In To Have or to Be? the sociologist Erich Fromm argues that there are two distinct modes of existence. These are unique ways in which we relate to others and the world around us.
The first is the ‘having mode.’ This is characterized by an attitude of acquiring or possessing things. It is when an individual defines themselves by what they have or own, rather than who they are (i.e., their character or virtues). This mode of existence is motivated by our desire to control, manipulate or categorize objects. One sees and relates to others through the lens of their ego, and asks how can this person or thing be of benefit to me?
The nature of the having mode of existence follows from the nature of private property. In this mode of existence all that matters is my acquisition of property and my unlimited right to keep what I have acquired. The having mode excludes others; it does not require any further effort on my part to keep my property or to make productive use of it. The Buddha has described this mode of behavior as craving, the Jewish and Christian religions as coveting; it transforms everybody and everything into something ….. subject to another’s power
On the contrary Fromm’s notion of the ‘being mode’ represents authenticity, creativity and a sense of aliveness. It is akin to one’s character, disposition and the qualities which define someone as a person. Moreover, these are things that an individual does not own or possess. Rather, they are embedded in their existence. They cannot be lost.
One may lose some of their possessions and status in society while enduring financial hardships. However, what remains the same irrespective of the circumstances one finds themselves in, is who they are as a human being. That is, the virtues and character traits that they have cultivated over the years such as courage, humility, honesty, integrity etc.
Fromm writes on the sense of security and self-confidence of an individual who embodies the ‘being mode,’
The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. My center is within myself; my capacity for being and for expressing my essential powers is part of my character structure and depends on me.
Looking at examples that Fromm provides throughout the book will help us be able to better understand the distinction between having vs being:
- Having Mode: In the having mode, learning is synonymous to acquiring knowledge through memorization or standardized testing. The student lacks originality, is passive and views education as merely instrumental.
- Being Mode: In contrast, learning in the being mode occurs when one integrates what they learn into their way of life or who they are as an individual. They actively participate, question the assumptions of what they study and embrace unique and different perspectives.
- Having Mode: Love in the having mode is possessive as one seeks to control and limit the freedom of the other person.
- Being Mode: In the being mode, one respects the autonomy and self-determination of their partner. Further, the focus of one’s actions are motivated by a desire to give rather than to receive.
Fromm’s taxonomy in To Have or To Be? enables us to look more closely at our desires and why we actually want the things we claim to want.
Fromm is critical of modern industrialized societies who use savvy advertising techniques to persuade us that we always need more stuff. While both the having and being modes have their merits, Fromm claims that modern Western culture has become too oriented in the ‘having mode’ as opposed to the ‘being mode’.
The cognitive scientist John Vervaeke expands on Fromm’s critique looking at how ‘being’ needs are often marketed as ‘having’ needs. We make the mistake of thinking that acquiring more things will fulfill our developmental needs as a human being. He calls this misunderstanding ‘modal confusion.’ For instance, this occurs advertisers tell us that buying a new luxury car will make us a more confident, likeable or emotionally mature person. It also occurs when we mistake hooking up with real authentic relationships of love and affection.
Fromm concludes the book with a plea for us to forego the temptations of greed or narcissism which have become a dominating force in our culture, and strive for humility, love and respect for all life.
So what do you think of Erich Fromm’s ideas, do you think they are a helpful way to characterize human motivations? Let me know in the comments
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