Philip Slater dies at 86; wrote 'The Pursuit of Loneliness'

After Philip Slater published "The Pursuit of Loneliness," a 1970 best-seller that delivered a blistering critique of American culture, he moved to California and adopted a lifestyle aimed at avoiding the fate of the fellow citizens he saw as so unhappy.

"Pursuit" argued that despite widespread influence and prosperity Americans were overwhelmingly dissatisfied. A key reason for that, he said, was a collective obsession with the success of the individual. The book established him as a social critic and set up a future for Slater as an academic.

But he walked away from a career as a sociology professor and in the mid-1970s founded an Esalen-like personal growth center in Cambridge, Mass. He soon settled in Santa Cruz, where he lived simply and became a playwright, novelist and actor.

Slater, who had cancer, died June 20 at his Santa Cruz home, his family announced. He was 86.

"Pursuit" was one of a handful of influential similar titles from the 1970s — along with "Future Shock" and "The Culture of Narcissism" — that attempted to analyze the ills of modern society.

Writing in the New York Times, Kenneth Keniston, then a Yale University professor, called Slater's book "a brilliant, sweeping and relevant critique of American culture." The Los Angeles Times put it on its 1981 reading list of "100 American Books for the Modern Person."

It was one of a dozen books by the Harvard-trained sociologist that included a satirical 1985 novel, "How I Saved the World." His stories and plots were often surreal and whimsical. One popular play featured silverware in a dishwasher.

Slater also had been instrumental in the founding of the Actors' Theatre in Santa Cruz, where many of his plays were produced and where he sometimes acted.

He was often in the vanguard of the changing social tide. Much of his earlier writing had focused on the constraints of traditional gender roles, a trait Ms. magazine recognized by placing him on its early 1980s list of "male heroes."

In 1968 he co-wrote "The Temporary Society" with management guru Warren Bennis. The pair predicted the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of worldwide democracy.

When Slater published "The Wayward Gate: Science and the Supernatural" in 1977, The Times' review suggested calling it "The Pursuit of Strangeness." While admitting he did not have firsthand experience with the paranormal, Slater used parables to attack scientific conceits that deny the supernatural.

In another book, 1980's "Wealth Addiction," he outlined a philosophy of "voluntary simplicity" and decided to live it.

Philip Elliot Slater was born May 15, 1927, in Riverton, N.J., to an engineer and his wife.

Near the end of World War II, he served in the merchant marine before attending Harvard University. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1950, a doctorate in 1955 – and participated in clinical experiments on the effects of the hallucinogenic drug LSD.

"It definitely felt like we were expanding our consciousness," Slater said in the 2010 book "The Harvard Psychedelic Club." "From that moment we, saw the world differently than people who had not had that experience."

Between 1958 and 1971, he taught at Harvard, Cambridge and Brandeis universities but found academic life disappointing, he later said.

He founded Greenhouse, the personal growth center, with Jacqueline Doyle of the Esalen Institute and Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis professor who would become the subject of the best-selling 1997 memoir "Tuesdays With Morrie." While there, Slater pursued theories in personal growth.

"He was always interested in big ideas and conversations that had to do with the imagination," said Dashka Slater, a daughter.

When Slater died he had not owned a car in years and his personal possessions fit into two small storage bins, which he would have viewed as proof of a life well-lived, his daughter said.

Thrice divorced, Slater is survived by his wife, Susan Helgeson; his children, Scott Slater, Dashka Slater, Wendy Palmer and Stephanie Slater; two stepdaughters, Christie Castro and Melanie Beck; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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