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Fearless Honesty

“The late, great psychiatrist, R.D. Laing stated his definition of science as: ‘…a form of knowledge adequate to its subject’ (The Politics of Experience). From listening to essays based on Jeremy Griffith’s work, it is despairingly obvious that the empirical, reductionist, mechanistic sciences are completely inadequate in comprehending what is required to solve the human condition. The formidable task requires the processing of immense amounts of knowledge to be synthesized into ONE WHOLE. This achievement is the singular miracle of FREEDOM: The End of the Human Condition.” Linda MacCarthy

In the following excerpt from Freedom Essay 48: R.D. Laing’s fearlessly honest descriptions of the human condition, Jeremy Griffith explains how, when it comes to written descriptions of our condition, only a rare few in human history have managed to be as honest as R.D. Laing. Moreover, not only did Laing manage to be incredibly honest about our human condition, he also recognised that humanity’s most urgent task was to find the source of all the madness:

Black and white portrait of R.D. Laing

R.D. Laing

The psychiatrist Ronald David (R.D.) Laing (1927–1989) spent his entire life treating mental illness. Core to his approach was the belief that insanity could be understood, because it was, as he famously said, ‘a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world’.

  • Self and Others by R.D. Laing book cover
  • Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing book cover

In defiance of the orthodoxy, and indeed of the whole world of denial, Laing cultivated this honesty about our ‘insane world’, and while the resulting transparency of the falseness of the world around him eventually led him to a state of lonely despair, it did allow him to describe the human condition as clearly as anyone who has ever lived:

‘We are dead, but think we are alive. We are asleep, but think we are awake. We are dreaming, but take our dreams to be reality. We are the halt, lame, blind, deaf, the sick. But we are doubly unconscious. We are so ill that we no longer feel ill, as in many terminal illnesses. We are mad, but have no insight [into the fact of our madness]’ (Self and Others, 1961, p.38 of 192). (see paragraph 123 of FREEDOM).

‘Our alienation goes to the roots. The realization of this is the essential springboard for any serious reflection on any aspect of present inter-human life…We are born into a world where alienation awaits us. We are potentially men, but are in an alienated state [p.12 of 156] …the ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be. As adults, we have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavour; as men of the world, we hardly know of the existence of the inner world [p.22] …The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man [p.24]between us and It [our true selves or soul] there is a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete. Deus absconditu [God has absconded]. Or [more precisely] we have absconded [from God/the integrative ideals] [p.118] …The outer divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness. We are in an age of darkness. The state of outer darkness is a state of sin—i.e. alienation or estrangement from the inner light [p.116] …We are all murderers and prostitutes…We are bemused and crazed creatures, strangers to our true selves, to one another [pp.11-12]’ (The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, 1967). (see par. 123 of FREEDOM)

R.D. Laing holding his head in his hands

R.D. Laing, 1974

In describing just how complete our alienation had become, it is notable how closely Laing’s words echo those of the Biblical prophet Isaiah, who was Plato-like in his honesty about how much the human race has been living in darkness, saying, ‘justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes…Truth is nowhere to be found’ (Isa. 59). Isaiah was equally forthright about the extent of our now horrendously upset condition when he wrote, ‘From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sore…Your country is desolate…the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her’, and ‘the world languishes and withers…The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws [become divisively rather than integratively behaved]…In the streets…all joy turns to gloom, all gaiety is banished from the earth’, and ‘This people’s heart has become calloused [alienated]; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes [hence the problem of the ‘deaf effect’ described in F. Essay 11]’ (Isa. 1, 24 & 6:10 footnote). (see pars 278, 182 & 681 of FREEDOM)

  • Marble sculpture of Plato

    Plato (from the original of the 4th century BC)

  • Painting of Isaiah by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel

    Isaiah (by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1512)

Not content to merely chronicle the all-enveloping ‘age of darkness’ in which we dwelt, Laing was also remarkable in his realisation that what was needed was to find the source reason for the madness. Indeed, Laing realised that finding understanding of the human condition was the most urgent and important task facing humanity:

‘The requirement of the present, the failure of the past, is the same: to provide a thoroughly self-conscious and self-critical human account of man…Our alienation goes to the roots. The realization of this is the essential springboard for any serious reflection on any aspect of present inter-human life [pp.11-12 of 156] …We respect the voyager, the explorer, the climber, the space man. It makes far more sense to me as a valid project—indeed, as a desperately urgently required project for our time—to explore the inner space and time of consciousness. Perhaps this is one of the few things that still make sense in our historical context. We are so out of touch with this realm [so in denial of the issue of the human condition] that many people can now argue seriously that it does not exist. It is very small wonder that it is perilous indeed to explore such a lost realm [p.105]’ (The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise). (see par. 649 of FREEDOM)

And it is this ‘thoroughly self-conscious and self-critical human account of man’ that has at last been found. And you will know this account is the true explanation of our condition because it is based on the ‘essential springboard’ of recognition that our ‘conscious’ mind is deeply psychologically troubled—that we are a psychotic and neurotic, immensely alienated species. (Laing’s phrase about our alienation being like ‘fifty feet of solid concrete’ is amongst the most used phrases in all of my writing).