The Art of Loving ~ Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society

The Lovers Rene Magritte

The Lovers (1928) Rene Magritte
~ source Wikiart

Woo hoo!  I have a note at the beginning of this chapter  from my last reading: “Great Chapter!” so that’s promising.  I do hope it’s a little easier than The Theory of Love (Part I & Part II)

Our capacity to love depends on the cultural influence of our society.  When we talk about love, it’s based on our contemporary Western understanding of it.  Fromm says:

“No objective observer of our Western life can doubt that love —- brotherly love, motherly love, and erotic love — is a relatively rare phenomenon, and that its place is taken by a number of forms of pseudo-love which are in reality so many forms of the disintegration of love.”

The basic characteristics of capitalism is that it “commands … amasses things which are dead” and sees them as superior to people, who are alive. Larger empires are swallowing up smaller businesses. Increasingly, greater numbers of people are ceasing to be independent and are instead becoming completely reliant on “managers of great economic empires.”  “ …. The individual loses his individuality, where he becomes an expendable cog in the machine.”

“Modern capitalism needs men who cooperate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated.  It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience — yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim —- except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.”

What is the outcome?  Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature.  He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions.  Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action.  While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome.

To overcome this aloneness, man uses many palliatives such as amusement and materialistic gain, in a cycle of exchange and consumption.

A Roman Art Lover

A Roman Art Lover (1868) Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
~ source Wikiart

Our view of love conforms in a similar way to this characteristic of exchange and consumption.  Yet sadly, automatons can only exchange their “personality packages”; they cannot love.  An emphasis on a marriage team is also misplaced.  In this “two against the world” alliance, their motivation is egoism and they never reach a true relationship.  “The emphasis on team spirit, mutual tolerance and so forth is a relatively new development.”  After World War I, sexual compatibility was seen as a vehicle to love but it is not true.  The ability to love is the basis for sexual pleasure, which psychoanalytic data proves.  What follows is a bunch of psychological babble about Freud’s theories of sexual love being a basis for all love and Fromm says Freud thought love was an irrational phenomenon and, in fact, did not exist.  He says, however wrong it is, the idea of sex bringing love is a large influence in our society.  While Freud thought the fulfillment of all our instinctual desires would bring happiness, the data shows men and women who pursue “unrestricted sexual satisfaction do not attain happiness, and very often suffer from severe neurotic conflicts or symptoms.  The complete satisfaction of all instinctual needs is not only not a basis for happiness, it does not even guarantee sanity.”

Yet in opposition to Freud is psychoanalyst H.S. Sullivan’s definition of love which states “the essence of love is seen in a situation of collaboration …… clearly formulated adjustments of one’s behaviour to the expressed needs of the other person in pursuit of increasingly ….. common aims.”

The Lovers Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Lovers (1875) Pierre-Auguste Renoir
~ source Wikiart

Love seen as sexual satisfaction and love seen as teamwork are two examples of the disintegration of love in our society.  There are many other “individualized forms of the pathology of love … which result in conscious suffering and which are considered neurotic by psychiatrists.”:

  • One or both of the lovers transfer an attachment to a parent to their partner.  This person emotionally is at the level of a two or five-year-old while intellectually and socially on the level with his/her peers.  Again, an example of this is of a man who has remained attached to his mother and has an arrested development, remaining in an infantile state (see The Theory of Love, Part II)  These neuroses can occur to a greater or lesser degree.  An attachment to a father results in an adult attachment to a father –figure whom he attempts to please, yet he is unable to have a healthy relationship with a women, remaining cold and distant, treating her with contempt yet sometimes masked with a fatherly affection for a little girl.
  • When parents quarrel with each other and do not love each other, children can become confused and withdraw into their own world and experience an anxiety over the instability of the situation.  As a woman, she can intentionally provoke an extreme reaction from her husband.
  • A great or idolatrous love can occur if a person has not developed their own individuality.  One needs someone else to feel complete, yet one further loses oneself in one’s idol.  Disappoint is the result when the person does not live up to expectations.  While described as “true” or “great” love, it “only demonstrates the hunger and despair of the idolator.”
  • Sentimental love, often found in media, is an experienced fantasy in which all unfulfilled desires for love, or union or closeness are satisfied on screen or in writing.  “As long as love is a daydream, they can participate; as soon as it comes down to the reality of the relationship between two real people —- they are frozen.”  It can also take the form of daydreams of past or future loves which is characteristic of modern man who lives in the past and future, but not the present.
  • People also use projective mechanisms to avoid their own problems and instead focus on their partner’s “defects and frailties.”  In this case, the person focuses on the other’s faults and completely ignore their own, either intending to accuse or reform the other.  Another projection is the wish for children, where the person can project their feelings of “the problems of their existence on that of the children.”  This means will always fail, as one can only answer this question for themselves.
  • The illusion that love means the absence of conflict, and the person sees struggles as destructive exchanges instead of the opportunity for resolution.    Yet people often have conflicts to avoid the real conflicts and the former are often on small matters that “do not lend themselves to clarification or solution.” “Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or to project, but which are experienced on the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive.  They lead to clarification they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength.”
  • Fromm emphasizes now what he mentioned above:

“Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the center of his existence.  Only in this “central experience” is human reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love.  Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves.  There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized.”

“Just as automatons cannot love each other, they cannot love God.”  We are experiencing a disintegration of the love of God even in the midst of a religious epoch.  We are turning God into an idol, regressing instead of progressing in this area.  “People are anxious, without principles or faith, they find themselves without an aim except the one to move ahead; hence they continue to remain children, to hope for father or mother to come to their help when help is needed.”  Even though men in the Middle Ages saw God as a helping father, in contrast to nowadays they at least took God seriously; all activities were subordinate to living in His will.  Their life actions were bound up in their faith.  Our modern efforts are based on worldly things; we are like a child of three who wants to play and wants a father when things get difficult.  Without a life based on the principles of God, we are more primitive than those in the Middle Ages.  We are a commodity, live a shallow life and our goals bring little satisfaction.  Our belief in God has been transformed to assist our competitive struggle; God is now our partner in business instead of in love, justice and truth.

Love Disarmed William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Love Disarmed (1885) William-Adolphe Bouguereau
~ source Wikiart


Fromm makes some great points in this section.  I’m sensing a common theme in this book, Lewis’ The Four Loves and Cicero’s On Friendship:  we either don’t truly understand what it is to love or we have corrupted the truth of it so much that it’s difficult to find our way back.  Very few people know how to love well and few people are experiencing true love.  What do you think?

I believe Fromm nails our dependence on capitalism and how it infiltrates right through our lives and even effects the way we view relationships.  Is there a better system?  Personally I think they all have issues and it’s our morals and values that have an unmistakable and absolute effect on how we conduct ourselves and therefore how healthy our society is and also our character.

I love what he says about conflict.  Done correctly it is healthy and I believe can make a relationship vibrant.  So true!

His conversation about God resonated more with me in this chapter than the last.  There is something odd about how people “do” religion nowadays.  I’m speaking generally but I often get feedback from secular people on church and it isn’t positive.  I need to think more on this topic.

Is there anything that particularly stood out for you in this chapter?


⇐  The Theory of Love ~ Part II

5 thoughts on “The Art of Loving ~ Love and Its Disintegration in Contemporary Western Society

  1. This was one of my favorite passages: “Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or to project, but which are experienced on the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength.” One may be surprised to find such a passage about conflict in a book on love, but it’s very important to recognize love and conflict are not incompatible! The question is, can the conflict be made fruitful, does it bring us closer to reality?

    In fact, this may be the source of many of our misconceptions about love. We want love that is pleasant, easy, and comforting. But creative work is not usually any of those things! It can be disruptive, unsettling, and chaotic, at least in some stages. We need strength to truly love! Another good point is that people must work to find their own centeredness out of which they can relate to others. This is not easy either, but it’s the only way to real, satisfying relationships.

    Even though Fromm apparently does not believe in God, his points are all well taken in terms of our relationship with God. Relating to God by wanting him (her/it/them) to be a savior who will sustain and comfort and not challenge us, giving over our will in a state of dependency, or using this relationship to feel superior to and distance ourselves from others, are all false paths.

    When we love from a place of centeredness ,that by necessity means we are relating spirit-to-spirit, the divine in me to the divine in the other person. This is the goal also of inner spiritual practice, so outer and inner work on loving can reinforce each other when properly oriented.

    How could this translate into social change? I don’t know either, but more and more I think it’s another example of how the splinter in the other’s eye is as always very easy to see — how to deal with the beam in my own? How do I work on loving my neighbor, or even my own friends and family, let alone an entire city or state or nation or world? Can we truly start with changing ourselves, having trust that the change will ripple out to transform the world?

    • I always thought I was crazy because I LIKE conflict and view it as healthy. I don’t take offence easily and simply view other’s opinions as their opinions which could be right or wrong, like mine, but by healthy discussion and disagreement even if we never agree, we move forward and are both the better for it. But most people do not like conflict and view it as a very negative exchange. That’s problematic because the person immediately closes down and you can’t get anywhere. I read somewhere that in ancient times when people discussed or disagreed, they ALWAYS had one thing in common: they were both trying to get at TRUTH. But in modern times, people discuss/disagree with the main focus on convincing the other person they are right, or attacking the other person. There is not the commonality of Truth and therefore each approaches the discussion differently and it’s much more difficult to find common ground.

      I’ve come to the point that instead of criticizing and being annoyed at others, I instead look at myself, at what I can change for the better. The only person you can control is yourself. But we spend so much time blaming others and expecting them to be different than they are. It’s really a waste of time.

      I’m not really certain what Fromm means by “centeredness”. I expect it’s a type of balance but practically what does he mean and how do we get there? Or even take the first steps? I don’t think he addresses any of this in a practical way, if I remember correctly.

      “Can we truly start with changing ourselves, having trust that the change will ripple out to transform the world?”
      Yes, we can! This reminds me of Middlemarch and Dorothea Brooke. She wanted to do radical things in life to make a positive difference and in the end, felt like she failed. But Eliot basically said all the little things she did and the people she touched added up to much more than any of the big things she could have accomplished. We just have to daily live in the moment and attempt to change ourselves to have a positive effect on those around us. Then we will be like a Dorothea Brooke but hopefully instead realize all the positive effects we’ve had. 🙂

      • Wonderful example from Middlemarch! And I think actually what you’re describing is what Fromm means by “centeredness.” When you quit blaming other people or trying to change the world without changing yourself, and take up your own responsibility and your own potential, you come to that place. It’s different for everyone, and yet we have this in common, that we can have that experience. It’s the mystery of the “I” — “I am the door.”

        But Fromm doesn’t say much of a practical nature, it’s true, That’s why I liked the books by Terrence Real — he gets down to actual daily life practices, how to deal with conflict in a creative way.

        It’s a good point you make that people are not interested in truth nowadays, only bolstering their own opinion. Again, in Real’s work with married couples he helps them get beyond that — to allow others to have their own truth and yet find the space between. That’s where love actually lives. And we all need that, married or not.

  2. Wow, what a powerful post, and your conversation here was delightful and so informative. I was nodding my head the whole time.

    At the moment, I can only ditto all that you have expounded on, and all that you and Lori have discussed.

    Conflict. YES. I was telling some high school students all you say we do these days, that of arguing to be right and ‘win’, instead of arguing to enrich our point of view, to challenge our convictions, to be emphatic and compassionate, to understand each other. Now I’m realizing that love is doing that, but love is also what should motivate and also found all our arguments.

    Sometimes conflict comes from our own brokenness, and isn’t again love what’s present, and also what grows and matures every time we have a conflict in one of our relationships?, -be that with family, friends, spouse, co-workers, or with our ‘enemies’ or with the ‘other’ that’s unknown to us?

    I too appreciate the example from Middlemarch. And yes to the lack of practical clues. I wonder if the lack of the practical has to do with Fromm’s view of love. If it’s an “art”, it’s difficult to pinpoint practices that would lead to an improvement in how we love. Maybe he’s of the idea that knowing what love is about, we’ll be at a good place to find those targeted and specific acts and practices that will move us forward in the art of love.

    However, that’s not to say there can’t be authors who have a knack for giving us concrete applications and helpful practices.

    To me, what all these different authors do, -and also you, Lori, and all those commenting on the topic-, it’s to truly help me to constantly revisit my overall view of what love is, and with that incomplete but important grasp of what love is, I too try to find what practices support the theory or philosophy of love I hold.

    Lori, very true that we have an unrealistic view of what love is, -pleasant, every joyful, etc-. But I’m never more aware of how much I love someone as when I’m in the middle of a situation in which that person is hurt by my actions or words, or when we are experiencing some pain or conflict. The very willingness to accept my wrongs, to listen and restate my love for the person, acknowledging that the person has not ‘felt’ that love from whatever my actions and words to him or her have been, that’s one way in which LOVE is perfected and cultivated.

    I also agree that it’s not so much the ‘system’, -capitalism in this case, but as you say, the morals and values.

    And spot on with God and religion. I too find this chapter a more complex and fair conversation about God. I do like what he says about the Middle Ages. God and Christianity are something to embrace and live by, and should never be something utilitarian. I couldn’t agree more. It’s still early, but I believe my problem with Fromm is that, though he acknowledges that many of us try to live a coherent christian life, adhering to God’s commands, submitting in obedience, and not only, but ultimately cultivating that love for Him and others, Fromm separates love again and keeps studying it outside of christianity, in a secular way. But, as I’ve said before, his thoughts are still relevant.

    • Ah, Silvia, there you are! 🙂 Great point …. how often when we disagree do we REALLY try to understand the other person’s point of view? Something to strive for!

      Well, it’s interesting because Fromm gives practical information on why love DOESN’T work, but doesn’t give much on how to make it work. I would think he’d have come up with something more substantial. However, maybe it’s a psychoanalytic thing where one doesn’t want to commit oneself too much.

      When you come through a time of conflict, both working together, there’s a feeling of solidifying the relationship with more strength and commitment. It’s very satisfying but, of course, takes work, and I’m surprised at the number of people who are unwilling to do the work.

      I’d like to read more books by Fromm, but perhaps not for awhile. One more post and then we’ll be done but what a great experience it’s been!

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