The Art of Loving: Erich Fromm’s Exploration of the Nature of Love

Do you want to understand the nature of love? Erich Fromm’s book The Art of Loving provides a deep exploration into the science and practice of love.

Jun 16, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

erich fromm art of loving


Is it hard to love? Can love be learned, and how? When do we truly love, and when do we indulge our ego? How should a child be treated so they grow up with a mature personality capable of loving? When does love only make us stronger without destroying or suppressing our personality?


Answers to these important questions can be found in the book The Art of Loving by the German psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm.


Although these are not the only issues Fromm is devoted to in his research, his theory of love deserves special attention, as it covers all aspects of this phenomenon: love for parents, a person of the opposite sex, oneself, and life.


How and Why Did The Art of Loving Get Written?

müller may erich fromm
Photograph of Erich Fromm by Müller-May, 1974, via the Erich Fromm Institute.


The 1950s were a period when the Second World War had ended relatively recently. Everything was developing, changing, and progressing. The era of capitalism was reaching its peak. As a result, the institution of the family also changed.

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In the 19th century, when creating a family, the leading motive was respect and social status. However, in the 1950s, mores changed. Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious fundamentally turned the old manifestations of love upside down. And Erich Fromm’s development of Freud’s ideas was a logical conclusion.


In 1956, Erich Fromm created the work The Art of Loving. In this work, Fromm introduces readers not only to his theory of love but also touches on the opinions of other psychologists and thinkers. He does not agree with Freud, noting that human nature is man’s passion, and their anxieties are the product of culture. Thus, the reader looks at the topic of love from different positions and can pick the opinion they find closest to their heart.


According to the author, love is an art just like music and painting. Love, like any other activity, needs to be learned. It must be a conscious process. Like any business, love requires not only the theoretical assimilation of knowledge but also practice.


Love requires constant work on oneself and self-giving. Only by fully liberating thoughts and feelings can a person truly love. The Art of Loving is a seminal work that will break down the notions of love that films, novels, and the media have molded.


What Is the Secret of The Art of Loving?

rembrandt jewish bride
The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1665-1669, via Rijksmuseum


Reading The Art of Loving will bring disappointment to anyone who expects accessible instruction in the art of love, Fromm warns on the first pages of his work. There is no clear guidance here, like in textbooks. This work does not leave one with no further questions.


But this is the book that will lead the reader, after careful studying, to be able to answer the questions asked. The secret of The Art of Loving is that after reading it, every person will discover something new, until now unknown. And this “newness” will bring practical changes into their life, helping them find harmony and happiness.


This book, in addition to theoretical foundations, contains the author’s personal opinion on how people should love. Fromm believes that only by getting rid of all illusions and prejudices will a person be able to give themselves to another in love.


Erich Fromm’s work goes beyond the scope of psychology, and it is much deeper than just providing knowledge about how to love someone. The author speaks of love itself — its meaning, essence, and forms. He also touches on the importance of parental love for a child’s development. The Art of Loving is something more than just a scientific work. It is an open letter to all in which the philosopher’s thoughts are hidden.


To Love or to Be Loved

gustav klimt kiss
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, c.1907-1908, via Belvedere Vienna.


Fromm differentiated the ability to love into two categories: to love and to be loved. Moreover, he called the first category a healthy love and the second is an unhealthy love. Wanting to love is a trait of a mature and healthy personality. On the other hand, wanting to be loved is a trait of an immature and unhealthy personality.


In addition, the psychologist named two more differences between mature love and immature love:


  1. “I love because I am loved” is immature, infantile love.
    “I am loved because I love” is mature love.
  2. “I love you because I need you” is the motto of immature love. Its confession sounds like “I need you.”
    “I need you because I love you” declares healthy and mature love.


Immature love, or symbiotic union, as Fromm called it, the author divided into two more types:


  1. Masochism. It is a passive form of unhealthy love, in which one of the participants cannot stand loneliness and isolation, allowing the other participant to control them completely. The controller guides and protects. The masochist overestimates another person’s power and makes them the center of their life.
  2. Sadism. The sadist also tries to get away from loneliness and solitude. He also tries to build a relationship, but in an active way. The sadist wants to dominate and control the other person and, as a result, satisfy their own ego.


So, The Art of Loving is not just a book about love but a whole source of knowledge on becoming an adult, mature and self-sufficient person. It is a sincere guide to understanding the essence of love, its purpose, and its place in our lives. Furthermore, it helps to distinguish between immature, unhealthy relationships and real, healthy love.


Types of Love Proposed by Erich Fromm

chagall birthday painting
Birthday by Marc Chagall, 1915, via MoMA.


Fromm believed that love is an attitude, an orientation of a person. The objects of love can be different, based on which Fromm proposed a classification of types of love:


  1. Brotherly love. It is the basis of any other kind of love. Brotherly love consists of care, responsibility, respect, understanding, and acceptance of another living being and the desire to prolong his life. It is equal love and can be directed at several objects at once.
  2. Motherly love. It is unconditional love for a helpless being. It is based on the idea that a person must provide comfort and safety for another living thing and protect them from danger. It can be the love of a mother for her child and the love of adults for each other.
  3. Erotic love. This type of love is directed at only one object. Its basis is unity and complete merging with one person. It is a form of preferred love.
  4. Self-love. To love other people and love them equally, a person needs to love themself. In this case, we are not talking about selfishness. On the contrary, egoist does not love anyone, including themselves.
  5. Love for God. The basis of this type of life is the need for unity and belonging. Fromm understood the love for God as the individual’s self-development, the search for oneself, and the path from unconditional love to conscious choice.


Abstraction Blue keefe
Abstraction Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1927, via MoMA.


In addition to these types, Fromm was the first to distinguish between paternal and maternal love. He called his mother’s love unconditional. The mother loves the child for its mere existence. But a father’s love must be earned. Fathers love children because they meet their expectations, are like them, meet the requirements, and fulfill their duties.


The task of each individual is to develop as a person and unite paternal and maternal love within oneself into one consistent ability to love. A mature person unconditionally loves oneself and simultaneously loves conditionally for what meets their expectations.


The Practice of Love

rene magritte lovers
The Lovers by René Magritte, 1928, via MoMA.


What does practicing love really involve? The Art of Loving isn’t going to provide readers with quick fixes or ways to begin loving instantly. On the contrary, Fromm believes it is a unique and personal experience one can only have alone.


In pursuit of immature love, people rely on external attractiveness, wealth, and prestige. Men often focus on luck and wealth, and women – on appearance and beauty (figure, clothes).


But what about healthy and mature love? How do we achieve it? According to Fromm, becoming a master of loving requires discipline and hard work. One must focus on every area of life and be patient as one strives for success.


false mirror magritte
The False Mirror by René Magritte, 1929, via MoMA.


These are the ways in which we can develop and practice mature love:


  • Practicing Discipline: The first step towards mastering the art of love is to practice discipline. It involves actively working on oneself, developing empathy and self-awareness, and learning to recognize one’s own emotional needs.
  • Developing Concentration: Concentration is important as it helps to focus one’s attention and exclude distracting factors. Concentrating on the present moment, one can improve their ability to empathize and recognize the needs of others.
  • Developing Patience: Fromm believed that patience is the key to mastering the art of love as it helps to appreciate the process of developing feelings for another person instead of expecting them to develop suddenly or instantly.
  • Practicing Self-Awareness: Finally, the most important factor in mastering the art of love is self-awareness. By being more aware of one’s own emotions, needs, and desires, one can better understand the needs of others and foster a sense of connection.


These are the steps that Fromm believed would lead to true and mature love.


So What Is Love According to Erich Fromm?

manet lathuille
Chez le Père Lathuille by Édouard Manet, 1879, via Musée des Beaux-Arts Tournai.


Love is not only an interest in the life and development of the object of love but also an interest in one’s own development, endless knowledge of oneself and the object of love. According to Fromm, love is not a sentimental feeling available to everyone. Instead, love results from conscious work on oneself, and is an indicator of personal maturity.


A person who knows how to love can get along with any person because they constantly know themselves and others and know how to overcome internal barriers. The desire and ability to love are more important and stronger than having an object of love.


The ability to love is a feature of mature and adult personalities. We are talking about the ability to take responsibility, make a conscious choice and be responsible for its consequences, be open to new things, learn, change your life, and change yourself to realize personal abilities and opportunities.


Now, recall what people usually call love, how they behave, and how they confess their love. For a vivid example, remember teenage love or infantile couples in which jealousy, total control, and suppression prevail. So, is it love after all?

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.