A Study of Gurus

Anthony Storr. Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus. HarperCollins, 1997.

The Jungian psychologist, Anthony Storr, studies the personalities of the charismatic religious and philosophical leaders he terms gurus; those who dispense spiritual advice to us lesser mortals.
Among those that Storr discusses are Jim Jones, David Koresh, Gurdjieff, Rayneesh, Steiner, Jung, Paul Brutton, and perhaps more controversially Loyola and Jesus. Storr sees these spiritual leaders as essentially narcissistic, self absorbed individuals who can attract disciples but not friends. Many appear to have had at least one major psychological breakdown in their lives from which they have emerged with a sense of certainty and mission.

Much of what Storr writes about these figures can be applied with equal force to a wide range of charismatic figures ranging from L. Ron Hubbard to Alisteir Crowley, political cult leaders such as Lyndon La Rouche and Gerry Healey, from micro tyrants such as Fred West or the tyrannical 'care' workers recently in the news, to the real Mcoy such as Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. All these figured can inspire obedience and devotion despite actions ranging from the mildly absurd to the terrifying.

There is a problem with such psychological approaches, in they can be used to pathologise or medicalise any religious or political views one happens to find unattractive, and to some extent Storr falls into that trap. He does not seem to be aware of the wide body of sociology of religion literature on new religious movements; and in the case of Koresh relies on wildly sensational press reports of the sacrifice of babies etc. -- (Peter Rogerson, originally published on-line 1997)

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