Is it possible that Princess Celestia and the other alicorns are living a life in the “transcendence” stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? In this article I’ll be taking a look at how humanistic psychology can be used to explore Celestia’s motivations and the nature of alicornhood.
In my article “What My Cutie Mark Is Telling Me: Cutie Marks and Self-Actualization” I made comparisons between the concept of Cutie Marks and the humanistic psychology concept of ‘self-actualization’. I will go ahead and suggest you read that article first before reading this one as many of the concepts mentioned there will have relevance here.
So in that article, I briefly made a mention about alicorns, noting that I wasn’t exactly sure how they fit within in the self-actualization scheme. In the comments on the article on the MLP Analysis sub-reddit, I was asked about it anyway, particularly in regards to Princess Celestia. As I thought about, I recalled a few aspects of self-actualization that I didn’t address in the original article. One of these concepts was something that my original sources only briefly mentioned. It was a stage of the hierarchy that was theoretically about that of self-actualization; transcendence.
As my thoughts then were rather brief, and my knowledge of this idea rather vague at the time, I decided to try and find out a little more about transcendence within the humanistic psychology field. Before I can get into discussing that, however, I need to talk about something else first.
Peak Experiences and the Transcendence Stage
One of the aspects of humanistic psychology that I didn’t mention in the last article was the experience of what Maslow dubbed “peak experiences.” Peak experiences are moments in life where a person experiences a deeply spiritual or emotional moment, often involving mystical, spiritual, aesthetic, or natural experiences. These moments are defined by the intense feeling of happiness, wonder, and often a sense of knowledge of a higher truth or unity. In the aftermath of these moments, Maslow argued, a person finds themselves uplifted and having greater creative energy, empathy and better understanding of their sense of purpose in life.
As grand as it sounds, two things should be emphasized. First, Maslow believed that these experiences were capable of occurring even in the most mundane of moments; listening to music, reading a book, even sitting in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Seconds, while persons who were self-actualized were more likely to have these type of experiences, anyone was able to have them.
The question then is, if we want to take a humanistic psychology approach to Friendship is Magic, have we seen any peak experiences. And honestly, I think we can point out to at least three moments or so that may count.
1) Friendship is Magic Part 2.
In the moment her battle with Nightmare Moon, Twilight Sparkle heard the sound of the rest of the Mane 6 coming up the stairs. Upon hearing this she finally realized the power and magic of friendship, giving her great joy as well as an understanding of a higher truth. We even got a nice little visual cue with the sparkling in the eyes:
2) Cutie Mark Chronicles
Actually, I’m using this as a larger point about the possibility that the moment a pony receives their cutie mark is a peak experience. It seems to fit the description; they receive their cutie mark in a moment of realization and joy, getting a better understanding of their purpose in life. Just the look on, say, Pinkie Pie or Fluttershy’s face when they witness the moment that leads to their getting a cutie mark says it all:
3) Magical Mystery Cure
When Twilight realizes the solution to the spell, she gets yet another sparkle in her eye and glows, finishes the spell, and ends up being teleported to some celestial plane where Celestia sings a song before helping Twilight ascend to alicornhood. I think we can probably safely say this was a peak experience.
In researching these peak experiences, Maslow began to theorize that these experiences were representative of a stage beyond self-actualization. If self-actualization was a stage marked by a motivation of self-fulfillment, this new stage seemed to be motivated primarily by desires beyond a person’s individual needs. Often times these would be some kind of calling of sorts, to seek out truth or beauty. Whatever that calling may be, in this stage one’s own personal needs are put aside in favor of service to others or some other higher force or cause beyond one’s self. So someone who is motivated by these sort of “trans-personal” motivations would be the kind of person who is a passionate activist of some sort.
Princess Celestia and the Transcendence Stage
Now that we have these concepts discussed, we can finally begin to take a look at Princess Celestia. One common question regarding the Sun Princess has been ‘What motivates her?’ Looking at the framework of humanistic psychology and the hierarchy of needs, I think we can answer this question by placing her actions within the context of the transcendence stage.
Throughout the show, Celestia’s primary role has been as the wise mentor to Twilight Sparkle. Prior to the events of the show, Celestia had been personally tutoring Twilight Sparkle, and her sending Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville was in order to teach her about the value of friendship. Reinforcing these lessons, of course, was her having Twilight and later the others writing letters to her and telling her about the events of the series.
Probably the best sign of this motivation is, of course, Celestia’s own song in the show, “Celestia’s Ballad”.
In it she explicitly states that she had been watching Twilight Sparkle in hopes of seeing her grow and finds pride in seeing all that she has done. This taking pride in the accomplishments of Twilight Sparkle fits rather well within the transcendence stage of being motivated by something beyond oneself. In this case, she was motivated by helping someone else find their true potential.
This motivation is also present with Celestia’s other students, such as Princess Cadence as found out in the Crystal Heart Spell book. In the book, Cadence was born a pegasus, but after defeating a witch who was threatening her town by the power of unconditional love, Celestia took her on as her personal student in a manner very reminiscent of the events of “Magical Mystery Cure”. Will talk more on this later.
There is also her other student, Sunset Shimmer. Note this will have spoilers for the Equestria Girls movie. In it we learn that Sunset Shimmer was a former student of Princess Celestia. Sunset Shimmer, frustrated by not learning fast enough, ran away, and Celestia hoped that one day she would return so Celestia could help her. After the events of the movie and Twilight returns, one of the first things Celestia asks about is how Sunset Shimmer is and whether or not she is safe. Again, this fits within what seems to be Celestia’s primary motivation; helping others achieve their potential.
Of course the examples of Celestia go beyond just individual students; after all, she is the ruler of all Equestria. As I mentioned in my last article, if we view Cutie Marks as being a manifestation of self-actualization (and being brought on by a peak experience), then Equestrian society is rather odd for having a rather consistently high rate of ponies reaching this stage compared to the theoretical amount in our world.
If we take Celestia as being motivated by wanting others to reach their own potential, however, this quirk begins to make some sense. After all, she’s ruled single-handedly for 1000 years, and probably sometime before that alongside her sister. Within that time, she obviously made some marks on Equestrian society, education, government, structure, and culture. With 1000 years to rule, she would have had time to ingrain in Equestrian society a system that was rather conducive to reaching self-actualization.
As mentioned, at the transcendence stage the needs of others are placed beyond one’s own personal needs. In ruling Equestria, Celestia already has to sacrifice some level of her Social Needs as ponies have a tendency to treat her distantly and with a crazy level of respect. For example, the Cake’s constant refilling of her teacup if she so much as took a sip, though she did try and correct them in a teasing manner.
The biggest example of Celestia giving up her own personal needs for Equestria, however, is her banishment of Nightmare Moon aka her sister Luna. It must have been painful for Celestia to have to banish her own sister, but she was threatening to place Equestria under eternal darkness and therefore the safety and harmony of the kingdom. Of course even then her wanting to help others achieve their potential shone through as the banishment was temporary, and she had begun to plan on how to save her sister from her anger and loneliness.
Granted her having not noticed the problem until it was too late is a strike against her, but it must be stated that transcendence does not mean perfection; mistakes will be made and doubts will be had. But even when stumbling, Celestia seems sincerely dedicated to guiding others to become the best they can be. Even a being of chaos like Discord and that had caused great heartache to both Equestria and herself was given a chance by Celestia to redeem himself and become a force of good.
So if we believe that Celestia is existing within the transcendence stage of the hierarchy, what does that have to say about alicorns in general? After all, even if self-actualization is rather common in Equestria, there are at this time only four alicorns, and for a long period only two. This seems to fit much better within Maslow’s belief that self-actualization and transcendence was reached only by a small percentage of persons. Does this suggest then that alicornhood requires one to reach transcendence? I think it is at least a possibility for reaching it being at least a part of it. Let’s consider the other alicorns real quick.
1) Princess Cadence
As mentioned earlier, Cadence’s backstory was explained in the book Twilight Sparkle and the Crystal Heart Spell. She was a baby pegasus raised by Earth Ponies in a small village. The moment that lead to her ascension into alicornhood was when she defeated a pony named Prismia who had cast a love-stealing spell. She did this by taking advantage of the pony’s necklace, which amplified emotions, to amplify her love. Now this was most likely a peak experience; amplified love seems to fit the idea of an intense emotional experience. I think it should be stressed that the love in this situation was most likely unconditional love, which is loving someone without putting conditions on that love.
The giving of unconditional love is an important aspect of humanistic psychology, having an important role in providing a person with a sense of acceptance, empathy, approval, and the positive view of themselves required by the hierarchy of needs. Giving another person unconditional love, particularly someone who may have hurt you like Prismia did, is of course difficult. The understanding of the power of this love is what most likely brought Cadence to the point of transcendence, as after this point it seemed the motivation of her actions were dedicated to providing love and affection to others (Twilight, Shining Armor, the Crystal Ponies, and random ponies she used her magic on).
2) Twilight Sparkle
Twilight Sparkle’s ascension to alicornhood was shown to us in the episode “Magical Mystery Cure”, and like I said earlier, the episode itself was most likely a peak experience for Twilight Sparkle. The question then is what shifted in Twilight Sparkle that moved her from self-actualization to transcendence?
Honestly, I think the answer is in the “True True Friend Song.” Prior to this episode, Twilight’s main goal and motivation was trying to learn about friendship. In this song though, and the resolution of the cutie mark switching issue in general, seems to be solved on the basis of Twilight learning how to teach friendship instead.
Now, some have criticized the song for being fluffy and meaningless, but looking at I think there is something deeper. Granted yes the lines are rather simple, but even simple lines can have meaning:
“A True, True Friend helps a friend in need/A Friend will be there to help them see/A True, True Friend helps a friend in need/To see the light that shines from a True, True Friend”
Looking at these lines, and the rest of the song, here is the message that I get: that the meaning of being a true friend lies in helping your friends learn to grow and become better. When your friends are in trouble, you should help them, even if you don’t necessarily understand their troubles or frustration. Doing so will hopefully lead to a better understanding between you and your friends and you will both be better for the experience.
In the case of this song, Twilight guided and encouraged her friends to help others. With their switched cutie marks, her friends didn’t realize what exactly their true skills and purpose were and therefore believed they wouldn’t really understand. For example, let’s look at the scene where Twilight convinces Fluttershy to help Rainbow Dash:
Twilight Sparkle: Before you go, I was wondering if you might be willing to help Rainbow Dash. She’s really struggling with her animals.
Fluttershy: But… I don’t really know anything about animals…
Twilight Sparkle: But you do know something about Rainbow Dash.
Fluttershy: I… know that she’s a true friend, and I’ll do anything I can to help her.
As we can see, Fluttershy doesn’t believe she knows anything about animals, but she does know that Rainbow Dash is her friend and, which is a good enough reason to help her in her time in need. In helping her, Fluttershy is reminded of her true purpose in life, and thereby regaining her understanding of herself, and is then able to join with Twilight in helping the others. This process continues with the rest in the Mane 6 before finally culminating with the entire town singing.
And now for more Equestria Girl spoilers. From my watching of the movie, I got the sense one of the main points of it was to demonstrate Twilight’s transition from learning about friendship to teaching friendship. In the movie she helps to reunite the human version of the Mane 6, but she also encourages Sunset Shimmer to befriend them at the end in order to learn about friendship, a move that surprised Sunset Shimmer who was expecting punishment.
Between these two events, then, it seems that Celestia was right in saying that “…we’re all your students now…”.
3) Princess Luna
Princess Luna provides a rather interesting case, primarily due to the Nightmare Moon incident. As mentioned in the “What My Cutie Mark is Telling Me” article, there is the possibility that Luna may have fallen into the Nightmare Moon persona due to a failure have her Social Needs satisfied. She felt unloved and unappreciated, and that her efforts were not be rewarded. If transcendence is a pinnacle stage, however, then under the hierarchy of needs, she should not have been able to reach the stage until her other needs were met.
Which is why Luna works wonderfully as an example of what I said earlier; transcendence is not perfection. At some point in time Luna had reached the stage, but over time she slipped from it as she found herself facing her inner demons. Luna’s situation also helps to remind us of the difficulty reaching transcendence and self-actualization, and also how important it is that a person be surrounded by a support network that is able to provide them with unconditional love.
When looked through the framework of humanistic psychology, it is possible, I believe, to learn quite a bit about the nature of the world of Equestria. The hierarchy of needs and the concept of self-actualization can be used to delve into the meaning of Cutie Marks, while the concept of peak experiences and transcendence can help us learn more about the motivation of Celestia and the other alicorns. Now, I don’t know if everypony who reaches transcendence will become an alicorns, but at the least in this light we may be able to learn more about the nature of alicornhood. Hopefully in Season 4 we will be able to watch more of Twilight and Celestia together and get a better sense of what motivates them as well as seeing both of them helping others to learn and grow.
For more on these topics, please feel free to read: