Book Reviews, Love

Erich Fromm: The Art of Loving

«This attitude—that nothing is easier than to love—has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love. If this were the case with any other activity, people would be eager to know the reasons for the  failure, and to learn how one could do better—or they would give up the activity. Since the latter is impossible in the case of love, there seems to be only one adequate way to overcome the failure of love—to examine the reasons for this failure, and to proceed to study the meaning of love.» (Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Ruth Nanda Anshen, ed., Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1956, Chapter I, pp. 4–5)

Radical, holistic, and deeply ethical

The social philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (b.1900 in Frankfurt, Germany, d.1980 in Locarno, Switzerland) was a member of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. He emigrated to the United States in 1933, spent the years from 1950 to 1974 in Mexico, and then returned to Europe. His most famous books, both of them bestsellers, are The Art of Loving (1956) and To Have or to Be? (1976). 

As the most important basis for his social utopia, Fromm postulates in The Art of Loving the active and very conscious development of ones own capacity to love instead of giving in to passive consumerism and superficial behavior. «Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it» (Chapter IV, p. 133).

What surprised me about Fromm is his radical approach and his distinctly holistic and deeply ethical thinking, which is exceedingly relevant again today. This is the reason for me to present his book here. Fromm’s psychoanalytical approach, as well as his references to God and rather conservative understanding of gender roles, strike us as not quite up to date anymore. If you brush off this dust, though, there is plenty left that is worth reading. I will point out the aspects of the book that are most important to me.

Love needs to be learned

«This book, on the contrary, wants to show that love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. It wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries most actively to develop his total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. In a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement» (Foreword, p. xix).

To Fromm, love is an art, like life in general, that needs to be learned. Just like any other technique, like music and painting, love also does not just fall from the sky. This requires love for love, in a sense, and it is not attainable without intuition, which for Fromm is the essence of the mastery of any art. 

«Not he who has much is rich, but he who gives much» (Chapter II, p. 24). Love is not about Machiavellian do ut des; it is about unselfish giving, which is the precondition for any true exchange and progress in society: «The teacher is taught by his students, the actor is stimulated by his audience, the psychoanalyst is cured by his patient—provided they do not treat each other as objects, but are related to each other genuinely and productively» (Chapter II, p. 25–26). And with regard to erotic love, Fromm rightly remarks that if the desire for physical union is not sustained by love, the relationship will hardly develop beyond a purely orgiastic union. He adds that by dint of its exclusive character, any égoisme à deux is not exactly conducive to social development.

Photography: Youssef Limoud

Fromm’s cultural criticism

The chapter «Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society» is dedicated to valid cultural criticism, which other colleagues of his time have expressed more ruthlessly and analytically, for example Günther Anders. Fromm nevertheless worded some very accurate and relevant comments: «Man’s happiness today consists in ‹having fun›. Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and ‹taking in› commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies—all are consumed, swallowed» (Chapter III, p. 87). And: «Modern capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience—yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim—except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead» (Chapter III, p. 85).

What is required to learn love?

In the chapter «The Practice of Love», Fromm finally explains the requirements for learning love: «First of all, the practice of an art requires discipline» (Chapter IV, p. 108), without which nothing will be achieved. Furthermore: «That concentration is a necessary condition for the mastery of an art is hardly necessary to prove» (Chapter IV, p. 108–109), and: «A third factor is patience» (Chapter IV, p. 109). These three virtues are all but forgotten in our age and time, for «modern man thinks he loses something—time—when he does not do things quickly; yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains—except kill it» (Chapter IV, p. 109–110).

But in order for these virtues to take hold at all, we require «rational faith». Fromm beautifully outlines what this means: «Rational faith is a conviction which is rooted in one’s own experience of thought or feeling. Rational faith is not primarily belief in something, but the quality of certainty and firmness which our convictions have. Faith is a character trait pervading the whole personality, rather than a specific belief. Rational faith is rooted in productive intellectual and emotional activity» (Chapter IV, pp. 121–122). And: «Unless we have faith in the persistence of our self, our feeling of identity is threatened and we become dependent on other people whose approval then becomes the basis for our feeling of identity» (Chapter IV, p. 123).

In this context, Fromm also notes: «To believe in power that exists is identical with disbelief in the growth of potentialities which are as yet unrealized» (!) (Chapter IV, p. 126). and: «Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love» (Chapter IV, p. 128).

One final practical advice to take along from Fromm on the topic of concentration«By bad company… I mean also the company of zombies, of people whose soul is dead, although their body is alive; of people whose thoughts and conversation are trivial; who chatter instead of talk, and who assert cliché opinions instead of thinking» (Chapter IV, p. 113–114).

  1. Fromm’s book is wonderfully astute and now we have All about Love by bell hooks, who brings Fromm’s observations into the 21st century, with a Gen Z re-interpretation. Have you read it yet?

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