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. Supporting Members get full access.


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

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