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To Have or To Be?
By Erich Fromm
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
A First Glance
The Importance of the Difference Between Having and Being
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.
Yet the great Masters of Living have made the alternative between having and being a central issue of their respective systems. The Buddha teaches that in order to arrive at the highest stage of human development, we must not crave possessions. Jesus teaches: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?" (Luke 9:24-25). Master Eckhart taught that to have nothing and make oneself open and "empty," not to let one's ego stand in one's way, is the condition for achieving spiritual wealth and strength. Marx taught that luxury is as much a vice as poverty and that our goal should be to be much, not to have much. (I refer here to the real Marx, the radical humanist, not to the vulgar forgery presented by Soviet communism.)
For many years I had been deeply impressed by this distinction and was seeking its empirical basis in the concrete study of individuals and groups by the psychoanalytic method. What I saw has led me to conclude that this distinction, together with that between love of life and love of the dead, represents the most crucial problem of existence; that empirical anthropological and psychoanalytic data tend to demonstrate that having and being are two fundamental modes of experience, the respective strengths of which determine the differences between the characters of individuals and various types of social character.
Examples in Various Poetic Expressions
As an introduction to understanding the difference between the having and being modes of existence, let me use as an illustration two poems of similar content that the late D.T. Suzuki referred to in "Lectures on Zen Buddhism." One is a haiku by a Japanese poet, Basho, 1644-1694; the other poem is by a nineteenth-century English poet, Tennyson. Each poet describes a similar experience: his reaction to a flower he sees while taking a walk. Tennyson's verse is:
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.
Translated into English, Basho's haiku runs something like this:
When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!
The difference is striking. Tennyson reacts to the flower by wanting to have it. He "plucks" it "root and all." And while he ends with an intellectual speculation about the flower's possible function for his attaining insight into the nature of God and man, the flower itself is killed as a result of his interest in it. Tennyson, as we see him in his poem, may be compared to the Western scientist who seeks the truth by means of dismembering life.
Basho's reaction to the flower is entirely different. He does not want to pluck it; he does not even touch it. All he does is "look carefully" to "see" it. Here is Suzuki's description:
It is likely that Basho was walking along a country road when he noticed something rather neglected by the hedge. He then approached closer, took a good look at it, and found it was no less than a wild plant, rather insignificant and generally unnoticed by passersby. This is a plain fact described in the poem with no specifically poetic feeling expressed anywhere except perhaps in the last two syllables, which read in Japanese kana. This particle, frequently attached to a noun or an adjective or an adverb, signifies a certain feeling of admiration or praise or sorrow or joy, and can sometimes quite appropriately be rendered into English by an exclamation mark. In the present haiku the whole verse ends with this mark.
Tennyson, it appears, needs to possess the flower in order to understand people and nature, and by his having it, the flower is destroyed. What Basho wants is to see, and not only to look at the flower, but to be at one, to "one" himself with it—and to let it live. The difference between Tennyson and Basho is fully explained in this poem by Goethe:
I walked in the woods
All by myself,
To seek nothing,
That was on my mind.
I saw in the shade
A little flower stand,
Bright like the stars
Like beautiful eyes.
I wanted to pluck it,
But it said sweetly:
Is it to wilt
That I must be broken?
I took it out
With all its roots,
Carried it to the garden
At the pretty house.
And planted it again
In a quiet place;
Now it ever spreads
And blossoms forth.
Goethe, walking with no purpose in mind, is attracted by the brilliant little flower. He reports having the same impulse as Tennyson: to pluck it. But unlike Tennyson, Goethe is aware that this means killing the flower. For Goethe the flower is so much alive that it speaks and warns him; and he solves the problem differently from either Tennyson or Basho. He takes the flower "with all its roots" and plants it again so that its life is not destroyed. Goethe stands, as it were, between Tennyson and Basho: for him, at the crucial moment, the force of life is stronger than the force of mere intellectual curiosity. Needless to say that in this beautiful poem Goethe expresses the core of his concept of investigating nature.
Tennyson's relationship to the flower is in the mode of having, or possession—not material possession but the possession of knowledge. Basho's and Goethe's relationship to the flower each sees is in the mode of being. By being I refer to the mode of existence in which one neither has anything nor craves to have something, but is joyous, employs one's faculties productively, is oned to the world.
Goethe, the great lover of life, one of the outstanding fighters against human dismemberment and mechanization, has given expression to being as against having in many poems. His Faust is a dramatic description of the conflict between being and having (the latter represented by Mephistopheles), while in the following short poem he expresses the quality of being with the utmost simplicity:
I know that nothing belongs to me
But the thought which unimpeded
From my soul will flow.
And every favorable moment
Which loving Fate
From the depth lets me enjoy.
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. The having orientation is characteristic of Western industrial society, in which greed for money, fame, and power has become the dominant theme of life. Less alienated societies—such as medieval society, the Zuni Indians, the African tribal societies that were not affected by the ideas of modern "progress"—have their own Bashos. Perhaps after a few more generations of industrialization, the Japanese will have their Tennysons. It is not that Western Man cannot fully understand Eastern systems, such as Zen Buddhism (as Jung thought), but that modern Man cannot understand the spirit of a society that is not centered in property and greed. Indeed, the writings of Master Eckhart (as difficult to understand as Basho or Zen) and the Buddha's writings are only two dialects of the same language.
A certain change in the emphasis on having and being is apparent in the growing use of nouns and the decreasing use of verbs in Western languages in the past few centuries.
A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced.
Older Observations: Du Marais—Marx
The evil consequences of this confusion were already recognized in the eighteenth century. Du Marais gave a very precise expression of the problem in his posthumously published work Les Veritables Principes de la Grammaire (1769). He writes: "In this example, I have a watch, I have must be understood in its proper sense; but in I have an idea, I have is said only by way of imitation. It is a borrowed expression. I have an idea means I think, I conceive of in such and such a way. I have a longing means I desire; I have the will means I want, etc." (my translation; I am indebted to Dr. Noam Chomsky for the reference to Du Marais).
A century after Du Marais observed this phenomenon of the substitution of nouns for verbs Marx and Engels deal with the same problem, but in a more radical fashion, in The Holy Family. Included in their critique of Edgar Bauer's "critical critique" is a small, but very important essay on love in which reference is made to the following statement by Bauer: "Love is a cruel goddess, who like all deities, wants to possess the whole man and who is not content until he has sacrificed to her not only his soul but also his physical self. Her cult is suffering; the peak of this cult is self-sacrifice, is suicide" (my translation).
Marx and Engels answer: Bauer "transforms love into a 'goddess,' and into a 'cruel goddess' by transforming the loving man or the love of man into the man of love; he thus separates love as a separate being from man and makes it an independent entity" (my translation). Marx and Engels point here to the decisive factor in the use of the noun instead of the verb. The noun "love," which is only an abstraction for the activity of loving, becomes separated from the man. The loving man becomes the man of love. Love becomes a goddess, an idol into which the man projects his loving; in this process of alienation he ceases to experience love, but is in touch only with his capacity to love by his submission to the goddess Love. He has ceased to be an active person who feels; instead he has become an alienated worshiper of an idol.
During the two hundred years since Du Marais, this trend of the substitution of nouns for verbs has grown to proportions that even he could hardly have imagined. Here is a typical, if slightly exaggerated, example of today's language. Assume that a person seeking a psychoanalyst's help opens the conversation with the following sentence: "Doctor, I have a problem; I have insomnia. Although I have a beautiful house, nice children, and a happy marriage, I have many worries." Some decades ago, instead of "I have a problem," the patient probably would have said, "I am troubled"; instead of "I have insomnia," "I cannot sleep"; instead of "I have a happy marriage," "I am happily married."
The more recent speech style indicates the prevailing high degree of alienation. By saying "I have a problem" instead of "I am troubled," subjective experience is eliminated: the I of experience is replaced by the it of possession. I have transformed my feeling into something I possess: the problem. But "problem" is an abstract expression for all kinds of difficulties. I cannot have a problem, because it is not a thing that can be owned; it, however, can have me. That is to say, I have transformedmyself into "a problem" and am now owned by my creation. This way of speaking betrays a hidden, unconscious alienation.
Of course, one can argue that insomnia is a physical symptom like a sore throat or a toothache, and that it is therefore as legitimate to say that one has insomnia as it is to say that one has a sore throat. Yet there is a difference: a sore throat or a toothache is a bodily sensation that can be more or less intense, but it has little psychical quality. One can have a sore throat, for one has a throat, or an aching tooth, for one has teeth. Insomnia, on the contrary, is not a bodily sensation but a state of mind, that of not being able to sleep. If I speak of "having insomnia" instead of saying "I cannot sleep," I betray my wish to push away the experience of anxiety, restlessness, tension that prevents me from sleeping, and to deal with the mental phenomenon as if it were a bodily symptom.
For another example: To say, "I have great love for you," is meaningless. Love is not a thing that one can have, but a process, an inner activity that one is the subject of. I can love, I can be in love, but in loving, I have ... nothing. In fact, the less I have, the more I can love.
Origin of the Terms
"To have" is a deceptively simple expression. Every human being has something: a body, clothes, shelter—on up to the modern man or woman who has a car, a television set, a washing machine, etc. Living without having something is virtually impossible. Why, then, should having be a problem? Yet the linguistic history of "having" indicates that the word is indeed a problem. To those who believe that to have is a most natural category of human existence it may come as a surprise to learn that many languages have no word for "to have." In Hebrew, for instance, "I have" must be expressed by the indirect form jesh li ("it is to me"). In fact, languages that express possession in this way, rather than by "I have," predominate. It is interesting to note that in the development of many languages the construction "it is to me" is followed later on by the construction "I have," but as Emile Benveniste has pointed out, the evolution does not occur in the reverse direction. This fact suggests that the word for to have develops in connection with the development of private property, while it is absent in societies with predominantly functional property, that is, possession for use. Further sociolinguistic studies should be able to show if and to what extent this hypothesis is valid.
If having seems to be a relatively simple concept, being, or the form "to be," is all the more complicated and difficult. "Being" is used in several different ways: (1) as a copula—such as "I am tall," "I am white," "I am poor," i.e., a grammatical denotation of identity (many languages do not have a word for "to be" in this sense; Spanish distinguishes between permanent qualities, ser, which belong to the essence of the subject, and contingent qualities, estar, which are not of the essence); (2) as the passive, suffering form of a verb—for example, "I am beaten" means I am the object of another's activity, not the subject of my activity, as in "I beat"; (3) as meaning to exist—wherein, as Benveniste has shown, the "to be" of existence is a different term from "to be" as a copula stating identity: "The two words have coexisted and can still coexist, although they are entirely different."
Benveniste's study throws new light on the meaning of "to be" as a verb in its own right rather than as a copula. "To be," in Indo-European languages, is expressed by the root es, the meaning of which is "to have existence, to be found in reality." Existence and reality are defined as "that which is authentic, consistent, true." (In Sanskrit, sant, "existent," "actual good," "true"; superlative Sattama, "the best.") "Being" in its etymological root is thus more than a statement of identity between subject and attribute; it is more than a descriptive term for a phenomenon. It denotes the reality of existence of who or what is; it states his/her/its authenticity and truth. Stating that somebody or something is refers to the person's or the thing's essence, not to his/her/its appearance.
Excerpted from To Have or To Be? by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 2013 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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