Sometime in 2009 I read Erich Fromm’s To Have or To Be?. In it Fromm criticized the materialistic values and consumerism common in the US throughout the twentieth century and argued that if people did not change that Human happiness would be thwarted. He conceived of two modes of personality, the “Having” and “Being” mode, that represent how relate to our possessions. In the Having mode the individual uses the acquisition of material possessions as a buffer against existential anxiety. They experience their own self-worth through the amount and kind of commodities they own. In the Being mode the individual’s source of self-fulfillment is derived from the activity of living. They have faith in their productive energies and enrich life with their spontaneous creativity. Both are solutions to existential anxiety but only the Being mode transcends the limitations of materialism and offers a broad, more fulfilling source of meaning and value.
Fromm’s work has since become an important influence on my perspective on life and psychology but, nevertheless, when I discovered Lawrence J. Friedman’s new biography The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet on Amazon my first thought was: “I want it! I want it! I want it!”
Friedman eloquently discusses the events of Fromm’s life with insight and clarity, and often explains his theories as they developed throughout his career. This gives the reader a good sense of where Fromm’s ideas stood within the cultural and intellectual context of the twentieth century and the problems they addressed. Fromm’s life is dissected according to his various occupations or “lives” as a clinician, political activist, social critic, and writer. Friedman’s extensive research and probing narratives reveals a man deeply affected by the horrors and hatreds of two world wars, the threat of nuclear war throughout the Cold War, and the prevalence of consumerism, materialism, and conformity within Western society. As a response to his departure from Freudian meta-psychology, Fromm was shunned from psychoanalytic institutes and these disagreements frequently ruptured his professional relationships with other psychologists and philosophers, and because he lacked a medical degree he was never fully accepted by professional psychiatry. Despite this, he managed to found his own psychoanalytic institute in Mexico, authored many successfully and popular books, and was in high demand to lecture at universities or to speak at political conferences. Throughout the 1960’s Fromm dedicated considerable effort to politics and influenced several presidential candidate. Perhaps more notable, his perspectives on foreign policy and nuclear disarmament influenced John F. Kennedy’s attitude towards the Cold War.
In the last two decades of life, ill health caught up with Fromm and compelled him to move to Switzerland for the good of his health. There, he completed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, the first in a series of books he wanted to write propounding his general theory of Human psychology, and a considerably smaller volume, entitled To Have or To Be? He never finished his series of psychological texts but nevertheless left behind an impressive legacy of written work.
Although many people may not be familiar with the name Erich Fromm, there can be no doubt about his significance in the twentieth century. Even now, his work remains significant. His theories on hoarding behavior, the creative power of love, and the destructiveness of hate, fear, and alienation are all relevant to the problems of today. His work lives on through the study of Terror Management Theory and has been quoted several times on the television show Criminal minds. The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet validates his position in history as one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century (second only to Freud) and will remain among my treasured books for many years to come.