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To Have or to Be? (1976)

by Erich Fromm

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,3661811,289 (3.99)1
To Have Or to Be? is one of the seminal books of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing less than a manifesto for a new social and psychological revolution to save our threatened planet, this book is a summary of the penetrating thought of Eric Fromm. His thesis is that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity. To Have Or to Be? is a brilliant program for socioeconomic change.… (more)

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English (9)  Catalan (3)  French (2)  Italian (2)  German (1)  All languages (17)
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
This book outlines two orientations to the world: "having" and "being." Fromm argues that much of the frustration of modern life stems from too much emphasis on "having," which does not provide as much satisfaction as "being." "Having" is a game we cannot win, there's always more we could have, and thus we become dissatisfied. Instead, he urges us to prioritize "being," focusing on sensory awareness, social activity, and other experiential pursuits that can provide a bounty of happiness, nearly infinite. A very inspiring message, as he makes his case and discusses these issues. ( )
  stevepilsner | Jan 3, 2022 |
His description of the problem is excellent. But in section 3 he gets into proposing solutions. He has a lot of proposed solutions that are about as likely to succeed as the search for utopia, which dates back to at least the ancient Greeks. (ουτοπία) The term came into English with the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. In the 1800’s there were a number of attempts to create Utopian communities. Human nature prevailed and the communities failed.

“... is there a reasonable chance for salvation? From the standpoint of a business deal, there is no such chance; no reasonable human beings would bet their fortunes when the odds represent only a 2 percent chance of winning, or make a large investment of capital in a business venture with the same poor chance of gain. But when it is a matter of life and death, “reasonable chance” must be translated into “real possibility,” however small it may be.” (Page 197)

Again, this book is the thinking of a mature man who achieved fame in his lifetime. It therefore deserves our considering what we can do about it.

I read it as an eBook, so my highlights are visible in Goodreads.
( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
Scary prospects. Hard read but worth it. Last read mid 1980’s and now 2019. ( )
  DannyKeep | Jun 6, 2019 |
Favourite quotes:
Pg. 95: The powers of reason, of love, of artistic and intellectual creation, all essential powers grow through the process of being expressed. What is spent is not lost, but on the contrary, what is kept is lost.
Pg. 108: Death does not concern us Epicurus said, since while we are, death is not yet here,; but when death is here we are no more.(Diogenes Laertius)
Pg. 158: By participating in the community, people find life becomes more interesting and stimulating.Indeed, a true political democracy can be described as one in which life is just that, interesting.
Pg. 165: The guaranteed yearly income would ensure real freedom and independence. For that reason, it is unacceptable for to any system based on exploitation and control, particularly the various forms of dictatorship. ( )
  flydodofly | Nov 9, 2017 |
I saw this book in the secondhand shop in Sharrow and didn't buy it. Then yesterday I cycled down to say goodbye to the Greek man selling his gift shop and to buy a lunch in the Sharrow Marrow and after locking up the bike I went back into the book shop and bought this book after all. I read some in the cafe spilling tea on its early pages then I biked through Endcliffe Park and got off the bike, sat on the grass and read some more. When I got home I read some more. All the time thinking - he wrote this in the seventies and yet it is fresh and speaks to us from the author's grave. No higher praise than this. ( )
  adrianburke | Aug 7, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Erich Frommprimary authorall editionscalculated
Saba Sardi, FrancescoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stein, BrigitteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The Way to do is to be. [Lao-tse]
People should not consider so much what they are to do, as what they are. [Meister Eckhart]
The less you are and the less you express of your life - the more you have and the greater is your alientated life. [Karl Marx]
First words
The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress - the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and of unimpeded personal freedom - has sustained the hopes and faith of the generations since the beginning of the industrial age.
The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvelous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualized in order to understand the trauma that realization of its failure is producing today. For the industrial age has indeed failed to fulfill its Great Promise, and ever growing numbers of people are becoming aware that:
  • Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure.
  • The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings, and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control.
  • Economic progress has remained restricted to the rich nations, and the gap between rich and poor nations has ever widened.
  • Technical progress itself has created ecological dangers and the dangers of nuclear war, either or both of which may put an end to all civilization and possibly to all life.
None of the other great Masters taught that the factual existence of a desire constituted an ethical norm. They were concerned with humankind’s optimal well-being (vivere bene). The essential element in their thinking is the distinction between those needs (desires) that are only subjectively felt and whose satisfaction leads to momentary pleasure, and those needs that are rooted in human nature and whose realization is conducive to human growth and produces eudaimonia, i.e., “well-being.” In other words, they were concerned with the distinction between purely subjectively felt needs and objectively valid needs—part of the former being harmful to human growth and the latter being in accordance with the requirements of human nature.
The second psychological premise of the industrial age, that the pursuit of individual egoism leads to harmony and peace, growth in everyone’s welfare, is equally erroneous on theoretical grounds, and again its fallacy is proven by the observable data. Why should this principle, which only one of the great classical economists, David Ricardo, rejected, be true? To be an egoist refers not only to my behavior but to my character. It means: that I want everything for myself; that possessing, not sharing, gives me pleasure; that I must become greedy because if my aim is having, I am more the more I have; that I must feel antagonistic toward all others: my customers whom I want to deceive, my competitors whom I want to destroy, my workers whom I want to exploit. I can never be satisfied, because there is no end to my wishes; I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less. But I have to repress all these feelings in order to represent myself (to others as well as to myself) as the smiling, rational, sincere, kind human being everybody pretends to be.
The development of this economic system was no longer determined by the question: What is good for Man? but by the question: What is good for the growth of the system? One tried to hide the sharpness of this conflict by making the assumption that what was good for the growth of the system (or even for a single big corporation) was also good for the people. This construction was bolstered by an auxiliary construction: that the very qualities that the system required of human beings —egotism, selfishness, and greed—were innate in human nature; hence, not only the system but human nature itself fostered them. Societies in which egotism, selfishness, and greed did not exist were supposed to be “primitive,” their inhabitants “childlike.” People refused to recognize that these traits were not natural drives that caused industrial society to exist, but that they were the products of social circumstances.

Not least in importance is another factor: people’s relation to nature became deeply hostile. Being “freaks of nature” who by the very conditions of our existence are within nature and by the gift of our reason transcend it, we have tried to solve our existential problem by giving up the Messianic vision of harmony between humankind and nature by conquering nature, by transforming it to our own purposes until the conquest has become more and more equivalent to destruction. Our spirit of conquest and hostility has blinded us to the facts that natural resources have their limits and can eventually be exhausted, and that nature will fight back against human rapaciousness.

Industrial society has contempt for nature—as well as for all things not machine-made and for all people who are not machine makers (the nonwhite races, with the recent exceptions of Japan and China). People are attracted today to the mechanical, the powerful machine, the lifeless, and ever increasingly to destruction.
Memory entrusted to paper is another form of alienated remembering. By writing down what I want to remember I am sure to have that information, and I do not try to engrave it on my brain. I am sure of my possession—except that when I have lost my notes, I have lost my memory of the information, too. My capacity to remember has left me, for my memory bank had become an externalized part of me, in the form of my notes.

Considering the multitude of data that people in our contemporary society need to remember, a certain amount of notemaking and information deposited in books is unavoidable. But the tendency away from remembering is growing beyond all sensible proportions. One can easily and best observe in oneself that writing down things diminishes one’s power of remembering, but some typical examples may prove helpful.

An everyday example occurs in stores. Today a salesclerk will rarely do a simple addition of two or three items in his or her head, but will immediately use a machine. The classroom provides another example. Teachers can observe that the students who carefully write down every sentence of the lecture will, in all likelihood, understand and remember less than the students who trusted their capacity to understand and, hence, remember at least the essentials. Further, musicians know that those who most easily sight-read a score have more difficulty in remembering the music without the score. (Toscanini, whose memory was known to be extraordinary, is a good example of a musician in the being mode.) For a final example, in Mexico I have observed that people who are illiterate or who write little have memories far superior to the fluently literate inhabitants of the industrialized countries. Among other facts, this suggests that literacy is by no means the blessing it is advertised to be, especially when people use it merely to read material that impoverishes their capacity to experience and to imagine.
The modes of reading are the same with regard to a book whose theme is philosophy or history. The way one reads a philosophy or history book is formed—or better, deformed—by education. The school aims to give each student a certain amount of “cultural property,” and at the end of their schooling certifies the students as having at least the minimum amount. Students are taught to read a book so that they can repeat the author’s main thoughts. This is how the students “know” Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Heidegger, Sartre. The difference between various levels of education from high school to graduate school is mainly in the amount of cultural property that is acquired, which corresponds roughly to the amount of material property the students may be expected to own in later life. The so-called excellent students are the ones who can most accurately repeat what each of the various philosophers had to say. They are like a well-informed guide at a museum. What they do not learn is that which goes beyond this kind of property knowledge. They do not learn to question the philosophers, to talk to them; they do not learn to be aware of the philosophers’ own contradictions, of their leaving out certain problems or evading issues; they do not learn to distinguish between what was new and what the authors could not help thinking because it was the “common sense” of their time; they do not learn to hear so that they are able to distinguish when the authors speak only from their brain and when their brain and heart speak together; they do not learn to discover whether the authors are authentic or fake; and many more things.

The mode of being readers will often come to the conclusion that even a highly praised book is entirely without value or is of very limited value. Or they may have fully understood a book, sometimes better than had the author, who may have considered everything he or she wrote as being equally important.
Our education generally tries to train people to have knowledge as a possession, by and large commensurate with the amount of property or social prestige they are likely to have in later life. The minimum they receive is the amount they will need in order to function properly in their work. In addition they are each given a “luxury-knowledge package” to enhance their feeling of worth, with the size of each such package being in accord with the person's probable social prestige. The schools are the factories in which these overall knowledge packages are produced—although schools usually claim they mean to bring the students in touch with the highest achievements of the human mind. Many undergraduate colleges are particularly adroit in nurturing these illusions. From Indian thought and art to existentialism and surrealism, a vast smörgåsbord of knowledge is offered from which students pick a little here, a little there, and in the name of spontaneity and freedom are not urged to concentrate on one subject, not even ever to finish reading an entire book. (Ivan Illich’s radical critique of the school system brings many of its failings into focus.)
God, originally a symbol for the highest value that we can experience within us, becomes, in the having mode, an idol. In the prophetic concept, an idol is a thing that we ourselves make and project our own powers into, thus impoverishing ourselves. We then submit to our creation and by our submission are in touch with ourselves in an alienated form. While I can have the idol because it is a thing, by my submission to it, it, simultaneously, has me. Once He has become an idol, God’s alleged qualities have as little to do with my personal experience as alienated political doctrines do. The idol may be praised as Lord of Mercy, yet any cruelty may be committed in its name, just as the alienated faith in human solidarity may not even raise doubts about committing the most inhuman acts. Faith, in the having mode, is a crutch for those who want to be certain, those who want an answer to life without daring to search for it themselves.

In the being mode, faith is an entirely different phenomenon. Can we live without faith? Must not the nursling have faith in its mother’s breast? Must we all not have faith in other beings, in those whom we love, and in ourselves? Can we live without faith in the validity of norms for our life? Indeed, without faith we become sterile, hopeless, afraid to the very core of our being.

Faith, in the being mode, is not, in the first place, a belief in certain ideas (although it may be that, too) but an inner orientation, an attitude. It would be better to say that one is in faith than that one has faith. (The theological distinction between faith that is belief [fides quae crediturl] and faith as belief [fides qua crediturl] reflects a similar distinction between the content of faith and the act of faith.) One can be in faith toward oneself and toward others, and the religious person can be in faith toward God. The God of the Old Testament is, first of all, a negation of idols, of gods whom one can have. Though conceived in analogy to an Oriental king, the concept of God transcends itself from the very beginning. God must not have a name; no image must be made of God.
When love is experienced in the mode of having it implies confining, imprisoning, or controlling the object one “loves.” It is strangling, deadening, suffocating, killing, not life-giving. What people call love is mostly a misuse of the word, in order to hide the reality of their not loving. How many parents love their children is still an entirely open question. Lloyd de Mause has brought out that for the past two millennia of Western history there have been reports of cruelty against children, ranging from physical to psychic torture, carelessness, sheer possessiveness, and sadism, so shocking that one must believe that loving parents are the exception rather than the rule.

The same may be said of marriages. Whether their marriage is based on love or, like traditional marriages of the past, on social convenience and custom, the couple who truly love each other seem to be the exception. What is social convenience, custom, mutual economic interest, shared interest in children, mutual dependency, or mutual hate or fear is consciously experienced as “love”—up to the moment when one or both partners recognize that they do not love each other, and that they never did. Today one can note some progress in this respect: people have become more realistic and sober, and many no longer feel that being sexually attracted means to love, or that a friendly, though distant, team relationship is a manifestation of loving. This new outlook has made for greater honesty—as well as more frequent change of partners. It has not necessarily led to a greater frequency of loving, and the new partners may love as little as did the old.
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To Have Or to Be? is one of the seminal books of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing less than a manifesto for a new social and psychological revolution to save our threatened planet, this book is a summary of the penetrating thought of Eric Fromm. His thesis is that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity. To Have Or to Be? is a brilliant program for socioeconomic change.

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