I just finished reading Theodore Dalrymple’s newest book, Admirable Evasions At least I think it is his newest, he is so prolific that he might have published something new since I got this one.
Like everything he writes, Admirable Evasions provides rich commentary on modern life, this time as the sub-title says, on “how psychology undermines morality.”
Dalrymple, a retired psychiatrist, addresses everything from Freud and psychotherapy to behaviorism, cognitive behavioral therapy, the “real me” fallacy, genetics and the trends within neuroscience that try to reduce the complexity of human motivations, desires, choices, emotional responses, and everything else to a function of certain parts of the brain.
For the record I am deeply interested in neurology and psychiatry I even thought of going to medical school to study it. We can learn from much from it, the problem is that contemporary culture has made technology and progress an idol and so we are constantly looking for the next big idea or theory to explain all of reality. This usually ends up as farce while doing untold damage along the way. As a professor of mine once said: Reality comes from God’s mind; philosophical language comes from ours–one theory can never exhaust reality.
Here is a classic Dalrymple section: incisive and amusing. When explaining the problems with Freudian notions that desire, if not sought after and fulfilled will lead to maladjustment and pathology he writes that this makes “self-indulgence man’s highest goal.”
The road to heaven is paved with with fulfilled desires and to hell with frustrated ones. How terrible for the parents of children to stay together just for the sake of duty when one of them “needs his space” because “it just isn’t working.” As one patient of mine put it, soon after he had strangled his girlfriend, “I had to kill her doctor or I don’t know what I would have done.” Something serious perhaps.
Hilarious. Like I said, classic Dalrymple.
In Admirable Evasions, he shows that the problems with these psychological theories are not merely academic, that they are reductionist and often downright absurd, but that they seep into the culture and rob people of what it means to a human person and all the misery and joy that comes from freedom and responsibility. He writes:
I do not wish to deny that psychologists have done many intriguing and ingenious experiments. But the overall effect psychological thought on human culture and society, I contend, has been overwhelmingly negative because it gives the false impression of greatly increased human self-understanding where none has been achieved, it encourages the evasion of responsibility by turning subjects into objects where it supposedly takes account of or interests itself in subjective experience, and it makes shallow the human character because it discourages genuine self-examination and self-knowledge. It Is ultimately sentimental and promotes the grossest self-pity, for it makes everyone (apart from scapegoats) victims of their own behavior precisely is Edmund in Lear says.
The problems with psychology reflect some of the key problems of our age, notably an incoherent commitment to empiricist rationalism mixed with technological utopianism that thinks we can solve any problem if we can just arrange society, education, the economy, or the neurotransmitters in the right way. But as Dalrymple notes, real life experience (and good literature) show the folly of such an approach.
Reflecting on Samuel Johnson’ novella Rasselas, he concludes:
What Johnson captures so brilliantly is the inherent tragic dimension of human existence, a dimension that only literature (and other forms of art), but not psychology can capture, and which indeed it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide from view with a thin veneer of science. Without an appreciation of the tragic dimension, all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.
There is something to be said here about the virtue of hope as a remedy against both utopianism and despair, but I’ll leave that for another time.
Admirable Evasions is refreshing and definitely worth reading. Some other Dalrymple books I recommend include
He also writes often at The New Criterion, which for years has been my favorite magazine and where first I discovered his writing. If you don’t know it, trust me get a subscription, you will not be disappointed.
I had the chance to interview Theodore Dalrymple for the documentary Poverty, Inc. Here is a short clip from the interview I did a few years back in Ireland.