This, with a wink to Hamlet, is indeed the question. It is also the focus of the German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have or to Be?—a work published four years before Fromm’s death at 80. The book’s description on the Amazon website is quite explicit: “To Have or to Be? is one of the seminal books of the second half of the 20th century. Nothing less than a manifesto for a new social and psychological revolution to save our threatened planet, this book is a summary of the penetrating thought of Eric Fromm. His thesis is that two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity. To Have or to Be? is a brilliant program for socioeconomic change.”
I remember reading To Have or to Be? soon after it came out and nodding in agreement all the way through. I specifically recall Fromm citing America as the world’s poster-child for the Having mode of life. The happiness we Americans were encouraged to pursue—after life and liberty, to be sure—came to be understood as the by-product of Having which in turn came from disciplined, self-reliant Doing. (Emerson, anyone?) According to this idea, a gift of the Protestant work ethic as interpreted by “our” Pilgrim forefathers, we needed to strive hard to accumulate wealth, a sign of God’s special Calvinist Providence, and then demonstrate our “good fortune” by living the U.S. version of “the good life”: a big house in a fancy neighborhood; expensive cars; well-matched spouses; handsome, well-behaved children who attended the best schools through high-ranking colleges and professional schools and who went on to brilliant remunerative careers; and a country-club lifestyle with winter snowbird vacations to warmer climes in places like Palm Beach, Aruba, or Hawai`i. I.e., THE AMERICAN DREAM.
Now don’t get me wrong. As a third-generation American Jew of parents who had been a young couple during the Great Depression, I can understand my parents’ all-American obsession with Having. Dinner-table talk often featured an acquaintance of theirs or that family’s son, generally, who had “done very well” and “was now worth a million dollars.” William James of Harvard (d. 1910), a major founder of American Pragmatism, talked about the “cash value of ideas,” not people. For my part, I had no interest in law, medicine, or business although, as my parents suggested, with my stellar grades I could have entered any of those fields. They were disappointed, at least at first, that I choose to be a college teacher, the least remunerative of the learned professions. Then, when I began as a 21-year-old newly minted Yale graduate to follow an Eastern spiritual discipline, they thought I’d sold my soul to the devil. But by that age I already knew that of the three—doing, having, and being—the last came first in my life, and I thank the Universe at 83 that this is a value and commitment from which I have never wavered.