To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche

Erich Fromm

Book cover

Another (much later) book from Erich Fromm that I really liked (see my review of “Escape from Freedom”). In this (short) book, Fromm distinguishes two modes of activity that can characterize any aspect of human life: the “having” mode and the “being” mode. Both of these have their roots in natural instincts of human beings: the desire to possess, and the desire to share and love.

Fromm says that almost any activity can be conducted in either mode, and the character of the activity can be completely different depending on the mode. He gives lots of examples, and I think it is a fun game to take an activity and characterize what it would mean to conduct it in each mode. For example, one could enter an educational program to learn something about the world (being), or to acquire a useful degree (having). Or in a different vein, we can recognize the difference between “having authority” (e.g., by virtue of one’s title) and “being an authority” (e.g., by virtue of one’s knowledge of a subject). In general, “being” is characterized by presence and mindfulness, “having” by instrumentality.

Most of our activities are some admixture of both modes, but Fromm argues that societies differ in how much they emphasize the one or the other. His view (1976) is that modern Western society has dangerously overemphasized the “having” mode. This mode is most strongly embodied in consumer capitalism, but bleeds over into other aspects of our lives. In his view, the balance has tipped so far in one direction that it is no longer conducive to human happiness, but it is such a fundamental aspect of our culture that it can be difficult to see any other way. (This is reminiscent of Daniel Quinn’s “leavers” and “takers.”) I think that a lot of William Deresiewicz’s criticism of American elite education in “Excellent Sheep,” which I recently wrote up, is rooted in the overemphasis of the “having” mode to the detriment of its counterpart.

As with “Escape from Freedom,” I thought Fromm made some very perceptive points, and helped me to understand some issues I have grappled with. For example, personal finance writers like to encourage people to “spend money on experiences, not things.” This is often delivered as an enlightened counterpoint to consumer capitalism, but ultimately I think it reinforces that system by assuming the having mode from the outset, for experiences as much as things. As another example, I think something like this dichotomy is at play in my reading life. I try not to own too many books, especially ones that I’ve finished, perhaps for fear that my pleasure in having them will crowd out my ability to get something deeper out of the experience of reading them. (It is for a similar reason that I always write a review on Goodreads, as opposed to just checking “read” and putting a star rating.) I don’t mean to criticize other people if they don’t do the same–as I said, most of what we do is a mixture of both modes, and I think it would be foolish to think one could, or even should want to, banish “having” entirely. But it’s something that I actively struggle with, and I appreciate Fromm for giving me some concepts with which to think about it.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars