One of the most common things that high school students get to hear from their teachers or tutors is that they should be ready to get out of the cosy cocoon of school to face the “sharks out there’’, ready to rip them apart. They, therefore, are encouraged to beware of others, because we are all in an endless competition, where you are just a number among many. What if, instead, we taught them to practise kindness as a means against these same tendencies?
It cannot be denied that egoism and competition are present at all levels, but we should not take for granted that this is the basic human nature. The idea that humans are innately aggressive and hostile to each other has provided one of the intellectual basis for the neoliberal thought, but is this inherently true? This is the provocative question that Erich Fromm presented in his book “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness’’ (1973), arguing that people learn hatred from the environment they are put in and that they are not born with it.
The unicity of Erich Fromm’s work
Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a philosopher and psychologist of the School of Frankfurt, of which members he is probably one of the lesser-known if compared to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for example. Born and raised in a very orthodox Jewish family, he started his studies in philosophy, after which he delved into the study of psychoanalysis too. This approach to the study of society through both the lenses of psychoanalysis and Marxist theories is what makes his large body of essays and books unique. For example, he argued with the orthodox Marxist thinkers that the revolution bound to happen would have had to be not only an external one, attacking the economic structure, but also an internal one. He also applied this double-faced analysis in the study of the “authoritarian character’’, a way to understand how Nazism was able to take over (Escape from Freedom, 1941).
The Art of Loving
His most popular work, “The art of Loving’’ (1957) is where his idea of humanistic socialism is most evident. This short but dense essay aims at showing that, although we are surrounded by the topic of love, it is not just a feeling to easily indulge in, it is a practice. He argues that, if love is an art, it requires knowledge and effort.
In Fromm’s view, love is regarded as the only way to escape the existential dread and solitude that man inevitably faces when he realises that his separation from nature, happened through the development of the intellect, is irreversible. He must therefore find a new harmony; many solutions have been explored in the history of philosophy, but none is effective as love is to reach a new union with a “whole’’ while maintaining one’s individuality.
If this is true, then whatever society that obstructs the development of love will perish in the long run, because it contradicts the fundamental needs of human nature.
Giving love produces love
In this book, love is considered not only as of the romantic type, but it is explored in all its forms, which all get down to the same concept: giving without the demand for gaining something back. Love is an active sentiment and, most importantly, it is not a matter of possession (a concept furtherly explored in the book “To have or to be?’’, 1976).
Giving is not about losing something, sacrifice, privation. The “marketing personality’’, associated with modern capitalism (and in which I am sure any reader would find some aspects of himself, starting from our need to sell ourselves and our personalities as appealing “packages” to society), can indeed give, but only if it receives back, otherwise it is a scam. Instead, for Fromm’s ideal and mature type, the “productive character”, a person capable of loving and creating, attributes to giving a totally different meaning, and it is mainly about non-material things:
“What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other—but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness—of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other’s sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness. He does not give in order to receive; giving is in itself exquisite joy.’’
Capitalism and Love: an incompatible relationship
In Fromm’s view, capitalism is a system on the opposite side of the spectrum in which love is. Modern capitalism necessitates people to be standardized and willing to consume more and more, losing their individuality to some conformism that can be anticipated and influenced to maximize the profits. Yet, the modern human is isolated, alienated from himself, the others, nature; he sees himself as a commodity too, all his vital forces must be functional to profit, the rest is a waste of time. Even in the hierarchy of values, capital is at the top, and what once were the means are now the goals. People serve the economic machine, and not vice-versa.
Where does love fit in this? Fromm states that oftentimes marriage is seen as a refuge from solitude, a “contract’’ to exchange each other’s burdens, isolating from the world. But this is just a doubled egoism mistaken for love. Instead, we should strive to practice anti-conformism (i.e. loving authentically) as the norm. How? By overcoming our narcissism, an attitude that makes us feel like the only reality that exists is that inside of us, while the events of the ‘’outside’’ world do not have a reality in themselves, but are just considered under the light of the utility or threat that they represent for us.
The whole idea of love can be truly fulfilled if it is also directed to people outside our nucleus (be it a romantic relationship, our family, our national community) and extends to “foreigners’’ too.
“Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. Yet, most people believe that love is constituted by the object, not by the faculty.”
In his work, Fromm advocated in favour of a humanistic and democratic socialism, where solidarity played a core role. His version of socialism emphasises freedom, rejecting both Soviet communism, where this element was missing, and Western capitalism, a dehumanizing and alienating system.
The element of faith
In love, while one might be consciously fearful of not being loved, the real (although unconscious) fear is that of loving. Loving means trusting completely, getting vulnerable, opening and giving unconditionally, in hope that our love will too arouse love in the person we love. Love is therefore an act of faith.
“To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith; whoever shuts himself off in a system of defense, where distance and possession are his means of security, makes himself a prisoner. To be loved, and to love, need courage, the courage to judge certain values as of ultimate concern—and to take the jump and to stake everything on these values.”
The practice of faith can actually be seen in every act of our daily life: there needs to be faith to start every productive act, or anxiety will make it impossible to make any plans, making us choked by suspicion and apprehensiveness.
Ultimately, faith in others has its maximum expression in faith for humanity. It’s based on the concept that, given the right conditions, humanity will be able to build a social order governed by the principles of equality, justice and love. This a rational faith, based on the evidence of the past conquests of the human race and on the intimate experience of each individual on his capacity to reason and love; irrational faith, on the other side, is based on the submission to a strong, irresistible and omniscient power, to which abdicate one’s own power and strength.
Some might say that talking about love, in this sense, does not fit in the current social-economic structure: that is an extremely cynical, and widespread too, point of view. Although recognizing that capitalism is incompatible with the principle of love, we must admit that capitalism itself is a complex structure that indeed still admits in it some critical judgment and anti-conformism. Those who believe in love as the only rational solution to the problem of human existence are, in Fromm’s opinion, an exception, but they have the duty to make this practice a social phenomenon rather than a marginal one.
The practice of love, as banal as it seems, must be an unceasing activity, a constant attempt, a “streben“, in Johann Fichte’s terms, not something that, once it is reached, is owned. An effort to be also envisioned in society, as a way to always go beyond, to strive for something more, while keeping in mind that the means we have are those of reality and humanity, not those of an unreachable utopia.
‘’In love, like in art, perseverance is everything. I don’t know if love at first sight, or the supernatural intuition, exist. I know that endurance, coherence, reliability, duration, do.’’- Ennio Morricone
Books consulted/further readings:
- “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”, 1973
- “Escape from Freedom”, 1941
- “The Art of Loving”, 1956
- “To Have or to Be?”, 1976
- “The Sane Society”, 1955