Erich Fromm

To Have or To Be

“I refer to two fundamental modes of existence, to two different kinds of orientation toward self and the world, to two different kinds of character structure the respective predominance of which determines the totality of a person's thinking, feeling and acting.”

The problem of existence, according to German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900 – 1980) in his To Have or To Be, is that we are trapped in modes of having when we should reorient our natures to simply being.

By being or having I do not refer to certain separate qualities of a subject as illustrated in such statements as “I have a car” or “I am white” or “I am happy.” I refer to two fundamental modes of existence, to two different kinds of orientation toward self and the world, to two different kinds of character structure the respective predominance of which determines the totality of a person’s thinking, feeling and acting.

Alices in Notting Hill Gate. Featured in Erich Fromm's "To Have or To Be" in the Examined Life Library.
Alices Portobello, a Notting Hill landmark. Collection of curious and antiques that were owned and loved by many. Perhaps by you next? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It is, Fromm admits, an uphill battle to challenge the concept of the “having mode” in which we all exist, for having is itself existence.

The alternative of having versus being does not appeal to the common sense. To have, so it would seem, is a normal function of our life: in order to live we must have things. Moreover, we must have things in order to enjoy them. In a culture in which one can speak of someone as “being worth a million dollars,” how can there be an alternative between having and being? On the contrary, it would seem that the very essence of being is having; that if one has nothing, one is nothing.

Yet the great Masters of Living have made the alternative between having and being a central issue of their respective systems. The Buddha teachers that in order to arrive at the highest stage of human development, we must not crave possessions. Jesus teaches: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, but whosoever will lose his life for my sake the same shall save it….Marx taught that luxury is as much a vice as poverty and that our goal should be to be much, not to have much.

In the being mode, we are. We have essences, feelings. We expand ourselves outside of our body’s boundaries and move past the things we see, do or own.

“I exist as I am,” wrote Walt Whitman in one of the most beautiful poems of being. “That is enough, if no other in the world be aware I sit content.” Whitman’s self cannot be removed, or trespassed, or threatened. He is.

The being is illusive, Fromm argues, and somewhat beyond language.

Having refers to things and things are fixed and describable. Being refers to experience, and human experience is in principle not describable. What is fully describable is our persona – the mask we each wear, the ego we present – for this persona is in itself a thing. In contrast, the living human being is not a dead image and cannot be described like a thing. In fact, the living human being cannot be described at all. Indeed, much can be said about me, about my character, about my total orientation to life. This insightful knowledge can go very far in understanding and describing my own or another’s psychical structure.

But the total me, my whole individuality, my suchness that is as unique as my fingerprints are, can never be fully understood, not even by empathy, for no two human beings are entirely alike.1

Fromm would have us believe that our having mode is somewhat of a by-product of a top-down capitalistic structure. I think the tenets of applied capitalism are as much within each of us as it is without. It is not imposed on us as much as it is generated from us. And thus the issue of having is more existential.

Ultimately, we exist in the having mode to shore up our being, to perpetuate our sense of who we are (into objects we keep near) and to create a legacy when we leave, a space for our dead selves.

A looming, very real and very unknowable death hunts us all. “Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die” wrote contemporary psychotherapist Irvin Yalom. Yalom even named his own modes of existence, calling them “everydayness” and a “change-conducive mode.”

Alices in Notting Hill Gate. Featured in Erich Fromm's "To Have or To Be" in the Examined Life Library.
Come rain or shine, the inside spills out onto the street, tempting tourists and passersby. I’ve come home from Alices with a skull, mirrors, a toy chest, cricket balls, books and more than a few royal crests. They were all calling my name. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Whatever the motive for a having existence, both Yalom and Fromm argue what’s at stake within this existence is not only our removal from nature and our grotesque consumption, what is at stake is our total isolation.

The more we define ourselves by having, the more we remove ourselves from a natural human unity.

The human desire to experience union with others is rooted in the specific conditions of existence that characterize the human species and is one of the strongest motivators of human behavior. By the combination of minimal instinctive determination and maximal development for the capacity of reason, we humans beings have lost our original oneness with nature.

In order not to feel utterly isolated – which would, in fact, condemn us to insanity – we need to find anew unity; with our fellow beings and with nature. this human need for unity with others is experienced in many ways: in the symbolic tie to mother, an idol, one’s tribe, one’s nation, one’s class, ones religion, one’s fraternity, one’s professional organization. Often, of course, these ties overlap, and often they assume an ecstatic form, as among members of certain religious sects or of a lynch mob, or in the outbursts of national hysteria in the case of war… People give up their life long convictions of pacifism, anti-militarism, socialism; scientists threw away their lifelong raining in objectivity, critical thinking, and impartiality in order to join the big We.

Alices in Notting Hill Gate. Featured in Erich Fromm's "To Have or To Be" in the Examined Life Library.
The inside of Alice’s is truly down a rabbit hole. Trinkets. Bobbins. Pockets of memories and cherished stuff. All waiting to be cherished anew. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

To move from Fromm’s having to being modes, Yalom discusses “awakening” moments, pricks of consciousness.

I found one such awakening moment in the writing of contrarian and essayist Christopher Hitchens. “I don’t have a body, I am a body” noted Christopher Hitchens when he was dying from cancer. In that simple sentence Hitchens recognizes his lucid mind is forever hitched to his ailing body.

Others have mentioned different modes of existence and moving between them. Margaret Atwood noted the duality of the writer, Joan Didion wrote about absently writing notes when her husband died and then wondering who wrote them. Physicist Alan Lightman contemplated himself against the stars.

Does creativity moves us between modes? Does grief? Does wonder?

I use Fromm’s treatise as a framework to understanding contemporary philosophical concepts like contentment, existence, meaning. I keep it near, underlined, warmed. I have it.

But alternatively I keep my eye to the eternal, expand myself into the universe. Being as much as possible.2