“The Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm

It recently occurred to us that all four of the core members of the editorial collective of People Not Profit are interested in the work of Erich Fromm.


“Fromm, Erich (1900-1980)

“German-born U.S. psychoanalyst and social philosopher who explored the interaction between psychology and society. By applying Freudian principles to the social problems, Fromm hoped to show the way to a psychologically balanced ‘sane society.’

“After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 1922, Fromm trained in psychoanalysis at the University of Munich and at the Psycho-Analytic Institute of Berlin. He began practicing psychoanalysis as a disciple of Sigmund Freud but soon took issue with Freud’s preoccupation with unconscious drives and consequent neglect of the role of societal factors in human psychology. Fromm had already attained a distinguished reputation as a psychoanalyst when he left Nazi Germany in 1933 for the United States, where he came into conflict with orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic circles. From 1934 to 1941, Fromm was on the faculty of Columbia University, where his views became increasingly controversial. In 1941, he went to Bennington College, Vermont, and in 1951 was appointed Professor of Psychoanalysis at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City. In 1962, he returned to the US to take up the position of Professor of Psychiatry at New York University.

“In his early work in Germany, Fromm argued that an understanding of the psychological needs of human beings was essential in order to build a healthy society, and he put these ideas forward in several books and articles on the development of Christianity. In Fromm’s first major work, Escape from Freedom (1941), he charted the growth of human freedom and self-awareness from the Middle Ages to modern times and, using psychoanalytic techniques, analysed the tendency of modern emancipated man to take refuge from his new insecurities by turning to totalitarian movements such as Nazism. See Fear of Freedom, from the same period.

“In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm presented his argument that modern man has become alienated and estranged from himself within consumer-oriented industrial society and called for a rebirth of enlightenment to allow each person to fulfil his individual needs while maintaining bonds of social fraternity.

“See Erich Fromm Archive.” Taken from: http://marxists.org/glossary/people/f/r.htm#fromm-erich

The first book I ever read by Fromm was The Art of Loving. A Chicano farm friend of mine, Eddie, let me borrow his copy while we working together in Illinois. Energy and Equity by Ivan Illich and his concept of useful unemployment are a couple other gems I’ll always be in debt to Eddie for introducing me to over the 2005 midwestern farm season.

After the realization mentioned above, I decided to re-read The Art of Loving, and I’m very glad I did for both positive and negative reasons. In a very brief forward by the author, Fromm mentions how some of the ideas in this book were already published in Escape from Freedom and The Sane Society, books I couldn’t stand and didn’t finish. This is followed by a quote from Paracelsus, then the first chapter starts with a couple of questions if love is an art or just something one falls into if they are lucky.

Fromm goes on to examine how love is looked at when being loved is considered the goal rather than loving. He expands on this perspective where he also thinks love is considered an object as opposed to a faculty. He connects this to the culture of consumerism. Thirdly he examines the difference between falling in love and being, or he suggests the phrase standing in love. Taking the failure rate of love into consideration, Fromm comes back to his initial point, a need to understand love as an art.

Chapter two, The Theory of Love, is divided into subsections, beginning with Love, the Answer to the Problem of Human Existence. Here he writes about theory of human existence, of our emergence and division from the animal kingdom. He expands this to an examination of an individual’s growing sense of individuation through childhood development and sexual experimentation, followed by how the individual tries to overcome separateness, yet still needing to feel different, no matter how small that difference.

Fromm goes on to write about how under capitalism, equality has become sameness instead of oneness, how routines of work and pleasure are a part of conformity that relieves the negative feelings that come from separateness. Next he examines how creative activity unites people, and people with the world, and how in contemporary work there is little of this. Fromm comes back to love as the answer to all of these problems, first writing about it as a symbiotic union, but then also possibly passive and masochistic, or active and sadistic. He examines love as an activity, but then questions further by asking what motivates activity? He continues along these lines, first returning to the idea of standing in love as opposed to falling, and its primary active character being giving not receiving, but then asking what is giving? And how this question isn’t as simple as it seems. Interestingly, 23 pages in is a fantastic quote from Marx on love, the first outright reference to Marx after so many to capitalism’s flawed at best human relations.

“Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune.” From the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Power of Money.

Fromm continues writing about the active nature of love. Unfortunately this is all written within the framework of a cemented gender binary which becomes explicitly anti-gay by the 31st page, with LGBTQ folks written off as people with a failure to unite with others since Fromm’s view, only a relationship polarized by gender can meet this need. Strangely, Fromm goes on to denounce Freud’s view of love as simply an expression of sexual instinct.

Though the topic has already been touched on, the second subsection is about the love between parent and child. This is done in an admittedly idealistic perspective, it’s Fromm’s view that mental health and maturity is based on the development from mother-centered to father-centered attachment.

There is a third subsection, The Objects of Love, where Fromm briefly writes that he thinks love is universal, or simply symbiotic attachment, not really love. He focuses on different kinds of love starting with brotherly love which he considers the most fundamental.

Motherly love is revisited, then he writes about erotic love. He has an interesting perspective on how people can mistake the thrill of falling in love with erotic love. He goes on to write about people mistaking sexual desire for love. Though this may seem like an obvious and easy mistake, by actually getting into the psychological causes, it’s still very interesting to read his perspective. Though still writing about what erotic love is not, Fromm does start to define it as also a universal love, yet for one person. He ties this all in whether an arranged marriage or one of choice back to the story of Adam and Eve. Up to this point I had been assuming all of his biblical references were just for archetypes to draw from. This point strikes me both as bizarre and non-sensical since I’m sure Fromm had to have known there were many other forms of marriage in various places around the world and all through history.

Next he writes about love of self. He examines whether or not there is a contradiction between this, and love of others. Fromm emphasizes the need of self-love as a basis for loving others, and that self-love and selfishness are opposites.

Fromm goes on to write about the love of God where he finally makes a point of breaking from a simply Christian perspective Motherly love seems to re-appear relating to all these other concepts. Unfortunately the emphasis remains on Christian perspectives though he does branch out into its Jewish roots and various denomination, and occasionally still makes references to other modes of thought such as Buddhism and Taoism, his own disbelief in God, and Aristotelian, Hegelian and Marxian philosophy, etc.

In chapter three, Love and its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society, Fromm slams capitalist society as not conducive to loving relationships, but then starts to examine details of love from a Freudian perspective, though eventually bringing this full circle by writing about how the stage of capitalist development of Freud’s time made his work so popular. Now I would add this is a good time to note how Fromm was also limited by capitalism’s stage of development at his time of writing! Then he goes on to compare Freud’s work with that of a contemporary psychoanalyst, H.S. Sullivan, who strictly divided sexuality and love, before returning to the topic of disintegration of love in 20th century western society. This is fairly in-depth and goes on for a while before he starts to write about what love is, though this section is a very brief segue before he writes about how along with people’s loss of ability to love each other, they’ve also lost their ability to love God.

In the fourth and final chapter, The Practice of Love, Fromm acknowledges the deeply personal nature of love as an individual experience before returning to his emphasis of love as an art, and therefore something that is practiced with discipline. He compares this to other arts then gets into some specifics such as really listening to people. Though this seems to be an obvious thing, Fromm contextualizes and breaks these topics down in a noteworthy way, also returning to the universal nature of real love, this time as a break from narcissism and child-like love limited to family.

Then Fromm starts writing about faith, and how it’s not limited to religion but how you can have faith in science, then brings this to the importance of faith in other people, then the active nature of love both internally and externally, onwards from one’s own to strangers.

Interestingly, Fromm examines the development of the idea of fairness in capitalist society, juxtaposing it with the direct force, tradition and pure cronyism of pre-capitalist society. Having been written in 1956, it would be interesting to know what Fromm would think about certain movements such as Fair Trade, against the general rush to the bottom of global capitalism and the dissent into crony capitalism of most ex-Stalinist regimes, especially because he denounces fairness ethics of the Golden Rule as a cheapening shortfall of the actual Biblical call to “Love they neighbor as thyself.”

This brings Fromm to ask how can one practice love in capitalist society, admitting that changes needed to make a loving society are largely out of the scope of the book. A footnote suggests reading The Sane Society for a deeper examination of this topic. I briefly thought about making a second attempt to read that book, but think I’ll probably re-read some that I know I thought were good first, especially since all of Marx’s Concept of Man is posted on the Marxist Internet Archive. He closes the book re-iterating his view that love and faith are the answers to the problems of our society, and they can only be practiced through the re-organization of our society.


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