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Szasz as a Humanist

Szasz’s personal belief system can be considered humanistic. Formally, this can be inferred from his being chosen as “Humanist of the Year” in 1973 by the American Humanist Association, and from the fact that he is or was a member of the Editorial Boards of different humanistic periodicals. He also published articles himself in humanistic magazines.

For Szasz, every belief system that alleges to extend sense and meaning to human existence is dangerous because people use such belief systems to gain power over other people. It makes no difference to him whether such a belief system is based on religion, science, morality, or other premise. Skepticism towards anyone who wishes to “convert” others to whichever belief system leads him to reject religion, but also movements such as socialism and Marxism.

Nonetheless certain themes regularly reappear in his views about humanity. One is the way he portrays life: “The simplest and most ancient of human truths … namely, that life is an arduous and tragic struggle; that what we call ‘sanity’ … has a great deal to do with competence, earned by struggling for excellence; with compassion, hard won by confronting conflict; and with modesty and patience, acquired through silence and suffering.” (Schizophrenia, pp. 82-83.)

No matter how strong man’s inclination to envision a future for himself that is better than his present, be it in the form of the Marxist utopia or in the form of a religious ideal, Szasz rejects such visions as self-aggrandizing and unrealistic. Perhaps he expresses his own view on sense and senselessness in life most clearly in Human Nature and Psychotherapy. “The idea that life is meaningless is difficult, if not impossible, for people to accept. Perhaps this, too, is a matter of education. Because of the megalomanic significance that man has always attributed to his own conduct, most of us are unfit to approach this issue with equanimity. Although Shakespeare suggested, and the existentialists reiterate, that life ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ people must live as if this were not true. Indeed, for some people, the meaninglessness or futility of life may itself constitute a meaning – perhaps by the same kind of psychological reversal and reinterpretation that can turn submission into domination, humility into pride, and asceticism into sensuality. In any case, I accept Camus’ thesis that hope is a destructive emotion, and that resignation without bitterness, without anger, and without inactivity is the optimal mood for modern man. This is an integral feature of the portrait of Moral Man.” Freedom and autonomy are core values to Szasz. (See 2.2.) In addition, he repeatedly stresses dignity, honesty, trustworthiness, respect for oneself and others, and similar virtues as prerequisites for human social intercourse. These values arise largely from his view of man as a free and autonomous being. They are also the premises on which he bases his beliefs about institutional psychiatry and about Laing’s antipsychiatry. His values form criteria for assessing all the interpersonal phenomena and institutions he studies.

Szasz considers man to be motivated mainly by a craving for power. Power to Szasz is not abstract in the sense of influence or moral authority. He means the concrete possibility to impose one’s will on another person, and to compel that other person to actions he does not want. Power is political power in the sense of obtaining that which is desired by threat of violence, and economic power in the sense of owning and obtaining money. It can be a determining factor for everything a person wishes to do and achieve. Power is the angle from which Szasz observes interhuman contacts and activities. It is an almost ever-present preoccupation.

The role of power as “ulterior motive” or, as Szasz calls it, strategic meaning of human action, is comparable to the role Freud attributed to sexuality. As according to Freud sexual intentions and wishes contribute to practically everything a person does or attempts, according to Szasz intentions and wishes for power contribute to practically everything a person does or attempts. I see here a structural correspondence between Freud and Szasz. Both identify a “dissociation” of reality. (See Chapter IV, 3.2, 10.) Things are not what they seem. Their true meaning can only be deduced when the particular point of view that each espouses is chosen. A difference may be Freud’s view of the role of the unconscious. It causes a person to be driven by drives unknown to himself, of which he is in a way a victim. Szasz, on the other hand, seems to be of the opinion that people are completely aware of their struggle for power, and in consequence he accuses many people of abuse of power. I will return to this line of thought in Chapter IV, 3.
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