Episode#49 – To Have or to Be

To Have or to Be

(Original Title: Haben oder Sein)
by Erich Fromm


The book in one sentence

Define yourself by what you are and not what you have.


My personal opinion

After reading The Courage to be Disliked (I read the German translation which I truly can recommend if German is your first language: Du musst nicht von allen gemocht werden) and getting introduced to the psychological work of Alfred Adler, I wanted to take a look at Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be again. It is a book I read one or two years ago and I still remember how fascinating the book was. So here we go!

Fromm opens with five statements regarding the age of the industrialised world: 1.) happiness does not comes from the unlimited fulfilment of personal desires, 2.) the dream of independency made us dependent of our work and the economical systems, 3.) our desires are mainly influenced by marketing and advertisements, 4.) the economical progress strengthens the already rich countries rather that the whole world benefits from it and 5.) the economical progress brings various ecological risks and dangers. Statements, which fit with today’s zeitgeist.

One chapter really got my attention, because I saw a lot of similarities with my own past experiences. It is about “To Have or to Be” in our daily lives. I want to mention two of them:

  • Education: students listening to lectures in order to collect the knowledge, the “answers” for their exams, instead of listening to understand and creating new thoughts. Something I can totally relate to looking back at my own time at the university. I wanted to “have” the graduation because… well, today you just have to have a Bachelor or Master degree, right? At this time, for me it was only about the result, not the three year (!) process. If you take a look at our school system which is based on grades you can see a similar situation. Parents want their kids to have good grades instead of really understanding what you could learn at school.
  • General discussions and arguments: independent of the relevance of the topic, having a discussion or an argument is about winning. Most of the discussions we start, we discuss to show others that we are right. We are closed-minded and do not have the expectation of changing our own “right” opinion. In German you have the vivid saying “Recht haben”. Discussions became a competition and not an exchange of knowledge.

Another part of the book deals with why there is this strong urge in us to have – to own something – which Fromm explains with todays profit-oriented society. Of course, all this sounds generalised. Fromm mentions that in his book, too, and adds that his views are reflecting only some part of our society but for sure not all human beings. A statement I really like. In the chapter Fromm explains the difference between ownership and having something for its functional use, giving an inspiring conclusion at the end (you may want to translate this by yourself): “Worauf es ankommt, ist, dass Luxus und Armut ausgerottet werden; Gleichheit darf nicht quantitativ gleiche Verteilung von jedem Stückchen materiellen Guts bedeuten, sondern, die Abschaffung von Einkommensunterschieden, die so gewaltig sind, dass sie in den verschiedenen sozialen Schichten zu verschiedenen Lebenserfahrungen führen.”

For sure, To Have or to Be comes up with the big philosophical questions like the meaning of life. And the ideas of Erich Fromm are much broader and detailed than I would review it here. The book itself will not give you the answers, it will not dictate you what to do, what to believe. And that is good. I think Erich Fromm provides valuable input, or call it inspiration for an independent life, which will lead you to a happier being.

The last part of the book deals with Fromm’s suggestions of how the believes and attitudes of a be-oriented human would look like and which characteristics a be-oriented society would have. Like the other parts before, Fromm offers some very interesting food for thoughts.


To whom I would recommend this book

This is a general recommendation to everybody. In today’s world I often get the feeling that we have to prove something we not really are. Especially with the intensive use and popularity of private social media like Facebook or Instagram, but as well by the more business-related platforms like LinkedIn, we are surrounded by “advertisements” of how you have to behave or what you have to have. The book is a great reminder that it is your own life and only you can make the difference for yourself.

There is one group I would strongly recommend to read this book: youth. Knowing the ideas of Fromm, understanding the difference between to have and to be, I believe it could benefit young people (as well as people of every age to be honest) in finding their own way. It could help to resist group pressure and to become one’s true self. Having said that, I want to mention the book The Courage to be Disliked again.

Published for the first time in 1976, I believe this book is today more relevant than ever.


What I learned from this book

  • The meaning of the word profit changed over time from “making progress, being useful” to “making money”.
  • Most often we try to kill time (social media, TV series marathons,…) which we want to save at some other point (spending less time at work).
  • Too often we define ourselves by what we have and not by what we are.
  • Today, we speak more in terms of “to have” than in terms of “to be”. E.g. “I have an idea…” instead of “I think…/I imagine…” This change in the use of our language was discovered and discussed by Marsais, 1769, in his work Les Véritables Principes de la Grammaire.
  • If you define yourself by what you are, nobody can shake your true self. But if you define yourself by what you have, there is always the possibility to lose your identity.


Want to read this book?

Check it out on Amazon.com – To Have or to Be (Original Title: Haben oder Sein) by Erich Fromm



Thanks to the publisher for printing such a great book!