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Self Actualizing Man


  The contemporary image of the self-actualizing man arose in the context of the broader concern among humanistic psychologists with a bold new departure from the pathological emphasis of a great deal of psychoanalytic literature since Freud. It is only when we see this model from a philosophical, and not merely from a psychological, standpoint that its affinities with classical antecedents become clearer. The distinction between the philosophical and psychological standpoints is important and must be grasped at the very outset.

  The philosophical standpoint is concerned explicitly with the clarification of ideas and the removal of muddles. It seeks to restore a more direct and lucid awareness of elements in reality or in our statements about reality or in what initially seems to be a mixed bundle of confused opinions about the world. It is by sorting out the inessential and irrelevant that we are able to notice what is all too often overlooked. The philosopher is willing to upset familiar notions that constitute the stock-in-trade of our observations and opinions about the world. By upsetting these notions he hopes to gain more insight into the object of investigation, independent of the inertia that enters into our use of language and our ways of thinking about the world. By giving himself the shock of shattering the mind's immediate and conventional and uncritical reactions, the philosopher seeks to become clearer about what can be said and what cannot even be formulated.

  Most of our statements are intelligible and meaningful to the extent to which we presuppose certain distinctions that are basic to all thinking, to all knowledge, and to all our language. Although these distinctions are basic because they involve the logical status of different kinds of utterance, their implications are a matter for disagreement among philosophers. By discriminating finer points and nuances that are obscured by the conceptual boxes with which we view a vast world of particulars, the philosopher alters our notion of what is necessary to the structure of language, if not of reality. However, as Cornford pointed out in "The Unwritten Philosophy," all philosophers are inescapably influenced by deep-rooted presuppositions of their own, of which they are unaware or which they are unwilling to make explicit. The philosopher makes novel discriminations for the sake of dissolving conventional distinctions. And yet, what he does not formulate – what he ultimately assumes but cannot demonstrate within his own framework – is more crucial than is generally recognised. Whether it be at the starting point of his thinking or at the terminus, the unformulated basis is that by which he lives in a state of philosophical wonderment or puzzlement about the world.

  Our statement of the philosophical standpoint refers to knowledge as the object of thought but also to the mind as the knower, the being that experiences the act of cognition, the mode of awareness that accompanies the process of thinking. It is the mind that gets into grooves, that has uncriticised reactions to the world in the form of a bundle of borrowed ideas and compulsive responses. At the same time, it is the mind in which clarification and resolution are to be sought; and in the very attempt to seek clarification through new discriminations, it comes to a point where it empties itself or cannot proceed any farther. It might also experience some sort of joyous release out of the very recognition of the fullness of an enterprise that necessarily leads to a limiting frontier.

  Philosophical activity, at its best, might be characterized as a patient inching of one's way. It requires a repeated redrawing of a mental map, moving very slowly, step by step. It is most effectively pursued through a continuing dialogue among a few who respect themselves and each other enough to be able to say, "You"re a fool," occasionally and to have it said of oneself. Such men must become impersonal by refusing to hold on to any limiting view of the self and by refraining from playing the games of personalities caught in the emotional experiences of victories and defeats. It is only by becoming impersonal in the best sense that a man is ready to enjoy a collective exploration in which there are many points of view representing relative truths, in which all formulations are inconclusive, and in which the activity itself is continually absorbing and worthwhile.

  Whereas the philosophical standpoint is concerned with knowledge and perception, with clarity and comprehension, the psychological standpoint requires us to talk in terms of freedom and fulfillment, of release and of integration. Psychologically speaking, a man's feeling that he is freer than he was before is very important to him. This condition involves a sense of being more fulfilled than he expected to be in the present in relation to his memories of the past and also in relation to his anticipations about the future. Since the experience of feeling freer is meaningful to a man in a context that is bound up with his self-image, the psychological standpoint must always preserve an element of self-reference. A man's false reactions or wrong ideas are important to him psychologically in a way that they would not be philosophically. Regardless of whether they are true or false, good or bad, a man's reactions to the world are a part of himself in a very real sense. If he were to surrender them lightly, he would be engaged in some sort of pretense; he might be conniving at some kind of distortion or truncation of his personality.

  It may sound odd to plead in this way for the psychological importance of our self-image, because we tend to think we are crippled by a self-image that is generated by an awareness of our defects and limitations. Still, we know from our intimate relationships that to think of a person close to us in an idealized manner that excludes all his weaknesses and failings is an evasion of authenticity and may even be a form of self-love. No mental projection on a love object can be as enriching as a vibrant if disturbing encounter with a living human being. To be human is to be involved in a complex and painful but necessary awareness of limitations and defects, of muddles, of borrowed and distorting preconceptions, of antithetical and ambiguous reactions, and of much else. If we are to recognise and live with such an awareness, we cannot afford to surrender our sense of self – even if intellectually we could notice the falsity in many elements in our perceptions of ourselves and of others.

  The distinction between the philosophical and the psychological standpoints may be put in this way. Whereas a philosopher is committed to an exacting and elusive conception of truth, the psychologist is concerned with the maximum measure of honesty in the existing context. Of course, one cannot maintain honesty without some standard of truth, some stable reference point from which we derive criteria applicable at any given time. On the other hand, one cannot be really sincere and determined in the pursuit of philosophical truth without being honest in one's adherence to chosen methods and agreed procedures of analysis. Clearly, philosophy and psychology are interconnected. In the earliest Eastern and Pythagorean traditions, the pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge were merely two aspects of a single quest. Since the seventeenth century, the impact of experimental science and the obsession with objectivity and certainty have sharpened the separation between impersonal knowledge about the external world and the subjective experiences of self-awareness; and the latter have been excluded in the psychologist's concern with the constants and common variables in human behavior. Nonetheless, the psychologist has not been able to ignore the individual's need for security and his feeling of self-esteem. And certainly, in the psychoanalytic concern with honesty, the element of feeling is extremely important, independent of any cognitive criteria. To feel authenticity, to feel honesty, to feel fulfillment, each is integral to the psychological standpoint. To dispense with such personal feelings and to see with the utmost intellectual objectivity are crucial to the philosophical enterprise, although the very term "philosopher" as originally coined by Pythagoras, contained, and even to this day retains, an impersonal element of eros.

  We must now proceed to characterize our contemporary condition both from the philosophical and the psychological standpoints. We can see immediately that, in terms of the elevating concept of the philosophical enterprise presented so far, modern man is singularly ill-suited for it. Most men do not have the time, the energy, the level of capacity, or even the will to think for themselves, let alone to think through a problem to its fundamentals. Even professional philosophers are not immune to our common afflictions – the appalling lack of time for leisurely reflection, the pace and pressures of living, the overpowering rush of sensory stimuli. In our own affluent society, the struggle for existence is so intense that (as in Looking-Glass Land) it takes all the running we can do to keep in the same place. One's nerves, our raw sense of selfhood, are constantly exposed to the tensions and frustrations of other people, and one's state of being is continually threatened by this exposure because one finds one's identity at stake. In these circumstances, it is not surprising to find that most thinking is adaptive and instrumental. The activity of the mind is largely preoccupied with the promotion of material ends or the consolidation of social status, or the gaining of some token, external, symbolic sense of achievement that is readily communicable among men. A great deal of our thinking, even the most professionally impressive, is a kind of get-by thinking.

  What is the chief consequence of so much shallow thinking? For those few who are willing to question everything, take nothing for granted, and who want to think through an idea to its logical limits, it is truly difficult to function in an environment in which the emphasis is on what seems safe because it is widely acceptable. The pressure to think acceptable thoughts is double barrelled, for our thoughts may be deemed acceptable in terms of standards that are already allowed as exclusively acceptable. Acceptability is the decisive hallmark of much of the thinking of our society. Most of the time we are so anxious about how we appear to others when we think aloud our responses to any problem that we cannot even imagine what it is like to experience the intensity of dianoia, of thinking things through in the classical mode. To take nothing for granted, to think a problem through with no holds barred, regardless of how we come out or of our "image," requires a courage that is today conspicuous by its absence.

  One might say, philosophically, that thinking things through, as demanded by the Platonic-Socratic dialectic, is bound up with that form of fearlessness which is decisively tested by one's attitude to death. We are all haunted by a feeling of pervasive futility, an acute sense of mortality, an awful fear that looms larger and paralyzes us though with no recognizable object – a fear of being nothing, a fear of annihilation, a fear of loss of identity, a perpetual proneness to breakdown and disintegration. Thus, it is enormously difficult for us to give credibility in our minds to, let alone to recognise at a distance, authenticity in any possible approximation to a state of fearlessness which dissolves our sense of time and makes a mockery of mortality. And yet this remote possibility was itself grounded by classical philosophers in the capacity of the mind to think through an idea or problem in any direction and at the same time to value the activity of thinking so much that in relation to it death and all that pertains to our sense of finality and incompleteness becomes irrelevant.

  Our contemporary culture is marked not merely by a shrinking of the individual sense of having some control over one's life and one's environment but also by an increasing loss of allegiance to the collectivist notions of control transmitted by the political and social philosophies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Psychologically, we could characterize our age as the historical culmination of man's progressive inability to take refuge from his own sense of vulnerability in some compensatory form of collectivist identity. If a person in our society really feels that he cannot take hold of his life, that he has no sense of direction, that he has not enough time for looking back and looking ahead, and that all around him is rather meaningless, then it is small comfort for him to be told that as an American or as a member of the human race he can exult in the collective conquest over natural resources. The repeated ideological efforts to reinforce such a sense of vicarious satisfaction are more and more self-defeating.

  From a philosophical standpoint, we live in an age impoverished by the inability of men to find the conditions in which autonomous and fundamental thinking can take place. From a psychological standpoint, our social situation facilitates rather than hinders the widespread fragmentation of consciousness. In our daily lives, the flux of fleeting sensations is so overpowering that we are often forced to cope with it by reducing the intensity of our involvement with sensory data. All our senses become relatively dulled. The fact that we do seem to manage at some level may simply confirm the extraordinarily adaptive nature of the human organism. The key to our survival at a more self-conscious level may be the development of a new cunning and resilience in our capacity for selection. Although we do not notice most things while driving on the freeway, we do seem to display a timely awareness of that which threatens us. Our consciousness, though fragmented, may be sharpened in ways that are necessary for sheer survival. The really serious consequence of this is in regard to interpersonal encounters and relationships.

  As early as the seventeenth century, John Locke observed that in a modern atomistic society, where large numbers of men are held together chiefly by impersonal bonds of allegiance to central authority, other men do not exist for any one man except when they threaten him or when they appear to him as persons who could be of advantage to him. In present-day society, we can see all too clearly how very difficult it is for even the most conscientious to retain a full awareness of their fellow citizens as individual agents, as persons who suffer pain and are caught up in unique sets of complexities. How much more difficult to see others even if strangers as persons with capacities and inner moral struggles that go beyond visible manifestations, as individuals who are more than the sum of all their external reactions and roles. We enter into most of our relationships on the basis of role specialization; and we are thereby driven, more than we wish, in our most primary affective encounters, by calculations of advantage or by fears of invasion and attack. A psychoanalyst from Beverly Hills has suggested recently that a marital relationship is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain because of the cumulative pressure of collective tension. Even though a loving couple may live together on the basis of shared memories and commitments and of close intimacy, their relationship may be unable to carry the burden of a host of social frustrations and milling anxieties that come from outside but that they cannot help turning against each other.

  Given the sad predicament of the individual in contemporary society, it is hardly surprising to find various earnest-minded men vying with each other to diagnose our prevailing sickness, thereby adding to the collective gloom. Many of these diagnoses are identified with psychological and psychoanalytic approaches that are colored by a preoccupation with the pathological. In the context of this majoritarian pessimism, which goes back to Freud himself, it required a large measure of cool courage for a small band of humanistic psychologists to initiate an alternative mode of viewing the human situation. They have not evaded any of the stark facts of our present malaise, and at the same time they have dared to provide a democratized, plebianized version of a model that is humanistic and optimistic. In place of earlier concepts of the well-adjusted man, we now have the model of a man who, although (and rightly) not adjusted to existing conditions, is capable of exemplifying, releasing, living out, and acting out what is truly important to him as an individual.

  Even though humanistic psychology has been launched in this country with the fanfare of a revolutionary movement, it has actually filled a vacuum created by the fatigue of monotony attendant on much of the so-called scientific psychology. Whatever else may be said about the behavioristic, reductionist, and mechanistic models of man, they are undeniably and invariably dull and unexciting. The boredom is pervasive. If one is so unfortunate as to surrender wholly to these current versions of secular fundamentalism, life loses its savour and lustre. As one critic has suggested, the worst thing about these depressing models of human behavior is not that they claim to be true but that they might become true.

  It is highly significant that a crucial point of departure for the humanistic approach came from a man, Viktor Frankl, who was not merely reacting against current orthodoxy on intellectualist grounds. The necessity of a new way of looking at the human condition came to Frankl out of the depths of authentic suffering – out of the intense pain and mental anguish he experienced in a Nazi concentration camp. Indeed, many of the existentialist and phenomenological modes of thought fashionable in our society originated in postwar Europe. Frankl's is the uncommon case of a therapist who can write with compelling conviction about man's search for meaning. Faced with the most meaningless and unbearable forms of suffering, Frankl saw the profound significance for some prisoners of a deliberate defiance in their minds of the absurdity of their condition and the dignity of an individual restoration of meaning as a means of psychological survival. Frankl was, therefore, able to see after the war why many of his patients were unwilling to be treated as malfunctioning machines or as anxiety-driven bundles of inhibitions and neuroses. It was much more important for them to engage in the supremely private and uniquely individual act of assigning meaning to their own condition.

  Frankl then took the unorthodox step of reinforcing his discovery by making a pointed reference to the classical tradition. The emphasis on the noetic (from nous) in man is fundamental to what has come to be called logotherapy. The classical concept of noetic insight could be explained in a variety of ways. A simple and very relevant rendering of the Platonic concept of insight is that it enables one man to learn from one experience what another man will not learn from a lifetime of similar experiences. In their capacity to extract meaning and significance out of a pattern or a medley of recurrent experiences, human beings are markedly different from each other. Such differences between men are acutely apparent at a time when "experience for its own sake" has become the slogan of an entire generation. The refusal to evaluate experiences by reference to any and all criteria is the sign of a deep-seated form of decadence. The rejection by the young of the imposed and restrictive criteria offered to them by their parents and professors is understandable, but unfortunately it leads many to surrender to the mind-annihilating dictum of "experience for its own sake."

  In the classical tradition, the notion of noetic insight was exemplified in an aristocratic form. The wise and truly free man was one who had so fully mastered the meaning-experience equation that he had wholly overcome the fear of death and thereby gained a conscious awareness of his immortality. His comprehension of the whole of nature, of society, and of his own self in terms of their essential meanings placed him in a lofty position of freedom from the categories of time, space, and causality. As employed by contemporary humanistic psychologists like Frankl, the notion of insight is democratized into a basic need for survival – into a desperate and ubiquitous concern on the part of struggling human beings to grapple somehow with their chaotic and painful experiences so as to extract a minimal amount of meaning.

  In the writings of Abraham Maslow we are provided a portrait of the self-actualizing man in a manner that is accessible to all and yet reminiscent of the classical models of perfection. He investigated the attitudes of a fair sample of people who displayed common characteristics in relation to the way they regarded the world and themselves, despite their differences in regard to age, sex, social status, profession, and other external conditions. From his empirical observations, he tried to derive the identifying marks of a self-actualizing man. He hazards the tentative conclusion that only about one per cent of any sample out of the population of contemporary Americans are examples of self-actualizing men. This is not to suggest that in our contemporary culture only one per cent is capable of becoming self-actualizing men. Presumably, the proportion of such men would increase with a greater awareness of what is involved in becoming a self-actualizing man. As a matter of fact, the figure of one per cent is ten times higher than Thoreau's figure of the one in a thousand who is a real man.

  Maslow makes a simple but crucial distinction between deficiency needs and being needs. Human beings function a great deal of the time out of a sense of inadequacy. They seek to supply what they think they lack from the external world. This sense of incompleteness will be intensified by the experience of frustration in repeated attempts to repair the initial feeling of deficiency. But there is also in all men a sense of having something within them which seeks to express itself, which is fulfilled when it finds appropriate articulation. One of the important features of this distinction between deficiency needs and being needs is that the same need could function at different times as an expression of a sense of deficiency or of a sense of being. It is in his manner of coping with both his sense of deficiency and his sense of being that a self-actualizing man reveals his enormous capacity for self-dependence. Maslow tries to give an exhaustive list of characteristics of the self-actualizing man. We shall mention only a few, those that seem particularly significant in the context of our consideration of the subject.

  An essential mark of the self-actualizing man is his capacity for acceptance. He accepts himself and the world. Although he may reject certain elements of the world around him, he has sufficient reasons for accepting the world with its unacceptable elements. The world he accepts includes the world of society and extends into the world of nature. It includes an acceptance of particular persons. This wide-ranging acceptance of the world is possible for a self-actualizing man because he has accepted himself. His knowledge of himself may be incomplete, and there may be elements in himself which he dislikes or wishes to discard. And yet there is meaning to a fundamental act of acceptance of oneself with all one's limitations. If the act of acceptance is real, it will be strong enough to withstand all the threats from the external world. The self-actualizing man is aware of particular and partial rejections from external sources, but he can never give up on himself or on others. His essential acceptance enables him to see reality more clearly. He sees human nature as it is, not as he would prefer it to be. He will not shut out portions of the world that are unpleasant to him or that are not consonant with his own preferences and predilections. He is willing to see those aspects of reality that remain hidden to other men to the extent to which they conflict with their own prejudices. His fundamental act of acceptance also involves negation. He negates the distortion implicit in our immediate sensory responses to the world and in the exaggerated inferences derived from such immediate responses.

  A second characteristic of the self-actualizing man is his spontaneity. Having made his fundamental act of acceptance, he is simple and direct and spontaneous in his responses. He is not burdened by the anxiety of calculation or by the fatigue of tortuous rationalization. He can make an appropriate yet spontaneous response in many a context, not all the time but often enough to see beyond conventionalities. In everyday human encounters, many opportunities are forfeited because of the habit of mutual suspicion. The self-actualizing man is able to negate conventional signs and symbols because he is not obsessed with social acceptance. He is not trapped by the totemistic worship of token gestures that restrict meaningful involvement. He is thereby less vulnerable to collective modes of manipulation. Consequently, he loses his sense of striving. He continues to grow through his mistakes and failures, but he grows without anxiety and without an oppressive awareness of the opinions of others or the crude criteria of success and failure. A real sense of freedom is released by his fundamental act of acceptance and by the spontaneity of his responses to the world.

  A third characteristic of the self-actualizing man is his transcendence of self-concern. He centers his attention on non-personal issues that cannot be grasped at the level of egotistic encounters. He is aware of the needs that must be met in the lives of others, in interpersonal relations and in society. He does not view the problems of human beings in terms of the mere interaction of egotistic wills. He is not exempt from the tendency to ego assertion, but he refuses to participate in the collective reinforcement of ego sickness. This form of sickness arises when the ever-lengthening shadow of the ego provides a substitute world of wish fulfillment, leaving a man with no sense of the breadth or depth of reality or of having a grip on the suprapersonal core of human problems. By seeing beyond personal egos, the self-actualizing man gives himself opportunities to extend his mental horizon and re-create his picture of the world. He can move freely between larger and more limited perspectives, thereby attaining a clearer perception in relation to any problem of what is essential and what is not.

  With an enlarged perspective there emerges a capacity for cool detachment and an enjoyment of privacy. A man cannot attain to true freedom if he is incapable of enjoying his own company. Many people today have become cringingly dependent on the need to interact with others, to the point of psychic exhaustion. Men are so involved in their projections of themselves in familiar surroundings that they are unable to stand back and view their activities free of egocentricism. The self-actualizing man appreciates the need for self-examination. He knows that in order to meet this need he must provide space within his time for solitude, privacy, and quiet reflection. He thus enhances his sense of self-respect and maintains it even when he finds himself in undignified surroundings or in demeaning conditions. He places his valuation of being human in a fundamental ground of being that goes beyond the levels at which he interacts with others.

  The attaining of a high level of authentic impersonality strengthens in a man his independence of culture and environment. A fourth characteristic of the self-actualizing man is his very real enjoyment of a sense of autonomy. The notion of autonomy is a part of our inheritance from the Socratic concept of the individual, and it has been transmitted since the seventeenth century in modern presuppositions concerning man as a rational moral agent. But although this notion is embedded in the vocabulary of liberal, democratic theory, it has been considerably undermined by the prevailing tendency to see men as intersubstitutable, to view most acts as predictable, and to explain most human responses mechanistically in terms of instinctual drives or the functioning of systems and subsystems. It is therefore against very great odds that the self-actualizing man gives existential authenticity to the abstract notion of individual autonomy as an agent, a knower, and an actor. He fully enjoys the activity of being a spectator, a knower, an actor, and a moral agent.

  He has a sharp sense of his own individuality and of the boundaries of himself. Having boundaries is essential to the notion of self-actualization, but these boundaries will not coincide with the contours of selfhood reflected in the totality of culture-bound responses. The self-actualizing man may choose to express his individuality in the language and symbols provided by his cultural and social context, but these modes of expression will not obscure his sense of transcendence of his environment. This sense of inner space enables him to recognize more alternatives than appear on the surface and to feel himself capable of choosing meaningfully among them. He is aware of an open texture within his mind and his personality that helps him to be open to the world outside him. This awareness will take the form of a freshness that he brings to bear on his appreciation of persons and situations and of particular moments. This quality of freshness is all too rare in our everyday encounters. Particularly in our highly individualistic and competitive society, men are starved from a lack of authentic and generous appreciation of each other. The self-actualizing man would distinguish himself by his constant readiness to give unqualified appreciation and praise to other people. This does not mean that he is not capable of discrimination. The more he discovers some new and subtle facet of life that draws out his rich and free-ranging appreciation, the more he is able to bring freshness and joy to every situation. The enthusiasm that goes with freshness generates a sense of self-expansion that goes with what Freud called the oceanic feeling and what Maslow calls a peak experience. It is a sense of losing oneself in the vastness and richness of the world around us.

  The self-actualizing man is, paradoxically, so secure in his efforts to find himself that he is also able to forget himself. He becomes a universal man who emancipates himself from the prison house of his personality and enters into the kingdom of mankind. The more he actualizes himself, the more he can transcend himself. In place of the sense of being "acculturated" in the stifling way associated with the localization of one's allegiances, the self-actualizing man experiences the exhilaration, the grandeur, and the nobility of being truly human. He embodies the spirit captured by Whitman in his poem "Song of the Open Road." He becomes an "encloser of continents." This will have a profound bearing on all his relationships. He will be able to relate to many different types of persons and react to a wide variety of situations with humour and compassion. He will show a shrewd perception of the relation between means and ends. His creativity will enable him to recognize opportunities for growth where other men see only limitations. He is so absorbed in what has yet to be tried and yet to be accomplished that he will have no time to brood over his past achievements and failures. He lives in that dimension of the present which points to the future.

  All of this may seem rather Utopian and irrelevant to our contemporary situation, although we can see little increments of the qualities of a self-actualizing man in certain moments in our lives, and we know only too well the effects of the opposite kinds of attitudes in our daily experience.

  Given this portrait or model of the self-actualizing man, we might ask how this contemporary concept differs from the classical ideal of the man who has attained to the fullness of self-knowledge. In Platonic thought, the attainment of this ideal involved a deliberate mastery of the dialectic. In the classical Indian tradition, the ideal of spiritual freedom cannot be reached without a deliberate voiding of all limited identifications and allegiances, a persistent endeavour to recapture the self-sustaining activity of an unconditioned consciousness. For the mystical quest, this means the recovery of an inward center which is full of creative potential but around which there are fluctuating boundaries. Such a rebirth is impossible without a preliminary process of dying, a dissolution of the sense of false identity, and the gaining of confidence in a new mode of awareness. The distinction between being a separate knower and having an external world to be known is gradually weakened, without sinking back into a state of mindless passivity.

  It would be appropriate here to take two statements of the classical ideal. The stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

  This, then, remains: Remember to retire into this little territory of thy own, and above all do not distract or strain thyself, but be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two. One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. The other is that all these things which thou seest change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.

In the classic Indian text on self-knowledge, Atmabodh, the true nature of the Self is depicted by Shankara in the following way: "I am without attributes and action, eternal and pure, free from stain and desire, changeless and formless, and always free.... I fill all things, inside and out, like the ether. Changeless and the same in all, I am pure, unattached, stainless and immutable."

  Clearly, the concept of self-sufficiency given by Marcus Aurelius presupposes a particular theory about the mental processes through which the eternal transformations of the universe are reduced to static opinions. This theory is bound up with a certain view of the relation between the distorting mind and the indwelling soul, both of which are consubstantial with different dimensions of cosmic reality. Without deliberate reflection on such premises, a man cannot become a true philosopher or attain a fundamental equanimity of soul. On the other hand, our contemporary humanistic psychologists do not concern themselves with presuppositions about human nature. They do not hold any definite or formulated concepts about human essence and human potentiality or the processes involved in attaining any stated goal of human perfectibility. Instead, it is assumed that human beings act out what they think they are and thereby find out more about themselves.

  Similarly, we can readily sense the vast difference in conceptual content between the contemporary model of the self-actualizing man and the classical formulation in Atmabodh of supreme self-affirmation. There are several complex and abstract presuppositions implicit in building a mental framework which enables a man to feel that he is essentially attributeless and beyond all conditions, while he is also partially embodied in attributes and conditions. If the contemporary model of the self-actualizing man seems to be conceptually less demanding, this is merely because it is assimilated to our everyday picture of psychological health as the absence of known forms of pathology. Humanistic psychologists like Maslow do not wish to pronounce about how the process of self-actualization takes place, partly because it could happen in many more ways than could be put in a paradigmatic scheme. It is important in its way to protect this diversity of paths and to maintain the greatest possible tolerance in regard to processes of human growth that we can hardly claim to understand. We must preserve a necessary agnosticism here.

  The model of the self-actualizing man should not be seen as a static, textbook typology with which we can readily identify, thereby gaining some form of vicarious satisfaction – some form of compensatory consolation in our own current preoccupations with the varieties of human sickness. Nor should we mistake it for a model that could be elaborated by more empirical research. There is, in fact, no substitute either for the philosophical task of confronting alternative presuppositions or for the practical endeavour of singling out visible examples of maturity in the quest for self-awareness. The former is needed to stimulate our intellectual imagination, and the latter is indispensable in stirring our emotions and canalizing them in a worthwhile direction. The two functions are interrelated to a greater extent than we may suppose. By daring to unravel our presuppositions and to confront them with those derived from the classical philosophical and mystical traditions, we are in a better position to find an underpinning for that continuity of consciousness which, at some level or the other, is essential to the exemplification of a critical distance in our day-to-day encounters with the world around us.

  In our attempts to move away from the treadmill of conformity and from much that is unnatural in our contemporary society, the model of the self-actualizing man could be a valuable starting point in formulating a feasible ideal for ourselves. The self-actualizing man seeks to know what to do now, and at the same time to see sufficiently beyond the present to enjoy a wider sweep, a larger perspective than what we constantly use in our competing concerns. If most pathological cases are persons with either a fixed stare or a wandering gaze, then a man who uses both eyes steadily is, by contrast, wholesome and healthy. The sense in which the self-actualizing man is using both his eyes is best understood in the context of an old tradition. The Theologia Germanica, for example, refers to the eye of time and the eye of eternity. It is no small thing to find any man in our society who is willing to use both these eyes "to see life steadily and as a whole."

  There is indeed an even more distant yet inspiring ideal in the classical traditions of East and West. Many a mystical text refers to "the mysterious eye of the soul," which is capable of a synthesizing vision that enables the fully awakened man to use the eye of time and the eye of eternity without becoming dependent either on the ideal or on what seems real here and now. For such a man, as for the poet, "the Ideal is only Truth at a distance," but he is not infatuated with his image of the ideal to such an extent that he loses contact with the concerns of other men who need, in some sense, the illusions to which they cling at any given time.

  We could honor the classical ideal without devaluing the contemporary model of the self-actualizing man. Is the difference between them simply a matter of belief, or a variation of technique, or a question of successive levels and processes of awareness? Without proposing to answer these questions, it is in the hope that the model of a self-actualizing man will not become yet another modish fad that it has here been put in the broader perspective of a hoary tradition that we have still to recover. We are perhaps now in the early stages of a long exploration that, fortunately, cannot be charted at present. What is surely more important is that as many of us as possible should share in the excitement of taking the first step, of commencing the journey inward so that we may enrich each other and respond with sympathy to those who seek our support.

Hermes, January 1976
by Raghavan Iyer

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