Morgan Scott Peck (May 23, 1936 - September 25, 2005) was an American psychiatrist and author, best known for his first book, The Road Less Traveled, published in 1978. He became recognized as an authority on the connection between psychiatry and religion, pioneering a trend in understanding human development as including not only physical, mental, and emotional growth, but also spiritual development.
Peck described human life as a series of obstacles to be overcome on the way to developing a mature character, and promoted discipline, or to be more precise self-discipline, as the set of tools essential for solving life's problems. He also discussed the nature of love, stressing that love is not a feeling but rather an activity. Peck also promoted the formation of what he called "true community," wherein individuals overcame their self-centered viewpoints and were able to empathize fully with one another. Controversially, Peck also addressed the idea of evil people and the existence and influence of the Devil or Satan.
While Peck promoted a life of discipline, true love, and honest relationships, he did not live up to these ideals in his own life. He was involved in numerous adulterous relationships and finally divorced from his first wife as well as being estranged from two of his children. Nevertheless, his insights into the human condition, in its best and worst forms, contributed greatly to our understanding of mental health.
Morgan Scott Peck, known as "Scotty," was born on May 22, 1936, in New York City, the son of Elizabeth (née Saville) and David Warner Peck, an attorney and judge.1 Peck's father was from a Jewish family, although he hid his heritage passing as a WASP. Peck did not discover this until age 23.234
Peck was sent by his parents to the prestigious boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, when he was 13.5 In his book, The Road Less Traveled,6 Peck told the story of his time at Exeter, admitting that it had been a most miserable time. Finally, at age 15, during the spring holiday of his third year, he came home and refused to return to the school. His parents sought psychiatric help for him and he was (much to his amusement in later life) diagnosed with depression and recommended for a month's stay in a psychiatric hospital (unless he chose to return to school).
Following his hospital stay, where he was able to experience psychotherapy for the first time, Peck attended a small Quaker school in Greenwich Village. He graduated from there in 1954, after which he received a BA from Harvard in 1958, and then enrolled in Columbia University to study medicine. It was there that Peck met Lily Ho, a Chinese student whom he married a year later.2 Both families were horrified, and the couple moved to Cleveland where Peck completed his studies in medicine at Case Western Reserve University, graduating in 1963.5 The couple had three children, two daughters and one son.
From 1963 until 1972, Peck served in the United States Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His Army assignments included stints as chief of psychology at the Army Medical Center in Okinawa, Japan, and assistant chief of psychiatry and neurology in the office of the surgeon general in Washington, D.C.5
From 1972 to 1983, Peck was engaged in the private practice of psychiatry in Litchfield County, Connecticut. He was the Medical Director of the New Milford Hospital Mental Health Clinic and a psychiatrist in private practice in New Milford, Connecticut.5 During this time Peck came to make a strong Christian commitment. Having been raised in a secular home, Peck developed his own religious beliefs over the period of his early adulthood. These ranged from Zen Buddhism to Jewish and Muslim mysticism, finally settling with Christianity at age 43.7
Peck's private practice in Connecticut was thriving when The Road Less Traveled was published in 1978.6 It transformed Peck's life, and he became one of the best-known psychiatrists, speakers, and spiritual teachers of his generation. The book eventually spent 13 years on the New York Times bestseller list, sold 10 million copies worldwide, and was translated into more than 20 languages.8 The Road Less Traveled expanded into a series, and Peck was credited with the popularity of spiritual self-help texts, although scholars in his field were often opposed to his bringing together of mental health and spirituality.
Peck's writings emphasized the virtues of a disciplined life and delayed gratification; however, his personal life was far more turbulent.5 In his later writings, Peck acknowledged having extramarital affairs and being estranged from two of his children.9 In 2004, Peck and his wife separated and later divorced. Peck then married Kathleen Kline Yates.5
Peck died at his home in Connecticut on September 25, 2005, after suffering from Parkinson's disease, pancreatic5 and liver duct cancer.
Peck wrote a total of 15 books, including two novels and one for children.
His non-fiction works combined his experiences from his private psychiatric practice with a distinctly religious point of view. He incorporated case histories from his years spent in private practice as a psychiatrist into his first book, The Road Less Traveled, published in 1978. Random House, where the then little-known psychiatrist first tried to publish his original manuscript, turned him down, saying the final section was "too Christ-y." Thereafter, Simon & Schuster published the work for $7,500 and printed a modest hardback run of 5,000 copies. It became a best-seller.
Its success was followed by another bestseller, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983). The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (1987) followed, as well as sequels to The Road Less Traveled-Further Along the Road Less Traveled (1993) and The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety (1997). His last work was Glimpses of the Devil: A Psychiatrist's Personal Accounts of Possession, Exorcism, and Redemption (2005), recounting his fascination with exorcism.
The Road Less Traveled
The Road Less Traveled published in 1978,6 is Peck's best-known work, and the one that made his reputation. In the book, Peck describes the attributes that make for a fulfilled human being, drawing significantly on his experiences as a psychiatrist.
The book begins with the statement "Life is difficult."6 Peck goes on to argue that life was never meant to be easy, and is essentially a series of problems which can either be solved or ignored. He then discusses discipline, which he considers essential for emotional, spiritual, and psychological health, and which he describes as "the means of spiritual evolution." The elements of discipline that make for such health include the ability to delay gratification, accepting responsibility for oneself and one's actions, a dedication to truth, and balancing.
In the second section of the book, Peck addresses the nature of love, which he considers the driving force behind spiritual growth. He attacks a number of misconceptions about love: that romantic love exists (he considers it a very destructive myth when it is solely relying on "feeling in love"), that it is about dependency, and that true love is NOT the feeling of "falling in love." Instead, Peck argues that "true" love is an action to take with one's willingness to extend one's ego boundaries by including others or humanity, and is therefore the spiritual nurturing of oneself as well as the person's beloved.
The final section concerns "grace," the powerful force originating outside human consciousness that nurtures spiritual growth in human beings. He describes the miracles of health, the unconscious, and serendipity-phenomena which Peck says:
- nurture human life and spiritual growth
- are incompletely understood by scientific thinking
- are commonplace among humanity
- originate outside conscious human will
He concludes that "the miracles described indicate that our growth as human beings is being assisted by a force other than our conscious will."6
People of the Lie
First published in 1983, People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil7 followed on from Peck's first book. He recounts stories of several people who came to him whom he found particularly resistant to any form of help. He came to think of them as "evil," and describes the characteristics of evil in psychological terms, proposing that it could become a psychiatric diagnosis. Peck argues that these "evil" people are the most difficult of all to deal with, and extremely hard to identify.
He describes in some detail several individual patients. In one case, which Peck considers as the most typical because of its subtlety, he describes "Roger," a depressed teenage son of respected, well off parents. In a series of parental decisions justified by often subtle distortions of the truth, they exhibit a consistent disregard for their son's feelings, and a consistent willingness to destroy his growth. With false rationality and normalcy, they aggressively refuse to consider that they are in any way responsible for his resultant depression, eventually suggesting his condition must be incurable and genetic.
Some of his conclusions about the psychiatric condition that Peck designates as "evil," are derived from his close study of one patient he names "Charlene." Although Charlene is not dangerous, she is ultimately unable to have empathy for others in any way. According to Peck, people like her see others as play things or tools to be manipulated for their own uses or entertainment. Peck states that these "evil" people are rarely seen by psychiatrists, and have never been treated successfully.
Using the My Lai Massacre as a case study, Peck also examines group evil, discussing how human group morality is strikingly less than individual morality.7 Partly, he considers this to be a result of specialization, which allows people to avoid individual responsibility and "pass the buck," resulting in a reduction of group conscience.
Ultimately Peck says that evil arises out of free choice. He describes it thus: Every person stands at a crossroads, with one path leading to God, and the other path leading to the Devil. The path of God is the right path, and accepting this path is akin to submission to a higher power. However, if a person wants to convince himself and others that he has free choice, he would rather take a path which cannot be attributed to its being the right path. Thus, he chooses the path of evil.
The Different Drum
The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace,10 first published in 1987, moves from the development of the individual to the growth of groups, of community. The first section of the book, entitled "The Foundation," is based on Peck's own experiences with communities. In particular, he shares details of four communities: Friends Seminary which he attended as a teenager from 1952-1954; a group run according to the "Tavistock Model" that he attended in February 1967; the "Tech Group" in Okinawa in 1968-1969; and a "sensitivity group" held in the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine in 1972. Through these experiences Peck defines what he calls "true community," how to form it, and how it can be maintained.
The second section, "The Bridge," investigates more theoretical aspects of community building. In particular, Peck notes how our individual human nature causes difficulties when we are brought together. The formation of a true community requires transformation on the part of individuals in order to be open to the experience of community with others.
The final section, "The Solution," is Peck's attempt to show how true community can solve many problems in the world. He begins with communication, arguing that in true community there is genuine, honest communication without fear of reprisal, and that in such a state human beings are capable of resolving differences and breaking the barriers that divide us. Peck argues that with such communication conflict can be resolved peacefully, war averted.
In The Road Less Traveled,6 Peck talks of the importance of discipline, by which he means self-discipline, describing four aspects:
- Delaying gratification: Sacrificing present comfort for future gains.
- Acceptance of responsibility: Accepting responsibility for one's own decisions.
- Dedication to truth: Honesty, both in word and deed.
- Balancing: Handling conflicting requirements. Scott Peck talks of an important skill to prioritize between different requirements - bracketing.
Peck defines discipline as the basic set of tools required to solve life's problems. He considers these tools to include delaying gratification, assuming responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing. Peck argues that these are techniques of suffering, that enable the pain of problems to be worked through and systematically solved, producing growth. He argues that most people avoid the pain of dealing with their problems and suggests that it is through facing the pain of problem solving that life becomes more meaningful.
Delaying gratification is the process by which pain is chosen to be experienced before pleasure. Most learn this activity by the age of five. For example, a six-year-old child will eat the cake first and enjoy the frosting last. However, a sizable number of adolescents seem to lack this capacity. These problematic students are controlled by their impulses. Such youngsters indulge in drugs, get into frequent fights, and often find themselves in confrontation with authority.
Peck states that it is only through taking responsibility, and accepting the fact that life has problems, that these problems can then be solved. He argues that Neurosis and character-disordered people represent two opposite disorders of responsibility. Neurotics assume too much responsibility and feel responsible for everything that goes wrong in their life. While character disordered people deny responsibility, blaming others for their problems. Peck writes in the Road Less Traveled that "It is said 'neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable'."6 Peck argues that everyone is neurotic or character-disordered at some time in their life, and the balance is to avoid both extremes.
Dedication to the truth represents the capacity of an individual to modify and update their worldview when exposed to new information discordant with the old view. For example a bitter childhood can leave a person with the false idea that the world is a hostile and inhuman place. However with continued exposure to more positive aspects of the world, this existing worldview is challenged and needs to be modified to integrate the new experiences. Peck also argues that dedication to truth implies a life of genuine self-examination, a willingness to be personally challenged by others, and honesty to oneself and others.
Peck considers the use of these interrelated techniques of discipline as paramount, if the difficulties and conflicting requirements of life are to be dealt with and balanced successfully.
Neurotic and Legitimate Suffering
Peck believes that it is only through suffering and agonizing using the four aspects of discipline (delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing) that we can resolve the many puzzles and conflicts that we face.6 This is what he calls undertaking "legitimate suffering." Peck argues that by trying to avoid legitimate suffering, people actually ultimately end up suffering more. This extra unnecessary suffering is what Scott Peck terms "neurotic suffering." He references Carl Jung "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering."11 Peck says that our aim must be to eliminate neurotic suffering and to work through our legitimate suffering in order to achieve our individual goals.6
Peck discusses evil in his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,7 and also in a chapter of The Road Less Traveled.6
Though the topic of evil has historically been the domain of religion, Peck makes great efforts to keep much of his discussion on a scientific basis, explaining the specific psychological mechanisms by which evil operates. He is also conscious of the danger of a psychology of evil being misused for personal or political ends. Peck considers that such a psychology should be used with great care, as falsely labeling people as evil is one of the very characteristics of evil. He argues that a diagnosis of evil should come from the standpoint of healing and safety for its victims, but also with the possibility, even if remote, that the evil themselves may be cured.
Evil is described by Peck as "militant ignorance." The original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" is as a process that leads us to "miss the mark" and fall short of perfection.7 Peck argues that while most people are conscious of this, at least on some level, those that are evil actively and militantly refuse this consciousness. Peck considers those he calls evil to be attempting to escape and hide from their own conscience (through self-deception), and views this as being quite distinct from the apparent absence of conscience evident in sociopathy.
He characterizes evil as a malignant type of self-righteousness in which there is an active rather than passive refusal to tolerate imperfection (sin) and its consequent guilt.67 This syndrome results in a projection of evil onto selected specific innocent victims (often children), which is the paradoxical mechanism by which the "People of the Lie" commit their evil.7
According to Peck an evil person:
- Is consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection
- Deceives others as a consequence of their own self-deception
- Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else ("their insensitivity toward him was selective")7
- Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others
- Abuses political (emotional) power ("the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion")6
- Maintains a high level of respectability, and lies incessantly in order to do so
- Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
- Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
- Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury
Peck believed that people who are evil attack others rather than face their own failures. Most evil people realize the evil deep within themselves but are unable to "tolerate the pain of introspection," or admit to themselves that they are evil. Thus, they constantly run away from their evil by putting themselves in a position of "moral superiority" and putting the focus of evil on others. Evil is an extreme form of what Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, calls a "character disorder."67
Peck also discussed the question of the devil. Initially he believed, as with "99% of psychiatrists and the majority of clergy,"7 that the devil did not exist; but, after starting to believe in the reality of human evil, he then began to contemplate the reality of spiritual evil. Eventually, after having been referred several possible cases of possession and being involved in two exorcisms, he was converted to a belief in the existence of Satan. Peck considered people who are possessed as being victims of evil, but of not being evil themselves. Peck however considered possession to be rare, and human evil common. He did believe there was some relationship between Satan and human evil, but was unsure of its exact nature.
Peck's perspective on love (in The Road Less Traveled) is that love is not a "feeling," it is an "activity" and an "investment." He defines love as, "The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."6 Love is primarily actions towards nurturing the spiritual growth of another.
Peck seeks to differentiate between love and cathexis. Cathexis is what explains sexual attraction, the instinct for cuddling pets and pinching babies' cheeks. However, cathexis is not love. All the same, true love cannot begin in isolation, a certain amount of cathexis is necessary to get sufficiently close to be able to truly love.
Once through the cathexis stage, the work of love begins. It is not a feeling. It consists of what you do for another person. As Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, "Love is as love does." It is about giving yourself and the other person what they need to grow. It is about truly knowing and understanding them.
The Four Stages of Spiritual Development
Peck postulates that there are four stages of human spiritual development:1012
- Stage I is chaotic, disordered, and reckless. Very young children are in Stage I. They tend to defy and disobey, and are unwilling to accept a "will greater than their own." They are extremely egoistic and lack empathy for others. Many criminals are people who have never grown out of Stage I.
- Stage II is the stage at which a person has blind faith in authority figures and sees the world as divided simply into good and evil, right and wrong, us and them. Once children learn to obey their parents and other authority figures, often out of fear or shame, they reach Stage II. Many so-called religious people are essentially Stage II people, in the sense that they have blind faith in God, and do not question His existence. With blind faith comes humility and a willingness to obey and serve. The majority of good, law-abiding citizens never move out of Stage II.
- Stage III is the stage of scientific skepticism and questioning. A Stage III person does not accept things on faith but only accepts them if "convinced" logically. Many people working in scientific and technological research are in Stage III. They often reject the existence of spiritual or supernatural forces since these are difficult to measure or prove scientifically. Those who do retain their spiritual beliefs, move away from the simple, official doctrines of fundamentalism.
- Stage IV is the stage where an individual starts enjoying the mystery and beauty of nature and existence. While retaining skepticism, such people perceive grand patterns in nature and develop a deeper understanding of good and evil, forgiveness and mercy, compassion and love. Such religiousness and spirituality differ significantly from that of a Stage II person, in the sense that it does not involve accepting things through blind faith or out of fear, but because of "genuine" belief, and does not judge people harshly or seek to inflict punishment on them for their transgressions. This is the stage of loving others as oneself, losing one's attachment to one's ego, and forgiving one's enemies. Stage IV people are labeled as Mystics.
These four stages provide foundational material for Dave Schmelzer's 2008 book Not The Religious Type.13
Based on his experience with community building workshops, Peck described four stages of community building:
- Pseudocommunity: In the first stage, well-intentioned people try to demonstrate their ability to be friendly and sociable, but they do not really delve beneath the surface of each other's ideas or emotions. They use obvious generalities and mutually-established stereotypes in speech. Instead of conflict resolution, pseudocommunity involves conflict avoidance, which maintains the appearance or facade of true community. It also serves only to maintain positive emotions, instead of creating a safe space for honesty and love through bad emotions as well. While they still remain in this phase, members will never really obtain evolution or change, as individuals or as a bunch.
- Chaos: The first step towards real positivity is, paradoxically, a period of negativity. Once the mutually-sustained facade of bonhomie is shed, negative emotions flood through: Members start to vent their mutual frustrations, annoyances, and differences. It is a chaotic stage, but Peck describes it as a "beautiful chaos" because it is a sign of healthy growth.
- Emptiness: In order to transcend the stage of "Chaos," members are forced to shed that which prevents real communication. Biases and prejudices, need for power and control, self-superiority, and other similar motives which are only mechanisms of self-validation and/or ego-protection, must yield to empathy, openness to vulnerability, attention, and trust. Hence this stage does not mean people should be "empty" of thoughts, desires, ideas, or opinions. Rather, it refers to emptiness of all mental and emotional distortions which reduce one's ability to really share, listen to, and build on those thoughts, ideas, and so forth. It is often the hardest step in the four-level process, as it necessitates the release of patterns which people develop over time in a subconscious attempt to maintain self-worth and positive emotion. While this is therefore a stage of "annihilation" in a certain sense, it should be viewed not merely as a "death" but as a rebirth-of one's true self at the individual level, and at the social level of the genuine and true Community.
- True community: Having worked through emptiness, the people in the community enter a place of complete empathy with one another. There is a great level of tacit understanding. People are able to relate to each other's feelings. Discussions, even when heated, never get sour, and motives are not questioned. A deeper and more sustainable level of happiness obtains between the members, which does not have to be forced. Even and perhaps especially when conflicts arise, it is understood that they are part of positive change.
Peck's community-building methods differ in principle from team development. While teams in business organizations need to develop explicit rules, guidelines, and protocols, the "emptiness" stage of community building is characterized, not by laying down the rules explicitly, but by shedding resistance within the minds of the individuals.
- Characteristics of True Community
Peck described what he considered to be the most salient characteristics of a true community:10
- Inclusivity, commitment and consensus: Members accept and embrace each other, celebrating their individuality and transcending their differences. They commit themselves to the effort and the people involved. They make decisions and reconcile their differences through consensus.
- Realism: Members bring together multiple perspectives to better understand the whole context of the situation. Decisions are more well-rounded and humble, rather than one-sided and arrogant.
- Contemplation: Members examine themselves. They are individually and collectively self-aware of the world outside themselves, the world inside themselves, and the relationship between the two.
- A safe place: Members allow others to share their vulnerability, heal themselves, and express who they truly are.
- A laboratory for personal disarmament: Members experientially discover the rules for peacemaking and embrace its virtues. They feel and express compassion and respect for each other as fellow human beings.
- A group that can fight gracefully: Members resolve conflicts with wisdom and grace. They listen and understand, respect each other's gifts, accept each other's limitations, celebrate their differences, bind each other's wounds, and commit to a struggle together rather than against each other.
- A group of all leaders: Members harness the "flow of leadership" to make decisions and set a course of action. It is the spirit of community itself that leads, and not any single individual.
- A spirit: The true spirit of community is the spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power. Members may view the source of this spirit as an outgrowth of the collective self or as the manifestation of a Higher Will.
M. Scott Peck was a recognized authority on the relationship between religion and psychiatry, pioneering the inclusion of the spiritual in psychiatry and psychology at a time when their efforts to be scientific had led them to avoid any connection with religious ideas. For his work, Peck received many awards and honors. In 1992 Dr. Peck was selected by the American Psychiatric Association as a distinguished psychiatrist lecturer "for his outstanding achievement in the field of psychiatry as an educator, researcher and clinician." In January 2002, he received the President's Award from Case Western Reserve for Distinguished Alumni. Fuller Theological Seminary houses the archives of his publications, awards, and correspondence.
Peck also received a number of awards and honors for his community building and peacemaking efforts. These include the Kaleidoscope Award for Peacemaking in 1984, the Temple International Peace Prize in 1994, and the Georgetown University Learning, Faith and Freedom Medal in 1996.
In December 1984, Peck co-founded the Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE), a tax-exempt, nonprofit, public educational foundation, whose stated mission is "to teach the principles of community to individuals and organizations." Originally based in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was created to promote the formation of communities through community building workshops held around the world, which, Peck argued, is a first step towards uniting humanity and satisfying people's "deep yearning for authentic human connection." The foundation continues to offer Community Building workshops and Community Facilitation programs around the world. 14
The Blue Heron Farm is an intentional community in central North Carolina, whose found