Aristotle & The Princess Diaries

Mia Thermopolis (or, to cite her full name, Amelia Mignonette Grimaldi Thermopolis Renaldo) is the reluctant princess and narrator of The Princess Diaries (all 11 of them), the first few of which I read as a teenager. Like any teenager, Mia had many ambitions and hopes for the future. A frequent feature on her to-do lists was the phrase ‘Achieve self-actualization’ – along with things like ‘Go to princess lesson with Grandmère’ or ‘Say hi to [latest crush] on MSN Messenger’.

Mia gets wind of the term ‘self-actualization’ from her friend Lilly, whose parents are ‘shrinks’, and as a teenager, I think this struck me as therapy culture gone mad. But I should have paid more attention: apparently it refers to a genuine psychological theory.

Where did self-actualization come from

Apparently it was Abraham Maslow who first talked about self-actualization as the highest goal for human beings, positioned at the top of his pyramid or hierarchy of needs. Only once we have satisfied the more basic needs (food and shelter, to security, to love), he said, can we move on towards achieving this highest state of fulfilment. He describes it as:

the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely […] the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially – source

Hierarchy of needs – Source

Later, Carl Jung’s individuation process, through which the ‘self’ develops, also puts self-actualization as the end goal:

individuation can be defined as the achievement of self-actualization through a process of integrating the conscious and the unconscioussource

And it is to this guy that Mia addresses a letter in the seventh Princess Diary (also evincing an interestingly Catholic ‘perfection through suffering’ angle):

The truth is, Dr Jung, I have been striving for fifteen and three-quarter years for self-actualization […] exactly how much does a human being have to endure before she can consider herself self-actualized? – source

Hollywood self-actualization – source

But where did it actually come from

Leaving teenage angst behind, ten years later I find myself reading a book called The Last Superstition by Edward Feser, which defends the Aristotelian-Thomistic (Catholic) view of the world against New Atheism and other objectors. Suddenly I found the same lingo of ‘actuality’ and ‘potentiality’ recurring again and again in the context of explaining how causation works.

The thesis seems to go as follows:

  • We see that things around us can change/move.
  • For a thing to be able to change/move, it has to have the potential to change/move
  • When a thing changes/moves, this potential is actualised (made “real”).
  • What brings a potentiality into an actuality is a cause.
  • You might say that the cause of a tree’s growth is that nutrients from the soil enter via the roots. This is one type of cause, but not the end of the story.
  • According to the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, this doesn’t take into account the fact that everything the tree does is in service of one thing (nowadays we might say the goal is survival and propagation), which gives us reason to think it possesses something that you might call an innate purpose/function. This is said to be another cause for the tree’s growth.

Here is a brief explanation of these different types of causes from Edward Feser’s blog:

Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition influenced by him famously held that to understand a thing required knowing each of its four causes: its material cause, the stuff out of which it is made; its formal cause, the specific form or essence that stuff has taken on, and which makes it the kind of thing it is; its efficient cause, that which brought it into existence; and its final cause, the end or purpose toward which it is directed. – source

The article this explanation is taken from deals with causation when it comes to human actions (rather than in ‘nature’ e.g. why trees grow): how is it that the mind influences the body, how do we go from ‘I intend to throw the ball’ to my fingers producing the appropriate movements. Feser condenses the four causes described above into two causal aspects to consider as explanations for human action:

the neuromuscular processes are by themselves only the material-cum-efficient causal aspect of a single event of which my thoughts and intentions are the formal-cum-final causal aspect. There is simply no way fully and accurately to describe the one event in question without making reference to each of these aspects.

If you like, the physical aspect is driven by the past (things that happened yesterday explain why I’m doing X today); the “mental” aspect is driven by the future (the future accomplishment of a goal influences what I’m doing today).

So why are they using the same words?

It seemed weird to see the founders of psychology borrowing terms from Ancient/medieval philosophers. The whole discipline of psychology at least initially appears to rest on the assumptions Feser argues against, that causation is “mechanical”, that our states of mind are driven inevitably by what happens physically in the brain, and that the mind can thus be reverse-engineered such that our behaviours are explainable and predictable. I don’t know how many psychologists/philosophers support Feser’s conception of how the mind works; potentially not many. (A psychologist-in-training summarises this materialist climate here.)

Yet psychology was not always conceived of as a “hard science” and did not always necessarily rest on materialism (the same psychologist-in-training explains the origins of psychology as a discipline here): Jung appears to have had some tendencies towards teleology in nature as well as in human behaviour (I can’t find much more about it, but in a letter, he wrote ‘Finality shows itself in the teleological character of biological phenomena’); there are some current dissenters (e.g. ‘teleological behaviorism‘); and it is easy to see that goal-directedness could partially explain human behaviours: we know that we have intentions, and that we make things move or change to fulfil our ends; we act on the drive to be better, to do more, to realise our full potential, to be the more perfect self that we tend towards, to self-actualize. The idea that fulfilling our potential and striving for a more optimal life is just better (in some way) is quite intuitive; and in general, even those who don’t believe it act as if a weak version of Aristotle’s teleology is true (e.g., choose a more interesting job more likely to contribute to their intellectual growth over a less interesting one).

So what?

The moral of the story is not to do with Aristotle or Carl Jung, about whom I haven’t really said much of interest. The moral of the story is that you can’t judge a book by its cover! Twelve-year-old me secretly thought the Princess Diaries were a bit trashy, and that I’d be better off with Little Women. I was wrong, but indeed who would have thought this could have generated any reflections more serious than whether my prom dress was on point:



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