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To Have or to Be ? : Reactions to a flower

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

Ohara Koson - Lotus Flower and Finch


Extract from :

Erich Fromm

To Have or to Be ?


"As an introduction to understanding the difference between the having and being modes of existence, let me use as an illustration two poems of similar content that the late D.T. Suzuki referred to in "Lectures on Zen Buddhism."

One is a haiku by a Japanese poet, Basho, 1644-1694; the other poem is by a nineteenth-century English poet, Tennyson. Each poet describes a similar experience: his reaction to a flower he sees while taking a walk.

Tennyson's verse is:

Flower in a crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies,

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower—but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

Translated into English, Basho's haiku runs something like this:

When I look carefully

I see the nazuna blooming

By the hedge !

The difference is striking. Tennyson reacts to the flower by wanting to have it. He "plucks" it "root and all." And while he ends with an intellectual speculation about the flower's possible function for his attaining insight into the nature of God and man, the flower itself is killed as a result of his interest in it.

Tennyson, as we see him in his poem, may be compared to the Western scientist who seeks the truth by means of dismembering life. Basho's reaction to the flower is entirely different. He does not want to pluck it; he does not even touch it. All he does is "look carefully" to "see"it.

Here is Suzuki's description:

"It is likely that Basho was walking along a country road when he noticed something rather neglected by the hedge. He then approached closer, took a good look at it, and found it was no less than a wild plant, rather insignificant and generally unnoticed by passersby. This is a plain fact described in the poem with no specifically poetic feeling expressed anywhere except perhaps in the last two syllables, which read in Japanese kana.

This particle, frequently attached to a noun or an adjective or an adverb, signifies a certain feeling of admiration or praise or sorrow or joy, and can sometimes quite appropriately be rendered into English by an exclamation mark. In the present haiku the wholeverse ends with this mark."

Tennyson, it appears, needs to possess the flower in order to understand people and nature, and by his having it, the flower is destroyed. What Basho wants is to see, and not only to look at the flower, but to be at one, to "one" himself with it — and to let it live.

The difference between Tennyson and Basho is fully explained in this poem by Goethe:


I walked in the woods

All by myself,

To seek nothing,

That was on my mind.

I saw in the shade

A little flower stand,

Bright like the stars

Like beautiful eyes.

I wanted to pluck it,

But it said sweetly:

Is it to wilt

That I must be broken ?

I took it out

With all its roots,

Carried it to the garden

At the pretty house.

And planted it again

In a quiet place;

Now it ever spreads

And blossoms forth.

Goethe, walking with no purpose in mind, is attracted by the brilliant little flower. He reports having the same impulse as Tennyson: to pluck it. But unlike Tennyson, Goethe is aware that this means killing the flower. For Goethe the flower is so much alive that it speaks and warns him; and he solves the problem differently from either Tennyson or Basho. He takes the flower "with all its roots" and plants it again so that its life is not destroyed.

Goethe stands, as it were, between Tennyson and Basho: for him, at the crucial moment, the force of life is stronger than the force of mere intellectual curiosity. Needless to say that in this beautiful poem Goethe expresses the core of his concept of investigating nature.

Tennyson's relationship to the flower is in the mode of having, or possession — not material possession but the possession of knowledge. Basho's and Goethe's relationship to the flower each sees is in the mode of being. By being I refer to the mode of existence in which one neither has anything nor craves to have something, but is joyous, employs one's faculties productively, is oned to the world.

Goethe, the great lover of life, one of the outstanding fighters against human dismemberment and mechanization, has given expression to being as against having in many poems. His Faust is a dramatic description of the conflict between being and having (the latter represented by Mephistopheles), while in the following short poem he expresses the quality of being with the utmost simplicity:


I know that nothing belongs to me

But the thought which unimpeded

From my soul will flow.

And every favorable moment

Which loving Fate

From the depth lets me enjoy.

The difference between being and having is not essentially that between East and West. The difference is rather between a society centered around persons and one centered around things. The having orientation is characteristic of Western industrial society, in which greed for money, fame, and power has become the dominant theme of life. Less alienated

societies — such as medieval society, the Zuni Indians, the African tribal societies that were not affected by the ideas of modern "progress"— have their own Bashos.

Perhaps after a few more generations of industrialization, the Japanese will have their Tennysons. It is not that Western Man cannot fully understand Eastern systems, such as Zen Buddhism (as Jung thought), but that modern Man cannot understand the spirit of a society that is not centered in property and greed."

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