Erich Fromm's highly influential and fascinating book To Have or To Be? deals with the question of authentic and creative personal existence and identity in a world in which most are driven by greed, lust, and power. In fact, Fromm divides human existence into two modes: those who define and live life according to what they have and own, and those who simply thrive in the art of being. Although it is posed as a question, it is evident from the start which answer the author chooses and favors.
It also comes as no surprise that most of us are living in the "having" mode for which both we ourselves and our social environment are to be blamed in equal measure. The book excels in showing us the causes and symptoms of our harmful, if not pathological modern day existence.
By putting the mirror in front of our eyes, Fromm makes us see that we are indeed living in a sick society; our social environment is feeding us lies about who we are, while at the same time, we are willingly swallowing and consuming them. Not unlike Plato's cave allegory we find ourselves bound and trapped in a shady consumer society; it, in turn, molds and fashions our tastes and ideas according to its selfish and profit-oriented needs and desires.
Our identity has become a fiction that we all believe and agree upon. To start off, our essential and most misguided delusion is to assume that life or existence is our possession. We have a name; we have a body; we have a job; we have friends; we have a family – wife and children, we have a house with or without a garden; we have a car; we have a future. Even our interpretation of God reflects our very own need for belonging and possession.
People caught up in this mode are misled into thinking that the more belongings and money they have; the more valuable and the better they are. This belief and attachment to things is the main reason for our unease and maladjustment.
We value others and ourselves according to possessions and possessive qualities – having beauty or intelligence; even spirituality becomes something one has and not what one is. (Think of our linguistic bias when we say we have sexual intercourse, which is not something we can have, but is - or should be - a type of mutual experience).
But the problem with money and possessions is that our greed is infinite and will never stop. There is always more down the road or in the neighbor's house, and the happiness we are chasing becomes ever so elusive and fleeting despite a growing savings account in the bank.
In order to increase our assets, we need to lie; we need to put on a fake persona and a phony smiling face; we need to exploit others and treat human beings as objects. At the same time, we need to fear our competitors and stab them in the back, metaphorically (I hope!). We are constantly paranoid because all our money can be preyed upon: Thieves can steal them from us, and then we will be left with nothing.
We know that we will die one day, but we postpone that thought to the remote corners of our mind. When the time seems to be approaching, we write up our last will; our testament thus ensures our own immortality regarding our possessions, and we rest assured that they will be handed over to our children complete and intact.
This is the world we live in. Our existence and time is intimately and intricately tied with money and possessions. Our education is about acquiring and having knowledge; we wish to have skills that will further our value on the market so that we can get a job that provides us with a good salary.
And with that money, we ourselves further the aims of the consumer culture and become good consumers like a cog in this mega-machine. That this way of life is dangerous for human existence is best exemplified in Fromm's statement that greed and peace preclude each other.
Is there an alternative to this mode? Fromm proposes the mode of being, which has been promoted by the great masters of living. You may have your own list of favorite thinkers and philosophers on the matter, but most of us may agree upon, religious ideology aside, the Buddha and Jesus.
Siddhartha Gautama gave up his worldly belongings to live on the streets like a beggar, while the Son of God and Man came riding on a donkey and at best owned the clothes he was wearing (though that has been a point of contention by some). Both of them exemplify the state of being and show the delusion and suffering that money, or more importantly, one's attachment to it, brings.
The person who chooses the state of being does not see himself as property to be sold or loaned. He enjoys his studies for their own sake; he develops his own qualities not to put out them on the market but for his own immaterial wealth. He lives life with joy; every moment is precious and golden.
He does not see love as a possession; he is not jealous or envious, and he likes to share and give materials as well as share his time and being with others in an unconditional manner. He is satisfied with what he has and appreciates all that is given to him. When property or money is taken from him, he suffers no loss or pain. None of that is essential to his identity nor to his well-being.
But what makes the person in having mode happy? For some time, he believes that the growth of money or fame are a source of happiness. But since he is alienated from life and others, since he cannot truly love but sees everything as his possession, he gets pleasure in different ways.
He may travel around the world or have plenty of indiscriminate sex. And for a while, he has and feels pleasure; yet it lacks the constancy of joy, and once one's desire has been satisfied one looks for repetition or variety. This could end in a never-ending and vicious cycle of destructive habits to relieve one's anxiety.
What ought we do about the whole issue then? Fromm has some interesting perspectives on this. First of all, and I fully agree with him on this, we need to develop our own critical thinking and redefine and refine our sense of personal identity. This is more difficult than it seems of course.
Along this path, we may need help from our society and government. Interestingly, Fromm criticizes communism for misinterpreting and misrepresenting, if not outright distorting Marxian ideas. The problem, is that communism is not getting rid of greed and avarice; it is simply promising consumption to all. And it does so by treating humans as objects the same way capitalism does. So it is not liberating them but enslaving them to an even higher degree.
For Fromm, it is the corporations who have to take a more human approach regarding their enterprise. First of all, they need to fairly compensate their employees and value their customers and must be driven not only by profit, but also by ethical standards. Secondly, they should stop producing things that no one really needs and that distract from the health and well-being of their consumers.
To ensure that we do not become prey to the indiscriminate materialism of consumer society, Fromm proposes to make advertising illegal. That is an interesting although hardly feasible idea. It is advertising that makes us want and desire things we do not need in the first place; it is advertising that sells news and distorts media; it is advertising that brainwashes and controls us to think and feel a certain way so that companies and politicians can profit from it all. Also, there are a lot of stereotypes that advertising promotes so that it can sell its products at any cost and means necessary.
His other ideas, of active involvement of people in politics and his idea of welfare as yearly income for the poor may be commendable but may seem rather naive in the face of human nature. Fromm firmly believes that humans are good and that they are not intrinsically lazy, that they would not take advantage or try to profit from such benefits.
In reality, I think most people are not only selfish but they would try to take advantage of such situations, which is why there is a lot of misuse and abuse of funds that are destined for the needy and end up in the wrong hands and pockets.
This book is and has been for decades an eye-opening experience. For all those who feel alienated and displeased with their lives and existence, this book may not offer self-help in the conventional sense, but it guides us in the correct direction.
Unfortunately, organized religion, with its own focus on greed and ambition does not become useful in this matter. Rather one must cease to see and abuse God, people and nature as our possessions or instruments, but we need to experience them fully and with open hearts and minds and with all the fibers of our being. This is what the Buddha meant when he said, if you ever run into the Buddha, kill him!
Postscript: At this point, I would like to thank Open Road Media and NetGalley for bringing this book to my attention. In fact, this is an organization that uses ebooks to spread knowledge. They have a commendable selection of books by Erich Fromm, and there is a specifically assigned Reader Concierge to assist one with one's reading and for recommending certain books.
They kindly sent me an invitation with a PDF copy of To Have or to Be? But I must make a confession here. I do not like reading books electronically since for me a book needs to be smelled, touched and felt physically in my hands. This may be part of a "having" mode I cannot get rid of, or at least as a type of temporary possession since I borrowed the book from the public library.
Although I promote the growth of technology, there is a line I draw when it comes to books, which is why Kindle readers and electronic versions have not been popular with me. Notwithstanding, I again want to reiterate that this should not take away from the efforts of organizations like NetGalley that take reading seriously and make it handy and convenient for the individual.