The Art Of Living: Setting Ourselves Free From The Shackles Of Our Cultures Narcissism & Selfishness

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

The great German social psychologist philosopher Eric Fromm was one of the most luminous minds of the 20th century and a fountain of healing for the most abiding struggles of being human.

He distills the basic principle of life’s ultimate aim in his book The Art Of Being. Here are the most thought provoking challenging excerpts I wanted to share and remind myself of:

The goal of living [is] to grow optimally according to the conditions of human existence and thus to become fully what one potentially is; to let reason or experience guide us to the understanding of what norms are conducive to well-being, given the nature of man that reason enables us to understand.


Man can be a slave even without being put in chains… The outer chains have simply been put inside of man. The desires and thoughts that the suggestion apparatus of society fills him with, chain him more thoroughly than outer chains. This is so because man can at least be aware of outer chains but be unaware of inner chains, carrying them with the illusion that he is free. He can try to overthrow the outer chains, but how can he rid himself of chains of whose existence he is unaware?

The two most damaging chains keeping us from liberation, Fromm observes, are our culture’s property-driven materialism and our individual intrinsic tendencies toward narcissism. He writes:

If “well-being” — [defined as] functioning well as a person, not as an instrument — is the supreme goal of one’s efforts, two specific ways stand out that lead to the attainment of this goal: Breaking through one’s narcissism and breaking through the property structure of one’s existence.

Narcissism is an orientation in which all one’s interest and passion are directed to one’s own person: one’s body, mind, feelings, interests… For the narcissistic person, only he and what concerns him are fully real; what is outside, what concerns others, is real only in a superficial sense of perception; that is to say, it is real for one’s senses and for one’s intellect. But it is not real in a deeper sense, for our feeling or understanding. He is, in fact, aware only of what is outside, in as much as it affects him. Hence, he has no love, no compassion, no rational, objective judgment. The narcissistic person has built an invisible wall around himself. He is everything, the world is nothing. Or rather: He is the world.

Fromm’s eloquent definition of narcissism serves very challenging to people like myself. It really forces you to take a deep look in the mirror of your consciousness and soul to assess who you really are, and why you are. Am I consistently narcissistic? If I’m honest I don’t think I am…I think very few are…but exhibiting degrees of narcissism is something much more common to plague the common man. Narcissism can come in many guises, thus it can be quite challenging to detect and eradicate.

Fromm makes you really question yourself. Are we falling for the trap of only concerning ourselves with what’s real only in a superficial sense? As he points out I think we may be falling short because we are not feeling deep enough to understand and care about the things that affects things outside of our own being. That is a very confronting thought. Mostly because I don’t know if I want to change…and even if I do…how?

“A parallel peril to well-being comes from the egotism and selfishness seeded by our ownership-driven society, a culture that prioritizes having overbeing by making property its primary mode of existence. Fromm writes:”

A person living in this mode is not necessarily very narcissistic. He may have broken through the shell of his narcissism, have an adequate appreciation of reality outside himself, not necessarily be “in love with himself”; he knows who he is and who the others are, and can well distinguish between subjective experience and reality. Nevertheless, he wants everything for himself; has no pleasure in giving, in sharing, in solidarity, in cooperation, in love. He is a closed fortress, suspicious of others, eager to take and most reluctant to give.

Fromm comforts the honest reader who may in fact not be as narcissistic as they thought. But it really points out the complex blend of self awareness and selfishness. A discomforting thought that makes you question how to reach the rewards of ‘well-being’ awaiting on the other side of this transformation.

If a person has the will and the determination to loosen the bars of his prison of narcissism and selfishness, when he has the courage to tolerate the intermittent anxiety, he experiences the first glimpses of joy and strength that he sometimes attains. And only then a decisive new factor enters into the dynamics of the process. This new experience becomes the decisive motivation for going ahead and following the path he has charted… [An] experience of well-being — fleeting and small as it may be — … becomes the most powerful motivation for further progress…

Awareness, will, practice, tolerance of fear and of new experience, they are all necessary if transformation of the individual is to succeed. At a certain point the energy and direction of inner forces have changed to the point where an individual’s sense of identity has changed, too. In the property mode of existence the motto is:

“I am what I have.”

After the breakthrough it is

“I am what I do”

or simply,

“I am what I am.”

Thank you Maria Popova for your weekly inspiration in Brain Pickings that inspired me to curate this amazing piece of work by Erich Fromm. Please hit the heart button or voice your thoughts bellow :)

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour.