Wednesday, August 5, 2009

To Have or To Be?

To Have or to Be?
© 1976 Erich Fromm
215 pages

Society was sick when Erich Fromm penned The Sane Society in the fifties, and it hadn't gotten any better by the 1970s when he was asked to participate in a series of books called "World Perspectives". Back in the fall of 2008, I think, I read his For the Love of Life, containing an essay on "Ennui and Affluence in Our Society". Fromm believes that human beings today have trapped themselves in "having" mode: they define their sense of self based on what they own. This sense of ownership is not limited to the mindset of consumerism: according to Fromm, we also try to posses other people and ideas. That this leads to unhappy boredom and psychological distress is not bad enough: Fromm believes that if this continues, humanity will destroy itself. It could be through nuclear war or ecological collapse, but one way or another the desire to consume and possess for ourselves will destroy us in a physical as well as psychological sense.

At first, Fromm explores how the having-mode effects so much of human experience, including religion. Fromm is a humanist in a slightly more classical sense of the word: he ties Karl Marx, Albert Schweitzer, Jesus, and Buddha together. (Fromm's For the Love of Life drew from Marx, Freud, and Zen Buddhism just for starters.) After comparing this to the being-mode -- which isn't as well defined, but which he refers to as attempting to be fully human, cultivating ourselves through art and literature, and enjoying life -- he then looks as "New Man" and "The New Society". It is Fromm's opinion that having-mode cannot be remedied by legislation: to ensure our happiness and livelihood, the character of humanity must be changed itself. That's a tall order, but his outline for effecting this in our lives is a deliberate echo of the Four Noble Truths.

The book doesn't go into as much detail as The Sane Society, but I don't think it is meant to. It was published a part of a series of books perhaps meant to make people think about their lives and if the way things are now is a way we can be satisfied with. Although I was familiar with the essence of this from "Affluence and Ennui", he builds on it a great deal here. It's worth the read if you can find it, but that may be hard to. It's something of a miracle that my local library has it.


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