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The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

Book Abstract




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Autobiographical note:  The Art of Loving was one of the books in read in a flurry in exploration of psychology and self-help titles during my college years.  It stands as one of the most influential books in my life.  My purpose here is to distill its insights and consider its relevance to the transcultural Mayasite theme.  While this abstract does not dwell on the developmental and evolutionary aspects of love, Fromm does address them on pages 8 and 9 and elsewhere.




Love is the most satisfying fulfillment of humanity’s most powerful desire: the desire for interpersonal union.  Humanity’s great achievement of self-awareness has brought with it the realization of our individuality and mortality.  These, in turn, can engender feelings of separation, helplessness, and despair.  Love overcomes these feelings and gives a meaning to life transcending death.  However, there is more agreement on love’s importance than love’s nature.



Love is an art.  As such it requires dedication, knowledge, and skill.  People who believe that love is an art place their effort into being more loving. To love, one must develop one’s total personality to develop a productive orientation, the capacity to love one’s neighbor, true humility, courage, and faith.



Love is not, as most people think, a pleasant sensation that one naturally and effortlessly “falls into”.  People who believe that love is a sentiment place their effort into finding the right love object.  To this end, they try to become more lovable-which is essentially a mixture of being popular and having sex appeal.  In today’s market-oriented society, two people fall in love (become infatuated with each other) when they feel they have found the best object available on the market given their own exchange value.



People who “fall in love” suddenly let the wall between them break down. They feel exhilaration as their feelings of isolation vanish.  However, these wonderful feelings are short-lived.  As the lovers become better acquainted, their intimacy loses more of its miraculous character.  Their initial excitement is replaced by mutual boredom, disappointment, and even antagonism.  The feelings of isolation return along.  The participants perhaps become a less hopeful and more despairing.



Love is the most satisfying of the four basic approaches to transcending the boundaries of individual lives.  The other four are:  orgiastic states, creative activity, conformity, and symbiosis.   The union achieved by orgiastic states (auto or drug induced trances, fall in love)  is transitory; loneliness and mortality reassert themselves once the thrill is gone.  The union achieved by creative or productive work is not interpersonal; a sculpture can give a form of immortality, but it will not care for its maker.  The union achieved by conformity is false as it based on denial of one’s individuality.  Only love provides for an interpersonal union that is true and lasting.



Fromm distinguishes between immature love and mature love.  Immature love, also called “symbiotic union” develops from the biological relationship between a pregnant women and her fetus.  Physically, the mother and fetus are one body.  The fetus receives everything it needs from its mother, and the mother’s role is defined by the dependence of the fetus.



At birth, the bodies separate, but the symbiotic relationship continues.  Normally, however, the relationship evolves as the child’s horizons expand, and the mother’s role becomes less defined by the child’s needs.  Abnormally, the child may remain fixated on the mother as the source of all fulfillments, or the mother may try to prevent the child from maturing to maintain her role of primary importance.



In a healthy course of development, immature love becomes mature love.    Adult symbiotic relationships, such as sado-masochistic relationships, depend upon and accordingly enforce a lack of individual fulfillment of the individuals involved.  Only in mature love do individuals become one while retaining their individual integrities.  “In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain individuals.” (pg. 17).



Mature love is an attitude toward all of humanity, not just a single object of love.  However, depending on the object of love mature love takes different forms:  brotherly love (love of humanity), motherly (parental) love, erotic (exclusive) love, self-love (after all, I am people too), and love of god (love of the highest good).  These forms of love share the same basic four elements, albeit to different degrees:  care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.



Caring is concern for the life and growth of others.  Caring involves giving what is alive in you to others.  Giving in this sense is not done for exchange and does not involve sacrifice.  Yet the giver receives as parents are rewarded by the growth of their children, teachers are rewarded by the learning of their students, and artists are rewarded by the appreciation of their audience.



Responsibility is taken in the meaning, not of obligation, but of “ability to respond” to the needs of others--whether the physical needs of an infant or psychic needs of adults.  Respect is taken not in the meaning of fear and awe, but in the meaning of “to look at”, to see a person as a unique individual.  Respect thus implies an absence of exploitation and prevents responsibility from becoming domination.



The fourth basic element of love is knowledge.  There are many layers of knowledge.  The knowledge that is part of love penetrates to the core.  It is possible only when one can transcend the concern for oneself and understand another on their own terms.



In achieving this understanding, we learn not only about the other person, but about humanity, and thus about ourselves.  In this way, love leads to knowledge about the essence of humanity, and thus the fundamental relationship between ourselves as individuals and ourselves as members of humanity.  It is this relationship that transcends our individuality and our mortality to give meaning to life.



The foregoing is my restatement of Fromm’s view of love.  I have taken liberties to condense his 112 pages and to focus on the aspects of Fromm’s thinking most pertinent to the Mayasite view.  Having stated Fromm’s views, some critique is in order.



Fromm position is above all a humanistic one.  The Art of Loving exercises Fromm’s thesis, developed in Man for Himself, that what is good means what is good for man.  This humanistic view is an important break from authoritarian ethics.



However, Fromm shares the pitfalls of humanism.  On the one hand, there is this optimistic theme that humans can love each other and overcome loneliness, hatred, violence, and so on.  On the other hand, it is apparent that not only have we not overcome these things, they seem to be more and more prevalent.



So the search is on for something to blame for our inability to achieve the world Fromm envisions.  Fromm blames Western Society--his society.  (Chapter III of the Art of Loving is entitled “Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society”.)  As if to strengthen his arguments regarding the evils of Western society, he embellishes the virtues of Easter societies.  So while Fromm teaches us how to overcome our isolation from humanity, he clearly feels alienated from his society.  His theory did not work for him.  It is not surprising that he committed suicide.



This odd juxtaposition between good human individuals and bad human societies typifies humanism.  This is just the sort of paradox that calls for a paradigm shift.  As we might expect from other paradigm shifts, a broader range of perspectives need to be considered and then coordinated.  The humanistic position is that “Man is the measure of all things.”  At the very least, this position should be extended to include all human societies as well as all human individuals.



Beyond humanity:  is love limited to humans and gods?  Do we love pets, trees, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.?  Is it enough to feel one with humanity, or do we want to feel one with the universe. After humanity itself is individual and mortal.  It should be noted that ecological causes have become much more important since the Art of Loving was written Humanism has made a contribution to the development of morality, but it is clearly not an endpoint. 






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