Erich Fromm Reformulates Love As A Way Of Life

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“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

“I think friendship and love are exactly the same thing” said Truman Capote in an interview with David Frost. “Obviously sex is not love. Sex can lead to love. Real friendship inevitably leads to love.” A surprised audience laughed at Capote’s insight, hinting at a confusion for a seemingly intuitive phenomenon. But in The Art of Loving psychoanalyst Erich Fromm radically redefines the concept of love, offering keen insight into its facets through beautiful elucidations. His carefully chosen and accessible words call for a change of perception, to understand love in its absolute form, divorced from what’s served by a temporally-defined culture. For love is the “only rational answer to the problem of human existence.”

“This desire for interpersonal fusion is the most powerful striving in man. It is the most fundamental passion, it is the force which keeps the human race together, the clan, the family, society. The failure to achieve it means insanity or destruction—self-destruction or destruction of others. Without love, humanity could not exist for a day.”

Humanity is bestowed with the gift of reason but eating from the tree knowledge has incinerated paradise. Individuality, death, and possibility overwhelm the mind if an outlet to escape isn’t available. Searching for release people turn to religion, alcohol, and conformity. But they are ultimately empty distractions, failing to uproot the core of solitude against an infinite unknown. “The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love—is the source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety.” Only by cultivating love can man transcend her separation.

“Love is an active power in a man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.”

Popular culture catalogs love under the umbrella of gaudy movies and soap operas, belying the depth of humanity’s strongest emotion. Confusion has lead to misinterpretations, veiling love as a spontaneous condition.  “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the whole world, not toward one ‘object’ of love.” Love is not a spurring of emotion but a lens through which to view life.  And it exists in multitudinous forms.

“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbor as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness. If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers. In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human at-onement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we are all one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with identity of the human core common to all men.”

Love is not a state of bliss. It is an evolving position, one that must be passionately pursued.

“Love is possible only if two persons communication with each other from the centre of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the center of his existence. Only in this “central experience” is human reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love. Love, experience thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting experienced place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves. There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized.”

Before we can learn to love each other we must learn to love ourselves. Confronting the self may be the most daunting task, as elaborated by Alan Watts’ prescription for living here and now. To be comfortable with one’s thoughts and understanding a belief requires inward exploration, unearthing the roots of desire wealth, fame, love. Understanding wants and needs nurtures self-love. Far from a sign of narcissism, loving ourselves is the first step in learning to love others.

“The idea expressed in the Biblical ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself!’ implies that respect for one’s own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for my own self is inseparably connected with the life for any other being.”

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“The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e., in care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge. If an individual is able to love productively, he loves himself too; if he can love only others, he cannot love at all.”

Fromm’s analysis of love culminates in its redefinition as an art, one that can be elevated to mastery. “The capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awakeness, enhanced vitality, which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.” It requires conscious dedication and discipline, understanding of the human condition—extending beyond the realms of family and friends to every person. “It means to love your neighbor, that is, to responsible for and one with him.” And to be cognizant of the pursuit of love in every moment of waking life.

“If one wants to become a master in any art, one’s whole life must be devoted to it, or at least related to it. One’s own person becomes an instrument in the practice of the art, and must be kept fit, according to the specific functions it has to fulfill. With regard to the art of loving, this means that anyone who aspires to become a master in this art must begin by practicing discipline, concentration, and patience throughout every phase of his life.”

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“Indeed, to speak of love is not ‘preaching,’ for the simple reason that it means to speak of the ultimate and real need in every human being. That this need has been obscured does not mean that it does not exist. To analyze the nature of love is to discover its general absence today and to criticize the social conditions which are responsible for this absence. To have faith in the possibility of love as a social and not only exceptional individual-phenomenon, is a rational faith based on the insight into the very nature of man.”

The Art of Loving is rich with musings on the nature of love, serving as a guide to live with love in everyday life. It is perhaps more necessary now to find the common bindings that unite humanity, and learn to love our neighbors. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”