Erich Fromm

The Art of Loving

“Love is not a sentiment easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. All his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries to actively develop his total personality.”

In 1955 American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a poet who pressed colossal emotion into each line (defying T. S. Eliot’s flat conviction that poetry is the absence of emotion) gave us a beautifully tender “Song”, a poem of love.

The weight of the world
is love.
Under the burden
of solitude.
under the burden
of dissatisfaction.

the weight
the weight we carry
is love.

Who can deny?
In dreams
it touches
the body,
in thought
a miracle
in imagination
till born
in human

From Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Song”

Managing that love, thought Ginsberg, directing it, shielding its tender bud is the art of life. The acts of which are embodied in our simple, daily interactions and in the most defining recesses of existence.

“Love requires knowledge and effort” agreed German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980), his most memorable work The Art of Loving echoing Ginsberg’s howl of need.

Loving requires action towards others and action within ourselves.

“Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love” continues Fromm, rejecting love’s popular usage:

The two persons become well-acquainted their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, 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.

This attitude – that nothing is easier than to love – has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love. If this were the case with any other activity, people would be eager to know the reasons for the failure, and to learn how one could do better – or they would give up the activity. Since the latter is impossible in the case of love, there seems to be only one adequate way to overcome the failure of love to examine the reasons for this failure, and to proceed to study the meaning of love.

“Under the burden of solitude” springs love, wrote Ginsberg. Love grows from the most places and locales of being.1

Love is imperative, a burden, if you will, because it is the only antidote to the dehumanizing separateness.

Fromm continues:

Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside.

This separateness stretches from core to tips and throughout time. It stretches from van Gogh who feared and mourned an unattended fire in his soul, to rockstar Amanda Palmer who stated perfectly “All humans want to be seen; it’s a basic need.”

Fromm continues:

The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety. Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world – things and people – actively; it means that the world can invade me without my ability to react. Thus, separateness is the source of intense anxiety. Beyond that, it arouses shame and the feeling of guilt.

Love, argues Fromm, is the substance that mitigates this separateness, that calls together a unity of kin that overpowers the shame. Fromm distinguishes between five types of love, quite mutually exclusive in meaning and object but all requiring the weighty action.

Brotherly Love

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbour as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterised by its very lack of exclusiveness.

If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers.

In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human at-onement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core.

Illustration for Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" in the Examined Life Library.
Brotherly love. Illustration by Ana-Maria Grigoriu for The Examined Life.
A love that demands as its threshold a seeing of another’s core is one that we are least primed to exhibit. But here we are, all human, all wanting, all separate, and all needing love. When in doubt, begin there, begin with that.

Brotherly love commands overwhelming empathy, care, nurture, and space. What it takes is equally matched vulnerability and strength. Both are exceptionally difficult when the recipients are distant, removed and remote from our known lives.

Motherly Love

In contrast to brotherly love and erotic love which are love between equals, the relationship of mother and child is by its very nature one of inequality, where one needs all the help, and the other gives it. It is for this altruistic, unselfish character that motherly love has been considered the highest kind of love, and the most sacred of all emotional bonds. It seems, however, that the real achievement of motherly love lies not in the mother’s love for the small infant, but in her love for the growing child.

Although I am a mother and have a mother, I think of motherly love as a much more expansive thing than that which is embodied in a single being. Like Charlie Mackesy’s Horse who kisses us with “Life is difficult but you are loved” or Twyla Tharp’s need for warmth to birth her creativity.

Illustration for Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" in the Examined Life Library.
Motherly love. Illustration by Ana-Maria Grigoriu for The Examined Life.
Motherly love is everywhere (and need not be confined to the female or even a parent), it’s a warm feeling of home, it is, for me, everything ever written by Stephen Fry, Anna Deavere Smith or Rainer Maria Rilke.

Erotic Love

The most misunderstood, Fromm might say, is that love which can connect and separate us to and from another human being.

In erotic love there is an exclusiveness which is lacking in brotherly love and motherly love. This exclusive character of erotic love warrants some further discussion. Frequently the exclusiveness of erotic love is misinterpreted as meaning possessive attachment. One can often find two people in love with each other who feel no love for anybody else. Their love is, in fact, an egotism à deux; they are two people who identify themselves with each other, and who solve the problem of separateness by enlarging the single individual into two. They have the experience of overcoming aloneness, yet since they are separated from the rest of mankind, they remain separated from each other and alienated from themselves; their experience of union is an illusion.

Erotic love is exclusive, but it loves in the other person all of mankind, all that is alive. It is exclusive only in the sense that I can fuse myself fully and intensely with one person only. Erotic love excludes the love for others only in the sense of erotic fusion, full commitment in all aspects of life — but not in the sense of deep brotherly love.

“Our loneliness met…” wrote Patti Smith of her complicated love and unity with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. While their relationship was erotic love intially, and gave both much comfort, it waned under Robert’s latent homosexuality.

Illustration for Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" in the Examined Life Library.
Erotic love. Illustration by Ana-Maria Grigoriu for The Examined Life.
Erotic love finds its temple in the lines of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

“Loafe with me on the grass . . .
loose the stop from your throat
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . .
not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.”

Divine Love

Divine love could feel the most exclusionary, but it need not be available to only theists or believers.

“The love of God,” writes Fromm, “Is neither the knowledge of God in thought, nor the thought of one’s love of God, but the act of experiencing the oneness with God.”

“Something fashioned this yellow-white lace-mass that the sea has brought to the shore and left,” offers Mary Oliver in her poem “Something”. Oliver, as Joseph Brodsky wrote decades earlier, is outside knowledge and beyond understanding. But grace – to borrow a word used by both Simone Weil and Annie Dillard – grace occurs like a warmth, a beauty that lifts the pall.

In a cathedralled forest, among the hushed, dawn-flooded streets, within the arms of another, or a stout pass near death, there is something here that is not any other type of love. We step into the stream of consciousness, into oneness or unity. That which Oliver and others call “the eternal”.


Is this the most neglected? One we feed with Potemkin promises and fad-diets but never accepted as part of our being? As one of our daily chores?

I moved it last although Fromm did not. In self-love we each suffer – and fail – deeply.

Illustration for Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" in the Examined Life Library.
Self love. Illustration by Ana-Maria Grigoriu for The Examined Life.

To love somebody is the actualisation and concentration of the power to love. The basic affirmation contained in love is directed towards the beloved person as an incarnation of essentially human qualities. Love of one person implies love of man as such. The kind of ‘division of labour’, as William James calls it, by which one loves one’s family but is without feeling for the ‘stranger’, is a sign of a basic inability to love. Love of man is not, as is frequently supposed, an abstraction coming after the love for a specific person, but it is its premise, although genetically it is acquired in loving specific individuals. From this it follows that my own self must be as much an object of my love as another person. The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e. in care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge. If an individual is able to love productively, he loves himself too; if he can love only others, he cannot love at all.

To perfect or even engage in the art of loving, we must abandon any evaluation of the object and any question of worthiness. And like any art, we will begin poorly, absurdly even.

The purest gift of Fromm’s wisdom is the generous permission to hold ourselves in as high esteem as we would any other object of love. The act of any love cannot be borne of an unnurtured soul. Maya Angelou urged that we forgive ourselves first… and she left the predicate open to include everything else, to Pema Chödrön who urged self-tenderness in the face of adversity.

In a small act of self-love, let the richness of Fromm’s masterpiece keep you company. Bring in close too the comfort of Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse; Jan Morris’s search for self-unity and my own study of brotherhood in hardship.