Cultural Psychology

Maslow and Platonism

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DIGGING into the writings of pioneer humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow it’s become clear that his Being-psychology — that is, his intensive investigation into the nature of self-actualizing people, and of peak and plateau experiences — was strongly influenced by Platonism  This has several important implications, and these will be addressed in subsequent articles.  The aim of this post is merely to document the connection using actual quotations from Maslow’s works, and hopefully to whet the appetite of Maslow fans for more.

As will be discussed later, this means we have two road-maps: Maslow’s and Plato’s, of the same terrain, and that’s very advantageous.

While Maslow was certainly influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions (e.g., Taoism and Zen Buddhism), careful attention to his works reveals an even stronger influence by Plato and the western philosophical tradition.  That this connection hasn’t gained much notice is probably due, at least in part, to the fact that few psychologists read Plato.  We need to fix that!

Note: sources are indicated with a two-letter acronym (see Bibliography for full title.)

I remember rereading Plato’s Republic, in which he stated that the ultimate good involves the contemplation of the ultimate values. What was so amazing was that I had found men and women in everyday life who were embracing, actually living, these ultimate values through their particular activities. {Abraham Maslow, UP 90-91}

For my theory is implying that in a certain sense, every newborn baby is a potential Plato. Every child has an instinctive need for the highest values of beauty, truth, justice, and so on. {Abraham Maslow, UP 95}

March 2, 1965. (Still sick at home with flu, etc.) Reading Republic. Socrates in Book IX talking about “the lawless, wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep.” “Then the wild beast within us — goes forth to satisfy his desires, & there is no conceivable folly or crime … not excepting incest, or any other unnatural union, or parricide, or the eating of forbidden food … which at such a time, when he has parted company with all shame & sense, a man may not be ready to commit.” Reminds me that I’ve never really worked up the relations of the Freudian id & the real self. It’s OK to reject neurosis on grounds that it is the rejection of real self. But this can’t be true for our wishes of sleep. My assumption is that these lawless wishes (absolutely selfish & undesirable in any society, especially since they include whatever happens to be locally forbidden too, like the ”forbidden food” above ) exist in the healthiest people too, & that therefore they are part of the real self, not external to it. They’re just  controlled, or laughed at, or shrugged away, & don’t constitute a serious temptation to the mature person. {Abraham Maslow, JA 125}

November 9, 1968. Then ask: why does truth heal? But is this the same as asking: why does beauty heal? (Or any other B-value?) Is this the same as Socrates & Plato talking about contemplation of the B-values as the ultimate happiness, the highest activity of man, etc.? {Abraham Maslow, JA 274}

January 14, 1970. Good extension of B-art, unitive cognition, etc. B. [Bertha, Maslow’s wife] complains that J. her teacher keeps trying to make her sculpture less realistic & representational. I was going to suggest calling it “magical realism,” & then I thought “symbol realism” or “unitive realism” would be better. It’s the difference between reduced-to-the-concrete realism & the portrait which is of a particular person, like the head of Ellen, & yet is also universal, & of a universal, of a B-symbol, i.e., of the Young Girl, any young girl seen Platonically, as in the B-analysis of male & female. Jeannie is a particular baby, but she is also Babyhood, the representative of a whole dais, of a Platonic idea. [J 1221 (= CL 245f.)]

I live so much in my private world of Platonic essences, having all sorts of conversations with Plato & Socrates and trying to convince Spinoza and Bergson of things & getting mad at Locke and Hobbes, that I only appear to others to be living in the world. {Abraham Maslow, FR (Preface), xx-xxi}

Any reader of Zen, Taoistic, or mystical literatures knows what I am talking about. Every mystic has tried to describe this vividness and particularity of the concrete object and, at the same time, its eternal, sacred, symbolic quality (like a Platonic essence). {Abraham Maslow, FR 111}

We must make a new vocabulary for all these untilled, these unworked problems. This “cognition of being” means really the cognition that Plato and Socrates were talking about; almost, you could say. a technology of happiness, of pure excellence, pure truth, pure goodness, and so on. Well, why not a technology of joy. of happiness? {Abraham Maslow, FR 169}

These in turn are good paths (not guaranteed, but statistically likely to be good paths) to the “cognition of being,” to the perceiving of the Platonic essences, the intrinsic values, the ultimate values of being, which in turn is a therapeutic-like help toward both the curing-of-sicknesses kind of therapy and also the growth toward self-actualization, the growth toward full humanness. {Abrham Maslow, FR 170}

If B-Values are as necessary as vitamins and love, and if their absence can make you sick, then what people have talked about for thousands of years as the religious or platonic or rational life seems to be a very basic part of human nature. {Abraham Maslow, FR 186}

I became a symbol; I stood for something outside my own skin. I was not exactly an individual. I was also a “role” of the eternal teacher. I was the Platonic essence of the teacher. {Abraham Maslow, FR 260}

After the insight or the great conversion, or the great mystic experience, or the great illumination, or the great full awakening, one can calm down as the novelty disappears, and as one gets used to good things or even great things, live casually in heaven and be on easy terms with the eternal and the infinite. To have got over being surprised and startled and to live calmly and serenely among the Platonic essences, or among the B-Values. {Abraham Maslow, FR 265}

The unitive perception is one in which — as I think the Zen people may have described it best — you sacralize the ordinary. I don’t know if that carries meaningfulness with it. In the person, preferably, but in a flower and tree — in anything — you can see its Platonic essence at the same time that you see it as itself, in the concrete sense. {Abraham Maslow, CL 226}


Cleary, Tom S. (1996). Abraham Maslow and the farther reaches of human nature: The plateau experience (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest. (9700510). Appendix C: UCLA Presentation (March, 1970). [CL]

Day, John L. (1974). Platonic essences utilized as models for Maslow’s peak experiences. Doctoral dissertation. U.S. International University.

Krippner, Stanley (1972). The plateau experience: A. H. Maslow and others. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 4(2), 107–120.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard J. Lowry, Wiley, 1999). [PB]

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993, ISBN: 0140194703). [FR]

Maslow, Abraham H. (1979). The journals of A. H. Maslow. Eds. Richard Lowry, Bertha G. Maslow. 2 vols.  Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1982). The journals of Abraham Maslow (abridged). Eds. Richard J. Lowry, Jonathan Freedman, Bertha G. Maslow. Lexington, MA: Lewis Publishing Co. [JA]

Maslow, Abraham H. (1996). Future visions: The unpublished papers of Abraham Maslow. Ed. Edward L. Hoffman. Thousand Oaks: Sage. [UP]

Uebersax, John.  (2014). The monomyth of fall and salvation.  Christian Platonism. 10 December 2014.  Accessed 28 June 2017.


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