When I checked into Goodreads and marked Erich Fromm’s posthumous book The Art Of Being as current reading, I was surprised to find that I’d given it only three stars. But, reading it again, I think that was about right. Published thirteen years after Fromm’s death in 1980, the book is essentially chapters Fromm wrote for his final work, To Have Or To Be? but which he withdrew just before publishing, worrying that the chapters might give people the wrong idea about the paths they needed to take to achieve self-realisation.
I must point out that I am still very much a Frommer. He remains a central foundation of my own thinking and work on the evolution of consciousness and the analysis of the human condition.
This book though, for all its interest and worth, is not a great advert for the man. Too much reads as him at the end of his life criticising in irascible mood the fads and fantasies of Western culture, while his continuing insistence on Freud’s relevance to modern thinking on psychology comes across as anachronistic at best. Freud did humanity a tremendous service in discovering that the contents of our conscious minds are only a tiny proportion of what we hold, but his juggling of theories, re-writing of old work and so on leaves the reader of 2020 somewhat baffled.
Then there’s Marx. I like and admire Marx’s analysis of the human condition, for all that I think a lot of it is incorrect, but Fromm still insisted in the late 1970s that Marx was right to claim in his lifetime that historical conditions were suitable for a humane revolution originating in the working classes. The problem, Fromm said, was that people made him, Lenin, Stalin et al into idols.
I do not think the world was ready for a humane revolution in the early twentieth century, indeed, I doubt it will be ready at the end of the thirtieth century. It’s rather ironic that Fromm, whose brilliance included pointing out the necessity of shedding our narcissism and mental illusions, was incapable of seeing that human narcissism has a very, very long life yet before it fades away from our species. Like many compassionate humane thinkers, he wanted change in his own lifetime. That, alas, was and remains nothing but an illusion.
There is a lot to like in this book – Fromm’s grasp of the importance of Buddhism and meditation for instance – but much to wince at. The truly brilliant works were all published in his lifetime: The Sane Society, The Art Of Loving, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, Psychoanalysis & Buddhism, and To Have Or To Be? This posthumous volume is for those who recognise the continuing value, clarity and brilliance of Fromm’s vision, but who have the insight to grasp its limitations.