[This will be the last informational post for a while, after which I’ll dive right into criticism. In this post I’ll describe Fromm’s understanding of love, focusing on The Art of Loving.
I’ll also raise a few of the more important problems with his approach which I’ll discuss in more depth later.]
Love was central both to Fromm’s humanistic psychiatry and to his political vision. His approach to love stands out for its emphasis on action (and particularly his attention to epistemic practices), its insistence on a consistent and comprehensive application, and its recognition of the significance of the social context for the possibilities of loving.
What is love?
(I couldn’t resist.)
We’re often accustomed to thinking of love as a flighty emotion or a fugitive property sought and received from others. Fromm conceives of love very differently. Love, to him, is an attitude, an activity, a practice, “an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love” (TAoL, 43). Love is the highest form of relatedness to others and to the world, an active power “which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others…makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness” (19).
Loving is an act and habit of giving to the world. The loving person
gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other - but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness - of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. (23)
The loving person doesn’t give love in order to receive it, but “he cannot help receiving that which is given back to him. Giving implies to make the other person a giver also and they both share in the joy of what they have brought to life” (23). (Fromm offers the examples of teachers learning from their students and performers energized by their audience. I’m also reminded of a bumper sticker about rescue animals I read about recently: it asks “Who rescued who?”)
The need for consistency across relationships
“If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.” - TAoL, 43
The most striking contrast I can think of to Fromm’s vision of love is Howard and Helga’s “Nation of Two” (Das Reich der Zwei) in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. For Fromm, love can’t be reserved exclusively for a specific object. People are only capable of loving another person if they’re capable of loving the whole world, including themselves. Genuinely loving someone requires this cosmopolitan attitude: “If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, ‘I love you’, I must be able to say, ‘I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself’” (43).
Importantly, this assumes a shared global identity:
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 the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core. If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive mainly the differences, that which separates us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity, the fact of our brotherhood. (44)
This quotation hints at both the strengths and the weaknesses of Fromm’s approach. His vision of love urges people to love comprehensively, focusing on our fundamental commonalities rather than our differences. In fact, Fromm at his most expansive writes about the basis of all love being biophilia, a term he coined, meaning love of life itself. But in this passage he’s talking specifically about brotherly love, which is not synonymous with biophilia and which he distinguishes from other forms of love including biophilia.
Fromm – always a fan of taxonomy – presents separate discussions of the various forms of love, a presentation which works against his positive cosmopolitan vision. He discusses erotic love, maternal love, paternal love, (infuriatingly) love of God, and brotherly love: “The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of 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.” (43-4)
It’s quite odd for someone to suggest that brotherly love underlies maternal love. This idea reflects a bias which leads to the caricaturing of parental love and its demotion to the realm of “the animal.” Fromm presents brotherly love as at once the foundation for and the pinnacle above all of the classes of love - the modern, rational, mature love to which we should aspire. In order to do so, he has to distort the picture, downplaying certain aspects and removing incongruent features from his presentation of the various forms of love (for example, describing “motherly love” as almost entirely focused on caring for physical needs).
Biophilia – the love of all life – doesn’t appear at all in The Art of Loving. Not only is it absent from the important classifications, surprising given its significance elsewhere in his writings, but the notion of brotherly love presented here, contrary to Fromm’s own suggestion, is anthropocentric, hierarchical, and exclusive. Fromm makes an effort to characterize it as a relation of equals:
Brotherly love is love between equals: but, indeed, even as equals we are not always ‘equal’; inasmuch as we are human, we are all in need of help. Today I, tomorrow you. But this need of help does not mean that the one is helpless, the other powerful. Helplessness is a transitory condition; the ability to stand and walk on one’s own feet is the permanent and common one. (44-5)1
This stands it above the types of “natural” love – for children, family, animals – which are presented as less mature and developed. Brotherly love is proper to and practiced amongst humans, and in particular “brothers,” with all of the connotations of that metaphorical term.
Matters are made even worse by the inclusion of a whole section on “love of God.” Fromm was not a believer and made clear that he was presenting God as an abstract constellation representing love, justice, truth, and other prominent human values. But he proceeds in TAoL (and elsewhere) to discuss love of God as though it makes sense within his framework. This is completely bizarre when we take into account his frequent criticisms of a tendency toward abstraction in our culture and how it interferes with relatedness and contributes to – actually constitutes a form of - alienation.
To suggest that people should concern themselves with loving an abstraction (especially when it’s, circularly, supposed to be an abstraction of love!2) is bad enough, but it’s most disappointing in that this section could have been about biophilia. He never does talk specifically about what a mature, reason-based relationship with other animals and the rest of the natural world would look like; and the examples of such relationships he does offer, as I’ll show, are almost always incompatible with what he writes about loving relationships with other human beings.
So there are serious problems with Fromm’s typology-hierarchy of love, his inclusion of “love of God,” and his exclusion of nonhuman love. Fortunately, he offers an extended discussion of a practical approach to love which isn’t really bound in any meaningful way to his flawed concept of brotherly love, and this model is easily expandable. This expansion of his formulation, correcting for sexism and speciesism, is consistent with the most valid and useful aspects of his thinking about love – its emphasis on comprehensiveness and consistency across relationships and its focus on patterns of action and a general way of relating to the world.
The practice of love
Fromm saw loving as an art, a discipline, an approach to life. He thought that it could be understood with reason and that we could cultivate these talents within ourselves. Again, from his perspective it was needless to work on maintaining loving relationships with particular individuals, much less to try to “find love” with a particular person, if we weren’t willing to make our development as comprehensively loving people a central part of our lives, dedicating our lives to loving.
He described some general requirements – discipline, concentration, patience, courage, determination, activity, focus, the mastery of related skills, an effort to fight alienation – that I won’t spend time on here. Most important are what Fromm considers the four basic elements “common to all forms of love”: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge (24).
Four aspects of these fundamentals are central. First, they reflect Fromm’s conception of loving in active, practical, concrete terms rather than as a passive affect or an abstraction. Second, the four have to be practiced in concert – each complements the others and constrains or counteracts their potentially negative aspects. Third, arguably all but certainly the last two of the elements are epistemic in nature. (As I’ve argued, this makes the consideration and analysis of science and faith in relation to love both possible and essential.) Fourth, despite the problems with Fromm’s hierarchical taxonomy of forms of love, his basic description of love as a practice is not exclusive; it’s open to and in fact calls for the broadest application. So it doesn’t require any reworking of Fromm’s terms to break through his biases and to expand his ideas about the art of loving to include nonhuman animals.
The first fundamental element of love is care, or a concern for others which Fromm defines and describes in terms of concrete actions. He argues, for example, that people wouldn’t generally accept the claim of a mother (of course) to love her child if she neglected the child. He offers one good illustration that starts to take us back in the direction of biophilia:
It is not different even with the love for animals or flowers. If a woman told us that she loved flowers, and we saw that she forgot to water them, we would not believe in her ‘love’ for flowers. Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love. (25)
The use of single quotes around love in this case suggests, unfortunately, that the example is simply offered to illustrate the importance of care in action rather than reflecting a real inclusion of nonhuman animals in the sphere of love proper. (He then attempts a horrible illustration from the Old Testament – the story of Jonah and Nineveh.)
Related to this is the element of responsibility, “my response to the needs, expressed and unexpressed, of another human being.” “The loving person responds,” Fromm writes. “The life of his brother is not his brother’s business alone, but his own. He feels responsible for his fellow men, as he feels responsible for himself” (26).
The third essential element of love is respect. Fromm argues that practicing respect keeps care and responsibility from shading over into domination and possessiveness. He’s concerned to distinguish genuine respect from its authoritarian connotations: “Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere = to look at), the ability to see a person as he is” (26).
Respect is fundamentally incompatible with domination and exploitation:
I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me. If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use…. Respect exists only on the basis of freedom: ‘l’amour est l’enfant de la liberté’ as an old French song says; love is the child of freedom, never that of domination. (26-7)
Last, and of great interest here, there’s the element of knowledge. Fromm recognizes a positive motivation behind some cruel, destructive acts, as when children dissect animals to study them: “The child takes something apart, breaks it up in order to know it, to force its secret. The cruelty itself is motivated by something deeper: the wish to know the secret of things and of life” (28). But, repeatedly in TAoL and elsewhere, he emphasizes that knowledge, like respect, can’t emerge in relationships of domination and exploitation; true understanding “is possible only when I can transcend the concern for myself and see the other person in his own terms” (27). (As I discussed in a recent post, the history of the biological sciences provides evidence for this argument: our practices of domination and exploitation of nonhuman animals have fostered speciesist ideologies which have impeded the advance of knowledge about evolution and about animals, including ourselves.)
Developing real knowledge, the real understanding that forms an essential part of love, requires fighting narcissism and cultivating objectivity. This means recognizing and working to resist our tendency to distort our understanding of others in a manner in keeping with our perceived interests:
[T]he main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one.
…The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears. (109)
I must try to see the difference between my picture of a person and his behavior, as it is narcissistically distorted, and the person’s reality as it exists regardless of my interests, needs and fears. (111-12)
The concerns and concrete practices emphasized by Fromm as essential to loving relationships and a loving character are the fundamentals of science, and appreciating that is fairly urgent at a time when so many people want to contrast science’s so-called coldness and alienation with the alleged warmth of religion and argue that science needs to be “infused” with a spirit of compassion and care. Fromm is very explicit in TAoL about the necessity and fundamentality of the epistemic elements of love: “[L]ove being dependent on the relative absence of narcissism, it requires the development of humility, objectivity and reason. One’s whole life must be devoted to this aim” (111-12). The indispensability of humility, objectivity, and reason to love can’t be overstated, and it’s important to appreciate, especially when he launches into one of his extended mystical flights of fancy, how much of Fromm’s writing about the nature of love is actually about the scientific approach.
Fromm stresses the indivisibility of the four basic elements of love: “To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern” (27). (Reciprocally, real care and responsible concern for another being aren’t possible without knowledge of their specific qualities and needs; this is a key part of Rachels’ argument for “moral individualism” in Created from Animals.) He also emphasizes that the epistemic practices of love have to be comprehensively applied:
Humility and objectivity are indivisible, just as love is. I cannot be truly objective about my family if I cannot be objective about the stranger, and vice versa. If I want to learn the art of loving, I must strive for objectivity in every situation, and become sensitive to the situations in which I am not objective. (111-12)
To have acquired the capacity for objectivity and reason is half the road to achieving the art of loving, but it must be acquired with regard to everybody with whom one comes in contact. If someone would want to reserve his objectivity, and think he can dispense with it in his relationships to the rest of the world, he will soon discover that he fails both here and there. (111-12)
No areas of belief are exempt, and I’ve written about the many problems with attempts to cordon off religion from these requirements. By the same token, no relationships are exempt. If the stress is on cultivating habits of love and a loving orientation, practicing nonloving relationships with regard to some is going to interfere with the development of these capacities.
Of course, the cultivation of humility, objectivity, and reason isn’t limited to the formal institutions or spaces of science, nor does it mean approaching our life and relationships as a laboratory. This would be contrary to Fromm’s vision. It’s a shame that objectivity is so often seen as a detachment from others and the hardhearted treatment of them as objects. That arrogant idea is the opposite of what Fromm’s saying: the objectivity at the heart of love isn’t about being detached from others, but about trying our best in practice to detach our perception of them from our own biases and perceived interests.
Fromm didn’t follow his arguments through to their logical conclusion or fully pursue their implications, was inconsistent concerning the scope of application of the practices of love, and often fell back into conventional patterns of thought that saw loving in exclusively human terms, and these problems need to be addressed. But his arguments about love in general lead ineluctably to the conclusion – as he recognizes elsewhere when he talks about biophilic vs. necrophilic orientations - that loving practices based on these four basic elements have to be given the widest possible scope, and not reserved for one species any more than for one group or nation.
In order to realize this expanded vision, we need to think about biophilia in concrete terms and to address the aspects of Fromm’s and others’ thinking that work against the expansion. I’ll be doing that in future posts.
Love and the need for social change
“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.” - TAoL, 121-2
As I mentioned previously, Fromm didn’t see this or his other works as self-help manuals, and consciously worked to fight that potential misconception. The cultivation of a loving approach is, he recognized, “inseparably connected with the social realm” (119). He was quite plain about the fact that he saw our culture (he had a frustrating tendency to conflate “secular” culture with capitalism) as hostile to love:
[T]he capacity to love in an individual being in any given culture depends on the influence this culture has on the character of the average person. If we speak about love in contemporary Western culture, we mean to ask whether the social structure of Western civilization and the spirit resulting from it are conducive to the development of love. To raise the question is to answer it in the negative. No objective observer of our Western life can doubt that love - brotherly love, motherly love, and erotic love - is a relatively rare phenomenon, and that its place is taken by a number of forms of pseudo-love which are in reality so many forms of the disintegration of love. (77)
This being the case, “People capable of love, under the present system, are necessarily the exceptions; love is by necessity a marginal phenomenon in present-day Western society” (122). This marginalization comes with familiar difficulties and choices: how can people live by the principles of love and also make their way in the world as it is? People who appreciate the culture’s basic hostility to love can try to separate themselves as far as possible from “secular concerns,” as was the choice of “the Christian monks, and by persons like Tolstoi, Albert Schweitzer, and Simone Weil” (120-1). Or they can become cynical, arguing that “to speak of love today means only to participate in the general fraud” (120-1). But Fromm believed that loving could be practiced at the margins and in the interstices of society that allow for it – the culture is hostile to love, but that doesn’t mean there are no refuges for it.
He argued that “important and radical changes in our social structure are necessary, if love is to become a social and not a highly individualistic, marginal phenomenon” (122). This requires large-scale collective action, but Fromm was optimistic about the possibilities for change because he regarded love as “the ultimate and real need in every human being.” “That this need has been obscured,” he argued, “does not mean that it does not exist” (123). In his view, any society that failed to provide the conditions for the fulfillment of this deep, powerful need for love was doomed to fail in the long run, and movements that do appreciate this fundamental need and what its fulfillment makes possible would have a great chance at success. Therefore, “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” (123).
1As I’ll discuss in a future post, this breaks down completely when he writes of erotic love. He insists that this is not a love of equals so much as a meeting of opposite poles, and even criticizes those visions of equality that reject this concept of essentialized, complementary polarities. This leads him to some of his most sexist statements as well as to some stupid conclusions about homosexuality, and is entirely inconsistent with his emphasis on loving another meaning loving in them all others, including yourself, and the shared sense of identity this brings. This sort of thinking was toned down, though not eliminated, in his later works.
2In To Have or To Be? Fromm specifically criticizes the abstracting of “love” itself.