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Freudian Theory


Rev. Rama Coomaraswamy

(part 2)

Philosophically speaking, Freud was a 'Humian.' To quote Hume: 'there are some philosophers who imagine we are at every moment conscious of what we call our self; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain beyond the evidence of a demonstration, of its perfect identity and simplicity.' In his attempts to delineate such a self he found himself involved in 'such a labyrinth that I neither know how to correct my former opinions, nor how to render them consistent.' It was a labyrinth for him because he could not 'explain the principles that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness.' On the contrary, he found perceptions, emotions and sensations to always be 'in perpetual flux and movement.' Thus man's psyche is made up of a 'system of different perceptions or different experiences, which are linked together by the relation of cause and effect, and which mutually produce, destroy, influence and modify' each other.' It follows that for him identity or the 'self' is an illusory product of the mind's capacity to remember and to infer causes - and he concluded that it is 'the chain of causes and effects which constitute our self or person.' Now traditional writers would agree with Hume's description as applied to the lesser self. As one traditional writer put it, 'our Ego is nothing but a name for what is really only a sequence of observed behaviors.' Where they disagree however is when Hume and his followers declare that man consists of nothing but this lesser self, when they reduce spirit to mind; mind to brain, and brain in turn to anatomical structures. For such individuals thinking is a 'neuro-chemical' process, or as Wilson puts it, 'an epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain.' As William James pointed out before the turn of the century, 'if with the Humians one deny some transcendental principle of unity and say that the stream of passing thoughts is all, [such] runs against the entire common sense of mankind.'

Freud was, as I said, in essence a Humian. He denied any transcendent principle in the soul and saw the totality of man in the tripartite structure of id, ego and superego. When he used the word self or soul he was specifically referring to this tripartite structure. Others who followed in his footsteps, even those who saw the self as a supraordinate structure responsible for organizing and directing Freud's tripartite soul, denied any transcendent principle equivalent to the inner Self of traditional psychologies even when their clinical work pointed to such an entity. At times one suspects that such resulted from their fear of being labeled 'heretics,' or even worse, of admitting to the possibility that man had a spiritual nature. Three consequences clearly follow from admitting that man has a higher Self:
1) it is clear that this Self incorporates some aspects of what Freud called the superego;
2) admitting to such a hierarchical view of man's intrinsic nature clearly points to the primacy of the spiritual;
3) If man has a higher inner Self, it becomes incumbent upon him to seek it out, and to bring his lesser self with its innumerable faculties into line with this higher Self. The therapeutic implications are obvious.

Freud, like most of us, was not of course, always consistent. While he was an evolutionist, he also believed in free will and in assisting the weak - the psychologically blind and lame - to function more effectively. Despite his at times highly ambivalent denial of any higher principles, he by no means believed in giving the passions - the drives of the lesser self - free reign. He stressed the need for an adult to live a life based on love and reason rather than hate and impulse. He spoke of the need for erotic love to become fixed on a love object rather than being a purely non-loving biological animal egotism. Thus, he held that the child's eroticism should become with maturity, the adult love of others - a love apart from one's sexual partner, should be 'de-sexualized.' Freud also felt that a healthy path of sexuality and purely sexual life is in the direction of parenthood, of the active healthy wish for children and the psychological capacity of being a parent and not merely the sexual companionship of the oppose sex. At the same time he pointed out that if the pleasure principle - what he called infantile sexuality - was not controlled but given total freedom, it would in the adult lead to maladjustments and mental illness. This in the adult would be primarily manifested by what he called 'narcissism.'

Freud is often accused of instructing his patients to give free reign to their unconscious impulses. Such is false. While it is true that he felt an excessive inhibitory attitude towards the sexual instinct was undesirable, it is often forgot that he held this view because such a repressive attitude only served to enhance the subjective value of these drives. As a matter of fact, he tells us that love in the wider sense suffers when there are but few barriers in the way of sexual gratification. 'In times,' he said, 'during which no obstacles to sexual satisfaction existed, such as, maybe, during the decline of the civilization of antiquity, love became worthless, life became empty, and strong reaction-formations were necessary before the indispensable emotional value of love could be recovered.' Elsewhere he said that 'love alone acts as the civilizing factor in the sense that it brings a change from egotism to altruism.'

When asked what he considered an ideally normal person, he answered, a person whose life consisted of love and work (arbeiten und lieben) - - that the ultimate ideal of human psychological health was the ever increasing liebidinization of the higher human activities such as parental, filial and friendly love, at the expense of purely sensual erotic and aggressive-destructive drives. He also felt that a knowledge of our subconscious drives and motivations would enable us to be in control of them and thus achieve a certain level of freedom. Now there is nothing in such attitudes that religious individuals can object to.

It should be clear that the traditional psychologies in no way deny the existence of the subconscious or of drives that are potentially pathological but capable of being transformed into virtues. Plato, speaking of desires quickened in sleep, he stated: 'when the rest of the soul, the rational and gentle and dominant part slumbers, but the beastly savage part replete with food and wine gambols and endeavors to sally forth and satisfy' its own instincts, You are aware then in such cases there is nothing it will not venture to undertake as being released from all sense of shame and all reason. It does not shrink from tempting to lie with a mother in fancy or with anyone else. man, god or beast. It is ready for any foul deed of blood; it abstains from no food and in a word falls short of no extreme of folly or shame.' We have all, as part of our training, come to recognize the subconscious drives and potential for evil that exists within us. This descent into hell must, if one is not to be 'stuck in the mire,' be accompanied by a corresponding assent. Jacob Boehme describes this well: 'now almost every man carrieth a beast in the body which doth plague, molest, and burden the poor captive soul... It must be transmuted again into an angel's form.'

'Drives' then, provide another area of compatibility between Freudian theory and the traditional or religious viewpoint. Freud spoke of the two basic drives of the id, the libido and what he eventually came to call thanatos. Traditional theologians also speak to these drives, though they use different terms and a different paradigm. For them the soul is the principle of life. Plants are said to have vegitative souls which enabled them to perceive and react, and whose principle functions were nutrition, growth and generation. These functions were independent of any directive will and operate whether the plant wishes it or not. Animals with animal souls, have two additional powers, respectably called the 'appetitive' and the 'passible,' which also function independent of any higher control such as reason. They constitute the 'concupiscible' which consists of desires, affections, and the irrational imagination - very much what Freud labeled the libido; and the 'irrascible' which include all forms of aggression and combativeness. This dual nature of instinctive drives can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Empedocles for whom the two fundamental forces were 'love and hostility.' In mankind these forces continue to exist, but can be controlled and directed - could we perhaps say, 'sublimated' by still higher powers such as reason and intelligence. In common parlance we say a man acts like an animal, not when he uses his instincts, but when he uses them without restraint - i.e., without placing them under the control of his higher powers. We do not submit an animal's instinctive acts to moral judgements, but a person is condemned when he acts irresponsibility and without constraint.

As Dante said, man is endowed with a triple soul, vegetable, animal and rational, and hence he walks a triple path. Inasmuch as he is a vegetable, he seeks utility, in quo cum plantis communicat; inasmuch as he is an animal, he seeks pleasure in which he participates with brutes; inasmuch as he is rational, he seeks for honor, in which he is either alone, or is associated with the angels, vel angelicae naturae sociatur. (De Vulg. Eloq. ii. 2)

* * *

In the practice of psychiatry, I think it is impossible for the therapist to be completely neutral. While clearly it would be a violation of our ethics for us to impose our beliefs on our patients - quite apart from the fact that such imposed beliefs rarely convince or stick. Yet our beliefs must to some degree influence our attitudes and our subliminal communications. If a patient were to inform us that he planned to murder someone, quite apart from legal requirements, I am sure our own innate sense of right or wrong would be conveyed to the patient. What if our patient informed us of his intent to steal? Here no legal requirement demands a violation of confidentiality. Yet our value and beliefs would lead us to suggest he or she find some more appropriate means of paying our bill. If we ascribe our moral values to superego formation, and superego formation in turn to oedepal influences, we are led to a reductionism that voids all value of meaning. If however we accept- even theoretically - that there is a higher structure within the person with directive capacity - the concept that there is a natural law - essentially the ten commandments - written in the hearts of men and women, we can help our patients to learn to seek out and listen to this 'higher structure' and thereby resolve the conflictual relationship between the lesser self or ego driven by 'drives' and influenced by the subconscious, and this 'higher structure' which the great religions refer to as the Spirit dwelling within us.

It has been my experience that patients usually come to us because of some major crisis - a loss or severe trauma - in their lives. Once one has dealt with the presenting problem, many leave, but others stay on and wish to deal with more fundamental problems such as who they are and the purpose and meaning of life. As Victor Frankel pointed out many years ago, a cross-sectional, statistical survey of patients and the nursing staff at the Vienna Poliklinik Hospital revealed that '55%of the persons questioned showed a more or less marked degree of existential vacuum. In other words, more than half of them had experienced a loss of the feeling that life was meaningful.'

Many therapists avoid dealing with this issue - perhaps because it raises issues they may not have themselves resolved. However, such issues do not go away. To quote Dr. Murphy in a book review: 'I was taught, primarily by the silence that surrounded them, to avoid moral issues in counseling. I quickly discovered in practice however, that moral issues are often at the center of the pain that drives patients to seek help.' It is here that the tripartite nature of man as envisioned by the traditional religions can be of help - especially, though not exclusively for those who come to us from a religious background. With such a paradigm we can help them to see that they are responsible for their actions, that many of their problems result from conflicts between their two selves, and that they must seek resolution of their conflicts by learning to listen to their inner Self and ordering their disordered lives accordingly.

How would Freud react to such a statement? I think the answer can be found in his correspondence with pastor Pfister. Freud stated that 'psychoanalysis [and I think we can add, other forms of therapy] is neither religious nor non-religious, but an impartial tool which both priest and layman can use in the service of the sufferer.'. He further wrote that 'you,' - pastor Pfister - 'are in the fortunate position of being able to lead them to God... for us this way of disposing of the matter does not exist. Our public, no matter what racial origin, is irreligious, and we are generally thoroughly irreligious ourselves.' It is my conviction that the use of the hierarchical paradigm - whether we personally believe in it or not - can be a valuable clinical tool with some of our patients.

Let me add a few comments on Plato's familiar admonition that we should 'know ourselves.' Few are aware of the fact that this admonition was placed over the sun door of the temple of Apollo - the sun door being that pathway through which we pass beyond the limitations of this measurable world. The Greeks well knew the distinction between Helios, the material sun, and Apollo the 'Sun of God.' Socrates tells us that the injunction to 'Know thyself' is not 'a piece of advice,' but 'the God's salutation to those who enter,' and that the words are spoken by the God to those who are entering his temple 'otherwise then as men speak' and 'very enigmatically' (Charmides 1 64D). Elsewhere, Socrates states that 'he who orders, 'know thyself,' bids us know the soul,' but goes on to say that one who knows only what is of the psyche 'knows the things that are his [possessions/'baggage'], but not himself.' (Alcibiades 1, 130, OE ff.). Plato then, and in fact, all the traditional religions, are much less interested in our getting to know our lesser 'selves' then they are with our getting to know the Spirit that dwells within us and whose 'temple' our bodies are, and with which our lesser selves must learn to 'harmonize.'

I would like to conclude by quoting an Islamic writer, a graduate of MIT and holding advanced degrees in both philosophy and physics from Harvard University. I have already pointed out that the Islamic term refers to that aspect of the human psyche with which we as psychiatrists and psychologists deal. According to Professor Nasr, 'the Arabic word nafs means at once soul, self and ego. As ordinarily understood, the nafs is the source of limitation, passion and gravity, the source of all that makes man selfish and self-centered. This nafs which is called the al-nafs al arnmarah (the soul which inspires evil), following the terminology of the Qoran, must be transfigured through death and purgation. It must be controlled by the higher Self. With the help of the Spirit the nafs al-ammarah becomes transformed into the nafs al-lawwarnah (the blaming soul), gaining greater awareness of its own nature, an awareness that is made possible through the transmutation of its substance. In the further stage of inner alchemical transmutation the nafs al lawwarnah becomes transformed into the nafs al-rn utrna'innah (the soul at peace), attaining a state in which it can gain knowledge with certainty and repose in peace because it has discovered its own center, which is the Self. Finally according to certain Sufis, the nafs al-rn utma'innah becomes transmuted into the nafs al-radiyah (the satisfied soul), which has attained such perfection that it has now become worthy of being the perfect bride of the Spirit...'

The process through which man becomes him-Self and attains his true nature does not possess only a cosmic aspect. It is also of the greatest social import. In a society in which the lower self is allowed to fall by its own weight, in which the Ultimate Self and means to attain it are forgotten, in which there is no principle higher than the individual self, there cannot but be the highest degree of conflict between limited egos which would claim for themselves absolute rights, usually in conflict with the claims of other egos - rights which belong to the Self alone. In such a situation, even the spiritual virtue of charity becomes sheer sentimentality. The traditional science of the soul however, sees only one Self, which shines, no matter how dimly, at the center of oneself and every self. It is based on the love of one-Self which however does not imply selfishness but on the contrary necessitates the love of others, who in the profoundest sense are also one-self. For, as Meister Eckhart has said, 'Loving thy Self, thou lovest all men as thy Self.'

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