”The capacity to love is subordinated to our state religion of the market…”
Librarians at Moravian College recently requested faculty and staff to select their favorite books for a display. I didn’t hesitate before naming mine: Erich Fromm’s ”The Art of Loving.” The author, a practicing psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 and emigrated to the United States, where he became a prolific writer and political activist and taught for a time at Columbia University.
Now in its 50th anniversary year, this slim volume of barely 100 pages is Fromm’s most popular and accessible book. I frequently assign it for my senior seminar, and I invariably discover new insights on each rereading. For Fromm, love isn’t primarily about relating to one specific person, but ”is an attitude, an orientation of character, which determines the relatedness of the person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object of love.’ ”
It follows that authentic love isn’t remotely connected to the familiar, superficial, and much-misunderstood notion of romantic love, or ”falling in love.” Rather, it’s a demanding and disciplined ”art” that includes elements of care, effort, respect, courage, responsibility and knowledge. Love, like any other ”art,” involves mastering both theory and practice. Fromm wisely compares learning how to love to learning the arts of painting, carpentry, music, engineering or medicine.
Here you may be wondering how this pertains to courses in political science. The answer is that ”The Art of Loving” is a blistering indictment of the social and economic forces that deny us life’s most rewarding experience and ”the only sane and satisfying answer to the problem of human existence.”
For Fromm, grasping how society shapes our human instincts, hence our behavior, is in turn the key to understanding why ”love thy neighbor,” the love of humanity which, of course, includes ourselves, is so elusive in our society.
Our global hyper-capitalist culture, with its premium on accumulation and profits before people, not only devalues a loving disposition, but produces a stunted character structure where ”everything is transformed into a commodity, not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles.” The capacity to love is subordinated to our state religion of the market, in which each person seeks advantage in an alienating and endless commodity-greedy competition.
Fromm convincingly contends that ”The principle underlying capitalist society and the principle of love are incompatible.” This is the basic dilemma: To love others, one must love one’s self. But there must be an authentic self, an identity to love. Any honest person knows that the dominant features of our society tend to produce individuals who are estranged from themselves, crippled personalities robbed of their humanity and in a constant struggle to express and receive real love.
Lamentably, I observe this condition among my students who, even after reading Fromm, feel overwhelming pressure to sacrifice love for ”success” and the demands of the system, believing they must embrace the race or fall by the wayside as failures. Time is money. One student captured this tension when she said, ”Our generation finds it difficult to look past the big pay check and to do something worthwhile, to love the world deeper…”
At the end of this semester, a senior wrote, ”It saddens me then to hear, as the course went along, many of my fellow students looking forward to ‘selling out’ and becoming part of the corporate world, even at the loss of love and deeper fulfillment.” No one should be forced to make such a choice. But I confess to wishing the choice were more conscientious, more informed about the consequences.
Little wonder that Fromm believed that fundamental changes in our social structure and economic institutions are required if love is to be anything more than a rare individual achievement and a socially marginal phenomenon. He understood that only if the economic system serves women and men, rather than the opposite, will this be possible.
Fromm, who died in 1980, lived his values. He worked to eliminate the social causes of human unhappiness, thereby making the world safer for love. This is not the worst choice for a vocation â€” or words to live by.
Gary Olson is the chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem. His e-mail address is [email protected]