Book Review: The Art of Being by Erich Fromm

The featured audiobook is ‘The Art of Being’ by Erich Fromm which is a translation of Fromm’s original work. Fromm introduces his work as one that provides the beginnings of a guidance on living. He is keen to point out that he is providing pointers and nothing more thus avoiding dogmatism.

There are some overarching themes in this book. Firstly I thought that Fromm was heavily influenced by Freud as he frequently refers to him throughout the book. Fromm refers to psychoanalysis and his knowledge in this area is evident in his writing and a number of assumptions from this field are taken as read. In so doing the reader is able to make use of the insights that Fromm has gained during his time in the field of psychoanalysis. However Fromm brings his insights from other areas as well emphasising that it is necessary to do so having had experience in these areas. Thus he talks of Zen Buddhism and focuses on meditation.

However the main theme in his book is that with materialism has come a tendency for people to focus on possessing rather than ‘being’. In this book his aim is to guide the reader in the direction of being rather than having. He refers to ‘Individual Narcissism’ in contemporary society and describes the various guises in which narcissism may manifest and characterises this as a product of an industrial society. Fromm builds up an argument in which Industrialisation is a contemporary issue which has only recently given rise to the need to possess, contrasting this with knowledge about early societies. At times however, I felt Fromm’s generalisations were unhelpful.

Fromm focuses on the ‘sham in salvation’ those areas of personal growth that have been turned over to commercialisation and writes that he was hesitant to publish this chapter. Along the way he writes

‘in a completely commercialised society in which saleability and optimal profit constitute the core values and in which every person experiences himself as capital that he has to invest on the market with the aim of optimal profit – success, his inner value counts as little as a dental cream’

Fromm also asks the reader to guard against the need for instant gratification and the use of technology. He argues for instance that technology covers up the frailty of the person. He argues that people are increasingly able to achieve more because of an increasing mastery of nature but that does not mean that people themselves are becoming more powerful. Indeed he argues that the contrary is the case, that without writing, people would make better use of their memory for instance. He also writes that with increasing industrialisation of work processes there is less scope for creativity and thinking in individual roles in the work place. However a number of these arguments are too simple. For instance, society is multifaceted, and various subcultures may not reflect the trends in wider society. The development of new tools, computers for instance, has not made work roles much simpler but instead has added layers of complexity and with these new layers come new demands.

Fromm suggests a number of approaches to the reader including meditation, awareness, concentration, psychoanalysis, self-analysis and the art of being rather than having – and for the reader to be content with being. While there are many oversimplifications here, Fromm does eruditely consider a number of issues important to contemporary society and which will probably remain so.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


  1. My introduction to Psychology was on reading a book by Fromm “The anatomy of human destructiveness’ ; after that I was hooked to psychology and have read many other original works of Fromm, and of course now I am heavily into cognitive psychology, apparently leaving the psychoanalytical tradition behind; I agree that many of his ideas are simplifications and have not stood the test of time; yet there is wisdom to be gleaned from his work and his juxtaposition of ‘to have or to be’ to me at least continues to be a valuable guideline.


  2. Hi Sandeep,
    Thanks! I’ll have to check out ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness’. I agree with you there are a number of timeless and invaluable elements to this work. I guess the nature of this level of analysis is that it will produce both penetrating insights and also inaccuracies. The insights are worth the risk!


  3. I’m pleased to find a review of Eric Fromm’s book, which I have read with great interest.
    Inspite of the several criticisms offered, this book is a must read for everyone; at least he clearly indicates how the masses are being ‘brain-washed’ by our failing educational systems, breeding people who are in danger of being deprived of the ability of critical thinking, and, relying on ‘having instead of a being’ mode of living. In this respect, he leant his support to that ‘famous radical educationist’, A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill School (probably more famous than Eton).


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