Philosophers Erich Fromm and Khalil Gibran on the Nature & Art of Love

There have been fewer words in English language that has been as widely abused as Love. Everywhere you go you see people waving it at your face at the slightest opportunity and referencing it as soon as the least bit of feelings strolls through the mind. Maria Popova, author of widely acclaimed intellectually stimulating blog Brain Pickings rightly captured this ill when she wrote that: “Our cultural mythology continually casts love as something that happens to us passively and by chance, something we fall into, something that strikes us arrow-like, rather than a skill attained through the same deliberate practice as any other pursuit of human excellence.”

Several decades earlier, German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900–1980), in his 1956 masterwork The Art of Loving, captured so succinctly the same problem that Maria posited when she wrote about a love that happens to us passively and by chance, something we fall into:

If two people who have been strangers, as all of us are, suddenly let the wall between them break down, and feel close, feel one, this moment of oneness is one of the most exhilarating, most exciting experiences in life. It is all the more wonderful and miraculous for persons who have been shut off, isolated, without love. This miracle of sudden intimacy is often facilitated if it is combined with, or initiated by, sexual attraction and consummation. However, this type of love is by its very nature not lasting. The two persons become well acquainted, their intimacy loses more and more its miraculous character, until their antagonism, their disappointments, their mutual boredom kill whatever is left of the initial excitement. Yet, in the beginning they do not know all this: in fact, they take the intensity of the infatuation, this being “crazy” about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.

Breakups here and there, divorce all over the news, frustrations in relationships and marriages, Fromm understood that an abrupt end is the most probable fate of even the most intense love:

There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.

This is not a hopeless situation though, the fact that love would most probably wane (if no care is taken) does not mean it cannot be watered to full bloom (if given the most deliberate attention).

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To water love into full bloom, Fromm argues, is “to examine the underlying reasons for the disconnect between our beliefs about love and its actual machinery — which must include a recognition of love as an informed practice rather than an unmerited grace.”

The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.

If given a chance to speak on it, many of us know a thing or two about the mighty four letter word—love. Many of us would claim personal experience of it, both the good, the bad and the in-between. We’ll tell stories of how it’s made us laugh and how it’s made us cry; we’ll testify to its sweetness and we’ll also testify to its sourness. We all know something about love, but most of the time what we think we know about love might be greatly inaccurate as to the true nature of this widely misunderstood virtue.

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Three decades before Erich Fromm gave his lesson on the art of loving, philosopher and poet Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet, his foremost prose poetry fable, placed in the mouth of his major character an in-depth, illuminating description of the nature of love.

With poetic brilliance, Gibran introduced love to us as a two-faced coin or a doubled-edged sword, bringing with it both the apparently good and the seemingly bad.

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.

And When his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And When he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.

Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Kahlil then went deeper metaphorically, presenting love as a workman whose goal in putting the corn through numerous tedious processes is to fashion it into the most delicious bread.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

Many of us, though we think we know love, do not really know it. We either seek too less of it or we expect too much of it. Ultimately, we nurture many costly misconceptions about love, most especially expecting it to be all sweet and swell. The Prophet warned against this:

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,

Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,

Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Lastly, in validation of the saying that love is selfless, Gibran exhorts:

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.

Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

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