The following is a review I just posted at Goodreads about Alan Watts's 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity, written in haste while waiting for my travel guide to prepare the day's itinerary.
This slim bit of hokum gets a second star [in the Goodreads five-star rating system] only because I found it powerful 40 years ago. Unfortunately for the book, I am 40 years older, and Watts, who died in 1973 at the age of 58 claiming that immortality is a religious fiction, seems to have proved his point.
Defrocked as an Episcopal clergyman after being caught cheating on his first wife, Watts married twice again on his way to becoming an early popularizer of zen buddhism. It may seem gratuitous to mention Watts's serial marriages, but they reflect a flightiness reflected in his "spiritual teachings."
All in character, Watts wrote on zen, Vedanta, "the new physics," cybernetics, semantics, process philosophy, natural history, and the anthropology of sexuality. Though celebrated for his "The Way of Zen," several major zen masters said Watts misrepresented zen. Pressed about his academic bona fides, Watts said he was not an academic philosopher but a "philosophical entertainer." I did not find "The Wisdom of Insecurity" entertaining.
An early proponent of what Ross Douthat ("Bad Religions") calls the God Within school of spirituality, Watts puts Jesus and the Scriptures through the meat grinder — along with many other ingredients — to serve up a stew of vaguely zennish advice about living in the moment and the wisdom of the body. He might well have inspired the Nike ads that say "Just do it." They are as New Age as he was. The insecurity Watts writes of is that of modern man, convinced by science that the old certainties of religion do not hold up. Modern man is divided against himself, self and I. There is no self, Watts assures modern man and woman too. There is no I. Just do it.
So why is there war? Crime? Murder? Suffering? Divorce? Abortion? . . . If we all just did it, living in the moment and heeding the wisdom of our bodies, maybe all these evils would disappear.
Or maybe not. Original sin still seems a certainty to me.
Why did I read this book with such interest 40 years ago? Because, at 19 years of tender age, I was insecure, surely eager to discover if there was not some kind of wisdom hidden within my teen angst. Such wisdom as I have found in the past 40 years, I have found elsewhere.