Love and the Wisdom of Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was born March 18, 1900 and died March 23, 1980. He was a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher and democratic socialist. And if you're ever read any of his voluminous work, you'd probably agree he was indeed a wise and deep thinking man.

In a time when love is so often thought of as feeling, it can be considered offensive to suggest that its status is considerably vaster and more far reaching. Many will hold fast to their conviction that love is primarily feeling when it has been suggested by many philosophers and theologians over the ages that love is, in its highest manifestation, action oriented.

I will humbly confess at this juncture to being an incurable romantic. Some might conclude that I would accordingly place my chips on the feeling side of love ledger rather than the action side. I've experienced episodes of unrequited love accompanied by a yearning so profound that my life was utterly capsized. Would I trade it in? I waver depending on the day. But it must be said that these heart wrenching and passionate feelings did not amount to anything more than some very good poetry. This is not entirely true of course .. what a person learns from not having their love returned is something no formal instruction can ever provide, but in this sorrowful world of soulless accounting, unrequited love only cashes out in securities if you've been able to masterfully elevate it to an art form as our countryman Leonard Cohen has so admirably done. Failing that, you have to trust that there is another ledger far more concerned with your soul than with your financial net worth. It can be said that I've heavily invested in that one.

What can be said about unrequited love can also be said about fleeting short term relationships, extra-marital affairs and flings. They don't ask much of us other than to bask in the heady euphoria of initial magnetic attraction and elevated levels of dopamine and oxytocin pumping through our neural pathways (and let's be honest, there's usually some form of suffering around the corner no matter what shape a relationship takes and no matter how brief or lengthy in duration .. some degree of pain whether it be disillusionment, betrayal, or separation comes with the territory). And so let it be said that I don't object to any of these experiences per se .. they have been in this world for some time and appear to be essential to the human journey .. but this feeling dimension of love typically receives more airplay and attention than the roll up your sleeves variety does. The labour of love is just that .. labour. And perhaps it is less prized due to our aversion to hard work and responsibility. And perhaps a mature love is one that prizes the labour.

Love requires traction for it to be more than a passing phenomenon. It’s got to be able to travel well beyond its own initial generosity and it needs our muscle to do so.

It is well worth considering that, as well as love's capacity to shower us with beautiful feelings, love asks something of us. Love wants us to hold it in high regard by how we converse with it, attend to it, and roll up our sleeves on its behalf. Love requires traction for it to be more than a passing phenomenon. It's got to be able to travel well beyond its own initial generosity and it needs our muscle to do so. We can't rely on love's generosity to fuel us indefinitely. And why would we expect it to? At some point we need to stand for love, to nourish love, to feed love. And certainly this is what marriage and long-term relationships teach us. Love needs our maturity, devotion, willingness, commitment and labour. Most of us experience moments and times when we don't feel loved, loveable, or loving. Yet we seem to think something's missing during those times .. we seem to think it's our indisputable right to feel love ongoingly in our relationships when in fact all manner of feelings inhabit the terrain. The truth is .. even when our lives are coloured by less compelling feelings on the feeling palette such as ambivalence, doubt, mistrust, or hurt to name but a few, we can still labour on behalf of love. 

And so now at the edge of sixty years old, I would say this .. love is what you do .. and in its doingness it does not leave you outside in the cold shivering without feeling. It is incredibly deep with feeling but not just the feelings we want. Mature love does not discriminate against feeling .. it grants entry to the full astonishing bandwidth, saying yes to the mayhem and the labour. Love holds us accountable .. it says .. don't expect me to do all the work for you .. don't mistake me for merely a sweet heavenly blissful feeling .. I'm so much more .. I'm robust, I'm strong, I've got teeth, I love hard work and I love the impossible. Show me what you've got and together we'll make something worthy of being talked about and remembered. Now let's get to work!

A sampling of quotes from Erich Fromm's work:

“Love 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.”

“Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort.”


A beautiful and poignant scene on the labour of love.


“Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice.”

“One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often.”

“Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an ordination of character which determines the relatedness of the person to the whole world as a whole, not toward one object of love”

“The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one's narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one's desires and fears.”

Erich Fromm On Culture

“The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas and feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing on reason or mental health.”


And two more video morsels ..