In The Heart of Man, first published in 1964, Erich Fromm looks at the problem of good and evil from several interesting perspectives. One is that of the ‘love of life’ versus the ‘love of death’, or biophilia versus necrophilia. We all have within us these opposing tendencies, so there are questions of balance and direction in life.
What is the difference? “Life is characterised by growth in a structured, functional manner, the necrophilous person is driven by all that is mechanical.” Really be in the natural world to know what life is. The opposite is to live in fear, desire control and predictability, demand ‘law and order’.
As a former concentration camp inmate, Fromm was obviously heavily influenced by that experience, and Adolph Hitler provided his supreme example of a necrophilous person, with Stalin not far behind.
The biophilous tendency is the love of life. Living substance has the tendency to integrate, to unite, to grow. Its ethic is that good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death.
As we travel through life, in which direction do we go? The necrophilous path is a hardening of the heart against life.
These tendencies are contagious, in that the love of life blossoms in an environment where life is loved, and vice versa. Fromm gives examples: freedom and the absence of threats, teaching by example rather than preaching, exemplifying inner harmony and strength, justice… Necrophilia encourages fright, routine, mechanical order, control and exploitation of others…
We can see parallels in the comparison between the Western democracies and the dictatorships and oligarchies that flourish in other parts of the world – and thus the perils faced by UK and US in the separative and destructive aspects of the Brexit and Trump phenomena. Equally, a renewed and revitalised sense of living purpose is perhaps what both really need.
Nuclear weapons present an entirely necrophilous phenomenon – what could be more of this tendency than the willingness to cause the deaths of millions in the blink of an eye? Similarly modern industrial capitalism, with its dedication to money and abstract principles at the expense of the real living natural world – of course it’s a question of balance, but the heavy weights seem to be on the wrong side.
So this interesting theory of human psychology seems to have a lot to say about our predicament today. The balance needs to change.
Above image is from the referenced wikipedia entry.