Narcissism, Envy and The Escape from Freedom

In my previous article, I argued that societies advance through four emo­tional regi­mes: from fear, to guilt, to shame, to Sklavenmoral (which, if the patt­­ern holds, is only truly becoming dominant in the most advan­ced mod­ern soci­eties, a sign of which is increasing narcissism as well as an obse­ssion with the perceived narcissism of others). Again, all of these emotions exist in all societies and all people, but the social logic governing everyday life still varies substantially: What hidd­en negative emo­tions are guiding your life choices and everyday inter­actions? What emotions are you avoiding as you calmly go about your day?

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.

The rise of the Sklavenmoral-regime may very well be an under­lying factor which explains the increased level of narcissism in the general population during the last decades, as first famously observed in Christ­opher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism.

Not only has research since that time shown that narc­issism is on the increase, but the general discourse has likewise become filled with accu­sations of narciss­ism and lack­ing hum­ility. Today it’s one of the most com­m­on ways to chastise someone: you’re arrogant, you should learn humili­ty, you’re a narcissist. Many have observed that narcissism indeed has be­come more widespread, but most fail to see that society at large has become in­creasingly obsessed with the imagined (correctly or not) self-image of other peo­ple; that we’ve collectively become obsessed with the perceived nar­cissism of others.


In the same way 14-year-olds often talk about “being yourself” and others being “fake”, because they obviously struggle with issues of iden­tity, such obsessions often reveal the prevailing inner struggles of people: the scheming Italian families of the Renaissance were all about honor and loyalty as trust was in short supply in those days, the Ger­man Nazis were obsessed with national pride out of shame over losing the First World War, and the more it became obvious that the eco­nomies of the commu­nist countries were lagging behind, the longer were the speeches about the decadence of the West. And today we are wit­ness­ing the rise of a global culture seemingly obsessed with narcissism and hum­ility because we’re afraid we ourselves aren’t that special.

A core reason for why narcissism is on the rise, both psych­ologically and culturally, is that we are entering a Sklavenmoral-reg­ime. Narciss­ism is sim­ply the flip­side of this emotion.

If we are controlled by internalized envy, or relate to one another thro­ugh envy, is it then so strange we develop a toxic and charged rel­a­tionship to our own higher pot­en­tials (or lack thereof) and the higher poten­tials of others? Narcissism—the obsession with our own image and the idea of our self—is born from the need to con­vince our­selves we real­ly are special after all, from an inner drive to extingu­ish the painful doubts Sklaven­moral has sown in us. It is an unproduct­ive defense against the subtly ex­per­­ienced envy of others.

Envy and Jealousy

Understanding the role of envy—and its sister emotions of jealousy (envy in the realm of love) and schadenfreude (the subtle satisfaction procured from another’s defeat or misery)—may be paramount for navigating the coming period and to serve real emancipation at a societal level.

A number of mechanisms may in effect increase the prevalence and intensity of envy in present-day society: an over-exposure to highly succ­essful and beautiful people in magazines and TV, a constant bomb­ard­ment of all the carefully curated “perfect” moments of our friends on so­cial media, all the new amazing gadgets and lifestyles we’ll never afford or have time for. Simply, the overwhelming opportunities the glo­bal markets can offer—and the fact that a lucky few can rise to yet greater heights of fame, significance and prominence in such a larger system. The recent app­ear­ance of godlike public figures like the super-entrepreneur Elon Musk, the sales of so many Harry Potter books, the vast followership of the Kard­ash­ian reality television shows, the sheer awesomeness of the discoveries in AI, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and so forth—all of it serves as fur­ther sources of comparison, and thus of envy. Most of us will know at least someone who is ridiculously successful in one or more areas of life. The lives, adventures and exploits of these so painfully visible chosen few make many of us feel yet more stagnated, dissatisfied, envious. Kierke­gaard fam­ous­ly called envy an “unhappy admiration”.

But envy very seldom announces its presence to us. As I men­tioned, there is little research on the topic—but there is certainly much classical literature. There are few major philosophers, great artists or statesmen who haven’t experienced it and written about it. Such writings show up in the myths parti­cul­arly of societies which have at least some social mobi­lity, dyn­­amic mar­kets and demo­cratic structures, such as ancient Greece and republican Rome.

What the classics tell us, and modern psychology’s sparse findings seem to suggest, is that we mostly experience our own envy as righteous anger. We feel a: “Why ya little…!”

We don’t see it coming. We don’t admit to feeling it—mostly, not even to our­selves. We just feel a silent resistance towards the envied, and we act upon it only behind a thick smokescreen, most often fooling not only others, but also (and often only) ourselves, with hollow justifications.

So basically, envy is sneaky. It is insidious, conniving. It sneaks up on us, seeps into our relationships, even among family and trusted friends—and it is rampant among professional peers. From there on, it is not sur­prising that our freedom is curtailed as we internalize the envy of others; an invisi­ble force which sets up inner barriers and subtly pressures us to con­form to mediocrity and never again seek to excel or to transcend our posi­tion in life or to try to change the world. Again, this is the Sklaven­moral-reg­ime we can expect to be entering next. Slave morality.

I am suggesting, then, that society is breaking through the chains of sha­ming and contempt, but that we are hitting a great stone wall of Sklav­en­moral and envy. This envy will likely target not primarily the pow­er, wealth and att­en­tion of the fortunate. No. It will go after a much subtler and more sensitive aim: the highest inner potentials of our fellow human beings.

Nothing hurts our sense of “chosenness” and immortality more than the manifest sublimity of another’s soul. Not only that they are succ­essful, but that they are idealistic, good-hearted, high-minded and fruit­fully en­gaged in deeply significant pursuits—when we are not. That they are pow­erful in the deep Nietzschean sense of the word. That they are living their lives to the fullest.

All of us long for power in some sense; all of us are born creators. To deny this is game denial. To defend suffocating inequalities is game acc­ep­tance. To accept this game of life and to evolve it—is game change.

This, I believe, is one of the greatest challenges of the times ahead: So many beautiful minds and hearts will emerge to rise to the challenges of the coming period, and so many will work—unconsciously but conni­vingly—to stop them.

And most of the time, the mediocre enviers will succeed in installing “humility” (veiled Sklavenmoral) into the birthing heroes and heroines, suffo­cating them in their sleep. The enviers won’t know why they’re doing it; they’ll just act with a strange perceived “moral outrage” that eats at their hearts.

If I am roughly correct about this future diagnosis, it means that we’re in for a lot of subtle, icky, sly conspiring. Glass doors quietly shut, dreams subtly dissipated, life projects discretely smothered.

And this in turn will unleash narcissism: both an obsession with ex­po­sing nar­cissism in others, and a corresponding increase of actual nar­ci­ss­ism as we try to convince ourselves and our surr­oundings of our worth.

Where does it leave us then? We need to develop a corresponding level of introspective skills in as many members of society as possible. We need to be able to really look inwards. To bust our own bull­shit. We must deve­lop greater interpersonal trust, but we must also, on a pro­found level, be­come more trustworthy. We must develop self-know­ledge; higher stages of in­ner development.

It is relatively easy to wish one another well, that no harm should befall our fellow citizens and peers. We don’t wish for one another to fall off a cliff—that would be terrible! But rarely do we sincerely wish for our lowly buddy to be­come the next Barack Obama. We prefer it if he gets about the same amount of happiness and success as ourselves; preferably slightly less.

And if we have to choose between the unlikely exaltation of our lowly buddy to world-savior glory and him falling off a cliff—we may some­times find ourselves quietly preferring the latter.

Thus, the prophet said:

“Brothers and sisters. The great religions have taught us to love one another. To wish one another well. To be able to say, from our truthful hearts, ‘I wish you health, peace and happiness’.

But alas, this wish is insufficient for the journey we must now embark upon together. Kindness is too weak a word, too feeble a force.

We must purify our souls and intentions so as not to hate or envy the great­ness of one another. To be able to share in the glory and mystery of life. And this is a much harder task than wishing health, peace and happiness upon our fellow human beings.

We must defeat the veiled demons of envy. Our very survival depends upon it—as we have never needed the audacity and creative intellect of others more than we do today.

Humanity will know no higher freedom until we are able to turn to our broth­ers and sisters in earnest to say: ‘May your heart birth a visionary, a Plato or Marx, a great leader, a Napoleon or Mandela or Catherine the Great or Martin Luther King, an unparalleled creator, a Frida Kahlo or a Bob Dylan.’ [i]

May the message ring:

‘I wish you power.

I wish you great­ness and super­iority.

I wish you tran­sc­en­dence.’”

Escape from Freedom

And yet, I must confess the naivety of the theory of freedom I have thus far proposed. Because even freedom does not set us free.

Once we manage to cast off the fear, shame, guilt and Sklavenmoral of society’s conditioning, we are left with no forces pressuring us to do any­thing; no pre-given maps of meaning and no extrinsic motivations.

Where there’s a whip, there’s a way, they say—playing of course on the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. But without the whip, we may well lose our way—perhaps forever.

What if no profound and more spirit­ually satisfying carrot of “intrinsic motivation” presents itself to match all the carrots of imm­ediate grati­fi­cation? We may unexpectedly find our­selves choosing the Pleasure Pal­ace and its Dark Playgrounds of infomer­ci­als and virtual reality over truth and meaning; end­less dist­ractions, spect­ator­ship, con­sum­ption, per­pet­ually un­fin­ished wound-licking, ever refined excuses, and pro­crast­ination, pro­crast­ination, pro­crastination. Endless fast carbs, endless gratification at the expense of meaning and dignity. Oh, the digital van­illa pris­on—oh, the candy cotton hell!

For all its terrible and visceral materiality, our slavery to negative social emo­tions at least protects us from the respon­sibility of being creators of our own lives or co-creators of the world. In actual slavery under penalty of death, at least we need not take any real respon­sibility for our own selves, beyond obe­d­i­ence. In slavery to guilt, we need not construct our own mora­lity. In sla­very to shame, we need not find our own path in life; only comply with what the neighbors might think.

And in slavery to Sklavenmoral, we need not take responsibility for our own highest dreams and aspirations, for our will to power, for our longing for creation and tran­scendence; for our greatest potentials and our sor­rows for all sentient beings and our identification with society-as-a-whole, in its entirety and dialectical multi­plicity of perspectives. We can leave that to someone else; “I’m just a usual person, I have no such pretensions, I am humble” we tell ourselves. But it is a deceptive humility, hollow and life-less as a plastic baby doll.

The truth is that once we have travelled the long road to freedom, we are back at the very point where we started: at fear, at sheer terror. It’s just us and the blank page of our life that we must fill—the blank canvas of the artist staring right back at us, screaming, roaring: CREATE ME! It’s just you, all alone, defining and recreating reality itself. You turn away from the canvas, trying to do something else, but you find that society itself is a canvas, begging for co-creation. You hurry outside, restlessly pacing in the pouring rain, staring up at the grey skies, tears running from your eyes, washed from your face by the cold rain, but no mercy is found: reality itself is a canvas. Blank.



Bam, motherfucker.

Go create. No excuses. Ever. Because you’re free.

Suddenly, like on a bad psychedelic trip, you find yourself lost in the hall of mirrors, with no be­gin­ning and no end of “the self” vis-à-vis “the world”. Just pure creation and full, unyielding respon­sib­ility for the uni­verse. This whole “crossroads of fact and fiction” business just got eerily real.

Is it so strange that we usually turn at the doorstep and escape back into the relative safety of whatever slavery we just struggled to shake off? Man, have I felt this before I began writing these books. Man, do I feel it every bloody morning. The terrible truth is this: freedom is struggle; free­dom is terror; it is the terror of facing pure chaos, the pristine meaning­lessness of reality, the vastness of potential, and the weight of the respons­ibility that follows.

Three Voices Whisper

I’d like to mention three authors, each of whom have described an im­portant aspect of the fear of freedom.

A keen observer of this predicament was Erich Fromm, the Freudo-Marxist social psychologist who wrote Escape from Freedom back in 1941 as a commen­tary upon the rise of nazism and other authoritarian move­ments. To embrace freedom, Fromm argued, human beings must have the proper spirit­ual support—we need to practice to be able to recreate our­selves at higher levels of individuation. We must grow as human be­ings in order to manifest positive freedoms (“freedom to”), lest we retreat in fear and try to recreate the imagined safe havens of the past. That’s what totali­tarianism and react­ion­ary move­ments promise—an escape from free­dom itself.

But the totalitarian and fundamentalist movements be­tray us; they are entirely devoid of art and creativity, and if we subscribe to them we subtly feel that our souls have been oppressed and violated. They offer only per­verted paths to submission and destruction, satisfying only these wishes and never reaching fulfillment.

This actually links rather elegantly to the work of Robert Kegan. I usu­ally have little good to say about his dev­elopmental theory of “the self”. You may remember I took some sw­ings at him in Book One. But in this instance, we may well listen to him and learn. Kegan argues that the “self” progresses from a stage of a norm-conforming “Socialized” mind to a “Self-Author­ing” mind, which in turn—in a small minority of adults— can make way for a yet higher “Self-Transforming” mind.

  • Stage 1 — Impulsive mind (early childhood)
  • Stage 2 — Imperial mind (adolescence, 6% of adult population)
  • Stage 3 — Socialized mind (58% of the adult population)
  • Stage 4 — Self-Authoring mind (35% of the adult population)
  • Stage 5 — Self-Transforming mind (1% of the adult population)

Even if I don’t subscribe to this theory at the level of individual anal­ysis, I do think it has something to say at an aggregated, societal level. It does make sense that modern life requires many more of us to ad­vance to a Self-Authoring kind of mind—and if this transition fails, but our life cir­cum­stances still demand a strong inner compass of self-organ­ization, we can regress to the Socialized mind, or the Imperial mind, and subconsci­ously even to the Impulsive, i.e. to childish tantrums and wanton aggres­sion (like nazism, etc.).

If our soc­ietal freedom is not matched by a corresponding level of per­sonal develop­ment, we are terrified by the freedom gained. We don’t exp­erience it as wind blowing through our hair on an American highway, but as utter con­fusion and a horrifying abyss. The Chevy is driving off a cliff. We want out. We want to escape from freedom.[ii]

One important aspect of this training for higher freedom that is not fully caught by either Fromm or Kegan is described in­stead by the novelist Steven Press­field. In his book The War of Art, he viv­idly and intimately outlines the enemy of all artists: what he calls “resist­ance”. How many of us can truly overcome the resistance to create? Can we tolerate the empty canvas staring back at us? How many of us keep stalling our inner­most dreams indefin­itely? How many of us can bear the terror of freedom and muster the discipline and die-hard motivation to defeat the inner demons of distraction and excuse? Simple procrast­ination can also be an escape from freedom.

Pressfield points out it is this denied and undealt-with inner res­ist­ance that shows up as an urge, not only to deny our own higher poten­tials, but to unproductively criticize and try to smother it in others—what I have called Sklavenmoral (and its two cronies, envy and nar­ciss­ism).

So it’s not just a matter of individual inner struggle. Even at a civiliza­tional level, we are facing the onslaught of the inability to overcome inner resist­ance, which translates to envy, which translates to Sklavenmoral, and this translates to narcissism—all of which are corrosive, if not antitheti­cal, to the collective good of higher free­dom.[iii]

Fromm’s words are prophetic. Kegan’s theory offers some useful hints to the structure of this challenge. But to get at the heart of the matter we must recognize that a profoundly free society would be one where all of us become artists in the most general sense. We would all have to bear the terrible burden of creation that Pressfield describes.

And by yet another tragic and ironic twist of fate, it just so happens that we live in a digital capitalist society in which every corner and every mom­ent and every shelf is overflowing with excuses, distractions, quick rewards and new promises. How many ways are there not to lose our focus and sense of dir­ection?

It’s even worse than that; it is the case that the relative success of one person’s manifested deeper potential and creative outlet easily becomes the sour­ce of distraction for others—if I am to be a successful writer, I must distract at least some of my fellow co-creators from their higher call­ings. The same goes for so many other creators. So much “amuse­ment” and “support” around, so many workshops to take and genuinely breath­taking talents caught on YouTube-clips to be shared on Face­book. Milli­ons of views. Billions of clicks.

Higher freedom from extrinsic emotional pressures must grow in pace with higher stages of inner deve­lop­ment, lest we be doomed to deceive our­­selves into new sugar­coated escapes from freedom. We must learn to disci­pline ourselves—to crack the code of how inner self-discipline is taught and acquired.

Max Weber famously described modern life and its rational, disencha­nted bureaucracy as an “iron cage”. As we app­roach a postindustrial soci­ety of abundance, more and more of us suddenly find that we are caught in a gilded one. The gilded cage, if you will, of meta­modern soc­iety.[iv]

Not only must negative freedoms be matched by positive opportuni­ties; both of these must be matched by a corresponding degree of inner growth.

When the intergalactic gods look upon human civilization on Cos­mic Judg­ment Day, what will be their verdict? Will they see that we grew up and became artists, co-creators of the universe? Or will they see that we have escaped from freedom, into new Pleasure Palaces? Will they scoff:

“This species has amused itself to death”.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. Not saying, of course, that I personally hold all of these to be role models.

[ii]. Before I go on, I simply cannot sufficiently stress of the importance of seeing per­son­al development in a non-judgmental way. It’s not that some people are good and others are bad, and that the bad ones should “damn well grow up” and “be mature”. That’s how fourteen-year-olds tease one another, and that’s, unfortunately, also how Keg­an’s theory—and perhaps my own—often lend themselves to perverted uses.

The develop­mental perspective is per definition non-moralistic, non-judgmental. It is what comes instead of moralism, instead of blaming peo­ple. Higher stage is always explicable, always due to a privilege of some kind—social, genetic or other. It is never a measure of “the worth of your soul”.

The reason that people flip out under the pressure of too much freedom is not, speaking from the viewpoint of behavioral science, that we’re bad people, it’s simply that we’re not built for it, not prepared for it.

The point with understanding developmental stages is never to insult or deride, and always to understand how people can be supported, to see the causal, impersonal mechanisms that make high­er freedom unbearable. There’s no God, remember? We killed Him. Or at least there’s no God in the sense there is a supreme pers­pective from which we judge the inherent value of people. There’s no final umpire, no ultimate judge. So don’t judge people for escaping the terror of freedom. We are simply un­prepared.

[iii]. Pressfield, S., 2012. The War of Art. New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC.

[iv]. This, by the way, is one reason to be wary of utopian ideas of Universal Basic Income (UBI). If Kegan claims only some 36% of (the US) pop­ulation is at “Self-Author­ing” or above, and if so few of us are actually cap­able of living an artist’s life, creating in the face of people’s norms and exp­ect­ations—should we really expect that a majority of people would blossom under UBI? Some certainly would. But many or most may get stuck in a tragic lifetime of procrast­ination; of endless sear­ching for new kicks and amuse­ment, a grand excuse for a life unlived, a life as “the Great Spect­a­tor”—in a sense—living but never being born. Vanilla prison.