Philip E. Slater, Social Critic Who Renounced Academia, Dies at 86
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: June 29, 2013
Philip E. Slater, a social critic and author, pursued success in the conventional way in the first half of his life. He studied hard, graduated from Harvard, became a tenured professor of sociology and wrote a best-selling book, “The Pursuit of Loneliness.”
The book, published in 1970, warned that a national cult of individualism and careerism threatened to turn America into a country of hypercompetitive loners ruled by tyrants. It sold some 500,000 copies, established Mr. Slater’s reputation and earned him hefty publishers’ advances.
It also marked the beginning of the second half of Mr. Slater’s life. Having re-examined his life through the lens of his own book, Mr. Slater decided in 1971 to resign as the chairman of the sociology department at Brandeis University, where he had taught for 10 years, and take a different path. He took up acting, wrote novels and began culling his personal possessions down to the two boxes he left when he died at 86 on June 20 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. The cause was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said his daughter, Dashka Slater.
He founded Greenhouse, a personal growth center, in Cambridge, Mass., with Jacqueline Doyle, a writer, and Morrie Schwartz, a fellow sociology professor at Brandeis (later known as the subject of the Mitch Albom best seller “Tuesdays With Morrie”).
He gave up his car, learned to live on one-fourth the income he was used to and began pursuing a life he would describe in a 1980 book, “Wealth Addiction,” as “voluntary simplicity.”
“It was not all pleasant,” he said in a 2002 interview with The Dallas Morning News, which described him as a “slender, handsome, active” 75-year-old living on Social Securityand renting a 350-square-foot efficiency apartment in Santa Cruz. “Yet I hadn’t lost anything precious. I’d lost money. I’d lost security.”
It was not all voluntary, either. He was once sued, successfully, by his publisher for the return of an advance on an unfinished book. And he admitted that he sometimes struggled to pay the bills.
But from 1971 until his last weeks of life, when he finished a play, Mr. Slater wrote or co-wrote six of his eight volumes of sociological criticism and dozens of plays and novels. He performed as an actor, taught playwriting and was the president of a theater company. Some of his books, including “The Pursuit of Loneliness,” were updated and republished as enduringly timely.
In interviews, Mr. Slater said life after 1971 was more adventure-filled, chaotic, emotionally satisfying and harrowing than he could have known when he decided to leave Brandeis. Which was why he was glad he did it.
“The experience of losing everything and finding I was having a wonderful time,” he said, “opened me to experiences I otherwise would not have had. I would have protected myself from them if I had known.”
Philip Elliot Slater was born on May 15, 1927, in Riverton, N.J., the youngest of three children of Pauline Holman Slater and John Elliot Slater, a shipping executive. After serving in the merchant marine at the end of World War II, he graduated from Harvard as a government major in 1950 and received his Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard in 1955.
Mr. Slater, who married four times, is survived by his wife, Susan Helgeson; three children besides his daughter Dashka, Wendy Palmer, Scott Slater and Stephanie Slater; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
From 1952 to 1954, Mr. Slater participated in clinical experiments conducted by Dr. Robert Hyde and Dr. Max Rinkel on the effects of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. The experiments, in which about 100 graduate and undergraduate students took the drug numerous times to test its effects, changed Mr. Slater’s life — and for the better, he later said.
“We saw the world differently from people who had not had the experience,” he told Don Lattin, the author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” a 2010 book primarily about later Harvard experiments with LSD led by Timothy Leary; the book briefly described Mr. Slater’s role in the earlier tests. “It definitely felt like we were expanding our consciousness,” he added.
Though it was just one of a tidal wave of sociological blockbusters published in 1970, including Charles A. Reich’s “The Greening of America” and Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock,” “The Pursuit of Loneliness” earned Mr. Slater rave notices. In The New York Times Book Review, the Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston called it “a brilliant, sweeping and relevant critique of modern America.”
Like many of his later works, the book explored the tension between the Lone Ranger individualist who occupies center stage in American myth and the communal interdependence that defines democracy in reality. He was an optimist, predicting in “The Temporary Society,” written with Warren Bennis in 1968, that democracy would triumph worldwide within 50 years. But he worried that democracy in his own country was declining, and that a combination of self-absorption and distrust of their government made Americans vulnerable to the appeal of authoritarianism. Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and author, who wrote an introduction to the 1990 edition of “The Pursuit of Loneliness,” described Mr. Slater as a sociological “sage.”
“He was the first American sociologist to develop the idea that the personal is the political — that our domestic arrangements and our foreign policy are the inside and outside of the same phenomenon,” Mr. Gitlin said in an interview on Wednesday. “That there was a connection between social ills and the average citizen’s lack of involvement in the community.”
In his 1991 book, “A Dream Deferred,” Mr. Slater wrote that democracy at its best was not a principle or a “yearning for freedom” but a social movement. The problem with democracy, he added, was not Congress or corporate influence, but its own citizens’ “inability to cooperate, to negotiate actively about the things that concern us.”
“That’s what leaves room for — and makes necessary — the systems against which we rail, and upon which the individualist heaps so much impotent scorn.”