To have or to be

* Advertisements are telling us “I am what I am” (Reebok), “be Marlboro”, “be yourself” (One Watch Company), and other empty phrases that attempt to level and associate our being with commodities. That is what I call ontological rape, the estrangement from being through material.

By promising us that their products are either our being itself, a necessary appendage of it, or a means to reveal it, companies aim at what I call an ontological need, a need to express, reflect or find our being. People, in turn, buy these alleged must-haves of being.

Eventually the consumer identifies with the object to such an extent that he believes it to be a part of himself. I am not just wearing this Armani jacket, its sleeves are an extension of my arms, its dye is becoming my second skin color. I am the jacket.

The problem is, however, that true being cannot come from the outside, as being has the nature of being a tautology: being is being. If you are a Hindu or a Muslim, you are something, which is not similar to just be.

This universal truth was often proclaimed, for instance in the Hebrew Bible “I am that I am” (Exodus 3: 14), by Ramana Maharshi, or many others. In the same remote way, it was even expressed by Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s “I am I”, the beginning of any knowledge.

Marxism as solution

When Karl Marx wrote “the less you are, the more you have,” it was a critique of capitalism and its money mania, which leads ultimately to an alienation on several levels – also the one of being.

Erich Fromm expanded this thought in his book To Have or to Be?, whereby he argues that people have lost their being through having in the modern world.

So should we become Marxist? No, that is not the solution either, since Marx intention to destroy the idea of excessive having was virtuous, but his theory had the flaw of being materialistic itself.

He, who argued that “religion is the opium of the folk”, never broke through the circle of having as his entire revolution was focused on production and not really on the revolution of having towards being.


Of course, the concept of mere being is quite abstract, particularly against the background of quotidian life. It is an intrinsic part of life to extend our being to identities and thus to express our ontological needs.

I can have the identity of a woman, a homosexual, a conservative, or a FC Barcelona fan. And I can have my ontological needs fulfilled by religion, nature, or something else.

Yet, two things are important. First, our identities can be an extension of our being, but not our being itself. Hence, it is important not to exaggerate the role of our identity and to mistake it for our essence. Consuming is OK as long as it does not define me.

Second, we should not forget that we have not merely one identity, but plenty of them. “Generating the illusion of unique identity” can be perilous to others and to myself, as  Amartya Sen points out.

For example, if I see myself solely as a Hindu – and not as a human, a father or mother, etc. – I can easily misinterpret my identity as my being and become an ultranationalist who suppresses other identities.

The same way, if I only see myself as a consumer – what these advertisements want us to do – I will repress other identities, especially my own, and even mistake it for my being.

Therefore, the human, all too human urge to fulfill our ontological needs via identities is not a categorical evil, as long as we keep in mind that we are more than just these shoes we are wearing.

Or as the rapper Macklemore wrote:

We are what we wear, we wear what we are
But see I look inside the mirror and think Phil Knight tricked us all
Will I stand for change, or stay in my box
These Nikes help me define me, but I’m trying to take mine, of

*Foto by René Spitz

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