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The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

“The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”

The Art of Living: The Great Humanistic Philosopher Erich Fromm on Having vs. Being and How to Set Ourselves Free from the Chains of Our Culture

A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human.

In the mid-1970s, twenty years after his influential treatise on the art of loving and four decades after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead turned to him for difficult advice, Fromm became interested in the most basic, most challenging art of human life — the art of being. At the height of a new era that had begun prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Fromm penned a short, potent book titled To Have or To Be? — an inquiry into how the great promise of progress, seeded by the Industrial Revolution, failed us in our most elemental search for meaning and well-being. But the question proved far too complex to tackle in a single volume, so Fromm left out a significant portion of his manuscript.

Those pages, in many ways even richer and more insightful than the original book, were later published as The Art of Being (public library) — a sort of field guide, all the timelier today, to how we can shift from the having mode of existence, which is systematically syphoning our happiness, to a being mode.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

Fromm frames the inquiry:

The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.

But any effort to outline the steps of this breakthrough, Fromm cautions, must begin with the foundational question of what the goal of living is — that is, what we consider the meaning of life to be, beyond its biological purpose. He writes:

It seems that nature — or if you will, the process of evolution — has endowed every living being with the wish to live, and whatever he believes to be his reasons are only secondary thoughts by which he rationalizes this biologically given impulse.

[…]

That we want to live, that we like to live, are facts that require no explanation. But if we ask how we want to live — what we seek from life, what makes life meaningful for us — then indeed we deal with questions (and they are more or less identical) to which people will give many different answers. Some will say they want love, others will choose power, others security, others sensuous pleasure and comfort, others fame; but most would probably agree in the statement that what they want is happiness. This is also what most philosophers and theologians have declared to be the aim of human striving. However, if happiness covers such different, and mostly mutually exclusive, contents as the ones just mentioned, it becomes an abstraction and thus rather useless. What matters is to examine what the term “happiness” means…

Art from Kenny’s Window, Maurice Sendak’s forgotten philosophical children’s book

Most definitions of happiness, Fromm observes, converge at some version of having our needs met and our wishes fulfilled — but this raises the question of what it is we actually want. (As Milan Kundera memorably wrote, “we can never know what to want.”) It’s essentially a question about human nature — or, rather, about the interplay of nature and nurture mediated by norms. Adding to the vocabulary of gardening as a metaphor for understanding happiness and making sense of mastery, Fromm illustrates his point:

This is indeed well understood by any gardener. The aim of the life of a rosebush is to be all that is inherent as potentiality in the rosebush: that its leaves are well developed and that its flower is the most perfect rose that can grow out of this seed. The gardener knows, then, in order to reach this aim he must follow certain norms that have been empirically found. The rosebush needs a specific kind of soil, of moisture, of temperature, of sun and shade. It is up to the gardener to provide these things if he wants to have beautiful roses. But even without his help the rosebush tries to provide itself with the optimum of needs. It can do nothing about moisture and soil, but it can do something about sun and temperature by growing “crooked,” in the direction of the sun, provided there is such an opportunity. Why would not the same hold true for the human species?

Even if we had no theoretical knowledge about the reasons for the norms that are conducive to man’s optimal growth and functioning, experience tells us just as much as it tells the gardener. Therein lies the reason that all great teachers of man have arrived at essentially the same norms for living, the essence of these norms being that the overcoming of greed, illusions, and hate, and the attainment of love and compassion, are the conditions for attaining optimal being. Drawing conclusions from empirical evidence, even if we cannot explain the evidence theoretically, is a perfectly sound and by no means “unscientific” method, although the scientists’ ideal will remain, to discover the laws behind the empirical evidence.

He distills the basic principle of life’s ultimate aim:

The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conducive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

But one of the essential ingredients of well-being, Fromm notes, has been gruesomely warped by capitalist industrial society — the idea of freedom and its attainment by the individual:

Liberation has been exclusively applied to liberation from outside forces; by the middle class from feudalism, by the working class from capitalism, by the peoples in Africa and Asia from imperialism.

Such external liberation, Fromm argues, is essentially political liberation — an inherently limiting pseudo-liberation, which can obscure the emergence of various forms of imprisonment and entrapment within the political system. He writes:

This is the case in Western democracy, where political liberation hides the fact of dependency in many disguises… Man can be a slave even without being put in chains… The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free. He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?

Any attempt to overcome the possibly fatal crisis of the industrialized part of the world, and perhaps of the human race, must begin with the understanding of the nature of both outer and inner chains; it must be based on the liberation of man in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense… The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.

The two most pernicious chains keeping us from liberation, Fromm observes, are our culture’s property-driven materialism and our individual intrinsic tendencies toward narcissism. He writes:

If “well-being” — [defined as] functioning well as a person, not as an instrument — is the supreme goal of one’s efforts, two specific ways stand out that lead to the attainment of this goal: Breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

He offers the crispest definition of narcissism I’ve encountered (something that took Kafka a 47-page letter to articulate):

Narcissism is an orientation in which all one’s interest and passion are directed to one’s own person: one’s body, mind, feelings, interests… For the narcissistic person, only he and what concerns him are fully real; what is outside, what concerns others, is real only in a superficial sense of perception; that is to say, it is real for one’s senses and for one’s intellect. But it is not real in a deeper sense, for our feeling or understanding. He is, in fact, aware only of what is outside, inasmuch as it affects him. Hence, he has no love, no compassion, no rational, objective judgment. The narcissistic person has built an invisible wall around himself. He is everything, the world is nothing. Or rather: He is the world.

But because narcissism can come in many guises, Fromm cautions, it can be particularly challenging to detect in oneself in order to then eradicate — and yet without doing so, “the further way to self-completion is blocked.”

A parallel peril to well-being comes from the egotism and selfishness seeded by our ownership-driven society, a culture that prioritizes having over being by making property its primary mode of existence. Fromm writes:

A person living in this mode is not necessarily very narcissistic. He may have broken through the shell of his narcissism, have an adequate appreciation of reality outside himself, not necessarily be “in love with himself”; he knows who he is and who the others are, and can well distinguish between subjective experience and reality. Nevertheless, he wants everything for himself; has no pleasure in giving, in sharing, in solidarity, in cooperation, in love. He is a closed fortress, suspicious of others, eager to take and most reluctant to give.

Growth, he argues, requires a dual breakthrough — of narcissism and of property-driven existence. Although the first steps toward this breaking from bondage are bound to be anxiety-producing, this initial discomfort is but a paltry price for the larger rewards of well-being awaiting us on the other side of the trying transformation:

If a person has the will and the determination to loosen the bars of his prison of narcissism and selfishness, when he has the courage to tolerate the intermittent anxiety, he experiences the first glimpses of joy and strength that he sometimes attains. And only then a decisive new factor enters into the dynamics of the process. This new experience becomes the decisive motivation for going ahead and following the path he has charted… [An] experience of well-being — fleeting and small as it may be — … becomes the most powerful motivation for further progress…

Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed. At a certain point the energy and direction of inner forces have changed to the point where an individual’s sense of identity has changed, too. In the property mode of existence the motto is: “I am what I have.” After the breakthrough it is “I am what I do” (in the sense of unalienated activity); or simply, “I am what I am.”

In the remainder of The Art of Being, Fromm explores the subtleties and practicalities of enacting this transformation. Complement it with legendary social scientist John W. Gardner, a contemporary of Fromm’s, on the art of self-renewal, then revisit Fromm’s abiding wisdom on what is keeping us from mastering the art of love.

BP

Billy Collins Reads His Homage to Aristotle

A wonderful ode to how the great Greek philosopher shaped the paradigm of storytelling.

Billy Collins Reads His Homage to Aristotle

Long, long before Kurt Vonnegut diagramed the shapes of stories and Joseph Campbell outlined the eleven stages of the hero’s journey, Aristotle formulated for the first time the notion that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end — a notion so commonsensical to us today that it appears banal, which of course is always the proof of a meme’s successful uptake in culture over time.

To celebrate the centrality of this concept in the human experience, beloved poet Billy Collins (b. March 22, 1941) paid homage to the Ancient Greek philosopher’s imprint on storytelling in a beautiful poem titled “Aristotle,” found in his altogether wonderful 1998 poetry collection Picnic, Lightning (public library).

In this recording from his spoken-word album The Best Cigarette, Collins reads his ode to Aristotle:

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes—
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

Complement with Collins’s reading of his poem “Marginalia,” then revisit Aristotle’s abiding wisdom on doing the right thing and the ethic of friendship.

BP

Why Love Hurts: The Sociology of How Our Institutions Rather Than Our Personal Psychological Failings Shape the Romantic Agony of Modern Life

“To perform gender identity and gender struggles is to perform the institutional and cultural core dilemmas and ambivalence of modernity.”

Why Love Hurts: The Sociology of How Our Institutions Rather Than Our Personal Psychological Failings Shape the Romantic Agony of Modern Life

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” philosopher Erich Fromm wrote in his foundational 1956 inquiry into what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving. But why is it, really, that frustration is indelible to satisfaction in romance? At least since Jacques Ferrand’s 17th-century treatise on lovesickness, scholars have attempted to shed light on the phenomenon that has inspired the vast majority of art, music, and literature since humanity’s dawn — the pain of love.

In Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation (public library), French-Moroccan sociologist and Israeli public intellectual Eva Illouz examines how the social organization of modern life has profoundly altered the hues and texture of our experience of romantic agony by transforming three elemental aspects of the self: “the will (how we want something), recognition (what matters for our sense of worth), and desire (what we long for and how we long for it).”

Illustration from An ABZ of Love Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

Although unrequited love and the anguish of longing have a perennial place in our experience of romantic pain, Illouz is concerned with the pain that lives within actualized romantic relationships. She writes:

When relationships do get formed, agonies do not fade away, as one may feel bored, anxious, or angry in them; have painful arguments and conflicts; or, finally, go through the confusion, self-doubts, and depression of break-ups or divorces…. Despite the widespread and almost collective character of these experiences, our culture insists they are the result of faulty or insufficiently mature psyches.

The rise of clinical psychology in the twentieth century only solidified and granted scientific legitimacy to this notion that our romantic misery is a function of our psychological failings — an idea that caught on in large part because implicit to it was the promise that those failings can be deconditioned. And yet, Illouz argues, such overemphasis on individual shortcomings gravely warps the broader reality — a reality in which the systems, institutions, and social contracts that govern our existence seed the core ambivalence of love and life: what we really want.

She writes:

In the same way that at the end of the nineteenth century it was radical to claim that poverty was the result not of dubious morality or weak character, but of systematic economic exploitation, it is now urgent to claim not that the failures of our private lives are the result of weak psyches, but rather that the vagaries and miseries of our emotional life are shaped by institutional arrangements… What is wrong are not dysfunctional childhoods or insufficiently self-aware psyches, but the set of social and cultural tensions and contradictions that have come to structure modern selves and identities.

[…]

The reason why love is so central to our happiness and identity is not far from the reason why it is such a difficult aspect of our experience: both have to do with the ways in which self and identity are institutionalized in modernity… Love contains, mirrors, and amplifies the “entrapment” of the self in the institutions of modernity, institutions, to be sure, shaped by economic and gender relations.

Art from Love Is Walking Hand in Hand by Charles Schulz, 1965
Art from Love Is Walking Hand in Hand by Charles Schulz, 1965

What Marx demonstrated about commodities in the marketplace Illouz aims to demonstrate about the economy of love:

[Love] is shaped and produced by concrete social relations [and] circulates in a marketplace of unequal competing actors… Some people command greater capacity to define the terms in which they are loved than others.

Illouz argues that sociology — a discipline, more than any other, “born out of a frantic and anxious questioning about the meaning and consequences of modernity” — is the most revelatory lens through which to examine how modern life, marked by the period beginning at the end of WWI, has restructured the romantic self. Nearly a century after Bertrand Russell’s inquiry into why religion arose in human life and what is supplanting it, she considers how the displacement of religion by secular culture has impacted our ideals and our interior experience of love:

Modernity sobered people up from the powerful but sweet delusions and illusions that had made the misery of their lives bearable. Devoid of these fantasies, we would lead our lives without commitment to higher principles and values, without the fervor and ecstasy of the sacred, without the heroism of saints, without the certainty and orderliness of divine commandments, but most of all without those fictions that console and beautify.

Such sobering up is nowhere more apparent than in the realm of love, which for several centuries in the history of Western Europe had been governed by the ideals of chivalry, gallantry, and romanticism. The male ideal of chivalry had one cardinal stipulation: to defend the weak with courage and loyalty. The weakness of women was thus contained in a cultural system in which it was acknowledged and glorified because it transfigured male power and female frailty into lovable qualities… Women’s social inferiority could thus be traded for men’s absolute devotion in love, which in turn served as the very site of display and exercise of their masculinity, prowess, and honor. More: women’s dispossession of economic and political rights was accompanied (and presumably compensated) by the reassurance that in love they were not only protected by men but also superior to them. It is therefore unsurprising that love has been historically so powerfully seductive to women; it promised them the moral status and dignity they were otherwise denied in society and it glorified their social fate: taking care of and loving others, as mothers, wives, and lovers. Thus, historically, love was highly seductive precisely because it concealed as it beautified the deep inequalities at the heart of gender relationships.

[…]

To perform gender identity and gender struggles is to perform the institutional and cultural core dilemmas and ambivalence of modernity, dilemmas that are organized around the key cultural and institutional motives of authenticity, autonomy, equality, freedom, commitment, and self-realization. To study love is not peripheral but central to the study of the core and foundation of modernity.

As sexuality became unmoored from morality, love became a currency for social mobility. Illouz places this shift alongside the Scientific Revolution, the invention of the printing press, and the rise of capitalism in its effects on our lives and our basic experience of identity. She writes:

While love has played a considerable role in the formation of what historians call “affective individualism,” the story of love in modernity tends to present it as a heroic one, from bondage to freedom. When love triumphs, so this story goes, marriages of convenience and interest disappear, and individualism, autonomy, and freedom are triumphant. Nevertheless, while I agree that romantic love challenged both patriarchy and the family institution, the “pure relationship” also rendered the private sphere more volatile and the romantic consciousness unhappy. What makes love such a chronic source of discomfort, disorientation, and even despair … can be adequately explained only by sociology and by understanding the cultural and institutional core of modernity.

[…]

By juxtaposing the ideal of romantic love with the institution of marriage, modern polities embed social contradictions in our aspirations, contradictions which in turn take a psychological life. The institutional organization of marriage (predicated on monogamy, cohabitation, and the pooling of economic resources together in order to increase wealth) precludes the possibility of maintaining romantic love as an intense and all-consuming passion. Such a contradiction forces agents to perform a significant amount of cultural work in order to manage and reconcile the two competing cultural frames. This juxtaposition of two cultural frames in turn illustrates how the anger, frustration, and disappointment that often inhere in love and marriage have their basis in social and cultural arrangements.

How to reconcile these competing cultural frames and manage the deep, daily frustrations they germinate is what Illouz goes on to explore in the remainder of the illuminating Why Love Hurts. Complement it with philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love and Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage.

BP

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