The Art of Loving

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Books on Relationships

I read Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving in 2010, on the recommendation of my grandfather. At the time, I loved Fromm’s book so much that I tried to have as many of my friends as possible read it. I lent out my copy many times, and had my friends write their names in the cover when they finished it. Since that time, it has also easily become my most gifted book.

I loved Fromm for his insistence on the power of love: “The mature response to the problem of existence is love.” Fromm gave love a kind of nobility and stature that I resonated with, arguing that love is an art, requiring “knowledge and effort,” rather than a “pleasant sensation” that arises “as a matter of chance, something one ‘falls into’ if one is lucky.”

Above all, I appreciated the book’s philosophical approach, which offered me many opportunities to notice and question various assumptions I had received or made about love.

Fromm made incisive criticisms of our culture’s approach to romantic love. To begin with, people assume that “the problem of love is the problem of an objectי not the problem of a faculty.” This tendency to see love as a “problem of an object” leads to what we today call objectification – seeing people as objects, as means to ends, rather than ends in themselves.

One of the things that I took away from the book was that our culture has overly emphasized “finding the right person” in almost a capitalist way: as if finding love were a matter of comparing products, weighing pros and cons, and going for the optimal ratio. “Our whole culture,” Fromm laments, “is based on the appetite for buying, on the idea of a mutually favorable exchange…on the personality market.” Two people “fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values.” Even today I wince, just reading Fromm’s invective of our culture.

Relatedly, “most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love.” For Fromm, “Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a ‘standing in,’ not a falling for.’ In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.” Love, then, “isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.”

Fromm’s perspectives helped me see that my approach to romantic love had been primarily what Fromm labels “a form of pseudo-love… idolatrous love.” When one lacks a sense of self and identity, “he tends to ‘idolize’ the loved person”:

He is alienated from his own powers and projects them into the loved person, who is worshiped as the summum bonum, the bearer of all love, all light, all bliss. In this process he deprives himself of all sense of strength, loses himself in the loved one instead of finding himself. Since usually no person can, in the long run, live up to the expectations of her (or his) idolatrous worshiper, disappointment is bound to occur, and as a remedy a new idol is sought for, sometimes in an unending circle. What is characteristic for this type of idolatrous love is, at the beginning, the intensity and suddenness of the love experience. This idolatrous love is often described as the true, great love; but while it is meant to portray the intensity and depth of love, it only demonstrates the hunger and despair of the idolator. Needless to say it is not rare that two persons find each other in a mutual idolatry which, sometimes, in extreme cases, represents the picture of a folie a deux.

Of course, for Fromm, love isn’t solely romantic love. He discusses the book’s central perspective, seeing love as an art, with respect to many different kinds love: self-love, brotherly love, erotic love, familial love, and love for God.

As Fromm addresses each of these forms of love, it serves as a kind of progression, from the simplest and smallest case to the broadest and most significant case. This progression of perspectives on love helped me to see human maturing in a new way. Fromm defines the mature adult as someone who “is his own mother and his own father.” Motherly love is unconditional, and fatherly love is conditional. When one can love oneself and others both unconditionally and conditionally, one has achieved maturity.

Fromm extends this process of maturing beyond even the individual human, to encompass human society and religion as a whole. Fromm compares his analysis of how a mature human being develops to the historical development in religion, predicting a period where religion comes into “a mature stage where God ceases to be an outside power, where man has incorporated the principles of love and justice into himself, where he has become one with God, and eventually, to a point where he speaks of God only in a poetic, symbolic sense.” At the time, I was a devoted atheist, averse to all talk of religions – and yet something about Fromm’s descriptions entranced me.

I particularly appreciated Fromm’s early insistence on the value of contemplative practice. Fromm claims – accurately, I believe – that “Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the condition for the ability to love.” From that perspective, improving one’s ability to be alone improves one’s ability to love. Accordingly, Fromm recommends various concentration practices.

For as much as I loved Fromm’s book a decade ago, my relationship to the book has become more complicated over time. For starters, there is a homophobic passage in the book, which has an argument which strikes me as not only bad but also wrong. Even for the more good and useful positions in the book, I’ve had to develop more nuanced understandings in my own life.

Looking back on my relationships, I think reading Fromm caused me to swing too far in the direction of “love as an activity.” While there isn’t just “one right person,” it’s actually useful and important to seek a compatible partner.

I’ve had to reflect on what exactly compatibility is, since I got so far away from seeing things that way. It seems to me that compatibility starts with similarity of worldview, values, and ethics. A compatible partner should also have a vision for their future that fits with yours. There are also more basic and mundane forms of compatibility: communication styles, sexual preferences, etc. At its most basic, compatibility seems to be about ease of being together. Does it feel comfortable to talk together, or to not talk together; to be together, or to be apart? Do you feel loved, and is it easy to express love?

The Art of Loving isn’t perfect, but it has been truly inspiring and thought-provoking to me for many years. Reflecting on it has helped me to refine my own understanding of love, and to deepen my own capacity to act on that understanding.

Thank you to my grandfather, Jim Fogleman, for recommending Fromm to me, and to all my friends who’ve discussed The Art of Loving with me over the years.

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