It is clear that history has not been kind on Sigmund Freud. His theories have not fared well in the face of scientific enquiry and they are rarely applied in the treatment of mental illness today as they are date, often wrong and usually ineffective. However, he was an important figure in our culture’s development and his influence on opinion and attitudes is hard to overestimate. Despite the shortcomings of his theories he made many useful analogies which help us understand our psyches at some level.
His description of the psyche as comprised of three components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego, will never be shown to have any physiological nor psychological basis but is a useful analogy to help us understand aspects of our functioning. When the doctor uses the analogy of the telephone wires to explain the nerve damage that a patient experiences they know their analogy is wrong on very many levels but it is also useful as it allows some thinking and understanding of the problem faced.
The idea that the, largely conscious, ego tries to balance the demands of our Id and Supergo in the face of the needs of outside world is a helpful way to consider our own psyches. We clearly we are born with primitive desires and appetites, only some of which we are conscious, and these can be thought of as our Id. The feelings of sexual desire, our hungers, our passions (both good and bad) can be thought of as the animus which drives us. Our conscious ego has to steer these to socially acceptable outlets and in this task it is help by the superego. This is the, partially conscious, part of our psyche which knows what we should, or ought to, do. It is the consequence of learning, firstly from our parents and later from society, what are the good and right things to do. In the modern parlance it is our “moral compass“. It sets up ideas of right and wrong and allows us to have an ideal vision of ourselves and helps guide our actions.
Unfortunately since about the end of the 1950’s we have been living in a world in thrall to the feelings of the id. We have tended to the view that what defines us are our inner passions and drives. The “inner child” is held to be our true nature and we are encouraged to “be true to our inner selves“. But is this actually our inner self ? There are good reasons to doubt this approach.
Our primitive desires are largely innate – our sexual preferences, our tendency to anger, our hungers and tastes, our fighting response when attacked – and they do give force to much of our behaviour. But this is purely at an animal level. All animals, not just homo sapiens, have these desires to some degree or another. All animals will eat, mate, fight and flee (Though not necessarily in that order). We are different because we elect not to follow instincts. We can see a beautiful sexually enticing person and elect not to try and mate, we can see food and decide to give it to someone more needy, we can feel the fury of revenge and decide to let the law take its course. We are human because we are not driven by these passions and instincts. What the world sees and what the world judges is the skills of the ego and superego in limiting the id.
To see the id as the true self is akin to seeing the petrol as the true core of the motor vehicle. Agreed, the petrol (or some motive force) is necessary but what makes the car is the engineering and electronics that convert this to speed and comfort. On its own petrol is just a short destructive blaze. If we want to know someone’s character we need to know how they temper and direct their passions in the face of the real world and its opportunities and adversities. Our heroes are those who curbed their own urges for self protection to allow them to save others. Our saints are those who ignored their own needs and comforts in order to improve the lot of others. We never hold someone in high regard because they have high passions or are probe to their impulses. Giving in to temptation is easy, resisting it is the proof of character.
The tendency to glorify the id and define ourselves as our passions (a lot of current identity politics reduces people to a small, animal impulse), or the tendency to see our personal growth in terms of sating appetites, is a tendency which belittles us as a species. It is ignores what is unique and great about us. Our ability to do things because they are right, despite them being difficult or carrying a personal cost, is our stamp. Self-control, planning, perseverance and prudence are signs that we are behaving as humans. It is no surprise that the seven virtues are descriptions of when we resist our urges, while the seven vices describe when we fail to do so.
We need to see through this infantile fad of revering our animal instincts and start to recognise our human abilities. We need to start to praise women and men with fortitude and prudence, or self-control and charity. It is people with these natures that will allow us to develop our society and culture. We will never be free from the devil on our left shoulder but we need to try and listen to the angel on our right.