The Art of Loving ~ The Theory of Love Part II

Butterflies of Love Vernon

Butterflies of Love (1911) Emile Vernon
~ source Wikimedia Commons

In The Theory of Love (Part II), Fromm now moves on to the desire of men and women for love or union.  Fromm claims we search for this union both within and without as we are bisexual psychologically and it is a way to find union with ourselves as well as another.

Love Between Parent and Child

A child is born and through experience begins to become aware.  He is loved by his mother unconditionally and until the age of 8 ½ to 10 only experiences this type of love.  Up to this point he has personally not given love (really?!) yet now he suddenly thinks of giving and his idea of love begins to be transformed.  At this point, there should be a shift from mother-love to father-love.  The father has had little contact in the early years but now is there to teach him “the road into the world.”  Father-love is conditional and is there as long as the child fulfils expectations and duties.  Both mother and father-love have negative and positive aspects and in this case, the positive aspect of father-love is that the child can DO something to earn it.  The best mother-love does not smother a child and prevent him from growing up but strives for her child to become independent and separate from her.  The best father-love should be patient and tolerant, guiding the child to maturity in a way that also makes him independent.  The child carries both those loves within him yet is free.

If one love dominates the other, neurosis can be the result:

“… a boy has a loving, but overindulgent or domineering mother, and a weak and uninterested father.  In this case he may remain fixed at an early mother attachment, and develop into a person who is dependent on mother, feels helpless, has the strivings characteristic of the receptive person, that is, to receive, to be protected, to be taken care of, and who has a lack of fatherly qualities — discipline, independence, an ability to master life by himself.  He may try to find “mothers” in everybody, sometimes in women and sometimes in men in a position of authority and power ….”

Bouquet with Flying Lovers Marc Chagall

Bouquet with Flying Lovers (1947) Marc Chagall
~ source Wikiart

The Objects of Love

Love should be shown towards the world, not just to one person; if a person only loves another “and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.”  Yet people often subscribe to this type of love, making love an object instead of a function.

Brotherly Love

A sense of care and respect; a love fundamental to the other types of love.  If I developed the ability to love, I cannot resist showing love to others.  We are both similar to each other yet also different but by appreciating others, we appreciate ourselves.  There is equality but also inequality.  Compassion develops love.

Motherly Love

As said above, motherly love is unconditional yet it also should instill a joy for living and in order to do this, the mother must be a happy person.  Fromm says this state is not achieved by many.  Just as joy is infectious,  so can anxiety or complaining be.  A mother may be narcissistic or possessive.  Only love which is completely giving can guide the child to separate from her.

The Love Letter Fragonard

The Love Letter (1770-1780) Jean-Honore Fragonard
~ source Wikiart

Erotic Love

Different from brotherly love or mother love which loves “all” brothers or “all” children, erotic love is loving one person and, in its nature, is exclusive.  People can “fall in love” but if they use sex or newness as evidence of love, the initial excitement will wear off, the sex will cool and they will be looking for the same thing again in another person to fulfill their desires.  People can also attempt to enlarge themselves through another.  But they will be unable to overcome their aloneness and “since they are separated from each other and alienated from themselves; their experience of union is an illusion.”  Fromm makes some interesting statements here:

“Erotic love, if it is love, has one premise.  That I love from the essence of my being — and experience the other person in the essence of his or her being.  In essence, all human beings are identical.  We are all part of One; we are One.  This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love. (bolding is mine)  Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other, but are chosen for each other — and yet are expected to love each other.  In contemporary Western culture this idea appears altogether false.  Love is supposed to be the oucome of a spontaneous, emotional reaction, of suddenly being gripped by an irresistible feeling.  In this view, one sees only the peculiarities of the two individuals involved — and not the fact that all men are part of Adam, and all women part of Eve.  One neglects to see an important factor in erotic love, that of will.  To love somebody is not just a strong feeling — it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise.  If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever.  A feeling comes and it may go.  How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?”



In modern culture, it is considered selfish or narcissistic to love oneself but Fromm argues that selfishness is bred from a lack of self-love.  Since we are all human it is just as good to love oneself as to love others, and he uses the example of “Love thy neighbour as thyself.”  Being capable of loving oneself, allows us to love others.  A selfish person is only interested in himself and in taking and this is a result of a lack of love for himself; and thus he is capable of loving no one.  Conversely, unselfishness can be part of a neurosis where the person uses it to make himself feel better but instead feels unfulfilled and does not help the objects of his unselfishness.  Therefore selfishness and self-love are actually opposites.


Sacred and Profane Love Titian

Sacred and Profane Love (1512-1515) Titian
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Love of God

(oh, good grief, is he going to lose me here??)

Our love for God in religious experience also speaks to our need to overcome separateness.  In all religions God exemplifies the highest good.  Some background …….. man from his creation was one with nature and then thrown out of it; so while he still identifies with it, there is a removal from it and a desire for reunification.  His contact with it proves a type of security.  So man went from worshiping animals to idols to a human-type god.  And, in fact, (and in Fromm’s opinion) a matriarchal phase proceeded the patriarchal one, a type of goddess mother-love.  The patriarchal phase followed and this phase is the one of which we have knowledge.  The mother is deposed and the father imposes laws and expectations and love can be lost through failure to live up to these established principles; thus we get a hierarchy.  Yet mother-love still necessary and we see it in Mother Church, the Virgin Mary, etc.  Luther eliminated the matriarchal aspect and produced “intense doubt” and now there is only a “hoping against hope for unconditional love by father,” ie. grace.  In a patriarchal religion, God is like a father who punishes and rewards; in a matriarchal one, man has faith in her love no matter if he is poor or powerless or a sinner.  In history, we see the aspects of God evolving from a jealous God who drives out man from the garden, to a gentler God who makes a covenant with Noah where he is bound by principle and justice, and from that to a loving father.  He then speaks of the monotheistic development of God away from any human aspects, which is odd considering Jesus came to earth as a man, however I think Fromm is focusing only on the Jewish faith.  He feels man has not developed past a childish notion of God only as a “helping father.”  A man with a mature faith should see God as a symbol which expresses what man desires and is seeking: love, truth and justice.  While Fromm espoused a non-theistic system where man develops those powers within himself and expresses them, he does not think monotheistic and non-theistic systems need to be contrary to each other.  He then goes on to explain the problems of different religious attitudes using the Aristotelian logic system from the West and the paradoxical logic system from the East.  I think he’s clarifying that the West’s concepts of opposites is very differently thought of than in the East.  He concludes:

  • Paradoxical logic says that man can perceive reality only in contradictions and can never perceive in thought the ultimate reality-unity, the One itself.  Since it can never be grasped in thought, it is in the act, the experience of oneness.  It is about right-action, not right-thought.  This is also seen in Judiasm (according to Fromm).  It also emphasizes transforming man and not developing dogma.
  • In the West, emphasis is placed on right-thought to find the ultimate truth.  It led to development of various dogmas and arguments over those dogmas and “believing in God.”  Even if one’s actions were not in alignment with one’s thoughts, one could still feel superior to those who did not believe.  It also led to scientific thought in which one believes thought is all that is important.

To summarize if man has not finally freed himself practically from mother-love and then father-love (which is important as a child, but can lead to neurosis as an adult) and also freed himself from other authority such as market and public opinion, “his concept of God must be infantile”.

Love Leading the Pilgrim Edward Burne-Jones

Love Leading the Pilgrim (1877-1896) Edward Burne-Jones
~ source Wikiart


Well, I have lots to say here.  Perhaps too much.  Again, I think Fromm hits on some excellent ideas and points, but the extremes that he takes them to can be goofy.

With regard to mother-love and father-love, I find myself agreeing with Fromm, but somewhat reluctantly as I’ve been culturally trained to be shocked at the idea of a father’s love being conditional.  However, I like to think the father does not actually withdraw his love, just gives the appearance of it to help form the child into a person of integrity and merit which will only benefit him and his future happiness in life.  Am I being naive?  Perhaps.  However, I know of a few men who have received excessive mother-love and have never grown up.  The effect on their ability to function in life is so extreme that I cannot but completely agree with Fromm that excessive mother-love can be fatal to future happiness. If anyone else has another opinion (or a similar one), I’d love to hear it!

With Fromm’s statement in erotic love, that it does not depend on feeling at all, I found myself wanting to disagree.  But I’m not sure.  I’ve never had to love someone by will alone.  I found myself wondering, what if you were paired with someone you did not feel a connection with?  Could the will to love produce the feeling?  What do you think?

And what do you think of Fromm’s idea of self love? I sort of see the distinction.  However I believe he misused the quote of loving your neighbour as yourself.  I’d always understood it in this way: that we are such selfish beings that we have no problem loving ourselves, therefore if we made a concerted effort to love our neighbour in the same way, we’d be doing pretty darn good.  I find it odd that Fromm puts so much emphasis on will but in my understanding will is emphasized but in Fromm’s understanding one just goes along with the other and equality is stressed.  Hmmm ….

With the love of God, I found that Fromm completely approached it from a non-theistic standpoint (not surprising as he admitted his worldview) but he did not grasp the spiritual aspects of Christianity, at least.  I did like his comparison of the understandings of East and West, as I think it’s important to at least entertain another point of view to gain greater discernment, even if you don’t choose to believe it.  Yet, I still don’t see how thought and action can be separate.  If you don’t think, how can you decide the best action?  Do you just have a bag of “good” actions to choose from?  How can you even improve yourself with such a mindset? Or is the idea not to improve but just “be,” yet in a good moral sense?  I can see benefits and problems with both systems.

Please feel free to response to any of my questions.  I’m talking to myself but would be grateful for any enlightenment.  Some of Fromm’s ideas are certainly out of my scope.


⇐  The Theory of Love ~ Part I

16 thoughts on “The Art of Loving ~ The Theory of Love Part II

  1. This is the kind book that I’d be scribbling down notes as I read and then I’d just rage and rant on one page while agreeing with 10 exclamation points on another.

    I have to say, I am always leery of any “expert” on anything who isn’t coming from a strict Christian background. They are deceived beyond their comprehension to even realize it and that leaves them with huge blindspots. Doesn’t mean they’re idiots or can’t reason, but blindspots.

    • Yes, definitely, Fromm has his blindspots and his “shtick”. He also has some penetrating insights that are very valuable. It’s not an easy read, for sure ….. as you say, 10 agrees to 2 rants, but even the agrees sometimes are not complete agrees and the rants are not complete rants.

      I really like reading books from people who don’t have Christian backgrounds …. if I only read Christian it gives me blind spots and because I have a faith, when I read non-Christian works, they tend to strengthen my faith AND allow me to understand people better.

      That said, I’d really recommend reading early Christian writing from the Church Fathers. Coming from a Protestant background, reading earlier writings really brought to light some of my (ignorant) prejudices and showed me how differently people then viewed God to how we (can often) view Him nowadays. It was quite enlightening. That’s how I can relate to what Fromm is saying without agreeing fundamentally with his views. Does that make any sense? 🤪

  2. Great summary, Cleo! I blogged about this chapter last week and felt confused/conflicted as well. In fact it reminded me of why I had shied away from philosophy so long… 😀 I think there are kernels of truth in the system he puts forth, but (as Bookstooge says) without the Christian foundation it feels incomplete and perhaps too simplistic in some areas.

    • It is conflicting, Marian, which sort of gives me a weird feeling, but that said, I think Fromm nailed certain areas better than Lewis. For me, reading the book is like a conversation. We’re never going to agree completely with anyone in all areas. This is a chance to safely explore ideas that might be uncomfortable or we might not agree with, but there are people out there who do hold these ideas. Fromm’s book, I see as a chance to understand them better and perhaps have a deeper conversation with them if I ever meet them.

      Lol, and I thought Fromm’s thoughts were too complex. God can be simple and with Fromm I felt he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. 🌲🌲🌲🌲

        • I thought Lewis touched on more aspects of love and had more encouragement and advice on how to achieve it. I’m not sure if you’ve finished yet, but I thought Fromm’s practical advice very weak. He admits he has none, as we are all different but I thought it a little bit of a cop-out. There must be some generalities that would put us on the right path at least.

          • So, I just finished this afternoon – and Fromm’s little tirade against capitalism at the end threw ants on my happy picnic. 😀 Seriously though, the phrase “radical changes in our social structure are necessary” conjures up visions of politicians dancing in my head. I don’t completely disagree with him, I just think it will take a spiritual revival to get us to that goal, rather than a social/political one.

          • Interesting. I’m planning to power through to the end in the next few days. I remember feeling slightly dissatisfied when I finished this book the first time, in spite of all the wonderful points Fromm makes. We shall see …

          • I should add…. I’m not even a particular fan of capitalism. It’s the alternatives that trigger the red flags for me…

  3. I ought to read this part again before commenting. I was quite impressed how much Fromm packed in here — I didn’t expect an excursion into the entire history of religion and philosophy. Some of the distinctions and categories he talked about I found very interesting and helpful. However, there was a certain amount of overgeneralization. You bring up many points that merit further discussion!

    Fromm’s ideas about gender are dated, e.g the nature of motherly and fatherly love. We have moved on beyond these, or should be doing so anyway. I have to recommend once more the work of psychotherapist Terry Real (I wrote a post about his books on my blog.) Where Fromm talks about the need to move beyond matriarchal and patriarchal views to a higher synthesis, Real’s books show how people are doing this in their own lives, and in many ways truly practicing the “art of loving.” I found them fascinating and inspiring.

    About self-love vs. selfishness: this is one of the most difficult, confusing and generally sticky points to discuss. We do all have a tendency to be self-centered and it might seem we can’t go too far in fighting against that. But recent years I have experienced people who are in a deep state of self-loathing and who use “loving others” as a way to deflect from their own inner craving. Outwardly they seem caring, they are constantly sacrificing themselves for others, but it’s not healthy or truly unselfish at all. It would be better for such a person to first “Love yourself as your neighbor” and seek a state of inner abundance and joyful creative living, from which there is then the natural longing to give and share with others. To me, that is the “self-love” that Fromm is pointing toward.

    Of course, this is not a craving that can be satisfied through any earthly sustenance or relationship — it is a spiritual hunger that is so often not met in our times. That is the mystery of Christ’s presence: “I am the bread of life” – when this hunger is filled, in such a way that we can give to others without depleting ourselves, then Christ is working in us. Such is my understanding, anyway.

    • Re: self-loathing, I’ve encountered that as well. It seems to tie into Fromm’s concept from an earlier chapter, regarding self-centeredness manifesting itself in abnormal servitude to others…

      • Yes, that is what I mean. It’s one of the most horrible and sick interpersonal phenomena I have encountered, largely because it masks itself as something good — as caring for other people. And I’m not immune to it myself! As usual, change can only really start with oneself.

    • A great comment, Lory. I feel that Fromm stays with what he knows (psycho-analysis) which is possibly a good thing, but then his views are magnified and appear as the only way to love. I don’t feel that he’s synthesized other views to alter or soften his own, which any good thinker should do.

      On your recommendation, I ordered one of Real’s books from my library (the only one they had …. on marriage). I do like Fromm’s mother/father-love approach because I can see it working. Just because something is outdated, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. It’s perhaps not the best way, but I do think it’s better than the infantilized versions of adults that are being raised today.

      As for the over-compensation for self-loathing, I can see that in society as well. However, I think our society as a whole tends to have nearly full-focus on outward appearance (and the person who makes an outward show of caring and sacrificing for others is another example). Very few put inward virtue and goodness as a priority. I do agree with you though.

      Excellent last paragraph. That’s the one aspect that’s becoming very apparent about love …. you can’t truly grow love and nurture it unless you have a filter through which to “sift” it that is greater than yourself …. greater than man. Your words are so true!

      • I don’t think the archetypes of motherly and fatherly love are outdated, but the localizing of them in women and men is. As Fromm was writing in the 1950s when those roles were much, much stronger than today, he could have only a dim concept of what it might look like for the masculine and the feminine to become less tied to our bodily constitutions, as in many ways we are now seeing.

        It’s just an example of how times have changed — though we still have a very long way to go before we become more fluid, adaptable and integrated in our masculine/feminine whole human selves. Along the way we have lost some of the benefits of the clear gender roles, that provided a kind of anchoring amidst all the confusing, manifold possibilities in life. I think such a lack of anchoring may lead to the infantilizing, the non-parenting that you mention. But such grounding has to be recovered from within, not through outer strictures and requirements. It’s not easy!

        And as you point out, our society focuses almost exclusively on outward appearances, which causes untold harm, and is also completely opposed to the nature of love, which requires inner strengthening and a connection to higher wisdom that can only be experienced in the depths of the soul. Thus also the phenomenon Fromm points out, that we think our ability to love is dependent on finding the right person to “fall in love with,” an overwhelming experience that comes upon us from the outside — rather than cultivating the inner practice of love. This is where I think he is really spot on.

        • I so agree that we’ve lost the benefit of gender roles. And also the tradition of values. While in some ways it may have been limiting, it also was a grounding and kept everyone on the same page. Expectations were stationary and as odd as it may sounds, it gave more freedom.

          And I agree about his “spot-on-ness”! He has so many great points that you can have patience for his extremes now and there.

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