Today, I re-read the following section from p. 77 of Erich Fromm's book "The Heart of Man." In this book, a sequel to the "The Art of Loving" he deals with the opposite trait from "love" (which was the topic of "The Art of Loving") — the destructive instinct that instead of loving life — takes it apart — and so, affirms "death" rather than life.
This instinct has been rather consistently operating in Western society. And especially since Luther and the Reformation has been unconsciously blending itself with Protestant Christianity (in its Triumphalist versions), our attitudes toward the industrial and technological revolutions, and our unreflected ideas about development, growth, and progress.
In this segment of the book he is talking about individuals who exhibit narcissistic attitudes, traits, and personalities.
Benign and malignant narcissism
In discussing the pathology of narcissism it is important to distinguish between two forms of narcissism — one benign, the other malignant. In the benign form, the object of narcissism is the result of a person's effort. Thus, for instance, a person may have a narcissistic pride in his work as a carpenter, as a scientist, or as a farmer. Inasmuch as the object of his narcissism is something he has to work for, his exclusive interest in what is his work and his achievement is constantly balanced by his interest in the process of work itself, and the material he is working with. The dynamics of this benign narcissism thus are self-checking. The energy which propels the work is, to a large extent, of a narcissistic nature, but the very fact that the work itself makes it necessary to be related to reality, constantly curbs the narcissism and keeps it within bounds. This mechanism may explain why we find so many narcissistic people who are at the same time highly creative.
In the case of malignant narcissism, the object of narcissism is not anything the person does or produces, but something he has; for instance, his body, his looks, his health, his wealth, etc. The malignant nature of this type of narcissism lies in the fact that it lacks the corrective element which we find in the benign form. If I am “great” because of some quality I have, and not because of something I achieve, I do not need to be related to anybody or anything; I need not make any effort. In maintaining the picture of my greatness I remove myself more and more from reality and I have to increase the narcissistic charge in order to be better protected from the danger that my narcissistically inflated ego might be revealed as the product of my empty imagination. Malignant narcissism, thus, is not self-limiting, and in consequence it is crudely solipsistic as well as xenophobic. One who has learned to achieve cannot help acknowledging that others have achieved similar things in similar ways — even if his narcissism may persuade him that his own achievement is greater than that of others. One who has achieved nothing will find it difficult to appreciate the achievements of others, and thus he will be forced to isolate himself increasingly in narcissistic splendor.
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