A Social Character

The Lives of Erich Fromm by Lawrence J. Friedman

Columbia University Press. 456p $29.95

Although the once wildly popular writings of Erich Fromm have fallen into desuetude in the 21st century, Fromm remains a relevant figure for anyone interested in the interpenetrating fields of psychoanalysis, cultural criticism, personal spiritual development and civic engagement in domestic and international affairs. For that reason, his thought is eminently worthy of being revisited. At least that is the claim of Lawrence J. Friedman in his new biography, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet.


Fromm’s remarkable life intersected with a multitude of figures, including the politicians John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, the Frankfurt Institute’s Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the cultural commentators Margaret Mead and David Riesman, and the theologians Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner, S.J. A “global citizen” before the term was ubiquitous, the Jewish Fromm spent years living in Germany, America, Mexico and Switzerland, traveling extensively and corresponding with leaders from diverse ideological perspectives. To understand this dynamic and eclectic figure as fully as possible, Friedman, with the help of Anke M. Schreiber, spent nearly a decade researching Fromm’s life, works and personal relationships by both examining primary and secondary sources and interviewing those who knew him best.

One can never plumb the depths of a human heart in its entirety, for as Fromm’s beloved Hebrew Scriptures ask pointedly, “Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). And yet Friedman does a yeoman’s job presenting with dexterity and skill the many “lives” Fromm led.

A reader will likely infer that a book subtitled Love’s Prophet will not be a scathing critique of the subject’s intellectual worldviews and cultural analyses. That would be correct, for Friedman obviously respects his subject. Yet the biography is fair in its critique of Fromm’s many personal shortcomings and does not shy away from investigating his character flaws, including the tendency to teeter on the edges of despondency and narcissism, and his notorious sensuality and sexual infidelities. But these efforts are indispensable in crafting an honest portrait of a man with a staggeringly wide range of interests, influences and liaisons, both scholarly and not.

Fromm’s reading of Freud through a Marxist lens, which distanced him from orthodox Freudians, led him to argue that latent forces were undoubtedly constitutive of human existence, as both earlier thinkers posited. But for Fromm, these forces were largely social and did not stem exclusively from the repressed biological urges and strict determinism that he had understood Freud to espouse. Where the two perspectives collided, Fromm’s allegiance to “socialism” won out against loyalty to his “Freudianism.” Thus, though his fluency in Freud’s thought was well documented, Fromm’s greatest contribution remains his penetrating commentary on the “social character” of post-World War II humanity.

Fromm was deeply concerned about the present and future state of the human race, but he did not demonstrate the outraged cynicism that characterized parts of Marx’s work, and so was no imbiber of the “opiate of the people” analysis. Though his relationship with institutionalized religion was ambivalent at best, Fromm’s own meditative practices and interpersonal relationships helped him to transcend Marxist areligiosity by crafting and defending what he so famously called “the art of loving,” touching millions in the process. He saw both the West’s consumerism and the East’s “conservative State capitalism”—which for him was little more than corruption garbed in socialist trappings—as deleterious to humanity in his lifetime and ever-growing hindrances to love of self, other and humankind.

Love, for Fromm, was not mere sentimentality, but the cultivation of what he came to call biophilia (friendship with life), as distinguished from necrophilia (friendship with death). It was a fulfilling and rational—in his words “sane”—mode of existence that emphasized “being” more than “having.”

Though Friedman does not make this case, it is evident that Fromm can enlighten our interpretation of various current events. The commodification of the human person by rampant consumerism and the resulting isolation has increased exponentially since he first penned his critique. Disarmament, a key concern for Fromm, has become a cause célèbre once again, especially where I teach, in the shadow of Newtown. Nativist attitudes about immigration reform, xenophobic obstruction to religious and racial pluralism and fear of the “other,” however that may be defined, were not razed with the concentration camps that so disgusted Fromm. The message of “love’s prophet” still has much in the contemporary world to address.

There is, however, something slightly paradoxical about the extensive scope of Friedman’s biography. In discussing Fromm’s “lives” so thoroughly, the volume is nearly bursting with intellectual arguments of theorists from widely disparate disciplines, references to multilingual source material and dense, if interconnected, cultural, political and socioeconomic historical analysis. That is not to say the book is not readable and engrossing, for it most certainly is. But it is also somehow categorically non-Frommian.

The subject’s works resonated with millions as somewhat popularized and unexacting reflections that could distill or crystalize material by presenting philosophical, sociological and psychological discoveries and theorems for the masses. Friedman is a consummate intellectual biographer, but he could never be mistaken for a popularizer. If anything, by following the seemingly ever-extending tentacles of Fromm’s thought to such lengths, he makes the original contributions more complex and worthy of meticulous attention, not easier to master.

One comes away from the biography with a sense he or she knows the subject, a great achievement for any book of this type, but with perhaps more questions about the intellectual undergirding of Fromm’s thought and his sources’ compatibility with one another than when the reader set out on the journey. Perhaps that is exactly Friedman’s intention, to force a type of ressourcement and re-engagement with Fromm’s primary writings and their predecessors. If so, he has succeeded, for after reading Love’s Prophet, that is where my attention will turn in the coming months.

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