I read Erich Fromm’s book To Have or To Be (1978) many years ago, and remember being impressed by the ideas put forward. So I recently sought out the copy with yellowing pages from the shelf of books that have survived regular culls over the years. I discovered that Fromm’s ideas are just as relevant today, and the problems he identified have arguably got worse.
His basic idea is simple. Having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the relative strengths of which are key determinants of character. Modern capitalist society emphasises having things, property, money, goods and so on – so these are major determinants of character, and the society is essentially competitive. Other more co-operative societies have been more concerned with being in the world and how we relate to it.
In psychological terms, having bolsters the ego and it’s greed, being transcends it. Having focuses on having knowledge of the surface of things, being focuses on knowing, penetrating below that surface.
Fromm traces the call to being through history, from the Old Testament to Buddha, Jesus, Eckhart, Spinoza, Marx, Schweitzer… The fundamental characteristic of the being mode is the productive use of our human powers, growth and renewal, and relating to reality. Fromm suggests that Freud’s psychoanalysis gave the tool to help us better address reality.
In the being mode people are self-driven, in the having mode, dominance, manipulation, conformity, bribery are the way. Fromm identifies joy as the key fruit of the being mode, as we grow closer to our true selves.
Fromm concludes by summarising the need for a new society based around being rather than having. He was another prophet of the New Renaissance.
It seems that we are no closer to that than when he first wrote the book. If anything, we actually now seem to be even more embedded in the having mode of the consumer society, particularly with the wonders of modern ‘always on’, 24/7 technology. But never forget that increasing numbers of people are seeing through the superficiality of this mode of existence and seek to reach deeper realities.
Maybe our task now is to establish new modes of being in the world, that take advantage of modern technologies but with the joy of developing towards our true selves and the contribution only we as individuals can bring to a world of goodness, truth and beauty – both related to human societies and to the natural world. A sublime balance between having and being.
Although somewhat dated, To Have or To Be is a profound book that could just change your outlook on life.