Love: equals care, responsibility, respect, knowledge
This is a quite extraordinary slim little volume. I started to underline certain sentences and paragraphs as being particularly potent and insightful, (or particularly open to fierce debate) and soon realised I might as well annotate the whole book
Inevitably, in the West we have come to focus more and more upon erotic love, the dizzying though often illusory experience of falling in love, which Fromm contrasts with the maturity of loving itself, in a sexual relationship – which he calls ‘standing in love’.
However this book goes way way beyond erotic love. He looks at love itself as an expression of life itself, and the act of giving, rather than taking.
The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love of the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child to grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.
The development of love is traced through key, primal experiences, firstly , that which he calls Motherly love – this is unconditional love, and if we are lucky, an experience which we have, that of being loved completely, for all we are, and taken care of. We need to do no more than BE, to inspire this kind of love. The second primal love is what he calls Fatherly love, which he sees as conditional. We earn father’s love by pleasing him, by being most like him, by accepting, therefore, responsibility. The third love is Brotherly love – this is an equal love, recognising you as similar to me. It respects your autonomy as well as my autonomy, and that respect prevents ‘Fatherly Love’ from becoming about domination – its the recognition of the individuality of other. This ‘brotherly love’ also tempers the blissful but unearned experience of maternal love. Mother and child will separate, and the child needs to have their autonomy recognised. We cannot respect without the fourth part of loving – knowledge. This requires self-knowledge, in order to see the other (and ourselves,) deeply and clearly. And that knowledge of the other needs still to come from that place of care (‘Motherly Love’)
Fromm’s background was in sociology, so he also looks at ‘love’ not just as it plays out in individual encounters, sexual love, parents and children, ‘brothers’ – peers and equals – but he looks at that idea of equality in societies, and condemns both Western Capitalism and Soviet Communism as equally, though differently, dehumanising our relationships. His own thinking is influenced by both Marx, and his own Jewish, Talmudic inheritance – he came from a rabbinical family. Although he was not, in the end, a theist, he traces, clearly, the positive (as well as the problematic) role that the development of religion had on society and on philiosophy and ethics, looking specifically at Old Testament stories, and unpicking them to find deeper meanings. He is in the end, most drawn to Buddhist thought, seeing this as a highly mature system, which properly incorporates the ‘all is connectedness’ bliss stage of motherly love (and falling in love, come to that!) the taking responsibility for oneself which is ‘Fatherly’ the respect for other and oneself and a deepening awareness of knowledge which can contain paradox.
Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others, is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship
He talks about the importance of practicing ‘the art of loving’ examining our own attitudes, actions and relationships scrupulously, as an on-going discipline. Like many psychotherapists, he is also aware of the importance of self-love – not narcissistic self-regard which paradoxically often leads to behaviour which is destructive, both to oneself and others, because that sort of self love is often a veneer for self-loathing, hence the desire to make everyone else serve MY will, because I cannot bear to look upon my ‘wrongness’. Proper self love, a pre-requisite for proper love of other, involves being able to own one’s shadow, shame, guilt, and be compassionate, but not self-indulgent towards oneself. (Internalising ‘mother’ unconditional love and ‘father’ earned love) The theory is clear and even simple, the practice, of course, a struggle. But a vital one, for the individual and for the way society as a whole functions.
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this tremendous book, and no doubt re-readings will yield more rich fruit.
There is, however, one cavil, and it is major. Fromm was born in the very early part of the 20th century. His thinking about gender and sexuality may well have been much more enlightened than many, at the time. (written in 1957) But his view of homosexuality as the result of a ‘flaw’ – inadequate relationship mainly with mother – and a certain rigidity in the roles of ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ is disturbing, and flawed, with the hindsight of half a century on. I found I had to read some sections tempering my twenty-first century awareness, and trying instead to see through the lens of half a century earlier. Reading in context, in other words.
If you can set this aside, the rest, I think, is gold.