To Have or to Be? by Erich Fromm [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book To Have or to Be? 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.

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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

In this little book, Erich Fromm wants to heal our atrophied society, focused primarily on having, so that we can become a community more interested in being – finding joy in expressing ourselves. Annoyed by how the current economic system only encourages the act of acquiring more things, a behavior that only provokes a desire for greed for money, fame, and power, To Have or to Be? was created to inspire change. The concept laid down by Erich Fromm, the mode of being, serves as an eye-opener for our crippled society and a way to move forward to a better world.

The Core Idea:

The main reason the author wrote the book is to contribute to the creation of a new better society and a new better man – by analyzing the two modes of existence, having and being. Instead of passively observing the wrongdoings of our leaders – their false claims that they are doing something effective to help citizens – the author wants to make it possible for more people to recognize the modern problems of our society. Namely, that our present social order makes us sick by promoting selfishness and personal success more highly than social responsibility and inner satisfaction.


  • Society promotes belongings, which means that we believe the following dogma: “I am more the more I have.”
  • The mode of being is living in accordance with your true self. Appreciating yourself as you are.
  • The healing of society will begin when we start to appreciate nature and things without possessing them.

7 Key Lessons from To Have or to Be?:

Lesson #1: The Great Promise Failed

The Great Promise, as the author calls it, that technological advancement will cure us all of from poverty and liberate us from a depressing lifestyle failed.

The industrial progress and the creation of the modern machines allowed humans to create lavish material productions and organizations beyond imagination.

All of this, was created with a promise that more things and better institutions will offer a new sense of freedom and allow access, to all of us, to become true masters of our lives. Moreover, that these innovations will lead to ultimate happiness for all living people.

And while progress has created a better basic standard of living, the unlimited production failed to provide the so-desired lasting happiness in our lives.


Aside from widening the gap between rich and poor, as humanity progressed, people began to realize the following:

  • Unlimited possession does not lead to ultimate happiness.
  • Our desire to be independent masters of our lives was destroyed when people realized that they are small cogs in a gigantic machine controlled by the government that is constantly manipulating their desires.
  • Technical progress has created an environmental hazard and a potential threat of nuclear war.

It all began with our inadequate definition of what success and happiness means for humans.

People believed that access to endless pleasures in the form of material possessions would lead to true joy. But this was proven wrong when more people accumulated more physical things.

The achievement of wealth and comfort led to a society of notoriously unhappy people. As labeled by Erich Fromm, “lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent—people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save.”

So what should be the main goal then for a happy society?

Certainly not access to endless pleasures.

The great philosophers defined, a couple of hundred years ago, the true purpose of life. It is not the pursuit of happiness, but the avoidance of pain.

According to Epicurus, pleasure as satisfaction of a desire cannot be the aim of life, because such pleasure is necessarily followed by unpleasure and thus keeps humanity away from its real goal of absence of pain.” Erich Fromm

Lesson #2: The Egoistic Behavior Is Common Nowadays

The endless pursuit of economic growth enhanced our egoistic behavior for a simple reason: Since society praises and puts a high price on belongings, this means that, “I am more the more I have.”

Naturally, the core motivator for people in the physical realm has become having, possessing, and not sharing.

Alas, the act of purchasing more things, as already mentioned in the lesson above, didn’t lead to the so-desperately desired happiness. Completely the opposite happened – the ever-fleeting feeling of satisfaction emerged.

After all, there is constantly something new produced. Something new that is making your current things obsolete. The only time we experience joy, in a society praising possessions, is when we acquire more. But since more is constantly produced, we never feel enough. Thus, we want more, to feel more. It’s a never-ending cycle. Therefore, people can never be satisfied and there is never an end to our wishes.

But this realization is not commonly recognized by people. We are sold on the idea that having is what truly matters for a happy life. That you need more to be more.

This is not done by accident.

A large part of the industrial revolution is built around our primitive traits – egoism, selfishness, and greed. After all, only by fostering these qualities, the system can motivate people to work harder and contribute to its growth.

That’s why there is a desperate need for groundbreaking human change in both our institutions and also in the values and attitudes of man.

Right living is no longer only the fulfillment of an ethical or religious demand. For the first time in history the physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart.” Erich Fromm

Lesson #3: There is a Difference Between Having and Being

In a culture that fosters material possessions above else, it’s hard to imagine that there is an alternative. Something that will make you feel better except obtaining more things.

As Erich Fromm explains, “To have, so it would seem, is a normal function of our life.”

Yet, the great Masters of Living – as the author refers to Buddha, Jesus, and the famous Greek philosophers – introduced an alternative path that will likely lead you to liberation. All the teachings of these highly respected individuals focus more or less on the same thing: Spiritual well-being and inner strength. For Buddha, for example, to find comfort and to achieve a state of “Nirvana,” you must not crave possessions.

The difference between the two modes of existence introduced in this book, the main characters of the text, by Erich is beautifully portrayed by two similar poems.

First, there is the verse of the English poet Alfred Tennyson:

Flower in a crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.” Alfred Tennyson

The second poem is a Japanese haiku by the famous poet, Basho:

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!” Matsuo Bashō

The difference between the two, the author describes as, “striking!”

When seeing the flower, Tennyson immediately wants to possess it, to have it. He “plucks” the whole thing. His desire to learn more about the flower, kills the flower.

According to Fromm, this way of acting is how we, the current citizens of the world, at least the larger part, react to everything we see around. We enjoy things only when we have them. We know no other way. But by having things, acquiring more, we actually destroy them. And not only the things, but ourselves also.

In contrast, Basho’s reactions is completely reverse. He simply observes the beautiful thing with no intention to harm it. He enjoys the moment and the opportunity to experience the “nazana blooming.”

The way Basho reacts is in line with the mode of being. A way of living primarily focused on enjoying life as is and absent of desire for material possessions.

The difference between being and having is not essentially that between East and West. The difference is rather between a society centered around persons and one centered around things.” Erich Fromm

Lesson #4: Having and Being Influence Our Daily Lives Differently

The average person will probably never think of anything beyond acquiring things. After all, our society is focused only on property acquisitions and making a profit.

If you’re not constantly making more, and having more, you’re not more. Even further, according to our modern standards, you’re less than everyone else who has more than you. Or at least that’s how we, you, and everyone else around you look at things.

That’s why we’re in a constant pursue for more physical possessions.

Still, the being mode emerges every now and then. Most of the time without us realizing it. It appears when we’re truly engaged in a particular topic or when we’re passionate about an activity. When this happens, we experience true joy. That’s why it’s so important to define it and to understand when the being mode is formed – so we can focus more on being and less on having.

Here’s the difference between the having mode and the being mode in everyday life activities:

  • Learning: When you’re in having mode, you’ll listen to what others teach you. You’ll take notes and you’ll probably later memorize them. However, you’ll never make the insights part of your own being. You will have knowledge, but you will not adequately understand why something is the way it is. Conversely, in the being mode, the student will question the lectures. Apply what is learned and alter it to fit his persona. In the being mode, you will not only listen, but you will also hear what is being presented.
  • Remembering: In having mode, Fromm labels remembering as mechanical. You remember the current text but you don’t go “outside” the discussed topic. In the being mode, you’re more open to make connections with similar, and even different ideas. You’re not simply putting facts on paper, you’re working with the newly acquired data and lively thinking about it.
  • Conversing: Conversations in the having mode is like watching two bulls fight. Neither party will ever change its mind based on the facts presented by the other side. People who tend to acquire things are afraid to modify their statements because they are theirs – the opinion they have they consider physically theirs, a property. The contrast is notable in the being mode. A person in this form of existence is not stubborn about his point of view. He’ll gladly hear the other party and encourage his arguments. Moreover, in the being mode, the representative of this side will often talk more about things that interest the opposing side.
  • Reading: The act of reading in the having mode is similar to consuming food or watching a TV show. You swallow the words but you never think deeply about the subject. The aim of the person reading a book in the being mode is about having a conversation with the author. He asks questions and tries to find answers within the text or even beyond it. Fromm describes a person who is consuming books for the sake of finishing them like, “a well-informed guide at a museum.” While in the being mode is all about making conclusions on your own and taking the time to fully understand the book.
  • Faith: Faith and religion is a common theme in the book. But according to the author, we approach faith the wrong way. We idolize religion. We obey commands and we visit churches to find certainty. To feel certainty. We do it to relieve ourselves of the hard task to find answers to questions like, “What’s the meaning of life?” We adopt faith without questioning the entities so many people blindly believe to join their group and not to feel abandoned. In the being mode, faith is described as, “inner orientation, an attitude.” The person, in this case, has faith, primarily, in himself. He relies on his own experience and knowledge to make conclusions. Even if he professes religion, it’s based on his own conclusions. He does not allow himself to be forced to believing things he doesn’t understand.

Or if we can make a general conclusion based on the above we can say that: having mode is about ownership and the sense of ownership. In the being mode is about experiences and exploration.

The worldview of the first is limited to what he possesses. While the outlook of second is about inner wealth and “productive expression of one’s human powers.”

In the having mode, there is no alive relationship between me and what I have. It and I have become things, and I have it, because I have the force to make it mine. But there is also a reverse relationship: it has me, because my sense of identity, i.e., of sanity, rests upon my having it. The relationship is one of deadness, not aliveness.” Erich Fromm

Lesson #5: We Admire Those With Courage To Leave What They Have

The vast majority of people nowadays stay where they are. They move forward with conscious – or don’t move at all – and are strongly tied to what they currently have.

Taking a step into the unknown is something we avoid at all costs. Not because we don’t want more, but because we’re afraid of losing what we already have.

The things we own end up having us, not the other way around.

And though we continuously add more items to our collection of things, we secretly admire those of us who are courageous enough to leave their current possessions and express their true identities. We call these people fearless.

A lot of times, though, this admiration is not expressed directly. When surrounded by our friends, we call them stupid, insane even. We go even further by thinking about their failure. Because, after all, if they succeed, this will mean that we’re a failure. But deep down, however, we identify them as heroes.

Or as stated by the author, “We human beings have an inherent and deeply rooted desire to be: to express our faculties, to be active, to be related to others, to escape the prison cell of selfishness.”

The heroes are admired by us because we want to act the same way as they do. However, we don’t, because if we lose what we have, we’ll lose ourselves.

The paradox here is that having instills a sense of security in our lives. Yet, inside, we’re quite insecure.

We idolize the heroes, and we wish to act like them, but we’re doubtful of our own skills. Consequently, we never try new things, and we stay where we are, never changing our current setting and never leaving our comfort zone.

We admire these heroes because we deeply feel their way is the way we would want to be—if we could. But being afraid, we believe that we cannot be that way, that only the heroes can. The heroes become idols; we transfer to them our own capacity to move, and then stay where we are—“because we are not heroes.” Erich Fromm

Lesson #6: Greed is The Natural Outcome of The Having Orientation

The following quote perfectly captures the way our society works, “If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?”

When you identify yourself with the things you own, naturally, this leads to a desire to have more.

And what type of qualities do you think this way of thinking encourages in people?

Greed and envy.

We accumulate things. We buy luxurious items. And we enthusiastically talk about the racks of things we have to present ourselves as superior.

But there are other reasons. Since there is always this nagging feeling that others have more, and that we can lose what we have, because of insecurity, we add even more things to fortify our self-image.

We’re constantly worried that we can lose what we have. And if this happens, we’ll lose ourselves.

That’s how our culture fosters greed for possessions. We grow up believing that we are worthy only when we’re surrounded by things.

What can be done about this vicious human trait?

Erich Fromm sees only one way out. A revolution in the way society operates. Change in leadership and appreciation in different values.

As a consequence of the dominant attitude of selfishness, the leaders of our society believe that people can be motivated only by the expectation of material advantages, i.e., by rewards… Only a radically different socioeconomic structure and a radically different picture of human nature could show that bribery is not the only way (or the best way) to influence people.” Erich Fromm

Lesson #7: A New Society Must Be Established

How can we salvage humanity and overcome our ill-being – being prisoners of things and of our own greed?

The book ends with a couple of solutions that can help us move in the right direction. Not only on an individual level, but as a whole.

The goal of Erich Fromm is to help create a new society that starts with the birth of a new Man. A character possessing these, among other, qualities:

  • Willingness to let go of possessions – having things – in order to fully be.
  • Inner confidence based on what one is.
  • Being present.
  • Respectful and loving of all living things – including nature.
  • Pursuing goals and happiness but also realizing that no growth can be healthy.

Of course, the author realizes that such change is not only difficult, but also almost impossible. That’s why current governments are crippled. They focus on elections and pleasing the crowd. On making easy changes that look “attractive” on the outside but never, sadly, on things that can contribute to the morale boost of the citizens.

The characteristics of the New Society set by Fromm sound radical and also restrictive to citizens. But if modern leaders incorporate even small parts of what is proposed, we can begin to move society in the right direction.

Features of The New Society:

  • Sane consumption: Consumers’ desires are based on what is produced. You smoke cigarettes and you eat junk food because these are available. It is necessary to regulate what is available for production and what is advertised to people in order to lead people to healthy choices.
  • Prohibition of brainwashing methods: Modern propaganda blurs our minds and makes us choose things we neither need nor want. This includes standard advertising and also political campaigns.
  • Closing the gap between the rich and the poor: While the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting sicker. The aid for poor countries should come from industrially developed nations not only because it’s inhumane to leave them on their own, but also because we need to think about our descendants.
  • Guaranteed yearly income should be introduced: Fromm writes: “all persons, regardless of whether they work or not, shall have the unconditional right not to starve and not to be without shelter.” This type of guaranteed yearly income will provide real freedom and independence for people.
  • A new role, Supreme Cultural Council, should advise governments: The role of the council members should be the supervision of the duties done by the country. The hard task here lies in choosing the right members and making sure they’ll do their job properly.
  • An effective way to broadcast information: Citizens are not getting the full picture of what is actually happening in the government. Usually, information is withheld to ensure the security of the nation. But this practice of hiding important facts leads to further crippling the nation.
  • Widespread disarmament: You can’t make any lasting progress if a large part of the global budget is going towards the production of arms that are only useful for harming.

The economist E. F. Schumacher shows in his book Small Is Beautiful that our failures are the result of our successes, and that our techniques must be subordinated to our real human needs. “Economy as a content of life is a deadly illness,” he writes, “because infinite growth does not fit into a finite world.” Erich Fromm

Actionable Notes:

  • Watch the words you use: The way we talk can say a lot about our inner motives. When we say something like, “I have a problem” we become one with the problem. We allow it to have us. And, as Fromm writes, “I have transformed myself into “a problem” and am now owned by my creation.” The same is true when we say, “I have insomnia.” We can’t physically have insomnia, we simply “cannot sleep well.” And lastly, we can’t “have love” towards people. The act of love is a process. The more we do not have love, and be in love, the more we’ll actually love.
  • You are a process: Your name might imply that you are something fixated, not changeable. But this is only true if you accept it. We’re all in the process of becoming something. Becoming who we truly are. To get to this, often perceived as a metaphysical state of being, you should actively pursue what interests you most – to express your true desires openly in the world. The less you are being yourself, the greater will be the gap between your true self and what you actually represent on the outside. This widening gap leads to helplessness and despair.
  • You’re not what you have: Sadly, it’s natural nowadays to desire the acquisition of more physical objects. After all, our society is promoting this type of behavior regardless of where we live. That’s why the author wrote that we perceive ourselves as, “I am what I have.” But as further stated, “If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?” When you identify yourself with things, you not only become a sick person, your whole existence becomes solely focused on obtaining more things. The opposing side, the being mode, focuses on your ability to enjoy your wholeness and eliminate the thoughts about having things.
  • Practice Shabbat: Sabbath, is Judaism’s day of rest on the seventh day of the week (i.e., Saturday). But resting here means something different from the general understanding of the word. It’s about taking the time to appreciate your relationship with people and nature. No physical activity should be performed. It’s a day for appreciation and contemplation. “On the Shabbat one lives as if one has nothing, pursuing no aim except being, that is, expressing one’s essential powers: praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing, making love.”
  • Learn to enjoy stuff without owning/having them: Truly enjoying a painting or a new gadget seems unthinkable for us if we don’t actually own these things. After all, the current world advocates for possession and constant activity. But philosophers like Aristotle were more obsessed with inner activity – the act of contemplation. True activity for ancient Athens was thinking and observation, not bodily labor (in the past, these were executed only by slaves). In our world, activity looks more like busyness. We’re obsessed with productivity and getting more physically done. But for what? To get more things? For Fromm, the being mode starts when we learn to enjoy things by simply observing them. If we reach this state, we’ll achieve inner stillness and spiritual knowledge.

Commentary and My Personal Takeaway

I was deeply moved by the book. It’s a rare gift to find such an elaborate explanation of how our current culture operates. Why we live in a sick society. And what we can do to cure our minds of the problems that we impose on ourselves.

To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche by Erich Fromm presents the two forms of existence in the world: having mode and being mode.

The first is a form of living where we focus on physically acquiring things. We identify ourselves, our self-image, with what we have. Naturally, when this happens, we want to get more to feel like we’re more. The problem, however, is that the more we have, the more sadness we bring into our lives because there is always something more available for owning.

The other form of existence – the mode of being – focuses on something “unimaginable” for the Western world – on experiences and expression of your inner talents.

It’s hard to describe the being mode because it’s absent of physical form. It’s a feeling of completeness and satisfaction of what the person is, not what he has. Of course, this will be different for every individual.

Although written back in 1976, the contents of the book are even more true today in our connected society where everyone can see what others have and thus, desire it.

What pleasantly surprised me was that such serious work and topic lacks, fortunately, the use of complicated language on which most similar books rely heavily on. Meaning that even a young reader can get the text without constantly checking for the meaning of words.

The key takeaway:

People who identify themselves with the things they have are empty inside. Or at least they’ve alienated themselves from their true persona. Your main goal in life should be to find and endorse your inner desires.

Notable Quotes:

The less you are and the less you express your life—the more you have and the greater is your alienated life… Everything the economist takes away from you in the way of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth.” Erich Fromm

The economist E. F. Schumacher shows in his book Small Is Beautiful that our failures are the result of our successes, and that our techniques must be subordinated to our real human needs. “Economy as a content of life is a deadly illness,” he writes, “because infinite growth does not fit into a finite world.” Erich Fromm

Consuming has ambiguous qualities: It relieves anxiety, because what one has cannot be taken away; but it also requires one to consume ever more, because previous consumption soon loses its satisfactory character. Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume.” Erich Fromm

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