The Art of Loving - A Ramble on Chapters 1–2.1


This month, Cleo is hosting a readalong of The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm and On Friendship by Cicero. It's a sequel to the Four Loves Readalong - which feels recent but was actually back in June(!!).  Fromm and C. S. Lewis were contemporaries (and Lewis's book was published just four years later), so it adds interest to see how their perspectives correspond or differ.  I'm also looking forward to Cicero, as I haven't read many ancient classics.

You can find the full schedule on Cleo's post.  I felt the need to break down my check-ins a little more, so this one will cover the first 1 1/3 chapters.

Chapter 1, "Is Love an Art?"

Fromm opens with his short but pithy thesis - that love is not just a flurry of feelings, but an actual scientific art, like music or medicine, which must be learned and practiced.

He posits three interrelated societal problems.  First, culture is overly focused on the state of "being loved," particularly for superficial reasons, instead of giving love.  Second, people are misguided in thinking they need only to find the right person to love, rather than determine how best to love someone.  This quote from J. R. R. Tolkien comes to mind:
Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the 'real soul-mate' is the one you are actually married to.  - Tolkien, Letters, 51-52
(I do not know if I agree with this...but, it's memorable.)

Fromm's third point is that people will not put in the work - or do not understand how - to sustain a state of love, being obsessed instead with the romanticized concept of falling in love.  Of such a couple, he adds, rather cynically:
...they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being "crazy" about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.
There is much truth in this first chapter; in spite of that, my gut reaction was not positive.   Fromm is right in that love is sacrificial and requires effort and even strategy.  He is right in that people often let their heady feelings carry them away without any logic or wisdom. On the other hand, I would regret for someone to read this and then conclude they could simply "self-help" their way to a good relationship.  I think it takes more than that.

Fromm describes the action of love as polar in the next chapter, but I see the state of love as being polar as well.  To paraphrase my comment on Cleo's post - I believe a relationship needs both the "infatuation" and the "art," just as a country needs both heart/culture and good laws/policy.  In some cases, I think this can sustain a relationship, especially where love is not reciprocated.  More on that in the next section...

Chapter 2.1, "Love, the Answer to the Problem of Human Existence"

Here we get into Jordan Peterson-esque territory.  Fromm examines the issue of human isolation, which is directly contrary to our innate desire for unity with others.  Humans will do anything to escape the feeling of separation, from allowing themselves to be dominated by an aggressor to sadistically forcing others into submission to themselves.  Sometimes this takes a purely voluntary form:
...the democratic societies show an overwhelming degree of conformity.  The reason lies in the fact that there has to be an answer to the quest for union, and if there is no other or better way, then the union of herd conformity becomes the predominant one.
The tragedy is that we believe we are individualistic.  But as Fromm so relevantly observes, we are so eager to identify ourselves by group labels, such as our political party, our handbag designers, and our charitable organizations. 

On the same note, he addresses the concepts of mental/metaphysical masculinity and femininity and his belief that certain "masculine" or "feminine" traits, while present in both genders, exist in higher ratios in one or the other.  I can't remember if it was Lewis, Wollstonecraft, or Peterson (or someone else) who said something similar, but I've read that elsewhere and do not find it very convincing.  He suggests this polarity is necessary in love, and where we lose our differences, we lose individuality and the kind of connection that is established by attraction rather than force or conformity.

But back to the "problem" of human existence.  Fromm sees love as the only healthy option to solve the issue of loneliness (the non-healthy option being sadism).  Here I do agree with him.  From a Christian perspective, mankind needs God's Love and nothing else will fill our emptiness.

Need-Love was a theme in Lewis's book, and I am not sure Fromm recognizes it here.  Rather, he seems to be focused on what Lewis called Gift-Love.  Fromm breaks gift-love down into four common elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.

Love as a Means or an End?

There is a lot I could say about this chapter, but I want to zoom in on this statement, where Fromm qualifies gift-love by its reception and mirroring:
If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune.
To me this is an understandable perspective, but problematic.

Several years ago I read Works of Love by Kierkegaard, which was a life-changing experience - I actually didn't blog about it because I didn't quite know how.  Anyways, this one thought of his has always lived with me since then:
Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle again.

In the spirit of "love your enemies," what Kierkegaard is saying is that even unrequited love has value.  If his love is not returned, he would not call his love "impotent" or a "misfortune," because the love itself has an inherent, inseparable value that is not altered by the response of the recipient.  It may change the relationship, but it will not undermine your sacrifice.

There are times the relationship must change or even end, for the wellbeing of one person or both.  But if the relationship can reasonably stay intact, continuing to love the other person could be the one link to bring the two people back together on the other side. 

Comments

Brian Joseph said…
So many fascinating things here. Like yourself I agree with some things that the author says and I disagree with other things. One thing that I agree with is that love takes work. I think that I would like to read this book.
mudpuddle said…
i recall seeing it in the stores when it first came out but that's all i know about it other than your informative post... maybe some day, but i doubt it... after being married for forty years, it's easier doing than reading about it haha...
Another excellent summarization, Marian! You make it look easy!

As for needing both the "infatuation" and the "art", I'm at a point in my life where I'm seeing many relationships break up; the "infatuation" is long gone and the "art" has not been practiced. I do think there are some couples who are simply lucky and are able to maintain a type of "infatuation" but it's rare and I'm not sure how essiential it is to the relationship. I do agree with Fromm that the practice of the art is missing in many relationships. I think it is Lewis who said if you simply do something, with practice the feelings will follow.

I wonder if Kierkegaard is talking about a God-type love, where you may have a relationship where one partner is not willing to work but if the other loves anyway, it is seen as positive because a person is showing love and a God-type love at that. Fromm seems to be concentrating on love from the aspect of what will make relationships work (or at least so far). So perhaps he's coming at it from a different angle than Kierkegaard; in a healthy relationship, both have to work at it.

I have a feeling Fromm is going to frustrate you more as we go along but we'll see .... Thanks so much for being part of the read-along. I always benefit from your insightful thoughts! :-)
Marian H said…
Brian - It's a short book (180 pages) but substantial content, well worth the time. :)

Mudpuddle - That's an amazing milestone! I would imagine you would have a really full perspective on this kind of book and its ideas.

Cleo - It actually takes me hours to write these relatively short posts, hehe. :) I've been so enjoying this readalong series; it gets me out of my lane and into something new!

It seems like personal experience is (understandably) foundational to how we all view these topics. I actually am enjoying Fromm more than Lewis so far, perhaps *because* of the frustration/thought-provocation. :) As for Kierkegaard, I need to re-read the book, but IIRC, he tended to view love as a spectrum of one type (the godly-like love you describe) and applied it to all relationships, as opposed to Lewis or Fromm.
Stephen said…
I'm kind of amazed that other people have heard of Erich Fromm, let alone read him! The Art of Loving, or specificially one of its chapters, changed my life. The essay on having versus being really clarified my unease with consumerism -- its spiritual aspects, I guess. It was an interesting contribution given Fromm's secularism -- and my ARDENT secularism at the time. I was a college-age Dawkins impersonator, heh.
Marian H said…
Would that be his other book, The Art of Being? Either way I'll look into it! I think Fromm came from a Jewish background which influenced his outlook.

It's wonderful when the right book or person comes along to give you a new perspective. That's how I felt about Kierkegaard's book. I guess I should update my "axes" list...

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