From Diogenes and Epicurus to Erich Fromm and modern minimalism activists, from ancient times to the present, there is a long tradition of philosophers suggesting that long-lasting happiness might be easier to achieve if we don’t primarily focus on material gains.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
How much money do we need?
There’s a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It tells of a man who got the opportunity to claim a piece of land as his own: as much as he could walk around in one day.
The man starts in the morning to walk, and at every point where he might turn back, he pushes himself to go another little bit, just until that next corner — because why should he leave that piece of land unclaimed? So he walks happily until the late afternoon, when he realises that the sun is sinking and that he’ll have to hurry up to return to the point of departure and close the circle — or else he’ll lose the land. So he starts running back, trying to complete the circle around his future land, more and more frantically as the sun slowly sets in the West… He runs and runs and reaches the starting point just at the last possible moment, where he finally breaks down and falls to the ground: dead from exhaustion. He is buried and at this point it becomes clear how much land a man really needs: six feet — that’s enough for him for the rest of eternity.
Here is a collection of Tolstoy’s stories. They are wonderful in their deep appreciation of the human condition.
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What is property?
Erich Fromm sees today’s understanding of private property as just one — and the least beneficial — kind of property:
This kind of property may be called private property (from Latin privare, “to deprive of”), because the person or persons who own it are its sole masters, with full power to deprive others of its use or enjoyment. While private ownership is supposed to be a natural and universal category, it is in fact an exception rather than the rule if we consider the whole of human history (including prehistory), and particularly the cultures outside Europe in which economy was not life’s main concern.
Aside from private property, there are: self-created property, which is exclusively the result of one’s own work; restricted property, which is restricted by the obligation to help one’s fellow beings; functional, or personal, property, which consists either of tools for work or of objects for enjoyment; common property, which a group shares in the spirit of a common bond, such as the Israeli kibbutzim. (Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be)
It is interesting that he derives private from the same root as “privation” and “to deprive” — isn’t it? The etymology here gives away what our societies try to conceal and look away from: that private property, depriving property, is fundamentally anti-social and un-Christian, opposed by its nature to any morality of sharing and the pursuit of a common good. And, indeed, in the rare instances where we still cultivate functional property (for example, in sharing pens and board-markers in an office) we can see how liberating and productive such arrangements can be. Whoever needs a pen, goes and gets one from the office supplies — instead of having to interrupt their work, go out of the office, buy a pen in the nearest shop and walk back, which would cost many times the value of the pen in lost productivity and frustration.
Private property and the mode of having
This distrust of private property and its effects on the human psyche is not specifically Fromm’s idea. Since the ancient times, philosophers have pointed out that private property is the root of much unhappiness in human life.
Jesus is quoted as saying: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24, NIV).
Epicurus, of whom we will talk later this summer, wrote:
He who understands the limits of life knows how easy it is to procure enough to remove the pain of want and make the whole of life complete and perfect. Hence he has no longer any need of things which are not to be won save by labour and conflict. (Principal Doctrines 21, transl. Hicks
Of course, the things “which are not to be won save by labour and conflict” are material goods, the kind that one can chase for a lifetime, without ever acquiring enough of them to satisfy one’s lust.
But Erich Fromm, being a psychologist, goes one step further:
Our ego is the most important object of our property feeling, for it comprises many things: our body, our name, our social status, our possessions (including our knowledge), the image we have of ourselves and the image we want others to have of us. Our ego is a mixture of real qualities, such as knowledge and skills, and of certain fictitious qualities that we build around a core of reality. But the essential point is not so much what the ego’s content is, but that the ego is felt as a thing we each possess, and that this “thing” is the basis of our sense of identity.
So it is not only that we spend much of our lives chasing material goods — the problem, for Fromm, is rather that we even define ourselves through the goods we possess, that we see ourselves not as beings who have particular qualities and who engage in a live exchange with the world — but instead we see ourselves as little more than just the point of origin of our claims on the world, the subjects that possess these things that are ours and that separate us from others and define us as individuals.
There are multiple problems with this attitude: for example, losing our material possessions in some accident, in a fire perhaps or a robbery, would threaten the core of our being and annihilate our very selves. Since we are aware of this ever present possibility, the lives of people who live in this “mode of having” are going to be ever anxious, driven by the existential fear of not only losing a pile of stuff, but their very identity itself, that which defines them as human beings and gives their lives worth.
Living in the mode of being
But there have always also been the others — people who lived their lives as examples of how one could be happy without possessions, without depriving others of the use of their “private” property.
Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes famously lived in a big ceramic jar (or barrel) in Athens’ market, refusing to move into a house. One day, as he was sunning himself in front of his barrel, Alexander the Great (by the way, himself a student of Aristotle) came to see the famous man. Alexander, envious of the carefree life of Diogenes, asked him what he could do for him — after all, Alexander was by then one of the most powerful men in the world, the equivalent perhaps of the US president asking you what he can do for you — just say what you wish and it will be done. Diogenes, without hesitating, without looking up, said quietly to the great king: “Move to the side, because you’re blocking the sunlight.”
There are also many modern examples of people who, at some point, realised that their lives inside our capitalist society led nowhere, and who left to find happiness in other pursuits, away from the never-ending fight for material goods. Here, for example, is the story of one man who left a lucrative life in finance to live as a farmer:
Some have gone to even greater extremes and have, arguably, achieved the happiness they were looking for. One is Brendon Grimshaw, ex-journalist and newspaper man, who left his life and his job and moved to tiny Moyenne Island in the Seychelles to spent the rest of his days planting trees and restoring the original jungle on this island. Here is a beautiful documentary about him and the island he loved:
But even closer to home, people like YouTuber Rob Greenfield, who lives his life guerilla-farming in cities, foraging for food in public parks, and who owns only 47 pieces of possessions that all fit into one bag, is perhaps an example of a modern Diogenes.
There are certainly also good arguments against living in this way, and not everyone could live like that. One could argue that people like Mr Greenfield do actually need an organised society all around them, but at the same time they refuse to contribute to it, creating a situation that is only sustainable because others provide the many necessary services that keep them alive, safe and healthy: streets, parks, police, running water, a health system and even YouTube, computers, electricity and wireless Internet, without which Mr Greenfield would not have a channel to publicise his message of frugal living. The same, by the way, one could have said about Diogenes, who lived in the barrel: no one ever reported who actually made that barrel, and it probably wasn’t Diogenes himself.
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But such criticism would shoot over the mark. The point of Fromm’s argument against the capitalist way of life is not that we all need to take to the streets with 47 possessions in a backpack. Rather, we should just look at our everyday lives in a more critical way, trying to see where our need to own things becomes destructive to our own welfare and mental health. Erich Fromm:
Ideas and beliefs can also become property, as can even habits. For instance, anyone who eats an identical breakfast at the same time each morning can be disturbed by even a slight change in that routine, because his habit has become a property whose loss endangers his security. (To Have or To Be, p.61)
So let’s the coming weekend take the opportunity to distance ourselves a little from our material orientation towards our lives. Let’s try to discover the joy of life, as strange and possibly wise men, from Diogenes and Epicurus to Fromm and perhaps even Rob Greenfield have shown us: let’s try to live a weekend without spending any money.
But not just any weekend: an enjoyable, great, memorable weekend! If you need to care for a family, do the shopping on Friday evening, so that you don’t need to touch any money on Saturday and Sunday. There’s no need to starve, and if you need to eat something commercially acquired so that you don’t collapse, go ahead. But it’s an interesting sport, to think how one could, in our world of today, survive for a weekend without consuming stuff. Could you find food in a park or city forest? Rob Greenfield has many videos showing how to do that. Could you replace a visit to a coffee shop or another entertainment venue with a walk to the nearest bit of nature? Lockdown has, funnily, made it easier for us to see alternative ways of enjoying our lives that don’t depend quite so much on consuming one thing after another over the whole course of the weekend. Could you turn off the endless distraction and brainwashing of TV and Internet and spend a day talking to family, children, or perhaps just reading a book?
And could we do all these things not with an attitude of suffering, but with the genuine feeling that we are actually enjoying our lives, perhaps even more than we normally do?
Let’s use the coming weekend to find out!
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.