Thursday, September 29, 2005

M. Scott Peck (1936-2005)


It is with some sadness that I note the death of M. Scott Peck, the American writer and psychologist, at the age of 69.

A somewhat ungenerous obituary in the Telegraph seems to be based entirely on an interview conducted with Peck by Andrew Billen for the Times in 2001. The consensus between the writers of both pieces is that Peck was a self-deluded man who preached a self-restraint and altrusim which he was not himself prepared to practise. They draw attention to his womanising, his smoking and drinking, his difficult relationships with his family. He comes across as a hypocritical crank.

It seems we cannot accept imperfections in those who may have an insight into wisdom or the truth, yet leave themselves open to ad hominem dismissals of their message. It became too easy to dismiss Robin Cook's recipes for socialist government after his very public break-up with his wife. Gary Hart, one of the most promising presidential candidates found by the Democrats before Clinton, suffered from a similar personal failing. Those who wanted to poke holes in Mother Teresa's charitable efforts pointed to her opposition to abortion (which was only indirectly relevant to her work).

As a writer of books containing a lot of wisdom about human suffering and prescriptions to remedy it (they were not 'self-help' books of the Feel the Fear variety), Peck produced a stream of deeply felt meditations on the modern human condition. His belief that delaying personal gratification was an important aspect of maturity is now accepted by the psychological mainstream. His dismissal of what he called 'rugged individualism' now reads like a diatribe on American society. His writing avoids over-simplification and makes no false promises to lure the reader. Indeed, he positively discouraged simplistic answers to moral questions. His introduction of a spiritual dimension into issues of personal psychology put many people off, yet it was a logical extension into an area which has become diminished amongst modern humanity. That the message became more and more overtly Christian over time is unfortunate, but he was never less than sincere.

Perhaps my main reason for admiring him is the help and insight his books provided me at a difficult time in my own life. Thanks to what I learned from him, I was able to throw off the constrictions and assumptions that had held me back since childhood and embrace a more progressive and less introspective attitude. I know thousands of others benefited in a similar way. It is the nature of journalists to see people and issues through the black-tinted spectacles of cynicism. That Peck was far from perfect should not be allowed to obscure the penetrating insight he had into human misery and happiness.


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