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Today's quote:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

To Have Or To Be?

An Interview by the BBC with Erich Fromm after the release of this book in the mid 1970s


The Wild Ass's Skin - or, to give it its original name, La Peau de chagrin - is a story by Balzac, set in early 19th-century Paris, of a young man who finds a magic piece of shagreen (untanned skin) which when rubbed fulfills his every desire.

For each wish granted, however, the skin shrinks and consumes some of his physical energy. The protagonist greedily surrounds himself with wealth, only to find himself miserable and decrepit in the end. Balzac’s plot is simple: if you could have anything you wanted or simply be, alive and physically well, which would you choose?

Which leads me neatly to Erich Fromm and his book To Have Or To Be? which starts off by stating that "The alternative of having versus being does not appeal to common sense. To have, so it would seem, is a normal function of our life: in order to live we must have things. Moreover, we must have things in order to enjoy them. In a culture in which the supreme goal is to have - and to have more and more - and in which one can speak of someone as 'being worth a million dollars', how can there be an alternative between having and being? On the contrary, it would seem that the very essence of being is having; that if one has nothing, one is nothing."

To whet your appetite, here are the first few pages:  

... and pages 4+5 and 6+7 and 8+9 and 10+11 and 12+13 and 14+15

'To Have or To Be?' (1976) was Erich Fromm’s last major work. In it he argues that two ways of existence were competing for ‘the spirit of mankind’ – having and being. The having mode looks to things and material possessions and is based on aggression and greed. The being mode is rooted in love and is concerned with shared experience and productive activity. The dominance of the having mode (as he argued in 'The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness') was bringing the world to the edge of disaster (ecological, social and psychological). Erich Fromm argued that only a fundamental change in human character ‘from a preponderance of the having mode to a preponderance of the being mode of existence can save us from a psychological and economic catastrophe’ and set out some ways forward.


It's not an easy book to tackle but should be required reading for all, but especially young people, before they sacrifice their youth and their health in the pursuit of possessions. They may not agree with it at the time but at least they'd know where to turn for consolation later when they find life still wanting, either because they have amassed every possible possession or because they haven't.