To Have or To Be

to have or to beI 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.Read More »

The Heart of Man

the heart of manReaders of my last few posts will have detected a certain attraction to the ideas expressed in Erich Fromm‘s book The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, first published in 1964.

There is much more in the book than my blog posts listed below, which will give a flavour of some of the content. I find Fromm’s work accessible, readable and very relevant today, when the mistakes of the past are rising again to confront humanity – the mistakes that led those such as Fromm to leave a Europe where Hitler’s racism was brewing up into war, for the relative stability of the US.

Fromm throws light onto the nature of good and evil, and particularly the psychological roots that are the causes of war, or alternatively that lead to periods of Renaissance.

Periods of Renaissance

In “The Heart of Man”, Erich Fromm relates social narcissism to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Renaissance, in an illuminating discussion on the nature of periods of Renaissance which might give us clues to the nature of a New Renaissance.

Humanism and Fanaticism

When considering narcissism in large groups, such as major religions, Fromm suggests that there are counteracting forces of narcissism and anti-narcissism at work. He uses the Roman Catholic Church as an example, the personal humility that is at the heart of Christ’s teaching being at the opposite end of the scale to the intense narcissism of a church that believes it is the only chance of salvation and its officers provide the only path to God.

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Fromm on social narcissism

Following up my earlier post Fromm on Narcissism, I move on to Erich Fromm’s thoughts on social or group narcissism and the role it plays as a source of violence and war.

Any social grouping depends on a sort of group narcissism for its survival and continuation, similar to the narcissism of the individual.

Similarly, we can distinguish benign and malignant forms. The benign form tends to involve some form of achievement outside the group by productive effort, which maintains contact with reality. The malignant form tends to involve concern for the group itself, its splendour and past achievements, and its continuation regardless of its current contribution.Read More »

Fromm on Narcissism

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Erich Fromm in 1970

In The Heart of Man, first published in 1964, Erich Fromm examines “the role of narcissim for the understanding of nationalism… and the psychological motivations for destructiveness and war”. It all sounds very relevant today.

Fromm recognises that narcissism fulfils an important biological survival function for everyone, but needs to be at an optimum level modified by the reality of social cooperation. (cf healthy attachment to one’s own children, which needs to be bounded by reality.)Read More »

Biophilia and Necrophilia

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Erich Fromm in 1970

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.Read More »