Examine the vision of humanistic psychology with a brief history of Jan Smuts, Victor Frankl and Jacob Levi Moreno and their missions
By E. Mark Stern, ABPP

Jan Smuts & Holism

My continuously emerging view of crediting those who have a place in the founding of humanistic psychology remains a ubiquitous challenge. Looking beyond the usual boundaries of coming to value the good life, humanistic psychotherapy makes its holistic contributions through disparate approaches. Tracing the term “holism” back to its roots in 1926 when South African general and Prime Minister Jan Smuts borrowed the Greek word holos, as offering a pathway into that dynamic inclusiveness where all parts stunningly are seen as interactive.

Be Glad You're Neurotic

Numbers of faintly acknowledged psychotherapists were fully primed with humanistic psychology outlooks and applications prior to Abraham Maslow and Clark Moustakas 1950’s declaration of the imprint of that “third force” in psychology. Humanistic Psychology rallies personal responsibility for one’s inner perspective. Back in the mid-1940s, Dr. Louis Edward Bisch, an unorthodox psychiatrist, began to author a groundswell of best-selling books that promenaded many of the values humanistic psychology would be known for. His best known, Be Glad You’re Neurotic , resulted in a groundswell of readers feeling a certain permission to allow themselves to go against the great tide of psychodynamic based diagnostic labels. Bisch challenged that growing problem of fixating oneself within the arbitrary boundaries of medically based, officially pronounced imprints. His recommendations included the value of celebrating the fact that pathology, may well be linked to an even greater enterprise and set of adventures for the human spirit.

Survival As Personal Mission

In the early 1940s, Victor Frankl was incarcerated, along with countless numbers of his fellow Jews, in the German concentration camp known as Theresienstadt. Appointed as an inmate Jewish doctor, Frankl with the assistance of two prominent Jewish pastoral associates assembled those who chose to take advantage of one or more of several therapeutic groups. Frankl’s stated purpose in clustering the many into groups was to forestall a growing number of suicides. Frankl practice was to give frequent talks on what he saw as the deeper meaning inherent in the task of survival. Writing retrospectively of these convictions, psychologist Gordon Alport in the preface of Frankl’s Mans Search for Meaning states “Even in the degradation and abject misery of a concentration camp, Frankl was able to exercise the most important freedom of all - the freedom to determine his own survival attitude and thus, his spiritual well-being. Sadistic Nazi SS guards were incapable of taking control of Frankl's soul.” Throughout, this and impounding in even more vicious camps, Viktor found his emotional strength in not losing hope that his survival was especially important if his wife too survived. Sadly, she did not get through the ordeal of Auschwitz, nor did any of his family other than one sister. Yet Frankl was to discover that those who were emotionally defeated were those who had convinced themselves that they had nothing and nobody to live for.

Following the Second World War, Dr. Frankl was appointed to head the Neurology Department of the Vienna Polyclinic Hospital, a position he was to retain for the next quarter century. He was awarded the rank of Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry. Soon he began to lecture extensively around the world, culminating in a guest professorship at Harvard University and later still, was appointed to a newly established Chair in Logotherapy at the American International University in San Diego, California.

I had the good fortune of hearing Frankl speak on two occasions. Once at a existential psychotherapy conference in New York City. I recognized Viktor Frankl as a short, slightly stooped and oddly intense man wearing what I saw as a rogue mustache. He could be seen deliberately pacing at the rear of the conference room. His charisma waited exfoliation until his intense confessional. I was bowled over by his perfuse unfreezing of the role of personal meaning in any effective psychotherapy. Then, several years later at a gathering of the American Academy of Psychotherapists in the City of Chicago, several of us were invited to attend a small lecture/reception for Professor Frankl at the office of psychiatrist Jordan Sher. As I recall, he once again spoke directly to the role that personal meaning played in any authentic life space. In that talk, he recounted being consulted by an 80 year old retired physician whose wife had recently died. The patient was consumed by depression and saw no way out of pain but suicide. After noting that his ailing wife had been his sole purpose for living, Frankl interjected by posing a single question: “What would it have been for her had she survived you?”

“But, it would have been unbearable for her.”

Without flinching, Frankl replied: “So your purpose in life is bearing the task of surviving her.” The old doctor left, no less depressed, but with a sense of mission.

All The World's a Stage

Jacob Levi Moreno, MD, still another daring pioneer in humanistic psychology, was a fixture at his humble psychodrama theatre on New York ‘s upper West Side. Moreno would make a grand entrance and proceeded to warm up his audience made up of a an amalgam of college psychology and pre-med majors, a handful of psychiatrists and psychologists on something of a busman’s holiday, murmurings of psychotherapy clients seeking to enrich themselves between sessions along with a hodgepodge of nomadic stragglers whose wanderings about in an impersonal city allowed them to drop anchor in this diminutive inexpensive night at the theatre. After his introductory comments on the workings of psychodrama along with a definition of his role at the director/participant for the evening, Dr. Moreno called for a volunteer who was grappling with a personal issue. Rarely, I was to learn after my subsequent visits to the theatre, would there be a lack of volunteers. It worked out that the selected person’s set of vexing tangles never failed to evoke similar entanglements brought in by other members of the audience. These others stood ready ready, along with a bevy of several actors, to act as auxiliary egos. Auxiliary ego were assigned to play representative roles such as parent, close friend, office supervisor, antagonist or perhaps current or former spouse. The scene was finally set and the volunteers, along with a cadre of professionally trained actors took the cue to improvise the dilemma as described by the bearer of the enigma. Usually a professional actor, experienced in psychodrama was asked to take the task of “alter ego,” by standing behind the principal player as the voice of the deliberately hidden, unconscious or understated visages. After the Director would order the action to begin, a role playing would spontaneously emerge. Sometime into the action, Moreno would direct various role reversals so that the one suffering the consequence of a vexation could hear his or her own voice coming from others. Finally, the individual might be asked to change places with the alter ego. Here the sufferer might begin to express what lay beneath the surface as the alter ego defended the right to conceal the less obvious. Once the scene reached some sort of climax, the audience and actors would all become involved in a lively interchange of what had taken place and how it might have touched on their own lives. No one was excluded from being the potential bearer of personal and social dynamic insight. The wonders of classical Greek drama could hardly offer a greater proscenium for what took place on that minute stage.

Jacob Moreno, who was born in Romania in 1889 of a Sephardic Jewish family. It was reported by some that he conceived of psychodrama caught as a result of having watched children at play in a park. The evocation of spontaneity as they pretended roles struck the young Moreno as the fountainhead for contending with the enigmas of life. Another account of the origin of psychodrama was told to me by an a sometime psychology professor whose first name I have long forgotten, a Dr. Pinard. Pinard has studied with Moreno at his Institute in Beacon, New York. Apparently, the young Jacob Moreno fancied himself a majestic impresario, and spoke about treasuring occasions when he would climb his father’s tallest ladder, directing a crew of fantasy actors. Perhaps his sense of omnipotence was part of why he eventually decided to study medicine. He completed his medical training in 1917 at the University of Vienna. Even before immigrating to the United States in 1925, Moreno had published papers spelling out the theoretical foundations of psychodrama. After settling in New York City, he later established headquarters for a training institute in Beacon, NY. and set out to demonstrate psychodrama throughout the world. He founded the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama in 1942. For a time, back in the late 1950s, I served as a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Psychodrama.

Moreno was also known for his founding Sociometry, a discipline dealing with group organization and alliances. But what links Jacob Moreno to humanistic psychology was his account of having attended a lecture by Sigmund Freud while still a student in 1912. Not only did he attend the lecture, but spoke with Freud at its conclusion: “ (Freud) singled me out from the crowd and asked me what I was doing. I responded, ‘Well, Dr. Freud, I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them put the parts back together again.’” Jacob Moreno died in New York in 1974 at the age of 85.

The Vision of Humanistic Psychology

Any mission of humanistic psychotherapy is grounded in the holistic (Smuts) and in the liberal tradition of honoring injury (Bisch). Its renewed tasks and tacks are best realized through meaning (Frankl) and in the continuing interactive process of awakening and renewal (Moreno).

I sense that Frankl and Moreno helped navigate what we call humanistic psychology into many of its distinctive shores. Both introduced masterly techniques that deal holistically with social conditions and address shifting universal constructs (vs. innate pathologies). Each led the way toward an appreciation of animated and healing community.

Pressing on, I view the humanistic practitioner mediating both care and justice for the oppressed. Where personal rights are being denied, psychotherapists can most assuredly add to their skilled professional proficiencies. Where, for example, workers rights are being violated, or the powerless are being intimidated, it remains appropriate for humanistic therapists to stand in solidarity with those, who because of social injustice, may shunned or otherwise injured. All the while extending the therapeutic role to that of agent of reconciliation and justice in areas and situations where injustice holds sway.

Humanistic psychotherapists can learn to inform the disenfranchised to know that they have an active role to play in transforming society. This goal can be nourished by extending the therapeutic field to address the neglected and shunned by helping them recognize their emerging potentials and unique aptitudes. Furthermore, by fostering the courage to transform, the common good cannot help being succored. Enlisting a cooperative ethos among clients who attempt to relate their own enigmas to those of others, leads to increased self-respect. Where one’s own personal rights are revered, the profusion of diagnostic labels is less likely to break through to the soul.

Obviously practice is never far from theory. Frankl was concerned that reductionism might yet prevail in psychology. He knew that consciousness is much more than a side-effect of the physiology of the brain. Only through the good offices of a balanced perspective between physiological underpinnings and a spiritual sense of being, can a “rehumanization” of psychotherapy take place. Meaning, according to both Frankl and Moreno, has social and spiritual roots. It needs to constantly be rediscovered rather than merely patronized.

To improvise, according to Moreno, becomes a propelling dynamic. Unconstrained by the centrality of libidinal drives, spontaneity enlists creativity in a fabric of social engagement. Once realized, the public embraces the personal. In the future, this column will link the many an ecumenical collections of inspired theoreticians and clinicians with the larger network of humanistic psychology. Next up will be an exploration of the first native born American “bad boy” of psychoanalysis, Dr. Trigant Burrow. Burrow will best be remembered as the man who changed places with his patient in promoting an egalitarian attitude which led to the rearrangement of a practice into marathon group therapy manners of operating. In the meantime, if you have any fodder for this column, feel free to contact me below.

E. Mark Stern, EdD, ABPP is a humanistic psychology junkie. The more so since his retirement as Professor Emeritus from the Graduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Iona College and many many many years of private practice of clinical psychology and wild psychoanalysis. After being part of the psychological community in New York City, he now lives in near retirement in a very small town BUT serves as Finance Chair of the Dutchess County Democratic Committee. Yet he finds it impossible to "fix" a traffic ticket.


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