New York in the 1920s was a tough place to grow up, especially if you were the son of Jewish émigrés from Russia. Amidst poverty, anti-Semitism and inter-ethnic violence, the young Abraham Maslow struggled to come to terms with his life. Perhaps he was depressed. Certainly he was a sensitive soul. We would not be surprised if he sought a strong inner world of the mind when the outer world amongst other people was harsh.
Maslow became an academic psychologist. He was much taken up with the concept of self-actualisation as the ultimate goal of the person. For Maslow, this meant achieving a high degree of understanding and moral character. He is most well known for putting this goal on top of his hierarchy of needs, which is widely referenced in all sorts of academic and popular discussions.
Maslow’s hierarchy places habitual physical needs at the base of a pyramid. The fulfilment of these basic requirements of life lead us to want to exercise a greater control over what provides these needs. We are then sufficiently secure to raise families and enjoy the pleasures of love and friendship. These in turn give rise to our capacity to grow in confidence and achieve goals according to our abilities. At the top of the pyramid, we are able to pursue the god-like characteristics implicit in the notion of self-actualisation. The hierarchy assumes a model of primacy for the individual; that resources and relationships are there to feed the emergence of the autonomous and empowered individual.
Johannesburg society in the 1940s was more carefully structured than New York in the 1920’s. The divides boiled down to one simple factor: the colour of your skin. Moving there at the age of twelve, Desmond Tutu faced the relentless prejudice against his personhood. Denied many of the most basic privileges, he was unlikely to rise through a hierarchy of needs to reach the self-actualisation envisaged my Maslow. And, indeed, he came to a rather different conclusion as a result of his circumstances.
Tutu was part of a people against whom society had turned with increasing vehemence. He drew from his own language a word that supported a movement: Ubuntu. In confronting apartheid and in building the ‘rainbow nation’, Tutu popularised an approach to personhood based around this word: ‘Ubuntu recognizes the interconnectedness of life. My humanity is bound up with your humanity’.
Under the philosophy of apartheid, one person’s personhood was considered inferior to another’s. Unless people together welcomed their equal and common humanity, it would be impossible for the individual to achieve his or her full potential.
Maslow’s hierarchy offers some informative signposts amidst the complex dynamic world in which we live. But these are no more than signposts. We cannot conceive of the isolated individual as a single unit. The person is very much caught up in her relationships and in her socio-economic environment. Tutu’s Ubuntu reminds us that the individual is very much a participant with others in forming collective identity and culture. We are recognised and named by the wider community, and we are offered rights, responsibilities, beliefs and practices that shape so much of what we become.
Desmond Tutu’s book is inspiring: