Sometimes we read that Assagioli was a pacifist, and it is easy to draw that conclusion for the untutored eye; however, if we take a closer look, there are definitely other perspectives on that matter.
By Kenneth Sørensen
It is a well-known fact for many students of Psychosynthesis that Assagioli was accused of being a pacifist and jailed for “praying for peace and other international crimes. during the Second World War by the fascists in Italy. We find a wonderful testimony of this experience in the book Freedom In Jail based on Assagioli’s notes from his time in Jail. (1)
We also learn that Assagioli served as a doctor during the First World War and that he refused to carry a gun but instead carved a “pistol” out of soap and painted it black. These historical notes, combined with his spiritual outlook and his gentle and peaceful nature, can easily be interpreted as pacifism.
However, if we investigate his few writings on the matter, another picture emerges. In his recollection of his arrest, he writes the following (2016, p. 15):
Interrogator: “You are a pacifist!”
RA: “Everybody has an ideal of peace. Nobody wants war for its own sake. But as a psychologist, I don’t believe that peace may be secured by merely political and legal means, such as treaties, leagues, pacts, etc. and even less by a systematic and violent opposition to war, by “making war on war.”
Consequently, I am not and never have been a “pacifist” in the current militant and even ideological sense. I am deeply convinced that peace is fundamentally a psychological problem. I believe that there is in man a fundamental fighting instinct or tendency, deeply rooted in his animal nature.”
Assagioli then goes on to explain his position focussing on the need for transmuting and sublimating the aggressive impulse, something he also teaches about in a conference of doctors (2) and elsewhere (3).
So what are his arguments against pacifism? He doesn’t believe that peace can be achieved merely through political and legal ways nor by an aggressive opposition to war. He said that during the Second World War, when it was the norm to wage war, whenever a nation wanted to create more “lebensraum”. I believe that the later Assagioli would recognise the importance of the UN and other peacekeeping organisations that were established after the war. However, there is no doubt that his primary perspective was that peace is something that must be established in the heart of man through the harmonisation of the aggressive impulse. In his excellent article The Resolution of Conflicts & Spiritual Conflicts and Crises, published in 1975 posthumously, Assagioli writes (3):
“I shall conclude this section with the confirmation provided by the Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO, the great cultural association of the United Nations, which affirms: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
It seems that Assagioli was too realistic and had too much insight into the instinctual nature of man to take an ideological and pacifistic stance toward war, but there might be other reasons, too, something we learn in a brief document about goodwill. In it, he writes about the blend of love and will in its three aspects: Benevolence, Goodwill and the will-to-good, and he also expands his view on pacifism (4):
“[Benevolence] can be described as a disposition to goodness, a tendency towards harmony, peace and the elimination of all strife and conflict. But it is a passive attitude, an acceptance of existing conditions, a willingness to compromise in order to avoid the discomforts, effort of action, and the sufferings and risks of struggle, even when action and struggle would be necessary and proper. There is therefore in this attitude not only goodness, but also laziness, inertia and desire to “live in peace”; and therefore there is a selfish aspect to it, even if not conscious, or masked by “good intentions”. Clearly, this kind of benevolence — which could be called a “psychological pacifism” — is not adequate to solve individual and collective problems. On the contrary, it gives free rein to the bullying, violence and oppression of those who want to possess what is not theirs, those who want to dominate and assert themselves without respect or restraint. In this “benevolence,” despite its name, it can be said that the element of “will” is almost entirely lacking.”
The above quote is certainly not from a pacifist. Here is no passive acceptance of “the bullying, violence and oppression of those who want to possess what is not theirs.” We still see this type of behaviour from autocratic and totalitarian states today, however, to a much lesser degree than prior to the Second World War. It is in these circumstances that we must apply the will – individually and collectively – in times “when action and struggle” are necessary.
In a speech to doctors in 1972 (2), Assagioli commented on the idea of a world government and concluded that even though it might be a future ideal, it is not possible now due to the lack of world citizens and world leaders with the right calibre. His point is to take the realistic approach and don’t become too identified with one’s idealistic visions, and in this context, he addresses the pacifist movement:
“Observe the pacifist movements: they have often done more harm than good, precisely because of their intransigent idealist attitude of all or nothing, rejection of weapons; …
I would say that idealists and pacifists would even deny the existence of nations, but nations are psychological realities that are charged with emotion — charged with energies that are not only combative, but also emotive in other ways. Here, too, one must work on sublimation and elevation, but not repress what is called “patriotism,” that is, a certain attachment to one’s own nation. The same principle then applies at all levels; and if we keep it well in mind, we will avoid other counterproductive situations, and of tilting against windmills like Don Quixote.
So always propose constructive methods and techniques, without attacking anyone else. In this case, I did not attack pacifists, but I attacked the unrealistic pacifist idealism. But among these idealists there are some of the best representatives of humanity — some are my friends whom I appreciate very much and who are worth much more than the narrow realism and the easy criticism of conservatives and profiteers. So personally they are above me, but their methods do not work.”
It is in the above quote we come to the root cause of why Assagioli was not a pacifist, in my opinion. The pacifists “intransigent idealist attitude of all or nothing, rejection of weapons” is not working due to the combative nature of men and women, so what he is attacking is their “unrealistic pacifist idealism”.
I think it is safe to conclude that Assagioli’s perspective on violent conflicts allows an appropriate response; that in the face of individual and national bullies, who want to possess what is not theirs, we have the right to self-defence with whatever means necessary.
Thank you to Jan Kuniholm and Amanda Mattiussi for the translation of the two Italian articles, which are the background for this article.
- Assagioli, Roberto. Freedom In Jail, 2016, edited and introduced by Catherine Ann Lombard, Istituto di Psicosintesi.
- Assagioli, Roberto, 1972, Conference of Doctors, translated from Italian by Jan Kuniholm & Amanda Mattiussi, Original Title: CONVEGNO DEI MEDICI, From The Assagioli Archive Florence. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/conference-of-doctors-by-roberto-assagioli/
- Assagioli, Roberto, 1975, The Resolution of Conflicts & Spiritual Conflicts and Crises, Psychosynthesis Research Foundation, Issue No. 34, https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/the-resolution-of-conflicts-spiritual-conflicts/
- Assagioli, Roberto, Goodwill, translated from Italian by Jan Kuniholm & Amanda Mattiussi, Original Title: BUONA VOLONTÀ, From The Assagioli Archive Florence. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/good-will-by-roberto-assagioli/