by Andreas Matthias: What keeps us from finding happiness in love?
The philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm believes that the main source of pain and anxiety for human beings comes from the feeling of separateness from others. To overcome this loneliness, men have tried many different rituals and relationship forms, but the only true way out is love. For Fromm, real love is based on care, responsibility for the other person, respect and knowledge of the other.
Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” has been a classic in the philosophy and psychology of love since it was first published in 1956. It’s a highly readable, provocative and insightful book that might just change the way you look at love.
Why do we need love?
Love is perhaps the most powerful force that shapes both our history and the tales we tell. The historical love affair of Antony and Cleopatra sealed the fate of Egypt as a province of ancient Rome. The love between the priest Abelard and his student Heloise shocked the Middle Ages just as the affair between Bill Clinton and Miss Lewinsky or Prince Charles and Camilla did in our times.
As the psychologist he is, Erich Fromm is first interested in the question why people even need love. What is this thing called love, as the song goes, and why are we all so passionately after it, often being willing to give up our lives, to destroy our careers, even to kill ourselves for the sake of it?
We are afraid of loneliness, is Fromm’s answer, of separateness. Regular readers of this newsletter will remember that Fromm had used a very similar argument to explain why we are so willing to give up our freedom and to let ourselves be dominated and enslaved by the various constraints that capitalism and authoritarian societies impose on us. It was the same fear of separateness there as it is here, in the case of love.
Men, says Fromm, have awareness of themselves.
The experience of separateness arouses anxiety. It is, Fromm says, the source of all anxiety.
In his retelling of the Biblical creation story, Fromm emphasises just this aspect: after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they are now separated from the nature around them – and aware of that separation. Although together, they are still separated by the difference of their sexes, and this separation is unbearable because they have not yet learned to love each other. This, Fromm says, we can see in that the first thing Adam does when asked to defend himself, is to accuse Eve instead of stand by her side.
For Fromm, there are a number of solutions that human societies have historically employed to solve the problem of separateness.
As long as we are babies, the union with the mother provides a way out of the anxiety of separateness. Some cultures have orgiastic rituals, often with the support of drugs, that serve the same purpose. Arguably, the same could be said (although Fromm does not mention it) for our society’s dance clubs, where the guests can overcome the feeling of separation by participating in the shared ritual of ecstatic dancing, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs that help blur the reality of separateness.
The sexual act itself can be, Fromm says, a way to overcome separateness. Unfortunately, all these different ways are intense, violent and short lived. They are transitory and periodical (p.12), which means that their effect comes and goes soon after, requiring us to make the same experience again and again in order to re-experience the state of connection to others.
A more stable way to overcome separateness in the long run is conformity with a group of people who share interests, opinions or behaviours with us. In Western societies, Fromm says, we are not even aware of our need to conform, yet we do, by eliminating all differences between us . This can happen in the form of having the same taste as others, of wearing the same “fashionable” clothes, of following the same political party or conspiracy theory, of eating the same food, or of sharing the same materialistic goals in life.
We can see today how powerful this effect can be by looking at the passion with which people are willing to follow marginalised conspiracy theories and the groups that promote them. Proud Boys, anti-vaxxers, flat-Earthers, Covid-deniers, climate-change-deniers and a multitude of other groups actually thrive under the pressure of being attacked and sidelined from the outside. The more mainstream society rejects these groups, the more their members can feel the strength of the bond that their shared beliefs create between them – and that provide, for those who are part of these groups, a way to overcome separateness, to escape the pain of loneliness and to find a home and a family inside the group.
This kind of union by conformity is not only calm, it is also permanent. But it has one drawback: it does not involve the body, only the mind, and is therefore not completely satisfactory.
A better way to overcome separateness could be creativity. Fromm says that originality and creativity help humans unite with the universe around them. But modern work has made creativity impossible. In modern work settings, almost no one is allowed to be creative – and here we are back at Fromm’s Marxist roots. Marx himself thought that the world of work in capitalism necessarily alienates the worker from the work. Fromm agrees: The factory worker of today has only the conformity, not the creativity of the work.
In the end, all these different approaches are doomed to fail for one reason or another. The only really good way of overcoming separateness, for Fromm, is love. So love is the best answer, the most reliable and easy to achieve, to the eternal, basic problem of human existence: how to overcome the fundamental separateness of human beings from each other and the anxiety that this separateness causes.
Pathological love and good love
But not all loves are created equal. Fromm the psychologist looks around our societies and identifies multiple forms of love that are “pathological” in that they are incomplete and they don’t provide stable solutions to the problem of loneliness. Some examples of such pathological loves would be: The symbiotic union of mother and fetus; masochism and submission as passive forms of symbiosis; and sadism as the active form. In a way, the sadist and masochist depend on each other and therefore can, for a while, overcome their separateness. But in sticking together to the exclusion of others, what they achieve is not love but, as Fromm says, “egotism a deux” (egotism for two). They enlarge the lonely individual to encompass the both of them – but they are still alone, still separated from the world outside. This applies also to any erotic love relationship, in which the lovers just want to be together to the exclusion of everyone else. This, too, is an egotism for two, Fromm says, not real love.
At the basis of this failure to love is, and this will not surprise us now, people’s orientation towards the mode of “having”. In Western society (or in capitalism, which Fromm seems to use interchangeably), we value possessions more than anything else. But striving for possessions is, for Fromm, fundamentally opposed to the idea of love, which is based on giving rather than hoarding.
Even the sexual act, Fromm emphasises, is based on the giving – not only of pleasure, but also of the seed of the man, of intimacy, of time, attention and many other things. As its result, the woman will in turn “give birth” to a child, which she will give to the world. None of that is based on possessing and trying to keep something for oneself.
But if love is giving, then the even better love would be one that is even more unconditionally giving: the Christian love towards others, no matter whether these others can give something back to us. Caritas, charity, is the love that gives without qualification or reason, and this is the purest and least selfish form of love. And, not surprisingly, this is also what Fromm considers to be a part of life in the “mode of being.”
The elements of (true) love
True love, for Fromm, should not be confused with romantic sentimentality. Sentimental love, similar to the courtly love of the Middle Ages, is love that does not see the responsibility of the lover as a necessary component of the relationship, but just idealizes the other party and therefore becomes dream-like and unreal.
Real love, then, is based on: care, responsibility for the other person, respect and knowledge of the other.
Care begins with the mother/child relationship in infancy and extends throughout life. Lovers care for each other’s benefit, and every act of charity is a kind of care (“charity” and “care” come from the same Latin root, caritas).
Responsibility is an important part of grown-up love for Fromm. Responsibility means to be the one who responds to the needs of the beloved. But responsibility can become domination, if it is without respect. This is why respect is another important part of love, and, in turn, respect requires knowledge of the person and what is important to them. I cannot respect someone I don’t know.
And therefore, the four factors depend on each other and only together they can produce the phenomenon of true, grown-up love that is fulfilling, non-exclusive, and able to finally overcome our separateness with the world and the anxiety that this separateness causes.