Erich Fromm - To Have Or To Be ? The Nature of the Psyche

To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche - Erich Fromm

To have or to be? Well, it’s simple really. To be, of course. To be rich! 
Now, jokes aside. 
I don’t normally read philosophical books because I share Lara's, from Doctor Zhivago, view on philosophy. She says: "I am not fond of philosophical essays. I think a little philosophy should be added to life and art by way of spice, but to make it one's specialty seems to me as strange as feeding on nothing but pickles" 
Philosophy is, to me, a kind of brain game. A little like Sudoku, only with ideas instead of numbers. And what’s the point of looking at someone’s solved Sudoku? Yes, it all tallies up, well done, but what am I supposed to be getting out of it? 

For this OCD reason or another I decided to tackle this jar of pickles. 

As per the title, Fromm talks about two modes of living – through ‘having’ and through ‘being’. You probably already have some general idea of what these two modes are. Fromm’s definitions are the common sense’s definitions only phrased in longer words 
Fromm insists we are currently in crisis (or we were in the 70s but I assume it has got worse since then) and if we don’t do something about it and quick, not only will we be unhappy but we will bring the end of the world upon us! 

At the same time, he presents us with the long history of consumerism, disease as old as the humankind itself. He goes from Old Testament to Jesus, from Meister Eckhert to Marx and analyses views on ‘having’ and ‘being’ throughout centuries. That’s the strongest part of the book, because later Fromm plunges into moaning and rambling. 
He gets a bit paranoid and even insists that the fact we say ‘my dentist’ or ‘my lawyer’ indicates our obsession with possessing things and people. 

Basically, everything would be a lot better if we stopped chasing after things and start ‘being’ instead. He even postulates that the fear of death would desert us if we do that. According to Fromm, we fear dying because we fear losing all things we‘ve accumulated such as status, houses, cars, wives, husbands, children etc. Fair enough, indeed we lose all that when we die but I don’t see how turning to ‘being’ would save us from the fear of death. When we die, we essentially cease to be as much as we cease to ‘have’. So what’s your point again, Mr Fromm? No wonder that chapter was only a page long. 
He also condemns any rivalry, like, God forbid, the Olympic Games. How he imagines humankind without rivalry is beyond me but he wouldn’t be the first Utopian like that. 

He talks about how we have created a religion out of possessions. I thought he was going overboard with this, I certainly don’t pray to my Kindle, but then I read this: 
So maybe he has a point. 
He says that we are a society of people permanently unhappy, lonely, fearful, depressed, destructive, addicted… Wow. Really, are we? And when it comes to fearful I doubt we have anything on people from the Middle Ages who lived in the constant fear of Heaven’s wrath. 

He explains that consumerism leads to unhappiness because nothing will satisfy us. We can have all the finest things, we get the best food, we collect lovers, we even want wives, husbands, then we want children but we will never be happy if we consider all these things in categories of ‘having’ because this kind of need is insatiable. This is a sound argument but Pierces put it so much better in 3 and a half minute and the most complicated word they use is ‘ménage à trois’:


So while he obviously makes sense at times, we shouldn’t do all that he wants us to do or life would get rather tiresome, literature would cease to exist and the civilisation would return to its initial hunting-gathering stage. I am going to keep my possessions, I like them very much, thank you. 

Nonetheless, he did win me over just a little bit at some point. I even thought: “hey, maybe I can stop hoarding books like a madwoman if that’s going to save the world.” Just when I thought good old Fromm is maybe not completely stupid after all, he came with his last chapter where he offered his own ideas on how to save the planet. He went straight up loco. Listen to this: 
Fromm says that there has been very little effort put into studying and experimenting with new social/political systems. (I beg to differ; I think there has been quite enough. My country, for example, lost 50 years to one of those experiments.) 

Here is what we should do: 
First we all need to admit we have a problem and that we are unhappy. Then a true change in our characters will occur. Once that is done, more changes in the political structure should be implemented, as follows. 

There should be a council created that would assess utility of ALL the products entering the market, and products that are not found to have any utilitarian value but that only drive people to unbridled consumerism would have to be distributed with special warnings. “The Council of mentally safe products warns: Gucci bags will eventually make you, and those around you, very unhappy”. This council will be made up of psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers and theologians. 

Meanwhile the government will subsidize the production of all the useful products until people start buying them and the subsiding will no longer be necessary. Though, of course, Fromm admits that the biggest difficulty lies in making the consumers realise that they are against consumerism. 

There should also be created hundreds (!) of groups counting about 500 members each which would then be supplied with all the necessary data so they can debate and vote on all the matters regarding economy, international affairs, health, education and other aspects of common interest. Those groups will, of course, be free from any external influence or pressure. 

There will also be a guaranteed annual income for EVERYONE, so no one will have to be stuck in a job they hate in fear of starvation. Fromm says that guaranteed annual income will give everyone freedom and independence and THAT’s why so far no system has had the guts to adopt it. 

Except for that, there should also be created Cultural Council that would hire about 100 people and be generously financed so it can commission all sort of specialist research and advise the government. It would also be in charge in gathering ALL the information and news and presenting it to the citizens in an objective manner (as newspapers and other traditional media cannot be trusted in that matter). It would supervise a big group of journalists who would supply all that objective information. 

That’s just bananas. Well, at least that would solve for good the problem of unemployment. 

*I read this book in Polish translation so my (para)phrasing might not be accurate.