Key Quotes from On Disobedience by Erich Fromm

On Disobedience by Erich Fromm

Introduction and Synopsis

Recently, I read this book on a whim. I was at a local bookstore and stopped to give it a quick glance; the first few pages interested me enough that I bought it. Looking back, I am honestly glad that I did. While some of Fromm’s pleadings have lost their urgency (e.g. the looming threat of nuclear war with the USSR (as it was known at that time)), he ultimately provides an insightful, scaffolded analysis about the concept of disobedience itself. Moreover, Fromm weaves together several other explanatory threads to properly contextualize disobedience and both its value and proper usage in contemporary society, using this as a vehicle to establish his political worldview known as humanistic socialism

In the first section of the work, Fromm explains how disobedience should not be viewed as a negative or tragic happening. He rebukes the doctrine of original sin (as it is known to theologians globally), instead providing an alternate interpretation which emphasizes the necessity of humanity’s exile and journey of self-discovery. Here, Fromm also defines his key terms in opposing pairs, some of which are: heteronomous/autonomous obedience, authoritarian/humanistic consciences, and irrational/rational authority. Ultimately, this first section provides much of the vocabulary and provisional assumptions that Fromm builds upon in the remaining sections of the work. 

In the second section of the work, Fromm describes two social agents in conflict with one another: prophets and priests. Prophets, as he depicts them, are rational, objective, genuine seekers of truth, wherever the search may take them (or do to them). Priests, on the other hand, care more about tradition, appearances, and, ultimately, maintaining (or increasing) the amount of social and cultural power they have over others. Fromm obviously prefers the former over the latter and criticizes the various forms that priesthood may take in contemporary society as he understood it then (e.g. scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, etc.).

In the third section, Fromm basically rails on capitalism by utilizing classical Marxist critiques including: alienation of the laboring class, comprehensive commodification, and the excessive greed/consumption elements inherent to the economic system. Here, he also takes pains to explain socialism’s historical origins and purposes and how there had been gross perversions and distortions in the movement’s goals over time, often as a result of influence (and interference) from liberal moderates (*liberal in the U.S. sense of the term). 

In the final section, Fromm ties everything together neatly and summarizes his key points once more. He also provides some concrete, albeit loose, suggestions on how humanistic social could take root in all political systems across the world. He argues that that is exactly what needs to happen and that it all starts with disobedience.


Below are some of the key quotes from Fromm’s work that I either liked, found interesting, disagreed with, or, for whatever reason, felt compelled to include in the list below. In a subsequent post, I will provide a brief analysis of a few, select quotes from this list.



I. Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem

“Original sin,” far from corrupting man, set him free; it was the beginning of history. Man had to leave the Garden of Eden in order to learn to rely on his own powers and to become fully human.” P. 2

“I would rather be chained to this rock than be the obedient servant of the gods.” P. 3

“Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience…his intellectual development was dependent on his capacity for being disobedient — disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.” P. 3

“If a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey and not obey, he is a rebel (not a revolutionary); he acts out of anger, disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or a principle.” P. 3

“Obedience to a person, institution or power (heternomous obedience) is submission; it implies the abdication of my autonomy and the acceptance of a foreign will or judgment in place of my own. Obedience to my own reason or conviction (autonomous obedience) is not an act of submission but one of affirmation. My conviction and my judgment, if authentically mine, are part of me. If I follow them rather than the judgment of others, I am being myself…” P. 3

“[T]he “authoritarian conscience” … is the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing. This authoritarian conscience is what most people experience when they obey their conscience. It is also the conscience which Freud speaks of, and which he called “Super-Ego.” This Super-Ego represents the internalized commands and prohibitions of father, accepted by the son out of fear. Different from the authoritarian conscience is the “humanistic conscience”; this is the voice present in every human being and independent from external sanctions and awards…we have an intuitive knowledge of what is human and inhuman, what is conducive of life and what is destructive of life.” P. 6

“Irrational authority has to use force or suggestion, because no one would let himself be exploited if he were free to prevent it.” P. 8

“In order to disobey, one must have the courage to be alone, to err and to sin.” P. 9

“A person can become free through acts of disobedience by learning to say no to power…If I am afraid of freedom, I cannot dare to say “no,” I cannot have the courage to be disobedient. Indeed, freedom and the capacity for disobedience are inseparable; hence any social, political, and religious system which proclaims freedom, yet stamps out disobedience, cannot speak the truth.” P. 9

“The principles sapere aude and de omnibus est dubitanum — “dare to be wise” and “of all one must doubt” — were characteristic of the attitude which permitted and furthered the capacity to say “no.” P. 11



II. Prophets and Priests

“It is exceedingly difficult for a man to be moved by ideas, and to grasp a truth. In order to do that, he needs to overcome deep-seated resistances of inertia, fear of being wrong, or of straying away from the herd.” P. 14

“Those who announce ideas — and not necessarily new ones — and at the same time live them we may call prophets…They lived what they preached. They did not seek power, but avoided it. Not even the power of being a prophet. They were not impressed by might, and they spoke the truth even if this led them to imprisonment, ostracism or death. They were not men who set themselves apart and waited to see what would happen. They responded to their fellow man because they felt responsible. What happened to others happened to them. Humanity was not outside, but within them. Precisely because they saw the truth they felt the responsibility to tell it; they did not threaten, but they showed the ‘alternatives’ with which man was confronted.” P. 15

“It is the function of the prophet to show reality, to show alternatives and to protest; it is his function to call loudly, to awake man from his customary half-slumber.” P. 16

“I am speaking of the man who can say “no” because he can affirm, who can disobey precisely because he can obey his conscience and the principles he has chosen; I am speaking of the revolutionary, not the rebel.” P. 20

“But just because there is no overt authority, because he is not “forced” to obey, the individual is under the illusion that he acts voluntarily, that he follows only “rational” authority.” P. 22

“[F]rom the first day of his life onward, he is filled with an unholy respect for conformity, with the fear of being “different,” with the fright of being away from the rest of the herd. The “organization man” thus reared in the family and in the school and having his education completed in the big organization has opinions, but no convictions; he amuses himself, but is unhappy; he is even willing to sacrifice his life and that is his children in voluntary obedience to impersonal and anonymous powers.” P. 23

[Quoting Bertrand Russell in ‘Principles of Social Reconstruction’; **note: Fromm believes Russell to be a clear-cut example of a prophet in his own milieu, hence the quotations] “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth — more than ruin, more than even death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pits of hell and is not afraid…Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” Pp. 25-26

[Quoting Bertrand Russell in ‘Principles of Social Reconstruction’] “It is fear that holds men back — fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.” P. 26

[Speaking of Priests (in a Frommian sense of the term)] “They feel certain that their intellect exhausts reality, and that there is nothing of significance which cannot be grasped by it…they are naively unskeptical toward their own scientific approach. They are more interested in the results of their thoughts than in the process of enlightenment which occurs in the inquiring person.” Pp. 30-31



III. Let Man Prevail

“The giant corporations which control the economic, and to a large degree the political, destiny of the country constitute the very opposite of the democratic process; they represent power without control by those submitted to it.” P. 45

“All these bureaucracies have no plan, and no vision; and due to the very nature of bureaucratic administration, this has to be so. When man is transformed into a thing and managed like a thing, his managers themselves become things; and things have no will, no vision, no plan.” P. 46

[The political ideas of democracy] “All these ideas and movements were centered around one hope: that man, in the course of his history, can liberate himself from poverty, ignorance and injustice, and that he can build a society of harmony, peace and union between man and man and between man and nature.” P. 47

“Whether it is the consumption of food, clothing, liquor, cigarettes, movies, or television programs, a powerful suggestion apparatus is employed with two purposes: first, to constantly increase the individual’s appetite for new commodities, and second, to direct these appetites into the channels most profitable for industry…[our] appetites have to be constantly whetted, tastes have to be manipulated, managed, and made predictable. Man is transformed into the “consumer,” the eternal suckling, whose one wish is to consume more and “better” things.” Pp. 48-49

“While people get more education, they have less reason, judgment, and conviction. At best their intelligence is improved, but their reason — that is, their capacity to penetrate through the surface and to understand the underlying forces in individual and social life — is impoverished more and more.” P. 52

“[C]ertain basic characteristics are common to the old and the new capitalism: the principle that not solidarity and love, but individualistic, egotistical action brings the best results for everybody; the belief that an impersonal mechanism, the market, should regulate the life of society, not the will, vision and planning of the people. Capitalism puts things (capital) higher than life (labor).” P. 54

“Socialism in the nineteenth century, in the Marxian form and in its many other forms, wanted to create the material basis for a dignified human existence for everybody. It wanted work to direct capital, rather than capital to direct work. For socialism, work and capital were not just two economic categories, but rather they represented two principles: capital, the principle of amassed things, of ‘having’; and work, that of life and of man’s powers, of ‘being’ and becoming…The aim of socialism was that man should throw away the chains which bind him, the fictions and unrealities, and transform himself into a being who can make creative use of his powers of feeling and of thinking.” Pp. 56-57

“Socialists wanted to create a society in which each citizen actively and responsibly participated in all decisions, and in which a citizen could participate because he was a person and not a thing, because he had convictions and not synthetic opinions…By its very logic, capitalism aims at an ever-increasing material wealth, while socialism aims at an ever-increasing human productivity, aliveness, and happiness, and at material comfort only to the extent to which it is conducive to its human aims.” Pp. 58-59



IV. Humanist Socialism

“What are the principles underlying the idea of a socialist party? What are the intermediate goals of humanistic socialism for the realization of which socialists work? What are the immediate short-range goals for which socialists work?” P. 65

“Every social and economic system is not only a specific system of relations between things and institutions but a system of human relations…all social arrangements must be conducive to overcoming the alienation and crippledness of man, and to enable him to achieve real freedom and individuality…Humanistic socialism is rooted in the conviction of the unity of mankind and the solidarity of all men. It fights any kind of worship of State, nation, or class. The supreme loyalty of man must be to the human race and to the moral principles of humanism.” Pp. 64-66

“Humanistic socialism stands for freedom. It stands for freedom from fear, want, oppression, and violence. But freedom is not only from, but also freedom to; freedom to participate actively and responsibly in all decisions concerning the citizen, freedom to develop the individual’s human potential to the fullest possible degree.” P. 67

“Humanistic socialism is the extension of the democratic process beyond the purely political realm, into the economic sphere; it is political and industrial democracy. It is the restoration of political democracy to its original meaning: the true participation of informed citizens in all decisions affecting them…[this] means democratic control of all economic activities by the participants: manual workers, engineers, administrators, etc…social control of the large and powerful industries.” P. 69

“[I]t is necessary: a) that the State is brought under the efficient control of its citizens; b) that the social and political power of the big corporations is broken; c) that from the very beginning all forms of decentralized, voluntary associations in production, trade, and local social and cultural activities are promoted.” P. 71

“[S]ociety must provide, free for everyone, the minimum necessities of material existence in food, housing, and clothing. Anyone who has higher aspirations for material comforts will have to work for them, but the minimal necessities of life being guaranteed, no person can have power over anyone on the basis of direct or indirect material coercion.” P. 73

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