Dennis Maust
Dennis Maust and Mom

Fromm Here to Ethology

What I saw has led me to conclude . . . that having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the respective strengths of which determine the differences between the characters of individuals and various types of social character. (16)

Darwin developed his theory of evolution, Freud formulated his theory of the id’s unconscious responsibility for personality, and Maslow mustered up his progressive need theory or hierarchy of motives. Plato ponders an ideal state in The Republic, Machiavelli maneuvers his ambitious ruler with keen political wisdom and realism in The Prince, and Marx maligns capitalism while extolling the communistic final state of socialism in his major writings. These and other familiar and widely varied concepts describing individuals, society, and relationships between the two, continually permeate academic, philosophic and political discussions – and have, in some cases, for centuries. Twentieth-century psychologist Erich Fromm’s personal analysis of individual and societal traits distills to two primary categories such concepts. He calls them modes of existence and summarizes them in his book, To Have or To Be? Fromm’s masterful description of his having-being dichotomy, his illuminating use of examples, and his deductively simple prescription for a world fix vault To Have or To Be? into primer status for beginning critical self-examination and exploring fundamental societal change.

To Have or To Be? Fromm’s 1976 ethos study, extends some of his previous writings. In those, he posited two basic character orientations: selfishness and altruism. His former writings also dealt with contemporary society and his notion of a rising crisis. Here, Fromm reformulates his two character orientations into modes of existence: the mode of having and the mode of being. Where some authors examine these modes from a humanistic, theological or philosophical point of view, Fromm looks at them empirically from a psychological point of view. In the last section of his work, he attempts a remedy for society’s impending crises, drawing on the interaction between the socioeconomic character of society and the social character of its members.

Fromm develops his having-being dichotomy simply, yet thoroughly and effectively. First, he accommodates the opposition by siding with the apparent common-sense notion that to be is to have, that the seeming function of individual lives – indeed, a necessity for life – is to have things. However, he then appeals to past Masters like Buddha, Christ, Eckhart and Marx to introduce and authorize his central concept that being – attaining a higher awareness or a more advanced state of consciousness or human development – suffers by having more and more things. On the contrary, craving possessions and luxuries diminishes the time available for work on being. Fromm further makes striking use of poetry. His vivid comparison of Tennyson plucking a little flower only to hold "root and all, in my hand" (16) and of Goethe’s similar impulse to, but abstention from, plucking a flower, awakens the reader to sharp differences. Goethe, instead, takes the flower "with all its roots" (18) and carefully replants it in the garden so it does not wilt or break. Fromm then summarizes his definition of being as that "mode of existence in which one neither has anything nor craves to have something, but is joyous, employs one’s faculties productively, is oned to the world" (18-19). Oppositely, the having mode of existence incorporates traits like possessiveness, ownership and consumerism. Extrapolating, Fromm assigns to Western industrial society the having orientation, characterized by "greed for money, fame, and power" (19). Although acknowledging that the differences between having and being are not essentially the differences between Western and Eastern cultures, Fromm asserts that modern man finds understanding societies not based on property and greed very difficult.

Using illustrations in daily life, Fromm brings to light, sometimes alarmingly, the meanings of and differences between having and being. His illustrations cover subjects like learning, remembering, conversing, reading, exercising authority, knowing, faith, and loving. His two most clarifying and pertinent subjects involve learning and loving, the others seeming almost extensions of these. Students learning a subject in the having mode of existence passively listen to instructors’ words, take careful, oftentimes meticulous notes, and memorize in order to pass exams. They become owners of someone else’s thoughts. Students in the being mode approach each class with questions already in mind, actively participate, and walk away with new perspectives, actually changed and affected by the process. Fromm further reinforces these learning concepts by expounding on the functional aspect of knowing – productive thinking – as contrasted to the possessive aspect of having knowledge. Loving in the having mode, he later observes, objectifies the emotion, the substance, making it an abstract thing that longs to confine, control and imprison the object of one’s love. Loving in the being mode is a process, an act, of "self-renewing and self-increasing" (44). Fromm notes "‘falling in love’ is a contradiction" (45) and draws an interesting conclusion: "Since loving is a productive activity, one can only stand in love or walk in love; one cannot ‘fall’ in love, for falling denotes passivity" (45).

Finally, Fromm prevails upon the reader to look closely at society’s ills and recognize its impending crises. He continually mentions near-term ecological disaster, depletion of natural resources, and a trend toward "maximal consumption of the goods and services produced [and] routinized teamwork" (5) and away from "economic behavior [joined to] ethics and human values" (7). By describing the interaction between national economies and individual attitudes, he moves the reader along a path leading to a remedy for averting disaster, saving society as well as our planet. His simple prescription for correcting these ills, given that society must first recognize them, is to fundamentally change "human character from a preponderance of the having mode to a predominantly being mode of existence" (168). He obtains corroborating opinions by revisiting Buddha’s teaching, Marx’s idea of salvation, and Freud’s method of healing. Fromm’s concept of the "emergence of a new Man" (170) recalls Nietzsche’s summons for an Overman. However, Nietzsche’s abstract – or, some would say, lack of a – description of his Overman’s character differs markedly from Fromm’s concrete details of his new Man’s features and his new society’s qualities.

Some critics may chastise Fromm’s work as too simplistic, alluding to its either-or, black-white dualism. Such criticism could cite examples of incompleteness in his discussion. For instance, when illustrating having and being in learning, Fromm primarily addresses the process only as it involves the student, leaving out the leader’s role. An astute reader, though, easily projects Fromm’s definitions to the teacher or the text, also actively involved in the process. A far less discountable criticism concerns the subject of loving, especially courtship. Although Fromm emphasizes the participants’ being mode by addressing their aliveness, their efforts of "giving to and stimulating" each other, he sidesteps courtship’s having mode, where often the objective of one or both participants merely amounts to gaining the other’s love – a possessive-oriented attitude. He brushes over this by wordsmithing. "Each tries to win the other," he says, quickly jumping from courtship to the institution of marriage, which he then lambastes for so often degenerating love from an active process of yearning to a passive state of having (45-46). Here, Fromm’s goal of commenting on marriage issues appears almost too transparent and cliché, but in his defense, such conviction might stem from his probably one-sided experiences as a psychoanalyst and counselor. Some critics also may inform that Fromm’s style of writing falls short on intensity and, especially, passion. Again, this likely results from his stated empirical approach and also from his lifelong experiences observing people and society from a highly trained, distant or more disconnected post. Finally, critics might argue that Fromm does not accomplish his objective in the last section of his book; he does not describe how to bring about a new society, but only lists its characteristic qualities – the what of a new society.

Such criticism, though certainly valid for a more in-depth treatise, does not detract from the enlightening introduction Fromm provides readers to the modes of having and being. He inspires inquirers to ponder his study of the human character and to develop their own ethology. His straightforward definitions, meaningful and empathetic examples, and simple recipe for new Man and a new society to alter the world course, make To Have or To Be? a pertinent and persuasive jumping-off point for anyone looking inside himself or herself, examining life, and trying to discover qualities that will effect a fresh, improved society.

Work Cited

Fromm, Erich. To Have or To Be? New York: Continuum, 1976.