In this short book, Fromm argues that love is not something easy, that we "just know" how to do. Instead, it is an art that must be mastered, both in theory and practice. The ability to love is dependent on a person's personal growth, specifically on overcoming one's dependency, narcissism, and exploitation of others, and instead having faith in one's own abilities and strenght.
Importantly, love is not just a relationship with one specific person, but an attitude and orientation towards the world as a whole. Loving only one person while being indifferent to others is not true love but a symbiotic attachment or an enlarged egotism.
Hardly anyone thinks that there is anything that needs to be learned about love.
People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love—or to be loved by—is difficult.
“Attractive” usually means a nice package of qualities which are popular and sought after on the personality market. What specifically makes a person attractive depends on the fashion of the time, physically as well as mentally.
Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values.
In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.
This attitude—that nothing is easier than to love—has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.
To examine the reasons for this failure, and to proceed to study the meaning of love. The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art. The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice.
Any theory of love must begin with a theory of man, of human existence.
Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, [...] the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside. The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety.
Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.
The ability to love as an act of giving depends on the character development of the person. It presupposes the attainment of a predominantly productive orientation; in this orientation the person has overcome dependency, narcissistic omnipotence, the wish to exploit others, or to hoard, and has acquired faith in his own human powers, courage to rely on his powers in the attainment of his goals.
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.
Beyond the element of giving, the active character of love becomes evident in the fact that it always implies certain basic elements, common to all forms of love. These are care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.
Care: Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love.
Responsibility: Responsibility, in its true sense, is an entirely voluntary act; it is my response to the needs, expressed or unexpressed, of another human being. To be “responsible” means to be able and ready to “respond.”
Respect: Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me.
Knowledge: I have to know the other person and myself objectively, in order to be able to see his reality, or rather, to overcome the illusions, the irrationally distorted picture I have of him. Only if I know a human being objectively, can I know him in his ultimate essence, in the act of love.
Care, responsibility, respect and knowledge are mutually interdependent. They are a syndrome of attitudes which are to be found in the mature person; that is, in the person who develops his own powers productively, who only wants to have that which he has worked for, who has given up narcissistic dreams of omniscience and omnipotence, who has acquired humility based on the inner strength which only genuine productive activity can give.
Motherly love, as I said there, is unconditional affirmation of the child’s life and his needs. Affirmation of the child’s life has two aspects; one is the care and responsibility absolutely necessary for the preservation of the child’s life and his growth. The other aspect goes further than mere preservation. It is the attitude which instills in the child a love for living, which gives him the feeling: it is good to be alive, it is good to be a little boy or girl, it is good to be on this earth!
Most mothers are capable of giving “milk,” but only a minority of giving “honey” too. In order to be able to give honey, a mother must not only be a “good mother,” but a happy person—and this aim is not achieved by many.
This experience of being loved by mother is a passive one. There is nothing I have to do in order to be loved—mother’s love is unconditional. All I have to do is to be—to be her child. Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved. But there is a negative side, too, to the unconditional quality of mother’s love. Not only does it not need to be deserved—it also cannot be acquired, produced, controlled. If it is there, it is like a blessing; if it is not there, it is as if all beauty had gone out of life—and there is nothing I can do to create it.
Fatherly love is conditional love. Its principle is “I love you because you fulfill my expectations, because you do your duty, because you are like me.” In conditional fatherly love we find, as with unconditional motherly love, a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect is the very fact that fatherly love has to be deserved, that it can be lost if one does not do what is expected.
The positive side is equally important. Since his love is conditioned, I can do something to acquire it, I can work for it; his love is not outside of my control as motherly love is.
Eventually, the mature person has come to the point where he is his own mother and his own father.
This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbor as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness.
In contrast to both types of love is erotic love; it is the craving for complete fusion, for union with one other person. It is by its very nature exclusive and not universal; it is also perhaps the most deceptive form of love there is. It seems that sexual desire can easily blend with and be stimulated by any strong emotion, of which love is only one.
Because sexual desire is in the minds of most people coupled with the idea of love, they are easily misled to conclude that they love each other when they want each other physically.
Self-love cannot be summarized better than by quoting Meister Eckhart on this topic: “If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself. As long as you love another person less than you love yourself, you will not really succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all alike, including yourself, you will love them as one person and that person is both God and man. Thus he is a great and righteous person who, loving himself, loves all others equally.”
The love of God is neither the knowledge of God in thought, nor the thought of one’s love of God, but the act of experiencing the oneness with God. This leads to the emphasis on the right way of living. All of life, every little and every important action, is devoted to the knowledge of God, but a knowledge not in right thought, but in right action.
[The practice of love requires many personal characteristics, such as discipline, concentration, patience, a supreme concern with the mastery of the art, faith, productive intellectual and emotional activity.]
To be active in thought, feeling, with one’s eyes and ears, throughout the day, to avoid inner laziness, be it in the form of being receptive, hoarding, or plain wasting one’s time, is an indispensable condition for the practice of the art of loving.
The capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awakeness, enhanced vitality, which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.
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.