Some readers will recall being given a copy of Erich Fromm’s popular The Art of Loving in high school or college, usually remembering it with gratitude, but sometimes with a sense that its reliance on the ideas of Freud and Marx now makes it not only unfashionable, but old-fashioned. Still others may recall their first reading of Escape from Freedom, one of the earlier attempts to explain what became known as the authoritarian personality: it was provoked by astonishment that so many otherwise rational people followed leaders such as Hitler, but it was much more wide-ranging in its exploration of the fear of freedom and the longing to be dependent. Still others may remember Fromm as a political activist, prominent in the antiwar movement from the early 1950s, and visible for the last time on the public stage as an adviser to Eugene McCarthy during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1967–1968.
Lawrence Friedman’s biography has many virtues; it is meticulous, detailed, friendly to its subject but not uncritical, the result of many years of archival investigation and interviews with people who knew Fromm well. Friedman is a professor of history in the Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the author of several books on the history of psychology, including a biography of Karl Menninger. Erich Fromm himself was a far from careful scholar, but The Lives of Erich Fromm is a reassuringly solid piece of work. What makes it a model of intellectual biography, however, is the way it illuminates the Erich Fromm who became famous in America in the 1950s, by seeing him in his many different settings—geographical, social, intellectual, and emotional.
Not the least powerful light it shines on its subject is provided by its account of Fromm’s upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. Readers of one of his final books, To Have or to Be?, published in 1976, four years before he died, might well wonder how a disciple of Marx and Freud, both enemies of religion and mysticism, drew so enthusiastically on the ideas of Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century German Dominican friar and Christian mystic. They might equally wonder at Fromm’s attachment to Zen Buddhism and his long-lasting friendship with the Buddhist and Theosophist D.T. Suzuki. To the extent that there is an answer beyond Fromm’s temperamental hankering after psychic, social, and cosmic harmony, it lies in his early exposure to Talmudic scholarship and Hasidic mysticism.
Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt in 1900. His father was a wine merchant. More importantly, Naphtali Fromm was an Orthodox Jew who came from a long line of distinguished rabbis, and was more embarrassed than pleased at his own modest economic success, always regretting that he had become an undistinguished wine merchant rather than a more distinguished rabbi. Late in life, Fromm told a French interviewer the story of a …