by Ben Best
Eric Fromm's book THE ART OF LOVING purports to be a manual for the heart. Fromm is a prototypic fuzzy-headed Socialist Humanist Liberal. Reading Fromm evokes within me feelings of irritation & hostility rather than love. Much of the irritation comes from his monumental incapacity for logical thinking. At times I feel that he must disdain logic, but this is probably a symptom of my inability to empathize with his logical blindness.
It is probably true that a truly loving person will sacrifice truth & logic at a moment's notice for the sake of love. I may represent the opposite extreme and have probably suffered as a consequence (though I don't mean to flatter myself — I have a host of other self-defeating hangups). Oblivious to logic, Fromm is like an educated monkey at a typewriter free-associating every possible statement he can make about love — though with a Marxist bias. And like the monkey, many of the things he says are true.
In the section of his book on what he calls "Erotic Love" (which I have rendered "Romantic Love") Fromm appears to be making an argument from premises to conclusion. The conclusion doesn't really flow from the premises like a tight syllogism, but the pattern appears to be there. As an intellectual exercise I have tried to isolate four premises and the conclusion from the argument and have constructed a counterargument. Yes, I am attacking a straw man — the real Fromm contradicts himself without inhibition or consciousness from statement to statement, despite superficial resemblances of logical argumentation. But aside from changing "Erotic" to "Romantic" I do not believe I am misrepresenting him. The first sentence of the last paragraph of the section is: "Taking these views into account one may arrive at the position that love is exclusively an act of will and commitment, and that therefore fundamentally it does not matter who the two people are."
In outline, the argument is as follows:
PREMISE1: Romantic love has an exclusiveness lacking in brotherly love and motherly love
PREMISE2: Romantic love is a fusion and commitment
PREMISE3: Love is an act of will
PREMISE4: All human beings are identical
CONCLUSION: For romantic love, it does not matter who the two persons are
(return to contents)
As a purported Humanist, Fromm would do better to use non-sexist terms, such as parental love, sibling love and love for friends. He would also do better not to make statements so patently false to any child.
Fromm is wrong to say exclusivity is lacking in parental love. There is a strong exclusivity to the caring of a parent for his or her personal children as distinct from all of the other children in the world. Children feel quite differently toward their own parents in contrast to adult strangers.
Even the love of friends has an appreciation of specialness as an important component. This specialness can be viewed as an exclusivity. To remove the exclusivity would be to diminish the specialness. It is true, however, that the exclusivity of friendship — as with the intensity of feeling — is usually not as strong in friendship as in romantic love. (Perhaps Fromm feels that romantic love amongst his friends has diminished the time they spend with him.)
The tone of Fromm's statement implies that exclusivity makes romantic love an undesirable form of love — contradicting the more positive use of romantic love in the second premise and in the conclusion. Exclusivity of love can be faulted by Marxist Humanist moralists who demand that everyone love all people and love all people equally. But it is untrue to claim that the exclusivity of romantic love diminishes the love those lovers give to selected others. "All the world loves a lover" and a happy lover usually feels more loving toward others in general because of that happiness.
Romantic love is the deepest and most intense form of love. In particular, romantic love touches the ego and puts the ego at risk. Exclusivity is a desire to protect those deep feelings — feelings that may require safety. The protective quality of the exclusivity of romantic love can make the exclusivity a good thing. Exclusivity is often negatively associated with insecurity, jealousy and the desire to possess another person. But it can be gratifying to feel intensely wanted — possessed — even though such love feels more like a "taking love" than a "giving love" (being "taken" is only unpleasant if one does not want to be "taken"). If romantic love is not given a safe place to grow it may not grow at all.
(return to contents)
The purpose of marriage is to institutionalize the feelings of romantic love into a fusion and a commitment. The feelings of romantic love often leads to a desire for fusion and commitment, but it is a mistake to confuse a desire for a goal with the goal itself.
Of course, the literal fusion of two human beings is not possible if they are to remain alive. Fusion is a figurative word to describe the desire of two people to be very close, much closer than either of them are to any other person (exclusivity). Both sexual intercourse and the institution of marriage can, however, make the two seem to be a unit. That this desire for exclusive closeness is so frequently and intensely associated with romantic love argues strongly against the conclusion that either of the two participants in romantic love would be indifferent concerning the identity of the other partner.
Again, romantic love is a feeling leading to the desire for a commitment. Again, it is wrong to confuse the desire for a goal with the goal itself. Having obtained romantic love, people frequently attempt to secure that love for the rest of their lives. In marriage vows, people promise to love each other until death. A declaration "I am loving you this moment, but may not be loving you in the next" does not communicate strong feeling — even if the statement is true. The intensity of love feelings commonly makes the person having such feelings believe that those feelings are permanent and to desire permanence of love feelings from the beloved. Even if true, permanence of feeling is not a commitment — because commitment is an act of will, not a feeling.
It is easier — although not much easier — to agree to remain in a marriage than to guarantee future feelings of love for the duration of one's life. Love may not last and the commitment to love can easily be broken. But feelings are not always as labile as Fromm imagines them to be. If there is permanence to love, it would be due to the constancy of emotional response to the beloved rather than an act of willpower by the lover. Does Fromm believe that there is no one so lovable — that love can only be sustained by an act of will?
Parental love can lead to at least as much commitment as romantic love. But love is still a feeling rather than a commitment. There are parents who do not feel love for their children while nonetheless accepting the commitment and responsibility they have assumed for parental care. (Of course, there are parents who do not have the love, the commitment or the sense of responsibility.) Again, love is distinct from commitment and to believe otherwise is wishful thinking.
Friendship too can involve enduring loyalty — because of ongoing mutual appreciation rather than willpower.
(return to contents)
If love is an act of will, why do people choose to love one person rather than another? It begs the question to answer that one person is more lovable. This premise is essential for Fromm's conclusion because if love is an act of will then one can as easily choose to love one person as another. Fromm's assertion is a manifestation of his Procrustean desire to force human beings into his Humanist ideology. He is blind to the facts of reality — and his blindness is an act of the will of an Ideologue.
The erotic response and the love response are not under volitional control, although volitional influence is possible. An erection or tumescence is not an act of will. People often can give reasons for why they love another, but people do not usually decide to love someone on the basis of reasons. Reasons can often cause a person to stop loving, but reasons are not sufficient to cause a person to start loving. Love is a feeling that can come or go (or be lasting), however much we may wish to be able to control it.
Affirmations are a popular tool for attempting to create emotions out of sheer will-power. This attempt at self-propagandization bears a strong resemblance to the tendentious emotional ideology that permeates Fromm's writing. But it is self-defeating. Love cannot be both a feeling and an act of will. Any attempt to bring love under total control will cause love to wither and die. Emotion from propaganda and dictatorship leads to a cold fascism of the heart — not love.
(return to contents)
This assertion is ideological nonsense. Anyone with open eyes can discern that there is a significant difference between Jack the Ripper and Florence Nightingale. If all people are identical we might as well open the prisons and abolish the criminal justice system because there is no difference between criminals and law-abiding citizens. We might as well abolish schools since there can be no difference between educated people and uneducated people. There would be no point in reading one book rather than another since the authors are identical and can only say the same thing in the same way.
Of all of the premises, this premise is the most crucial for Fromm's conclusion. And, significantly, this premise is the most erroneous. Romantic love is the most deeply personal response we can have to the unique (non-identical) characteristics of another person. For heterosexual love, the non-identicalness of male and female are an essential feature of the makings of a complementary pair.
Many people can feel a general love for humanity ("agape love"). But this form of love does not require that people be identical. In fact, it is the differentness of people that gives them character and makes them interesting. What a bland world it would be if people were identical — and how much less lovable people would be. Only an Ideologue who lives in fear that one person might be more loved or lovable than another would make the claim that all human beings are identical or believe that this claim is a positive thing to say.
Fromm may believe that people need to be identical in order to empathize with each other. But the uniqueness of each individual would be a greater inspiration.
(return to contents)
Instead of living in his Ivory Tower of Ideology, Eric Fromm should talk to some real people about real feelings. He should ask them — married couples and lovers — whether the identity of their marriage partner or lover really matters. Being married to the wrong person is much worse than not being married at all.
If Fromm were honest enough to hear the answer his Belief System would tumble like the house of cards it is. Fromm is an archetype of an idealistic thinker who imagines the way he believes people should be and then deludes himself — and tries to delude others — into believing that people are that way. Idealism can be admirable when it acknowledges true conditions and advocates change, but Fromm is not enough of a realist to take this approach.
And Fromm's ideal is flawed. Yes, romantic love is the most profoundly exclusive, personal and even selfish form of love. But even in its most selfish form romantic love does not diminish other forms of love or rob the world of love. Attempts to blast apart romantic love with high explosives is destructive, rather than a breaking of barriers. Deep personal love can be a very frightening, risky matter to many people. Such love may need a safe, protected place to live, to be nurtured and to grow — may need walls of exclusivity.
So not only does it matter who the two people are in romantic love, it matters that the love is exclusive. And it matters that love is a feeling rather than an act of will.
(For a positive exposition of my views about love, see my essay Some Philosophizing About Love).
(return to contents)