The story of Pharaoh’s hardening of heart… (ERICH FROMM)

The story of Pharaoh’s hardening of heart… (ERICH FROMM)

In the practice of life the degree of freedom to choose is different at any given moment. If the degree of freedom to choose the good is great, it needs less effort to choose the good. If it is small, it takes a great effort, help from others, and favorable circumstances.

A classic example of this phenomenon is the biblical story of Pharaoh’s reaction to the demand to let the Hebrews go. He is afraid of the increasingly severe suffering brought upon him and his people; he promises to let the Hebrews go; but as soon as the imminent danger disappears, “his heart hardens” and he again decides not to set the Hebrews free. This process of the hardening of the heart is the central issue in Pharaoh’s conduct. The longer he refuses to choose the right, the harder his heart becomes. No amount of suffering changes this fatal development, and finally it ends in his and his people’s destruction. He never underwent a change of heart, because he decided only on the basis of fear; and because of this lack of change, his heart became ever harder until there was no longer any freedom of choice left him.

The story of Pharaoh’s hardening of heart is only the poetic expression of what we can observe every day if we look at our own development and that of others. Let us look at an example: A white boy of eight has a little friend, the son of a colored maid. Mother does not like him to play with a little Negro, and tells her son to stop seeing him. The child refuses; mother promises to take him to the circus if he will obey; he gives in. This step of self-betrayal and acceptance of a bribe has done something to the little boy. He feels ashamed, his sense of integrity has been injured, he has lost selfconfidence. Yet nothing irreparable has happened. Ten years later he falls in love with a girl; it is more than an infatuation; both feel a deep human bond which unites them; but the girl is from a lower class than the boy’s family. His parents resent the engagement and try to dissuade him; when he remains adamant they promise him a six months’ trip to Europe if he will only wait to formalize the engagement until his return; he accepts the offer. Consciously he believes that the trip will do him a lot of good—and, of course, that he will not love his girl less when he returns. But it does not turn out this way. He sees many other girls, he is very popular, his vanity is satisfied, and eventually his love and his decision to marry become weaker and weaker. Before his return he writes her a letter in which he breaks off the engagement.

When was his decision made? Not, as he thinks, on the day he writes the final letter, but on the day when he accepted his parents’ offer to go to Europe. He sensed, although not consciously, that by accepting the bribe he had sold himself—and he has to deliver what he promised: the break. His behavior in Europe is not the reason for the break, but the mechanism through which he succeeds in fulfilling the promise. At this point he has betrayed himself—again, and the effects are increased self-contempt and (hidden—behind the satisfaction of new conquests and so on) an inner weakness and lack of self-confidence. Need we follow his life any longer in detail? He ends up in his father’s business, instead of studying physics, for which he has gifts; he marries the daughter of rich friends of his parents, he becomes a successful business and political leader who makes fatal decisions against the voice of his own conscience because he is afraid of bucking public opinion. His history is one of a hardening of the heart. One moral defeat makes him more prone to suffer another defeat, until the point of no return is reached. At eight he could have taken a stand and refused to take the bribe; he was still free. And maybe a friend, a grandfather, a teacher, hearing of his dilemma, might have helped him. At eighteen he was already less free; his further life is a process of decreasing freedom, until the point where he has lost the game of life. Most people who have ended as unscrupulous, hardened men, even as Hitler’s or Stalin’s officials, began their lives with a chance of becoming good men. A very detailed analysis of their lives might tell us what was the degree of hardening of the heart at any given moment, and when the last chance to remain human was lost. The opposite picture exists also; the first victory makes the next one easier, until choosing the right no longer requires effort.

Our example illustrates the point that most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot live a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time.

The implication of the analogy of the chess game is obvious. Freedom is not a constant attribute which we either “have” or “have not.” In fact, there is no such thing as “freedom” except as a word and an abstract concept. There is only one reality: the act of freeing ourselves in the process of making choices. In this process the degree of our capacity to make choices varies with each act, with our practice of life. Each step in life which increases my selfconfidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action. On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.




The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil

Erich Fromm



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