Cultural Psychology

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Gandhi on Prayer

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Mahatma Gandhi crop

No act of mine is done without prayer. Man is a fallible being. He can never be sure of his steps.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 25 Sept 1924, p. 313)

As food is necessary for the body, prayer is necessary for the soul. A man may be able to do without food for a number of days … but, believing in God, man cannot, should not live a moment without prayer.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 15 Dec 1927, p. 424)

Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.
~  Gandhi (Autobiography, p. 51)

I can give my own testimony and say that a heartfelt prayer is undoubtedly the most potent instrument that man possesses for overcoming cowardice and all other bad old habits.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 20 Dec 1928, p. 420)

Not until we have reduced ourselves to nothingness can we conquer the evil in us. God demands nothing less than complete self-surrender as the price for the only real freedom that is worth having. And when a man thus loses himself, he immediately finds himself in the service of all that lives. It becomes his delight and his recreation. He is a new man, never weary of spending himself in the service of God’s creation.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 20 Dec 1928, p. 420)

There is an eternal struggle raging in man’s breast between the powers of darkness and of light, and he who has not the sheet-anchor of prayer to rely upon will be a victim to the powers of darkness. The man of prayer will be at peace with himself and with the whole world; the man who goes about the affairs of the world without a prayerful heart will be miserable and will make the world also miserable.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 26)

Prayer is the only means of bringing about orderliness and peace and repose in our daily acts…. Take care of the vital thing and other things will take care of themselves. Rectify one angle of a square, and the other angles will be automatically right.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 26)

It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 25)

Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 25)

I am giving you a bit of my experience and that of my companions when I say that he who had experienced the magic of prayer may do without food for days together, but not a single moment without prayer. For without prayer there is no inward peace.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 23 Jan 1930, p. 25)

Let every one try and find that, as a result of daily prayer, he adds something new to his life, something with which nothing can be compared.
~  Gandhi (Young India, 24 Apr 1931, p. 274)

There are many who, whether from mental laziness or from having fallen into a bad habit, believe that God is and will help us unasked.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 28 Apr 1946, p. 109)

Silent communion will help them to experience an undisturbed peace in the midst of turmoil, to curb anger and cultivate patience.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 28 Apr 1946, p. 109)

It should be the general rule that prayers must not be delayed for anybody on earth.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 5 May 1946, p. 113)

True meditation consists in closing the eyes and ears of the mind to all else except the object of one’s devotion. Hence the closing of eyes during prayers is an aid to such concentration. Man’s conception of God is naturally limited. Each one has, therefore, to think of Him as best appeals to him, provided that the conception is pure and uplifting.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 18 Apr 1946, p. 265)

Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 14 Apr 1946, p. 80)

When the mind is completely filled with His spirit, one cannot harbour ill-will or hatred towards anyone and, reciprocally, the enemy will shed his enmity and become a friend. It is not my claim that I have succeeded in converting enemies into friends, but in numerous cases it has been my experience that, when the mind is filled with His peace, all hatred ceases.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 28 Apr 1946, p. 109)

God answers prayer in His own way, not ours. His ways are different from the ways of mortals. Hence they are inscrutable. Prayer presupposes faith. No prayer goes in vain.
~  Gandhi (Harijan, 29 Jun 1946, p. 209)

Source: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi: Encyclopedia of Gandhi’s Thoughts. Compiled & Edited by R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao. Ahmedabad, 1967.


Autobiography = An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth: M. K. Gandhi. Translated from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad: 1927 (vol. 1), 1929 (vol. 2); edition used: 1959.

Young India = Young India (1919–1932). English-language periodical; published bi-weekly from Bombay under Gandhi’s supervision from May 7, 1919; weekly from Ahmedabad with Gandhi as editor from October 8, 1919.

Harijan = Harijan (1933–1956). English-language weekly journal founded by Gandhi; published in Poona from 1942; suspended publication in 1940 during the “Individual Satyagraha”; resumed in January 1942, but stopped appearing during the Quit India Struggle; reappeared in 1946.

Written by John Uebersax

December 24, 2014 at 11:03 pm

What is American Transcendentalism?

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Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works












The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

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Christian Platonism

The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation

Gustave Dore - Banishment of Adam and Eve

(A summary appears following the article.)

We address here what can be termed the monomyth of fall and salvation. By monomyth we mean a core myth that is expressed in different forms by different cultures. By fall and salvation here we do not mean so much the ultimate eternal destiny of a soul, but a cycle which recurs frequently within ones life — perhaps even on a daily basis.

We borrow the term monomyth from the writings of the noted mythographer, Joseph Campbell. Campbell (1949) explored in detail a different, but related and somewhat overlapping monomyth, which we might call the heroic quest. The heroic myth somewhat neglects the question of why the hero needs to go on a quest to begin with; it’s as though the quest is the result of someone else’s difficulties or negligence. The fall and salvation monomyth…

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Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2014 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Where is the New Humanism?

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In 1967, Pope Paul VI, in the landmark encyclical, Populorum progressio, called upon experts to help forge a “new humanism” — one that that goes beyond mere material concerns to encompass higher values and transcendent aspects of human nature, so as to promote development of “the whole man.” This plea was renewed by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now again by Pope Francis in his address to the European Parliament (23 November 2014). There is regrettably little evidence of any sustained and coordinated response — or perhaps any response at all — to the past pleas. This makes one wonder how much good it will do for Pope Francis to ask again.

Clearly the ball is in the court of philosophers and intellectuals. Therefore I’d like to pitch a prospectus, as it were — to encourage scholars to pick up this lost thread, consider it, and possibly even eventually get, say, the Templeton Foundation or the EU government to fund conferences or other activity towards this end.

Here are some initial propositions. I offer these as proposals or hypotheses only — as topics for discussion, debate, and dialogue — not as dogmas.

  1. Human beings have, in addition to a body and a biological nature, an interior life. This constitutes one important meaning of the word soul (Greek: psyche), as logically distinct from two other senses of the word, viz., as an animating spirit, and as some element of the person which survives biological death. This sense of soul as interior life is a phenomenological, empirical reality, experienced by each person. We cannot see another’s interior life, but our conversation with others, as well as their conversation and artistic and literary productions, suffice to convince us that others have an interior life basically the same as our own. Understood in this sense, the human soul is a proper object for collective and scientific study.
  2.  To say that human beings have a soul in this sense does not commit us to any particular religious or metaphysical view or belief system.
  3. Human happiness depends more on the state of ones soul (in the sense we’ve stipulated) than on one’s body. Let’s be clear: both ‘physical’ and ‘soul’ happiness are important. We merely propose that the natural ordering is such that the latter is more important. To illustrate the point, a person might be rich as Crassus, yet very unhappy; or poor as Diogenes, yet as happy as a person may possibly be.
  4.  Happiness of soul is, almost by definition, moral in nature. By moral we don’t mean moralistic, but rather that whole dimension of life that pertains to meaning, and includes arts, intellectual development, and culture generally, as well as ethical actions.
  5.  It would appear even from the most casual survey that integral to moral development is love. By love here we mean something distinct from eros or romantic love, and more like unselfish or disinterested love, agape. This is also different from compassion and sympathy. Associated with this higher love are man’s vast creative potentials. Thus the great works of art and literature which we ascribe to genius are typically motivated by or connected with this transcendent love (see e.g., Sorokin, 1954).
  6.  The very nature of human moral development, and hence moral happiness, is such that it can only come about primarily, if not exclusively, as a result of personal effort. Nobody else — no government, parent, teacher, or friend — can, per se, make another person more moral or morally happy. Indeed part of moral happiness is the sense that one has personally overcome obstacles, met challenges, performed difficult tasks, etc.
  7. It would appear that human beings possess an innate sense of moral goodness (Conscience). That it is innate is evidenced by (1) that our moral sense is ubiquitous, such that virtually everything we see or do is judged in moral terms of good or bad; (2) there is remarkable similarly in standards of good and bad across cultures; and (3) we see this sense operating even in children; if you tell a child, “be good,” the child knows exactly what you mean. You don’t have to get into a discourse with a child on whether morality is innate or accidental, universal or relative. It as though one said, “You know that sense you and we all have that tells us what is right and wrong?  Well start paying attention to it!” A look comes over the child’s face like, “Oh right. Now I remember what being good is all about.”
  8.  Man is also a social animal, instinctively, like other animals, concerned with the welfare of other members of the species. This means that ones own moral development and the assisting others’ moral development are interpenetrating and inseparable.
  9.  It follows from the preceding points that the most important way one can help others is to promote their moral welfare. Certainly material assistance figures into this. But once the basic necessities of life are met, to help others with their moral development becomes a more pressing concern than, say, raising the minimum wage by 5%. Thus it is that, at least in better times, human beings have cooperated socially to produce libraries, museums, art, symphony orchestras, public parks, gardens, and so on.

Everything stated thus far here seems uncontroversial. These are basically common sense notions to which it would seem most people would agree, especially those well educated and with a moderate degree of ‘cultural literacy.’ Yet one would be hard pressed to find anything like an acknowledged consensus in the academic world, much less in popular culture, that would confirm that we all do share this view. (Such would not have been true 100, or even 50 years ago, when the suggestion that ‘we ought to culture ourselves’ would be taken as obvious.)

  1. Now we take things a step further, and enter a more controversial realm. That is to suggest that not only do human being have a soul, but that this soul immortal. We can neither prove nor disprove this proposition. That this premise seems a consistent feature of religion, and that human beings across cultures seem intent on having religion, must be taken as legitimate evidence in favor of the premise, even if it isn’t conclusive. Pascal’s wager-type reasoning might also be applied: if we do have an immortal soul, we would be very ill-advised to ignore the fact; and this far outweighs the potential disutility of incorrectly believing in an immortal soul. If this proposition is true, then, taken along with points 8 and 9 above, it has considerable bearing on our responsibility to help one another. This is difficult ground to safely navigate to be sure. For the sake of saving immortal souls the Catholic Church once tortured and burned heretics! But such distorted interpretations as this do not per se negate the principle that if human beings have immortal souls then this has important implications for our social duties to one another. Having mentioned this possibility, however, the remaining comments below will pertain only to the less controversial points 1–9 above.

A Secular Transcendental Humanism?

What is sought is a humanism that is both secular, in the sense that is suitable for use by civil institutions and is more or less universally agreed on within society, and transcendental, in the broad sense that it includes aspects of human nature that are not biological and material. To achieve this is by no means a remote possibility. In fact, we can refer to examples that already exist. Platonism is one such example. New England Transcendentalism — which in a sense is Platonism come to America — is another. New England Transcendentalism ought very much to interest us, inasmuch as (1) it was founded on, and remained closely connected with, the Renaissance and classical philosophical traditions of Europe, and (2) was very much a conscious and articulate reaction to modernism. This literature is especially strong in its treatment of the theme of self-culture as a moral imperative. (It’s really a pity that professional philosophers today do not give more respect to American Transcendentalist writings!)

Finally, in the writings Carl Jung, despite their frequent obscurity, one can find at least some elements of a secular transcendental humanism. Jung’s work offers a bridge between modern science and traditional religions. It makes no appeal to religious doctrine, but relies on scientific and empirical data to argue for the existence of a human soul that is real, nonmaterial, sacred, and incomprehensibly great. By no means would I suggest that Jung’s theories in themselves supply a new humanism; only that they supply some suggestions, and more importantly that they demonstrate the possibility of a philosophy that bridges the gap between science and religion.

To re-iterate what was initially said, I propose that there ought to be a conference dedicated to this theme. This wouldn’t be very hard to accomplish. I’m constantly surprised at how many books are published each year collecting papers presented at this or that philosophical conference, assembling teams of experts to address topics of much less moment.


Pope Francis. Address to the European Parliament. Strasbourg, France. 25 November 2014.

Pope Paul VI. Encyclical Letter. Populorum progressio (The development of peoples). Vatican City, 1967.

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical Letter. Sollicitudo rei socialis (The social concern).Vatican City, 1987.

Pope Benedict XVI. Encyclical Letter. Caritas in veritate (Charity in truth). Vatican City, 2009.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. Chicago, 1954 (repr. 2002).

































A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning even if we cannot at present say exactly what it is.

Here I would simply like to offer an example — a thought experiment, perhaps we could call it — that helps establish that human beings do have what can be properly called transcendent dignity.

Suppose, then, that some form of cosmic radiation were to kill all human beings on earth except one, but leaving all buildings, machines, plants and animals, etc., intact. Although this person would suffer aloneness, he or she would also be able to go anywhere and do anything. He or she could read every great book, see every magnificent building, painting, or sculpture, listen to every work of classical music ever recorded; visit every corner of the globe, see every magnificent spectacle of nature, learn about every animal and plant.   Let us add the further premise that this person could by some form of in vitro fertilization or cloning and advanced technology produce exactly one other human being to carry on after he or she died — so that the planet would always have one human being alive, and living the same kind of life.

What I propose is that the world would be a completely different and better place because of this one person. This single person would supply a depth and dignity to the world — a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual meaning — that would be absent otherwise.  Without this person the world might exist materially, but it would be spiritually and morally lifeless. In short, this example implies that the transcendent dignity of man is so great that a single human being is enough to supply moral, intellectual, and spiritual meaning to the entire universe!

The example also implies a moral mandate to give human beings the time, freedom, and opportunity to cultivate their higher nature. The hungry must be fed. But man does not live by bread alone. The European Parliament must also promote policies that allow man to nourish his soul.

A Transcendental Humanism

Plato-Aristotle-by-RaphaelSchool of Athens (detail)

school-of-athensSchool of Athens

I will also add that Pope Francis’ remarks about Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ were quite interesting.  They are worth quoting in full:

One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called “School of Athens.” Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

The future of Europe depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.

What the Pope is suggesting is a form transcendental humanism which integrates the spiritual and the material dimensions of man’s nature.  This philosophical view has a long history, and a name:  Idealism, or Platonic Idealism.   It also corresponds to the Integral or Idealistic cultural mentality described by Pitirim Sorokin.

It also needs to be clearly stated that modern humanism — which views man only in material and biological terms — does not affirm man’s dignity, but arguably reduces it.

Philosophers today, in Europe and elsewhere,  need to direct their attention to these issues.   As always, we must begin with a careful consideration of terms and definitions.   Conventionally a distinction has been made between a religious or spiritually based humanism on the one hand, and what is called secular humanism on the other.  This terminology immediately paints us into a corner, because it supposes that secular culture and institutions must exclude anything having to do with religion and spirituality.  But secular doesn’t actually mean non-spiritual — it only means, in this context, that which pertains to institutions that are public, universal, and not affiliated with particular religious institutions.  In other words, it is perfectly feasible to envisage a humanism that recognizes dimensions of human experience beyond the material, but which is public, universal, and suitable for incorporation into our civil and government institutions.  The actual contrast, then, is between a purely materialistic humanism — which defines man only in terms of biology and physical needs — and one that allows for elements of man’s nature which go beyond the merely material.

We can, in other words, have a humanism that is both secular and transcendent.  To articulate and develop such an integral humanism should be our goal.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet has made repeated pleas for a universal secular humanism based on such principles as compassion and social justice.  But this suggestion is not, at least as it has been generally interpreted, sufficiently distinct from a merely materialistic humanism: after all, other animals also have compassion for each other; there is nothing unique to man’s dignity in that he cares about the hunger and suffering of other members of his species.

Distinctly European is the Renaissance heritage of a humanism that is truly secular and transcendent.  This development came to a halt when Enlightenment rationalism pushed it aside.  Now that the perils of unbridled rationalism are evident, we must again seek the more balanced and integral view of man.  We can do this by re-examining Renaissance philosophy, and even more so the classical philosophical underpinnings of the Renaissance, especially Platonism.

Also noteworthy is that the theme of individual responsibility, which is easily undermined by state nannyism, has been repeatedly emphasized by papal communications.  For example, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio, states the following:

15. … Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation. He is helped, and sometimes hindered, by his teachers and those around him; yet whatever be the outside influences exerted on him, he is the chief architect of his own success or failure. Utilizing only his talent and willpower, each man can grow in humanity, enhance his personal worth, and perfect himself.

In 1987, marking the 20th anniversary of Populorum progression, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.  The encyclical was critical of the so-called liberation theology which seeks to improperly prioritize man’s material advancement ahead of his moral and spiritual advancement:

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man free, on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation. Human beings are totally free only when they are completely themselves, in the fullness of their rights and duties.



Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic

with 4 comments

IN a series of articles I’ve proposed that we should devote more effort to understanding Plato’s Republic as a psychological allegory. The table below summarizes interpretations of key elements of the Republic. The basic reasoning behind these, as previously described, is as follows:

  1. The Republic is mainly a work on individual psychology, morals, and religion. It is also a practical work, in that Plato aims to help readers advance in these areas. We agree with Hoerber (1944), Guthrie (1986), Waterfield (1993), Annas (1999), Blössner (2007) and others who suggest that any interests Plato may have had in political science are subordinate to these greater concerns of his. As Socrates states explicitly in 2.368d–369a and reminds of us frequently, the ideal city is presented as a conceptual tool that enables us to better understand the ‘politics’ our interior life.
  1. Plato succeeds in this because the human psyche can, in fact, be accurately likened to a commonwealth of citizens (the city-soul analogy). Modern psychology has confirmed this seminal insight of Plato. Psychic pluralism is recognized by dozens of modern personality theories (for reviews see Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010; see also Carter, 2008). Different theories give different names for these inner ‘citizens’: subselves, subpersonalities, complexes, schemas, ego states, potential selves, etc.; but for convenience we may select the term sub-ego as roughly meaning any or all of these things.
  1. We have a separate sub-ego associated with, at the very least, every one of our social roles, personal relationships, jobs, affiliations, projects, goals, hopes, plans, self-images, appetites and desires, passions and emotions, and so on. And these are only our conscious sub-egos. Nobody knows how many more ‘people’ there are within us operating at a sub- or unconscious level. Our psyche, therefore, may easily contain hundreds or thousands of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-egos of varying complexity, each vying to attain its interests.
  1. This commonwealth of the psyche — psychopolis — can be well or poorly governed, congenial or conflict-ridden, integrated or fragmented, harmonious or discordant (see e.g., Lester pp. 55−62, 77−80, 90f., 151f.; Rowan pp. 86, 89f. 92f., 200−206, 211−215). Plato’s aim in the Republic is to instruct us how to achieve a well-governed, harmonious psyche by a moral regimen he terms philosophia, the love of Wisdom.
  1. A major and distinctive feature of the Platonic system is that ethics and epistemology are inseparable. In a poorly integrated and conflicted soul-city, each sub-ego seeks only its own narrow interests. In a well-governed and integrated soul-city, each sub-ego looks to the good of all, as well as to its own interests. For example, in a vicious soul-city, a money-seeking sub-ego might seek to acquire wealth by questionable means, putting it into conflict with other sub-egos. Psychic harmony and integration result when sub-egos consult the innate moral sense (moral noesis; vision of the Good) and moderate their activity accordingly.
  1. The soul-city analogy supplies Plato with a metaphoric language that enables him to describe aspects of the structure and dynamics of the psyche for which other terms and concepts are inadequate. Many details of his model city would be impossible, absurd, or injurious to implement literally; we should instead understand these as metaphors that illustrate principles of the interior life. It is, for example, like telling someone, “I can’t find exact terms to describe how intelligent Sam is, but if intelligence were height he’d be 10 feet tall.” The analogy makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t mean that human beings are or can be 10 feet tall. Similarly when Plato describes implausible details of his theoretical city (e.g., a caste system, a ruling class, eugenics, common wives, that rulers should lie to citizens, etc.) we should not assume that he means them literally, but only as metaphors for psychological principles.

Table 1 supplies psychological interpretations for some of the key elements of the Republic. These should be understood as illustrative rather than certain or dogmatic. It is important in any case that allegorical interpretation be guided by an explicit theoretical foundation, to avoid imposing wrong and idiosyncratic meanings (a constant danger with this approach). Our guiding premise here is that Plato is concerned with the moral salvation of the individual — something we can assert with a fair degree of confidence by considering, among other things, his other works, the writings of later Platonists, and his cultural influence generally.

Table 1: Psychopolis

Plato’s Republic as Psychological Allegory

Figure Psychological Interpretation
The polis The community of ones psyche, personality, mind or soul; psychopolis
Citizens of the polis sub-egos, complexes, dispositions, etc.
Rulers Specialized sub-egos responsible for inner government; rational in nature.
Auxiliaries, soldiers Sub-egos concerned with protecting the ‘city’ from inner and outer threats, and enforcing laws of the rulers. These are also associated with: (1) seeking social recognition and honor, and (2) incensive passions like indignation and anger.
Artisans, workers Appetitive sub-egos concerned with gratifying desires, material gain, etc.
Sophists Sub-egos which deceive us with false reasoning, biased judgment, wishful thinking, etc.
Poets (of the bad sort) Like sophists, but associated with nonrational fancies, delusions, follies
Philosopher-king A special ruler sub-ego which seeks harmonization and integration of entire personality based on Wisdom, Virtue, and ones innate moral sense (vision of the Good)
Education of rulers Measures taken to develop the philosophical sub-ego(s): e.g., by dialectic, virtue, contemplation, music, etc.
Prisoners (Cave Allegory) Sub-egos ‘chained’ to faulty (distorted by self-interest) notions of goodness and associated false reasonings
Regimes Alternative systems by which psychopolis is governed
   Spartan/Cretan Natural, wholesome following of instinct; playful, childlike, spontaneous, innocent.
   Monarchy/Aristocracy Government by the best and most virtuous elements of ones soul
   Timocracy Rule by honor-seeking or self-righteous sub-ego(s); may lead to over-control and rebellion by appetitive sub-egos.
   Oligarchy Government by sub-egos concerned with material gain
   Democracy Short-sighted hedonism; ‘if it feels good, do it’; no consistent course.
   Tyranny Obsessive, destructive pursuit of single desire or appetite (e.g., addiction)
Men ‘Male’ elements of personality: logic; impersonal idealism; action and initiative; anger and aggression; the intellect.
Women ‘Female’ elements of personality: feelings, sensations; affections; the will.
Children Newly conceived sub-egos
Golden/Silver races Nobler (more virtuous, wise, authentic) sub-egos and thoughts
Bronze/Iron races Baser (less virtuous, etc.) sub-egos and thoughts
Intermarriage Sub-egos of differing nobility may interbreed, producing children of a mixed nature. We must test sub-egos to determine their quality, and cannot rely on pedigree alone to judge worthiness to be rulers.
Tyrant’s progress (Books 8 & 9) A non-virtuous regime tends to invite further weakening our virtue, wisdom, and discernment, so that the next regime is usually worse. There is a characteristic trajectory of decline through the regimes of aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. One may, however, avoid this descent by means of philosophia.
Reincarnation (Myth of Er) Like above; one personality structure succeeds another according to lawful principles. For example through neglect of virtue one may become an animal (i.e., irrational).   Improvement is also possible (cf. Phaedrus 248b−250c: a philosopher will fare well in the ‘next life.’)

While above we have considered how modern personality theory may inform our understanding of Plato’s Republic, it is the reverse question that is perhaps more important: what insights about psychology does this, the greatest philosophical book the West has produced, contain, and how may we apply them in fields like personality theory, counseling and psychotherapy, and cognitive science? This would seem at face value an enormously promising question. Is it just possible that the Republic supplies a bridge, as it were, between the ancient wisdom of humankind — the perennial philosophy — and the modern, scientific mind? Final judgment must await further study. However I believe the existing evidence is sufficient to warrant a much more concerted effort than we have yet seen for psychologists to study the Republic and Plato’s other works.  We may, however, make some preliminary conjectures. The Republic, at a minimum, may contribute to modern personality theory the following concepts:

  • There is a somewhat hierarchical structure to sub-egos; some are acquisitive and appetitive; others rule or govern; an intermediate class enforce ‘laws’ and protect the psychic community.
  • There is a natural telos or optimal end point for personality development and the organization of psychopolis. We are designed by nature to reach a point of harmonious mental integration. Therefore psychotherapy and counseling should seek to align themselves and cooperate with this natural process.
  • Human beings have an innate moral nature. Self-actualization is an inherently moral process. Traditional concepts of virtue, morality, religiosity, and even sin (moral error) cannot be dismissed, but rather need to be understood and included in modern personality theory.
  • Human beings have a mode of intellectual knowing above discursive reasoning. This is noesis: an immediate apprehension or ‘seeing’ of first principles of logic and mathematics, morality, and religion (Uebersax, 2013). Incorrect reasoning that originates from narrowly defined self-interest (egoism) is remedied by an ascent to noetic experience.
  • Plato, in effect, proposes a technology for achieving what Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) called peak and plateau experience and ‘Being‘.
  • There are several common regimes, better and worse, by which individuals govern the internal community. There are also common patterns of transitions from one regime to another. Vicious regimes tend to become more vicious.   Specific means are available (dialectic, contemplation, piety, ‘fair thoughts, true words, and good works’) by which one may progress from worse to nobler and better integrated regimes.


Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ch. 4, pp. 72–95), Ithaca, 1999.

Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Ed. G. R. F. Ferrari, The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ), Cambridge, 2007.

Carter, R. (2008) Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown.

Guthrie, William K. C. History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See e.g., pp. 434–435 & note on p. 561.)

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, 1971.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John. Higher Reason. Online report. Author website, 2013.

Uebersax, John. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Uebersax, John. Platonism as Psychotherapy. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Uebersax, John. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. (Introduction). Oxford, 1993 (repr. 1998).

rev. 30 Dec 2015