This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Art of Being by Erich Fromm. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A book that leaves you with more questions than answers – and you love it exactly for this. Published in 1989, The Art of Being is strangely relevant today. As if the text was waiting to be discovered in our current times – our busy times. Erich Fromm explains how our unstoppable urge to have more of everything is destroying us from the inside. The cure is the book itself. Teaching us the art of living – i.e., to properly self-assess so we can find our authentic selves.
The Core Idea:
Instead of being collectors of things, Erich Fromm argues that we should adopt a different orientation about life – orientation towards not-having. Focusing on love, reason, and productive activities. These three cannot be possessed, only practiced. But arriving to this realization and changing our course is painful. Not only because we live in a commercialized society, but also because we are unaware of our slavery without visible chains. Thus, liberation requires deep inner work.
Reason To Read:
Escaping the widespread deception that great results can be achieved without effort. Realizing that the easy results famous gurus suggest (yes, the book talks about gurus that fully resonates with what’s happening today) are only said to convert more people into customers. Furthermore, the text gives you a model to live by that is nothing but easy. Yet, exactly for this reason, it’s the right one.
- We need a strong will to resist the modern propaganda spreading messages that more things equal more happiness.
- True liberation comes from awareness. Being aware of what is hidden in your unconscious.
- We underestimate the power of stillness. More precisely, the daily practice of sitting alone by ourselves and doing nothing.
6 Key Lessons From The Art of Being:
Lesson #1: The Main Goal of Every Man Is To Have Happiness
It all starts with a simple question: What is the goal of living?
Evolution was kind enough to give us a wish to live. However, we can’t adequately articulate why we want to live. All we know is that we really like to live.
Digging deeper into this question, Fromm arrives at the conclusion that we live to be happy. That’s the aim of human existence. Regardless of our actions, we want to reach a happier state.
But since happiness is a broad term and it cannot be clearly defined – different people feel good doing different things. We should then pursue a different question: What does happiness mean to us?
Most commonly, it’s this: We achieve happiness if we have what we want.
As you can see, this leads to yet another question.
“OK, if happiness is having what I want. What do I want then?”
The above almost always transforms into: “What do I need?”
If we tie this question to an object – i.e., to be happy, I want and need a bigger house because I don’t have enough room in the current one – it always leads to a loop.
When the need is obtained – say we do get the house – we feel happy about this but it’s only a temporary thing. A new need arises.
Similar to eating your favorite food, this type of thinking is dangerous.
Eating is what you need to survive. But it will be quite unhealthy to eat only the food you want – nor it will lead to permanent happiness because eventually, you’ll be hungry again.
Consuming what you want and need, if not carefully considered, can lead to the opposite of happiness in the long run.
So what’s the other option?
Transitioning your orientation from possession-centered to activity-centered.
Reaching inner liberation is achieved by breaking free from the shackles of greed. Realizing that happiness is not having more, but doing things according to a more reasonable model of living. A path paved by the Masters of Living – the great philosophers who lived long before us.
“Read the writings of Masters of Living, learn to understand the true meaning of their words, form your own conviction of what you want to do with your life; and get over the naïve idea that you need no master, no guide, no model, that you can find out in a lifetime what the greatest minds of the human species have discovered in many thousands of years—and each one of them building with the stones and sketches their predecessors left them. As one of the greatest masters of living—Meister Eckhart—said: ‘How can anyone live without being instructed in the art of living and of dying?'” Erich Fromm
Lesson #2: Instead of Freedom of Will, We Have Freedom of Whim
We pursue whims, not will.
The difference is huge.
In the era of supreme connection and what seems like endless opportunities. We think that we’re free. That we have the option to create the life we want by simply consuming what is created by others.
After all, there are thousands of corporations offering dream jobs. Renovations in cities are making our lives easier. Technological progress is empowering our everyday life, and new products that make our lives less boring are appearing all the time.
Everything seems better. Effortless, even at times. This creates an understanding that we are totally free. That we are the boss of our lives. But beneath this illusion, the reality is quite different – that we are unaware of our powerlessness.
The “side effect” of our established revolution, as the author labels it, is that we have a “freedom of whim instead of the freedom of will.”
We feel deceivingly good because we can easily, through consumption, satisfy all of our emerging cravings. The desires the author calls whims.
Whims are spontaneous. They arise out of nothing and usually lead to nothing useful.
Summoned from the underground of our unconscious desires because these are not properly understood, whims disturb our current tasks and force us to pursue goals that are not even closely related to our current doings.
In today’s times, even the most irrational desire is pursued until fulfilled.
You see an ad about a new type of food and you immediately want it. If you can’t have it at this exact moment, you will start to consume something else even if you’re not hungry.
Or another scenario is when we are bored – even slightly bored. In these moments, you hop on your phone to indulge in mindless scrolling that makes you feel a bit better but contributes zero to a better future life.
Nowadays, thanks to our technological progress, we can satisfy even the most outrageous whim in less than 24 hours. Money is often not a problem too.
Once something appears in front of us – an object, an experience, a story about a person traveling the world – we suddenly decide that we need this no matter the cost. This compulsive need to obtain everything we see interrupts all of our tasks and prevents us from making substantial progress on… everything.
Erich Fromm mentions that when we’re exposed to something new – and nowadays, we are always exposed to new things – we ask “Why not?”. And, “Why not?” most definitely leads to consumption. After all, the barrier to spending more money, eating more food, consume more information is nonexistent. This persuades us that we are free to do what we want while we’re merely responding to signals spread by big corporations – propaganda messages in the form of ads and political campaigns that are not aimed to help, but focused to make you more attached to things you don’t really need.
Being free is not responding or pursuing everything that enters your orbit. It’s not responding to “Why not?”, it’s asking yourself, “Why?”
It’s about doing what you want.
In opposition of whim stands will.
Will is based on your true desires often hidden beneath a pile of possessions. Will is a long-term pursuit. The path is always painful and not that clear. There is hardly anyone who could help you. Not because others don’t want to aid, but because following your will is something personal. Something unique for every person.
“This “Why not?” implies that one does something simply because there is no reason against doing it, not because there is a reason for it; it implies that it is a whim but not a manifestation of the will. Following a whim is, in fact, the result of deep inner passivity blended with a wish to avoid boredom. Will is based on activity, whim on passivity.” Erich Fromm
Hey there, sorry to interrupt…
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