By his early 40s, Dr. Slater had achieved what many Americans would have then and would still today consider markers of considerable success: a Harvard education, chairmanship of the sociology department at Brandeis University and publication of a book that would sell half a million copies.
In that book — “The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point” (1970) — Dr. Slater examined the cherished American value of individualism. He argued that it was not an absolute virtue, but rather the cause of the emptiness afflicting so many in his generation. He essentially argued that, as Americans strove harder for achievements, they pulled farther away from community and the fulfillment it offered.
“We all have our quirks, which provide surface variety,” he wrote, “but aside from this, human beings have very little basis for their persistent claim that they are not all members of the same species.”
Kenneth Keniston, then a Yale University psychology professor, wrote in the New York Times that the book was a “brilliant, sweeping and ‘relevant’ critique of modern America.” As readers swarmed to the volume, apparently seeking an alternative to societal careerism and competition, Dr. Slater took a place among the leading sociologists and social critics of the day.
But academic life “disappointed” him, he would later tell a Harvard publication. Shortly after publication of his book, he left Brandeis and helped co-found Greenhouse, a personal growth center in Cambridge, Mass. His colleagues in that endeavor included Morrie Schwartz, the late Brandeis professor featured in Mitch Albom’s popular book “Tuesdays With Morrie.”
By the mid-1970s, Dr. Slater settled in California, took up acting and pursued playwriting. In 1980, he published another noted book, “Wealth Addiction,” in which he decried American materialism and promoted the “voluntary simplicity” that he had implemented in his own life. At the time of his death, one of his children told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that he owned enough worldly possessions to fill two small totes.
Dr. Slater acknowledged that his lifestyle brought with it financial hardship, but he insisted that the advantages far outweighed the difficulties.
“It was the experience of losing everything and finding I was having a wonderful time,” Dr. Slater once told an interviewer. “When I lost control over my life, it opened me to experiences I otherwise would not have had. I would have protected myself against them. . . . I hadn’t lost anything precious.”
“The Pursuit of Loneliness” was republished in 1976 and in 1990 — a measure, perhaps, of its abiding relevance.
Philip Elliot Slater was born May 15, 1927, in Riverton, N.J. His father was a shipping and railroad executive. During World War II, the younger Slater served in the U.S. Merchant Marine.