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Aristotle: Contemplative Life is Divine and Happiest

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Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), The Acropolis at Athens

ARISTOTLE wrote two works on ethics (that we know of).  The greater of these has come down to us with the name Nicomachean Ethics — evidently either because he wrote it for his son, Nicomachus, or the latter edited the work.  In the Books 7 and 8, Aristotle explains the benefits of the Contemplative Life.  Book 7 gives several specific reasons why Contemplation (θεωρεία; theoreia) contributes uniquely to human happiness.

Perfect Happiness is that activity which most fully exercises the virtue of our best part. Our best part is Intellect, and its most virtuous exercise is Contemplation.

7. 1. [1177a11] But if happiness [εὐδαιμονία] consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the Intellect [νοῦς], or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine, or as being relatively the divinest part of us, it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already* that this activity is the activity of contemplation [θεωρητική].

Εἰ δ᾽ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾽ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία. ὅτι δ᾽ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται.

*Aristotle never stated this exactly, but in 6.7.2-3 said that Wisdom [σοφία] is the most perfect mode of knowledge. A wise person must have a true conception of unproven first principles and also know the conclusions that follow from them. “Hence Wisdom must be a combination of Intelligence [Intellect; νοῦς] and Scientific Knowledge [ἐπιστήμη]: it must be a consummated knowledge of the most exalted objects.”  Contemplation is that activity in which ones νοῦς intuits and delights in first principles.

Reasons why the Life of Contemplation is happiest: (1) contemplation is the activity of our highest part; (2) it is the most potentially continuous of our activities;

2. And that happiness consists in contemplation may be accepted as agreeing both with the results already reached and with the truth. For contemplation is at once the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects with which the intellect deals are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action.

ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)· ἔτι δὲ συνεχεστάτη· θεωρεῖν [τε] γὰρ δυνάμεθα συνεχῶς μᾶλλον ἢ πράττειν ὁτιοῦν.

(3) it is our most pleasant activity;

3. And again we suppose that happiness must contain an element of pleasure; now activity in accordance with wisdom is admittedly the most pleasant of the activities in accordance with virtue: at all events it is held that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom contains pleasures of marvellous purity and permanence, and it is reasonable to suppose that the enjoyment of knowledge is a still pleasanter occupation than the pursuit of it.

οἰόμεθά τε δεῖν ἡδονὴν παραμεμῖχθαι τῇ εὐδαιμονίᾳ, ἡδίστη δὲ τῶν κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ κατὰ τὴν σοφίαν ὁμολογουμένως ἐστίν· δοκεῖ γοῦν ἡ φιλοσοφία θαυμαστὰς ἡδονὰς ἔχειν καθαρειότητι καὶ τῷ βεβαίῳ, εὔλογον δὲ τοῖς εἰδόσι τῶν ζητούντων ἡδίω τὴν διαγωγὴν εἶναι.

(4) it requires only oneself;

4. Also the activity of contemplation will be found to possess in the highest degree the quality that is termed self-sufficiency [αὐτάρκεια]; for while it is true that the wise man equally with the just man and the rest requires the necessaries of life, yet, these being adequately supplied, whereas the just man needs other persons towards whom or with whose aid he may act justly, and so likewise do the temperate man and the brave man and the others, the wise man on the contrary can also contemplate by himself, and the more so the wiser he is; no doubt he will study better with the aid of fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient of men.

ἥ τε λεγομένη αὐτάρκεια περὶ τὴν θεωρητικὴν μάλιστ᾽ ἂν εἴη· τῶν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν ἀναγκαίων καὶ σοφὸς καὶ δίκαιος καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ δέονται, τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις ἱκανῶς κεχορηγημένων ὁ μὲν δίκαιος δεῖται πρὸς οὓς δικαιοπραγήσει καὶ μεθ᾽ ὧν, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ σώφρων καὶ ὁ ἀνδρεῖος καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἕκαστος, ὁ δὲ σοφὸς καὶ καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ὢν δύναται θεωρεῖν, καὶ ὅσῳ ἂν σοφώτερος ᾖ, μᾶλλον· βέλτιον δ᾽ ἴσως συνεργοὺς ἔχων, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως

(5) it is an end in itself;

5. [1177b1] Also the activity of contemplation may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake: it produces no result beyond the actual act of contemplation, whereas from practical pursuits we look to secure some advantage, greater or smaller, beyond the action itself.

δόξαι τ᾽ ἂν αὐτὴ μόνη δι᾽ αὑτὴν ἀγαπᾶσθαι· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς γίνεται παρὰ τὸ θεωρῆσαι, ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν πρακτικῶν ἢ πλεῖον ἢ ἔλαττον περιποιούμεθα παρὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν.

(6) it is the most leisured activity;

6. Also happiness is thought to involve leisure; for we do business in order that we may have leisure, and carry on war in order that we may have peace. Now the practical virtues are exercised in politics or in warfare; but the pursuits of politics and war seem to be unleisured — those of war indeed entirely so, for no one desires to be at war for the sake of being at war, nor deliberately takes steps to cause a war: a man would be thought an utterly bloodthirsty character if he declared war on a friendly state for the sake of causing battles and massacres. But the activity of the politician also is unleisured, and aims at securing something beyond the mere participation in politics — positions of authority and honor, or, if the happiness of the politician himself and of his fellow-citizens, this happiness conceived as something distinct from political activity (indeed we are clearly investigating it as so distinct).

δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι· ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν, καὶ πολεμοῦμεν ἵν᾽ εἰρήνην ἄγωμεν. τῶν μὲν οὖν πρακτικῶν ἀρετῶν ἐν τοῖς πολιτικοῖς ἢ ἐν τοῖς πολεμικοῖς ἡ ἐνέργεια, αἱ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα πράξεις δοκοῦσιν ἄσχολοι εἶναι, αἱ μὲν πολεμικαὶ καὶ παντελῶς (οὐδεὶς γὰρ αἱρεῖται τὸ πολεμεῖν τοῦ πολεμεῖν ἕνεκα, οὐδὲ παρασκευάζει πόλεμον· δόξαι γὰρ ἂν παντελῶς μιαιφόνος τις εἶναι, εἰ τοὺς φίλους πολεμίους ποιοῖτο, ἵνα μάχαι καὶ φόνοι γίνοιντο)· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἡ τοῦ πολιτικοῦ ἄσχολος, καὶ παρ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ πολιτεύεσθαι περιποιουμένη δυναστείας καὶ τιμὰς ἢ τήν γε εὐδαιμονίαν αὑτῷ καὶ τοῖς πολίταις, ἑτέραν οὖσαν τῆς πολιτικῆς, ἣν καὶ ζητοῦμεν δῆλον ὡς ἑτέραν οὖσαν.

7. If then among practical pursuits displaying the virtues, politics and war stand out preeminent in nobility and grandeur, and yet they are unleisured, and directed to some further end, not chosen for their own sakes: whereas the activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, [1177b20] and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure peculiar to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity: and if accordingly the attributes of this activity are found to be self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, and all the other attributes of blessedness: it follows that it is the activity of the intellect that constitutes complete human happiness—provided it be granted a complete span of life, for nothing that belongs to happiness can be incomplete.

εἰ δὴ τῶν μὲν κατὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς πράξεων αἱ πολιτικαὶ καὶ πολεμικαὶ κάλλει καὶ μεγέθει προέχουσιν, αὗται δ᾽ ἄσχολοι καὶ τέλους τινὸς ἐφίενται καὶ οὐ δι᾽ αὑτὰς αἱρεταί εἰσιν, ἡ δὲ τοῦ νοῦ ἐνέργεια σπουδῇ τε διαφέρειν δοκεῖ θεωρητικὴ οὖσα, καὶ παρ᾽ αὑτὴν οὐδενὸς ἐφίεσθαι τέλους, καὶ ἔχειν τὴν ἡδονὴν οἰκείαν (αὕτη δὲ συναύξει τὴν ἐνέργειαν), καὶ τὸ αὔταρκες δὴ καὶ σχολαστικὸν καὶ ἄτρυτον ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τῷ μακαρίῳ ἀπονέμεται, τὰ κατὰ ταύτην τὴν ἐνέργειαν φαίνεται ὄντα· ἡ τελεία δὴ εὐδαιμονία αὕτη ἂν εἴη ἀνθρώπου, λαβοῦσα μῆκος βίου τέλειον· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀτελές ἐστι τῶν τῆς εὐδαιμονίας.

(7) and it is the activity of the divine in human beings;

8. Such a life as this however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine; and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the exercise of the other forms of virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life. Nor ought we to obey those who enjoin that a man should have man’s thoughts and a mortal the thoughts of mortality, but we ought so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him;* for though this be small in bulk, [1178a1] in power and value it far surpasses all the rest.

* see Plato Timaeus 90b-c; cf. Theaetetus 176a-b.

ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἂν εἴη βίος κρείττων ἢ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον· οὐ γὰρ ᾗ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν οὕτω βιώσεται, ἀλλ᾽ ᾗ θεῖόν τι ἐν αὐτῷ ὑπάρχει· ὅσον δὲ διαφέρει τοῦτο τοῦ συνθέτου, τοσοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐνέργεια τῆς κατὰ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν. εἰ δὴ θεῖον ὁ νοῦς πρὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ὁ κατὰ τοῦτον βίος θεῖος πρὸς τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον. οὐ χρὴ δὲ κατὰ τοὺς παραινοῦντας ἀνθρώπινα φρονεῖν ἄνθρωπον ὄντα οὐδὲ θνητὰ τὸν θνητόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ὅσον ἐνδέχεται ἀθανατίζειν καὶ πάντα ποιεῖν πρὸς τὸ ζῆν κατὰ τὸ κράτιστον τῶν ἐν αὑτῷ· εἰ γὰρ καὶ τῷ ὄγκῳ μικρόν ἐστι, δυνάμει καὶ τιμιότητι πολὺ μᾶλλον πάντων ὑπερέχει.

(8) which is the true self. Therefore the Life of the Intellect is the happiest.

9. It may even be held that this is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself.

Moreover what was said before will apply here also: that which is best and most pleasant for each creature is that which is proper to the nature of each; accordingly the life of the intellect is the best and the pleasantest life for man, inasmuch as the intellect more than anything else is man; therefore this life will be the happiest.

δόξειε δ᾽ ἂν καὶ εἶναι ἕκαστος τοῦτο, εἴπερ τὸ κύριον καὶ ἄμεινον. ἄτοπον οὖν γίνοιτ᾽ ἄν, εἰ μὴ τὸν αὑτοῦ βίον αἱροῖτο ἀλλά τινος ἄλλου.

τὸ λεχθέν τε πρότερον ἁρμόσει καὶ νῦν· τὸ γὰρ οἰκεῖον ἑκάστῳ τῇ φύσει κράτιστον καὶ ἥδιστόν ἐστιν ἑκάστῳ· καὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δὴ ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος, εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος. οὗτος ἄρα καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατος.

So the Life of Contemplation is the happiest.  In 8.1-12, Aristotle gives further reasons we should prefer it.  These include that it needs little wealth and few external goods, animals don’t engage in Contemplation, and divine beings do. For the last reason he concludes in 8.13 that the person who lives for the Intellect must be dearest to the gods, and is therefore happiest.

8. 13. [1179a25] And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favors those men who esteem and honor this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest.

ὁ δὲ κατὰ νοῦν ἐνεργῶν καὶ τοῦτον θεραπεύων καὶ διακείμενος ἄριστα καὶ θεοφιλέστατος ἔοικεν. εἰ γάρ τις ἐπιμέλεια τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων ὑπὸ θεῶν γίνεται, ὥσπερ δοκεῖ, καὶ εἴη ἂν εὔλογον χαίρειν τε αὐτοὺς τῷ ἀρίστῳ καὶ συγγενεστάτῳ (τοῦτο δ᾽ ἂν εἴη ὁ νοῦς) καὶ τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας μάλιστα τοῦτο καὶ τιμῶντας ἀντευποιεῖν ὡς τῶν φίλων αὐτοῖς ἐπιμελουμένους καὶ ὀρθῶς τε καὶ καλῶς πράττοντας. ὅτι δὲ πάντα ταῦτα τῷ σοφῷ μάλισθ᾽ ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἄδηλον. θεοφιλέστατος ἄρα. τὸν αὐτὸν δ᾽ εἰκὸς καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατον· ὥστε κἂν οὕτως εἴη ὁ σοφὸς μάλιστ᾽ εὐδαίμων.

Sources

English: Rackham, H. (tr.). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed.  Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Greek: Bywater, J. (ed.) Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.

first draft: 15 Oct 2018

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Beyond the Pyramid. Being-Psychology: Maslow’s Real Contribution

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IT’S unfortunate — and perhaps ironic — that pioneer humanistic psychologist and the founder of positive psychology Abraham Maslow is today best known for his hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy will be familiar to most readers as the pyramid diagram found in all introductory psychology texts which places lower human needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) above higher needs like those for social affiliation and self-actualization.

It’s unfortunate because many people understandably balk at the suggestion that we have to have all material needs met before we can concern ourselves with being moral.  Ironic, because such a notion is far indeed from Maslow’s own beliefs and message.

To begin, then, let’s clear this up.  First, Maslow never used the pyramid diagram in any of his writings; this is an addition of later textbook writers.

Second, he didn’t intend the ‘hierarchy’ as an excuse for selfishness or delaying pursuit of higher needs; rather, he noted with considerable interest that there are people, like great reformers and saints, who are remarkable precisely because they subordinated material to altruism — and he implied that we all ought to emulate their example.  In other words, to the extent this hierarchy does exist, it is the condition of the fallen human race, and not how we should like it to remain.

Third, that people have basic drives for material needs is hardly a surprising or original suggestion;  the innovation of Maslow’s system is precisely that it includes higher needs at all — something surprisingly few psychologists were willing to admit when Maslow wrote.

Finally, Maslow proposed the hierarchy of needs relatively early in his career; over time he moved decisively towards a focus on higher needs; it is this emphasis which is clearly his greatest legacy.

Yet today, decades later, his legacy remains dimly understood and barely appreciated.  There are several reasons for this, including the emergence of a kind of  pseudo-positive psychology that in the 1990’s, using Maslow’s term yet ignoring him and his work.  But another reason is perhaps the regrettable tendency of human beings to latch onto a simplistic idea like a pyramid diagram and then rest there in the pretension of knowing something real and solid.

Rather than berate human folly (they very problem we’re trying to fix), let’s fight fire with fire.  That is, if we need a diagram to get a concept across, let’s supply a better one that expresses Maslow’s thought.  I propose one below.

mandala hires

The point is to give visual expression to Maslow’s real contribution, which is what he called Being psychology.  We can define Being-psychology in a number of ways.  At one level, it’s the psychology behind all the great religions and philosophies of the world — the perennial psychology.  It involves a transcendence of egoism and the inauthentic world of ‘seeming,’ and stepping into the reality of here and now fully alive: being fully in the world whilst simultaneously connected with the great Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Harmony, Love and Goodness. It is the psychology peak experiences, flow states, aesthetics, fulfillment, love and harmony.

Defined negatively, it is concerned with life free from anxieties, doubts, fears, anger and the other forms of negative cognition that oppose happy and fulfilling existence.  In short, Being-psychology is the psychology of life as we wish it to be; it is the aim of our life, what we strive for.

In future articles I’ll explain more about Being-psychology.  Here I simply wish to comment on its significance for the modern world and relevance to contemporary research.  One of the great merits of Maslow’s psychology — how it goes beyond traditional formulations of the perennial psychology like religion, Platonic Idealism and Transcendentalism — is that it is completely naturalistic.  Maslow, in fact, was more less an atheist. Yet he was convinced that all the great psychological and ethical teachings of the world’s religions are grounded in absolute truths of human nature.  He believed we are biologically designed and intended (perhaps by an intelligent universe) to be Idealists.  And unless we express this side of our nature we cannot be true to ourselves or attain to any great measure of happiness.

While not especially systematic in this thinking, Maslow was nonetheless extremely rationalistic, scientific and empirical.  His humanistic theories originated from analysis of answers to surveys and interviews he conducted.  Throughout his works he proposes practical testable hypotheses.  This empirical orientation means that Being-psychology supplies a bridge between science and religion. Maslow also considered the practical applications of Being-psychology and was especially concerned with applying it in industrial settings to improve worker satisfaction, morale and productivity.

Here then is a new way to look at Maslow’s theory: at the center of Philosophy, Religion, Science, and Culture, connecting them, and enabling ideas and discoveries to flow from one area to the others.  Let this much, then, serve as food for though and as an introduction to further posts.

References

Gruel, Nicole (2015). The plateau experience: an exploration of its origins, characteristics, and potential. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 47(1), 44−63.

Koltko-Rivera, Mark E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology 10(4), 302–317.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1965). Eupsychian management. Homewood, IL: Irwin (reprinted Wiley, 1998).

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. Ch. 6. Cognition of being in the peak experiences. (pp. 71−102)

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993). Ch. 9. Notes on Being-Psychology. pp. 121−142.

 

Maslow and Platonism

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abraham-maslow

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}

References

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.

Healthy and Unhealthy Communication Patterns Within the US Political Spectrum

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THE theme of this brief article (illustrated in the figure below) is to note a contrast between two political conditions of American society:

1. Positive condition (top): Moderates of left and right converse with each other, producing a fruitful exchange of ideas and gradual improvement in social policies and government.  This is, arguably, somewhat the situation of the US in the 1960’s.

2. Disordered condition (bottom): This corresponds to the present situation, where the political narrative is dictated by radicals on the left and right, with the majorities on both sides marginalized.

The system dynamics of these two scenarios are completely different.  In the healthy situation, there is a moral majority, spanning left and right — the members of which share certain fundamental moral premises about right and wrong and the direction society ought to head.  Within this moral majority, people on either side of the aisle may disagree, but they still recognize and affirm a greater sense of community that transcends specific differences of opinion. This system allows and promotes gradual social progress, because each side is interested in listening, reason, negotiation, compromise and respect of self and others.  Communication media (news, articles, books) are oriented to the moderate majority.  Example: in the 1960’s, Democrats and Republicans read the same magazines (Life,  Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post) and watched the same news programs; this helped (1) affirm a sense of community and shared values that transcend politics, and (2) allowed for examination of social issues along non-partisan lines.

In the disordered condition, extreme and radical factions on the left and right are elevated to functional leadership.   A false narrative is created which assumes that ‘radicals speak for everyone.’  Dissenters are censored, or ridiculed.  Extremely polarized communication media are used as a means to convey the false message that the radicals speak for everyone.  Radicals demonize opponents, and moderates in each camp are induced to dislike and hate moderates of the other camp for ideological reasons.  Anything that affirms the fundamental solidarity of all citizens (religion, tradition, fine arts) must be denigrated and ridiculed.

If this is a reasonable model of what’s going on, what can or should be done to correct things?

The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

Pitirim Sorokin’s Personality Theory

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Pitirim Sorokin is best known as a sociologist. However he also developed a fairly detailed and interesting theory of human personality. Unfortunately, no psychologists seem to be aware of this theory, even though it dovetails nicely with modern subpersonality theory (Lester, 1995, 2007; Rowan, 1990; Schwarz, 1995).

Sorokin first systematically presented his personality theory in 1947, in Society, Culture and Personality (Chs. 19 & 48). He revisited the theory in 1954 in The Ways and Power of Love (Chs. 5 & 6). It is the later version that we will consider here.

Sorokin didn’t like Freud’s personality model, and, in part, developed his own to remedy the deficiencies of Freud’s. It will be helpful, then, to begin discussion with a review of Freud’s model.

Freud’s Personality Model

Freud’s well-known personality model postulates three principle entities (Figure 1). First is the   id, which contains our instinctive, biological drives (food, aggression, sex, etc.). Because we are social organisms, such that to act on every instinctive drive would conflict with other human beings (who similarly wish to gratify their instinctive urges), society conditions us to certain norms, restrictions, and inhibitions. These taken collectively Freud calls the super-ego.

Freud's personality model

The id and the super-ego are in perpetual conflict. For instance, should one give in to an angry impulse to yell at an unruly teenager, or should restrain oneself and set a good example? To resolve such conflicts is the task of the third entity, the ego. In Freud’s model, the ego is the level at which we consciously operate most of the time, at least if we’re functioning healthily.

This simple model has become so engrained in our cultural consciousness that it’s easy to overlook some very serious problems with it. One is fairly subtle: Freud is almost sneaky in labeling the normative component of the scheme the super-ego. The adjective super suggests that it is somehow above the ego, but in reality it isn’t. It’s basically on the same level as biological instincts or id: merely an accident of the material world (in this case, the social world, which, in Freud’s materialistic theory, is simply a product of evolution and chance). The norms of Freud’s super-ego have no spiritual or ultimate moral basis; they are relative, and differ in each society. In some societies, for example, the super-ego may insist that it is right to aggress. The super-ego, in other words, is nothing like the traditional concept of a moral conscience; but by naming it as he does, Freud, whether intentionally or not, creates the illusion that it is more like moral conscience than it really is.

So the first criticism is that Freud’s model has no place for a genuinely transcendent dimension of the human psyche. Second, Freud is certainly mistaken in assuming that our normative social constraints are mere arbitrary conventions. Rather, many of our social inhibitions derive from genetically determined instincts. For example, parents nurture and protect their children not simply because society teaches these behaviors!. These are also familial instincts, found in other animals besides humans. Similarly, if we look carefully, we’ll see that many social inhibitions similarly derive from instincts: to act in a dignified way in public, to share in necessary work and not be lazy, to win the approval of others, etc.

A third criticism is that Freud’s model makes it look like we have only a single ego. This fails to account for the fact, fairly plainly evident, that we actually have many different egos. These egos come and go as circumstances change. We have a work ego, a play ego, a family ego, a citizen ego, a church ego, and so on. Importantly, these egos, or sub-egos as we may call them, may themselves conflict with one another. Indeed conflict among sub-egos is one of the most difficult aspects of our mental life, yet Freud’s theory doesn’t directly address them.

Sorokin’s Model

Figure 2 shows Sorokin’s personality model. Like Freud, Sorokin allows that we have biological drives and instincts. Unlike Freud, Sorokin argues that individual biological instincts may have their own ‘dedicated’ egos. For example, the aggression instinct may give rise to an aggression ego. Alternatively, we can call this a sub-ego, to acknowledge the fact that our ‘ego’ in general (the large circle) consists of many different sub-egos which may take charge of our actions at any given time. Biological instincts and biological sub-egos together comprise the realm of the bioconscious.

Sorokin's personality model

In a similar way, we have many different social instinct and drives. Some are innate (parenting instincts), and some are associated with cultural roles. These create unconscious pressures on us to behave in certain ways, and we develop social egos or sub-egos in order to do so. Our unconscious social drives/instincts, together with our socially-oriented sub-egos comprise what Sorokin called the socioconscious.

But in allowing that we have not one, but many (in fact, potentially a very large number) of alternative sub-egos, any of which may be ‘in charge’ at a given time, we are faced with a huge problem: how to decide which sub-ego should be in control. Freud largely ignores this problem, which is the very essence of the human condition and the problem of free will.

What in us chooses the operative sub-ego in the current situation? And by what criteria? Is this a skill which can be consciously developed, and if so, how? It would seem that this speaks directly to the art of living well, yet it’s absent in Freud’s mechanistic model of personality.

Using examples drawn from his impressive mastery of many fields, including philosophy, religion, history, and art, Sorokin argues that there is a level above the bioconscious and the socioconscious, which he calls the supraconscious. We could, if we wish, simply regard this as a “black box”: an unknown entity whose existence is inferred from considerable empirical evidence (such as the reality of artistic genius), but the exact nature of which we are ignorant. Alternatively, we could allow that this is the traditional conscience or higher Reason which traditional religions claim human beings possess. Mostly either view is compatible with Sorokin’s theory. The important point is that there is something within us, a deep moral sense, which guides our actions. Thus, unlike as with Freud’s model, there is something outside and truly above ego which guides ego’s choices. (A major practical problem with Freud’s model is that, by failing to teach people that they have a moral conscience, they fail to direct their attention to it, and might as well not have it!)

We should mention that for Sorokin the supraconscious is oriented to love, understood as a universal principle and a transcendent fact of the universe. Sorokin ‘mysticism’ in this regard is very rational, and well connected with established philosophical and religious traditions of humankind. Nevertheless he showed a great deal of courage and integrity in insisting the love be taken seriously by scientists — and this uncompromising position certainly contributed to his lack of popularity in his own time and since.

Sorokin’s Model Revised

Sorokin’s interests in personality theory were clearly subordinate to his greater interests in sociology and culture. Partly for that reason, many details of his personality theory are not completely elaborated, some important features remain only implicit. Here I’d like to sketch a slightly more complex version that articulates some of these implicit principles. Figure 3 shows the revised model.

Sorokin's personality model extended

The concept of ego pluralism, and the bioconscious and socioconscious levels remain as with Sorokin’s explicit formulation. The first innovation is to divide the supraconscious realm into a non- or unconscious (abbreviated ucs.) component, and various conscious egos which act on intuitions and inspirations supplied by this higher unconscious. For simplicity we call these the religious (sub-)egos, but understand them to include a variety of sub-egos associated with moral growth, spiritual development, artistic creativity, and the like. That is, we use the word religious here in a very broad way to mean all that by which we re-connect (religio) ourselves with ourselves — i.e., with attainment of inner harmony, integrity, individuation, etc. Regardless of what we call them, just as we have multiple biological sub-egos and multiple social sub-egos, it’s fairly clear that we have multiple religious/moral/creative sub-egos as well. (For example, I have a yoga sub-ego, a Christian sub-ego, and a Roman Catholic sub-ego, and so on.)

In addition, Figure 3 postulates the existence of a unique, central sub-ego, whose responsibility it is to decide which sub-ego — be it religious, biological, or social — is in charge at any given time. Initially we can call this the governing ego, although the Greek term hegemonikon suggests itself as an appropriate term. One main implication of this model is precisely that for optimal personality integration a person must develop a hegemonikon sub-ego in the first place (this might not happen by default, but may require conscious effort and special education), and, secondly, the hegemonikon must become skilled at what it does.

I would propose that one form of effective hegemonikon is what we could call the philosopher sub-ego. That is, at some point in personality development, at least if all goes well, a person realizes that they need an inner philosopher to guide them through life. This is a momentous event, and in a sense marks the boundary between psychological childhood and adulthood. Without going to far into it here, I would propose that what Plato is seeking to do in his writings is precisely this: to awaken within readers the realization that they need such a guiding sub-ego, and that the best form this can take is that of a “lover of Wisdom” — a philosopher sub-ego in the truest sense. This sub-ego becomes a new fixture of the personality and then helps guide psychic integration and growth.

That all for now. I’m not invested in this model, but it does seem scientifically plausible and consistent with certain empirical and literary evidence. Whether I’ll allude to it again remains to be seen. In any case, now it is available for reference. It may prove useful in further explorations of psychological symbolism in the Bible.

But at the very least we’ve given Sorokin credit for his valuable innovations as a personality theorist.

References

Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Lester, David. A Subself Theory of Personality. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.

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

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Sorokin, Pitirim A. Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics. New York, 1947 (repr. 1962).

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Ways and Power of Love. 1954 (repr.: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What is American Transcendentalism?

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EmersonThoreau2

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

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers