Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Beyond Hedonism by Abraham Maslow - insightfully kicks the can further down the road, but still with no understanding of his necessary destination

This is not a direct quote but has been lightly-edited from The Psychology of Happiness by Abraham Maslow, 1964 - Published in Future Visions, 1996 pages 22-3.


The hedonistic definition of happiness is false, for real happiness necessarily implies difficulties.

For example it is a privilege to undergo the 'misery' of creativity, even the related insomnia and tension. It is a privilege to have children to weep over because of their troubles, rather than to have no children at all. It is a privilege to love family members and friends, even though doing so inevitably means to suffer all their pain in addition to your own.

Indeed, these situations are infinitely better than the misery of being wholly alone in life. We must therefore define 'good living' and happiness to include these 'misery privileges'.


For instance, Beethoven was tortured over his music; yet who would not want to be a Beethoven? Or, more exactly, who would renounce the privilege of creating eternal music merely to avoid the transitory pain of creativity?

After all it is probably possible to avoid all problems in life, and to lead a cow-like existence of tranquillity and peace without sweat of any kind! This (or something much like it) can easily be accomplished by having a pre-frontal lobotomy or perpetually ingesting alcohol, narcotics or tranquillizers...

We must therefore do our best to learn to appreciate the 'miseries of the higher life' including the real (not pseudo) problems of love and creativity. This is possible if we place them in the widest gestalt of our former, present and future life span, juxtapose them with the problems of other people, and take a perspective from the entire cosmos.

Then these real but wholesome problems take their appropriate place, and it becomes possible to experience the paradox of 'enjoying' the miseries of the higher life.

Life is not really life without these anyway. Empty sleep and dullness are not living.


Human nature always involves seeking better and better Heavens. We must abandon our search for never-ending contentment and serenity.

For example, consider the risks entailed in having a baby. We will worry about it beforehand. The baby might be born handicapped, sick or stillborn. The question is legitimately raised: Why buy this misery?

The same applies to falling in love or getting married: Why buy problems? Why buy trouble?

Yet such an attitude is self-deluding and a sure path towards unhappiness in life.

The most truly-fulfilled people (self-actualizers) gladly accept such 'troubles'; and indeed such 'troubles' are wonderful in comparison to the genuine miseries of boredom, loneliness and an empty, stultified life. Feeling emptiness inside is much worse than the complexities, including the miseries, of friendship and love.
To worry over something worthwhile is a state far better than having nothing and no one to worry about at all.


Here, for me, is the great value and also the frustrating incompleteness of Abraham Maslow. The above is a profound and intuitive insight into human psychology. Here is an appreciation of the value and need for love and creativity as primary goals in life - yielding a perspective in which problems and miseries can be seen in context for these primary goals. Maslow clearly knows this for a truth.

Here too is a vision of human life as an open-ended, progressing, striving and overcoming the intrinsic 'opposition in all things', seeking better and better Heavens (a view which must resonate positively with Mormons in particular).

Yet it also requires, and indeed begs for, completing in a metaphysical and ultimate view of life, the universe and everything which explains the value of love and creativity.

Maslow comes so close here (and elsewhere) to a recognition that he must - for the sake of cohesion and completion - take the further step into an actual religion; and that presumably Orthodox Judaism - his birth religion - or Christianity. But Maslow retained throughout his (relatively short) life the attitude of "anything-but Judaism/ Christianity" - an attitude so common, indeed prevalent, among intellectuals of the twentieth century and beyond. Maslow was pretty much open to any world view except these.

He had reasons, including some good reasons, for rejecting Judaism and Christianity as he understood them - but he never applied his searching, critical, discriminative intelligence to religion in the way he did to other things.

Maslow was in fact eager to reject Judeo-Christianity; hence lazy and slapdash about the validity and necessity of his reasons for rejecting them.

But suppose Maslow had lived-out his three-score years and ten; even perhaps as an invalid? Suppose he had become confronted in his daily life by the reality (so much more easily deniable in early life) of his own weakness, mortality, dependence, contingency? Might he then have recognized what his whole system implied? How it cried-out-for, demanded, completion in religion?

I think he very well may have done. Such things have, I believe, happened to many others. This is, indeed, one of the greatest potential values from living into old age, from sickness, including even from the earlier stages of dementia.  



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

It's interesting that you say Maslow was open to anything except Judaism and Christianity -- because the passage you quote certainly reads as if it were specifically and deliberately anti-Buddhist. Maslow expresses, much more effectively than I could myself, my own reasons for rejecting Buddhism as fundamentally anti-human. Christianity, though, with its iconic image of a tortured God, seems much more consonant with Maslow's point of view.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Well, that is sort-of my point. Almost everything about Maslow's work pointed towards completion in Judaism or Christianity; but the work itself is predicated on the assumption that these have been superceded, will not work in modern conditions, are (necessarily and intrinsically) characterized by dogmatic unmystical simple-minded literalism and hypocritical manipulation (etc).