The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

M. Scott Peck

Book cover

I picked up this book after reading some excerpts of it in a blog post on personal responsibility:

In many ways, TRLT is similar to Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”: mid-twentieth century books on psychology that became huge best-sellers, but that my generation is relatively unaware of. Although I think they are both worth reading, I did like MSM better.

The excerpts in the blog post come from the first section, on discipline, which I think is excellent. But as my dad put it in a Goodreads comment, “the last couple chapters get kind of wacky.” Indeed.

Peck’s section on discipline has a lot in common with Stoic philosophy, which is near to my heart. Actually, I am surprised that he never once mentions Stoicism. One of the best insights in the book comes right at the beginning: “Life is difficult.” Wow, insightful, huh? But actually, I think it is. The point that Peck makes is that all of us, to one extent or another, have it in our heads that life “ought to” be easy, and that we shouldn’t have to face problems. (I certainly observe this characteristic in myself.) The desire not to face problems leads to all manner of dysfunction, and the irony is that facing problems is the main way we grow, which is one of the things (I think Peck would say the thing) that makes life fulfilling. Accepting the need to suffer through problems (which is not to say, not trying to resolve them) is a crucial step in having a healthy mental life, and one that we need to take continuously, and not once-and-for-all.

Why do we have this expectation that things are “supposed to” be easier than they are? Peck doesn’t say, but I would argue that it is deeply associated with living in a consumerist society. Consumerism is successful when it convinces people that things are not as they should be, and that buying various products (or, more shrewdly, “experiences”) is the primary way of making them better. Of course, the kinds of problems (or “problems”) that consumer goods can solve are not the deep ones that Peck is concerned with. But the mentality is inculcated at a deep level and I think it spills over into inappropriate aspects of our lives. One of my issues with Peck is this inwardness–although he talks extensively about case studies of individual patients, he does not connect his ideas to history or other threads in society (Stoicism, consumerism). I think this characteristic is associated with Peck’s overall “mysticist” approach. By not drawing these connections, he tends to make things seem perhaps deeper or more mysterious than they are.

At any rate, I think Peck’s section on discipline is extremely valuable: the strong emphasis on personal responsibility for facing and solving problems, the importance of dedication to the truth, and the key role of balance.

I’ll try to avoid talking about the other sections in as much depth, so as not to make this review too much of a tome. Suffice it to say that my appreciation declines as the book goes on, as my dad predicted. The section on love is also pretty good; the section on grace is pretty weird (though it still has some insightful points).

Several things annoyed me about the book. First, I think Peck has a tendency to redefine terms in a way that is unnecessarily provocative. For example, he asserts that the feeling of falling in love has nothing to do with “real” love, which he defines as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I would say this definition corresponds to something more like “caring” (and indeed, see Nel Noddings’ book of that name for an excellent treatment of the concept). As another example, he asserts that everyone has a religion, even atheists, but he defines “religion” as “world view.” Again, I think that these re-definitions serve to make things seem more mysterious than they really are.

The other thing that annoyed the heck out of me was his abuse of concepts of science (which, by the way, is a “religion”) and statistics. I’ll give the three most egregious examples that come immediately to mind. First, in the section on “serendipity,” he repeatedly makes reference to the “fact” that people survive bad car accidents “more often than you think they would,” as some sort of indication that there is a higher power at work. Of course, he adduces no statistical evidence for this argument, and doesn’t seem aware of the availability heuristic (perhaps forgivable given the time of the book’s writing). Second, he speculates that the feeling of “falling in love” may be an evolutionary development that serves to make people more comfortable with entering the contract of marriage, even though the institution of marriage in any contractual sense is so recent as to be evolutionarily irrelevant (and in general he has a very teleological view of evolution). Third, he completely misuses the second law of thermodynamics, arguing that the fact that life runs counter to entropy is again an indication of some higher power at work. (The second law, which states that entropy is always weakly increasing, only applies to closed systems, which the earth emphatically is not.)

There is also some “wacky” stuff about humans evolving to become God, and doors are left open for polygamy, but I’ll leave that aside.

Finally, and again in keeping with Peck’s inward orientation, the book is very heavily psychotherapy-focused. That is perhaps forgivable given his professional background, and I am not against psychotherapy, but it seems to drive many of his key assumptions. Most prominently, that the meaning of life is to be found in a constant effort toward personal spiritual growth. Now, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing by any means, but it is certainly notable to me that it seems similar to everlasting psychotherapy.

Although I spent a lot of time on the things that annoyed me, I want to reiterate that the book contains some very worthwhile ideas on responsibility, suffering, and freedom. (Indeed, Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom” is also on my to-read list.)

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars