The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm
Envy, jealousy, ambition, any kind of greed are passions; love is an action, the practice of a human power, which can be practiced only in freedom and never as the result of a compulsion (P. 21).
In our society of post-industrial consumer capitalism, the notion of love has come to be identified and mythologized through the commoditization of what we think love should look like. Advertisements, television, music, and movies lead us to believe that if we buy our significant other a Hallmark greeting card, a dozen red roses, a box of Godiva chocolates, an expensive dinner, and a diamond ring that this will mean that we truly love them. This gesture of love may or not be genuine, but all of the noticeable signifiers have been enabled to allow the thought of love to creep into the relationship.
But is this really love? Is love even possible in an environment where people themselves have been turned into commodities that can be bought and sold? These are the questions the famed psychoanalyst Erich Fromm sought to engage in his landmark book, The Art of Loving. Dr. Fromm argues that love is still possible, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to realize thanks to the march of capitalism. In this essay, I will discuss his reasoning and why I tend to agree with his thesis.
In this book, Dr. Fromm lays out what he finds to be the five types of love: brotherly love, motherly love, self-love, the love of God, and erotic love. All of these types of love are being threatened as people become debased and isolated from one another as a result of rabid over-consumption. He argues that people are becoming narcissistic to a point of no return, where our motherly love and our love of self is being destroyed by selfishness and possessiveness. Our love for God has been replaced by an idolatry substitute. If we cannot truly love ourselves then it is impossible to love others, whether for our fellow human beings or for romantic eroticism. These types of love are no longer recognizable as such because people are too self involved and debased from love to have the maturity that it requires (Pp. 99-123). We are caught it a cycle of pseudo-loving that we may not even know is not really love in its truest essence.
That being said, all hope is not lost; it is just much harder to find. In this vein, Dr. Fromm injects the possibility for love through ‘discipline, concentration, patience, and a supreme concern for mastering love’ (P.124). In this spirit, love is an art form that can be learned under the right conditions and ‘mastered’ through the best techniques and genuine trust. What we need is to do away with the marketer’s concept of love and replace it with a love for loving’s sake; a love with no ulterior motives that does not take objective shortcuts in the name of subjective desire.
Dr. Fromm notes an important distinction to be made about the maturity that is necessary to accomplish real love, “Immature love says, “I love you because I need you.” Mature love says, “I need you because I love you.” This is subtle point that is central to coming to terms with how and why we should love. The name of love should not be invoked as just another next step on the social ladder to capitalistic success. Love should be considered as existing as a part of the realm of altruism and mutual respect:
Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness. (P. 21-22).
In this sentiment, we escape the morbidity of commodification only through the enlivening spirit of giving happiness, not only for others, but for ourselves as well.
The Art of Loving has much to say about our current living conditions. We exist under a banner of liberty but we are not really living freedom until we can cut through the clutter of capitalism to reach the core of our maturity. We can produce to consume all the things in the world and we will still be empty if we do not heed the warnings of Dr. Fromm’s wisdom that was written over fifty years ago: Love keeps us alive but buying love is living death.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000.