Home > education, management, research > Reflecting on Erich Fromm’s “To Have or To Be”

Reflecting on Erich Fromm’s “To Have or To Be”

Erich Fromm is an influential social philosopher and prolific writer, whose life work offers a provocative synthesis of Western capitalism, Marxist humanism and socialist rational planning. He defines two modes of being: “to have” and ” to be”, and examines the characteristics and values of lives led in each mode with respect to materialism, politics, religion, spirituality, knowledge, love, sex, language and economics. He asserts that modern living is dominated by the “to have” mode and generalizes it as a soul-less and thoughtless pursuit of material things that disrespects the human soul, love of nature and fellow humans and leads to unsustainable pursuit of things which can lead to poverty, war and extinction.  Fromm discards the idea that either conventional Western capitalism or Soviet-style communism offer a way out of the darkness, since both systems remain entrenched in the “to have” mode of being.  He offers an escape from this bleak vision of the future, by suggesting that a shift to the “to be” mode of being will bring a change in perspective and behavior at the individual, family, tribe, state and national levels. He asserts this change can bring lives back into harmony with the needs of the human spirit and permit sustainable societies to emerge.His utopian vision of modern living blends the freedom, liberty and productive power of Western capitalism, the central planning and rationality of Soviet style communism, and the tempered and non-materialistic spiritual centeredness of Buddhism and European- style mystics like Meister Eckhart. A society organized along these lines could manifest as economically linked villages of perhaps 100 families. They would be voluntarily joined in support, satisfying the legitimate needs of healthy living through the free exchange of goods and services produced by craftsmen. As craftsmen, people would take pride in and develop a sense of identity through their careful, mindful work and whose stewardship of precious resources would be reflected in a sustainable, respectful partnership with nature and their fellow man. Appetites are suppressed to just those that are commonly and wisely thought to be legitimate. Common spiritual needs are valued and encouraged at each level of social organization. Language itself is amended to reflect the importance of creating “states of being” that reflect nurturing, loving spiritual lives, families, and communities. You will notice this description is full of passive voice, because it is never quite clear “who” will be taking the lead or being the instrument of action in a transformation on a species level. I will address this later in greater detail.

I admire the scope, depth and breadth of Fromm’s vision, and the passion he brought to his life work, and his commitment to living his principles, as seen through his direct engagement with the dominant issues of his day. He was a social philosopher who lived his words and put himself into the arena of ideas and actions to make a difference. He made a positive difference in the lives of millions and those who worked closely with him testify to his optimism, energy, and basic human goodness. Granting all of that, and acknowledging that I have changed my opinion of Fromm’s work after spending time in background research and reflection, I want to engage his work in two useful ways: through disinterested philosophical discourse, and through an abbreviated dialectical materialism: a method of argumentative inquiry that would have come naturally to a Marxist. I decided on this approach after Dr Armstrong asked what Fromm might have said in response to a couple of extended Moodle discussions that were critical of some of his positions.Constructivism is a world view that asserts we are active participants in the creation of our knowledge of the world, particularly in the human, social areas of our lives. There are two well-known forms of dialogue that have been instrumental in the development of social, political and economic knowledge: the disinterested philosophical discourse of ancient philosophers described so well by Hadot (2002) and the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, which is a fusion of Hegel’s dialectics and Feuerbach’s materialism with roots that reach back to the ancient Greeks as well. (S.E.P, n.d.) (Mao, 1938)  

Hadot’s discussion of discourse is thorough. Discourse obliges you to set aside your own perspective,  to accept the other participant’s positions and truths, and to transcend disinterestedly to a new perspective which leads both to increased self knowledge, knowledge of the other, and to a new appreciation of the synthesis that is possible through a fusion of different opinions. There is a sense of philosophical cooperation and wisdom in play for true discourse. (Hadot, 2002)Marx’s dialectical materialism describes a dialogue between opposing views as a struggle between forces, with each committing passion and insight to argue a position. The initial argument is known as the thesis, the opposite view as the antithesis. Out of the tension of the vigorous exchange between thesis and antithesis, a broader, more comprehensive synthesis is created, which contains elements of both previous positions but which can be said to resolve the tension, encapsulate the essence of both, and  move on to a new and deeper understanding of the situation. As an example, Marx characterize the struggle between owners (thesis) and workers (antithesis) over the means of production as a dialectic which becomes resolved into a synthesis of communism, after the tension of class warfare has run its course and been resolved.

 I experienced both of these modes of dialogue and constructive knowledge in my readings of and reflections on Fromm’s work. The effect of the two different modes on my thinking has been instructive for me and serves to demonstrate the utility of both modes. I like the idea that they contribute both heat (the dialectic) and light (the discourse) to my own understanding of Fromm.


 The dialectic generated heat from my emotional reaction to my initial reading of Fromm, as I discovered deep seated and argumentative reactions to his assertions, conclusions, and matters offered in in evidence to support his claims. These responses have roots in my undergraduate days as a student of Asian history and political science in the 1970s when I did a lot of work in the historical events surrounding socialism and communism in Asia and Europe, while simultaneously experiencing and exploring non-Western cultural and religious responses to the challenges of defining and living the good life as seen by Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists.

 I read Fromm from that perspective: as a modern who sought to synthesize the ancient and modern thoughts of the good life and human nature with the tidal forces that were defining and shaping human culture through economics and political struggle. I understood his perspective and rationale for opting to follow the path of enlightened Marxism with its foundations in rationality and central planning, its concern for social justice, and his belief that freedom includes the ability to shape our destiny through choice and action, even if it means confronting and opposing what has been thought of as human nature combined with the power of tradition.

The heat came from the difference between his choices and my own, since I have chosen a different approach to understanding, framing and drawing policy conclusions from the same data set. My beliefs and values follow along the lines of valuing individual freedoms in the traditions of Payne and Locke, the political freedoms and limited government of Jefferson, the lack of central planning found in the tenets of laisse-faire capitalism, and the intellectual humility and disbelief in the perfectability of man epitomized by Twain. When the dialectical smoke had cleared though, I found room for Fromm and I to coexist:

Here are three samples of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis threads that I worked through in the dialectical tradition. In each case Fromm plays the role of thesis, as is his right as “first speaker” since we are using his text, not mine. They are representative of the more than 20 different annotated emotionally charged differences I discovered upon my first reading.

 a. Tennyson’s poem: Fromm’s thesis is that Tennyson’s speaker tore the flower from the ground to understand it, while the enlightened spirit became one with it as co-members of the scene. My antithesis is that it is a matter of interpretation as to whether Tennyson’s speaker killed the flower, since it could have carefully and mindfully been moved to a new place for examination and understanding without harming it. Indeed, later in the book, Fromm describes the wisdom of a Japanese gardener who transplants plants without harm to create beautiful, spiritual gardens. My synthesis is that while the passive appreciation of the flower in nature is groovy, it is the Western scientists’ inquiry which leads to new knowledge of the world around us, but that a science without humble mindfulness can easily lead to disaster for the race given the reach and consequences of modern technology.

 b. Human nature and central planning: Fromm’s thesis is that we can reshape our actions beliefs and destiny through the power of rational thought and disciplined action, and that we can design a universally applicable, better life for everyone. My antithesis is that man is in equal parts, a rational and emotional being; that there are limits to rationality and the persuasiveness of logic and reason; that life is too complex to be reduced to centrally planned, universal designs for the good life; and that the political realities of life do not permit simple transitions due to the nature of power.  My synthesis is that we can appeal through dialogue and discourse to the good that is in human nature, and aspire to an improved life for others, and that rugged individualism is not the ideal life for everyone either, despite its personal appeal to me.


c. Black and White classifications:  Fromm’s thesis is expressed in absolute terms, making mutually exclusive distinctions in almost every category he considers. Examples include his unqualified support for the success and goodness of the sexual revolution of the 1960s; the characterization of language itself as a conscious means whereby those in power create the meaning of individual words to further their materialistic agenda; that the choice of capitalism must inevitably lead to unbridled appetites for more and more until we exhaust the planet. He takes everything to its logical and often illogical extreme to dramatize the differences in the modes of beings and in the choices presented to people and nations. My antithesis is that there are checks and balances between your values, between members of your family, between friends, interest groups, communities, branches of government, and between nations themselves. Further, these checks and balances are adaptive and dynamic and that it is in the peaceful accommodations and adjustments we make that we have hope for a better future for all; that there are limits to how far a theory or model may be taken to explain phenomena; that there is a limit to the region of fit for any theory. My synthesis is that black and white characterizations can be useful to make dramatic statements that get your attention; that sometimes taking things to the logical extreme is a valuable way to demonstrate the very need for the compromise and discourse that I favor. Discourse:

            After declaring a week of truce for reflection and research, I engaged Fromm discursively. I researched his background, his other writings, and the testimony of friends and colleagues concerning his impact on their lives as a scholar and a person. I found that by conducting dispassionate research, I was able to transcend the heat of the dialectic, which actually helped me to complete the synthesis portion of each dialectic thread where I’d experienced an emotional reaction. The syntheses in the three example of dialectic above were only reached after a cooling off period of discourse, research and reflection.

             I found that the heat of the dialectic helped me raise the energy to conduct the research. Once engaged in research, my natural curiosity took over and carried me deeper than I would have gone if just motivated by a need to be right in some fanciful, contrived “argument” between Fromm and me. Fromm’s Germanic background reminded me of Hesse’s story of Magister Ludi and the Glass Bead Game, where a traditional game continued to be played long past the time when its origin, relevance and importance had been forgotten.

             I grew to respect for Fromm’s independent thinking, even as it caused him to depart over and over again from groups once friendly to his thinking, and where he could have remained and enjoyed the fruits of inclusion. He was a German Jew who left both Germany and the Jewish faith in search of a better life and a deeper spirituality. He was a trained psychologist and psychiatrist who left the confines of the Freudian, Rogerian and Jungian schools of thought to elaborate his own ideas of personality and psychological balance. He was a social philosopher who engaged in the practical worlds of politics and punditry by fighting peacefully against nuclear proliferation and  the Vietnam War , and in support of social justice. He was a prolific scholar, yet he wrote many popular books that made his ideas on the good life accessible to the masses. He was a systematic thinker, yet his ideas and concepts evolved through time as he reflected on his experience and the world around him. He was a good friend and a generous humble person by the accounts we have from his friends and co-workers.

 And so, I find in Fromm all the elements of the good life defined by Socrates and the ancients.  He is a man of passion, intellect, scholarship and good works, who lived an examined life, and who sought to apply his values in daily life.  If he and I disagree on certain aspects of how precisely to define the good life and how completely we might propose a design for a good life for all, surely the world is large enough for us to both live in it at the same peacefully and in mutual support.

In the course of thinking about this paper, the design of its concept and flow, the research I conducted, the Moodle discussions where I began to partially explore some of these ideas and in the actual writing this paper, I found the heat of dialectic and the light of discourse to be useful and enlightening. I think that the combination of both perspectives was more important that the exclusive use of either by itself would have been. To have applied just the dialectic would have resulted into an argumentative essay between Fromm and I, whereas a pure discursive paper, with the energy of passion, may have been a theoretical inquiry without the motivation to go beyond my own beliefs.

 In conclusion, I have enjoyed and learned from my engagement with the life  and works of Erich Fromm.


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Daniels, V. (2003). Lecture notes on Erich Fromm.  Victor Daniels’ Website in The Psychology Department at Sonoma State University.  Retrieved Nov 20, 2009, from   http://www.sonoma.edu/users/d/daniels/frommnotes.html

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 Raapana, N, & Friedrich, N. (2005). What is the Hegelian Dialectic?.    Crossroads: the Kjol Ministries. Retrieved Vov 15, 2009, from http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/05/dialectic.htm

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  1. Terry Lesniak
    November 25, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    One of my favorite quotes where Fromm speaks of creativity as letting go of one’s certainties, reminds me that personal visions should be developed through facts rather than facts being diluted by ones vision.


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