The Frankfurt School: Erich Fromm’s Perspective on Love

Erich Fromm was a scholar who fled Germany during the Fascist takeover. This experience gave him a whole new perspective on love.

Apr 18, 2022By David Sinor, BA Political Philosophy

erich fromm portrait drawing love conquers all


The Frankfurt School had the luxury and misfortunate privilege of existing in unique times. During the Interwar Period (1918-1939) in the heart of rising Fascism an incredible group of academics and scholars found each other in Germany with a like-minded goal: to provide societal research and reach greater understanding. These are the goals of philosophy in a nutshell. Erich Fromm was part of this group.


Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School: A Dissident’s Life

erich fromm art love portrait
Portrait of Erich Fromm by Jen Serdetchnaia, 2018


One of the main scholars of the Frankfurt School was Erich Fromm, an intellectual who, faced with hatred and being labeled a political dissident, chose to study the opposite of what he saw as the main problem facing all of humanity: hate, segregation, and divisiveness. He chose to study 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.”
(Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, 1956)


A little perspective is required to understand Fromm’s pursuit and interest in Love. Erich Fromm grew up and got a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in Germany in 1922. He wrote his final dissertation, “On Jewish Law”, as a nod to his Jewish parents and roots.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

If you are aware of history, then you know that this time of the Interwar period is one of the single worst examples of persecution in recorded history. Erich Fromm dealt with this hatred over the next 20 years of his life, and his experiences are key to the fundamental premise of his work entitled The Art of Loving, published in 1956.


Erich Fromm was forced to flee Germany during the Fascist takeover in the 1930s. He first went to Geneva, ultimately finding residency at Columbia University in New York (Funk, 2003).


During this time Fromm began wondering about what was wrong with humanity.


The fundamental problem of humanity, according to what Fromm learned from his colleagues at The Frankfurt School, is divisiveness. More importantly, as conscious and rational creatures we notice that we are fundamentally separate. As a result, we face a deep existential loneliness, which is behind many of humanities’ problems in contemporary times.



Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

existential lonliness erich fromm woman alone
Automat by Edward Hopper, 2011, in the Des Moines Art Center


This existential loneliness that affects humanity comes from our ability to judge and be aware of our own actions. Our search for a tribe or a group often finds us excluding those not in that tribe. Some of the time the tribe we want to belong to excludes us or perhaps we are within the tribe but do not feel the inclusion we thought we would find there.


Yet, Fromm noticed something unexpected while working on the problem facing humanity. Everybody was already searching for Love. People were obsessed with the idea. Books on Love were being taken off all the shelves in every book store. Singles clubs were rapidly becoming popular and romantic ads filled newspapers (Friedman, 2016).


So, what was wrong? Why were people not finding the Love necessary to combat this feeling of separateness? This feeling created  the divisiveness that destroyed Fromm’s nation. Like realizing that fire can not fight a fire, Fromm realized feelings could not stop feelings. Fromm concluded that Love had to be a type of practice.


The Difference Between Mature and Immature Love

erich fromm ideas of love
The Kiss by Edvard Munch, 1908, in the Munch Museum, Norway


“Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.”
Erich Fromm


What Erich Fromm means by immature love is when love is generated from a point of narcissism. The most narcissistic facet of this type of love is a transactional relationship. This is exemplified by turning the loved one and relationship itself into a commodity.


Our contemporary understanding of love and how we find love falls into this category,  as illustrated by our use of dating app sites that specifically limit the number of matches that you can have or profiles that you can see based on the level of income and other filters. Fromm would see this commodification as an institutionalization of Immature Love, a path that surely drives existential loneliness to new extremes.


Many of us have been a part of a relationship that was based on Immature Love. We are neglected by our parents, we neglect our partners, we are driven by narcissism. As Fromm’s colleagues from The Frankfurt School noticed, nearly all of our experiences with love end in failure.


The Frankfurt School: Positive Freedom and Negative Freedom

freedom art painting existentialism
Vandal-ism by the Spanish artist Pejac, 2014, via artist’s website


The answers to these issues with love and loneliness are found in The Frankfurt School and Erich Fromm’s other major work, Escape from Freedom (1941). In this work, Fromm describes a problem we can still see in contemporary society: Individuation. This individualization that occurs leads society right back to that problem of love and separateness. Our existential loneliness leads us to make decisions that temporarily remove that existential loneliness. We strive to be free of loneliness, even if only for a while.


Negative Freedom according to Erich Fromm is the “freedom from”. This type of freedom has been gradually increasing within society ever since the time of hunter-gatherer tribes, where humanity started. It represents the removal of things that can control us entirely: freedom from hunger, freedom from preventable diseases. These types of things that our society has given us are all negative freedoms (Fromm, 1941).


Positive Freedom, on the other hand, is a sort of “freedom to”. For example, we have the opportunity to choose what things we pursue. If we have “freedom to” then we are not restricted to a life of needs; we are not limited to a caste we may be born into. We have a reasonable amount of goods to get us through life – food, water, shelter, and other basic things we need to possess. Having covered our basic needs, society now provides near endless opportunities to people in a society that has positive freedoms. Yet, we still have a problem.


What Do We Need Beyond Positive Freedom?

merry gathering love wrong places
Merry Company on a Terrace by Jan Steen, 1670, via The Met Museum


Those who find this “freedom to” in front of them may have a negative response to opportunity. They may see that opportunity and freedom and wish for a more rigid way of life, a life where choice is limited in advance instead of the weight of endless possibilities they can choose for themselves. Fromm believed that these people are sadomasochists.


Sadomasochists wish for there to be an order or hierarchy that limits the access to positive freedom; they are more comfortable when there is an order and ranks within society. In agreeing to this rank they submit themselves to hierarchy and restrictions in life. This is the masochist in them. The sadist in them is the part that uses their position in this hierarchy to control those beneath them with less “freedom to”.


Here, it’s easy to see the correlation between the philosophy Erich Fromm developed and the life he lived in Germany. Seeing his country tear itself apart with authoritarian principles and people willfully submitting to and using the power of hierarchical society to feel less existential loneliness for themselves was jarring to all the scholars of The Frankfurt School.


Seeing the Problem Ahead of Time

love lost existentialism lonliness society
To Freedom by Benton Spruance, 1948, via Whitney Museum of American Art


This submission to social hierarchy is easy to see in retrospect, but during the time Fromm was living in it was much harder. Erich Fromm put forward this idea of people shying away from freedom and leaning toward authoritarian principles in the late 1920s. The original argument by The Frankfurt School was that if 15% of the population were adamantly democratic and only 10% of the population was adamantly authoritarian, then the country would be fine, as there would be 75% of people in the center to lean in favor of democratic principles. This was roughly a picture of the landscape in Germany during the Interwar Period.


Erich Fromm argued that if the people in society that are part of the 75% – the neutral, majority party – had a fundamental misunderstanding of Love and Freedom, which they did, then the 75% would be more likely to fall into authoritarianism. This is because authoritarianism pushes you into a group or at least into a group role. Being part of a group always feels better than the loneliness you face when you’re alone, unless you are comfortable with loneliness.


The Solution: The Four Aspects of Love

sculpture love joy erich fromm
Psyche revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova, 1793, in The Louvre, Paris

Psyche revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova, 1793, in The Louvre, Paris


Erich Fromm believed that the solution to this behavior in society and to our existential loneliness that causes it is one the same thing: it is to Love effectively. Shockingly, Fromm’s idea for this solution started ironically: Love should begin with being comfortable with loneliness. Being comfortable with loneliness means being comfortable with yourself. This is a sign of personal strength according to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.


“Love of others and love of ourselves are not alternatives. On the contrary, an attitude of love towards themselves will be found in all those who are capable of loving others. Love, in principle, is indivisible as far as the connection between objects and one’s self are concerned.”
Erich Fromm


This comfort with loneliness and ourselves helps us see that everyone is struggling with the same things. Every race, sex, gender, and all peoples live in a society. Everyone within society struggles with loneliness and finding a place to fit in. Noticing this truth is the first step to real love. When we have humility we can avoid the egoism that plagues most relationships, romantic or otherwise. We should avoid the commodification of both ourselves and the other person by seeing that they do not need to justify themselves and prove their worth to remove your loneliness. This is because your loneliness is part of you and their loneliness is part of them. This is the first, and most important, aspect of Love to Erich Fromm.


frankfurt school collection intellectuals germany
The Nantucket School of Philosophy by Eastman Johnson, 1887, via The Walter Art Museum


The next two aspects of love that are required to change our understanding go hand in hand: they are courage and faith. Courage to Fromm is by far the most difficult of the aspects to achieve. Most likely you and all of us are part of the neutral group of society that simply does not wish to be affected by ideological principles of the extremes in society. If you then try to change your understanding of love and begin to see people for who they are you will begin to give out love selflessly to everyone that you meet. No one needs to justify themselves to you and this creates an atmosphere of sincerity; and sincerity is love. More importantly, that is where the faith aspect comes in for Fromm. Anyone who gives out love to everyone they meet does not commodify their fellow members of society and trusts that this understanding will spread and benefit everyone who understands and partakes in it.


This understanding and practice though will inevitably face backlash (Fromm, 1948). People will fight against it because it is scary. Our society, and the society that The Frankfurt School was a part of in the 1930s, have institutionalized the commodification of the people within themselves. Fighting against that institutionalization requires the courage to continue even when you face extreme hatred, as Erich Fromm did when he was labeled a political dissident and forced to flee his nation.


The fourth aspect of Love is diligence and this is the aspect that keeps love going and changes the individual’s life as well as the society they live in.


“The capacity to love demands a state of intensity, awareness, enhanced vitality. Which can only be the result of a productive and active orientation in many other spheres of life.”
 Erich Fromm


Erich Fromm: Love in Our Modern Age

love conquers all art gallery faith togetherness
Love conquers all by Robert Aitken, 1937, via National Gallery of Art


Many of the descriptions used by Fromm and The Frankfurt School have parallels to our society today. We are feeling more and more lonely in a world that is more and more interconnected. We are seeing into each other’s lives in ways that are inherently commodified. We use tools to help us become more attractive that cost money and subscribe to a “grind” mindset that tells us things are either assets or liabilities, defining everyone around us by what they can provide to us and how we can use them. This mindset creates a hierarchical system of values that we apply to people and results in larger and larger groups of people that suffer from existential loneliness.


Getting away from this mindset by treating Love not as a feeling and commodity but as an art is the key. Pursuing an art requires courage to continue, humility to understand that you are just beginning in this practice and faith that if you practice with diligence you will become a master of the craft. Becoming a master in the craft of Love will make being in love all the more worth it.

Author Image

By David SinorBA Political PhilosophyDavid is a contributing writer, originally from Florida. After receiving his degree in Political Philosophy he spent 5 years in Hawaii serving in the Navy. Aboard his submarine, he ran his ship’s library in his free time. He is currently pursuing a postgrad degree at Arizona State University. He has had a life-long love of philosophy that he takes with him into all his endeavors.