These were the last books left to tour – a smallish but eclectic variety of “real world” topics that interest me. Let me know if you’ve read any of them or similar books you’d recommend!
For nonfiction books, I’ll be going over specific topics, starting with my beloved Soren Kierkegaard collection. These are just some first impressions of his writing, without any in-depth analysis or philosophical/theological context. Later down the road I’d like to give a better overview, but since I appreciate his writing so much already, I couldn’t resist talking about him. 😉
This month, Cleo is hosting a readalong of The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm and On Friendship by Cicero. It’s a sequel to the Four Loves Readalong – which feels recent but was actually back in June(!!). Fromm and C. S. Lewis were contemporaries (and Lewis’s book was published just four years later), so it adds interest to see how their perspectives correspond or differ. I’m also looking forward to Cicero, as I haven’t read many ancient classics.
You can find the full schedule on Cleo’s post. I felt the need to break down my check-ins a little more, so this one will cover the first 1 1/3 chapters.
Chapter 1, “Is Love an Art?”
Fromm opens with his short but pithy thesis – that love is not just a flurry of feelings, but an actual scientific art, like music or medicine, which must be learned and practiced.
He posits three interrelated societal problems. First, culture is overly focused on the state of “being loved,” particularly for superficial reasons, instead of giving love. Second, people are misguided in thinking they need only to find the right person to love, rather than determine how best to love someone. This quote from J. R. R. Tolkien comes to mind:
Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. – Tolkien, Letters, 51-52
(I do not know if I agree with this…but, it’s memorable.)
Fromm’s third point is that people will not put in the work – or do not understand how – to sustain a state of love, being obsessed instead with the romanticized concept of falling in love. Of such a couple, he adds, rather cynically:
…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.
There is much truth in this first chapter; in spite of that, my gut reaction was not positive. Fromm is right in that love is sacrificial and requires effort and even strategy. He is right in that people often let their heady feelings carry them away without any logic or wisdom. On the other hand, I would regret for someone to read this and then conclude they could simply “self-help” their way to a good relationship. I think it takes more than that.
Fromm describes the action of love as polar in the next chapter, but I see the state of love as being polar as well. To paraphrase my comment on Cleo’s post – I believe a relationship needs both the “infatuation” and the “art,” just as a country needs both heart/culture and good laws/policy. In some cases, I think this can sustain a relationship, especially where love is not reciprocated. More on that in the next section…
Chapter 2.1, “Love, the Answer to the Problem of Human Existence”
Here we get into Jordan Peterson-esque territory. Fromm examines the issue of human isolation, which is directly contrary to our innate desire for unity with others. Humans will do anything to escape the feeling of separation, from allowing themselves to be dominated by an aggressor to sadistically forcing others into submission to themselves. Sometimes this takes a purely voluntary form:
…the democratic societies show an overwhelming degree of conformity. The reason lies in the fact that there has to be an answer to the quest for union, and if there is no other or better way, then the union of herd conformity becomes the predominant one.
The tragedy is that we believe we are individualistic. But as Fromm so relevantly observes, we are so eager to identify ourselves by group labels, such as our political party, our handbag designers, and our charitable organizations.
On the same note, he addresses the concepts of mental/metaphysical masculinity and femininity and his belief that certain “masculine” or “feminine” traits, while present in both genders, exist in higher ratios in one or the other. I can’t remember if it was Lewis, Wollstonecraft, or Peterson (or someone else) who said something similar, but I’ve read that elsewhere and do not find it very convincing. He suggests this polarity is necessary in love, and where we lose our differences, we lose individuality and the kind of connection that is established by attraction rather than force or conformity.
But back to the “problem” of human existence. Fromm sees love as the only healthy option to solve the issue of loneliness (the non-healthy option being sadism). Here I do agree with him. From a Christian perspective, mankind needs God’s Love and nothing else will fill our emptiness.
Need-Love was a theme in Lewis’s book, and I am not sure Fromm recognizes it here. Rather, he seems to be focused on what Lewis called Gift-Love. Fromm breaks gift-love down into four common elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.
Love as a Means or an End?
There is a lot I could say about this chapter, but I want to zoom in on this statement, where Fromm qualifies gift-love by its reception and mirroring:
If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune.
To me this is an understandable perspective, but problematic.
Several years ago I read Works of Love by Kierkegaard, which was a life-changing experience – I actually didn’t blog about it because I didn’t quite know how. Anyways, this one thought of his has always lived with me since then:
Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle again.
In the spirit of “love your enemies,” what Kierkegaard is saying is that even unrequited love has value. If his love is not returned, he would not call his love “impotent” or a “misfortune,” because the love itself has an inherent, inseparable value that is not altered by the response of the recipient. It may change the relationship, but it will not undermine your sacrifice.
There are times the relationship must change or even end, for the wellbeing of one person or both. But if the relationship can reasonably stay intact, continuing to love the other person could be the one link to bring the two people back together on the other side.
Well, I missed last week, so once again playing catch up with the readalong. 🙂 Here are the last two parts – and thanks again to Cleo for hosting this!
Week 3: Friendship
In this chapter, Lewis talks about what he considers to be the “least natural” of the loves: Friendship. It is less “organic” than the other loves, because, unlike Affection which nurtures or Eros which propagates, Friendship is, in a sense, superfluous in that it is not necessary to our survival. In fact, it can be viewed with distrust by authorities or groups of humans, because it means at least two people have withdrawn from the group and are connected by something which distinguishes them from the rest.
This was the most interesting chapter of the book. I don’t have a wide circle of friends, but I appreciate each one I have (online and offline), and I think Lewis pinpoints why it is so hard to find good friends. The problem frequently lies with us. So often we are looking for someone to give us Affection or at least attention – someone to commiserate with us or praise us. But real friendship is centered on a common goal. As he puts it, lovers look each other in the face, but friends stand side-by-side, looking in the same direction.
…Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.
My favorite song about friendship, specifically the friendship of close siblings, is “Firebird” by Owl City.
Week 4: Eros & Charity
In chapter 5, Lewis breaks the subject matter of “being in love” into two parts, “Eros” and “Venus,” the latter referring to sexuality and the former referring to the psychological-emotional connection, or what I would call romantic love. Lewis focuses on Eros, though does refer to Venus as well and how Christian couples should approach it. I have to admit I didn’t really take anything new from this chapter, as these are topics I’ve read extensively about elsewhere. That said, I thought it was an insightful chapter nonetheless.
A lot of (great) songs about Eros are depressing, so here’s an upbeat one – “Tear in My Heart” by Twenty One Pilots:
Chapter 6, “Charity,” contains the famous quote: “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” I also love the passage early in the chapter which compares love to a garden.
…our “decency and common sense” show grey and deathlike beside the geniality of love. And when the garden is in its full glory the gardener’s contributions to that glory will still have been in a sense paltry compared with those of nature. Without life springing from the earth, without rain, light and heat descending from the sky, he could do nothing.
Lewis argues, too, that love need not be an “either/or” choice between our fellow mankind versus God. Rather, we should not be afraid to love others deeply, so long as we love God most.
Charity, from Lewis’s perspective, encompasses three loves: Gift-love, Need-love, and Appreciative-love. In Gift-love, the acts of charity we perform as Christians are gifts back to God (Lewis references Matthew 25). In Need-love, we receive love from our loved ones even if we are not always worthy – Charity here means forgiveness. Finally:
He can awake in man, towards Himself, a supernatural Appreciative love. This is of all gifts the most to be desired . . . With this all things are possible.
I will always be grateful to the people who showed me charity, however great or small, and whether they realized it or not. Some of them honestly changed my life. A song which really sums that up is “An Act of Kindness” by Bastille:
Cleo has been hosting a read-along of The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, and happily I’ve been keeping up with it well, in spite of some reader’s block. These are the parts I’ve read so far:
- Week 1: “Introduction” and “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human”
- Week 2: “Affection”
First off, this book is not quite what I was expecting, and I say that not as a criticism but as an observation. Lewis’s style is a little rambling, in some places like a sermon that switches from topic to topic fluidly but lacks the structure you’d expect from a book with such a structural title. He focuses on certain aspects of each topic, rather than giving a detailed overview of the whole. For example, my biggest takeaway from “Likings and Loves…” was his view on healthy vs. unhealthy patriotism; in “Affection,” it was more on “what to avoid” rather than “what to do.” It doesn’t make the book any less readable, but a little more of a challenge to analyze.
In “Likings and Loves,” Lewis talks about several different types of affinity or affection: “need-love” (love tied to needing the object of its affection), “gift-love” (love that must express itself in giving), and “appreciative love” (love that is nothing more nor less than appreciation of its object). Most people can relate to all of these and have experienced them in different ways.
Lewis makes a particular case for Need-love being as important in Christianity as Gift-love, although, as he tells us, his original take on the subject was disparaging of Need-love. Upon further thought, he came to realize that Need-love cannot be merely reduced to selfishness. Instead, it’s an existential truth we cannot deny, whether it is found among human beings or between man and God.
If you haven’t read Cleo’s fantastic analysis for Week 1, I highly recommend it! I’ll attempt to answer some of the discussion questions:
Lewis says that denying “Need-love” is a bad spiritual symptom. Why do you think people would choose to deny it?
There is a popular quote around the internet, and also by Lewis, about how giving up all heartache and hurt would also necessarily cause you to miss out on love. Need-love in particular involves vulnerability – for Christians, it comes when you confess your sins to God and live your life knowing He sees everything you do and all you think and feel. If we deny Need-love, then we don’t acknowledge our need to be saved or our need for human company (which God intended us to have). Humans, however, don’t like to be vulnerable or hurt; it goes against our in-born pride and desire for self-sufficiency, especially on moral issues. So that is why some people might choose to deny Need-love, or skirt around it by focusing on works and “self-improvement” to the detriment of mutually “needful” relationships with others.
It’s a paradox that the natural loves when they are at their best are in the most danger of blasphemy. Can you elaborate on this or give examples?
Speaking from experience, I know you can love someone so much (platonically or romantically), and become disappointed in love so much, to the point of overwhelming and relentless depression if the relationship doesn’t go smoothly. This actually becomes idolatry, when you cause yourself this kind of emotional harm over another human being. You’ve allowed someone to get a hold on you that damages your well-being, and that is wrong, even if the source is a natural love.
Can you think of ways that we can be strengthened by the past without aggrandizing it or allowing it to form mistaken impressions in our minds?
This is a topic that’s been on my mind lately, especially as I try to dig deeper into history through books and documentaries. I’ve learned about some disturbing topics in U.S. history, everything from eugenics to Vietnam War tactics to the government’s questionable response to Japan’s human experimentation in WWII (stumbled across the latter right before July 4 last year, which made me feel awful). That’s just the past; the present-day evils are also numerous.
How do you celebrate your country or be “patriotic” when these awful facts stare you in the face? Lewis suggests a couple of things.
First that “The [historical] stories are best when they are handed on and accepted as stories.” He says:
What does seem to me poisonous, what breeds a type of patriotism that is pernicious if it lasts but not likely to last long in an educated adult, is the perfectly serious indoctrination of the young in knowably false or biased history – the heroic legend drably disguised as text-book fact.
In other words, history is one thing, and stories from history are another; one should instruct adults and the other should inspire children. I understand where he’s coming from, but I don’t see how you can possibly separate the two for children’s sake, or even college students’. It seems like it just sets you up for disillusionment.
His second thought is more palatable for me, and that is that if we don’t have some patriotism, then everything becomes global and we run the risk of virtue signalling. We are also hyprocrites if we don’t express some favoritism towards our country, in the same way we express favoritism to our own house. It is not that you don’t see morality and ethics on a global scale, but you should have a particular concern for those of your own country, Lewis suggests.
As with most things, I think moderation is key when it comes to patriotism, so overall I agree with Lewis. There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in the good things our country has done; we should take those things as examples and inspiration. On the other hand, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels when there is more that needs to be addressed.
In “Affection,” Lewis considers three things associated with the concept: familiarity, jealousy, and its sometimes paradoxical accompaniment, hatred.
It was a little strange to see these last two negative emotions given so much focus. He gave a couple of examples – of an overprotective mother’s love-hate for her family and a prideful college professor’s self-centered love for his students – and I think they were based on his real-life observations.
He did mention something which I find really true, and that is that true affection will only nurture as much as is actually needed, and then it will let go. Letting go is actually critical to this kind of love being love. In other words, a really loving parent teaches a child to discern right from wrong, rather than blindly following rules for the sake of rules. When the child grows up, they will then be ready to face the world on their own and not be so wholly reliant on their parent.
In what way do you think that affection can work in friendship and romantic love?
In friendship, I think affection is best described as a feeling of “rightness” or happy contentment when you are with that person. It enables you to overlook or put up with all the little things about them that annoy you (and vice-versa). It can even make those traits endearing! People use the term “friend” very lightly, but I don’t think you can have a true friendship without affection.
It’s similar with romantic love, but here I think feeling affection is that moment you know you’d like to spend the rest of your life with that person, versus a temporary infatuation. The person has become familiar like an “old friend,” or like family. Romantic love without affection is more like lust, and then becomes unromantic.
Do you think the ability to show affection is built into our nature? Or is it a choice?
I think it’s a kind of switch that’s “on” when you’re born, but circumstances and rejection can cause it turn “off,” or at least be very difficult to retrieve. It’s something that needs to be practiced or else it becomes stale.
How can affection broaden our minds and widen our scope of understanding of others?
Affection requires some level of empathy. Being affectionate towards a broad range of people helps to develop your empathy and emotional intelligence. Without any affection, you never have to look sympathetically from anyone else’s perspective (which is quite a sad way to live). Affection is not only good for the recipient, but it is good for the giver.
I was searching my memory for a song that makes me think “affection.” I finally settled on “Halley” by one of my favorite indie folk bands, August and After. It’s about a boy and his dad watching a comet travel through the sky.