looking in.” He returned to Germany over the decades and, in a 1936 visit, was one of the few public intellectuals who predicted a “world war on Jews” and “all non-Nordic races.” But Du Bois not only confronted the genocidal wars and helped lead the liberatory movements of the 20th century; he also, with uncanny perspicacity, both anticipated and shaped the struggles of the 21st. Access West’s full lecture course here.

West’s course, “The Historical Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois,” will be added to our collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cultivate Our Garden”: An Animated Introduction

“Voltaire’s goal in writing [his 1759 satire Candide] was to destroy the optimism of his times,” says Alain de Botton in the School of Life video above, “an optimism that centered around science, love, technical progress, and a faith in reason.” These beliefs were folly, Voltaire thought: the transfer of faith from a providential God to a perfect, clockwork universe. Candide satirizes this happy rationalism in Doctor Pangloss, whose belief that ours is the best of possible worlds comes directly from the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Leibniz.

The preponderance of the evidence, Voltaire made abundantly clear in the novel’s series of increasingly horrific episodes, points toward a blind, indifferent universe full of needless cruelty and chaos. “Hope was, he felt, a disease,” de Botton says, and “it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try and cure us of it.” But as everyone who has read Candide (or read a summary or brief notes on Candide) knows, the novel does not end with despair, but on a “Stoic note.”




After enduring immense suffering on their many travels, Candide and his companions settle in Turkey, where they meet an old man sitting quietly under a tree. He tells them about his philosophy, how he abstains from politics and simply cultivates the fruits of his garden for market as his sole concern. Invited to feast with the man and his family, they remark upon the luxurious ease in which they live and learn that they do so on a fairly small plot of land.

Voltaire loved to goose his largely Christian readers and delighted in putting the novel’s parting wisdom, “arguably the most important adage in modern philosophy,” in the mouth of an Islamic character: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, “we must cultivate our garden.” What does this mean? De Botton interprets the line in the literal spirit with which the character known only as “the Turk” delivers it: we should keep a “safe distance between ourselves and the world.”

We should not, that is, become overly engaged in politics, and should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare, not taking more than we need. We should leave our neighbors alone and not bother about what they do in their gardens. To be at peace in the world, Voltaire argued, we must accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be, and give up utopian ideas of societies perfected by science and reason. In short, to “tie our personal moods” to human affairs writ large is to invite endless misery.

The philosophy of Candide is not pessimistic or nihilistic. A happy, fulfilled human life is entirely possible, Voltaire suggests, if not human happiness in general. Candide has much in common with the ancient Roman outlook. But it might also express what could be seen as an early attempt at a secular Buddhist point of view. Voltaire was familiar with Buddhism, though it did not go by that name. Buddhists were lumped in, Donald S. Lopez, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, writes at the Public Domain Review, with the mass of “idolaters” who were not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

Yet the many Jesuit accounts of Eastern religion reaching Europe at the time circulated widely among intellectuals, including Voltaire, who wrote approvingly, though critically, of Buddhist tenets in his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. As the secular mindfulness movement has done in the 21st century, Lopez argues, Voltaire sought in the age of Enlightenment to separate miraculous legend from practical teaching. But like the Buddha, whose supposed biography Voltaire knew well, Candide begins his life in a castle. And the story ends with a man sitting quietly under a tree, more or less advising Candide to do what Voltaire had heard of in the “religion of the Siamese…. Meditate in private, and reflect often on the fragility of human affairs.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

When next you meet an existentialist, ask him what kind of existentialist s/he is. There are at least as many varieties of existentialism as there have been high-profile thinkers propounding it. Several major strains ran through postwar France alone, most famously those championed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus — who explicitly rejected existentialism, in part due to a philosophical split with Sartre, but who nevertheless gets categorized among the existentialists today. We could, perhaps, more accurately describe Camus as an absurdist, a thinker who starts with the inherent meaningless and futility of life and proceeds, not necessarily in an obvious direction, from there.

The animated TED-Ed lesson above sheds light on the historical events and personal experiences that brought Camus to this worldview. Beginning in the troubled colonial Algeria of the early 20th-century in which he was born and raised, educator Nina Medvinskaya goes on to tell of his periods as a resistance journalist in France and as a novelist, in which capacity he would write such enduring works as The Stranger and The Plague. Medvinskaya illuminates Camus’ central insight with a well-known image from his earlier essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” on the Greek king condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity.




“Camus argues that all of humanity is in the same position,” says Medvinskaya, “and only when we accept the meaninglessness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high.” But “Camus’ contemporaries weren’t so accepting of futility.” (Here the Quentin Blake-style illustrations portray a couple of figures bearing a strong resemblance to Sartre and de Beauvoir.) Many existentialists “advocated for violent revolution to upend systems they believed were depriving people of agency and purpose.” Such calls haven’t gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus’ writings in response to revolutionary existentialism — has only gained relevance in a time of global pandemic.

Last month the Boston Review‘s Carmen Lea Dege considered the recent comeback of the thought, exemplified in different ways by Camus, Sartre, and others, that “rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence.” This resurgence of interest “is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society.” As much as our societies have changed since then, uncertainty has a way of returning.

Today “we define ourselves and others on the basis of class, religion, race, and nationality, or even childhood influences and subconscious drives, to gain control over the contingencies of the world and insert ourselves in the myriad ways people have failed and succeeded in human history.” But the existentialists argued that “this control is illusory and deceptive,” an “alluring distraction from our own fragility” that ultimately “corrodes our ability to live well.” For the existentialists, pursuit of good life first demands an acceptance of not just fragility but futility, meaninglessness, absurdity, and ambiguity, among other conditions that strike us as deeply unacceptable. As Camus put it, we must imagine Sisyphus happy. But can we?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to Postmodernist Thinkers & Themes: Watch Primers on Foucault, Nietzsche, Derrida, Deleuze & More

For decades we’ve been hearing about the problem of Postmodernism. I suppose I get, in a vague sort of way, what people mean by this: moral relativism, mistrust of objectivity and scientific, religious, and other authorities, “incredulity toward metanarratives,” as Jean-Francois Lyotard defined the term in The Postmodern Condition in 1979.

Don’t we find much of this radical skepticism in the work of David Hume? The Cynics? Or Nietzsche (a Postmodern ancestor, but also claimed by Pragmatist and Existentialist thinkers)? A problem with blanket critiques of Postmodernism is that the word has never represented a cohesive school of thought (nor, for that matter, has Existentialism).

The term derives from an architectural movement of the 1960s that is, itself, impossible to clearly define since it intentionally grafts together approaches and traditions in experiments that celebrate kitschy excesses of style and that defy narrative coherence. Postmodern architecture gave us modern malls and multiplexes, aiding and abetting late capitalist sprawl. (But this is another story….)




Lyotard certainly fit the stereotype of the Postmodernist philosopher, with his lifetime of socialist activism and theoretical hybrids of Marx and Freud. He gets little credit, though he put the term in circulation in philosophy. Instead, Michel Foucault is often cited as a significant influence, though he rejected the categorization and thought of himself as a modernist.

Many a survey of Postmodern thought, such as this YouTube video series by Then & Now, begins with Foucault. The series covers other thinkers we don’t always see put in this box, like sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Nietzsche appears, of course, in two parts, as well as Eve Sedgwick, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

But in many ways, Foucault may be the best place to begin. As professor of philosophy Scott Moore writes:

If postmodernism is understood as a rejection of… an Enlightenment point of view… one that is characterized by a detached, autonomous, objective rationality… then Foucault is surely a postmodernist. Turning Bacon on his head, Foucault affirmed that it is not the case that knowledge is power, but power is knowledge. Meaning, those people who have power (social, political, etc.) always decide what will or will not be counted as “knowledge.”

Unlike, however, many later cultural theorists who inherited the cumbersome label, Foucault looked not to the present or the future in his work, but to the past, re-interpreting primary sources from ancient Rome to the post-WWI global economic order, through several different disciplinary lenses.

Then & Now creator Lewis Waller takes a postmodern approach to this series himself. In the video “Detachment, Objectivity, Imagination: A Critique,” he makes a case that Romantic historians like Michelet, Thierry, and Carlyle had a “better understanding of the reality of the historian’s craft than the scientifically minded did.” It’s a contrarian argument that begins with Sir Walter Scott and that may unsettle your preconceptions of what the catch-all term Postmodernism might include.

See more videos from the series above and watch all of them on YouTube. You may or may not feel like you have a better sense of what Postmodernism means in general. If we take it as shorthand for the loss of unchallenged heteropatriarchal power, then it is, I suppose, a problem for many people. If we take it to mean a mode of thought that “problematizes” seemingly simple concepts we mistake for the very structure of reality, then it “is also an attitude,” writes Moore, “and it has been most artfully practiced by Socrates, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and a host of others.”

Maybe Postmodernism has appeared in every period of philosophical and literary history. Only it hasn’t always been so… well… so overwhelmingly French, which could have had more than a little to do with its negative reputation in Anglophone countries. Put your metanarratives aside and learn more here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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