I read 2 very interesting books in the past 3 months that investigated slightly tangential topics.
One was by Bertrand Russell - The Conquest of Happiness and the other The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm.
Both of these authors are giants in their own right and the books were necessarily brilliant and thought provoking.
I picked up The Conquest of Happiness at this lovely ‘shop’ in Chennai called Rare books, which is essentially one mans library opened up for the public in a garage. He has a fantastic collection of books. Do check it out if you happen to be in Chennai. I think the book is available online but, I like to collect old books, the version of this book that I now call mine was published in 1961!
I forget where I got the recommendation for The Art of Loving from, I do remember it was mentioned in some book I read earlier this year.
This post is in some ways a summary of the 2 books since I wanted to compile and record these things before too much time passed.
The title of this post is of course from Al Green’s classic Love and Happiness.
Onto the topic at hand then.
Fair warning, this has turned out to be a reasonably long post. (There is something like a summary at the end)
Erich Fromm’s book starts with an introduction to previous attempts at understanding what love is and investigation into and denouncement of, the concept of ‘falling in love’ which he proceeds to counter with the art of ‘standing in love’
Fundamentally the book posits the idea that love is not passive, you must be an actor doing an activity, in this case, the activity is loving. I’ve read something similar in a couple of other books as well, but, none which dived as deeply as Fromm’s book did.
One of the earliest things Fromm does is reject Freudian ideas of love, this part of the book is what really drew me in, because I felt like I was reading 2 different ideas with points and counter points one after the other, I did find myself convinced with Fromm’s point of view.
He also spends some time talking about the differences between the theological approaches of a few religions in the world and how that influences world view, a topic that must have been new then, a little beaten to death now. With all this he formulates and defines his theory of love.
Fromm also contends, this is quite early in the book before talking about what the different kinds of love that exist according to him - I will get to this within the next 2 paras, that the main problem with people when it comes to love is that they ‘want to be loved’/’want to loveable’ instead of increasing one’s capacity to love. As an extension of this, he also goes on to say that the common mode of thinking about love is in the form of finding an ‘object to love’ rather than it being an art to refine.
To close this part out Fromm ends with the idea that ‘falling in love’ is a fleeting, while exhilarating, feeling that tends not to last, while ‘standing in love’ is an art that must be learnt and refined which lasts. This part of the book is called the Disintegration of Love in in Contemporary Society, this was written in the 60’s, but, I think it still applies.
My favorite quote from this part of the book was :
Man’s happiness today consists in “having fun.” Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and “taking in” commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies—all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones—and the eternally disappointed ones.
It’s in this part of the book that I found myself disagreeing with Fromm on some of the reasons to he ascribed to love’s disintegration, but, even if the reasons he found were things that I disagreed with, the issues at hand were quite correct.
For the last part of the book, Fromm identifies 6 types of love, which he believes to be exhaustive:
- Brotherly love - the love for every/any other human being
In this case, love means to make the fellow persons life better in whatever way possible.
The people loved in this way are not exclusive, it is the love that is shared with all peoples.
He also makes a statement that the love of Flesh and Blood is no achievement, love begins to unfold only when this form of love is shown towards those who serve no purpose to the actor.
He states this is a form of love between ‘equals’ in the sense that at the end of the day (or the beginning or any other time during the day or night really) we are all human, we are all in need of help. Some today, some tomorrow.
- Motherly love - unconditional, as is from mothers to their children
Although Fromm does say it isn’t all mothers, he also doesn’t say that this is a form of love shown only by Mothers or Women, he merely uses that as an example of this type of love.
This in contrast to Brotherly love is a love of inequality. In my view the definition of kindness is rooted in this situation where one is ‘superior’ to the other and yet shows love towards the other who is no equal.
- Erotic love - love for just one person
While similar to brotherly love in the sense that this is between equals, this is one that is shared amongst just 2 people, one to another.
In this sense, this is an exclusive form of love.
Fromm defines this as the ‘craving for complete fusion, for union with the other person’
- Self-Love - love for oneself
This could be viewed as narcissism or arrogance, which is the first thing Fromm refutes.
He also concludes after a series of arguments that Self-Love and Selfishness while they sound similar are actually significantly different and from his perspective they are opposites, a view that I became convinced about.
To me this was captured in one line in the section
It is true that selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either
- Fatherly love - conditional love, that is based on expectations being fulfilled
This is a form of love that needs to be deserved, and can be lost if expectations are not met. This is a form of love that one yearns for, one is willing to put effort for, due to the conditional nature of it and the respect derivable from the person whose expectations one seeks to fulfil.
- Love of God - where Fromm dives into theology
He begins this section by stating that there is nothing different from this form of love and some of the other forms of love, in a sense, the goal is to abandon loneliness and achieve union. He goes on to lay an understanding of human history from a cognitive and theological perspective which he then uses to structure what he calls the Love of God and its varieties. This was in my view, one of the best parts of the book.
A lovely book, has given me enough to think about. It also gave me this wonderful song called L’Amour est L’enfant de la Liberte by The Rumour.
Russell’s book in contrast to Fromm’s, as should be expected, was less psychology, more philosophy.
The book is split into 2 halves
- The Causes of Unhappiness
- The Causes of Happiness
The Causes of Unhappiness
- What makes people unhappy?
Chapter 1 is an investigation into what the possible reasons could be for ordinary day to day unhappiness (in civilised countries, is the term he uses) One of the common themes through the book as can be seen in this chapter is the view that interest in oneself is in no way useful. He calls this ‘Self-Absorption’.
The 3 types of Self-Absorption according to him are :
- The Sinner
The ones who sets strict rules, principles and boundaries for themselves and consider themselves sinners when they step outside these boundaries
- The Narcissist
The ones who are disinterested in others and too interested in themselves, which leads to unhappiness and frustration with all around them.
- The Megalomaniac
The ones whose love for power far exceeds all other pursuits in life, the ones who would rather be feared than loved.
The remaining chapters expand on this and define multiple reasons for unhappiness :
- Byronic Unhappiness
The view that ‘happiness is only for people too naive to understand how the world really works’ The people who hold this view suffer from Byronic Happiness where they are almost proud of being unhappy since that is the only rational reaction to life.
This chapter is a commentary of the life of a businessman or in my view any professional today who competes with others in their place/field of work.
I think the central idea of this is pretty simple and one that is familiar in today’s language in the idea of the ‘Rat Race’, but, I think he captured the entire chapters idea in just one sentence :
Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.
- Boredom and Excitement
This was my favorite chapter in this half of the book, mostly because it in my view relates to the only other book of Russell’s I’ve read : In Praise of Idleness
He contends that Boredom is the default emotion that we suffer from and the escape from Boredom is Excitement, but, we are too quick to label Excitement as Happiness and once the feeling abates, we are left with Boredom again.
His view, something I agree with, is that one must learn to be bored purposefully and endure it without running from it.
This chapter deals with what Russell calls ‘nervous fatigue’ which is better categorised under worry and noise I think. Essentially, stop worrying by being deliberate about it else suffer from unhappiness and stop listening to the ceaseless noise of the world that has no relevance to you.
There is a difference between Jealousy and Envy. Jealousy deals with losing something that is rightfully yours, while Envy deals with wanting something that you have no right to.
This chapter is centred around the feeling of Envy and the unhappiness it creates.
- Sin, Persecution, and Fear of Public Opinion
These are actually 3 separate chapters, but, in my view are based on one central feeling - that one is doing/has done something unethical and the acts repercussions.
The only difference between these three chapters is the party defines what is ethical.
These are, according to the author, causes of unhappiness in the world.
The Causes of Happiness
- Is Happiness still possible?
Much like the first half, the first chapter of this half asks the higher level question before speculating on what could be the causes of happiness and what one must do to be happy
The underlying theme of the book comes back at this point where the idea that Russell pushes from this point on can essentially be summarised, be absorbed in as many things in the outside world as possible, with some caveats - align them to your abilities, interests, and beliefs.
There is an element of superiority in his writing at this point where he draws a difference between the causes and sources of happiness of the educated and uneducated, which, I didn’t agree with, but, thankfully, he also forgets this idea within the next 3 pages and makes it more general from that point.
The remaining chapters focus on the multiple causes of happiness according to him:
In short, Zest for all things in life, an interest in all things that surround you. Simply put, happiness is easier when you like more things and are interested in as many things as possible.
In relation to the previous point,
Human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it. …if he had received more affection, would have feared the real world less, and would not have had to invent an ideal world to take its place in his beliefs.
Russell connects Zest with Affection and contends that a lack of Affection very likely is a cause of a lack of Zest for life, but, so far, does not prescribe methods for ‘getting’ more affection or dealing with the lack of it.
This is quite a quotable chapter, another one I liked was :
Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.
This is again in relation to the previous point, where a lack of affection is usually caused by a dysfunctional family more than anything else
He also uses this chapter to criticise urbanisation and point out the changing social structures and how that could lead to unhappiness especially for working women, in the context of family, a little ahead of his time on this front (this book was first published in 1931)
His view is that the organisational structure of the family is broken because it is lost in a foregone time and type of place (non-urban) and needs organisation for the modern world.
Russell begins this with one of the most original definitions of work I have ever read,
To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level. Work, therefore, is desirable, first and foremost, as a preventive of boredom, for the boredom that a man feels when he is doing necessary though uninteresting work is as nothing in comparison with the boredom that he feels when he has nothing to do with his days.
If that isn’t disdain for work, I don’t know what is.
He also is unsure of whether work is a cause for happiness or unhappiness and then proceeds to define some pre-conditions and conditions under which work is the cause of happiness.
- must provide an outlet for ambition
- must be interesting
- must not be ashamed of work that is done
- makes use of one’s skill
- provides for life’s necessities
While these are by no means enlightening findings, it is telling that nearly 100 years after such thought, the problems people have with work can still be categorised as failure to meet such conditions.
- Impersonal Interests - Hobbies
They act as an escape for the conscious mind to be occupied while the unconscious mind work on solutions to personal interests ( work etc )
He also critiques higher education as, in his view, they force people to become too specialised and do not equip them with the the skills necessary to have a wide set of interests.
In essence, having multiple impersonal interests is in itself, a cause of happiness.
- Effort and Resignation
Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances. That is why I have called this book The Conquest of Happiness
Russell’s view is that happiness is something one must work towards, put effort into and when one encounters something that cannot be moved even with effort, resign (accept) it as it is.
- The Happy Man
The book concludes with a discussion of the happy man, which I am not going to go into in this post.
In a weird way, books written by 2 different authors, in 2 very different disciplines, and different times essentially spoke about the same central tenets, with prescriptions and techniques specific to the topic at hand.
I would summarise them this way:
- Love and Happiness are both products of concerted effort
- To be loving is an art, to be happy is a skill
- Focus your energy externally rather than internally - self-absorption is painful
- Increase your ‘zest’ by increasing your affection and interests for all things around you
- Resign and accept defeat when all efforts fail, the only thing that count that happiness can be derived from is that fact that you tried
I do think that’s a fair summary.
I hope you enjoyed/liked/suffered through this post.
Thank you for reading
Do leave any comments you have below