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M. Scott Peck -- whose 1978 publishing phenomenon, The Road Less Traveled, is considered to have started or at least jump-started the wave of self-improvement books and programs that remains with us to this day -- died this past Sunday. I've had the book on my to-read shelf for awhile--ever since reading a surprising seeming recommendation from some conservative or another. But the reputation of the genre has sunk so low I'd easily put it off. After all, how much I'm OK, You're OK feelgood pabulum can one take? But, happily, Peck's book turns out to be a serious attempt to get folks to do things that actually will help them and though it is not without significant weaknesses, if we consider the time when it was written and the state of the union it is much better than one might have expected.

The famous first line of the book is: "Life is difficult." This is a claim that would have been greeted with near universal consent in the 70s, but must ring somewhat silly after over twenty years of economic growth and cultural renewal and the end of the Cold War. Were one to rewrite the opening today, it might more accurately begin: We make like difficult. That this is consistent with Dr. Peck's message is obvious when we look to the central theme of the book, what made it countercultural in its own time but enabled it to endure into ours:
Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. Without disciple we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.

What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. [...]

Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. [...]

Therefore let us inculcate in ourselves and in our children the means of achieving mental and spiritual health. By this I mean let us teach ourselves and our children the necessity for suffering and the values thereof, the need to face problems directly and to experience the pain involved. I have stated that discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. It will become clear that these tools are techniques of suffering, means by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way as to work them through and solve them successfully, learning and growing in the process. When we teach ourselves and our children discipline, we are teaching them and ourselves how to suffer and also how to grow.

What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing. As will be evident, these are not complex tools whose application demands extensive training. To the contrary, they are simple tools, and almost all children are adept in their use by the age of ten. Yet presidents and kings will often forget to use them, to their own downfall. The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them.
That line about presidents forgetting and bringing about their own downfall seems prescient given that Jimmy Carter was in office at the time and about to give his infamous malaise speech, in which recognized the failure of discipline but proved himself completely inadequate to the task of summoning the national will. Indeed, the book reads in some ways like a prediction of the coming return to a responsibility society--a theme of the Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush presidencies after fifty years of both parties feeding the electorate nanny state hokum.

We should probably cut Dr, Peck some considerable slack just because he was such an outlier as regards the idea of discipling ourselves and taking moral responsibility for our own lives. The 70s were after all the nation's nadir, when folks were eager to blame others or the forces of history or whatever for all the problems that beset us. But in his development of his ideas there are some tendencies towards psychobabble and an over-reliance on a variety of Freudian nostrums, inevitable in a psychoanalyst but unfortunate in light of the complete collapse of the three isms of the 19th Century--Marxism, Darwinism and Freudianism.

Likewise, in the final third of the book, when the discussion turns to religion, Dr. Peck's ideas are pretty mushy. He perceives some important religious truths, but his theology leaves something to be desired. So, when he considers where it is that the imposition of discipline upon ourselves is supposed to lead he arrives at the following:
For no matter how much we may like to pussyfoot around it, all of us who postulate a loving God and really think about it eventually come to a single terrifying idea: God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself). We are growing toward godhood. God is the goal of evolution.

When I said that this was a terrifying idea I was speaking mildly. It is a very old idea, but, by the millions, we run away from it in sheer panic. For no idea ever came to the mind of man which places upon us such a burden. It is the single most demanding idea in the history of mankind. Not because it is difficult to conceive; to the contrary, it is the essence of simplicity. But because if we believe it then, it then demands from us all that we can possibly give, all that we have. It is one thing to believe in a nice old God who will take good care of us from a lofty position of power which we ourselves could never begin to attain. It is quite another to believe in a God who has it in mind for us precisely that we should attain His position, His power, His wisdom, His identity. Were we to believe it possible for man to become God, this belief by its very nature would place upon us an obligation to attempt to attain the possible. But we do not want this obligation. We don't want to have to work that hard. We don't want God's responsibility. As long as we can believe that godhood is an impossible attainment for ourselves, we don't have to worry about our spiritual growth, we don't have to push ourselves to higher and higher levels of consciousness and loving activity; we can relax and just be human. [...]

The idea that God is actively nurturing us so that we might grow up to be like Him brings us face to face with our own laziness.
While there's much that's good there--not least a sort of inchoate understanding that man is ordained to God and that this imposes obligations on us--it is also obviously not the case that each of us can become God. rather, the obligation that God has placed upon us is even more daunting than the one Dr. Peck conceives, it is that we must accept His discipline as our own without the possibility of our becoming like Him. If mortal existence truly held out the promise that we could become God then our laziness would be harder to explain. In fact, our lack of will is quite understandable in light of the limitations we labor under as humans. What it is not is excusable. He still requires discipline of us. Such is the human dilemma. Our faith -- which is to say our faith in God and in His plan for us -- has to be its own reward.

Given these shortcomings of the book it's apparent why his successors today are folks like Rick Warren, pastors with an actual grounding in traditional Judeo-Christianity. Still, Dr. Peck deserves great credit for standing against the corrosive zeitgeist of his day and for getting the ball rolling in the right direction.


Grade: (B+)


Morgan Peck Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: M. Scott Peck
    -OBIT: M. Scott Peck, Self-Help Author, Dies at 69 (EDWARD WYATT, September 28, 2005, NY Times)
    -OBIT: 'Road Less Traveled' author dies at 69 (AP, 9/26/05)
    -OBIT: M Scott Peck (Daily Telegraph 28/09/2005)
    -TRIBUTE: The Road Is Heavily Traveled Now: M. Scott Peck's best seller came along at the right moment, inspiring a new form of self-help. (CHRISTINE B. WHELAN, October 7, 2005, Opinion Journal)
    -ESSAY: A Word From M. Scott Peck, M.D.,/a> (M. Scott Peck, Foundation for Community Development
-ESSAY: THE STAGES OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH (M. Scott Peck, M.D., Abridged by Richard Schwartz)
    -PROFILE: Gin, cigarettes, women: I'm a prophet, not a saint: M. Scott Peck, author of the ultimate self-help manual, has Parkinson’s and his wife of 43 years has walked out. Our correspondent finds him strangely ebullient (Andrew Billen, 5/10/05, Times of London)
    -INTERVIEW: The Devil Didn't Make Me Do It: Possession is real, says Scott Peck, but we have more to fear from the evil already inside us. (Interview by David Neff | posted 01/24/2005, Christianity Today)
    -PROFILE: Can a guru heal himself?: When M Scott Peck wrote The Road Less Travelled 25 years ago, he brought the self-help book into our lives and taught us that all our problems were solvable. The book has been a bestseller ever since - but how has Peck's own life matched up? (Edward Marriott, July 5, 2003, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: The road last traveled: M. Scott Peck's journey with Parkinson's disease (Arthur Jones, 11/07/03, National Catholic Reporter)
    -INTERVIEW: The Joy Of Community (Alan AtKisson, Summer 1991, Living Together)
    -PROFILE: M. Scott Peck: Wrestling With God (Robert Epstein, December 2002, Psychology Today)
    -INTERVIEW: 'The Patient Is the Exorcist': Interview with M. Scott Peck: Breaking a decades-long silence, the author of 'The Road Less Traveled' describes the exorcisms he conducted on two women. (Interview by Laura Sheahen, BeliefNet)
    -ESSAY: 25 years of self-help (Stephanie Merritt, January 26, 2003, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: New Age Infiltrates Christian Bookstores:Further Along Peck's Wrong Road (Rick Branch, The Watchman)
    -ESSAY: The Road Less Traveled: M. Scott Peck's Road To The New Age (Rick Branch, The Watchman)
    -ESSAY: M. Scott Peck: The Road Broadly Traveled: We believe that the following article by Debbie Dewart is an excellent overview of Peck’s unbiblical teachings. (Debbie Dewart, PsychoHeresy)
    -ARCHIVES:"M. Scott Peck" (find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck (Walter Wink, October 1991, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW: of THE DIFFERENT DRUM Community-Making and Peace. By M. Scott Peck (Lillian B. Rubin, NY Times Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives on Euthanasia and Mortality By M. Scott Peck (Bill McKibben, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason and Discovery by M. Scott Peck (John Mark)
    -REVIEW: of Stones in the road by M. Scott Peck (Wayne G. Boulton, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of Glimpses of the Devil by M. Scott Peck (Thomas More, BeliefNet)
    -REVIEW: of Glimpses of the Devil (David Neff, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW: of Glimpses of the Devil (Rebecca Traister, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of A BED BY THE WINDOW: A Novel of Mystery and Redemption. By M. Scott Peck (MARY KAY BLAKELY, NY Times Book Review)

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