The Art of Being Erich Fromm – A Review from The New York Review of Books

A review of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, by Lawrence J. Friedman, was published in the Summer Issue of The New York Review of Books. A link to the review is available by clicking here (you need a subscription to NYRoB for full article view). This post contains brief excerpts of the NYRB review by Alan Ryan.

The Art of Being Erich Fromm

Lawrence Friedman’s biography has many virtues; it is meticulous, detailed, friendly to its subject but not uncritical, the result of many years of archival investigation and interviews with people who knew Fromm well. Friedman is a professor of history in the Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the author of several books on the history of psychology, including a biography of Karl Menninger. Erich Fromm himself was a far from careful scholar, but The Lives of Erich Fromm is a reassuringly solid piece of work. What makes it a model of intellectual biography, however, is the way it illuminates the Erich Fromm who became famous in America in the 1950s, by seeing him in his many different settings—geographical, social, intellectual, and emotional.


Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900. His father was a wine merchant. More importantly, Naphtali Fromm was an Orthodox Jew who came from a long line of distinguished rabbis, and was more embarrassed than pleased at his own modest economic success, always regretting that he had become an undistinguished wine merchant rather than a more distinguished rabbi.

During the Cold war, Fromm encountered Rabbi Nehemiah Nobel, who had studied at Marburg with Hermann Cohen, a distinguished Kant scholar who welded the universalism of Kant’s moral philosophy onto the Jewish religious tradition to create a form of “religious humanism” very like the humanism of Fromm’s later writings.


Fromm was astonishingly precocious; before he was twenty years old, he was part of a circle based in Frankfurt that included Leo Löwenthal, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Baeck; with Nobel’s help, they set up a Jewish adult education project intended to remind their students of the riches of a tradition of which they were largely ignorant. Fromm combined this activity with studying at Heidelberg, where he worked with “his first and only gentile mentor,” Alfred Weber, brother of Max Weber. Nehemiah Nobel died in 1922, but Fromm continued to study with Salman Rabinkow, a Russian who was a committed socialist as well as a considerable scholar whose inability to put his thoughts on paper is a painful contrast with the fluency of his student. Fromm described him as the most important influence on his life, both intellectually and personally; certainly, Fromm’s conviction that socialism and Jewish humanism were natural allies seems to be rooted in his work with Rabinkow; it survived his rejection of Orthodox Judaism a year or two later, and it underlay everything he wrote about religion in his later years. Perhaps more surprisingly, it also survived his immersion in the psychoanalytic tradition. His introduction to psychoanalysis was simultaneously his introduction to sex and marriage.


The crucial event was his attachment at the end of the decade to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, founded in 1923 under Carl Grünberg, an adherent of Soviet-style Marxism, but directed from 1930 by Max Horkheimer, who created what subsequently became known as “the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School.” Fromm was a natural recruit as he was a Freudian and a Marxist, in neither case a rigidly orthodox adherent to the faith. Although Fromm seemed so well suited to the Frankfurt School, things did not go smoothly. The rise of Hitler meant that the institute’s resources were first transferred to Geneva, then, thanks to Fromm’s own negotiations, the institute itself moved to Columbia University. He became close friends with the Columbia social scientists, and widened his horizons.


The outcome was his first and in many ways best book, Escape from Freedom. His studies in working-class political attitudes had revealed that many working- and lower-middle-class Germans had unexpectedly authoritarian attitudes. Today, we are unsurprised by the conservative moral, religious, racial, and political views of many white working-class Americans. Escape from Freedom has a simple explanation:

It is the thesis of this book that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.

If readers of Lawrence Friedman’s engaging account of Erich Fromm remember one thing from The Lives of Erich Fromm, it will be that The Art of Loving has sold twenty-six million copies since it was published in 1956. What gives it its edge is that it is self-help for readers who wish to know something about the ideas of Marx and Freud, who think that contemporary societies overvalue money and consumption, and who are receptive to Fromm’s insistence that if love is an art, it takes knowledge and effort to master the art. Fromm’s message was, as he said himself in the preface to The Art of Loving, familiar to anyone who had read Escape from Freedom, Man for Himself, or The Sane Society; but while those books were substantial and sociological, The Art of Loving was very short, very personal, and aimed directly at the reader.


Fromm died in 1980. He still has many admirers, especially in Germany. Whether Friedman is among them is not easy to tell. It is clear that he fell for Fromm when he encountered his work as a new student in Berkeley in 1958. Some of Friedman’s readers will be reinforced in their preference for the pessimistic Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents while rejecting Fromm’s utopian hopefulness; some will be skeptical about the “humanist” Marx whom Fromm admired. It is a measure of the fastidiousness of Friedman’s biography that he leaves his readers free to explore their own reactions.

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