A Higher View of the Man-Woman Problem, Interview with Roberto Assagioli
We cannot accurately speak of women and men in general. Each one of us is a human being before being ‘man’ or ‘woman’. And each one of us, man or woman, has roles and functions to fulfil, individually, inter-individually and socially
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A Higher View of the Man-Woman Problem, Interview with Roberto Assagioli
A Higher View of the Man-Woman Problem
By Roberto Assagioli and Claude Servan-Schreiber
Source: 1977, Synthesis, 1, 1, 116-123, 77
The first time that I saw Roberto Assagioli, was about two years ago, at his home, in Florence, in the old house where a large part of his life has unfolded. He showed us into his office, cluttered with books and papers to such a point that he had to move a pile over so that my husband and I could be seated.
For a long moment we looked at each other, all three of us, without speaking. Assagioli smiling, his eyes, astonishingly vital within a face lined by great age, moving over us, going from one to the other. Was he submitting us to an examination? It was instead the opposite. He was allowing us to discover him leisurely, to establish a connection with him, without us even realizing that was happening. It was a climate of communication where words find their place later, while something like a current was developing between us. His face was shining with an extraordinary, radiant inner joy, such as I have never encountered in an octogenarian, and rarely in men much younger. This message of joy, perceived immediately, communicated immediately, is the finest memory which I keep of the numerous meetings which we later had with him. “All is possible and accessible to you: joy, serenity, I offer them to you as a gift”.
I did not expect to find in Roberto Assagioli the echo of my own concern in a particular, specific area: the psychology of women within a world in which their roles, their functions, leads them to undergo first a conditioning, then an oppression which often they do not yet recognize. In the eyes of the feminist that I am, the father of psychosynthesis has therefore an additional merit: an amazing capacity to adapt to changing attitudes, which come to him from his will to understand others and from his love of scientific truth, even if different from past beliefs. On the subject of women, he had in the past been limited; and he knows it and frankly admits it. He had been influenced by cultural prejudices denoting as “feminine nature” that which is largely the product of a social system. But later he freed himself, in this respect, from the weight of his upbringing, his environment, his age.
He quickly became interested in the new existential research into the nature of women which is our liberation movement. At his age, and for an Italian, this is a double achievement! Especially if one judges according to his conclusions.
There is not, and there cannot be a general psychosynthesis of women or, for that matter, of men. There is only, for each individual, of either sex, a personal, unique journey, toward the development of all his emotional, mental and spiritual faculties. “The human being”, he said, “today is no longer defined by any of his roles. I believe in the primacy of the human being not conditioned by his sex”. Can there be a more beautiful message? Here, more fully, is what he said to me on the subject: Assagioli:
“We cannot accurately speak of women and men in general. Each one of us is a human being before being ‘man’ or ‘woman’. And each one of us, man or woman, has roles and functions to fulfil, individually, inter-individually and socially. Here is where the differences begin. These are most emphatically not differences in value, only differences in function. The human being is never defined by any of these roles. Women, as human beings, can accept or not accept the role of wife or of mother. She can choose another vocation. It is not a ‘must’, a necessity. It is a free choice.
“Woman therefore is right in demanding that she be treated as a human being and not as a ‘mere woman’, as simply a woman and only that. She is right for refusing to be identified with a certain image of woman. She is a living being, with all the dignity and the potential of a whole human being. All attitudes which limit the possibilities of woman are mistaken. Women have the right to demand respect and parity with men. And the same, of course, is true for men.
“Each of us can equally choose to play different roles. For instance, a woman can decide to play the role of spouse or of mother, or both. She can carry on a creative, social or business activity. She can choose one role, or she can alternate several of them, perhaps during the same day, perhaps over longer periods of time. This is the free choice of a human being. I believe in the primacy of the human being unconditioned by his or her sex.
“The differences between men and women are clearly found reflected in our environment – in the family and in society – and it is here that we must work to eliminate their unfair and harmful crystallization into rigid stereotypes and prejudices.
“But it is important to realize that these differences exist also within our psyche, in the depths of our unconscious, and, just as much, in the collective unconscious of humanity, where they appear through some of the most powerful archetypes. So there are universal masculine and feminine principles, which manifest themselves in quite diverse ways through different individuals. In other words, while masculine and feminine principles do exist in the universe, different people experience them and describe them in different ways – as is equally the case with beauty, truth, harmony, goodness, justice or any of the other universal principles.
“The point is not to try to define what these principles are, but to distinguish, in our consciousness and in our relations with others, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ from ‘man’ and ‘woman’. We need to recognize that both the masculine and feminine principles exist in their own rights, and that they are present – although in unique forms and different proportions – in every man and in every woman.
Within each human being is a percentage of psychological masculinity and a percentage of psychological femininity, completely independent of the sex of the individual. Each person is a unique combination of these energies. When we look at women on the whole, we find that they are more attuned to the feminine principle, have greater access to it and have a greater percentage of it in their psychological make-up. And similarly, men are more attuned to the masculine principle. Of course this is a generality. People are unique. Some men are psychologically more feminine than many women, for instance.
“Take the example of the French novelist George Sand (the pen name of Madame DuDevant) and Chopin. They were lovers, and he, physically, had the ‘man’ role and she the ‘woman’ role. But psychologically he was feminine and she was masculine. She talked like a man, wrote in a vigorous style – and smoke cigars! In her personality, masculinity predominated, while Chopin was imaginative, sensitive.
“There is therefore a difference between physical sex and psychological characteristics. Over the years, I have met many who feared – or even believed – themselves to be homosexuals just because they did not recognize this distinction.
“Only by accepting both the masculine and feminine principles, bringing them together, and harmonizing them within ourselves, we will be able to transcend the conditioning of our roles, and to express the whole range of our latent potential.
“As this is true for the individual, so it is true for society. From the social standpoint, there is a great need in present society for the expression of the feminine principles. Society needs women to contribute the higher aspects of their femininity – altruistic love, compassion, the sense of and respect for life – with which they are usually more familiar and which they can often express with greater facility than men. It is therefore desirable for women to be involved in social and political life. If they choose, they can do this while they continue to play traditional feminine roles in the family, or they can give themselves completely over to activities such as social service, renouncing the traditional family roles. They have the full right to do it. Society must respect and appreciate their valuable contribution.
“The fact that a woman may dedicate herself much of the time to certain roles must not prevent her from considering herself equal to men. It is not at all a question of superiority or inferiority. Masculine and feminine psychological characteristics, even though dissimilar, are of the same value. This is a statement of fact.
“Women are right to protest and to rise against the long-standing prejudicial attitudes of society. But in the protest one can lose perspective. One can be destructive and not constructive. Psychologically and historically, conflicts and exaggerations can be understood. The ideal would be for them to remain within boundaries that are constructive as well as just.
“For example, some women go to the opposite extreme of current social stereotypes. Rather than balancing and integrating their feminine energies with their masculine energies, they may virtually deny the feminine in themselves. A woman may reject traditional feminine roles in order to prove to men that she can play masculine roles. Here exists the danger of the masculinization of women.
Ironically, this attitude can proceed from the unconscious evaluation of the masculine principle and masculine roles as inherently superior to the feminine. But there is no such inherent superiority.
What is needed is an honouring and valuing of the feminine principle, and the ways and roles through which this energy can be expressed by both men and women. Masculine roles are neither better nor worse than feminine roles. They are both needed and are of equal value.
“A controversial question is whether the fact that women frequently have certain functions better developed and men others is the product of nature, or of education, or of social pressure. In my opinion all three factors are present, in different proportions, in each individual.
“While this is an important social problem, fortunately, from the individual’s standpoint it can be largely sidestepped. He or she need only consider how he or she is right now, and how he or she can improve.
“For example, if a woman has had fewer opportunities or incentives to express her ideas, her thoughts, it does not seem to me to be necessary to spend much time and energy to search to understand why, who is responsible for this, and so forth. Quite simply, if this function is insufficiently developed, she can develop it. And the same is true for a man who has not developed his feelings, or his intuition . (Needless to say, there are men who need to develop their intellect, and women to need to get in touch with their feelings and cultivate their intuition). The point is to recognize the strong qualities and the deficiencies- and to bring them into a condition of harmony and balance. This is what I call a psychologically and spiritually practical approach.
“Let us come now to the couple. A couple founded on a basis of fundamental equality, respect, reciprocal appreciation as human beings, can work out the psychosynthesis of their particular couple together. Each one can work on his own psychosynthesis, and each one can also collaborate in the psychosynthesis of the other, helping the other to achieve his own psychosynthesis by helping him strengthen his less developed functions. Then once they have done this to a certain point, they can truly act as a couple by combining and complementing their qualities and functions in all situations: in their marriage, their role as parents, and in their social activities.
“For each function to be developed training is needed – often including specific exercises. The process is analogous to the training of muscles: if one wants to play a certain sport, he finds someone who is competent, gets trained and afterwards continues to train himself. If a man recognizes that his emotional and imaginative sides have been neglected, he can cultivate them. If a woman finds that her mind is not as active as she would like, she can train it. One has to ‘cultivate one’s garden’ by planting different flowers. A woman or a man can do it alone, but it is often more effective, much easier and more enjoyable to do it together as two people.
“When we come to particular problems, many difficulties may emerge, and in each specific case we can apply a therapy. I speak of ‘therapy’ here in the broadest sense of the word, because none of us is one hundred per cent healthy in the higher psychosynthetic sense. In difficult situations a benevolent and wise therapist or counsellor can be of great assistance: someone impartial, kindly, comprehensive, who helps the two members of the couple to become more aware, who explains the situation, who indicates possible solutions and helps to choose the means to attain them.
“For each couple the situation is different. Each human being is unique. Thus unique multiplied by unique gives unique squared; this is a fundamental principle of psychosynthesis.
Each case is unique, each situation is unique. Each couple is unique. Each family is unique. We need to focus on the unique existential problem of a certain situation, rather than on generalities, and afterwards to choose techniques which are most adequate for resolving the problems of that particular case. This eliminates the fictitious, inauthentic problems. It may be called the psychoanalytical phase: the discovery of the obstacles to constructive work. And the obstacles are for the most part those which we spoke about before: erroneous attitudes of men and women. I believe therefore in the equality of value, and in the differentiation of functions up to a certain point. Collaboration, integration on a base of equality.
“In education, the child needs a maternal environment and a paternal environment. Much harm is done in education when the paternal influence is missing. But if for some reason there is no father, the woman can take the paternal role also. It is difficult, but she can do it, if she wants to. And the same for the man. If the woman is not there, the father can take on the maternal role also. We can perform any role that life requires of us or that we decide to play. The same is true for work. In a large variety of situations, there is always in the human being the latent possibility to do anything within reasonable limits, to choose freely, to deliver himself from social pressures, prejudices, obstacles in order to reach his higher goals.
“We are now in a period of crisis and profound changes. I believe that woman is evolving perhaps more rapidly than man. For him, the task is to discover the real human being beneath masculine limitations – to be not only a ‘masculine-man’, but a human being, who plays masculine roles, and if he chooses, feminine ones. We know that historically there were matriarchal civilizations and patriarchal civilizations; the ideal would be a new synthetic civilization, that is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but one that is psychosynthetic, that is to say, a civilization in which the highest and best qualities of each are manifested.
“This would be something new. In all historical civilizations and cultures there has been a preponderance of one or the other element. But in this new civilization and the emerging global culture, for the first time humanity is sufficiently developed to make a planetary, global pattern, incorporating the very best of all men and women. I think that this planetary psychosynthesis, this psychosynthesis of humanity is possible and needed. Each particular problem will then have its frame of reference in the greater whole, and conflict can be replaced by harmonious integration and cooperation. All of this is within our reach – for not only is it very beautiful – it is very human.
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