The Art of Being

The Art of Being

by Erich Fromm, Raymond Todd

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This classic work by psychologist and social philosopher Eric Fromm builds upon his previous popular book To Have or to Be? The Art of Being teaches us to avoid the tantalizing illusions of our consumer-driven world by learning to function as a whole person from a state of inner completeness or being. The transition from an identity of having


This classic work by psychologist and social philosopher Eric Fromm builds upon his previous popular book To Have or to Be? The Art of Being teaches us to avoid the tantalizing illusions of our consumer-driven world by learning to function as a whole person from a state of inner completeness or being. The transition from an identity of having to being creates a state of enlightened psychological and spiritual happiness. Fromm observes that the modern person is less a self-reflective being than a composite of data promoted by the mass media, and he encourages us to pursue true self-awareness beyond simple political, ideological, and religious clichés. By learning to be centered in the self, the individual is less swayed by the endless pressures and dissatisfactions of the culture of consumerism.

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The Art of Being

By Erich Fromm, Rainer Funk


Copyright © 1992 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0196-9


On the Art of Being

In the first part of this book I have tried to describe the nature of the having and of the being modes of existence, and the consequences that the dominance of either mode has for man's wellbeing. We had concluded that the full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism. In the second part of the book I want to make some practical suggestions concerning the steps that might be helpful as preparations for the effort to move toward this humanization.

The discussion of steps in the practice of the art of living must begin with the question on the answer to which all practice depends: What is the goal of living? What is life's meaning for man?

But is this really a meaningful question? Is there a reason for wanting to live, and would we rather not live if we had no such reason? The fact is that all living beings, animals and men, want to live, and this wish is paralyzed only under exceptional circumstances, such as unbearable pain or (in man) by the presence of passions such as love, hate, pride, loyalty that can be stronger than the wish to live. It seems that nature—or if you will, the process of evolution—has endowed every living being with the wish to live, and whatever he believes to be his reasons are only secondary thoughts by which he rationalizes this biologically given impulse.

We do of course need to acknowledge theoretical ideas of evolution. Meister Eckhart has made the same point in a simpler, poetic way:

"If you ask a good man, "Why do you love God?" you will be answered: "I don't know—because he is God!"

"Why do you love truth?"

"For truth's sake."

"Why do you love justice?"

"For the sake of justice!"

"Why do you love goodness?"

"For goodness' sake!"

"And why do you live?"

"On my honor, I don't know—I like to live!"

That we want to live, that we like to live, are facts that require no explanation. But if we ask how we want to live—what we seek from life, what makes life meaningful for us—then indeed we deal with questions (and they are more or less identical) to which people will give many different answers. Some will say they want love, others will choose power, others security, others sensuous pleasure and comfort, others fame; but most would probably agree in the statement that what they want is happiness. This is also what most philosophers and theologians have declared to be the aim of human striving. However, if happiness covers such different, and mostly mutually exclusive, contents as the ones just mentioned, it becomes an abstraction and thus rather useless. What matters is to examine what the term "happiness" means for the layman as well as for the philosopher.

Even among the different concepts of happiness there is still a view shared by most thinkers: We are happy if our wishes are fulfilled, or, to put it differently, if we have what we want. The differences between the various views consist in the answer to the question "What are those needs the fulfillment of which brings about happiness?" We come thus to the point at which the question of the aim and meaning of life leads us to the problem of the nature of human needs.

By and large, there are two opposing positions. The first, and today almost exclusively held, position is that a need is defined entirely subjectively; it is the striving for something I want badly enough so that we have a right to call it a need, the satisfaction of which gives pleasure. In this definition the question is not raised what the source of the need is. It is not asked whether, as with hunger and thirst, it has a physiological root, or, like the need for refined food and drink, for art, for theoretical thought, it is a need rooted in the social and cultural development of man, or whether it is a socially induced need like that for cigarettes, automobiles, or innumerable gadgets, or, finally, whether it is a pathological need like that for such behaviors as sadism or masochism.

Nor, in this first view, is the question raised what effect the satisfaction of the need has on a person—whether it enriches his life and contributes to his growth or whether it weakens him, stifles him, prevents growth, and is self-destructive. Whether a person enjoys the satisfaction of his desire to listen to Bach, or that of his sadism by controlling or hurting helpless people, is supposed to be a matter of taste; as long as this is what a person has a need for, happiness consists in the satisfaction of this need. The only exceptions that usually are made are those cases in which the satisfaction of a need severely damages other people or the social usefulness of the person himself. Thus the need to destroy or the need to take drugs are usually not supposed to be needs that can claim their legitimacy from the fact that their satisfaction might produce pleasure.

The opposite (or second) position is fundamentally different. It focuses on the question of whether a need is conducive to man's growth and well-being or whether it hobbles and damages him. It speaks of such needs as are rooted in man's nature and are conducive to his growth and self-fulfillment. In this second concept the purely subjective nature of happiness is replaced by an objective, normative one. Only the fulfillment of desires that are in man's interests leads to happiness.

In the first instance I say: "I am happy if I get all the pleasure I want"; in the second: "I am happy if I get what I ought to want, provided I want to attain an optimum of self-completion."

It need not be emphasized that this last version is unacceptable from the standpoint of conventional scientific thinking because it introduces a norm—i.e., a value judgment—into the picture and hence seems to deprive the affirmation of its objective validity. The question arises, however, whether it is true that a norm has objective validity. Can we not speak of a "nature of man," and if this is so, does not an objectively definable nature of man lead to the assumption that its aim is the same as that of all living beings, namely, its most perfect functioning and the fullest realization of its potentialities? Does it then not follow that certain norms are conducive to this aim while others hamper it?

This is indeed well understood by any gardener. The aim of the life of a rosebush is to be all that is inherent as potentiality in the rosebush: that its leaves are well developed and that its flower is the most perfect rose that can grow out of this seed. The gardener knows, then, in order to reach this aim he must follow certain norms that have been empirically found. The rosebush needs a specific kind of soil, of moisture, of temperature, of sun and shade. It is up to the gardener to provide these things if he wants to have beautiful roses. But even without his help the rosebush tries to provide itself with the optimum of needs. It can do nothing about moisture and soil, but it can do something about sun and temperature by growing "crooked," in the direction of the sun, provided there is such an opportunity. Why would not the same hold true for the human species?

Even if we had no theoretical knowledge about the reasons for the norms that are conducive to man's optimal growth and functioning, experience tells us just as much as it tells the gardener. Therein lies the reason that all great teachers of man have arrived at essentially the same norms for living, the essence of these norms being that the overcoming of greed, illusions, and hate, and the attainment of love and compassion, are the conditions for attaining optimal being. Drawing conclusions from empirical evidence, even if we cannot explain the evidence theoretically, is a perfectly sound and by no means "unscientific" method, although the scientists' ideal will remain, to discover the laws behind the empirical evidence.

Now, those who insist that all so-called value judgments in reference to human happiness have no theoretical foundation do not raise the same objection with regard to a physiological problem, although logically the case is not different. Assuming a person has a craving for sweets and cakes, becomes fat and endangers his health, they do not say: "If eating constitutes his greatest happiness, he should go on with it and not persuade himself, or let himself be persuaded by others, to renounce this pleasure." They recognize this craving as something different from normal desires, precisely because it damages the organism. This qualification is not called subjective—or a value judgment or unscientific—simply because everyone knows the connection between overeating and health. But, then, everyone also knows today a great deal about the pathological and damaging character of irrational passions such as the craving for fame, power, possessions, revenge, control, and can indeed qualify these needs as damaging, on an equally theoretical and clinical basis.

One has only to think of the "manager sickness," peptic ulcers, which is the result of wrong living, the stress produced by over-ambitiousness, dependence on success, lack of a truly personal center. There is much data that goes beyond the connection between such wrong attitudes and somatic sickness. In recent decades a number of neurologists, such as C. von Monakow, R. B. Livingston, and Heinz von Foerster, have suggested that man is equipped with a neurologically built-in "biological" conscience in which norms such as cooperation and solidarity, a search for truth and for freedom are rooted. These conceptions are based on considerations of the theory of evolution. I myself have attempted to demonstrate that the principal human norms are conditions for the full growth of the human being, while many of the purely subjective desires are objectively harmful.

The goal of living as it is understood in the following pages can be postulated on different levels. Most generally speaking, it can be defined as developing oneself in such a way as to come closest to the model of human nature (Spinoza) or, in other words, to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conducive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand (Thomas Aquinas).

Perhaps the most fundamental form of expressing the goal and the meaning of living is common to the tradition of both the Far East and Near East (and Europe): the "Great Liberation"—liberation from the dominance of greed (in all its forms) and from the shackles of illusions. This double aspect of liberation is to be found in systems such as Indian Vedic religion, Buddhism, and Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism, as well as in a more mythical form of God as supreme king in Judaism and Christianity. It finds its crowning development (in the Near East and West) in Christian and Muslim mystics, in Spinoza, and in Marx. In all these teachings, inner liberation—freedom from the shackles of greed and illusions—is inseparably tied to the optimal development of reason; that is to say, reason understood as the use of thought with the aim to know the world as it is and in contrast to "manipulating intelligence," which is the use of thought for the purpose of satisfying one's need. This relation of freedom from greed and the primacy of reason is intrinsically necessary. Our reason functions only to the degree to which it is not flooded by greed. The person who is the prisoner of his irrational passions loses the capacity for objectivity and is necessarily at the mercy of his passions; he rationalizes when he believes he is expressing the truth.

The concept of liberation (in its two dimensions) as the goal of life has been lost in industrial society, or rather it has been narrowed down and thus distorted. Liberation has been exclusively applied to liberation from outside forces; by the middle class from feudalism, by the working class from capitalism, by the peoples in Africa and Asia from imperialism. The only kind of liberation that was emphasized was that from outer forces; it was essentially political liberation.

Indeed, liberation from outer domination is necessary, because such domination cripples the inner man, with the exception of rare individuals. But the one-sidedness of the emphasis on outer liberation also did great damage. In the first place, the liberators often transformed themselves into new rulers, only mouthing the ideologies of freedom. Second, political liberation could hide the fact that new un-freedom developed, but in hidden and anonymous forms. This is the case in Western democracy, where political liberation hides the fact of dependency in many disguises. (In the Soviet countries the domination has been more overt.) Most importantly, one forgot entirely that man can be a slave even without being put in chains—the reverse of an oft-repeated religious statement that man can be free even when he is in chains. This may sometimes, in exceedingly rare cases, be true—however, it is not a statement that is significant for our times; but that man can be a slave without chains is of crucial importance in our situation today. The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free. He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?

Any attempt to overcome the possibly fatal crisis of the industrialized part of the world, and perhaps of the human race, must begin with the understanding of the nature of both outer and inner chains; it must be based on the liberation of man in the classic, humanist sense as well as in the modern, political and social sense. The Church still by and large speaks only of inner liberation, and political parties, from liberals to communists, speak only about outer liberation. History has clearly shown that one ideology without the other leaves man dependent and crippled. The only realistic aim is total liberation, a goal that may well be called radical (or revolutionary) humanism.

Just as liberation has been distorted in industrial society, so too has the concept of reason. Since the beginning of the Renaissance, the main object that reason has tried to grasp was Nature, and the marvels of technique were the fruits of the new science. But man himself ceased to be the object of study, except, more recently, in the alienated forms of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. More and more he was degraded to a mere tool for economic goals. In the less than three centuries following Spinoza, it was Freud who was the first to again make the "inner man" the object of science, even though Freud was handicapped by the narrow framework of bourgeois materialism.

The crucial question today is, as I see it, whether we can reconstitute the classic concept of inner and outer liberation with the concept of reason in its two aspects, as applied to nature (science) and applied to man (self-awareness). Before beginning to make suggestions concerning certain preparatory steps in the learning of the art of living, I want to make sure that there may be no misunderstanding of my intentions. If the reader has expected that this chapter was a short prescription for learning the art of living, he had better stop here. All I want—and am able—to offer are suggestions in what direction the reader will find answers, and to sketch tentatively what some of them are. The only thing that might compensate the reader for the incompleteness of what I have to say is that I shall speak only of methods I have practiced and experienced myself.

This principle of presentation implies that I shall not try in the following chapters to write about all or even only about the most important methods of preparatory practices. Other methods such as Yoga or Zen practice, meditation centered around arepeated word, the Alexander, the Jacobson, and the Feldenkrais methods of relaxation are left out. To write systematically about all methods would require at least a volume by itself, and aside from this I would not be capable of writing such a compendium because I believe one cannot write about experiences that one has not experienced.


Excerpted from The Art of Being by Erich Fromm, Rainer Funk. Copyright © 1992 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Erich Fromm (1900-1980) studied sociology and psychoanalysis. In 1933, he emigrated as a member of the Frankfurt School of social thinkers to the United States, moved to Mexico in 1950, and spent his twilight years between 1974 and 1980 in Switzerland. His books Fear of Freedom (1941) and The Art of Loving (1956) made him famous. Other well-known books are Marx’s Concept of Man, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, and The Essential Fromm.

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