Decluttering the Mind #98
Erich Fromm on material possessions
Welcome back to another instalment in our series about (this month) Erich Fromm, German/American psychologist and philosopher, and his theory of happiness. According to Fromm, it’s no wonder that we often live unhappy lives, since the whole society is not geared towards making us balanced and happy people. So every attempt at improving our lives must aim at radically changing our approach to the world around us.
We talked already about what Fromm calls our need to “escape from freedom,” about the failed promises of technology since the 19th century, and about how we could reduce our reliance on household appliances in order to give more meaning to our everyday lives and their rituals. Last time, we saw how Fromm thinks that there are two different ways of approaching our lives: a mode of having and a mode of being. This week, we want to see in a more practical sense how these two modes of existence affect our lives.
The mode of having
Fromm says about the two modes of being: “The difference is ... between a society centered around persons and one centered around things.” (To Have or To Be, p.11)
But the mode of having does not stop at the possession of things. If we are not careful, it tends to take over our person. If that happens, we will see more and more of the world in the perspective of “having,” as things to be possessed rather than experiences to be lived and enjoyed. The most striking example is probably a statement like: “I have great love for you.”
Of course, this is completely 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.”
Since Fromm is, at heart, a psychologist, he goes back to childhood to find the roots of this fixation that makes many of us live our lives in the mode of having. Small children, he observes, initially relate to the world by taking things into their mouths, licking them, swallowing them, which is an “archaic form of possessing.” (p.14) Children do this as long as their development, both in body and mind, does not allow them to experience other forms of possessing, or even other, better forms of relating to the world. The same archaic pattern we can see, according to Fromm, in cannibalism: “By eating another human being, I acquire that person's powers.” (p14)
But how can we reach that stage in our lives? How can we progress from the mode of having to the mode of being?
We will talk more of what Fromm has to say about that in the next post at the end of this week! Stay tuned and thanks for reading!