Why is it that, despite better knowledge, we have not been able to make the behavioral and political changes needed to avoid the unfolding ecological disaster? What in our personal and collective psyches makes us unable or even unwilling to do so? A pioneer with good answers was German-American psychoanalyst and social theorist Erich Fromm (*1900-1980) for whom ‘love’ was a key conceptual hinge. While his book The Art of Loving (1956) remains among his best-known works, Fromm touched on what it means to love in many writings. Simply put, mature love is a non-possessive and non-symbiotic way of uniting with another human. This identity-preserving unity, Fromm argues, is the best way to overcome an existential calamity, namely ‘the sense of isolation and separateness’ (1956, 42). ‘Love’, seen this way, is the caring interest in an Other, ‘the aim of which is the happiness, growth, and freedom of its object’ (1941, 114.)
Fromm’s thoughts revolved around human beings, their potentials, and needs by asking what makes a human life fulfilling and what leads to pathologies. He had no trouble finding case studies of the latter. As a German Jew, Fromm experienced state-sanctioned persecution and immigrated to the US in 1934. Importantly, Fromm dedicated himself to individual pathologies as much as collective ones. Among the latter were war as well as the psychological and ecological fallout of capitalism.
Despite this focus on the human, Fromm included non-human animals and the natural environment in his thinking. Dovetailing with ‘care’, ‘growth’, and ‘unity’, Fromm defined ‘biophilia’ (German: Biophilie) as ‘the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group’ (1973, 366). Fromm also understood both love drives – the one for humans, and the one for nature – to stem from a sense of separation (from other humans or nature, respectively) and both to seek transcendence by way of a non-egoistic interdependence. It bears repeating that, for Fromm, it did not matter where ‘life’ sits and what specious form it takes – human, plant, animal – in order to love it. Loving to Fromm is a redemptive act, an art and a necessity for psychological flourishing.
To the teacher, the notion of ‘biophilia’ has direct implications. A biophilic approach to learning would mean to not only be aware of and design lesson on humans’ need to interact lovingly with the more-than-human world. It would also mean appreciating and supporting the ‘aliveness’ in both students and instructors. Furthering the self-directed growth in a student, leading groups to build towards larger collective intelligence, as well as asking oneself ‘What is allowing me to flourish in the classroom (and outside!)’ are all in the spirit of biophilic pedagogy (for more, see Becker 2009).
Because he saw evidence of it everywhere, Fromm defined the opposite of biophilia as ‘necrophilia’. He conceived of this ‘love for death’ not just as being drawn to the destruction of beings who are physically alive, but also as a hatred of life (and the flourishing it engenders) as such. Necrophilia, Fromm explains, is the ‘passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical’ (1973, 332; emphasis added). Fromm’s emphasis on the mechanical is noteworthy: on the one hand, it stands in contrast with ‘organic, biological’ and on the other hand with ‘unpredictable, spontaneous’. Both connect to Fromm’s critique of capitalist ways of living in which a marketing-driven economy fuels a predictable desire for goods, which in turn detracts from human growth and destroys live-giving ecological resources. Despite his damning diagnosis of industrialized Western societies, Fromm also believed that a necrophilic way-of-life is not automatic. It develops only if humans’ primary potentiality for biophilia is blocked. Put bluntly: we can suppress the inborn love for life by growing up in a society that makes necrophilic feeling and acting the default.
Following this reasoning, the overlap between the individual and the collective comes into view. As a psychoanalyst trained in sociological analysis, Fromm was interested in the mutually constitutive relation between person and society, and by extension, between personal and collective pathologies. What a person feels and does, he reasons, develops within larger contexts, the values ingrained since childhood. This socio-psychological understanding echoes the Marxist idea that economic structures influence societal ideologies and vice versa. Ryan Gunderson (2014) details Fromm’s sociological potential in an appraisal worth reading. Based on this characterological model, Fromm diagnoses industrialized societies as systemically necrophilic, meaning that our way of living, producing, and consuming predisposes us to seeing natural (and human) resources as something to be used and used up (see Funk 1996).
The vehicle that mediates between personal and collective disposition is what Fromm called ‘social character’. ‘It is the function of the social character’, he claims, ‘to shape the energies of the members of society in such a way that their behavior is not left to conscious decisions whether or not to follow the social pattern but that people want to act as they have to act and at the same time find gratification in acting according to the requirements of the culture’ (1949, 5).
As this brief outline shows, Fromm’s writings warrant rereading because they develop a model of how individual thinking and feeling interacts with socioeconomic contexts. This intellectual offers us a theory of how emotions mediate the micro and the macro of our modern life, as well as what role they play in understanding our stance toward the natural world. Powerfully and almost in passing, Fromm invites us to understand love as a human capacity we need direct to humans as much as non-humans. Only then will we fulfil our promise as humans and stand a chance at surviving our ecological – and psychological – emergencies.
Becker, Martina. 2009. “Wie zeitgemäß ist Biophilie? Erich Fromm und die Pädagogik in der Postmoderne.” Fromm Forum 13: 79-86.
Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar, Rinehart and Winston.
Fromm, Erich. 1949. “Psychoanalytic Characterology and Its Application to the Understanding of Culture.” In: Culture and Personality, edited by S. Stansfeld Sargent and Marian Smith, 1-12. New York: Viking Fund Press.
Fromm, Erich. 1956. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Row.
Fromm, Erich. 1964. The Heart of Man. Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper & Row.
Fromm, Erich. 1973. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Gunderson, Ryan. 2014. “Erich Fromm’s Ecological Messianism: The First Biophilia Hypothesis as Humanistic Social Theory.” Humanity & Society 38(2): 182-204.
German and English website of the International Erich Fromm Society: https://www.fromm-gesellschaft.eu/index.php/en/