Erich Fromm on Sadism

Sadism is one of those aspects of humans which is quite hard to fathom in my opinion. The fact we can actually love hurting other people and enjoy it. I have made a post about cruelty in Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but there are many other intellectuals who have taken the topic of sadism and cruelty and given their own interpretation of the phenomenon. One of them is the psychoanalytic thinker Erich Fromm who in his book The Fear for Freedom tries to give an explanation about the psychology of Nazism. One central aspect of this analysis is his analyzation of sadism.

            In Fromm’s analysis, sadism has three forms. The first form of sadism is to make other people dependent on you. To have a certain power over others and in some way control what the possible actions of the other is. The other person needs to be malleable in your hand. One example can be extreme paternalism. The father or mother want to control every aspect of the child because they believe to know what the best thing for the child is. Paternalism in its grander view can be attributed to this form of sadism. This form of sadism has a benevolent element in it, since the person exerting control believes it is for the best of everyone that he can control the other.

            The second form goes further than the first. Not only does the person want to exercise power over the other, he also wants to exploit them or misuse them for his own gain. This form goes for complete dominance, not in a benevolent way but in the view of exploitation. He wants to control not only the body but also the emotions and intellectual characteristics of the other. An example could be the oppressive husband who controls the woman’s actions, finance and what she is allowed to say, do and more.

            The third form is the extreme culmination of the two above. In this form the sadist wants to see the other suffer and enjoys it. This can be physical and mental. When people humiliate other people with the intention of hurting the other then it can be classified as the third form of sadism. An example could be the embittered wife who scolds and humiliates her husband when all his friends are present.

            Many times, the three forms of sadism are present at the same time. The three forms can also be seen as stages of sadism where one form is worse than the other. The important thing Fromm claims is that almost all people can have these urges of sadism, but we mostly rationalize them away in order to not view ourselves as sadistic. The other aspect of sadism is that it needs the other; the sadist is dependent on the other person which he can dominate.

            So, a sadist feels the need to dominate the other person but in a way is dependent on the person he dominates which gives quite a paradoxical relationship. The sadist wants to exert power so that he can control the other, but by needing the other, the other has in fact a lot of control over the sadist as well. The sadistic relationship is one of dependence according to Fromm.

            But why be someone sadistic? Where do those urges come from? Fromm claims that through sadism the individual can escape the unbearable feelings of loneliness and powerlessness. In order to not feel lonely or weak the sadist oppresses someone and exerts power over them. This gives him the feeling of power. The same goes for masochism but the other way around. The masochist also feels lonely and powerless but gives his control over to someone else so that he doesn’t have to be confronted by it. The masochist wants to release itself from the burden of freedom.

            This is not real power; however, it is only the feeling of power. If you need someone else in order to feel powerful, as Nietzsche would claim, that is effectively a sign that you are weak. A real powerful person doesn’t need the symbiotic relationship with the other to become powerful. He can do it without that relation. Because the relationship of the sadist or the masochist with the other is symbiotic in nature according to Fromm.

            A symbiotic relationship in psychology means the unification of one self with another self in such a way that both lose their own integrity of the self and are in a mutual dependence. Here you can find the distinction of a healthy relationship and a toxic one. The toxic relationship has the form of a symbiosis. Both characters need each other in order to be an individual, which means that they inherently aren’t an individual. The sadist needs the other in order to feel powerful, but the integrity of the individual self is lost during that process. It is the inability to feel lonely that urges the sadist to create a symbiotic relationship. The sadist wants to control his object and suffers a loss when the object disappears.

            Let’s bring up an example. We have the oppressive husband who beats his wife into submission. The wife must do everything the husband says she should do. Must listen to him and obey him. When she doesn’t then he can hurt her. But when the wife finally has enough and tries to leave him, he will go on his knees begging for her not to leave because he ‘is nothing without her’. The analysis of the symbiotic relationship of Fromm gives an explanation for this predicament. When the husband is in control, he sees himself as powerful and as a complete individual. However, he is only this way because of the submissiveness of his wife. If that is active, there is no problem for the sadist. When she decides to leave, he is shocked and literally is nothing without her because his foundation is being pulled from underneath him. His whole idea of his self is collapsing during that moment. He thought he had power and wasn’t alone, but since it isn’t true power but only the feeling of power, the decision of his wife to leave him shows his own powerlessness and loneliness. It shows that he wasn’t an individual to begin with. If you bring a masochistic character into the example in the form of the wife, then you can see how an endless cycle begins where the husband tries to control the wife, the wife tries to leave but then stays because of the pleas of her husband but is then again being controlled by the sadist.

            Sadism is one of those human characteristics which interest me a lot and where I’m trying to get an explanation of. It seems to be something uniquely human which means to me that we can do it because we are self-conscious. Fromm gives a clear explanation about sadism and links it later in his book with the ‘authoritarian character’ which is the character that drove people into the Nazi ideology. Trying to understand these aspects confronts you with the shadow in yourself but only when one is conscious about their inner demons, can something be done about them.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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