To Have or To Be

To be or not to be, that is the question, we read with Shakespeare. How right he was. Nowadays, this question is more prominent than ever. Contemporary capitalistic consumption society confronts us with this dilemma on a daily basis. More and more we want to have instead of being. Continuously we are spending money to have things we don’t really need, to impress the people we don’t really like, as Fight Club famously stated. It seems that we are more and more falling into a rabbit hole of a consumer’s culture where we can’t escape from. Or can we?

The psychoanalytic thinker Erich Fromm has analyzed this dilemma. He starts his analysis with the constatation that we are going through an age of ‘progress’, yet seem to be unhappy still. Even worse, we become more and more unhappy as the consumerist culture expands itself. Even though this claim by Fromm seems to be disproven by data[1], Fromm does have a pressing point. People are becoming more depressed every year.[2] This seems quite contradictory to us becoming happier. Fromm claims that our society is a society of “unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive and dependent – people who are happy if they killed the time that they have tried to free for themselves with immense effort.”[3] The claim that we can take from Fromm is that he believes that we don’t have real happiness. We are happy killing the free time we have. But how are we killing that time?

In a capitalistic society one of the primary motors of the system is the need to consume. For the accumulation of capital, people need to buy products and preferably as much products as they possibly can. Fromm claims that the consumerist society we live in has this need to consume as its basis. The communist alternative is, for Fromm, based on the exact same need to consume. The system needs to grow and in order for it to grow, we need to consume. In this economic system the question isn’t “What is good for the person?” but “What is good for the growth of the system?” The mode of being that is being presented in this culture is ‘to have’.

We kill our time by consuming things. We consume food, information, sex, entertainment, and so on. These things help us escape from the existential angst that the society imposes on us. We feel as if our lives don’t have any real meaning and so we escape into consuming things that make us feel better. We escape because by consuming those things we don’t have to be confronted by reality for some time. It is the same reason why we drink excessive alcohol or take drugs. We want to be freed from this unbearable burden that is our life. The consumerist society gives us everything we need to escape this predicament. However, it has a paradoxical characteristic. It can satisfy our need, since it gives us the things, we need to satisfy our urges. But it then it increases our urges since the thing that satisfied us is gone and leaves a hole which needs to be filled up again, only now we need just a little bit more. So, we have the need to consume even more. The prime example is going to the McDonalds to eat junk food and always needing more after a visit.

‘To have’ is a certain mentality, it’s a certain way of living. It is a way of looking at the world. It influences everything in our daily life. We don’t want to be wise; we want to have information. Instead of processing the books you read and truly make it your own by incorporating it in your being, we just want to have the facts like a Wikipedia article. Fromm sees this in how the current school system is organized. We don’t learn to become critical human beings, but rather random fact machines that have to rattle off the fact when it is asked. In conversations we want to have the word, but no longer want to listen. Most people are waiting their turn to say what they want to say instead of listening to one another and to truly converse, which means that they are trying to understand one another.

We want to have authority instead of being an authority. We want to have power instead of being powerful. Nietzsche makes a distinction between these two kinds of power. Having power is making other people do what you want them to do. To have power in this way requires the presence of others on who you can exert your power. Being powerful is expanding yourself, is to become a competent human being who has the power to do many noble (and vicious) deeds, who doesn’t need others to be powerful. Even love doesn’t escape from this mode of being. We all want to have love, but not be in love. Being in love brings with it pain and responsibility. Having love only brings joy since you feel desired. There are many other examples of where the mentality of ‘to have’ influences our way of living.

This mentality brings about many damaging implications. Since your happiness or your meaning is connected to having, the thing can always be taken from you. Money can always be taken away from you, so focusing on your money might bring a lot of anxiety with it. But even with food that you consume there is always a lack. The food you devour can’t be taken away from you, but you always crave more. You need to consume more. This brings about a lack into your being. You always lack something and thus you consume something so you can have that thing. However, this is an endless cycle that never stops, never fully satisfies you and never brings true lasting meaning into your life. Your meaning is outside of yourself, instead of within yourself. Herbert Marcuse talks about the one-dimensional person who can have a lot of status, things and consume a lot, but is rather a shallow version of who he could be. He is what he has, not what he truly is. In a way you make yourself a consuming object, instead of a living subject. Fromm would say that your relation with the world and yourself is one where you are already dead, just physically alive to consume and to have.

But what is the alternative? The alternative that Fromm proposes is the mentality of ‘to be’. Where having implies things, being implies experiences. In this mentality, you are someone, rather than something. A distinction that is meaningful here is between active and passive. In the mentality of having, you live a passive life. Things happen to you and control the outcome of your life. Even if you are actively trying to make money, it is because of the money that you are doing it and thus it is the money that is giving you the meaning and you who is passively undergoing it. In the mentality of being, you live an active life. You actively search for the meaning in your life and actively create your own self. You are conscious about what you do so that it can contribute to the meaning of your existence. You are the subject of your own actions, which means that your actions are truly your own instead of imposed by something or someone else. If you do it for the money, you are not doing it for yourself.

The mentality of ‘to be’ is not one that will necessarily increase pleasure. Having a lot of stuff all the time can be extremely pleasurable. It will however have meaning. Or rather the suffering of existence will be justified by acting according to the person you want to be. The suffering will not be pointless as it is in the mentality of having but will rather be justified because it contributes to creating meaning in your life.

However, this doesn’t mean that you don’t consume when you have a mentality of being. It means that you consciously consume so that whatever you consume contributes to your life. You don’t consume for the sake of it, but rather with a goal in mind. If you want to have a healthy body, you can buy products that will help with achieving that. Being healthy demands that you buy healthy food, that you go to the gym, etc. This is still consuming, but rather with thought. You won’t consume anything just because you want to escape the suffering of reality. You no longer want to have knowledge so you can flex about it, but because it contributes to you becoming a good person.

These two mentalities of ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ are two extreme opposites. However, no one is truly in one mentality. Rather, we are in both, just in a different gradation in different aspects of our life. Maybe you are in the mentality of being when you are working out in the gym, but in the mentality of having when you’re gathering information. For Fromm, the mentality of being is better than the mentality of having because in the first it’s all about self-actualization, you become a true human being. You can make up your own mind if you think this is correct. Maybe sometimes having a mentality of having can be very beneficial to you as a person. The point of this distinction is to clarify that there are different ways to look at the same concept. Buying something can be put in both mentalities. What is different is the intention or character the person has. The question is: Are you buying it because you think it will truly benefit your life or do you buy it because something or someone else wants you to consume it? I believe this to be an interesting question we can ask ourselves in our own lives. There are many situations where we are consuming something while we know we could be doing something far better with that time. Becoming conscious of this can help us lead more meaningful lives. All we have to do is to be.



[3] Erich Fromm, Een Kwestie van hebben en zijn, p. 15 (own translation from dutch)

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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