To Have Or To Be? by Erich Fromm

by stephenpalmersf

For thirty years Erich Fromm has been a major influence in my life. In my twenties I discovered his many extraordinary books, most of which, like The Sane Society, were formative influences. His major works were written in the second half of his life, with To Have Or To Be? the last work before his death in 1980. To Have Or To Be? is a kind of manifesto for a humane future, Fromm’s credo it could be said, and as such it was hugely important in the development of my own thinking.

Fromm, a Marxist, had long railed against capitalism and what he called the marketing orientation, which he saw as shallow, fulfilling only minor human needs, which anyway were in large measure created by advertising. He saw consumers as children, made infantile by corporate greed, which was itself rooted in human narcissism. To Have Or To Be? peered far into the future – very far I suspect – in order to describe what a humane future might look like. As such, the book was a statement of what Fromm knew humanity could become.

Fromm opens his work with a discussion of the difference between the having orientation (experiencing life through owning things) and the being orientation (experiencing life through living). He not only looks at how modern people follow these orientations, he examines how the philosophers of the past have dealt with the themes, including his oft-quoted influence Master Eckhart. Later chapters compare various aspects of life in the two modes: security/insecurity, solidarity/antagonism, joy/pleasure, affirmation of life/fear of dying and so on, with the former of each pair in the being mode and the latter in the having mode.

Part three of the book is the credo. In it, Fromm sets out how societies could change in terms of religion, social character and so on. Features of ‘the new society’ are described, including what for me is possibly Fromm’s most important contribution to the debate: what he called ‘a new science of man’ (by which he meant human beings – he was a regrettably late convert to feminism). In my own work I’ve taken this clarion call for a new science of the human condition and merged it with the work of Nicholas Humphrey and others. Completing a scientific description of the human condition is in my opinion the most important task human beings face at the moment, since everything that could and should follow – like treating the planet with love and respect – comes as a consequence of understanding.

In summary: a ground-breaking, lucid, extraordinary work. I feel sure Fromm must have known he was at the end of his life when he wrote this. He was 76, and had just four years of life remaining. But his exceptional legacy lives on.

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