Erich Fromm: To Have or to Be

* Erich Fromm: Amazon: To Have or To Be; Wikipedia: To Have or to Be; Handshake: Excerpts.

To Have or To Be

Erich Fromm, 1976


To Have or to Be? is a 1976 book by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in which he differentiates between having and being. It was originally published in the World Perspectives book series edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen for Harper & Row publishing firm.

Fromm writes that modern society has become materialistic and prefers “having” to “being”. He mentions the great promise of unlimited happiness, freedom, material abundance, and domination of nature. These hopes reached their highs when the industrial age began. One could feel that there would be unlimited production and hence unlimited consumption. Human beings aspired to be Gods of earth, but this wasn’t really the case. The great promise failed due to the unachievable aims of life, i.e. maximum pleasure and fulfillment of every desire (radical hedonism), and the egotism, selfishness and greed of people. In the industrial age, the development of this economic system was no longer determined by the question of what is good for man, but rather of what is good for the growth of the system. So, the economic system of society served people in such a way in which only their personal interests were intended to impart. The people having unlimited needs and desires like the Roman emperors, the English and French noblemen were the people who got the most out of it.

Society nowadays has completely deviated from its actual path. The materialistic nature of people of “having” has been more developed than “being”. Modern industrialization has made great promises, but all these promises are developed to fulfill their interests and increase their possessions. In every mode of life, people should ponder more on “being” nature and not towards the “having” nature. This is the truth which people deny and thus people of the modern world have completely lost their inner selves. The point of being is more important as everyone is mortal, and thus having of possessions will become useless after their death, because the possessions which are transferred to the life after death, will be what the person actually was inside.

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.


Definition of Religion/Culture: Group-Shared System of Thought and Action that Offers the Individual a Frame of Orientation and an Object of Devotion:


“To clarify, “religion” as I use it here does not refer to a system that has necessarily to do with a concept of God or with idols or even to a system perceived as religion, but to any group-shared system of thought and action that offers the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion. Indeed, in this broad sense of the world no culture of the past or present, and it seems no culture in the future, can be considered as not having religion.

This definition does not tell us anything about its specific content. People may worship animals, trees, idols of gold or stone, an invisible god, a saintly person, or a diabolical leader; they may worship their ancestors, their nation, their class or party, money or success. Their religion may be conducive to the development of destructiveness or of love, of domination or of solidarity; it may further their power of reason or paralyze it.

.. A specific religion, provided it is effective in motivating conduct, is not a sum total of doctrines and beliefs; it is rooted in a specific character structure of the individual and, inasmuch as it is the religion of a group, in the social character. Thus, our religious attitude may be considered an aspect of our character structure, for we are what we are devoted to, and what we are devoted to is what motivates our conduct. Often however, individuals are not even aware of the real objects of their personal devotion and mistake their “official” beliefs for their real, though secret religion. If, for instance, a man worships power while professing a religion of love, the religion of power is his secret religion, while his so-called official religion, for example Christianity, is only an ideology.”  p.135-136


Usage of Nouns and Verbs:

During the two hundred years since Du Marais, this trend of the substitution of nouns for verbs has grown to proportions that even he could hardly have imagined. Here is a typical, if slightly exaggerated, example of today’s language. Assume that a person seeking a psychoanalysts help opens the conversation wit the following sentence: ‘Doctor, I have a problem; I have insomnia. Although I have a beautiful house, nice children, and a happy marriage, I have many worries.’ Some decades ago, instead of ‘I have a problem’, the patient probably would have said, ‘I am troubled’; instead of ‘I have insomnia’, ‘I cannot sleep’; instead of ‘I have a happy marriage’, ‘I am happily married’.

The more recent speech style indicates the prevailing high degree of alienation. By saying ‘I have a problem’ instead of ‘I am troubled’, subjective experience is eliminated: the I of experience is replaced by the it of possession. I have transformed my feeling into something I possess: the problem. But ‘problem’ is an abstract expression for all kinds of difficulties. I cannot have a problem, because it is not a thing that can be owned; it, however, can have me. That is to say, I have transformed myself into ‘a problem’ and am now owned by my creation. This way of speaking betrays a hidden, unconscious alienation. pg 31

Yet the linguistic history of ‘having’ indicates that the word is indeed a problem. To those who believe that to have is a most natural category of human existence it may come as a surprise to learn that many languages have no word for ‘to have’. In Hebrew, for instance, ‘I have’ must be expressed by the indirect form jesh li (‘it is to me’). In fact languages that express possession in this way, rather than by ‘I have’, predominate. pg 32

The attitude inherent in consumerism is that of swallowing the whole world. pg 36



Greed and peace preclude each other. pg 16

Students in the having mode of existence will listen to a lecture, hearing the words and understanding their logical structure and their meaning and, at best they can, will write down every word in their looseleaf notebooks – so that, later on, they can memorise their notes and thus pass an examination. But the content does not become part of their own individual system of thought, enriching and widening it. Instead, they transform the words they hear into fixed clusters of thought, or whole theories, which they store up. The students and the content of the lectures remain strangers to each other, except that each student has become the owner of a collection of statements made by somebody else (who had either created them or taken them over from another source).

Students in the having mode must have but one aim: to hold on to what they ‘learned’