Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

Authoritarianism and the Escape from Freedom

The Scenarios of Escape

In seeking out some answers to the question about the re-emergence of these ghosts and the continuation of a history of conflict, I turn first (as I have done in the previous essays in this series) to the insights offer by Erich Fromm many years ago about authoritarianism and the escape from freedom. Erich Fromm (1941) suggested that “once the primary bonds which gave security to the individual are severed, once the individual faces the· world outside of himself as a completely separate entity, two courses are open to him since he has to overcome the unbearable state of powerlessness and aloneness” (Fromm, 1941, pp. 140 – 141). The one course is what Fromm defined as the twofold process of discovering true freedom. One first experiences what he calls “negative freedom”; this being freedom from specific societal restrictions. The next step is “positive freedom,” or the freedom to do something else and construct a new set of social institutions. These new institutions, in Fromm’s utopian vision, offer greater economic and political equity while also encouraging creativity and community.

Freedom and the Numinous

Experiencing the loss of constraint (negative freedom) and the challenge of making free choices (positive freedom) is frightening. In seeking to determine the nature and outcomes of this fear, we turn, briefly, to insights offered by another psychoanalytically trained social observer, Carl Jung. Borrowing from the work of Rudolph Otto, Jung (1948) describes the effect of unbounded freedom and the “awe-ful” nature of choice. In what some scholars identify as the first “psychological” analysis of religious experiences, Otto identified something he called the numinous experience.

In his now-classic book, The Idea of the Holy, Otto (1923) creates a new word, “numinous”, combining the Latin words “numen” with the word, “ominous”. Otto (1923, p. 11) writes about a powerful, enthralling experience that is “felt as objective and outside the self.” His numinous experience is simultaneously awe-some and awe-full. We are enthralled and repelled. We feel powerless in the presence of the numinous—yet we seem to gain power (“inspiration”) from participation in its wonderment.

Using more contemporary psychological terms, we propose that the boundaries between internal and external loci of control are shattered when one is enmeshed in a numinous experience. The outside enters the inside and the inside is drawn to the outside. In Jungian terms. our inner psyche is drawn outward by the numinous experience; it confiscates this experience and brings it back inside—where it becomes even more frightening and threatening to the ongoing integration of various parts of the psyche. It is through the numinous experiences that deeply embedded archetypes residing in our unconscious are activated.


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About the Author

William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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