Erich Fromm
Psychology and Religion
in the Search for Personal Wholeness
Johann Maree
Summer School, UCT. Jan. 2012
Biographical sketch
Fromm was born in Germany in 1900, the
only child of Orthodox Jewish parents. He
studied the Old Testament intensively
under Talmudic scholars.
 He gave up the practice of Judaism at the
age of around 26 and declared himself a
 He became acquainted with Buddhism at
the same time and studied it in great
depth later in his life.
Other Influences on Fromm
Besides religion there were three other
major influences on Fromm’s thinking and
 The first was Sigmund Freud. Fromm
studied psychology and received
extensive training in Freudian
psychoanalysis after doing his PhD.
 He joined the Institute for Social
Development at Frankfurt University
where he taught psychoanalysis.
Other Influences on Fromm 2
The second impact on Fromm’s life was
 Due to its rise in Germany the Frankfurt
Institute had to emigrate to the United
States of America in 1934 as did Fromm.
 His brush with Nazism led him to write
Fear of Freedom (1942) in which he argued
that sado-masochistic fear of freedom
enabled Hitler’s rise to power.
Other influences on Fromm 3
The third major influence on Fromm’s
thinking was Karl Marx.
 In the work of Marx he saw ‘the key to
understanding history’ and the ‘radical
humanism expressed in the messianic
vision of the Old Testament prophets.’
 Much of Fromm’s writing on modern
society drew on Marxism, including the
concept ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement’.
Fromm’s works
Fromm’s writing spans a wide field
covering psychology, religion, politics and
 We shall look at only two major themes
of his writing: love and religion.
 We shall investigate Fromm’s insights on
love and religion while keeping in mind
the objective of the course: the search for
personal wholeness.
Fromm starts his exposition on love by
arguing that to be human is to be aware
of oneself as a separate entity, but this
creates a sense of aloneness and
 The only way to overcome this ‘prison of
aloneness’ is through love, mature love.
 Mature love is ‘union under the condition
of preserving one’s integrity, one’s
Love is an activity
Fromm goes further by saying that love is
active: ‘Love is an action, the practice of
human power.’
 The activity that love engages in is giving,
giving of oneself, of one’s life.
 This does not necessarily mean sacrificing
one’s life for another – although it could –
but also giving of one’s joy, interests,
understanding, humour, and sadness.
Love comes from strength
One of Fromm’s most important themes
about love is that it can only come from a
productive person by which he means a
person who has the capacity, potency and
strength to give unreservedly:
 ‘Giving is the highest expression of
potency. In the very act of giving, I
experience my strength, my wealth, my
Five types of love
Fromm distinguishes between five
different types of love:
 Brotherly love
 Motherly love
 Erotic love
 Self-love
 Love of God
Brotherly and motherly love
By brotherly love Fromm means love of
neighbour including the stranger.
 He enriches it further by saying that
brotherly love incorporates the sense of
responsibility, care, respect and
knowledge that furthers the life of
another human being.
 Motherly love is unconditional love like
that of a mother for her child.
Erotic love
Erotic love ‘is the craving for complete
fusion, for union with one other person. It
is by its very nature exclusive and not
 It is not ‘falling in love’ nor just sexual
desire, but based on a love that inspires
the wish for sexual union. It is the fruit of
Love of oneself, says Fromm, is rooted in
one’s capacity to love, ‘the affirmation of
one’s own life, happiness, growth,
 Love for oneself and love for another are
not mutually exclusive, they are
‘inseparably connected’.
Love of God
Love of God also springs from the need
to overcome the anxiety of separateness
by the experience of union.
 Our love of God is based on our
understanding of the nature and character
of God which has changed over time. This
will be dealt with in the section on
The practice of love
Love is an art and has to be practised like
any other art.
 The practice of love requires discipline,
concentration, patience, and a supreme
concern to master the art.
 To concentrate with regards to others
means primarily to be able to listen, to
take what the other person has to say
Love means overcoming narcissism
For the narcissistic person there is only one
reality, that of his or her own thought
processes, feelings and needs.
The only reality for the newly born infant is
its own body and needs – ‘primary
narcissism’ as Freud called it.
This state of narcissism is slowly overcome
by a growing awareness of reality outside.
The child can only begin to love when it
feels that the needs of another person
are as important as its own.
To be or to have
Fromm draws an important distinction
between a being mode of existence and a
having mode of existence.
 The having orientation has ‘greed for
money, fame, and power’ as the dominant
theme of life. Happiness lies in being
superior to others.
 The being orientation entails ‘aliveness
and authentic relatedness to the world.’
Happiness lies in loving, sharing, giving.
Fromm’s definition of religion is as follows:
‘I understand by religion any system of
thought and action shared by a group which
gives the individual a frame of orientation
and an object of devotion.’
 It opens the door for a wide interpretation
of what constitutes religion: including secular
ideologies and devotion.
 He believed that everybody has a need for
Authoritarian and humanistic
Fromm makes a fundamental distinction
between authoritarian and humanistic
 The principle of authoritarian religion is
that a person is controlled by a higher
power outside her- or himself.
 It entails surrender to a transcending
power. Its main virtue is obedience and its
cardinal sin is disobedience.
Humanistic religion
Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is
centred around humanity. Humans must
develop their powers of reason in order
to understand themselves, their
relationship to others, and their position
in the universe. They must develop their
powers of love for others as well as
themselves and experience the solidarity
of all living beings.
Illustrations of humanistic religion
Early Buddhism and Christianity, the
teachings of Isaiah, Jesus, Socrates and
Spinoza provide examples of humanistic
religion for Fromm.
 The spirit of Jesus’ teachings is humanistic as
was the early Church.
 But once Christianity became the religion of
the rulers of the Roman Empire an
authoritarian trend became dominant.
 However, the conflict between the
authoritarian and humanistic principles in
Christianity never ceased.
Fromm’s evolutionary account of
human beings
The first key stage in the process of
human evolution came when instinct no
longer governed action and humans
became aware of themselves.
 This birth process may have lasted for
hundreds of thousands years, but what
matters is that a new species was born,
transcending nature, as humans became
aware of themselves as separate species.
Consequences of self-awareness
The emergence of self-awareness was due
to the emergence of reason. It is reason
that overrides instinct.
 This self-awareness brought about a
crucial change in the human situation.
Humans were still part of nature, subject
to her physical laws, yet transcended the
rest of nature. This made humans
‘homeless’ and alienated them from
nature and from themselves.
The problem and the solution
Human beings face a problem that has to be
solved and from which there is no escape.
‘Man cannot go back to the pre-human state
of harmony with nature; he must proceed to
develop his reason until he becomes the
master of nature, and of himself. There is
only one way he can take: to emerge fully
from his natural home, to find a new home –
one which he creates, by making the world a
human one and becoming truly human
Human destiny
Human destiny is now to go through
alienation in order to overcome it.
 We must take responsibility for and work
toward the new harmony between
ourselves and between nature and
 We are left to ourselves. Nobody can do
for us what we will not do for ourselves.
Development of religion
Within this evolutionary process Fromm
weaves a development of the human
understanding of religion and God. His
account is based on anthropology and
Judaic religion.
 In the first stage of emerging selfawareness humans find security by going
back to nature. Their primitive religion is
based, for instance, on animal totems.
Two more stages of development
At a later stage of development, once
humans have developed artisanal and
artistic skills, they transform the products
of their own hands into gods. This is the
stage of idol worship.
 At a still later stage humans give their
gods the form of human beings – just
think of all the Greek and Roman gods.
 Fromm argues there was a matriarchal
phase that preceded a patriarchal one.
From matriarchal to patriarchal
During the matriarchal phase there is a
mother goddess whose love is
unconditional and loves everyone equally.
 In the subsequent patriarchal phase
fatherly love makes demands and
establishes the principle of conditional
love, depending on obedience and
Evolution of the Judaic God
Fromm maintains that the fatherly aspect
of God’s love depends on the degree of
maturity reached by human
 In the beginning of the Old Testament we
find a despotic, jealous God who
considers the humans he created as his
property and entitled to do with them
what he pleases. So he drives them out of
paradise and destroys them in the flood.
From despotic God to loving father
and beyond
Simultaneously with the flood a new
phase commences. God makes a covenant
with Noah that he will not destroy the
human race again.
 This, claims Fromm, transforms God from
the figure of a ‘despotic tribal chief’ into a
loving father and, beyond that, into a
symbol of his principles, those of justice,
truth and love.
God’s revelation to Moses
For Fromm the most striking incidence of
this transformation lies in the biblical
story of God’s revelation to Moses.
 He tells Moses that his name is “I am
becoming that which I am becoming.” “Iam-becoming” is my name. The “I-ambecoming” means that God is not finite,
not a person, not a “being”. The most
adequate translation would be “my name
is nameless.”
The maturing idea of monotheism
And so the paradox is reached that ‘the
more I know what God is not, the more
knowledge I have of God.’
 This, for Fromm, is ‘the maturing idea of
monotheism.’ God becomes the nameless
One, ‘referring to the unity underlying the
phenomenal universe, the ground of all
existence; God becomes truth, love,
justice. God is I, inasmuch as I am human.’
The truly religious person
‘The truly religious person, if he follows
the essence of the monotheistic idea,
does not pray for anything, does not
expect anything from God; he does not
love God as a child loves his father or his
mother; he has acquired the humility of
sensing his limitation, to the degree of
knowing that he knows nothing about
God. Eventually he does not speak about
To love God
 ‘To
love God, if he were going to
use this word, would mean, then,
to long for the attainment of the
full capacity to love, for the
realization of that which “God”
stands for in oneself.’ (Fromm)
Evaluation of Fromm
 Fromm’s writing can at times be very
loose. He can make sweeping statements
without providing evidence in support.
 Annette Thomson says that Fromm’s
appeal lies in inspiration rather than in
presenting empirical findings.
 Fromm also holds views that contradict
each other and he does not try to resolve
the contradictions.
Evaluation of Fromm 2
Fromm can be quite unfair in the way he
presents other people’s arguments,
particularly those with whom he
disagrees. He tends to oversimplify and
distort, setting up a straw man that can
easily be torn apart.
 Fromm tends to be weak on details. He is
great at pointing the way to the stars, but
not so good at illuminating the obstacles
on the way there.
Evaluation of Fromm 3
 What I value most about Fromm is his
religious courage and his faith in humanity.
 His religious courage enabled him not to
shy away from where his logic lead him:
that humanity has reached a stage in
evolution where we have come to realise
that God does not intervene in our
natural and social world, nor in the vast
universe, nor in our private experiences.
Evaluation of Fromm 4
Fromm makes it clear that we are now
responsible for the wellbeing of the world
we live in. We are able to destroy it and we
are capable of saving it for ourselves and
future generations. It is up to us as humanity
to decide which path we choose. Whereas
the first primitive human beings stood in awe
of nature and worshipped it as a god,
humanity now stands in the relationship of
god towards nature in that its fate is in our

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