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The Art of Loving

Love as an answer to human existence
(from book The Art of Loving, by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm)

"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, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, 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. The experience of separateness arouses anxiety; it is, indeed, the source of all anxiety. Being separate means being cut off, without any capacity to use my human powers. Hence to be separate means to be helpless, unable to grasp the world—things and people—actively; it means that the world can invade me without my ability to react. Thus, separateness is the source of intense anxiety. The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. Man—of all ages and cultures—is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s individual life and find at-onement. But the more the human race emerges from these primary bonds, the more it separates itself from the natural world, the more intense becomes the need to find ways of escaping separateness. [emphasis mine]

Ways of Overcoming Separateness

Unity by orgiastic fusion

One way of achieving this aim lies in all kinds of orgiastic states. These may have the form of auto-induced trance, sometimes with the help of drugs.

Unity by conformity

Also in contemporary Western society the union with the group is the prevalent way of overcoming separateness. It is a union in which the individual disappears to a large extent, and where the aim is to belong to the herd. If I am like everybody else, if I have no feelings or thoughts which make me different, if I conform in custom, dress, ideas, to the pattern of the group, I am saved; saved from the frightening experience of aloneness. Union by conformity is not intense and violent; it is calm, dictated by routine, and for this very reason often insufficient to pacify the anxiety of separateness. The incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive sexualism, and suicide in contemporary Western society are symptoms of this relative failure of herd conformity.

Unity by creative activity

A third way of attaining union lies in creative activity, be it that of the artist, or of the artisan. In any kind of creative work the creating person unites himself with his material, which represents the world outside of himself.The unity achieved in productive work is not interpersonal; the unity achieved by orgiastic fusion is transitory; the unity achieved by conformity is only pseudo-unity. Hence, they are only partial answers to the problem of existence.

Unity by love

The full answer lies in the achievement of interpersonal union, of fusion with another person, in love.

Mature love as the only love

Do we refer to love as the mature answer to the problem of existence, or do we speak of those immature forms of love which may be called symbiotic union? In the following pages, I shall call love only the former. I shall begin the discussion of “love” with the latter.

Symbiotic Union or Immature Love

The passive form of symbiotic union is that of submission, or if we use a clinical term, of masochism. The masochistic person escapes from the unbearable feeling of isolation and separateness by making himself part and parcel of another person who directs him, guides him, protects him; who is his life and his oxygen as it were. [16] The active form of symbiotic union is domination or to use the psychological term corresponding to masochism, sadism. The sadistic person wants to escape from his aloneness and his sense of imprisonment by making another person part and parcel of himself. He inflates and enhances himself by incorporating another person, who worships him.

Mature Love

In contrast to symbiotic union, mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow en, 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.

…love is an action, the practice of a human power which can be practice only in freedom and never the result of compulsion.

Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “’standing in,” not a “falling for”. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

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.

Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love.

Care and concern imply another aspect of love; that of 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 is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere=to look at), to ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is.

To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge.

The other path to knowing “the secret” is love. Love is the active penetration of the other person, in which my desire to know is stilled by union. In the act of fusion, I know you, I know myself, I know everybody—and I “know” nothing.

Infantile love follows the principle: “I love because I am loved.” Mature love follows the principle: “I am loved because I love.” Immature love says: “I love you because I need you.” Mature love says: “I need you because I love you.”

Love and the Objects of Love

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. Saying that love is an orientation which refers to all and not to one does not imply, however, the idea that there are no differences between various types of love, which depend on the kind of object which is loved.

Brotherly love

The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love….Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness. Brotherly love is love between equals: but, indeed, even as equals we are not always “equal”; inasmuch as we are human, we are all in need of help.

Motherly love

Motherly love…is the unconditional affirmation of the child’s life and his needs. In contrast to brotherly love and erotic love which are love between equals, the relationship of mother and child is by its very nature one of inequality, where one needs all the help, and the other gives it. It is for this altruistic, unselfish character that motherly love has been considered the highest kind of love, and the most sacred of all emotional bonds. It seems however that the real achievement of motherly love lies not in the mother’s love for the small infant, but in her love for the growing child.

Erotic love

… it [erotic love] 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. Sexual attraction creates, for the moment, the illusion of union, yet without love this “union” leaves strangers as far apart as they were before—sometimes it makes them ashamed of each other, or even makes them hate each other, because when the illusion has gone, they feel estrangement even more markedly than before.


While it raises no objection to apply the concept of love to various objects, it is a widespread belief that while it is virtuous to love others, it is sinful to love oneself. The idea expressed in the Biblical “Love thy neighbor as thyself!” implies that respect for one’s own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another individual. The love for my own self is inseparable connected with the love for any other being. The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e., n care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge. If an individual is able to love productively, he loves himself too; if he can love only others, he cannot love at all.

Love of God

God becomes to him a symbol in which man, at an earlier stage of his evolution, has expressed the totality of that which man is striving for, the realm of the spiritual world, of love, truth and justice. He has faith in the principles which “God” represents; he thinks truth, lives love and justice and considers all of his life only valuable inasmuch as it gives him the chance to arrive at an ever fuller unfolding of his human powers—as the only reality that matters, as the only object of “ultimate concern”; and, eventually, de does not speak about God—nor even mention his name. To love God, if he were going to use this word, would mean, then, to long for the attainment of the full capacity of love, for the realization of that which “God” stands for in oneself.


Having dealt with the theoretical aspect of the art of loving, we now are confronted with a much more difficult problem, that of the practice of the art of loving. Can anything be learned about the practice of an art, except by practicing it?

Requirements for the practice of the art of loving

The practice of any art has certain general requirements, quite regardless of whether we deal with the art of carpentry, medicine, or the art of love.


First of all, the practice of an art requires discipline. I shall never be good at anything if I do not do it in a discipline way; anything I do only if “I am in the mood” may be nice or amusing, but I shall never become a master in that art. How does one practice discipline?….It is essential, however, that discipline should not be practiced like a rule imposed on oneself from the outside, but that it becomes an expression of one’s own will’; that it is felt as pleasant, and that one slowly accustoms oneself to a kind of behaviour which one would eventually miss, if one stopped practicing it.


That concentration is a necessary condition for the mastery of an art is hardly necessary to prove. Anyone who ever tried to learn an art knows this. Concentration is by far more difficult to practice in our culture, in which everything seems to act against the ability to concentrate. The most important step in learning concentration is to learn to be alone with oneself without reading, listening to the radio, smoking or drinking. Indeed, to be able to concentrate means to be able to be alone with oneself—and this ability is precisely a condition for the ability to love…. Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the condition for the ability to love. To be concentrated means to live fully in the present, in the here and now, and not to think of the next thing to be done, while I am doing something right now.


A third factor is patience. Again, anyone who ever tried to master an art knows that patience is necessary if you want to achieve anything. If one is after quick results, one never learns an art. To have the idea of what patience is one need only watch a child learning to walk. It falls, falls again, and falls again, and yet it goes on trying, improving until one day it walks without falling. What could the grown-up person achieve if he had the child’s patience and its concentration in the pursuits which are important to him!

Supreme Concern

Eventually, a condition of learning any art is a supreme concern with the mastery of the art. If the art is not something of supreme importance, the apprentice will never learn it. He will remain, at best, a good dilettante. The practice of the art of loving requires the practice of faith. Faith in oneself is a condition of our ability to promise, and since, as Nietzsche said, man can be defined by his capacity to promise, faith is one of the conditions of human existence. What matters in relation to love is the faith in one’s own love; in its ability to produce love in others, and in its reliability.

…one will also recognize that while one is consciously afraid of not being loved, the real, though usually unconscious fear is that of loving. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person.

Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love".

Comments (1)

Great article, Nensi! I first encountered "The Art of Loving" by Erich Fromm in my late 20s and absorbed every word of it. I was so impressed by it that I gave copies of it to friends and acquaintances.
Fromm stresses that love is based on a decision and not just a feeling - "Love is a decision, it is a judgement, 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 judgement and decision."
I summed up the contents of the book with my personal quote:
"To truly love, one must first be free;
one must experience oneself from the essence of one's being,
one must have no need of another as a crutch in anyway;
only then it is possible to truly love."
Without trying to steal your thunder,I strongly recommend the book to all and I am sure you will join me in this, especially to young people.
Thank you for highlighting it in your article.

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