Friday, November 25, 2005

The Science of Man and the Art of Loving

Quite some time ago I posted a blog entry entitled Religion and Science, a blog entry that harkened back to yet another one of my blog entries entitled What is Religion? in which I stated that "the nature of our existence is a basic religious question that science and reason cannot answer in any satisfactory way." While that view is my own, it was born from reading various books that were written by Erich Fromm, and I think that a blog entry on how Fromm profoundly impacted my world view is long overdue.

I first stumbled upon a book by Fromm entitled Man for Himself shortly after I started working for an engineering company in Southern California. I was 17 years old at the time, and I spent my lunch hours in the company library researching artificial intelligence. This led me to a section of the library where I found Man for Himself on a shelf next to one of the books that I was looking for on operations research.

While I have not read everything that Fromm wrote, I have read several of his books, and I have read some of his books several times. Fromm was particularly good at presenting the world view of a particular theorist in a sympathetic light, then deconstructing that theorist's world view, leaving said world view in shambles, and moving on to the next theorist. This was strong medicine for me, and by the time Fromm presented his own theories, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Eventually, it did.

Fromm's "science of man[sic]" speaks to the fact that all human beings come into existence without any understanding of where they came from and are forced to make sense out of their situation. However, in trying to make sense out of their situation, people usually buy into simplistic answers that are fed to them by their parents and by society. Fromm offered his own answers, and -- after misconstruing those answers for several years -- I finally came to understand them and transcend them.

In a book entitled The Art of Loving, Fromm narrated the personal fulfillment that one experiences by engaging in creative activity, and for many years I erroneously assumed that Fromm had given his stamp of approval to using creative activity to find that personal fulfillment. However, as I was rereading The Art of Loving one day and trying to recapitulate my understanding of Fromm's philosophy, I realized that Fromm considered creative activity to be an incomplete answer to the problem of human existence because creative activity was not interpersonal. In other words -- according to Fromm -- creative activity is all well and good, but -- according to Fromm -- you still need to connect with your fellow human beings, which is what The Art of Loving was all about.

To his credit, Fromm's concept of love had very little in common with popular notions of love. To wit, Fromm considered love to be an interpersonal creative capacity rather than an emotion, and he distinguished this creative capacity from what he considered to be various forms of narcissistic neuroses and sado-masochistic tendencies that are commonly held out as proof of "true love." Indeed, Fromm viewed the experience of "falling in love" as evidence of one's failure to understand the true nature of love, which he believed always had the common elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.

Drawing from biblical allegory, Fromm pointed to the story of Jonah, who did not wish to save the residents of Nineveh from the consequences of their sin, as demonstrative of his belief that the qualities of care and responsibility are generally absent from most human relationships. Fromm also asserted that few people in modern society have respect for the autonomy of their fellow human beings, much less the objective knowledge of what other people truly want and need. Paradoxically, Fromm pretended to know what other people truly needed and hoped to impose a secular moral duty on people to "love their neighbors."

If there is a problem with the modern world, it is the fact that people do not know how to mind their own business, and -- notwithstanding his enormous intellect -- Fromm suffered from this fatal flaw. Fromm believed in freedom, both personal and political, but his political philosophy was unabashedly socialist and clearly influenced by Karl Marx. As a libertarian, I have taken a very different path, trying my best to find appropriate boundaries and limitations when interacting with other people socially and politically.

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