“Self is not enough”


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From Philosophy Now:

“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation” Rainer Maria Rilke.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it” Jelaluddin Rumi

Love is a universal human phenomenon: we all need to love and to be loved. An acknowledgement of this need is beautifully portrayed by Raymond Carver in his poem ‘Late Fragment’, from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times:

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth

However, love is also a uniquely personal experience which can never be fully articulated. From a philosophical viewpoint, the concept of love raises many questions: What does it mean to love? What is the relationship between love of self and love of others? Is love an instinctive emotion, or is it a decisive and rational commitment? In his best-selling 1956 book The Art of Loving, German philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) examines these questions and others relating to love, and he puts forward a strong argument that love is an art which must be developed and practiced with commitment and humility: it requires both knowledge and effort. Fromm provides specific guidelines to help his readers develop the art of loving, and he asserts that “love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence” (p.104, 1995 edition). This assertion carries a strong echo of the words of Sigmund Freud: “Our inborn instincts and the world around us being what they are, I could not but regard that love is no less essential for the survival of the human race than such things as technology” (from The Life Cycle Completed, Erik Erikson, 1998, p.20). Fromm puts forward a theory of love which is demanding, disturbing and challenging. He based it on the contradiction between the prevalent idea that love is natural and spontaneous – and consequently not requiring application or practice – and the incontestable evidence of the failure of love in personal, social and international realms.

The human need for love is rooted in our awareness of our individual separateness and aloneness within the natural and social worlds. This is one of the existential dichotomies which characterize the human condition: “Man is alone and he is related at the same time” (Fromm, Man for Himself, 1947). Many philosophers have addressed this paradoxical aspect of being human, and there has been a general consensus on the essential relationship between well-being, flourishing, even survival, and the experience of loving relationships and friendships. As the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly notes, “the self knows that self is not enough, / the deepest well becomes exhausted” (from Familiar Strangers). The possibility of love exists within an acknowledgement of this insufficiency.

“Is Love An Art?”, Kathleen O’Dwyer, Philosophy Now