Book Summary: To have or to be?

This is my summary for “To have or to be?”, the book by Erich Fromm. This summary follows the structure and order of the book, although I have skipped several sections for brevity or because I didn’t find a good way to summarise them.

Meaning of life

Inner liberation, break the chains of greed. Reason only works as long as it’s not stifled by greed. Industrial societies only talk about political liberation and have forgotten about the inner one.

Obstacles to a greater conscience

  1. Fascination for power and fame, lack of authenticity.
  2. Trivial chatter. It comes from emptiness, indifference and routine. We have become afraid of intimacy but also of loneliness.
  3. The idea of life without effort and pain. In theory, modern progress was supposed to give us more free time for higher, more creative tasks. But instead we have idealized absolute laziness and horror to any real effort.
  4. Fear of authoritarianism and idealization of little whims. Fear of anything imposed on us have resulted in the idealization of total freedom to choose. We end up with freedom for little whims (ie. desires that come spontaneously, without any connection to our personality or our goals), instead of freedom for our will. Our “anti-authoritarianism” (which is good otherwise!) has been used to justify narcissistic complacency.

Ways of conscience

  1. Wanting a single thing. Set ourselves a goal, and dedicate ourselves to it.
  2. Be awake and aware. Pay attention to the outside world.
  3. Be conscious. Truth has a liberating effect, even when we learn about problems that have no solution. This is the most crucial aspect of the art of being. We achieve this personal independence by refusing to submit (not the rebelliousness without a goal). Another important attitude is realising that most of what we hear, and even know, is false: a healthy skepticism.
  4. Concentration. It’s harder and harder to focus, due to the way we produce and consume, but it’s important to learn to focus if we want to pursue many things. Practising sports, painting, playing musical instruments, and such, can help us concentrate.
  5. Meditation. Part of the advantage is to be more conscious, and part of it is to connect to our subconscious to make it more explicit and let us inspect it and control it more easily.

Self-analysis as a way of knowing oneself

This chapter is too complex to summarise, but in short it says that psychoanalysis is usually seen, even by professionals, as a way to cure neurosis, but the author sees it also as a good way to know oneself. Starting from an analysis from a professional, one can learn to analyse oneself and apply those principles for the rest of one’s life, to increase self-knowledge over time.

The chapter proposes concrete techniques and strategies to do this.

Two forms of ownership

Functional and non-functional. The first are things that we need or use often, and are connected to our goals; these things encourage activity and vitality. The second are things that we simply collect.

Trying to have only the first kind has several interesting consequences:

  1. Having only what I use encourages me to be active.
  2. It’s harder to have greed to have more things, because my capacity to use them productively would be impaired.
  3. It’s harder to feel envy, because I’m already busy with what I have.
  4. I won’t be worried about losing what I have, because functional property is easier to replace.


The strategy to live a better life is to beat our narcissism and our egotism. To do so we need conscience, will, practice, and learn to tolerate our fears and new experiences. Instead of thinking “I am what I have”, move towards “I am what I do”.

Final notes

I realise, when I re-read the summary, that it feels “fluffy” and new-agey, because it lacks the depth of the original text. One of the things that make a difference is the way the author argues and explains each point, eg. it’s not evident from this summary that he rejects schools of thought or groupthink.

Although I didn’t agree with everything on the book, I really enjoyed reading it. I encourage you to read it if the topics and themes sound vaguely interesting, because the book is much better than my summary makes it out to be.