Copyright © 2007-2017 Russ Dewey
Humans have been concerned with love for centuries, so it should be no wonder that a perfectly up-to-date book on the psychology of love was written long before most of today's students were born. This book is The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm.
Fromm–who died in 1980–wrote 20 books on different topics, but The Art of Loving is his best-known work. It is a slim volume packed with insights and one of the few theories of love. One of Fromm's biographers, Lawrence J. Friedman, wrote:
Fromm's 1956 volume, The Art of Loving, has sold more than twenty-five million copies globally and is a favorite of my Harvard undergraduates today as it was with my classmates at the University of California hal a century ago. For generations, it has been a volume with remarkable ties to its readers' personal and social lives. (Friedman, 2013)
Fromm made a famous statement in The Art of Loving : "Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence." To Fromm, our biggest problem as humans comes from our biggest gift: our awareness that we exist. We are "life being aware of itself."
What famous statement did Fromm make?
This is part of what makes human experience precious. But it also leads to problems. If you realize you exist as a distinct person, a thing apart, then you also have the ability to feel separate and alone in the universe.
Existential means pertaining to existence. Existential loneliness is the feeling of being cut-off or alone in your existence. Just as we know we exist, we are able to know that we will die. We are capable of sensing the infinite, or feeling like tiny specks of dust in the universe, insignificant and worthless.
What is existential loneliness?
You can be surrounded by people and still feel existential aloneness. A college student away from home for the first time wrote this essay:
Fromm wrote about the characteristic humans have of being "existentially alone" or cut off from the rest of the world. This topic really hit home with me, because this quarter I have felt more isolated from the rest of the world than ever before.
I grew up in a town called Portal. The population of Portal is about 700 people, plus an assortment of cats, dogs, and other pets. We have about five gasoline stations, a bank, a post office, three Minit Marts, and a public school, which I attended.
The school had around 200 people, and everybody knew everybody. Most of the classes were designed so that if you gave the slightest bit of effort, you could get by. Life for me during this time was simple. No complications, just "pretty smooth sailing."
Then comes college.
I'd heard various opinions on this thing called college in my later high school years, ranging from very hard, to mind-blowing, to fun, to "a whole different ball game," and other descriptions. My opinion since arriving here is: it's all this, and more.
College is truly an overwhelming experience. There are so many things to get involved in, so many tests to study for, so many people to meet...
College has given me a whole new outlook on the meaning of existence. I have experienced a culture shock that has left me with a painful feeling of aloneness in the world.
I guess all freshmen have this feeling sooner or later. My parents say they experienced the same thing, and it will pass. I sincerely hope so, because I certainly can't go with this terrible feeling for the next four years of my life. [Author's files]
How did the student feel existential loneliness?
Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, said simply, "In examining the human experience, I find that loneliness is one of the great plagues of mankind." Our modern way of life fails to provide the community and extended family ties of ancient village life.
Fromm believed that a powerful and primary motivation of humans, as strong in its own way as the drives of hunger and thirst, was the need to overcome aloneness by achieving union with something outside the self. Fromm lists four different ways this union can be achieved.
As ways of overcoming existential loneliness, these were four "solutions to the problem of existence" in Fromm's eyes. The four show up in all different societies, forming "the panorama of human culture" as Fromm put it. They are orgiastic states, conformity, creative activity, and love.
What is "a powerful and primary motivation of humans," according to Fromm?
Throughout human history people have taken part in group rituals in which they forget themselves, dissolving their self-consciousness in the crowd. Fromm describes the orgiastic state as an "auto-induced trance, often supplemented with drugs."
What do such states accomplish? They allow the individual to forget his or her problems, fuse with the group, and become part of something (the celebration, the party, the tribe) larger than his or her self. In this sense, orgiastic states are indeed a solution to the problem of existence; they help people overcome aloneness.
In what sense are orgiastic states a solution?
Pete Townshend, lead guitarist of the Who, was interviewed after a tragic Cincinnati concert where 11 fans were killed in a rush for seats. He remarked:
People talk about mobs. But the whole purpose of a rock concert is for people to forget themselves, to lose their egos in the crowd and to disappear–a temporary sort of flight. (Rockwell, 1979)
The disadvantage of the orgiastic state as a solution to the problem of existence is that the loss of ego is only temporary (or perhaps permanent if you get trampled). A person may feel united for a moment with people at a party or musical performance, but the next morning only a memory is left.
What is a disadvantage of the orgiastic state, as a solution?
Fromm also points out that orgiastic states can be guilt-inducing if they go against a person's upbringing. When they meet the approval of a peer group (as in ancient community celebrations) orgiastic states are not guilt producing.
The second solution Fromm mentions is conformity–the attempt to adopt values, habits, and appearances of other people. The conformist seeks to avoid anxiety and aloneness by being like everybody else.
Pressures of attending a new school can lead to feelings of insecurity and a sudden need for conformity:
Last year I had a friend who went off to college to live. When she was a senior in high school and throughout the summer, we talked about how different things would be when she was gone.
She swore she wouldn't join a sorority. But then I got letters from her saying that she was doing really well and that she had joined a sorority.
One weekend I went to visit her. When I saw and talked to her, her attitudes had changed about a lot of things.
I was really confused by all of this. Finally I got up the courage to ask her why she had changed.
She told me that when she first got there she didn't have any girlfriends and that it was hard to make friends. She also said that she needed an outlet from the stress of schoolwork.
That outlet was socializing in a sorority. She wanted to "fit in" so she changed. [Author's files]
Why does Fromm say conformity is also a poor solution?
What is so awful about wanting to fit in? Nothing, but Fromm says conformity is a poor solution to the problem of achieving union with something outside the ego. It mistakes imitation of others for union with others.
Conformity is used as a means to an end–a way of achieving entry to a group that provides genuine social support. But conformity in itself is not satisfying, and it can give one a feeling of being inauthentic, of sacrificing one's individuality in order to embrace a group norm.
Fromm wryly points out that conformity has one advantage: you can practice it from birth to death. Your birth can take place in the currently stylish way, you can grow up liking the same things as all the other kids, you can keep up with the Joneses as an adult. You can even have standardized, approved funeral rites when you die.
A third way to achieve union with things outside the self is through creative work. An artist often becomes lost in his or her work. The sense of a separate and lonely self disappears during a creative act.
Creative activity need not involve art or music, although those are prime examples. Anything a person "gets into" can qualify as creative activity...from working on cars to playing tennis to reading.
Creativity as a solution to the problem of human existence is a good solution, compared to the first two. But it has some drawbacks, as Fromm pointed out.
First, adult responsibilities may not leave time for creative outlets, and even high-
What are some possible drawbacks to creative activity as a "solution"
Consider this student's solution.
When we studied Fromm's The Art of Loving, I learned about creative activity as a way to achieve union with something outside the ego. Fromm said that this could occur with any creative activity such as sports, music, or painting. I never realized that when I rode horses, I was engaging in this type of union.
Whenever I am upset, in a bad mood or lonely, I go to the barn and ride for a few hours. This immediately takes my mind off all kinds of pressures. When I'm working with horses I forget everything and take pleasure in what I am doing at the moment. I feel at one with the horse...
Most people like to have some kind of companionship when they are lonely, but all I need is the companionship of my horse and a quiet ride through the country. And when I return home, all my problems have vanished; I can think clearly again.
Unfortunately, there isn't a barn around here where I can go when I'm feeling down. Also, I don't ever have the time for any activities because of my workload. But when summer comes, I'll be back at the barn to relax in my own little world. [Author's files]
The student has a good "solution to the problem of existence," but her essay also illustrates two difficulties Fromm saw in the solution of creative activity. The student's creative activity is solitary (except for the horse) and it is something she cannot always work into her increasingly busy adult life.
Creative activity need not be solitary, and it need not be as arty or romantic as riding horses. One student wrote:
If there's one thing in this world that makes me feel good when all else fails it's lifting weights. This is about as creative as I get but I thoroughly enjoy it. The weights serve many different purposes.
First of all it's an excellent way to transform my aggression. Even my mother tells me if I skip a workout I'm hard to live with. Second, the weights serve my need to better myself in some way. I think maybe it's the hard work and the hard-worked-for results. It's definitely a form of love (love for an activity).
What "unity" does the weightlifter feel?
There's no better feeling than to go to the gym and work out and have someone say, "Boy, you're looking good." Third, there's a unity one forms at the gym with the other lifters. Everyone there is striving toward the same basic goals only with a few personal touches.
There's a feeling everyone shares that brings the group together. To me lifting weights is my ultimate form of creative activity. [Author's files]
Friedman, R. J. (2013) The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love's Prophet. New York: Columbia University Press.
Fromm, E. (1956). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper.
Rockwell, J. (1979, December 7). Numbness Persists, Rock Group Says. The New York Times, p.A22.
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007-2017 Russ Dewey