“The affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love, i.e., in 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” (55-56).
In his wonderful book, “The Art of Loving,” Erich Fromm believes that love is an art, an attitude or set of capacities that need to be cultivated in order to live a flourishing life. According to him, love is the solution to the existential problem that we are inherently separate and isolated individuals. To overcome our isolation, and the anxieties that follow from it, we yearn to connect and fuse with other people. Fromm discusses the unsuccessful ways we try to fuse with others, and develops a theory and practice on how we can love successfully.
Fromm argues that a key component in loving others, is to ability to love yourself. Moreover, loving yourself is vital for living a flourishing life. Self-love is the opposite of selfishness. For Fromm, selfishness is the result of not loving ourselves. The selfish person “can see nothing but himself; he judges everyone and everything from its usefulness to him” (56). He takes rather than gives, uses people instrumentally and does not see them as “ends,” that is, as unique, independent human beings that deserve care and respect. Self-love is the opposite. It’s the capacity to treat yourself and others as ends, not means.
For Fromm, the capacity for self-love is grounded in the same four capacities for productively loving others: care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. Fromm discusses these four capacities in terms of loving others, but does not spend enough time, I believe, discussing them in terms of loving ourselves. Nonetheless, I think he gives us enough information to do this.
Care “is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love” (25). This requires the active participation in the well-being of others as well as ourselves. This reminds me of what Montaigne said to his friend when he told him that he did nothing that day. “What did you not live? That is not only the most fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations” (Essays, III, 13). We must take time for ourselves. We are constantly trying to meet the demands of our hectic lives, and rarely take the time to care for ourselves. Going for a walk, listening to the music you love, or reading a good book are not frivolous enterprises or a waste of time. It is vital for your well-being. If you do not take care of yourself, how can you possibly care for others? Just as you should not treat others instrumentally, you should not treat yourself like that either.
Responsibility “means to be able to respond” (26). Loving entails being able to respond to the needs of others as if they were your own. Sadly, we sometimes do not even respond to our own needs. In this day and age, we tend to spend most of our time looking outward, seeing ourselves through others, and defining our needs according to them. We need to take responsibility for our own lives, and look inward so that we can listen to ourselves. “Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string” (Emerson, Self-Reliance). We must feel the unique vibration of our soul. By doing this, we will the discover who we are and what we need to live a vital, flourishing life. This takes time and patience.
Respect is “the 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” (26). For Fromm, the only way for this to happen is for you to achieve freedom and independence so that you do not use people as a means to your own end. Freeing yourself from depending too much on others is critical for living well. On the one hand, I agree with Martha Nussbaum that we are fragile creatures who necessarily live lives of contingency. That is, we must rely on things outside of our control that can potentially cause us anxiety, pain, and sorrow, as well as excitement, joy and happiness. If we try to eliminate anxiety, pain and sorrow from our lives by only concerning ourselves with what we can control and rejecting things outside our control, we also will necessarily eliminate the joys of life, essentially losing the experience of being fully alive (see Fragility of Goodness). But, on the other hand, if we depend on others too much, we can lose our integrity and sense of self. We need to carve out an independent space for ourselves so that we can be resourceful and help nourish and cultivate our own growth as well as others. We need to tend our own garden so that we can feed ourselves and others.
Knowledge of yourself and others, for Fromm, is found only through love. “In the act of loving, of giving myself, in the act of penetrating the other person, I find myself, I discover myself I discover us both, I discover man” (29). Montaigne speaks of this when he talks about his friendship with Etienne de la Boetie.
“Our souls travelled so unitedly together, they felt so strong an affection for one another, and with this same affection saw into the very depths of each other’s hearts, that not only did I know his as well as my own, but I should certainly have trusted myself more freely to him than to myself'” (Essays 1, 27).
Our desire to know other people is braided together with our desire to know ourselves. By connecting with another person through conversation and shared experiences, we find ourselves responding in ways that baffle us and question the basic assumptions we have about ourselves. This is exactly how Socrates used conversation and social interaction to help us examine our lives. So sitting down with a friend or a new acquaintance and having a deep, genuine conversation is an important way to discover who you really are. Take the time to do it. If you do not do it now, when will you do it?
To begin, write down the ways in which you can exercise and develop these four elements. Then, start forming habits of self-love by actively engaging with yourself and others. You will find that by working on one, you will be working on the others. Get started. You won’t regret it.
The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm (HarperCollins, 1956, 2006)