Reviewed by Aimee Roebuck-Johnson
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: HarperCollins, Harper Perennial Modern Classics (50th anniversary edition). 2006. ISBN: 978-0061129735. 184 pages.
It is safe to say that, as a human being, you have spent at least some part of your life waiting for, searching for, experiencing, enjoying, and suffering somehow because of love (or the lack of it). Your pursuit of love may have taken place in the context of a family, a relationship with another person, your allegiance to a country, or your understanding of God. For a moment, consider your definition or description of love. How did you know where and how to look for it? How did you know that the love you were searching for would come or had already come to you? Has your concept of love ever disappointed you?
In his book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm gives theoretical descriptions and practical applications of love in the widest sense of the word, descriptions and applications that are anything but shallow and trite. He describes the deepest roots of our yearning for love. Understanding these roots makes one’s pursuit of love a purposeful effort with a purposeful result, rather than just hoping to win some “love lottery”.
Erich Fromm was a German-American psychologist and philosopher who lived through 80 years of the 20th century. His writings touched on issues that have occupied the minds of thinkers throughout the ages and define the essence of being human: morality, reason, love, among others. The Art of Loving, published in 1956, was his most popular book. His analysis of the roots of love starts with the moment of defines humanity, which is also humanity’s most essential problem: “Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man…” (page 6). The problem, according to the author, is that this awareness creates the understanding of one’s separation and isolation from the world and from other human beings. Part of this troubling knowledge is that humans know of their past and understand that a future exists, a future that contains their own death.
Understanding and experiencing this isolation causes deep and painful feelings. Whether conscious of it or not, humans, in the very core of their beings, crave relief from these feelings. They spend their lives trying to find something that will solve the root problem of being essentially separated from other people. People today are no different than those who have come before them, trying all kinds of potential solutions for this problem, applying their energies to solutions humanitarian, religious, profane, and creative.
Fromm makes a compelling argument that the kind of love that can solve our existential problems can be described both by what it is and what it is not. Describing what love is, he suggests that love is the answer to this problem of human existence, the only answer that is satisfactory and sane. Of course, depending on one’s understanding of love, this answer can sound shallow and trite.
When describing what deeply-transforming love is not, the author says that people often believe that love is an object (usually a person) to be pursued or possessed. Fromm writes that, especially in Western societies, “being lovable is essentially a mixture of being popular and having sex appeal” (page 2) and that the two parties who are “falling in love” are operating out of the mindset that they are participating in “a mutually favorable exchange”(page 2). As time passes, the favorability of this exchange (attractiveness, tastes, intensity of feeling, etc.) is bound to change, causing the parties to “fall out of love”.
The powerful metaphor that Fromm offers is of love as an art. If love is an art, he says that “it requires knowledge and effort” (page 1). No one can become a master at anything overnight. Even if a person carries within himself the promise and talent of a master, he must still persevere through many thousands of hours of learning and practice to demonstrate the skill. Only after this mastery, will he find the practice deeply satisfying and even easy.
In short, Erich Fromm believes that love is not a noun or object, but a verb or practice. How you practice love with those around you depends on your approach and understanding of the existential problems of your life and, at the same time, determines the wholeness you will experience as a human being. In a more practical sense, reading The Art of Loving can give you tools to help you get out of the rut of disappointment and pain that your previous approach to love has kept you in. Changing your game may be just what you need!