Maslow hierarchy

Perhaps one of the most familiar psychological ideas of our time is the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and the most familiar form of the exposition of the hierarchy of needs is that of a pyramid resting on a broad base of physiological needs, culminating with self-actualization at the peak of the pyramid.

In one of Maslow’s briefest expositions of the hierarchy of needs he wrote:

“Man is a hierarchy of needs, with the biological needs at the base of the hierarchy and the spiritual needs at the top.”

Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 186

To fully appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his humanistic pyschology which serves as the conceptual framework of the hierarchy of needs, all of this must be understood in comparison to (and indeed in contradistinction to) the tradition of Freudian psychodynamic psychology, which, when Maslow was writing, was the dominant school of thought in psychology.

Freud began as a physician, and approached the human psyche as a physician. “Success” in Freudian psychology is formulated in the most minimal and modest way imaginable — this is the famous idea that, “…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (cf. From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness). Freud did not focus on what makes an individual mentally healthy, but on treating specific pathologies. Patients came to him with problems, and he tried to cure them. The cure was considered efficacious if the patient was relieved of their neurotic misery and returned to a condition of ordinary human unhappiness.

Maslow had something very different in mind. His systematic works like The Psychology of Being don’t focus on the treatment of specific pathologies but instead seek to understand and define the human person in its optimal state of being, especially in relation to “peak experiences” and self-fulfillment. Ordinary human unhappiness is not good enough for Maslow; he wants to see the healthy individual converge upon a state of psychological self-actualization in which the highest spiritual goods are realized and personal fulfillment is achieved.

All of this sounds wonderfully inspirational, but I am deeply troubled with the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the same way that I am deeply suspicious of Erikson’s stages of personality development. There is a perennial human tendency (perhaps rooted in a cognitive bias) to mistake (or even to twist) a description into a prescription, transforming an analysis into a norm. Thus one might say that if you aren’t experiencing the particular psychosocial crisis that Erikson has defined for the stage of life in which you find yourself at present, then there is obviously something wrong with you and that you aren’t developing naturally or normally. Similarly, it might be asserted that if you are not going about clambering up the hierarchy of needs in an orderly and linear fashion, starting with the satisfaction of your physiological needs and gradually working your way up to spiritual self-actualization, then there is something wrong with you, and you need to start over and get it right next time.

One cannot, of course, blame Maslow or Erickson for he dumbed-down versions of their ideas that have filtered into mass consciousness by way of simplified expositions in the mass media, but there are insidious assumptions built into the hierarchy of needs (and, for that matter, Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development) that are intrinsic even to the most refined and sophisticated expositions.

Let me start with something basic — something drawn from the most fundamental physiological human needs. Even if you are tired, hungry, thirsty, and cold, if you see a violent mob moving in your direction you are going to run the other way to keep yourself alive, despite your immediate physiological needs. While these physiological needs are the basis of human well being, I can’t imagine Maslow telling someone about to be murdered by a mob that they ought to get something to eat and drink, put on more layers of clothing, and then get a good night’s rest before running to save their lives. This is the reductio ad absurdum of the hierarchy of needs, and such an observation in no way vitiates the overall scheme, insofar as any general scheme must admit of exceptions.

If that were all, appropriate exceptions could be built into the hierarchy of needs to accommodate immediate exigencies, but that isn’t all. The very idea that our moral life is a distant and expensive luxury that occurs at a peak of self-fulfillment and self-actualization (perhaps reserved for exemplary individuals) is so profoundly misleading that it falsifies what it means to be human.

Let us consider another example. If you find yourself isolated, without friends or family, and thus lacking all the components of love and belonging — and, to formulate this even more strongly, perhaps you see no way whatsoever of lifting yourself out of this isolation — and you use this isolation to focus on the fulfillment of a higher creative or moral calling (instead of fruitlessly expending your energies trying to fulfill this level of the hierarchy of needs, in order to move up to the next level in an orderly and purposeful manner), is your flaunting of the hierarchy of needs a sign of your pathology?

Some of the greatest works of art in human history, the pinnacle of achievement of what would ordinarily be thought of as the work of exemplary individuals, have grown out of circumstances that seem to pervert every assumption built into the hierarchy of needs. Certainty there is sense in which the construction of great communal projects such as the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral, or the Taj Mahal rest on an established material and intellectual framework which is the civilizational equivalent of physiological needs, but the hierarchy of needs was formulated to describe individual psychology and not the functioning of exemplary civilizations (though it may be applicable to this also, mutatis mutandis). Certainly in some individuals we see a progressive fulfillment of needs from the physiological to the intellectual, but I don’t think that this is an adequate, or even a fair, portrayal of the further reaches of human nature.

I have often said that, “…I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing.” (cf. Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). Taking this as the basis for all else that follows from this experience of the human condition, it is in this sense that I have used “raison d’être” as the foundation of an inverted hierarchy of needs (see illustration below). From the individual’s raison d’être at the foundations of an inverted hierarchy of needs there follows, in perfectly reverse order, the fulfillment of emotional and psychological drives eventually building up to the final satisfaction of physical drives and needs.

While it is true that if you do not have air you will die within minutes, and if you do not have water you will die within days, such immediate exigencies can be compared to the immediate exigencies noted above in relation to Maslow’s formulation of a hierarchy of needs: the existence of these immediate contingencies in no way vitiate the overall scheme. An inverted hierarchy of needs admits of certain exceptions. Granted these exceptions, I find this to be a more accurate depiction of actual human experience than Maslow’s version.

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Maslow hierarchy inverted

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A revised and expanded version of this can be found at Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Revised and Expanded, as well as two addenda, Addendum on Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Another Addendum on the Moral Psychology of Needs.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Genocidal Species

15 March 2014



Homo sapiens is the genocidal species. I have long had it on my mind to write about this. I have the idea incorporated in an unpublished manuscript, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day, so I will give a brief exposition here. What does it mean to say that Homo sapiens is the genocidal species (or, if you prefer, a genocidal animal)?

Early human history is a source of controversy that exceeds the controversy over the scientific issues at stake. It is not difficult to understand why this is the case. Controversies over human origins are about us, what we are as a species, notwithstanding the obvious fact that we are in no way limited by our past, and we may become many things that have no precedent in our long history. Moreover, the kind of evidence that we have of human origins is not such as to provide us with the kind of narrative that we would like to have of our early ancestors. We have the evidence of scientific historiography, but no poignant human interest stories. In so far as our personal experience of life paradoxically provides the big picture narrative by which we understand the world (a point I tried to make in Kierkegaard and Futurism), the absence of a personal account of our origins is an ellipsis of great consequence.

To assert that humanity is a genocidal species is obviously a tendentious, if not controversial, claim to make. I make this claim partly because it is controversial, because we have seen the human past treated with excessive care and caution, because, as I said above, it is about us. We don’t like to think of ourselves has intrinsically genocidal in virtue of our biology. Indeed, when a controversial claim such as this is made, one can count on such a claim being dismissed not on grounds of evidence, or the lack thereof, but because it is taken to imply biological determinism. According to this reasoning, an essentialist reading of our history shows us that we are genocidal, therefore we cannot be anything other than genocidal. Apart from being logically flawed, this response misses the point and fails to engage the issue.

Yet, in saying that man is a genocidal species, I obviously making an implicit reference to a long tradition of pronouncing humanity to be this or that, as when Plato said that man is a featherless biped. This is, by the way, a rare moment providing a glimpse into Plato’s naturalism, which is a rare thing. There is a story that, hearing this definition, Diogenes of Sinope plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato’s Academy, saying, “Here is Plato’s man.” (Perhaps he should have said, “Ecce homo!”) This, in turn, reveals Diogenes’ non-naturalism (as uncharacteristic as Plato’s naturalism). Plato is supposed to have responded by adding to his definition, “with broad, flat nails.”

Aristotle, most famously of all, said that man is by nature a political animal. This has been variously translated from the Greek as, “Man is by nature an animal that lives in a polis,” and, “Man is by nature a social animal.” This I do not dispute. However, once we recognize that homo sapiens is a social or political animal (and Aristotle, as the Father of the Occidental sciences, would have enthusiastically approved of the transition from “man” to “homo sapiens”), we must then take the next step and ask what exactly is the nature of human sociability, or human political society. What does it mean for homo sapiens to be a political animal?

If Clausewitz was right, political action is one pole of a smoothly graduated continuum, the other pole of which is war, because, according to Clausewitz, war is the continuation of policy by other means (cf. The Clausewitzean Continuum). This claim is equivalent to the claim that politics is the continuation of war by other means (the Foucauldian inversion of Clausewitz). Thus war and politics are substitutable salve veritate, so that homo sapiens the political animal is also homo sapiens the military animal.

I don’t know if anyone has ever said, man is a military animal, but Freud came close to this in a powerful passage that I have quoted previously (in A Note on Social Contract Theory):

“…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”

Is it unimaginable that it is this aggressive instinct, at least in part, that made in possible for homo sapiens to out-compete every other branch of the hominid tree, and to leave itself as the only remaining hominid species? We are, existentially speaking, El último hombre — the last man standing.

What was the nature of the competition by which homo sapiens drove every other hominid to extinction? Over the multi-million year history of hominids on Earth, it seems likely that the competition among hominids likely assumed every possible form at one time or another. Some anthropologists that observed a differential reproductive success rate only marginally more fertile than other hominid species would have, over time, guaranteed our demographic dominance. This gives the comforting picture of a peaceful and very slow pace of one hominid species supplanting another. No doubt some of homo sapiens’ triumphs were of this nature, but there must have also been, at some time in the deep time of our past, violent and brutal episodes when we actively drove our fellow hominids into extinction — much as throughout the later history of homo sapiens one community frequently massacred another.

A recent book on genocide, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Persepctive (edited by ROBERT GELLATELY, Clark University, and BEN KIEMAN Yale University), is limited in its “historical perspective” to the twentieth century. I think we must go much deeper into our history. In an even larger evolutionary framework than that employed above, if we take the conception of humanity as a genocidal species in the context of Peter Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, according to which life itself is biocidal, then humanity’s genocidal instincts are merely a particular case (with the added element of conscious agency) of a universal biological imperative. Here is how Ward defines his Medea Hypothesis:

Habitability of the Earth has been affected by the presence of life, but the overall effect of life has been and will be to reduce the longevity of the Earth as a habitable planet. Life itself, because it is inherently Darwinian, is biocidal, suicidal, and creates a series of positive feedbacks to Earth systems (such as global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane content) that harm later generations. Thus it is life that will cause the end of itself, on this or any planet inhabited by Darwinian life, through perturbation and changes of either temperature, atmospheric gas composition, or elemental cycles to values inimical to life.

Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 35

Ward goes on to elaborate his Medea Hypothesis in greater detail in the following four hypotheses:

1. All species increase in population not only to the carrying capacity as defined by some or a number of limiting factors, but to levels beyond that capacity, thus causing a death rate higher than would otherwise have been dictated by limiting resources.

2. Life is self-poisoning in closed systems. The byproduct of species metabolism is usually toxic unless dispersed away. Animals pro- duce carbon dioxide and liquid and solid waste. In closed spaces this material can build up to levels lethal either through direct poisoning or by allowing other kinds of organisms living at low levels (such as the microbes living in animal guts and carried along with fecal wastes) to bloom into populations that also produce toxins from their own metabolisms.

3. In ecosystems with more than a single species there will be competition for resources, ultimately leading to extinction or emigration of some of the original species.

4. Life produces a variety of feedbacks in Earth systems. The majority are positive, however.

Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 35-36

The experience of industrial-technological civilization has added a new dimension to hypothesis 2 above, as industrial processes and their wastes have been added to biological processes and their wastes, leading to forms of poisoning that do not occur unless facilitated by civilization. Moreover, a corollary to hypothesis 3 above (call is 3a, if you like) might be formulated such that those species within an ecosystem that seek to fill the same niche (i.e., that feed off the same trophic level) will be in more direct competition that those species feeding off distinct trophic levels. In this way, multiple hominid species that found themselves in the same ecosystem would be trying to fill the same niche, leading to extinction or emigration. Once homo sapiens achieved extensive totality in the distribution of the species range, however, there is nowhere else for competitors to emigrate, so if they are out-competed, they simply go extinct.

Ward was not the first to focus on the destructive aspects of life. I have previously quoted the great biologist Ernst Haeckel, who defined ecology as the science of the struggle for existence (cf. Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated), and of course in the same vein there is the whole tradition of nature red in tooth and claw. Such visions of nature no longer hold the attraction that they exercised in the nineteenth century, and such phrases have been criticized, but it may be that these expressions of the deadly face of nature did not go far enough.

There is a sense in which all life if genocidal, and this is the Medean Hypothesis; what distinguishes human beings is that we have made genocide planned, purposeful, systematic, and conscious. The genocidal campaigns that have punctuated modern history, and especially those of the twentieth century, represent the conscious implementation of Medean life. We knowingly engage in genocide. Genocide is now a policy option for political societies, and in so far as we are political animals all policy options are “on the table” so to speak. It is this that makes us the uniquely genocidal species.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Plotinus according to the early modern imagination, from the Nuremburg Chronicle.

Plotinus is remembered as among the most otherworldly of philosophers, far more concerned with the eternal than the temporal. His biographer, Porphyry, famously said that he seemed embarrassed to have a body, and that, “So deeply rooted was this feeling that he could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace.” But Porphyry also relates an interesting story about Plotinus’ early years:

“Despite his general reluctance to talk of his own life, some few details he did often relate to us in the course of conversation. Thus he told how, at the age of eight, when he was already going to school, he still clung about his nurse and loved to bare her breasts and take suck: one day he was told he was a ‘perverted imp’, and so was shamed out of the trick.”

Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 3

So at the age of eight, Plotinus was still being breast fed. This is an odd detail to be preserved from a man who, “could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace,” but perhaps a telling detail.

Freud opened his famous essay Civilization and its Discontents with a discussion of his correspondence with Romain Rolland about what Rolland thought that Freud had missed in his The Future of an Illusion. Rolland agreed with Freud on religion, but he still thinks that Freud has missed the point. For Rolland, the point that Freud missed is a feeling that Rolland has that he called the oceanic feeling, which Rolland identified as the “true source” of religion. Freud responded to this: “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings.” (I discussed this previously in Algorithms of Ecstasy.)

Romain Rolland thought that Freud's The Future of an Illusion had missed the point, and that religion has its origins in an "experience of eternity" that he called the "oceanic experience".

Though Freud could not discover the oceanic feeling in himself, he made a brave effort at a psychoanalytical explanation of what Rolland described to him:

“An infant at the breast does not at yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him. He gradually learns to do so, in response to various promptings. He must be very strongly impressed by the fact that some sources of excitation, which he will later recognize as his own bodily organs, can provide him with sensations at any moment, whereas other sources evade him from time to time — among them what he desires most of all, his mother’s breast — and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object,’ in the form of something which exists ‘outside’ and which is only forced to appear by a special action. A further incentive to a disengagement of the ego from the general mass of sensations — that is, to the recognition of an ‘outside,’ an external world — is provided by the frequent, manifold and unavoidable sensations of pain and unpleasure the removal and avoidance of which is enjoined by the pleasure principle, in the exercise of its unrestricted domination.”

Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, pp. 13-14

Freud goes on like this for a page and a half — it is well worth it to consult the original text and read it all for yourself, but I didn’t feel like typing it all out right now — and comes to this speculative conclusion:

“Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive — indeed, an all-embracing — feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it… the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe — the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the ‘oceanic’ feeling.”

Ibid., p. 15

Thus Freud makes a connection between an infantile experience of absolute union with the world and a vaguely religious feeling of union with the world. I am not endorsing this view of Freud, which I think continues to miss the point which Rolland was trying to make to Freud, but this was Freud’s typical manner of proceeding: psychodynamic, reductionist, and positivistic. I wouldn’t have expected anything more or anything less from Freud.

But even if I don’t find Freud’s explanation of the oceanic feeling (which I, like Freud, cannot find in myself) to be adequate, it certainly is compelling, and it becomes even more compelling when placed in the context of Plotinus’ rather late weaning. If Plotinus did in fact continue to suckle for a rather longer period of life than most infants, well beyond infancy into childhood, one might speculate either that he felt this bond with limitlessness in suckling and was attracted if not fascinated by the feeling, or that his being accustomed to this pleasure with its component of being intimately connected to the nurturing body of the world, and its continuation into later childhood and its subsequent deprivation within a time continuous with memory into adulthood, may have prompted Plotinus to seek an alternative source of the same feeling.

There is no question that, as a philosopher, Plotinus was preoccupied with eternity, and Freud relates that Rolland also called the oceanic feeling “a sensation of ‘eternity’.” Plotinus’ Enneads are filled with reflections upon and even exhortations upon eternity and the eternal. Whatever the etiology of Plotinus’ sensation of eternity, it seems clear that it was vividly felt, and an important component of his experience that he felt called for philosophical explication.

The Third Ennead, Seventh Tractate, is devoted to the question of time and eternity. Plotinus defines eternity thus:

“That which neither has been nor will be, but simply possesses being; that which enjoys stable existence as neither in process of change nor having ever changed — that is Eternity. Thus we come to the definition: the Life — instantaneously entire, complete, at no point broken into period or part — which belongs to the Authentic Existent by its very existence, this is the thing we were probing for — this is Eternity.”

Plotinus, Enneads, 3.7.3

This definition of eternity is deeply embedded in Plotinian metaphysics, and no small gloss would be needed to adequately explicate its elements. But immediately before this definition, in the same section, we find this somewhat less metaphysically embedded passage on eternity:

“We know it as a Life changelessly motionless and ever holding the Universal content (time, space, and phenomena) in actual presence; not this now and now that other, but always all; not existing now in one mode and now in another, but a consummation without part or interval. All its content is in immediate concentration as at one point; nothing in it ever knows development: all remains identical within itself, knowing nothing of change, for ever in a Now since nothing of it has passed away or will come into being, but what it is now, that it is ever.


This passage has some affinities to Freud’s psychodynamic interpretation: clearly it evokes the limitlessness, that lack of barriers between self and world, that Plotinus, Rolland, and Freud alike sought to explain, after a fashion — consummation without part or interval. We may wonder if this “consummation,” which suggests other consummations of unions that are to become important later in life, but which Freud himself sought even in the earliest period of infancy, is the masculine counterpart of the penetrative mysticism that we find in Teresa of Avila.

Saint Teresa of Avila elaborated a uniquely penetrative mysticism.

A Freudian interpretation of Plotinus could be called a human, all-too-human form of eternity, except that I suspect that the experience that Freud describes is common to most large-brained mammals — in other words, this is something more than and beyond the human, all-too-human. It is animal, all-too-animal. That the human experience of eternity should be an expression of our animal nature coincides with the point that I attempted to argue in Nietzsche on Sexuality, that there is a unity of that which we have believed to be most bestial in our character and that which we have heretofore believed to be ideal and edifying, this tells us something about what we are. We are not divided between a bestial element and a celestial element; we are one and whole.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Freud has been variously quoted as saying that psychoanalysis could treat hysterical or neurotic misery, but that it could not treat ordinary human unhappiness. The most a patient of psychoanalytic therapy could hope for was deliverance from the neurotic misery; pscyhoanalysis, in the words of a famous novel, does not promise you a rose garden. This comes from the concluding paragraph of Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, which has been translated many times, hence the varying words of the quotation:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

Freud, Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey

The DSM — the official go-to guide for mental disorders — has eliminated the classification of “neurosis”, and “hysteria” is a term held in even greater suspicion given its past usage. Both were crucial terms for Freud, but it is difficult to find an authoritative definition of terms no longer current in scientific usage.

Biology online gives the following definition of obsessional neurosis:

A psychological disorder with a pervasive pattern of inflexible perfectionism which begins by early adulthood as indicated by many of the following symptoms: an unattainable perfectionism with overly strict standards which often make it impossible to complete a task; preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or scheduling to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost; unreasonable insistence that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things; an unnecessary, excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships; rumination to the point of indecisiveness; overconscientiousness about matters of morality, ethics, or values; restricted expression of affection; lack of generosity in giving time, money, or gifts when no personal gain is likely to result; and an inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.

The same internet site gives the following definition of hysteria:

a nervous affection, occurring almost exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxism or fits.

The chief symptoms are convulsive, tossing movements of the limbs and head, uncontrollable crying and laughing, and a choking sensation as if a ball were lodged in the throat. The affection presents the most varied symptoms, often simulating those of the gravest diseases, but generally curable by mental treatment alone.

In the quote from Freud above, as well as in the definitions of neurosis and hysteria, it is individual mental illness that is the apparently exclusive concern, but these formulations are highly suggestive, pointing to formulations that would describe neuroses and hysteria unique to collections of individuals. We have all heard of the “madness of crowds” and of tulipomania in early modern Holland and the whole history of speculative bubbles since then. Freud himself suggests in passing the possibility of universal neuroses. In his famous essay, The Future of an Illusion, Freud wrote:

“…devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

Confessional communities, each with their distinctive religious rituals, while not in any sense universal, clearly embody what Freud had in mind and constitute neurotic and hysterical socio-cultural practices. It could be argued (and I think that this is implicit in Freud) that the hysterical and neurotic misery of the universal neuroses of religion are pathological, and that we can reasonably hope for deliverance from this religious misery into ordinary human unhappiness.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

Not only individuals but also entire societies can be transformed from the neurotic misery of compulsive ritual into a state of common unhappiness. What is needed for this is a psychoanalysis of culture that goes to the origins of that culture and all its hidden horrors in order to discover the initial traumas that provoked the neurotic response. We already have a name for this, and it is history. The practice of history — history that rigorously embodies methodological naturalism — is the treatment for religious pathology.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

At the present moment of history all this sounds a bit incredible, and the reader may well think I am joking, but during the Enlightenment the English poet Christopher Smart was institutionalized in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics for “religious mania” (notably not Bedlam, which was the only other asylum in England at this time). The confinement was controversial at the time, and Dr. Johnson defended Smart. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, records the following conversation concerning the poet:

BURNEY. “How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?”
JOHNSON. “It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.”
BURNEY. “Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.”
JOHNSON. “No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house ; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities, were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”

Was Kit Smart mad? No more nor less than Johnson, though Johnson himself might be institutionalized today, not for his religious observances but for his personal hygiene. In perhaps the most famous of Johnsonian apocrypha, there is a story that a lady said to Johnson that he smelled. Dr. Johnson is said to have replied, “Nay, madam. You smell; I stink.”

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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