Werner Erhard
Werner Erhard; drawing by David Levine

After viewing the discarded crutches, eyeglasses, ear trumpets, and other paraphernalia at Lourdes, Anatole France is said to have inquired: “What—no wooden legs?” One could ask a similar question about the cures promised by most self-help books—of frustrations, bad tempers, unsatisfactory orgasms, migraines, insomnia, and other symptoms of the unhappy mind. Their “rules” for a happier life are generally no more helpful or inspiriting to the unhappy than a recommended diet of tap water to an alcoholic. The writing is, moreover, appalling: formularized zest, officious enthusiasm that is thoroughly uncontagious.

Yet these works deserve attention as our popular religions and philosophies. They are the places to look if you wish to find expression, however crude, of prevalent attitudes to classical questions of ethics and human conduct. One might think that trained professional philosophers—whose precursors were the first self-help exponents—would take an interest in these books, but professional philosophers and self-help authors usually occupy non-communicating compartments. Philosophers tend to see themselves as on the frontier of thought; if their work makes progress in their field, it will sooner or later filter down to the multitude. Self-help exponents, in turn, point to practical results of their ideas. They no longer seek, if they once did, the cooperation of philosophers and turn for approval instead to athletes and film stars.

The result of all this is disconcerting: philosophers in effect abandon the field of popular philosophical discussion to irresponsible simplifiers; conversely, the latter proceed with ever-increasing confidence but without the benefit of sound methods. Perhaps the last exemplar in this country of a great philosopher doing his job was William James, who once expressed the hope that philosophy would get as close to problems of life as realistic novels. Of course, it may be argued that no other man of such distinction has lent his support to such undistinguished currents of thought. The content of self-help literature itself has not much changed since the nineteenth-century evangelical “mind-cure” movements James discussed with such naïve sympathy. These movements promoted “fore-thought vs. fear-thought,” urged us to “get in tune with the infinite,” or (the counsel of the “Don’t Worry!” sect) to repeat while dressing for the day the words “Youth, Health, Vigor”!

At first, then, it seems fortunate that a professional philosopher, William Warren Bartley, III, should have chosen to address himself in his latest book to the life and work of Werner Erhard, founder of one of the more successful selfhelp trainings, est (erhard seminars training). Bartley’s lucid and penetrating previous work has advanced our understanding of a number of intellectual currents—especially the work of Karl Popper and the influence of the Vienna School Reform movement of the 1920s on the “middle” Wittgenstein—and he would seem an ideally judicious interpreter. If this expectation is disappointed, the book is nevertheless instructive. It is also attractively written, never shrill or unduly proselytizing, careful to avoid the hysteria and tribalism that usually characterize the early years of movements like est.

The book is at once a biography of Erhard and an excellent account of the history of his ideas up to their present state. Its subject is indeed, to use Bartley’s word, “improbable.” A self-confessed impostor and liar, Erhard is a former car salesman and business executive. He was born in Philadelphia in 1935. In 1960 he left his wife and their four children and changed his name from Jack Rosenberg to Jack Frost, then to his present one, a compound of the first name of the German physicist and the last name of the ex-chancellor. “Appropriating” someone else’s car and securing new driver’s licenses for himself and a girlfriend (who also had changed her name), he headed with her for the West Coast. There he worked for the sales department of a magazine and organized, among other things, an all-woman sales staff.

To augment his knowledge of business motivation, he took up what he called “disciplines”: the self-image psycho-cybernetics of the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, hypnosis, “the familiar mind over matter experiments—the control of pain and bleeding, telepathy, those things.” He also became interested in “human potential” psychologies, “abilitism,” the martial arts, Zen (under the tutelage of Alan Watts), gestalt and encounter training. At one time, Erhard has said, he “was into von Neumann and Einstein.” The Dale Carnegie course, with its charm school elocution lessons, captured him in 1967; he learned there that he “had no problem turning other people on.”

But Erhard had in addition to these “disciplines” the advantage of periodic revelations. On a beach at Atlantic City, Whitman-like, he “became the universe.” Later, like Moses, he had some “conversations with God.” Finally, on a freeway in California—“somewhere between Corte Madera and the Golden Gate Bridge,” Bartley adds portentously—he became “transformed.” In Erhard’s words, this event


did not happen in time and space…. What happened had no form…. I realized that I knew nothing—I realized that I knew everything. All the things that I had ever heard and read, and all those hours of practice, suddenly fell into place…. I saw that there were no hidden meanings, that everything was just the way it is, and that I was already all right…. It was all right; it always had been all right; it always would be all right—no matter what happened. I didn’t just think this: suddenly I knew it…. I no longer thought of myself as the person named Werner Erhard…. There was no longer any need to try to be Werner Erhard and not to be Jack Rosenberg.

After this convulsive experience, Erhard began “est,” bringing together his calling to “transform” others and his considerable business skills. At last, Bartley concludes in his picaresque narrative, “Werner” had become a “complete” human being.

The est training and theory (which Bartley rightly distinguishes) may be summed up briefly. The training is not so much a therapy as “a contribution to the ecology of consciousness.” It is “a new form of participatory theater that incorporates Socratic method: the artful interrogation that is midwife at the birth of consciousness.” Lasting sixty hours and costing about $300, the training begins when one submits oneself to the instructions and questioning of a Socratic trainer; est early earned a reputation as “no piss training” since you cannot go to the bathroom (or, for that matter, eat or sleep) unless the trainer says so. The aim of the training is to cultivate “aliveness” and capacity for “experience” by leading you through a “process” whereby a “siege” is laid on what est calls “Mind.”

To est, Mind is “uncorrected cybernetic machinery,” a self-perpetuating “program”; it is unfree, for it is “attached” or “positional”: it promotes a “life plan” indicating how one’s energies are to be distributed, and is enslaved by fixed beliefs and values. Mind only makes you become more and more what you always have been. “Re-programming” Mind by changing fixed beliefs and plans cannot produce what est wants for you: you might become a better plumber or a more famous singer, but you will not be “satisfied.” The pursuit of satisfaction collides with the “Mind-state” and satisfaction can come only through a “transcendence” of Mind, a face-lift of the spirit; to set up the conditions under which this upheaval can occur is precisely the point of the training. By transcending or “confronting” Mind, you are ready to face the radical choice whether or not to “identify with Self,” whether or not to be “transformed.”

But what is “Self”? It is something abstract, neither mine nor yours, the source of change, the part of us that is free (although it is strictly speaking no part of us). “If you come from the Self,” if you create in yourself what happened to Erhard on the freeway, you become “complete”; you “get the secret,” as Werner says, “that life is already together and what you have to experience is experiencing it being together,” that “the striving to put it together is a denial of the truth that it is already together and that further striving keeps you from getting it together.” Unless you “identify with Self,” I heard Erhard say recently in a public appearance, “you don’t feel OK inside because you haven’t experienced your OKness.”

The process of breaking down Mind and Belief—in est jargon, of “getting that there’s nothing to be got” (so that if you don’t “get it,” you got it)—is apparently an arduous task, potentially brutal and humiliating; toward the end of the training, Bartley says, the inner life of the trainees may be so disturbed that “their very clothes exude the stench of congested thought.” Nevertheless, Erhard wants everyone to take the training, and he has begun it in prisons, prepared special versions of it for children, created a complicated network of après-est “graduate” events, and sponsored educational programs (such as the Werner Erhard Charitable Foundation). Driving from city to city in a Mercedes with the license plate reading “SO WUT,” “Werner” is rapidly expanding his multi-million-dollar consciousness corporation.

There can be no doubt that Erhard is a remarkable man—or that, as his mother says, “he could sell you City Hall”—but one difficulty of Bartley’s book is that it treats him with a reverence that the unprepared reader will find unsupported. Werner is “the embodiment of American Will,” “the Johnny Appleseed of consciousness,” “a man who seemed at once like a child, and Merlin-like, an immensely old and wise man,” with a “philosophy in the raw.” These assertions are matched by Erhard’s preface to the book, in which he quotes (as does Bartley) a remark from Kierkegaard’s Journals: “What our age needs is education. And so this is what happened: God chose a man who also needed to be educated, and educated him privatissime, so that he might be able to teach others from his own experience.” Erhard adds, “And God did take me and educate me—unconventionally and very privately.” Indeed, Erhard’s numerous dicta—“nationalism, which increases positionality, is an epistemological disaster”; “belief is a disease”; “it is a law of mind that you become what you resist”; “I came here because I didn’t go to the place next door” (said to his anxious family upon reuniting with them after a twelve-year estrangement), etc.—gradually become almost unendurable. Instead of the rogue genius Bartley takes him to be, he begins to sound and act more like a yogic Felix Krull.


Nor is there any doubt that people find practical value in the est training.* A priest says that after the training “the ‘supposed to’ is gone from my life…. I got that I am satisfied with being the way I am.” A young graduate is now at last able to let her hair grow naturally. Another graduate says that “I saw that letting go of life, relinquishing control, was the answer.” Even young children and teens who have taken the ten-day “live-in” course assume a Merlin-like keenness: an eight-year-old graduate, seeing his mother in an emotional quandary, astonished her by saying, “You’re being the victim, Mom.” It is claimed that the lives of many people are flooded with sunshine after they have fully digested Werner’s claim that “I happen to think you are perfect exactly the way you are.”

The question of how to wake up to life, and unlock one’s energies for facing up to it, is logically separable from the question of what to do once one is awake and of what, if anything, constitutes improvement or construction. To wake up, to be stunned by the astonishing variety and richness of world views, to be soaked in wonder: this may be splendid, but what does one do with all this aliveness and enthusiasm? This question is moral: Which direction should I take? Should I try to imitate Jesus or Henry Ford or Lenin? Should I try to master a specific task? Should I try to make money or retreat from the market place? Should I go back to sleep?

Est claims the modest task of waking us up, and to this end weekends with Werner may not be lost. But the theory behind est, the rationale for awakening, seems to me full of illusions. The claim that we are perfect as we are seems a grotesque overestimation. It implies that once we’ve had our awakening no further efforts are wanted, no more evidence needs to be accumulated, no intellectual vigilance over our acts, no agonizing choices are required.

All that is needed is that we experience what is already there: “life,” says Werner, “works when you choose what you’ve got. Actually what you’ve got is what you chose even if you don’t know it. To move on, choose what you’ve got.” But aliveness in itself is certainly no more the aim of life than physical fitness or mental alertness. What of those people who are “experiencing” unavoidable sufferings, diseases, or unhappy love affairs? As an anodyne to the undesirable, est endorses the strange theory—borrowed from scientology—that if you experience anything deeply enough and re-create it in imagination, it will disappear. If this were so, matter would surrender to the caprice of consciousness, and Werner himself would be plucked out of existence by his more imaginative detractors.

In short, if we are indeed perfect, then “self-help” becomes no more than self-congratulation. It seems that having discovered that no “discipline” worked for him, Erhard concluded that no discipline could work at all. Having discovered that some belief stiffens into dogmatism, he concluded that all belief is corrupt. Since he correctly sees that all ordered life and intellectual activity requires a “position,” a core of perceived truths, he concludes that Mind (as he defines it) should be “transcended.” He thus lapses into that species of philosophical hypochondria that finds safety in the compensatory fantasy of a Big Self outside space and time, a riskless paradise of tranquillity where we are no longer vulnerable. His is not the first fantasy of its kind to have been created, but it is no more logically cogent in Erhard’s computer terminology than it is in the far more elevated discourse of the Buddhists or Stoics, Epictetus or Schopenhauer.

Bartley is indeed, as the book claims, a member of the Werner Erhard Charitable Foundation. He does not bother to examine certain important metaphysical questions that naturally arise upon inspection of the est theory of Mind and Self. For example: Mind is personal and unfree. Self is impersonal and free. But if training ideally leads you to decide to “identify with Self,” who’s the you at the moment of choice? If it is the “you” we are all familiar with, who actually exists in space-time, isn’t the choice as unfree and out of our control as any other “Mind-state”? If it is the transcendent “Self” that is deciding to identify with itself, then how, by definition, could anyone in particular be doing the deciding?

Nor does Bartley acknowledge the transparent implication that the est theory has no moral spine. Morality requires a position, but this is condemned by est as “coming from the Mind-state.” As Bartley reports the est view, “Right action is contextually determined behavior; wrong action is determined by position.” “Contextually determined behavior” is behavior that is “appropriate,” that “follows the Tao,” that does what is “fitting.” But what standard governs what is “fitting” when you have to decide, say, whether to go to war or not? The answer is that “any standard of fittingness” is “a recipe for a lie,” that “to carry over ‘standards of appropriateness’ or ‘conventions’ or ‘proprieties’ from one moment to another is to fail to complete one moment and to set up a barrier to experiencing the next moment,” to “become stuck in a position.” “Appropriate action is not doing anything: it is neither submitting nor resisting—nor ‘doing nothing,”; “it is just being there.”

In other words, whether or not it is murder to boil an egg, or immoral to engage in ruthless business competition, depends, in est language, “on where you’re coming from,” on the “context” or “situation” as you see it. The rational discipline of criticizing standards, improving techniques of making choices, building a better moral view upon painfully agreed-upon fundamentals—the use of reason as a reflective and systematic disinfectant—this entire program yields before the Tao, “the demands of the context.” One can only wonder how many of Werner’s graduate students know how distant this philosophy is from what was required of him to become the entrepreneurial success they all admire. Whatever the training may accomplish, the est theory encourages one to become a Zen harlequin, nonjudgmental and nonevaluative, favoring a relativistic stupor over science and argument, cynically distrusting all “abstractions” and general rules, collapsing with self-conscious laughter at double-talk and Oriental riddles.

A final question: how could a highly competent professional philosopher like Bartley fall for this? One possible reason presents itself if we examine the consistent working out of the views of his major philosophical influence, Karl Popper. Although Popper professes to supply us with a “critical rationalism” that will delimit the sphere of “objective reason,” he ends up by drawing it so narrowly that most of life and nearly all choices of any consequence—moral or otherwise—escape critical control, and we are forced to follow our subjective inclinations wherever they lead. The result is what might be called a malicious pragmatism. Instead of locating features of the surrounding circumstances that could provide a basis for rational criteria of choice (even if dependent on the context)—one of the authentic components of contemporary pragmatism—he stands frozen at the crucial point, suffering from failure of nerve.

Perhaps it is a satisfaction to est’s devotees to be able to claim that even the best of modern philosophy has been forced to recognize the truth of ancient relativistic wisdom. If so, this seems to me a preposterous short-cut to self-justification. But Bartley’s book best serves to remind the rest of us that admirable and courageous as it is for a professional philosopher to participate in popular discussions of self-help philosophy, he risks submerging his responsibilities when he does so, especially if he uncritically promotes shallow solutions to serious philosophical problems. Bartley’s book does far too little to dispel the popular impression that these problems are either of no importance at all or else can be avoided without exposing oneself to harm.

This Issue

April 5, 1979