Monday, March 07, 2011

Religion as Wish-Fulfilment: Freud (1)

Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, p.292:

The permanence of conflict is Freud’s leading theme, and part of his hostility to religion stems from an awareness that religion somewhere assumes a fixed point… at which conflict is resolved. In contrast, Freud maintains an intractable dualism; self and world remain antagonists, and every form of reconciliation must fail.

Sigmund Freud, The Complete Psychological Works, vol.21, p.74:

[Religion is a] system of doctrines and promises which on the one hand explains to [“the common man”] the riddles of this world with enviable completeness, and, on the other, assures him that a careful Providence will watch over his life and will compensate him in a future existence for any frustrations he suffers here. The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.

For Freud, the human predicament is bleak. The world that is antagonistic to the self is both natural and cultural. Against the disasters, decay and death in the natural world, human culture is a consoling force, since ‘[e]very human society is, in the last resort, men banded together in the face of death’ (Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, p.52). But this comfort is also a burden to the self, as culture demands the renunciation of sexual desires and aggressive instincts. This means that ‘[c]ivilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security’ (Freud, vol.21, p.115). Freud’s worldview is therefore tragic, despairing of the self’s happiness in the face of the dual external threats of nature and culture, which mirror the dual internal threats of the id and the superego, respectively.

For Freud, the self (the ego, the “I” that we think of as our selves, as “me”) serves ‘three tyrannical masters…: the external world, the super-ego and the id.’ The ego is

driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, [and] repulsed by [external] reality… If the ego is obliged to admit its weakness, it breaks out in anxiety – realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of the passions in the id (Freud, vol.22, pp.77-78)

The id (nature as desires, instincts, drives, or passions) and the ego are ‘like a weak rider on powerful horse’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.36). Whilst the rider (the ego) guides the power of the horse (the id), most of the time ‘a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were his own’ (Freud, vol.19, p.25).

The super-ego (culture as conscience, social constraints) also asserts power over the ego, confining it not with the voice of reason or of God, but with the voice of culture, which places the restrictions and requirements of social norms on the ego with such cruel violence – Freud refers to the super-ego as merciless and sadistic – that the ego experiences intense guilt and shame.

Amidst these pressures of nature, culture, id and super-ego, it is little wonder, then, that Freud writes that ‘[o]ne feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation”’ (Freud, vol.21, p.76). Despite the impossibility of ever fulfilling what Freud calls the “pleasure principle,” there is a ‘reduced sense’ in which happiness is possible and it is the task of the ego to attempt to acquire it (Freud, vol.21, p.83). But this happiness is the ability to be nothing more than ‘better armed’ against the general human predicament of ‘common unhappiness’ (Freud, vol.2, p.351).

No comments: