Roberto Assagioli (Venice, 27 February 1888 – Capolona d'Arezzo, 23 August 1974) was an Italian psychiatrist and pioneer in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. Assagioli founded the psychological movement known as Psychosynthesis, which is still being developed today by therapists, and psychologists, who practice his technique. His work emphasized the possibility of progressive integration of the personality around its own essential Self through the use of the will.
Assagioli did not like to discuss his personal life, as he preferred to be remembered for his scientific work. Very few biographical accounts on the life of Roberto Assagioli are available, and most are not written in English.
Assagioli was born on 27 February 1888 in Venice, Italy, and came from a middle-class Jewish background. He was born under the name Roberto Marco Grego, however, his biological father died when Assagioli was two years old, and his mother remarried Alessandro Emanuele Assagioli soon afterward. Assagioli was exposed to many creative outlets at a young age, such as art, and music, which were believed to have inspired his work in Psychosynthesis. By the age of 18, he had learned eight different languages, namely Italian (his native tongue), English, French, Russian, Greek, Latin, German, and Sanskrit. It was at this age he also began to travel, mainly to Russia, where he learned about social systems, and politics.
In 1922 he married a young woman named Nella, and they had one son together, Ilario Assagioli.
In 1938, Assagioli was arrested and imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, due to his Jewish heritage, and his humanistic writing. He was placed in solitary confinement for over a month, until he was released and returned to his family. During World War II, his family’s farm in Florence, Italy was destroyed, and both he and his family fled underground. His son died at the age of 28 from lung disease, which was accredited to severe stress from the harsh living conditions during the war. Once the war had ended, he returned to his work, and began his legacy, known as Psychosynthesis.
The years after the war were relatively calm, and it was during this time that he founded various foundations dedicated to Psychosynthesis, in Europe and North America. Assagioli lived a long and prosperous life, and had a happy forty year marriage, until he died at age 86 on 23 August 1974. The cause of his death was unknown.
Assagioli received his first degree in neurology and psychiatry at Istituto di Studii Superiori Pratici e di Perfezionamento, in Florence in 1910. It was during this time he began writing articles that criticized psychoanalysis, in which Assagioli argued a more holistic approach.
Once he finished his studies in Italy, Assagioli went to Switzerland, where he was trained in psychiatry at the psychiatric hospital Burghölzli in Zürich. This led to him opening the first psychoanalytic practice in Italy, known as Instituto di Psicosintesi. However, his work in psychoanalysis left him unsatisfied with the field of psychiatry, as a whole, as he felt that psychoanalysis was incomplete.
Inspiration and development
Assagioli is famous for developing and founding the science of Psychosynthesis, a spiritual and holistic approach to psychology that had developed from psychoanalysis. He was largely inspired by Freud’s idea of the repressed mind and Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious. Trained in psychoanalysis but unsatisfied by what he regarded as its incompleteness as a whole, Assagioli felt that love, wisdom, creativity, and will, were all important components that should be included in psychoanalysis. Assagioli’s earliest development of Psychosynthesis started in 1911, when he began his formal education in psychology. He continued his work on Psychosynthesis right up until his death. Freud and Assagioli were known to have corresponded, although they never had the chance to meet. Assagioli said, "Psychosynthesis presupposes psychoanalysis, or rather, includes it as a first and necessary stage."
However, Assagioli disagreed with theories formulated by Sigmund Freud that he considered limiting. He refused to accept Freud's reductionism and neglect of the positive dimensions of the personality. Psychosynthesis became the first approach, born of psychoanalysis that also included the artistic, altruistic and heroic potentials of the human being. Assagioli's work was more in alignment with psychologist, Carl Jung. Both Assagioli and Jung validated the importance of the spiritual level of human existence. Assagioli shared with Jung the insight that psychological symptoms can be triggered by spiritual dynamics. Assagioli considered Jung’s theories to be closest to his understanding of Psychosynthesis.
Assagioli accredited much of his inspiration for Psychosynthesis to his month-long incarceration in solitary confinement in 1938. He used his time in prison to exercise his mental will, by meditating daily while in prison. He concluded that he was able to change his punishment into an opportunity to investigate his inner-Self.
Psychology Today interview
We pay far more attention to the higher unconscious and to the development of the transpersonal self. In one of his letters Freud said, "I am interested only in the basement of the human being." Psychosynthesis is interested in the whole building. We try to build an elevator which will allow a person access to every level of his personality. After all, a building with only a basement is very limited. We want to open up the terrace where you can sun-bathe or look at the stars. Our concern is the synthesis of all areas of the personality. That means Psychosynthesis is holistic, global and inclusive. It is not against psychoanalysis or even behavior modification but it insists that the needs for meaning, for higher values, for a spiritual life, are as real as biological or social needs. We deny that there are any isolated human problems.
Assagioli noted that Carl Jung, "of all modern psychotherapists, is the closest in theory and practice to psychosynthesis", and further expanded on the similarities between his own and Jung's views:
In the practice of therapy we both agree in rejecting ‘pathologism’ that is, concentration upon morbid manifestations and symptoms of a supposed psychological ‘disease’. We regard man as a fundamentally, healthy organism in which there may be temporary malfunctioning. Nature is always trying to re-establish harmony, and within the psyche the principle of synthesis is dominant. Irreconcilable opposites do not exist. The task of therapy is to aid the individual in transforming the personality, and integrating apparent contradictions. Both Jung and myself have stressed the need for a person to develop the higher psychic functions, the spiritual dimension.
He also highlighted the differences between Jung's work and Psychosynthesis:
Perhaps the best way to state our differences is with a diagram of the psychic functions. Jung differentiates four functions: sensation, feeling, thought, and intuition. Psychosynthesis says that Jung’s four functions do not provide for a complete description of the psychological life. Our view can be visualized like this: We hold that outside imagination or fantasy is a distinct function. There is also a group of functions that impels us toward action in the outside world. This group includes instincts, tendencies, impulses, desires, and aspirations. And here we come to one of the central foundations of Psychosynthesis: There is a fundamental difference between drives, impulses, desires, and the will. In the human condition there are frequent conflicts between desire and will. And we will place the will in a central position at the heart of self-consciousness or the Ego.
Assagioli asserted about the will:
The will is not merely assertive, aggressive, and controlling. There is the accepting will, yielding will, the dedicated will. You might say that there is a feminine polarity to the will – the willing surrender, the joyful acceptance of the other functions of the personality.
At the end of the interview, Keen himself concluded:
It is hard to know what counts as evidence for the validity of a world view and the therapeutic it entails. Every form of therapy has dramatic successes and just as dramatic failures. Enter as evidence in the case for Psychosynthesis an ad hominem argument: in speaking about death there was no change in the tone or intensity of Assagioli’s voice and the light still played in his dark eyes, and his mouth was never very far from a smile.
Since Assagioli’s death in the early 1970s, Psychosynthesis has continued to be embraced as a comprehensive psychological approach for finding inner peace and harmony.
The Psychosynthesis & Education Trust center in Britain was founded by Assagioli in 1965, and is currently being run by President Lady Diana Whitmore. The Trust is affiliated with Humanistic and Integrative Psychology Section of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP), and a is founding member of the European Federation of Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy (EFPP). At present time, the group consists of a large group of Psychosynthesis practitioners who mediate students. The Trust offers workshops, courses, and a newsletter, to anyone who is interested in learning more about Psychosynthesis.
New Zealanders Helen Palmer and Peter Hubbard, trained and subsequently teaching at the London Institute of Psychosynthesis, returned to establish the Institute of Psychosynthesis New Zealand in 1986 "to help realise the magnificent potential of humanity by encouraging individuals, in whatever socio-economic and cultural context they live, to have the courage to make what they choose of their lives, in accordance with life-enhancing values." The Institute offers a comprehensive range of courses and professional development, including NZQA recognised Diplomas in counselling and psychotherapy. Staff and former staff members of the NZ Institute facilitate complementary and associated programmes, including ongoing group process groups, support for women dealing with childlessness, and Self and World, a psychosynthesis endeavour in radical ecopsychology. There have been 2 international conferences in Auckland since 2004, and a professional association has been established to support practitioners, and develop thinking appropriate to the unique cultural settings of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia.
The Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis (AAP) was formed in August 1995, as a non-profit organization in the United States, with approximately two-hundred members across the country. Members of the AAP run programs, workshops, and conferences, to discuss Assagioli and Psychosynthesis, and publish a newsletter to discuss new topics related to the field.
The Will Project Wiki was created in 2007, and was based on the Will Project proposed by Assagioli when he was alive. The Will Project consists of over 63 articles based on Assagioli’s published book The Act of Will.
Assagioli was also interested and active in the field of consciousness and transpersonal work. Having studied Theosophy and Eastern philosophy, his written work developed different meditation techniques, including reflective, receptive and creative meditation. He also contributed to several spiritual groups in the tradition known as the Ageless Wisdom.
- 1906 – Published in Farrari’s Magazine – Gli effetti del riso e le loro applicazioni pedagogiche a.k.a., Smiling Wisdom (Italian)
- 1909 - Doctoral dissertation, La Psicosintesi (Italian)
- 1965 - Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings by Roberto Assagioli ISBN 0-9678570-0-7 (English)
- 1973 - The Act of Will by Roberto Assagioli ISBN 0-670-10309-8 (English)
- 1993 - (posthumously) Transpersonal Development: The Dimension Beyond Psychosynthesis by Roberto Assagioli ISBN 1-85538-291-1 (English)
- Sørensen, Kenneth, and Hanne Birkholm. "Roberto Assagioli - His Life and Work". In Kentaur Træning (Gunnar Hansen, Trans.). Retrieved November 20, 2009, from http://www.psykosyntese.dk/a-146/.
- Firman, John; Gila, Ann (2002). "Introduction". Psychosynthesis - a psychology of the spirit. SUNY Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN 0-7914-5534-3.
- Keen, S. (1974). The Golden Mean of Roberto Assagioli [Electronic version]. PsychologyToday. Retrieved November 1st, 2009, from http://www.aap-psychosynthesis.org/resources/articles/golden_mean.pdf
- Psychosynthesis & Education Trust (2008). Retrieved November 15th, 2009, from http://www.psychosynthesis.edu/
- Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis (2009). Retrieved November 15th, 2009, from http://www.aap-psychosynthesis.org/
- Wilson, G. (2009). The Will Project. Retrieved November 15th, 2009, from http://www.willproject.org/
- Keith Hackwood: Psyche's Cinderella: in appreciation of Roberto Assagioli. Retrieved October 29, 2014 from http://bacpspirituality.org.uk/_sitedata/1394622969%20G0mDU6aFN/Psyches%20Cinderella.pdf
- School for Esoteric Studies; How the School Began retrieved October 29, 2014 from http://www.esotericstudies.net/mission.html
- Psychosynthesis a collection of journal articles and information about Assagioli and his work
- Video interview with Roberto Assagioli excerpted from the 1973 film Healing the Whole Person
- Psychology Today: The Golden Mean of Roberto Assagioli an electronic copy of the full interview with Sam Keen
- In Memoriam: Roberto Assagioli Dr. Roberto Assagioli, founder of Psychosynthesis
- Roberto Assagioli - his life and work A biography from Kentaur Institute in Denmark
- A few words about Dr. Assagioli by Piero Ferrucci
- The Will Project was a project proposed by Roberto Assagioli to explore all aspects and manifestations of the Will.